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old chestnut – Students Will Be Able To (SWBAT) – we are hearkening back to early 20th Century thinking a hundred years out of date.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.


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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Pennsylvania’s Broken Testing Promise – We Don’t Assess Students Less If We Demand Constant Diagnostic Tests

Jelani Guzman

Downcast faces, dropping eyes, desperate boredom.

 

That’s not what I’m used to seeing from my students.

 

But today they were all slumped over their iPads in misery taking their Classroom Diagnostics Tools (CDT) test.

 

It’s at times such as these that I’m reminded of the promise made by Pennsylvania’s Governor, Tom Wolf.

 

He pledged that this year we’d reduce the amount of time public school students spend taking standardized assessments.

 

“Students, parents, teachers and others have told us that too much time in the classroom is used for test taking,” he said.

 

“We want to put the focus back on learning in the classroom, not teaching to a test. Standardized testing can provide a useful data point for a student’s performance, but our focus should be on teaching students for future success, not just the test in front of them.”

 

So at his urging we made slight cuts to our Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests – the assessment for grade 3-8 students.

 

We removed two sections of the PSSA – one in math, one in reading – and reduced the number of science questions.

 

This can cut testing by as much as 48 minutes in math, 45 minutes in reading, and 22 minutes in science.

 

And that’s good news.

 

But it’s not exactly the kind of sea change the state claims, given the Department of Education’s recommendations for additional tests on top of the PSSA.

 

That’s right. The state wants schools to give the CDT assessment an additional 3 to 5 times a year in reading, math and science.

 

Unlike the PSSA, this is a voluntary assessment. Districts can decide against it, but the department’s flunkies are crisscrossing the Commonwealth advising we all give the CDT as much as possible.

 

So that’s between 50-90 minutes for each assessment. A district that follows the state’s guidelines would be adding as much as 270 minutes of testing every seven weeks. In a given year, that’s 1,350 minutes (or 22.5 hours) of additional testing!

 

Pop quiz, Governor Wolf. Cutting testing by 115 minutes while adding 1,350 minutes results in a net loss or a net gain?

 

The answer is an increase of 1,235 minutes (or more than 20 hours) of standardized testing.

 

In my classroom, that means students coming in excited to learn, but being told to put away their books, pocket their pencils and put their curiosity on standby.

 

The folks who work at the Department of Education instead of in the classroom with living, breathing children, will tell you that these CDT tests are a vital tool to help students learn.

 

They provide detailed information about which skills individual students need remediation on.

 

But who teaches that way?

 

Billy, you are having trouble with this kind of multiple-choice question, so here are 100 of them.

 

We don’t do that. We read. We write. We think. We communicate.

 

And if somewhere along the way, we struggle, we work to improve that while involved in a larger project that has intrinsic value – such as a high interest book or a report on a hero of the civil rights movement.

 

When learning to walk, no one concentrates on just bending your knees. Even if you have stiff joints, you work them out while trying to get from point A to point B.

 

Otherwise, you reduce the exercise to boring tedium.

 

That’s what the state is suggesting we do.

 

Make something essentially interesting into humdrum monotony.

 

Teachers don’t need these diagnostics. We are deeply invested in the act of learning every day.

 

I know if my students can read by observing them in that act. I know if they can write by observing them doing it. I know if they can communicate by listening to them arguing in Socratic seminar. I read their poems, essays and short stories. I watch their iMovies and Keynote projects.

 

I’m a teacher. I am present in the classroom.

 

That tells me more than any standardized diagnostic test ever will.

 

It’s ironic that on a Department of Education “CDT Frequently Asked Questions” sheet, the assessment is described as “minimizing testing time.”

 

That’s just bad math.

 

And my student’s know it.

 

The district just sent out a letter telling parents and students they could take advantage of a school voucher to go to a local parochial school at public expense.

 

When presented with the prospect of another day of CDT testing in my room, one of my brightest students raised his hand and asked if kids in the local Catholic school took the test.

 

I told him I didn’t know – though I doubt it. They COULD take the test. It is available to nonpublic schools, but do you really think they’re going to waste that much instruction time?

 

Heck! They don’t even take the same MANDATORY standardized testing! Why would they bother with the optional kind!?

 

It is the public schools that are hopelessly tangled in the industrial testing complex. That’s how the moneyed interests “prove” the public schools are deficient and need to be replaced by privatized ones.

 

It’s an act of sabotage – and with the CDT it’s an act of self-sabotage.

 

School directors and administrators need to be smarter. The only way to beat a rigged game is not to play.

 

And the only way to reduce testing is to TAKE FEWER TESTS!


 

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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Burning Down the House at TEDxCCSU – Speaking Truth to Power with a BOOM!

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There’s a reason our society rarely hands teachers the microphone.

We’ll tell you the truth.

Oh, we’re too good mannered to be brazen about it. We’d rather encourage you for trying than criticize you for getting something wrong.

But if you ask us for truth, that’s usually what you’ll get.

Just ask any first grader.

“Is my finger painting good, Miss Pebbles?”

“Oh my, it is!”

“Really?”

“Why yes. I love what you did with that smear of yellow and blue in the corner. Where they overlap, it turns green.”

“Do you think it’s good enough to compete against the seniors in the high school?”

“Maybe you’d better practice a bit more, Dear. At least wait until you can spell your name correctly before devoting your life to art.”

That’s why I was so delighted to get an invitation to do a TED talk.

Here was my chance to tell it like it is.

Sure, some people look to TED for encouragement and life affirming inspiration.

But the way I see it, the only real affirmation is honesty.

Otherwise, it’s just a bromide, a deception, an intellectual hard candy to plop into your skull and let your cranium suck on until all the sugar is gone.

We’ve all seen these TED talks on YouTube or the Internet – some well-dressed dude or dudette standing in front of a crowd with a headset microphone and a grin offering anecdotes and words of wisdom to a theater full of eager listeners.

But after hundreds of thousands of talks in scores of countries, the format has almost become a parody of itself. At many of these events, you’re just as likely to find some Silicon Valley tech millionaire waxing philosophic about his casual Friday’s management style as you are to hear something truly novel.

No, the way I see it, the TED extravaganzas are just asking for a bundle of truth wrapped in a plain brown box – quiet, unassuming and ticking!

For me, doing one was a long time coming.

The first I heard about it was at United Opt Out’s Education and Civil Rights Summit in Houston, Texas, two years ago.

I was rooming with Jesse “The Walking Man” Turner – an education professor at Central Connecticut University and famed social justice activist. He’s been involved with everyone from Moral Monday’s to S.O.S. Save Our Schools. But he’s most well-known for walking from Hartford to Washington, DC, to protest school privatization and standardization  – a feat he did not once, but twice!

Anyway, one night as I was fading into sleep, he whispered to me from across the room, “Steve, you ever thought about doing a TED talk?”

“Huh? Whas tha, Jesse?”

“A TED talk. You ever thought about doing one?”

“Oh I don’t know. That would be pretty cool, I guess.”

“I organize an independent TED event at my school every year. We should get you on the schedule.”

And that was it.

I think. If there was any more to that conversation my conscious mind wasn’t involved in it.

But then the following year I got a call from Jesse asking if I was ready to come to Connecticut.

I wasn’t. I’d just had two mild heart attacks and wasn’t in a condition to go anywhere. I could barely gather the strength to go to school and teach my classes.

What followed was a year of recovery.

I dedicated myself to my students and my blog and made it through the year. In the summer, I put together my favorite on-line articles into a book for Garn Press – “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform.”

After it was published in November, I worked to promote it, going from event-to-event, book store-to-book store lecturing, signing, and listening. I was even invited to Chatham College to address their graduating class of teaching students.

Then another surprise. I was one of three educators in western Pennsylvania nominated for a Champions of Learning Award in Teaching from the Consortium for Public Education. In the final analysis, I didn’t end up winning the award, but it was a huge honor.

And then to top it all off, Jesse called me back and asked me if I was ready to come to Hartford and give the TED talk another try.

I jumped on it.

How could I say no?

This year has been like a second chance, a new lease on life. I’ve been eating healthier, exercising, losing weight and taking nothing for granted.

But that comes with certain responsibilities.

I couldn’t go there and just mouth platitudes and self-help advice. I couldn’t just tell some touchy-feely stories from my classroom and conclude about how great it is to be a teacher.

Even though it is great – the best job in the world.

But our profession is under attack.
Public schools are being targeted for destruction. The powers that be are using segregation, targeted disinvestment and standardized testing to destabilize public schools and replace them with privatized ones.

The school house is on fire! This is no time for heart-warming stories. It’s time for anger, agitation and activism!

So that’s what I decided to speak about.

Frankly, that wasn’t what I originally planned.

At first, I was going to talk about how society expects too much of teachers – how we expect educators to do it all.

But then the opportunity came to “practice” my speech in front of my entire school building.

I thought to myself, is THIS really what I want to talk about?

If I only get one shot at this – and I probably will get only one shot – do I really want to spend it on society’s unfair expectations?

That’s when I scrapped what I had and started over, this time focusing on “The Plot to Destroy Public Education.”

I must have rewritten my presentation at least five times.

Jesse said I’d have no more than 15 minutes so I practiced just about every night to make sure I was within that time.

The word may have gotten out around my school because the invitation to speak to the entire building quickly evaporated. Maybe there really was a scheduling mix up. Maybe not.

But it didn’t matter. My presentation was ready like a bomb – no hand holding, no concessions, just the truth.

The weeks flew by.

Before I knew it, it was time to fly to Connecticut. I couldn’t believe it was really happening.

When I got there, Jesse picked me up from the airport. He was a consummate host. He couldn’t have treated me better if I was royalty. He paid for my hotel, paid for most meals, drove me everywhere, kept me in good company and entertainment and even gave me a “Walking Man” mug as a token of his appreciation.

I was the only person flying in from outside of the Hartford area. Most of the other seven speakers were from there or had roots in the community.

All but two others were PhDs. The list of names, vocations and stories were impressive. Dr. Dorthy Shaw, a famed education and women’s studies professor, talked about surviving cancer. Dr. Noel Casiano, a sociologist, criminal justice expert and marriage counselor, told a heartbreaking personal story about the three people who mentored him from troubled teen to successful adult. Dr. Kurt Love, a CCSU professor focusing on social justice and education, talked about the greed underlying our economic and social problems. Dr. Barry Sponder, another CCSU professor focusing on technology in education, talked about flipped classrooms. Dr. Johnny Eric Williams, a sociology professor, talked about the myth of whiteness and how it corrupts how we speak about race.

Elsa Jones and her son Brian Nance were the only other non-PhDs. Jones is an early education consultant and the daughter of the Rev. Dr. William Augustus Jones, Jr., a famed civil rights leader who worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

They were the ones I bonded with the most. All four of us went out for pizza after the talks.

But when I first entered the Welte Auditorium in the Central Connecticut State University campus, it was truly frightening.

The building could hold hundreds, perhaps thousands of people. Yet organizers had limited the audience to only a hundred. All the seats were up on the stage.

There was a little circular rug where we were to stand and the camera people were setting everything up.

Behind us, a ceiling high blue-purple backdrop would showcase the TED logo and any slides we had prepared.

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Which brings up an interesting distinction.

This was not a corporate TED event organized by the TED conference and sanctioned by their foundation. It was a TED “X” event, which means it was independently organized.

TED licenses its name for these grassroots X-events. There are a list of rules that organizers must follow. For example, all tickets to the event must be free. Contrast that with the corporate TED events where tickets go for thousands of dollars.

I was glad I was where I was. This was going to be the real deal – a thoughtful discussion of authentic issues. And somehow I was up there with these incredible thinkers and activists.

The moment came. Drs. Shaw and Casiano had already spoken. I got up from my seat in the front row to get my lapel microphone attached.

Jesse gave me a warm introduction letting everyone in on the secret of my tie – the design was a picture of my daughter repeated to infinity.

So I walked to my mark and started speaking.

It seems there was some sort of technical difficulty with the microphone. My voice didn’t appear to be coming from the speakers – or if it was, it wasn’t projecting very well. So I spoke louder.

Then Jesse came from the wings and gave me a hand mic and a music stand for my notes.

It took a moment to get used to handling the microphone, the clicker for my slides and my iPad (where I had my notes), but I got the hang of it.

And I was off and running.

I said it. I said it all.

The audience certainly didn’t seem bored. All eyes were on me. A few heads were nodding in agreement. Some faces seemed stunned.

When I ended, there was universal applause. A few folks patted me on the back when I got back to my seat and shook my hand.

And that was it.

I thoroughly enjoyed the remaining presentations but it was hard to concentrate in the post-TED elation.

Jones and Nance were probably the closest to what I was talking about and we got along like we’d known each other for years.

When I got back to the hotel, I felt elation and exhaustion in equal measure.

I had done it.

After months, years of planning, it was over.

Jesse tells me the video will be on-line in a matter of weeks. (I’ll revise this post with the video when it goes live.) Though he did mention that one point in my presentation made him a bit nervous – I had called out Bill Gates for his role in the destruction of public schools. However, Gates is a big donor to TEDs. Jesse half-jokingly said that the TED folks might take issue with that and refuse to upload my speech.

But whatever. I told the truth. If that gets me censored, so be it.

This will be something I’ll never forget.

I’m sorry this article has gone on so long, but there was much to tell. It’s not every day that someone like me gets such a stage and such a potential audience.

Hopefully, my video and my speech will be seen by many people who have never heard of this fight before. Hopefully it will open minds and stoke people to act.

And hopefully the mic issues at the opening won’t be distracting.

Thank you for following my blog and being there with me on this incredible journey.

I left nothing important unsaid. I gave it my all.

Now to see where it goes.

It’s NOT Education Reform – It’s School Sabotage

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“Language is a weapon of politicians, but language is a weapon in much of human affairs.”

-Noam Chomsky

  

“Words are things. You must be careful, careful about calling people out of their names, using racial pejoratives and sexual pejoratives and all that ignorance. Don’t do that. Some day we’ll be able to measure the power of words. I think they are things. They get on the walls. They get in your wallpaper. They get in your rugs, in your upholstery, and your clothes, and finally in to you.”


Maya Angelou

 

Names matter.

 

What you call something becomes an intellectual shorthand.

 

Positive or negative connotations become baked in.

 

Hence the Colorado Democratic Party’s criticism of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER).

 

After impassioned debate, delegates demanded DFER remove “Democrat” from their name.

 

It just makes sense. DFER is a group of hedge fund managers pushing for school privatization – a policy the Colorado Democrats vocally oppose.

 

 

In fact, one of the organization’s key founders, hedge fund manager Whitney Tilson, was quoted in the film “A Right Denied,” thusly:

“The real problem, politically, was not the Republican party, it was the Democratic party. So it dawned on us, over the course of six months or a year, that it had to be an inside job. The main obstacle to education reform was moving the Democratic party, and it had to be Democrats who did it, it had to be an inside job. So that was the thesis behind the organization. And the name – and the name was critical – we get a lot of flack for the name. You know, “Why are you Democrats for education reform? That’s very exclusionary. I mean, certainly there are Republicans in favor of education reform.” And we said, “We agree.” In fact, our natural allies, in many cases, are Republicans on this crusade, but the problem is not Republicans. We don’t need to convert the Republican party to our point of view…”

 

So by a 2/3 vote, the Colorado Democrats passed a motion saying in part:

 

“We oppose making Colorado’s public schools private, or run by private corporations, or segregated again through lobbying and campaign efforts of the organization called Democrats for Education Reform and demand that they immediately stop using the Party’s name, I.e., “Democrat” in their name.”

 

To which I say “Hurrah!”

 

DFER definitely is a misnomer.

 

However, which is more inaccurate – the term “Democrat” or the word “Reform”?

 

Members of the nefarious school privatization propaganda squad are, in fact, Democrats.

 

They have registered as voting members of that political party.

 

However, they certainly aren’t progressives.

 

They don’t adhere to the traditional views normally associated with the party.

 

So the Colorado Dems motion is a positive move toward taking back what it means to be a Democrat. And in that spirit, it should be celebrated and emulated by every state and national party association.

 

The Democrats have always been a big tent party with lots of different ideas being accepted under that umbrella. But putting corporate profits over student needs does not belong there.

 

My point is that the larger verbal slight of hand isn’t with the organization’s party affiliation. It’s with the term “Reform,” itself.

 

 

DFER is not alone in calling what they advocate “Education Reform.”

 

My question is this – is what they’re proposing really reform at all?

 

And if so, what kind of reform is it? Who does it benefit? And what does it conceal?

 

The word “Reform” has positive associations. It’s always seen as a good.

 

We always want to be reforming something – turning it from bad to good. Or at very least improving it.

 

And when it comes to education, this is even more urgent.

 

No one really wants to be against education REFORM. The only reason to oppose it would be if you thought the way we teach was perfect. Then we would need no reform at all. But this is nearly impossible. Human society does not allow perfection because it is created by human beings, who are, in themselves, far from perfect.

 

However, the term “Education Reform” does not mean just any kind of change to improve teaching.

 

It has come to mean a very specific list of changes and policies.

 

It has come to mean standardization, privatization and profitization.

 

It means increasing the number, frequency and power of standardized assessments to drive curriculum and teaching – More high stakes tests, more teaching to the test, more evaluating teachers based on student test scores, more school closures based on low test scores.

 

It means reducing democratic local control of schools, reducing transparency of how public tax dollars are spent while increasing control by appointed boards, and increasing the autonomy of such boards at the expense of accountability to the community actually paying for their work.

 

It means transforming money that was put aside to educate children into potential profit for those in control. It means the freedom to reduce student services to save money that can then be pocketed by private individuals running the school.

 

If the goal of education is to teach students, “Education Reform” is not about reforming practices for their benefit. It is not, then, reform.

 

If the goal is to increase profits for private businesses and corporations, then it truly is reform. It will increase their market share and throw off any extraneous concerns about kids and the efficacy of teaching.

 

However, this is not the goal of education.

 

Education is not for the benefit of business. It is not corporate welfare.

 

Education is essentially about providing positive opportunities for students. It is about providing them with the best learning environment, about hiring the best teachers and empowering them with the skills, pay, protections and autonomy to do their jobs. It’s about providing adequate resources – books, computers, libraries, nurses, tutors, etc. – to learn. It’s about keeping kids safe and secure, well-nourished, and healthy.

 

In short, it’s about everything bogus “Education Reform” either perverts or ignores.

 

Calling the things advocated by groups like DFER “Education Reform” is pure propaganda.

 

We must stop doing that.

 

Even if we use the term to criticize the practice, we’re helping them do their work.

 

It’s just like the term “School Choice.”

 

Despite the name, the reality has nothing to do with providing alternatives to parents and students. It really means school privatization.

 

It’s about tricking parents and students into allowing businesses to swipe the money put aside to educate children while reducing services.

 

In short, it’s about increasing choices for charter and voucher school operators – not parents or students.

 

In that way, it is a more limited version of faux “Education Reform.”

 

So I propose we stop using these signifiers.

 

Henceforth, “Education Reform” shall be Education Sabotage – because that’s really what it is.

 

It is about deliberately obstructing goods and services that otherwise would help kids learn and repurposing them for corporate benefit.

 

Likewise, I propose we stop using the term “School choice.” Instead, call it what it is – School Privatization.

 

Anyone who uses the older terms is either misguided or an enemy of authentic education.

 

Perhaps this seems petty.

 

They’re only words, after all. What does it matter?

 

It matters a lot.

 

As Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote:

 

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”

 

We cannot effectively fight the forces of segregation, standardization and privatization if we have to constantly define our terms.

 

We have to take back the meaning of our language, first. We have to stifle the unconscious propaganda that happens every time someone innocently uses these terms in ways that smuggle in positive connotations to corporatist ends.

 

To take back our schools, we must first take back our language.

 

To stop the sabotage, we must first stop repeating their lies.


 

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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Kiss My Assessment – A High Stakes Testing Poem

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Double, Double, test and trouble;

Standards stern so fill in that bubble.

 

 

Little Laquan, Empty belly

Reading passages by Maichiavelli

Does he know what the author thinks

Last night did he get forty winks

Drive-by shooting in his neighborhood

Answer questions that he should

Interrogated by the cops

Took away and locked his pops

Now he sits slumped in school

Testing, testing, it’s a rule

Will he – this time – make the grade

A debt to society he has paid

 

 

For being poor and his black skin

Success and riches, let me in!

But not unless you answer right

Like wealthy kids whose hue is white

Not two plus two or three and four

Context implied when you ask for

European culture and white society

If you know it, you’re in propriety

If not, take a longer road

Hurdles to jump and words to decode

 

 

But do not label the test unfair

Rich folks will blast you with hot air

Testing makes them bundles of billions

Leaching off of us civilians

Test prep, grading and remediation

Never mind that it keeps you in your station

Need new books, here’s Common Core

So big corporations can make some more

Money off your starving schools

The funding is drying up in pools

 

 

As politicians vote to gut

So they can give bankers another tax cut

Hotels and yachts and Maltese vacations

Touring havens in other nations

To hide their money and avoid paying

Anything to keep preying

On little kids and their moms

So long as they aren’t forced to pay alms

 

 

No nurses, no librarians, no psychologists

Nothing to feed a tummy or an esophagus

No fancy buildings, no small class sizes

Nothing to match the suburban enterprises

Fewer resources, fewer tutors,

Crumbling classrooms, archaic computers

Just give them tests as charity

And pretend it means populace parity

When he fails, we’ll blame Laquan

Fire his teacher and make her move on

 

 

Close his school and open a charter

And then his services we can barter

To turn his funding into profit

Democracy melts like warm chocolate

Private boards get public voice

Deciding who to enroll and calling it choice

Spending tax money behind closed doors

Filling classrooms with Americorps

Instructors who never earned a degree

But cheap trumps any pedigree

For teachers to teach the darkest of humans

As long as they don’t form any pesky unions

Reformers they’re called, really just hypocrites

Wolves with sheep skin in their identity kits

 

 

They might refuse to come out of the closet

But don’t burn this humble prophet

Who tells you the truth about high stakes tests

About the school system and the unholy mess

We’ve made for kids so hedge funders

Can bark and rave and push for blunders

To make money off of kids misery

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

Am I obsessed and distressed by oppressive divestment?

Oh who cares? Kiss my assessment!

 

 

Double, Double, test and trouble;

Standards stern so fill in that bubble.


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


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

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With Education Such a Low Priority in America, It’s No Wonder The Holocaust is Fading From Memory

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The Holocaust has never been more relevant than it is today.

 

Racism and prejudice are on the rise. Hate crimes are becoming more common. Anti-immigrant sentiment is becoming more widespread.

 

And anti-Semitic incidents have increased by 57 percent in the past year, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

 

Yet just last week, a comprehensive study of Holocaust awareness was released concluding that Americans are forgetting this vital chapter of our history.

 

After more than 1,350 interviews, Schoen Consulting found that 11 percent of U.S. adults and more than one-fifth of millennials either haven’t heard of the European Holocaust or aren’t sure what it is.

 

From 1933-1945, approximately 12 million people – 6 million of whom were Jews – were systematically put to death by Nazi forces.

 

However, even many of those who admitted to having some knowledge of these events were unsure about the specifics. For instance, one third of respondents – and 41% of millennials – said that only 2 million people were killed.

 

This is unacceptable.

 

But not unexpected.

 

Not in a country that has made education such a low priority for decades.

 

Only a handful of states mandate Holocaust curriculum in schools – Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, California, Michigan, Indiana, New York and Rhode Island – and each one does so to varying degrees of detail.

 

Other states like Pennsylvania have laws strongly encouraging the teaching of the Holocaust but not requiring it outright.

 

Wasn’t this why 42 states adopted Common Core – to make sure all students were learning the same things?

 

Well, first of all those standards were only adopted in English and Math. Social studies standards were far too controversial to make it over the partisan divide.

 

Moreover, Common Core has actually been an impediment to Holocaust studies, not a help.

 

A principal in Delaware refused to let a concentration camp survivor speak to students because he didn’t think it was rigorous enough under Common Core.

 

Another district tried to encourage critical thinking by asking students if the Holocaust was true or if it had been exaggerated – as if proven facts were up for debate.

 

Additionally, the reading standards push for texts to be taught as if they were standardized test items without proper context for a robust understanding. Combine that with an emphasis on texts that are exceedingly complex and it’s no wonder that young people’s understanding of this important part of history is fuzzy.

 

And I write this as an educator who taught the Holocaust in middle school for more than a decade.

 

The first thing I did was throw those corporate-written standards in the trash.

 

My 8th graders and I watched various award-winning documentaries such as “Auschwitz: If You Cried, You Died.” We read the play version of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” but supplemented it with various interviews and autobiographical articles from concentration camp survivors and even a presentation from community members who had first-hand experience of these events until their age and health made that impossible.

 

The whole unit culminated in a trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC.

 

Unfortunately, this does not appear to be the norm.

 

Though America students make up one third of the 1.7 million visitors to the National Holocaust Museum, 80 percent of Americans say they have never visited any Holocaust museum.

 

I get it. Teaching about this is hard.

 

It’s ugly and scary and repulsive – but it’s meant to be.

 

The DC National Holocaust Memorial  recommends the following guidelines for teaching about the European Holocaust:

 

“Be sensitive to appropriate written and audiovisual content. One of the primary concerns of educators teaching the history of the Holocaust is how to present horrific images in a sensitive and appropriate manner. Graphic material should be used judiciously and only to the extent necessary to achieve the objective of the lesson. You should remind yourself that each student and each class is different and that what seems appropriate for one may not be appropriate for all . . . Some students may be so appalled by the images of brutality and mass murder that they are discouraged from studying the subject further. Others may become fascinated in a more voyeuristic fashion, subordinating further critical analysis of the history to the superficial titillation of looking at images of starvation, disfigurement, and death . . . There is also a tendency among students to glorify power, even when it is used to kill innocent people. Many teachers indicated that their students are intrigued and, in some cases, intellectually seduced by the symbols of power that pervaded Nazi propaganda (e.g., the swastika and/or Nazi flags, regalia, slogans, rituals, and music). Rather than highlight the trappings of Nazi power, you should ask your students to evaluate how such elements are used by governments (including our own) to build, protect, and mobilize a society. Students should also be encouraged to contemplate how such elements can be abused and manipulated by governments to implement and legitimize acts of terror and even genocide.”

 

That’s what I tried to do.

 

This is the first year that I’m not explicitly teaching the Holocaust – and the only reason is because I’m not teaching 8th grade, I’m teaching 7th.

 

It’s not in my curriculum.

 

However, I know my students will get it when they advance to the next grade.

 

I wish that were true everywhere.

 

Unfortunately, a deep knowledge of history does not come from a society obsessed with standardization and privatization.

 

In fact, our policy of high stakes testing is an artifact of the eugenicist movement that inspired the Nazis. Our privatization movement is a holdover from the white flight reactionaries trying to circumvent the integration of Brown vs. Board.

 

We don’t do a comprehensive job teaching the Holocaust because we haven’t, as a society, learned its lessons.

 

We don’t teach the consequences of the European Holocaust because we haven’t come to terms with the consequences of our own American varieties. We haven’t acknowledged the effects of Europeans conquest and genocide of Native Americans, the slave trade, Jim Crow, Japanese internment or the prison industrial complex.

 

To teach the Holocaust we must take a step toward understanding where we, as a nation, have engaged in similar practices.

 

These are lessons vital to our survival and progress.

 

And that is exactly why it hasn’t been made a priority. It is exactly why we don’t have equitable education for all children in America.

 

Doing so would upset the status quo.

 

Doing so would be troublesome to the powers that be who use a racial and economic caste system to keep us all in line.

 

Understanding the Holocaust prevents us from reliving it.

 

And the people in power want to keep that door unequivocally open.


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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In Trump’s America, You No Longer Need to Pretend to be Against School Segregation

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School segregation is kind of like war.

 

When asked point blank, no one wants to admit to liking it.

 

To paraphrase Motown singer songwriter Edwin Starr:

 

 

“Segregation. Huh, Good God.

 

What is it good for?

 

Absolutely nothing.”

 

However, when it comes to supporting actual integration programs or even just education policies that don’t make segregation worse, no one in politics really gives a crap.

 

Both Republicans and Democrats are heavily invested in ways to divide up school students along racial and economic lines – whether they be charter and voucher schools or strategic disinvestment in the public schools that serve the poor and minorities and hording resources for wealthy whites.

 

That’s why it’s somewhat shocking to hear the outrage over Trump judicial nominee Wendy Vitter.

 

Trump nominated the extremely partisan justice for a federal judgeship in Louisiana. Yet during a Senate hearing Wednesday, Vitter refused to answer a question from Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) about whether or not she believed the Supreme Court was right in its landmark 1954 decision, Brown v. Board of Education.

 

The decision overturned the excuse that we could educate white and black people in different facilities so long as they were “separate but equal.” In effect, it said that when we educate the races separately, their schools will never be equal.

 

And Vitter couldn’t bring herself to affirm this ruling.

 

“If I start commenting on ‘I agree with this case’ or don’t agree with this case,’ I think we get into a slippery slope,” she said.

 

“I don’t mean to be coy, but I think I get into a difficult area when I start commenting on Supreme Court decisions which are correctly decided and which I may disagree with,” Vitter said.

 

She added that the ruling was “binding” and that she would uphold it if confirmed as a judge.

 

 

And there we have it, people.

 

That’s where the bar is set during the Trump administration.

 

You no longer need to pretend to be against school segregation.

 

On the one hand, it’s more honest than most people in the political arena.

 

On the other, how far have we sunk when you don’t even need to feign decency in order to expect having a chance of Congress confirming you?

 

Let me be clear. Vitter’s nomination should not be approved.

 

Congress should draw a line in the sand and say that it cannot accept people who do not share bedrock American values on the bench.

 

If you aren’t in favor of integration, you have no place making decisions about race, class and education.

 

And that is the barest minimum.

 

That is merely decorum.

 

It’s like having the decency to condemn Nazis – something else Trump can’t bring himself to do.

 

What actually happens to Vitter will probably be determined by the degree of backlash against her.

 

As of Thursday afternoon, the video clip of Vitter’s comments about Brown V. Board had more than 1.7 million views, and was retweeted over 13,000 times.

 

A few months ago, another Trump judicial nominee, Matthew Petersen, withdrew from consideration after a video in which he couldn’t answer basic legal questions went viral.

 

But even if this reprehensible person who has no right sitting in judgement over anything more taxing than a checkbook gets turned away from the bench, we’ll still be far from where we need to be on school segregation.

 

Despite Brown vs. Board, many of our schools today are more segregated – not less – than they were in the 1960s.

 

And instead of putting on our big boy pants and tackling the issue, we’ve gone in the opposite direction.

 

On both sides of the aisle, lawmakers support charter schools. Republicans and a few Democrats support school vouchers. And just about everyone is fine with the fact that our public schools serve vastly disproportionate racial and economic populations yet rely on local tax revenues for funding and thus are inequitably resourced.

 

In every case, these policies make segregation worse. Yet hardly anyone in the halls of power or in the media even admits it is happening.

 

At most, you get a news story every anniversary of Brown v. Board about the increased segregation and a journalistic shrug. Well, we don’t know how to solve that one…

 

Yes, we do!

 

We need to integrate – not segregate.

 

We need to end school privatization.

 

We need to redraw district boundaries.

 

We need to audit school policies that keep the races apart within districts by building or by class.

 

And we need robust, equitable funding that can’t be manipulated to favor wealthy white kids.

 

That will take a lot more moral courage than partisan outrage against Vitter.

 

Oh, she deserves outrage, but because of her lack of morality, not her political party.

 

This can no longer be about if your political football team is in power or not.

 

It has to be about what’s right and wrong.

 

Caring about integration should be part of what it means to be an American – like freedom, justice and apple pie.

 

If it isn’t, we have a lot worse problems than one reprehensible would-be judge.


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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