Now is Not the Time to Reopen Steel Valley Schools

On Friday, Johns Hopkins University reported the highest number of cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began.

That’s 83,757 new cases and 943 new deaths.

Now is not the time to reopen schools.

This comes after 77,000 cases were reported the day before – which, itself, had been the record.

At this rate, the US will have 100,000 new cases and 1,000 new deaths a day very soon.

Now is not the time to reopen schools.

Allegheny County has 14,818 cases and 421 deaths.

Cases have increased by 8% this week.

Now is not the time to reopen schools.

I don’t know how to say it any other way.

You just have to look at the facts.

The second wave of COVID-19 is sweeping across the nation, Pennsylvania, and our communities of Munhall, Homestead and West Homestead.

Nearby district McKeesport had an outbreak of at least 9 cases in a little over a week. Baldwin-Whitehall and Hempfield schools closed just last week because of outbreaks.

Steel Valley Schools haven’t had to deal with such problems because the district has been closed to in-person classes since March.

The school board wisely decided to continue virtual instruction for all students at the beginning of the school year. Its plan has been a model other districts should follow – especially those with 1:1 devices like ours.

But now district decision makers are putting forward a new plan to bring students back in the building on a half day basis starting the first week of November.

The school board will review the plan at its work session meeting on Monday in the high school auditorium at 7:30 pm. The meeting also will be live streamed on YouTube.

The board is expected to vote on the plan at its regularly scheduled meeting on Thursday, Oct. 29, at 7 pm.

It’s a terrible plan.

I hate having to say it.

I’m a Steel Valley teacher.

I don’t want to have to contradict the school board and my administrators.

I don’t want to have to insert myself into this debate.

But I feel like I have no other choice.

Since I don’t live in the district, I can’t go to the school board meeting and speak.

And when I have expressed my concerns to those in charge, they have been repeatedly brushed aside.

So I am putting them out there in the public space.

This is what a Steel Valley teacher really thinks about this proposed plan.

This is what I feel I must say even at the risk of my job and future in this district – the proposed plan should not be adopted. We should continue with virtual instruction until infection rates in the county are extremely low.

The proposed plan would have students dividing into two groups – one would attend in the mornings and the other in the afternoons.

Both groups would have all of their classes for 20 minutes each for four days a week – Monday – Thursday. Friday would be a half day virtual learning day.

Consider that students currently have their full classes on-line for four days a week. Wednesday is an asynchronous learning day.

So the new plan would cut instruction time by half.

And this is true even for double period classes. Two 20 minute in-person classes is better than one, but not as good as two 40 minute virtual classes.

Just imagine it.

If this plan is approved, students and staff would be rushing here-and-there for the tiniest fraction of possible instruction in-person, and then rush home to do the mountains of classwork that would be necessary to move forward at all.

And the price for all this breathless activity will be increased risk of infection and bringing it home to family and friends. Not to mention the cost on teachers like me who will be exposed to hundreds of children in enclosed spaces with few windows and poor ventilation on a daily basis.

But parents will be given a choice whether to subject their children to this schedule or not.

Parents will have to decide whether they want their children to attend in-person or receive virtual instruction.

However, the virtual instruction being offered under this new model is not in many cases the same as what children receive now.

Remote students in K-5 would still meet with a classroom teacher on video platforms.

However, remote students in 6-12 would have to enroll in the district cyber program. This is a canned ed tech initiative modeled on credit recovery. They will have minimal to no interactions with classroom teachers or lessons taught by district educators.

This would replace an exemplary district-designed curriculum with a subpar service to parents and students in the hope that they will opt for in-person instruction instead.

No matter which option you choose for your child, from an academic standpoint, this new proposal is a step backward.

Most students would receive less instruction from classroom teachers – either half of what they’re receiving now (but in-person) or next to nothing on-line in grades 6-12.

This plan does not solve any academic problems. It only partially solves the problem of child care.

Let’s be honest. That’s what the priority is here.

With many parents having to leave the home to work, they need babysitting options for their kids.

With school buildings closed, this incurs an additional cost for parents.

Moreover, local business owners find it more difficult to justify keeping their own establishments open to the public – bars, restaurants, etc. – while schools are closed.

But we already know what the result of such a plan will be.

District buildings were open exactly two days to students since the pandemic began – Sept 8 and Oct 6.

These were transition days where only 5th and 9th grade students were in the buildings. Both instances resulted in a teacher testing positive for COVID-19.

Imagine this large scale.

I’m sorry, but there are things more important than childcare right now.

The reason we are experiencing a second wave of COVID is because of plans like this one.

You can’t have some schools and businesses doing the right thing and others doing whatever they want.

That’s not how you stem the spread of a deadly virus.

Sensible districts like ours put safety first. Others reopened their classrooms with hybrid or other models.

The result is an increase in infections.

And that will continue to happen until we work together to provide a coordinated defense against the pandemic.

You can’t have half of the schools close their doors and the other half keep them open and expect the virus to just stop. You can’t have some people wear facial masks in public and others go without and expect the virus to disappear.

We need to work together or else prepare ourselves to hunker down for a very long COVID season. Or – even worse – a very short one.

If you are a resident of Munhall, Homestead or West Homestead and you feel the same way I do, I am begging you to go to the school board meetings.

Please tell the board not to proceed with this plan.

It will result in many, many people getting sick.

Some may die. Others may have life-long debilitating complications as a result of the virus.

That’s just not worth it.

That’s just not worth a little more in-person instruction and a little less out-of-pocket childcare costs.

Healthcare, hospital stays and funeral preparations are much more expensive.

Thank you for hearing me out.


 

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Parental Choice Won’t Save Us From Unsafe School Reopening Plans

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I am the parent of a public school student.

 

And I have a choice.

 

I get to decide whether my daughter will go back to school in-person or online.

 

That’s the only thing that should matter to me.

 

At least, that’s what the superintendent of my home district told me when I went before school directors last week asking them to reconsider administration’s unsafe reopening plan.

 

At McKeesport Area School District (MASD), Dr. Mark Holtzman and administration propose unlocking the doors for half day in-person classes Mondays through Fridays.

 

Kids would be split into two groups – one attending in the mornings, the other in the afternoons. That way, with buildings at half capacity, there would be enough physical space for social distancing. The remainder of the time, kids would be learning online.

 

However, if you don’t approve, you can opt out.

 

Any parent who is uncomfortable with this plan could keep his or her children home and have them participate in the district’s existent cyber program.

 

The board hasn’t voted on the proposal yet. It won’t do so until Wednesday.

 

But as I stood up there at the podium last week outlining all the ways this scheme was unsafe and asking my duly-elected representatives to instead consider distance learning for all children, Holtzman told me to be happy I could choose whatever I wanted for my own child and sit back down.

 

Which brings up the question – is parental choice enough?

 

Is the fact that I can choose for my daughter the only concern I should have?

 

Thankfully, no one is forcing me to subject my child to in-person classes. If I don’t think they’re safe, I can keep her away and still have access to an education for her through the Internet.

 

What else do I want?

 

Plenty.

 

First of all, the quality of education offered by the district cyber program is not the same as the district could provide if all students were enrolled in virtual classes.

 

Dr. Holtzman has outlined what that would look like if school buildings were shut down by the governor or the district were overcome with sick students, teachers and/or family.

 

Teachers would provide synchronous classes online through video platforms like Zoom. Students would get to interact virtually with each other and their teachers.

 

By contrast, the existent cyber program is asychronous. Students watch videos and do assignments at their own pace, but human contact and social interaction – even via the Internet – is much harder to come by.

 

Let’s be honest – both options pale in comparison to face-to-face instruction. But the kind of instruction students will receive in-person during this global pandemic will not be face-to-face. Students will interact behind masks and plexiglass barriers under an ever present shadow of fear and menace. Under the proposed MASD plan, teachers would have a mere 20 minutes a period to try to get something done other than just taking role, attempting to get students to comply with safety precautions and calming their fears.

 

Both cyber options are preferable because they avoid these problems. But one of them – the synchronous option with a dedicated class and a teacher behind the curriculum – is superior to the one being offered.

 

Is it selfish to want the better plan for my daughter?

 

Should I just be glad I have a choice at all? Should I put the individual good of my child aside for the good of others?

 

No. Because administration’s plan is not in the best interests of other children, either.

 

If we reopen schools to in-person classes, chances are good that kids will get sick.

 

A new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics found more than 97,000 children tested positive for Covid-19 just in the last two weeks of July.

 

To put that in context, out of more than 5 million people diagnosed with the virus in the US, approximately 338,00 are children.

 

And nearly a third of those cases have come as we’ve reopened schools and summer camps, as we’ve increasingly exposed kids to the virus.

 

Children typically had low infection rates because schools were closed in March and kids were quarantined before the virus had spread through most of the country.

 

Since June, there have been numerous outbreaks at summer schools in Massachusetts, Arkansas, Arizona, Connecticut, New York, Wisconsin, Missouri, Michigan, and Hawaii, among others. And with some schools now starting their academic year, outbreaks have been even more numerous.

 
I live in Allegheny County – the western Pennsylvania region around Pittsburgh – where Covid cases have spiked.

 

Many local school districts like East Allegheny, Woodland Hills and Wilkinsburg have passed plans to start the year with classes being conducted 100% online. South Allegheny and Duquesne City Schools just passed such plans in the last few days. And the biggest district in this part of the state – Pittsburgh Public Schools – has done the same.

 

If the virus is present in the community – as county health department data shows – opening the schools to students also opens them to Coronavirus.

 

But with the schools open, the virus will no longer be confined to just a few homes. It will come with kids to class and spread among students and staff before it’s brought to their homes as well.

 

That’s how epidemics work. Opening the schools will spread the virus throughout the entire community.

 

And that will affect me, too, regardless of whether I choose a cyber option for my daughter or not.

 

When I go to the local grocery store, gas up my car, even go for a walk – I will be more likely to come into contact with someone infected with the virus and get sick.

 

I can make the safe decision for my family but still suffer the consequences of the irresponsible decisions of others – especially school directors.
In fact, it doesn’t even have to be my own local school board. The decisions of school directors in neighboring districts affects me, too.

 

After all, in my part of the state, school districts are pretty small geographically – not nearly as large as most counties. There are 42 public districts in Allegheny County, alone. So it should be no surprise that I routinely travel through several different districts just running day-to-day errands.

 

MASD school directors can decide to keep buildings closed (and I hope they will) but if a district just one township or borough over decides differently, we will suffer the consequences in McKeesport, too.

 

This is why issues of public safety are usually decided at the county, state or federal level. These decisions affect all of us, but these days no one wants to take the responsibility.

 

It doesn’t even make sense democratically.

 

Since I don’t live in more than one district, I don’t get a say in what school directors at neighboring districts decide. I just have a say in what happens in my tiny portion of the world. But the consequences are not nearly as respectful of our man-made borders.

 

For instance, I work as a teacher at a neighboring district. But since I do not live there, I am barred from speaking at the board meetings unless I am invited to speak as an employee of the district.

 

I can give a report as part of the safety commission if invited by administrators, but I can’t otherwise sign up to speak as an employee concerned about how district policies affects me, my students or their families.

 

I’m a believer in local control, but sometimes control can be too localized.

 

This is why you haven’t heard much from many educators. If they’re allowed to speak, they’re often afraid of how doing so will make them a target for reprisals. If they can get their union to back them, they can speak collectively that way, but otherwise, they have no pathway to being heard at all.

 

As a parent, I get a choice for my child in my district.

 

But what choice do teachers have – especially if they don’t live where they teach?

 

If school directors decide to reopen to in-person classes, they’re forcing educators to decide between their employment and their own families. If teachers return to the classroom with their students in a physical setting, they risk not only their own lives but that of their friends and families.

 

That concerns me even with my choices as a parent.

 

I’ve had some outstanding teachers. My daughter loves her teachers. Is it okay if I don’t want to see them get sick and their lives cut short? If I worry about my own chances of surviving the pandemic and the demands of my employer?

 

Finally, what about people of color? The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says African Americans and other minorities are hospitalized from the virus four to five times more often than white people.

 

I think their lives matter. But as minorities and people subjected to systemic inequalities, they get less of a say in policy. Should decisions that disproportionately impact their health really be up to a committee? Doesn’t their right to life surpass the decisions making abilities of a handful of elected officials or even middle and upper class parents?

 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m thankful I have choices as a parent for how my daughter is educated.

 

But that doesn’t overcome my concerns about a bad school reopening strategy.

 

School directors need to make reopening decisions that are in the best interests of everyone because we’re all in this together.

 

That’s what so many folks seem to be forgetting.

 

Yes, even from a completely selfish point of view, unsafe school reopening will affect each of us.

 

But epidemics spread through communities. Only communities can effectively combat them.

 

Dividing ourselves into smaller and smaller fiefdoms only empowers the virus. If we all try to fight Covid-19 individually, we will lose.

 

We have to understand that what’s good for our friends and neighbors is in our individual interest, too.

 

We have to care about our fellow human beings.

 

That’s why I will continue to fight these unsafe plans and ask school directors to reopen schools virtually.

 

That’s the path I’ve chosen.


 

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Pennsylvania Wants YOU to Give Standardized Tests to Your Kids at Home

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A multi-million dollar corporation wants to make sure Pennsylvania’s children keep getting standardized tests.

 
Data Recognition Corporation (DRC) and the state Department of Education are providing the optional Classroom Diagnostic Tools (CDT) assessments for use in students’ homes.

 

 

Students are not required to take the CDT in the Commonwealth unless their district decides to give it. The test is encouraged by the state as a way of telling how students will do on the required tests.

 
With this new option, parents finally can give multiple choice standardized tests to their own children on-line.

 
Which is kind of hilarious because no one really asked for that.

 
In fact, many parents, teachers and students breathed a sigh of relief when the requirement that students take high stakes assessments was waived this year nationwide.

 
With the Coronavirus pandemic closing most school buildings and students transitioning to on-line classes created from scratch by their teachers, there hasn’t been much time for anything else.

 
But the folks at DRC, a division of CTB McGraw-Hill, have been busy, too.

 
The Minnesota-based corporation sent out an email written by Matthew Stem, Deputy Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education at the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) to district contacts from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia encouraging the use of this newly available online CDT.

 
“I am pleased to announce that PDE is providing the Classroom Diagnostic Tools (CDT) as an optional additional resource for your Continuity of Education Plan,” Stem began.

 
“We anticipate that this option will be available through the reopening of schools in 2020.”

 
So if school boards and administrators choose, districts could assign the CDT at the end of this school year, during the summer or at the start of next school year even if school buildings are not yet open due to lingering pandemic problems.

 
This is the kind of academic continuity we should be rethinking not finding new ways to force on children.

 
For some state officials and testing executives perhaps it’s comforting that no matter what happens in this crazy world, at least we’ll still be able to sort and rank kids into Below Basic, Basic, Proficient or Advanced.

 
The rest of us would prefer more authentic education and assessment.

 

 

EVERYDAY USAGE

 

 

It should be noted that the CDT is not, in itself, a high stakes test.

 
It’s an optional test districts can assign to students in reading, math and science to predict how well they’ll do on the actual high stakes tests.

 
Normally, districts are encouraged (but not required) to give the CDT to students multiple times a year to determine where they’ll struggle on DRC’s other fine products like the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests given to children in grades 3-8 and the Keystone Exams given to high schoolers.

 
Of course this data is often used to determine which classes students are placed in, so it can play a huge role in deciding which resources and opportunities kids have.

 
A child who scores well can get in the advanced courses and gain access to all the field trips, guest speakers, pizza parties and other perks. Kids who score badly are often placed in remedial courses where they forgo all the glitz for extra test prep and the abiding label that they’re inferior to their classmates in the higher academic tracks.

 
However, you don’t really need the CDT to make such placements. Just put all the kids from wealthier families in the higher courses and kids living in poverty in the lower courses and you’ll have pretty much the same distribution.

 
Because standardized testing doesn’t really measure academics. It appraises socio-economics. And race. Let’s not forget race!

 
The Coronavirus pandemic actually leveled the playing field for the first time in nearly a century. Everyone – rich and poor – had their education disrupted.

 
But at least now with the reintroduction of the CDT, we can continue to discriminate against the poor black kids while privileging the richer whiter ones.

 
In some ways, that’s just the everyday injustice of American school policy.

 
However, the method DRC and PDE are using to clear the way for this particular scheme is truly spectacular.

 

 

A DISASTER WAITING TO HAPPEN

 

 

They’re enlisting parents as test proctors.

 
Normally, as a classroom teacher when my administrator demands I give the CDT to my students, I have to block out a few days and give the tests, myself.

 
I have to pass out entry tickets with each student’s username and password so they can login to the DRC app on their iPads and take the test.

 
If there’s a problem signing in, I have to try and fix it.

 
If kids are kicked out of the testing program and can’t sign back in, I have to deal with it.

 
If there’s a problem with the Internet connection…. I think you get the idea.

 
And all of these problems are extremely common.

 
In the last five years of giving the CDT, I have never had a single day go by when I didn’t experience multiple technological snafus, disruptions or downright clusters.

 
And that’s not to say anything of the times students read a question, don’t understand what it’s asking, wave me over and I’m just as dumbfounded as they are.

 
In fact, the only positive I can imagine from such a situation is that parents will finally get to see how badly written and full of errors these tests truly are. Even the guidance materials are full of misspellings and confusing verbiage.

 
When presented with this nonsense, many kids simply zone out, clicking random answers so they can be done as soon as possible and then put their heads down for the remainder of the time.

 
This is the lions den the state wants to throw parents into.

 

 

PARENTS AS CORPORATE DEFENSE

 
Admittedly, parents won’t have a full class of 20-30 students to deal with, but complications are guaranteed.

 
However, the good folks at DRC are prepared for that.

 
They have a handy “Parent/Guardian Test Administration Guide.”

 
Here’s what it has to say on ASSESSMENT SECURITY:

 

 

“Parents/Guardians should remind their student that the CDT test content must remain secure at all times. None of the materials from the online test may be copied or recorded in any manner.”

 
That’s quite a step down from what the same company warns students on the PSSA:

 

 

“…Copying of material in any manner, including the taking of a photograph, is a violation of the federal Copyright Act. Penalties for violations of the Copyright Act may include the cost of replacing the compromised test item(s) or a fine of no less than $750 up to $30,000 for a single violation. 17 U.S.C. $ 101 et seq”

 
I guess that since the CDT questions are just the ones that prepare you for the REAL test questions, it doesn’t matter as much if their security is put at risk here. Or perhaps the risk of letting kids go without testing and having people realize how unnecessary these tests are is greater than any loss in test security or accuracy.

 

 

TECHNICAL ISSUES EXPECTED

 
The guide also cautions that the test only may be taken using a Google Chrome Internet browser. If students don’t have one installed, there is a link for parents to follow so they can install it for their kids.

 
For some parents, I’m sure this would be no problem. But many of my students’ parents have little access or knowledge of technology. They would pull out their hair at the very suggestion and come running to teachers and administrators for help.

 
Which is exactly what DRC suggests they do.

 
Here’s what the guide recommends for technical support:

 

 

“If technical issues arise during testing, parents/guardians are asked to contact the student’s teacher and/or the student’s school office for technical support. DRC customer service staff cannot directly support issues related to each home’s technology configurations.[Emphasis mine.]

 
And this is true even if the test, itself, directs parents to contact the corporation:

 

 

“If a student receives an error message during the test administration that includes instructions to contact DRC for technical support, the parent or guardian who is assisting with the test administration should contact the student’s teacher or school office for additional instructions. Parents or students should not attempt to contact DRC’s customer service directly for technical assistance.

 
Teachers and/or a school’s technology staff will have the information needed to provide parents/guardians with the level of support to resolve most technology issues. If additional support is required, a school or district representative will reach out to DRC to determine a resolution.”

 
This is certain to put quite a strain on districts since these technological problems will occur not as they normally do within school buildings but potentially miles away in students’ homes.

 
Moreover, one of the most common glitches with the CDT often occurs with the entry tickets. These are typically printed by administrators and distributed to teachers who give them to students on test day. Students use the logins and passwords to gain access to the tests.

 
Stem’s plan would have these tickets distributed digitally over Google Classroom or whatever file sharing service is being utilized.

 
So this requires yet another level of distance and technological competency from parents and students just to access the tests. And once that access is gained, these logins need to be readily available in the highly likely event that students get booted from the program and have to reenter this data.

 

 

I’m sure there will be noooooooo problems at all with this. It will run very smoothly.

 

 

PARENTS AS PRISON GUARDS

 
But let’s say parents are able to help their children login to the test and no technical problems arise.

 
Can parents let their kids simply take the test alone up in their rooms?

 
No.

 
As a test proctor, you are expected to watch your children every second they’re testing to ensure they aren’t copying any information or cheating.

 
You can let your child have scratch paper, highlighters and calculators. But no preprinted graphic organizers, cell phones, dictionaries, thesauri, grammar or spell checkers, other computers or devices.

 
One concession DRC makes is that parents are encouraged to give the shorter Diagnostic Category CDT and not the full version. I’m sure distinguishing between the two on your child’s screen will be no problem at all.

 
This would reduce the test to 35-45 minutes – about half of the full CDT. However, times may vary – my own students have taken more than 180 minutes sometimes to finish the full version.

 
Still, none of this comes close to my favorite part of this catastrophe in waiting.

 
If parents still are uncertain about how to do all this, there is a link to a series of training videos on the PDE Website.

 
These are pretty much the same videos teachers are required to watch every year before giving the CDTs.

 

 

As you can imagine, they are perhaps our favorite moments of the year. We sometimes watch them over and over again. Not because they’re so riveting but because we’re required to before we give these infernal tests!

 
Oh, parents, you are in for a treat if your district decides to take advantage of this wonderful opportunity!

 

 

AN IMPOSITION ON PARENT’S TIME

 

 

Speaking of which, I wonder when Stem thinks parents will have the time to do all this.

 
Parents are working hard just to make ends meet. They’re trying to earn enough money to support the household, cook dinner, clean house, do laundry, and a host of other things.

 
Teaching is a full-time job and most parents don’t have the privilege to set aside that kind of time nor are they disposed to do this stuff in the first place.

 
When I teach my students over ZOOM, I rarely see parents guiding their kids through the lessons.

 
If a kid falls asleep, it’s up to me to somehow prod him awake over the Internet. If a child isn’t paying attention or playing on her phone, it’s up to me to direct her back on task.

 
In class, that’s fine. It’s my job and I’m right there in front of the child.

 
On-line, I cannot do it nearly as effectively. But I do my best because I can’t realistically expect all parents to step in here.

 
Yet DRC is expecting parents to do just that by becoming test proctors.

 

 

CONCLUSIONS

 
This is a terrible idea.

 
It will lead to fabulous disasters where teachers, administrators and parents fumble to make things work as DRC pockets our tax dollars.

 

 

Over the past decade, Pennsylvania and local school districts paid more than $1.3 billion for standardized testing. In particular, the state paid DRC more than $741 million for the PSSAs, Keystone Exams and CDT tests. Two of three DRC contracts were given sole source no-bid extensions.

 
Imagine what cash-strapped districts could do with that money.

 
Yet Stem, a former assistant superintendent in Berks County and former administrator in Lancaster, thinks we should give this money to corporations and then break our own backs meeting their needs.

 

 

Even if we could give the CDTs seamlessly online at home, it would hurt our most underprivileged children by taking away opportunities and unjustly labeling them failures.

 
No, if you ask me,it is not time to try to save standardized testing with a tone deaf plan to enlist parents as test proctors while kids are chained to the Internet.

 
It’s well past time to rethink the value of these tests in the first place.

 
We don’t need them.

 
Teachers can assess learning without the help of corporate America.

 

 

Our kids and their families deserve better than this.

 
Contact your local school directors and demand they NOT give the CDT – not now, not during the Coronavirus pandemic, not when the crisis is over, not ever again.

 
And if they won’t listen, opt your children out of standardized testing including diagnostics like the CDT. Then run for school board, yourself, with other likeminded parents and community members.

 
Write letters to the editor of your local paper, make some noise.

 

 

The people still hold the power. And we’re all being tested in more ways than one.

 

 

 

THE FULL EMAIL:

The following communication was initially broadcast by the Pennsylvania Department of Education on May 18, 2020. DRC is forwarding the same message to the district and school contacts on file in our databases.

 

 

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May 18, 2020

 
To: Superintendents, Principals, Charter School CEOs, and IU Directors
From: Matt Stem, Deputy Secretary
Subject: Availability of the Classroom Diagnostic Tools (CDT) for use by students at home

 

 

I am pleased to announce that PDE is providing the Classroom Diagnostic Tools (CDT) as an optional additional resource for your Continuity of Education Plan. The CDT is a set of online tools designed to provide diagnostic information to guide instruction and provide support to students and teachers. It is aligned with the content assessed on the PSSA and Keystone exams. We anticipate that this option will be available through the reopening of schools in 2020.

 

 

This at-home testing option will allow students to access the CDT from a “public” browser without having it installed on their computers or being configured to their District’s Central Office Services network. The test-setup tasks that teachers/school assessment coordinators routinely complete for classroom administrations of the CDT are the same for the at-home administrations. Test tickets (login credentials) will be distributed directly to the students by school staff. Teachers will have access to all CDT data/reports from the at-home administrations as usual. An overview of the at-home testing option and a guidance document for parents/guardians can be accessed from the following links (or directly from DRC’s INSIGHT Portal under General Information >> Documents >> 2019-2020 Classroom Diagnostic Tools >> Memos/Documents).

 

 

At-Home Testing Overview: https://pa.drcedirect.com/Documents/Unsecure/Doc.aspx?id=32997b8e-13cf-42f0-9c2c-af1689d89323 
Parent/Guardian Guidance: https://pa.drcedirect.com/Documents/Unsecure/Doc.aspx?id=cc242168-e06e-44d1-9fd4-ef859a519dab 

 

All CDTs (Full and Diagnostic Category) are available for use. However, it is highly recommended to only have students take the Diagnostic Category CDTs at this time. Students and their parents/guardians may benefit from a much shorter testing experience using the Diagnostic Category CDTs that are aligned to current instructional content. The shorter, more focused testing will still provide teachers and administrators with the same level of reporting and resources to adjust instruction and planning during distance learning.

 

Thank you for all your efforts to support students during this challenging time. If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, please contact the curriculum coordinator or CDT point of contact at your local Intermediate Unit. If you are interested in using CDT for the first time, contact PDE here.

 

 

Sincerely,

 

Matthew Stem
Deputy Secretary, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education
Pennsylvania Department of Education

 

 

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

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The Internet is NOT the Best Place for Kids to Learn After the Coronavirus Pandemic

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If the Coronavirus quarantine has taught educators one thing, it’s this.

 

Online learning is not better than in-person schooling.

 

After all these years of corporations throwing apps at us and well-meaning administrators providing us with devices and philanthrocapitalists pumping billions of dollars into ed tech first academic schemes, we can all see now that the emperor has no clothes.

 

When schools nationwide are closed to stop the spread of a global pandemic and learning is restricted to whatever teachers can cobble together on sites like Google Classroom and ZOOM, we can all see the Imperial scepter blowing in the wind.

 

The problem is that this is only clear to parents, students and teachers.

 

The people who get to make ed policy decisions are as blind as ever – as witnessed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s tone deaf insistence that his state reimagine schools with the help of billionaire school saboteur Bill Gates.

 

But the rest of us – you know, those grounded in reality – can see the problems with remote learning staring us in the face.

 

Most importantly, the Internet is not a conducive environment for learning.

 

I don’t mean that learning can’t take place there.

 

You could learn in a fox hole while being shelled by enemy forces. But if your content extends to something more complex than “Duck” or other survival tactics, this may not be the best place to learn it. After all, environment plays a key role in knowledge acquisition.

 

Moreover, different people learn things better in different circumstances. And, contrary to our current education policies that view children as stakeholders or consumers, they are in fact people.

 

There are some children who learn better online than in a brick and mortar classroom. But these kids are few and far between.

 

In general, the younger the child (both physically and psychologically), the more important it is that he or she be given the opportunity to learn in an actual classroom.

 

Why?

 

It really comes down to who controls the environment.

 

In a classroom, the teacher decides most everything about the physical space and what possibilities there will be. She places the books, hangs the posters, sets the lighting, displays student work, etc.

 

In a virtual environment, the space is defined to a small degree by the teacher, but it is mostly determined by the ed tech provider and the open world of the Internet.

 

In short, teachers have much more control over physical classrooms and can remove distractions.

 

Online, educators have very little control over this.

 

LINE OF SIGHT

 
For instance, in my physical classroom, if I wanted to see what a student was doing, all I had to do is walk up to him and look.

 

I controlled what I see, and hiding things from me was difficult.

 

Online, if I want to see what a student is doing (let’s say on a video communications platform like ZOOM), I have little control over what I see. The student is in control of the camera. If it is pointing at the student or placed so as to hide certain behavior or even if the camera is currently on or not is not in my control. Students are empowered to hide anything they want, and there’s not much I can do about it.

 

When teaching online, I’ve had students texting on cell phones, playing video games on computers, having side conversations with friends in their bedrooms, playing with pets – and trying to hide this with the way they display themselves on camera.

 

I’ve had kids mysteriously turn off the camera or point it away from their faces until I ask them to switch it back on or swivel it back to themselves.

 

DO YOU HEAR WHAT I HEAR?

 
When I first started teaching online a few weeks ago, one of the most powerful tools at my disposal seemed to be the mute button.

 

If several kids weren’t hearing me because of side chatter, I could simply mute everyone and fill the blessed silence with instruction.

 

However, I soon discovered that this is deceptive.

 

Just because you don’t hear the students, doesn’t mean they aren’t talking. Some kids use the online chat stream to continue side chatter. Others forgo that entirely for text and Facebook messaging.

 

What’s worse, it’s often hard for the teacher to even know whether anything she said is actually being heard.

 

TOO MUCH CHOICE

 
One of the great strengths of online learning is that it gives students an incredible amount of choice. But that is also its greatest weakness.

 

I can give assignments through a file sharing site like Google Classroom and let students complete it at their own pace.

 

The problem is that kids (especially young kids) need their pace monitored.

 

You can’t give them too much time to get something done because many will procrastinate through the deadline.

 

In my physical classroom, I would often give an assignment and then provide at least some time for them to start it. The idea was that even if they don’t finish it with me, they are more likely to complete something they already began.

 

However, online it is completely up to them when to do an assignment. They are responsible for their own time management – and that’s a skill we, as educators, struggle to teach them.

 

As a result, most students don’t get these assignments done on time – if at all.

 

Even when they do the work, I’m bombarded by a slew of submissions around midnight or the early hours of the AM.

 

HOW TO ASK A QUESTION YOU DON’T KNOW YOU HAVE

 

 

Then there’s the question of… well… questions.

 

In my brick and mortar classroom, if a child was unsure of something, all she had to do was raise her hand and ask. Online, there are multiple ways to communicate with me – kids can send me an email, message me or verbally ask me something during a video chat.

 

The problem is that sometimes they don’t know they’re confused.

 

In my physical classroom, since all students are working on an assignment together in that same time and space, I can go from desk to desk and see how they’re progressing.

 

If they’re getting something wrong, I can correct it in real time. I can give suggestions and encouragement even before the work is done.

 

Online, I’m mostly limited to commenting on the final project. If a student didn’t understand the directions – and didn’t even understand that he didn’t understand the directions – I don’t know until the work is done.

 

This presents a problem. Do I explain the error and ask him to to do the work all over again? Or do I explain the error but accept the work for what it is?

 

I’ll admit, I usually do the later.

 

STUDENTS M.I.A.

 

 

Which brings me to mysterious absences.

 

I don’t mean kids who don’t show up to video conferences – though there are many of those.

 

I mean kids who for all intents and purposes appear to be there in ZOOM and then suddenly disappear never to return that day.

 

They could have a device or Internet issue. And if this happens every once in a while, it’s understandable. But what about kids who do this all the time?

 

If your iPad isn’t charged one day, I guess things happen. But if it isn’t charged everyday, that’s a problem. Your problem – one you need to solve.

 

I know every district is different in this regard, but my school provides every student with devices and even WiFi if necessary. Even in the physical classroom, using devices always came with a chorus of whines about them not being charged.

 

Once again, we’re putting this responsibility on students and families. In the days before distance learning, we could question whether that was fair. In the Coronavirus dystopia, we have little choice but to do it.

 

However, this brave new world even makes an issue out of bathroom breaks.

 

In the brick and mortar classroom, kids would ask to go to the restroom and then be sent one at a time. Online some kids just turn off their camera or leave it idling on an empty seat or the ceiling. It is next to impossible to tell whether these breaks are genuine or even to estimate their duration.

 

Some students are gone for the majority of the meeting. In a world where video conferences are few and far between, is it so much to ask that you use the restroom BEFORE going to ZOOM?

 

INVADERS

 
But let’s not forget unwanted guests.

 

These platforms require students to know a dedicated Web address and sometimes a password to get in.

 

Yet these are children. They sometimes share these security measures with people who were not invited.

 

Even in my physical classroom, sometimes students not on my roster would try to get in to talk with a friend or even just sit in on my amazing lessons. I could stop them at the door and send them on their way.

 

Online, some sites like ZOOM give me similar power, and others like Kahoot (a game based learning platform) do not. Even when every person entering has to be approved by me, all I see is the name they’ve given their device. If an enterprising stranger wanted to rename their device to that of one of my students, I probably wouldn’t catch it until they were in.

 

There have been several times when someone with one of my students’ names got into a ZOOM meeting, but either refused or couldn’t turn on their camera. I had no choice but to boot them out.

 

On some sites like Kahoot, there is no video. I had no idea who was signing in – I just saw the name they input.

 

So sometimes I had two students with the same name. Or I had let’s say 8 kids in the class but 9 kids were signing on to Kahoot.

 

It’s maddening!

 

ASSESSMENTS AND CHEATING

 
Now let’s talk tests.

 

I don’t like tests. I think they can too easily become cruel games of “guess what the testmaker was thinking.”

 

But they are a necessary evil to judge what information students have learned. Moreover, a creative teacher can design them to reduce the regurgitation of facts and increase critical analysis backed by facts.

 

In a physical classroom, teachers can monitor students during test taking. Online, they can’t. So there’s always a question of cheating.

 

Every scrap of information in human history is available somewhere online. If students try hard enough, they can find the answer to any question with a deft Google search.

 

However, to be honest I don’t think I’ve had too much trouble with this as yet. My students either don’t care enough to cheat, cannot figure out how to do so effectively or have too much self respect.

 

Or maybe I just haven’t caught them.

 

In the physical classroom, I had several students try to pass off others work – essays or poems – as their own. But I haven’t assigned anything so ambitious through distance learning yet.

 

CONCLUSIONS

 
Perhaps that’s why it drives me nuts when policymakers and media types make statements about what an overwhelming success this has all been.

 

Teachers and districts have tried their best. Students and families are giving their all. But this experiment does not demonstrate why we should all embrace distance learning once the Coronavirus pandemic is under control.

 

It shows why we MUST return to the brick and mortar classroom as soon as it is safe to do so.

 

Reimagining school will not require more ed tech.

 

It may require much less.

 

Kids need to be in the presence of physical human beings in a real environment with their peers to maximize their learning.

 

We need smaller classes, equitable funding, desegregation, social justice, wide curriculum, and an end to high stakes testing, school privatization, science denial and anti-intellectualism.

 

But more than anything, we need policymakers who are willing to listen to and include the people on the ground when making decisions that affect us all.


 

 

Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

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Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

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

book-4

Don’t Extend Kids’ School Day; Shorten Parents’ Work Week

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It’s rough being the parent of an American school student.

 
You often leave for work before your kids have even made it to school yet – and you get home long after they’ve returned.

 
When exactly are you supposed to parent?

 

Your kids have to get themselves to school. They have to get themselves home. And helping with homework, talking about their days, even setting a good example are all luxuries you have to pay dearly for with an ever-shrinking amount of time.

 

 

So what’s the solution?

 

 

For those of the think tank persuasion, the answer is more school.

 
Parents and kids schedules aren’t aligned? Well, align them then. Have kids in class from 9 to 5 just like their parents.

 
Not only will that make it easier for adults to take them to-and-from school, but it will prepare kids for the rigors of the adult world.

 

The neoliberal Center for American Progress, for instance, suggests that synching the school and workday would better allow parents to meet their obligations to their children.

 

This is especially true, they say, for kids in low-income communities where competitive grant programs could fund the initiative while also holding the money hostage unless their schools engage in more test prep as part of their curriculums.

 

It’s a terrible idea proposed by terrible individuals working for billionaire philanthrocapitalists.

 

The think tank is run by John Podesta who was chief of staff for President Bill Clinton and manager of President Barack Obama’s transition team – which tells you a lot about Democratic politics of the last several decades.

 

However, it does hold a kernel of truth.

 

The school and workday ARE out of step with each other.

 

This DOES cause problems.

 

Something SHOULD be done.

 

But the solution isn’t to lengthen the time kids are required to spend in the classroom. It is solved by reducing the amount of time their parents have to stay at work.

 

Think about it.

 

A LONGER SCHOOL DAY WOULD BE HARMFUL TO STUDENTS

 

Currently, most children attend school for six to seven hours a day.

 

If school started earlier or was in session later, we’d be forcing many kids to put in as much as 12-hour days – especially when you factor in transportation and after-school activities.

 

Students in rural areas or those who live the farthest from school would be the most impacted. Many kids get to school early for breakfast. So if classes began at 9 am, many kids would need to get to school by 8:30 am at the latest – that could mean leaving home by 7:30 am. If the school day ended at 5 pm, these same kids wouldn’t get home until 6 to 7 pm or later.

 

This would not lead to better academic performance or well adjusted kids. It would result in exhausted and burned out students. Some – perhaps many – would probably cut out after-school activities which would hurt their social, emotional and physical development.

 

Moreover, kids need time – free time – to discover who they are. They need time to spend with friends, build relationships and enjoy themselves.

 

 

They shouldn’t be forced to be adults before they are developmentally ready to do so.

 

And it’s not just me who says so. Youth advocate Vicki Abeles is sounding the alarm against the idea of a longer school day, too. Abeles, who authored Beyond Measure: Rescuing an Overscheduled, Overtested, and Underestimated Generation, wrote in The New York Times:
 

 

“Many of our children are already stretched to unhealthy breaking points, loaded down with excessive homework, extracurricular activities and outside tutoring because they’re led to believe high test scores, a slew of Advanced Placement classes and a packed résumé are their ticket to college and success. This has led to an epidemic of anxious, unhealthy, sleep-deprived, burned-out, disengaged, unprepared children — and overwhelmed and discouraged teachers. The key is creating a healthier, more balanced, more engaging and effective school day, not a longer one.”

 

Moreover, this is not what other high achieving nations do to succeed. Countries like Finland, Singapore, and China have SHORTER school days – not longer ones. They just try to make the most of the class time they have.

 

In fact, U.S. teachers already spend more time in the classroom with students than their peers in practically every other developed nation, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

 

Maybe instead of listening to think tank fools like Podesta, we should pay attention to educators around the world.

 

And this is to say nothing of cost.

 

Nine years ago, it took $10 million to lengthen the day at 50 Chicago schools. Each school got $150,000 just to pay for additional salary to compensate teachers for the extra time. The district projected that it would have cost $84 million to increase the program to all its schools.

 

But that doesn’t include the cost for additional electricity, maintenance and other utilities which is more difficult to estimate.

 

Who’s going to pay this extra money? We don’t even adequately fund the time kids spend in class NOW! We’re going to stretch tax revenue even further to increase those hours!?

 

This is the definition of doing more with less. More time, less quality.

 

SHORTENING THE ADULT WORK WEEK

 

It would make far more sense to cut parents’ time at work than to increase children’s time at school.

 

Adults already work too many hours as it is.

 

In fact, doing so actually makes adults better at their jobs.

 

That’s not just conjecture or wish fulfillment. It’s been tried and proven correct.

 

In 2019, Microsoft conducted an experiment at its offices in Japan where employees had to take every Friday off as a paid vacation day. The result was a boost in productivity of 40 percent.

 

 

In 2018, Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand trustee services firm, did almost the same thing on a trial basis. It had employees work four eight-hour days a week but paid them for five. Once again this resulted in an increase in productivity, but also lower stress levels and higher job satisfaction.

 

The idea of a 32-hour workweek (instead of the traditional 40) is gaining support. After all, much of our time on the job is wasted.

 

The average number of truly productive hours in an eight-hour day is two hours and 53 minutes, according to a survey of U.K. office workers. Human beings aren’t robots. We can’t just sit at our desks and work. We have all these pointless meetings, frivolous emails and phone calls, co-worker discussions, disruptions and distractions. Imagine if we didn’t have to waste so much time and could focus on other endeavors after putting in a few effective hours at the office. We could get things done and still have time to live our lives.

 

The five-day, 40-hour workweek is a relatively new invention. A century ago, it was not uncommon for people to work six ten-hour days with only Sundays off for religious worship. Then Henry Ford started giving his autoworkers more time off to create leisure time – so they might have reason to actually buy the cars they were making. It became common practice throughout the country in 1938 when Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act. The law was meant to improve conditions and pay for manufacturing workers – and it did that. However, that doesn’t mean it was the be all, end all. We should continue the trend to shorten the workweek even further.

 

In fact, this is what people expected would happen – that work hours would continue to shrink over time.

 

 

In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that the working week eventually would be cut to 15 hours. He figured that by 2030, people would have far more leisure time as their material needs were met.

 

However, the trend changed in the 1970s as Americans started spending more – not less – time at their jobs. This also coincided with the weakening of labor unions, corporate downsizing and demanding more from employees for decreasing wages and benefits.

 

Now the US and Korea lead the developed world in long workdays. Americans average 1,786 work hours a year, which is 423 more hours than workers in Germany and over 100 hours more than workers in Japan, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

 

CONCLUSION

 
These long hours take a toll on our health and well-being.

 

It’s telling that instead of realizing that adults need fewer hours on the job, policy wonks try to convince us to make our children shoulder the same burden.

 

It reminds me of Max Weber’s thesis in his seminal “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.” In the book, the sociologist and economist argues that underneath our economic values lies an abiding belief in a Puritan work ethic. The value of work is given a religious and ethical fervor far beyond what it gains us monetarily.

 

Perhaps we need to take a step back from these unconscious and toxic values to see what is really in the best interests of individuals and families.

 

It is far past time to shorten the workweek for adults.

 

That would give us the time we need to be better parents to our children, allow us to be more present and available for them.

 

It would be far better for families to spend more time together learning and growing than to throw that time down an endless bin of empty industry.

 


 

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!

book-4

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 Cherry Pick Students & Call it Choice – PART 1: The “I Didn’t Do It!” Excuse

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It takes a certain kind of hypocrite to be a charter school champion.

 

 

 

You have to deny any wrongdoing one minute. And then admit you’re guilty but explain it away with the excuse “Everyone’s doing it!” the next.

 
Take cherry picking – one of the most common admonishments leveled against the school privatization industry.

 
Detractors claim that charter schools keep enrollment low and then out of those who apply, they pick and choose which students to accept.

 
Charters are run by private enterprise but funded with public tax dollars. So they are supposed to accept all comers just like the authentic public schools in the same neighborhoods.

 

 

 

But charter schools don’t have to follow the same rules as authentic public schools. They pretty much just have to abide by whatever was agreed upon in their charter contracts. Even then states rarely check up on them to make sure they’re in compliance.

 

 

 

So critics say many of these institutions are circumventing enrollment procedures. They’re welcoming the easiest kids to teach and dissuading others from enrolling – even to the extent of kicking out hard to teach children or pretending that an “unbiased” selection process just so happened to pick only the most motivated students.

 

 

 

Charter school supporters usually respond to this critique in one of two ways.

 

 

 

(1) Cherry picking!? How dare you!? We don’t cherry pick students! The demand to get in to our schools is so great that we put all the names in a hat and let chance decide!

 

 

 

Or

 

 

 

(2) Cherry picking!? Why of course we cherry pick students! But so do the public schools with their discipline policies and magnet schools!

 
You’d think these folks would suffer from some cognitive dissonance. Imagine if the Oscar Mayer company claimed that their hot dogs don’t contain any rat feces only to backtrack a minute later saying that their wieners have no more rat feces than the leading competitor’s franks.

 
And make no mistake – the charter school response is very much like a hot dog company’s damage control – a corporate press release written by various billionaire-funded think tanks to protect the industry’s market share.

 

 

 

It’s like a spoiled child saying, “I didn’t do it! And even if I did do it, there’s nothing wrong with it!”

 

 

 

Thankfully, there are these pesky things called facts that show both responses to be… well.. baloney!

 

 
Let’s take a look at each and examine why they’re wrong.

 

 

 

 

In Part 1, we’ll focus on the first excuse that charters don’t cherry pick students. In Part 2, we’ll look at the excuse that it’s okay for charters to cherry pick students because the authentic public schools do the same.

 

 

 

 

THE “I DIDN’T DO IT!” EXCUSE

 

 

 

Short answer: There is plenty of evidence that shows you did.

 

 

 

 

Long Answer:

 

 
Selecting the students you want to teach instead of families selecting the school they want their kids to attend is sometimes called cherry picking or creaming, and it comes in at least three varieties.

 

 

 

 

(1) Charter schools do things to encourage only the most motivated families to apply and discourage anyone else. This can involve long applications that may deter uneducated, non English-speaking and/or immigrant parents.

 

 

 

 

(2) Charter schools literally handpick students with higher test scores and sterling academic records.

 

 

 

 

(3) Charter schools “counsel out” or expel difficult students during the school year.

 

 

 

 

TYPE 1: APPLICATION SCHENANIGANS

 

 

 

 

The international news organization Reuters found evidence of the first type to be widespread at U.S. charter schools.

 

 

 

 

Reuters documented the following:

 

 

 

 

  • “Applications that are made available just a few hours a year.

 

 

 

  • Lengthy application forms, often printed only in English, that require student and parent essays, report cards, test scores, disciplinary records, teacher recommendations and medical records.

 

 

  • Demands that students present Social Security cards and birth certificates for their applications to be considered, even though such documents cannot be required under federal law.

 

 

  • Mandatory family interviews.

 

 

  • Assessment exams.

 

 

  • Academic prerequisites.

 

 

  • Requirements that applicants document any disabilities or special needs. The U.S. Department of Education considers this practice illegal on the college level but has not addressed the issue for K-12 schools.”

 

 

 

 

For a specific example, take a look at the online application form for 2016-17 at Roseland Accelerated Middle School, a charter school in Santa Rosa, California.

 

 

 

 

Applicants must fill out several dozen pages before a student is accepted, according to the website.

 

 

 

 

Students must write five essays that are each two pages in length using complete sentences covering a variety of topics including family background. One essay even asks applicants to write an essay beginning with “The qualities and strengths that I will bring to school are… .”

 

 

 

 

But that’s not all. Parents have to write seven small essays of their own and fill out their child’s medical history including medications the child takes (which some critics say violates federal privacy law).

 

 

 

 

Finally, students must write a minimum three-page autobiography, typed, double spaced and “well constructed with varied structure.”

 

 

 

 

This is all required BEFORE applicants are accepted to the school – a taxpayer funded school, by the way, that is supposed to accept everyone who applies unless too many enroll. Then the school is supposed to use a lottery to determine who gets in.
Funny how the lottery winners always seem to be those with the best essays and the lowest academic, psychological or medical needs.

 

 

 

 

Of course, that’s just one school.

 

 

 

 

The Southern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) along with Public Advocates looked at the application policies of 1,000 of the state’s 1,200 charter schools.

 

 

 

 

A quarter of them (including Roseland) had policies in violation of state law that could exclude some types of students. In particular, these charters are selecting against children from families with lower incomes or poorer English skills by requiring parents to volunteer, demanding students’ academic histories and/or failing to provide services for special-education students.

 

 

 

 

It should be obvious why this is unfair.

 

 

 

 

No family should have to do more to apply for a K-12 school than would be expected at a private college or university. We should not allow schools that are funded with public tax dollars to select against low-income students and families or foster children. No family should be forced to disclose their child’s medical histories as a prerequisite for enrollment so that school administrators could decide if asthma or a leukemia diagnosis makes the child a bad academic bet. No family should have to divulge members’ immigration status, religion or culture to apply to a school. Frankly, this is not the school’s business. No parent should have to volunteer on campus. Low income parents work two or more jobs, have younger children at home or just don’t have the time. And when you require parents to write essays, too, you’re really just trying to gauge family literacy and the ease of educating the student applicant.

 

 

 

 

TYPE 2 AND 3: HANDPICKING STUDENTS AND COUNSELING OUT

 

 

 

 

The good thing about the first type of selective enrollment is that you can see it on school applications which are free and open to the public.

 

 

 

 

The problem with proving the other two types of cherry picking is the lack of transparency at most charter schools.

 

 

 

 

Charter schools are notoriously tight lipped about what happens behind their closed doors. Unlike authentic public schools that have several monthly open meetings, open documents, and frequent state audits, charter schools don’t have to share hardly any of this with the public – even though we pay for their school.

 

 

 

 

The public is not allowed into the room where charter operators pick and choose students because of test scores or academics. Nor are many people allowed into private meetings with students and parents where children are highly encouraged to seek their education elsewhere or even given the boot.

 

 
However, there have been numerous studies that show this happens.

 

 

 

 

To be fair, there are competing studies that show it doesn’t happen. However, those studies are often paid for by the very industry under investigation. Their funding is predicated on finding a certain result and – GASP! – that’s what they usually end up finding.

 

 

 

 

It’s like the National Apple Institute funding a study that concludes “Pears suck.” It’s not a real study. It’s an advertisement.

 

 

 

 

The studies that DO show evidence of the second and third type of cherry picking, though, are independent and peer reviewed.

 

 

 

 

Here are a few results:

 

 

 


-Vasquez Heilig, J., Williams, A., McNeil, L & Lee, C. (2011). Is choice a panacea? An analysis of black secondary student attrition from KIPP, other private charters and urban districts. Berkeley Review of Education, 2(2), 153-178.

 
This paper concludes that charter school dropout rates – especially for black children – are much higher than at authentic public schools in Texas. In particular, KIPP charter schools claim that 88-90% of their students go on to college. The evidence does not support this claim. In fact, even though KIPP does spend 30-60% more per student, it still has a higher dropout rate and a higher rate for students transferring to other schools. Moreover, Texas charter schools were found to serve fewer black children than authentic public schools.

 

 

 


-Vasquez Heilig, J., LeClair, A. V., Redd, L., & Ward, D. (in press). Separate and Unequal?: The Problematic Segregation of Special Populations in Charter Schools Relative to Traditional Public Schools. Stanford Law & Policy Review, XX(X), XXX-XXX.

 
An analysis of charter schools in large metropolitan areas finds that authentic public schools have much greater rates of high needs students than charter schools in the same areas.

 

 


-Frankenberg, E., Siegel-Hawley, G., & Wang, J. (2011, January). Choice without equity: Charter school segregation. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 19(1). Retrieved from http://epaa.asu.edu/ojs/article/view/779/878

 
An examination of charter schools in 40 states and the District of Columbia found widespread evidence that charter schools are much more segregated by race and class than authentic public schools.

 

 

 

 

In particular:

 

 

 

 

“This analysis of recent data [2007-08] finds that charter schools are more racially isolated than traditional public schools in virtually every state and large metropolitan area in the nation.  In some regions, white students are over-represented in charter schools while in other charter schools, minority students have little exposure to white students.  Data about the extent to which charter schools serve low-income and English learner students is incomplete, but suggest that a substantial share of charter schools may not enroll such students.”

 

 

 


-Garcia, D. R. (2008). Academic and racial segregation in charter schools: Do parents sort students into specialized charter schools? Education and Urban Society, 40(5), 590- 612. doi: 10.1177/0013124508316044

 

 

 

 

This study found little evidence that charter schools were more segregated because of parental choice. “…parents enroll their students into charter schools with at least the same degree of academic integration as the district schools that students exited.” The segregation found at charter schools is due to some other source.

 

 

 


-Lacireno-Paquet, N., Holyoke, T. T., Moser, M., & Henig, J. R. (2002). Creaming versus cropping: Charter school enrollment practices in response to market incentives. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 24(2), 145-158. doi: 10.3102/01623737024002145

 
School choice makes disparities of race and class worse – not better – by selecting the easiest to teach in enrollment.

 

 

 

 

In particular:

 

 

 

 

“…competition for students will pressure individual schools into targeting students with the highest performance and the least encumbered with personal and social disadvantages. We suggest that some charter schools, by background and affiliation, are likely to be more market-oriented in their behavior than others, and test the proposition that market-oriented charter schools engage in cream-skimming…”

 

 

 

 

Market-based charter schools are not serving high needs students. They are “…skimming the cream off the top of the potential student population, [and] market-oriented charter schools may be “cropping off” service to students whose language or special education needs make them more costly to educate.”

 

 

 


Positioning Charter Schools in Los Angeles: Diversity of Form and Homogeneity of Effects. Douglas Lee Lauen, Bruce Fuller and Luke Dauter American Journal of Education Vol. 121, No. 2 (February 2015), pp. 213-239

 

 

 

 

This study finds:

 

 

 

 

“Charter school students were less likely to be Black, Latino, LEP, special education, and low income and were more likely to be White, academically gifted, high achieving, and have more highly educated parents. For example, about 12 percent of the parents of traditional public school students attained a college degree or higher, compared with 35 percent of the parents of charter school students.”

 

 

 

 

Researchers also concluded that despite serving more advantaged students, Los Angeles charter schools did not have much effect on student test scores.

 

 

 

 

In fact:

 

 

 

 

“We report no statistically significant positive effects of attending a charter school on achievement growth. For the first three cohorts studied, charter school effects on test score growth were negative and significant. For the last cohort studied, the effect was negative, but not statistically significant.”

 

 

 


-Government Accountability Office. (2012). Charter schools: Additional federal attention needed to help protect access for students with disabilities. Washington, DC: Author. http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-12-543

 

 

 

 

This study found that charter schools enrolled a lower percentage of students with disabilities than traditional public schools.

 

 

 

 

In particular:

 

 

 

 

“In school year 2009-2010, which was the most recent data available at the time of our review, approximately 11 percent of students enrolled in traditional public schools were students with disabilities compared to about 8 percent of students enrolled in charter schools.

 

“GAO also found that, relative to traditional public schools, the proportion of charter schools that enrolled high percentages of students with disabilities was lower overall. Specifically, students with disabilities represented 8 to 12 percent of all students at 23 percent of charter schools compared to 34 percent of traditional public schools.”

 

 

 

 

Researchers could not prove a reason for this discrepancy but they did consider that “…some charter schools may be discouraging students with disabilities from enrolling.”

 

 


 

-Jabbar,  H. (2015). Every Kid is Money: Market-like competition and school leader strategies in New Orleans. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. http://epa.sagepub.com/content/early/2015/04/27/0162373715577447.abstract

 

“This study examines how choice creates school-level actions using qualitative data from 30 schools in New Orleans. Findings suggest that school leaders did experience market pressures… [and some] …engaged in marketing or cream skimming.”

 

 

 


-Hirji, R. (2014). Are Charter Schools Upholding Student Rights? American Bar Association. Available online at http://apps.americanbar.org/litigation/committees/childrights/content/articles/winter2014-0114-charter-schools-upholding-student-rights.htm

 

 

 

 

The study concluded:

 

 

 

 

“The structures that allow charter schools to exist are marked by the absence of protections that are traditionally guaranteed by public education, protections that only become apparent and necessary when families and students begin to face a denial of what they were initially promised to be their right. [Charter operators] may encourage charter schools to push certain students out and make it easier to deny them the benefits of a publicly supported education.  The perception that charter schools are open to all students is being called into question by increasing evidence that children who are disadvantaged by a disability, poverty, or being a member of a minority group, or who have been accused of an offense, may not have the same access to charter schools as those [who] are not.”

 


 

-Taylor, J., Cregor, M., & Lane, P. (2014). Not Measuring Up: Massachusetts’ Students of Color and Students with Disabilities Receive Disproportionate Discipline, Especially in Charter Schools. Lawyers Committee For Civil Rights and Economic Justice. Available at: http://lawyerscom.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Not-Measuring-up_-The-State-of-School-Discipline-in-Massachusetts.pdf

 

 

 

 

“…A significant number of charter schools, particularly those in the Boston area, had high discipline rates. Roxbury Preparatory Charter suspended 6 out of every 10 students out-of-school at least once… all for non-violent, non-criminal, non-drug offenses– for each suspended student.”

 

 

 


Civil Rights complaints and documents from the Katrina Truth (Education) page may be accessed here: http://www.katrinatruth.org/pages/education.html

 

 

 

 

“Accountability for what’s happening in New Orleans schools has been sorely lacking. While 92% of students are now enrolled in charters, many charter schools have failed to accommodate students with disabilities or limited English proficiency, violating federal law and prompting civil rights complaints to federal agencies. Making matters worse, students enrolled in New Orleans charters are subject to harsher charter-specific discipline policies aimed at pushing out even more students. Suspension rates at New Orleans charters, especially for out-of-school suspensions, are among some of the worst in the nation, with several schools above Louisiana’s already high statewide average and a select group at “rates of 40, 50, 60% and more each year.”

 

 

 

 

There is much more in comprehensive reports like Pushed Out: Harsh Discipline in Louisiana Schools Denies The Right to Education.

 

 

 

 


-Henig, J. R., & MacDonald, J. A. (2002). Locational decisions of charter schools: Probing the market metaphor. Social Science Quarterly, 83(4), 962–980. doi:10.1111/1540-6237.00126

 
The study examined why charters chose to locate in the District of Columbia (D.C.).

 

 

 

 

Researchers concluded:

 

 

 

 

“Charters are more likely to locate in areas with high proportions of African–American and Hispanic residents than in the predominantly white neighborhoods, and more likely to locate in neighborhoods with middle incomes and high home ownership than in either poor or wealthy areas of the city. This is especially true of those operated by for–profits…”

 

 

 


-Jennings, J. (2010). School choice or schools’ choice?: Managing in an era of accountability. Sociology of Education, 83(3), 227–247.

 

 
Looking at New York City charter high schools, researchers concluded:

 

 

 

 

“Although district policy did not allow principals to select students based on their performance, two of the three schools in this study circumvented these rules to recruit and retain a population that would meet local accountability targets.”

 

 

 


-Corcoran, S. & Jennings, 2015. The Gender Gap in Charter School Enrollment. 2015. NCSPE. http://www.ncspe.org/readrel.php?set=pub&cat=287

 

“Though many studies have investigated the extent to which the racial, socioeconomic, and academic composition of charter schools differs from traditional schools, no studies have examined whether charters enroll and/or retain a higher fraction of girls.

 

 

“…Analyzing enrollment data for all charter and public schools from 1999-00 through 2006-07, we find that charters enroll a significantly higher fraction of girls, an imbalance that is largest in the secondary grades, and has grown steadily each year.”

 

“…While attrition from charter schools is higher in all grades than from traditional schools, we find that boys are only slightly more likely to exit charter schools once enrolled. This suggests that much of the gender enrollment gap occurs at intake.”

 


 

 

VERDICT ON CHERRY PICKING

 

 

 

This really just scratches the surface. There are hundreds of more peer-reviewed studies and reputable news articles documenting that the second and third type of cherry picking takes place at many charter schools.

 

 

 

 

This is a problem even for charters that don’t engage in this practice because the laws governing the industry allow for selective enrollment.

 

 

 

 

Even charters that don’t cherry pick today could do so tomorrow and there’s nothing we could do about it.

 

 

 

 

Allowing schools that are publicly financed the freedom to pick whichever students they want to educate is like giving a match to an unsupervised child. It’s only a matter of time before something catches on fire.

 

 

 

 

In Part 2, we’ll examine the second excuse charter school advocates proclaim when confronted with the evidence above. Namely, that cherry picking students is okay since the authentic public schools do it, too.

 

 

 


NOTE: This article owes a debt to the research of Julian Vasquez Heilig whose Cloaking Inequality Website is an essential resource in the fight for equity in our schools.


 

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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Who’s Afraid of Public Schools?

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Public schools are the bogeymen of American life.

 
We so often hear the bedtime story of “Failing Schools” that it’s no wonder some folks will do anything to ensure their kids get in elsewhere.

 
And let’s be honest. It’s the same impulse behind the latest college admissions cheating scandal.

 
A group of wealthy – though not too wealthy – parents thought their children should be able to enroll in the most prestigious schools.

 
So they bribed college admissions officers, cheated on standardized tests or paid coaches or other officials to accept their children as college athletes even if their kids had never played the sport.

 
We see the same kind of thing everyday in public schools – a confederacy of white parents terrified that their kids might have to go to class with black kids. So they dip into their stock portfolios to pay for enrollment at a private or parochial school.

 
Or they take advantage of a tax scholarship or school voucher to avoid an institution with low test scores by enrolling in one where students don’t have to take the tests at all.

 
Or they cross their fingers and enter their kid in a lottery to a charter school praying their precious progeny will escape the horrors of being treated just like everyone else’s kids.

 
And they call it a meritocracy!

 
What a joke!

 
They pretend that their children have earned special treatment.

 
WRONG.

 
No child deserves favoritism – paradoxically –  because all children do!

 
There are really two important but related points here:

 
1)  The children of the privileged don’t deserve a better education than anyone else’s.

 

2)  Children who come from wealthy families (and or from privileged social circumstances) don’t do anything to distinguish themselves from the underprivileged.

 
But these nouveau riche parents tried to bribe the way forward for their kids anyway even though to do so they had to launder the money through a fake “charity.” They didn’t care that doing so would earn them a tax deduction and thus result in even less money for the underprivileged. They didn’t care about the underlying inequalities in the system. No. They only wanted their children to remain in the class of America’s chosen few.

 
And the best way to do that is with cold, hard cash.

 
America doesn’t run on Dunkin. It runs on greenbacks. Dinero. Swag. Bling. The prosperity doctrine made physical, quantifiable and mean.

 
No one really denies that there are two Americas anymore. We just lie to ourselves about how you get placed in one or the other.

 
And that lie is called excellence, quality, worth – the ultimate in class war gaslighting.

 
It’s a deception that this scandal has shattered to pieces.

 
The privileged don’t earn their privilege. It’s not something they possess on the basis of intelligence or hard work shown through test scores. They don’t have it because of drive, determination or grit – once again shown through test scores. They have it based on wealth – the kind of wealth that buys time and resources to either pass the tests or bribe the gatekeepers to change the scores.

 
Think about it.

 
George W. Bush got into Yale and Harvard and graduated with a 2.35 GPA. Why? Not because he had the grades and demonstrated his worth. He was a legacy. Like at least one third of all admissions to Ivy League schools, he got in purely because he had family who graduated from there.

 
You think Donald Trump threatened the College Board not to release his grades because they were all A’s!?

 
According to one account, his scores were merely “respectable.” Yet he still dropped out of the prestigious Fordham University and transferred to the University of Pennsylvania after two years based on family connections and the reputation of his father, Fred Trump, one of the wealthiest businessmen in New York at the time.

 
Moreover, his kids, Don Jr. and Ivanka, were both enrolled at Penn around the same time as their father made hefty contributions. They began classes in 1996 and 2000, respectively, just as the university and its private Manhattan clubhouse received more than $1.4 million in pledged donations from Trump, the school newspaper reported.

 

This is not merit. This has nothing to do with what these people deserve. It is money – a pure transaction, you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.

 
The only thing that separates what the Trumps and the Bushes did with this latest scandal – the so-called Operation Varsity Blues – is the amount of wealth involved.
If you’re super rich, you can get away with it. If you’re just rich, you’d better not get caught.

 
And if you’re poor or middle class, you’d better stay in your lane.

 
But there shouldn’t be any lanes on this highway. Or at least they should only be in place to maximize fairness and student success.

 
We sneer at the idea of Affirmative Action but only because it’s directed at people of color. No one says anything about the real Affirmative Action that’s been in place since before our country even began – the system of reciprocity and privilege keeping wealthy white families in positions of power like Lords and Ladies while the rest of us serfs scramble for their leavings.

 
All children deserve the same opportunities to succeed. All children deserve the chance to get an excellent education. All children should attend a first class school filled with highly educated and experienced teachers who can draw on plenty of resources, wide curriculum, tutoring, counseling and support.

 
And the only way we’ll ever achieve that is through a robust system of public schools.

 
I’m not saying they’re perfect. In many neighborhoods, they’ve been sabotaged and surgically dismantled, but that’s a problem with an easy solution. Invest in public schools!

 
Because the stated purpose of public education, the reason it exists at all, is equity.
The alternatives – private and charter schools – are essentially unequal.  That’s their raison d’êtreto create a market that justifies their existence.

 
In order for charter and private schools to be a thing, there must be schools that don’t otherwise meet students’ needs. There must be an unreasonable demand that schools indoctrinate students into parents’ religious beliefs. There must be schools that aren’t as well funded or that have to meet ridiculous federal and state mandates.

 
The result is a two-tiered system. Schools for the haves and for the have-nots.
It’s an apparatus that perverts the public to make room for the private.

 
In the public system, students are segregated into communities based on race and class and then their community schools are funded based on what their parents can afford. The rich shower their children with the best of everything. The poor do what they can.

 
Then the federal government pretends to hold everyone “accountable” by forcing students to take standardized tests that merely recreate the economic and racial disparities already present in their districts and neighborhoods. In turn, this provides the justification for charter and voucher schools that further erode public school budgets and increases the downward spiral of disinvestment.

 

 

Meanwhile, few notice how the equity built into authentic public schools gets left behind by those enrolling in privatized alternatives. No more open meetings. No more elected school boards. No more public comment or even a voice in how the money is spent.
 

So long as there are two Americas, the fear of being in the wrong one will motivate the privileged to cheat and steal their way to the top. They will horde resources and wealth for themselves and their children while denying it to others.

 
It is a self-perpetuating system – a loop that we’re all caught in.
We must break the chain. We must recognize our common humanity and stop the zero sum game.

 
And perhaps the best way to begin is by supporting authentic public schools and not privatization.

 
We have been taught to fear public education, because it is really our only hope.

 


 

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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I Assign my Students Homework Despite Scant Research It Does Any Good

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In academic circles the debate over homework rages on.

Does it actually help students learn or does it just cause undue stress and frustration for children and parents?

As a teacher and a parent, I see both sides of the issue.

In class, I assign my students homework every week – Monday through Thursday. Never on the weekends.

My daughter’s teacher does the same. So at home, I’m on the receiving end, spending hours with my little munchkin helping her get through mountains of assignments for her classes the next day.

Perhaps this is what they mean by the proverb – you reap what you sow. Except my daughter isn’t doing the homework I assigned. She isn’t in my class and we don’t even live in the district where I teach.

But it sometimes does feel like payback plodding through seemingly endless elementary worksheets, spelling words and vocabulary.

After a while, even I begin to question whether any of this junk does any good.

As a teacher, I know the research on the subject provides slim support at best.

In fact, the closest we have ever come to an answer is a reformulation of the question.

It really comes down to a matter of causality – a chicken and the egg conundrum with a side of sharpened pencil and crumpled paper.

If we look really hard, we can find a correlation between students who do their homework and those who get good grades.

The problem is we can’t PROVE it’s the homework that’s causing the grades.

It could just be that kids who excel academically also happen to do their homework. If we removed the homework, these kids might still get good grades.

So which comes first – the homework or the grades?

There has been surprisingly little research that goes this deep. And almost all of it is anecdotal.

Even the investigations that found a correlation did so in tight parameters – only in secondary grades and usually just for math.

Some wealthy districts have even reduced the amount of homework without seeing a subsequent drop in learning.

But nothing has been tested across socioeconomic divides or with any consistency and very little has been proven definitively.

This doesn’t mean that there’s no consensus on the matter.

Both the National Education Association (NEA) and the National Parent Teacher Association (NPTA) suggest educators assign no more than a standard of “10 minutes of homework per grade level” per night.

In other words, a first grader should have no more than 10 minutes of homework on a given evening, a second grader no more than 20 minutes, etc.

However, it appears that students – especially in the primary grades – are getting more work than these recommended maximums.

A 2015 study published in The American Journal of Family Therapy surveyed more than 1,100 Rhode Island parents with school age children.

Researchers found that first and second graders received 28 and 29 minutes of homework per night – almost double the recommended maximums. Even more shocking, Kindergarteners – who according to the guideline should receive no homework at all – actually were assigned an average of 25 minutes per night.

That’s a lot of extra time sitting and slogging through practice problems instead of spending time with friends or family.

Though I live in western Pennsylvania, this study is certainly consistent with what I see in my own home. My daughter is in 4th grade but has been assigned between 30 minutes and two hours of homework almost every weekday since she was in Kindergarten.

It’s one of the reasons I try to abide by the guidelines religiously in my own classroom. I give about an hours worth of homework every week – 15 minutes per day for four days. If you add in cumulative assignments like book reports, that number may go up slightly but not beyond the recommended maximums.

I teach 8th graders, so they should not be receiving more than 80 minutes of homework a night. If the teachers in the other three core classes give the same amount of homework as I do, we’d still be below the maximum.

I’m well aware that the consequences of giving too much homework can be severe.

A 2014 Stanford study published in the Journal of Experimental Education found that giving too much homework can have extremely damaging effects on children.

Still this isn’t exactly hard science.

The researchers used survey data to examine perceptions about homework, student well-being and behavioral engagement in a sample of 4,317 students from 10 high-performing high schools in upper-middle-class California neighborhoods. They also used open-ended answers to gauge the students’ views on homework.

They concluded that too much homework was associated with greater stress, reductions in health, and less quality time with friends and family.

So where does that leave us?

We have anecdotal evidence that excessive homework is harmful. And limited evidence that homework may increase academic outcomes in the higher grades in math.

Frankly, if that was all I had to go on, I would never assign another piece of homework ever again.

But I’m a classroom teacher. I don’t have to rely solely on psychological and sociological studies. Everyday in school is an opportunity for action research.

My classroom is a laboratory. I am a scientist. Nearly every decision I make is based on empiricism, hypothesis and testing the results.

Maybe X will help students understand Y – that sort of thing.

This applies to homework, too.

I’ve had more than 15 years to test what works with my students. I’m not saying my results would necessarily be reproducible everywhere, but they’re at least as scientific as the body of research we have on homework. In fact, within these parameters they’re even more rigorous.

So why do I give homework?

For several reasons:

1)  It prepares students for the higher grades.

Most of my career has been spent in the middle school teaching 7th and 8th grade. In my district, high school teachers give a lot of homework. I need my students to get used to that rhythm – homework being assigned and handed in – so that they’ll have a chance at being successful in the upper secondary grades. Too many students go no further academically than 9th grade. Giving homework is my way to help provide the skills necessary to avoid that pitfall.

However, this isn’t a sufficient reason to give homework all by itself. If high school teachers stopped assigning it – and maybe they should if we have no further reason to do so – then I’d have no reason to assign it either.

2)  It makes kids responsible.

There’s something to be said for getting kids used to deadlines. You need to know what work you’re responsible for turning in, getting it done on your own and then handing it in on time. This is an important skill that I won’t apologize for reinforcing. I’m well aware that some students have extended support systems at home that can help them get their assignments done and done correctly, but I design the work so that even if they aren’t so privileged, it should be easily accessible on an individual level. Plus I’m available, myself, as a resource if necessary.

3)  It’s good practice.

In school, we learn. At home, we practice. That pattern is necessary to reinforce almost any skill acquisition. I know it’s trendy to flip the classroom a la Khan Academy with learning done through videos watched on-line at home and practice done in school. But when Internet access in not guaranteed, and home environments often are the least stable places in my students’ lives, it makes little sense to try to move the most essential part of the lesson outside of the classroom. After all, it’s easier to find a place to do some low tech practice than it is to find space, silence and infrastructure for high tech learning.

Don’t get me wrong. We practice in school, too. But there’s only so many hours in the school day. I use homework in my language arts classes for a few select things: increased vocabulary, word manipulation, grammar, self-selected reading and the ability to do work on your own. I think it’s important for my students to increase their vocabularies. Having kids read a self-selected book (both inside and outside of class) helps do that. It’s also a benefit to be able to play with words and language, find words in a puzzle, recognize synonyms and antonyms, etc. Grammar may not be essential, but a rough knowledge of it is certainly useful to increase recognition of context clues and better writing skills. Finally, some students benefit from the simple opportunity to do an assignment by themselves without an adult or even a peer looking over their shoulder.

That being said, I think it is important that the homework I give be seen as something students can achieve.

I’ve had numerous co-workers tell me they don’t assign homework for the simple reason that their students won’t do it.

This isn’t a big problem in my class. Almost all of my students do the homework. Why? Because we go over it and they know it’s something they can do without too much difficulty.

I scaffold assignments building the difficulty progressively as we proceed through the year (or years). I make myself available for extra help. I accept late work (with a penalty).

And most of all – I stress that I’m not expecting anyone to be a genius. I’m looking for hard work.

I tell my students explicitly that anyone who puts in their best effort will pass my class – probably with a B or an A. And that’s exactly what happens.

Homework is a part of that equation. It demonstrates effort. And effort is the first step (the key, in fact) to accomplishment.

Do students complain about the homework?

Sure! They’re children!

I’d probably complain, too, if I were them. No one really wants to be given extra work to do. But it’s all part of the pattern of my classroom.

Students know what to expect and how to meet those expectations.

None of this makes me a super teacher. It certainly doesn’t put me on anyone’s cutting edge.

I’m just doing what educators have done for decades. I’m attempting to use best practices in my classroom with a full knowledge of the academic research and the pitfalls ahead.

I may assign homework, but I made sure to do my own before coming to that decision.


 

Still can’t get enough Gadfly? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Gadfly on the Road – Reflections on My First Book Signing

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So there I was standing at a podium in Barnes and Noble before an audience of 25 people who had come to hear me talk about my book.

 

Speech uploaded to my iPad – check.

 

Cough drop – check.

 

Fear that no one would take me seriously – Oh, double, triple check!

 

Let me just say there is a big difference between sitting behind a keyboard pounding out your thoughts for consumption on the Internet, and being somewhere – anywhere – in person.

 

I’ve spoken at rallies. I’ve spoken at school board meetings. I’ve spoken in private with lawmakers and news people.

 

But none of that is quite like being the center of attention at your own invitation, asking people to take time out of their busy lives and drag their physical selves to some prearranged place at some prearranged time just to hear whatever it is you’ve got to say.

 

I had been practicing my remarks for weeks after school.

 

I had a 15-20 minute speech ready to go – a distillation of the main themes in my book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform.”

 

Would people hear what I had to say?

 

 

I surveyed the audience. A few people I didn’t know. But there was my mom and dad, a bit more grey haired than I remembered yet doing their parental duty. There were a few colleagues from work – teachers, aides and substitutes. There were a few students standing in the back with their parents. One of my old high school buddies even showed up though he lived about a half hour away.

 

And there in the second row was my daughter.

 

For a moment, the whole world seemed to be nothing but her 9-year-old face – a mix of emotions – curiosity, nervousness, boredom.

 

In that moment, everything else disappeared. I had an audience of one.

 

I began.

 

It was surreal.

 

I spoke the words I had written weeks before, pausing to look up at the audience when I could.

 

Somehow I was both more and less nervous. I stumbled over parts that had caused no problems when alone. And I hit other points with more passion and purpose than ever before.

 

At certain points I found myself getting angry at the people behind the standardization and privatization of public education.

 

I rebuke these greedy saboteurs just about every week on my blog. But there was something different about putting the words on my tongue in public and letting the vibrations beat a rhythm on the ear drums of those assembled before me.

 

It was like reciting a spell, an incantation. And the effect was visible on the faces of those in front of me.

 

I glanced at my daughter, expecting her to be nagging her Pap to take her to the children’s section, but she was as entranced as the others.

 

And was I kidding myself or was there another emotion there? Pride?

 

 

I finished my remarks, getting a few laughs here and there. Anger and mirth in equal measure.

 

I thanked everyone for coming and took questions.

 

There were quite a bit.

 

Which aspect of corporate education reform was the worst?

 

Is there any way for parents to protect their children from standardized testing?

 

How has the gun debate impacted the move to privatization?

 

My mother even asked what alternative methods of assessment were preferable to standardized testing.

 

It went back and forth for a while.

 

When it seemed to die down, I thanked everyone for coming and said I would be there for as long as anyone would like to talk one-on-one and sign any books if people would like.

 

I had a line.

 

Thankfully, my wife brought me the nicest sharpie marker just before I got up there.

 

I tried to personalize as much as I could but everything seemed to be a variation on “Thanks for Coming.”

 

Students came up to me with huge grins. Parents asked more questions about their children. Lots of handshaking and hugs.

 

Teachers came up to tell me I had done a great job. Many introduced me to their kids – most itty bitty toddlers.

 

A former student who had already graduated got really serious and said, “It was about time someone said that.”

 

 

And it was over.

 

The store manager told me how many books we sold. I had no idea if that was good or bad, but he seemed well satisfied.

 

I packed everything up in my car and then went looking for my family.

 

I found them in the children’s section.

 

They had picked out a few books Mommy was purchasing. A really nice one about Harriet Tubman among them.

 

My daughter was sitting alone by a toy train set. She was worn out. It had been a long day.

 

“Daddy!” she said when she saw me. “You were amazing!”

 

And that was it.

 

That was all I’d needed.

 

She asked me about this or that from the speech. Obviously she didn’t understand the ins and outs of what I had said, but some of it had penetrated.

 

We talked about racism and why that was bad. We talked about what we could do to help stop it.

 

The rest of the time she held my hand and took me on a tour of the store.

 

I have hope for a better world, but if I’m honest, I’m not sure if writing this book or my activism or any of it will ever actually achieve its goal.

 

As ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime.”

 

But I’ve shown my daughter where I stand.

 

I’ve shown her where I think it’s appropriate to stand.

 

I’ve shown the same to my students, my family, my community.

 

They’ll do with that what they will.

 

I just hope that one day when I’m gone, my daughter will remember what I taught her.

 

She’ll remember and feel my presence though I’m long gone.


 

Photos:

 

Videos of the majority of my speech:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3: