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:

 

The Further You Get From Public Schools, the Greater the Chance of Child Abuse

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A California home-school where parents shackled, starved and abused their children is a symptom of a larger disease.

 

 

And that disease is privatization.

 

 

David Allen Turpin and his wife, Louise Anna Turpin, were arrested after police found the couple’s 13 children living in deplorable conditions in their Perris, California, home.

 

 

Some of the children were actually young adults but were so malnourished investigators at first mistook them for minors.

 

 

It is a situation that just could not have happened had those children been in the public school system.

 

 

Someone would have seen something and reported it to Child Protective Services. But school privatization shields child predators from the light and enables a system where minors become the means to every adult end imaginable.

 

 

Let me be clear. Privatization is defined as the transfer of a service from public to private ownership and control.

 

 

In education circles, that means home-schools, charter schools and voucher schools – all educational providers that operate without adequate accountability.

 

 

We are taking our most precious population – our children – and allowing them to be educated behind closed doors, out of sight from those tasked with ensuring they are getting the best opportunities to learn and are free from abuse.

 

 

And since home-schooling operates with almost zero oversight, it is the most susceptible to child neglect and mistreatment.

 

 

Children who in traditional public schools would have a whole plethora of people from teachers to counselors to principals to cafeteria workers who can observe the danger signs of abuse are completely removed from the home-school environment.

 

 

Home-schooled children receive their educations almost exclusively from parents.

 

 

While most moms and dads would never dream of abusing their kids, home-schooling provides the perfect cover for abusers like the Turpins to isolate children and mistreat them with impunity.

 

 

It is a situation that at least demands additional oversight. And at most it requires we rethink the entire enterprise as dangerous and wrongheaded.

 

 

Charter and voucher schools at least utilize whole staffs of people to educate children. The chances of something like this happening at these institutions is much smaller. However, both types of school also are much less accountable for their actions than traditional public schools.

 

 

And that is the common factor – responsibility. Who is being held answerable when things go wrong? At traditional public schools, there is a whole chain of adults who are culpable for children. At these other institutions, the number of people in the hot seat shrinks to zero.

 

 

Much of that has to do with the regulations each state puts on privatized schools.

 

 

Just look at the regulations governing home-schooling.

 

 

In 14 states including Delaware, California and Wisconsin, parents don’t have to do anything but let the school district know they’re home-schooling. That’s it! And in 10 states including Texas, Illinois and New Jersey, you don’t even have to do that!

 

 

Kids just disappear without a trace. If no one reports them missing, we assume they’re being home-schooled.

 

 

But even in states that appear to be more exacting on paper, the reality is a virtual free-for-all.

 

 

Take my home state of Pennsylvania. To begin home-schooling, parents must notify the superintendent, have obtained a high school degree themselves, provide at least 180 days of instruction in certain subjects and maintain a portfolio of their child’s test results and academic records.

 

 

That sounds impressive. However, this doesn’t really amount to much in practice because these regulations have few teeth. Hardly anyone ever checks up to make sure these regulations are being met – and they’re only allowed to check up under certain circumstances and only in certain ways and at certain times!

 

 

Even when it comes to charter and voucher schools, most states, including Pennsylvania, go little further than that.  

 

 

Frankly, most of the time we don’t know what happens in charter and voucher schools, because few state governments insist on audits, unscheduled visits or reports.

 

 

For instance, though few charter or voucher schools starve, lock up or torture students, many have zero tolerance discipline policies. Few would claim even these controversial behavior management systems sink to the level of some home-school parents who have allegedly withheld food and bound children’s hands with zip ties. But adolescents being forced to sit silently with their eyes looking forward, hands on the table or else receive loud rebukes – as they are in many charter or voucher schools – may qualify as another kind of abuse.

 

 

Moreover, all privatized schools can withhold providing a proper education. Home-school parents can refuse to teach their children not just truths about science and history but the basics of reading, writing and math. Likewise, charter and voucher schools can cut student services and pocket the savings as profit. And no one is the wiser because the state has abrogated its responsibility to check up on students or even require they be taught much of anything at all.

 

 

Meanwhile, none of this is possible in the traditional public school setting because it must operate in the light of day. It is fully accountable to the public. Its documents are public record. Decisions about how it should be run and how tax dollars are spent are made at open meetings by duly-elected members of the community.

 

 

Some, including myself, would argue that the regulations required of public schools by the state and federal government are sometimes too onerous, unnecessary or even just plain dumb. But that doesn’t change the fact that regulations are necessary. It just leaves open the question of which ones.

 

 

The bottom line is this: Public school is the equivalent of teaching children in an open room with qualified educators that have proven and continue to prove they have no criminal record and are able and ready to educate.

 

 

Privatized schools are the equivalent of teaching children in a closed room with educators who may not deserve the name and may or may not have deplorable criminal pasts.

 

 

Looked at in the abstract, no one in their right mind would conceivably suggest the latter is a better educational environment than the former. However, we have been subjected to an expensive propaganda campaign to make us think otherwise.

 

 

Look. I’m not saying public schools are perfect. Certainly students can be abused there, too. The media salaciously reports every doe-eyed teacher who stupidly has a sexual relationship with a student – whether it be at a public or privatized school. But in comparison with the worst that can and often does happen at privatized schools, these incidents at public schools are extremely rare (1 in 800,000) and of much less severity.

 

 

Though both are bad, there is a world of difference between the infinitesimal chance of being propositioned by your high school teacher and the much more likely outcome of being treated like a prison inmate at 13 by the charter school corporation or being starved, shackled and beaten by your parents!

 

 

Human beings aren’t going to stop being human anytime soon. Wouldn’t it be better to entrust our children to an environment with regulations and accountability than letting them go off in some locked room and just trusting that everything will be alright?

 

 

Our posterity deserves better than privatization.

 

 

They deserve the best we can give them – and that means fully responsible, fully regulated, fully accountable public schools.

Will the U.S. Follow New Zealand’s Lead and Repeal National Academic Standards?

 

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Kiwis don’t like corporations telling them what to do.

 

 

Especially when it comes to educating their children.

 

 

That’s why this week, New Zealand’s Education Minister Chris Hipkins announced that schools in the pacific island nation would no longer need to use the national academic standards mandated by the government for the last decade.

 

 

“I don’t think anyone will be surprised that we are ditching a failed experiment,” he said.

 

“We want teachers focused on less testing and more teaching because that’s the way we’re going to improve students’ progress.”

 

I pause at this point for American readers to catch their breath.

 

Yes, a national government just reversed course on standardized, canned, one-size-fits-all academic standards for all students in its public schools.

 

Yes, they had spent millions of dollars to create, roll out and enforce the standards.

 

But now they see the results have been less than expected and they’re changing their collective minds.

 

Shocking, I know.

 

If only we still did things like that in THIS country.

 

But wait, there’s more.

 

Why exactly did New Zealand turn against its national standards?

 

Did parents hate them?

 

Yes.

 

Did kids hate them?

 

Yes.

 

Did teachers hate them?

 

Yes.

 

All things that could be said of our own Common Core. But was there more to it?

 

Yes.

 

In short, New Zealand’s national standards weren’t helping kids learn. In fact, they appeared to have the exact opposite effect.

 

New Zealand children’s performance on international tests dropped significantly since the standards were introduced in 2010.

 

And publication of these results showing 10-year-old’s reading achievement taking a nosedive since the standards adoption ignited an already smoldering public outcry.

 

New Zealand’s average score on the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) had been steady for 15 years, but fell dramatically at the end of 2015. In short, New Zealand went from 23rd to 33rd out of 50 countries.

 

Funny.

 

The US has had a strikingly similar result on the same test with the same age children since the mandate to use the Common Core.

 

The PIRLS is an assessment given to fourth-graders in schools around the world every five years. In 2016, the average score for US students dropped from fifth in the world in 2011 to 13th. And the drop wasn’t merely perfunctory. It was “statistically significant” according to test organizers.

 

The biggest drop was for the lowest-performing students, what the organizers considered a sign that we’re providing much greater support for economically advantaged children than for underprivileged ones.

 

Why is this important?

 

Because Common Core was introduced across the nation in 2010-11. These fourth grade students were the first to be educated using the Core since Kindergarten, and far from creating a boost in achievement, it opened a chasm.

 

Reading scores went down just as they consistently have done time-and-time-again since we started using the standards.

 

Scores go down on state tests. National tests. International tests.

 

Meanwhile the test makers and their proxies keep telling us the problem is that the standards are simply more rigorous and it just will take time for our children to get up to speed. Meanwhile their publishing and software subsidiaries sell us hundreds of millions of dollars worth of new text books, new computer programs, new devices, new apps, new “specialists” and consultants offering professional developments, etc.

 

Choo! Choo! The gravy train is rolling. We can’t let something like international test scores derail the money train!

 

Keep in mind, this is the same international test and the same age group of children that caused a revolution in New Zealand.

 

Will our response be the same?

 

Probably not.

 

New Zealand’s authentic reform resulted from a political change. The National Party was replaced by the Labour Party, and repealing national academic standards was part of their platform.

 

It marked a sharp divide between the philosophies of both groups.

 

The National Party wanted more testing, more data, more standardization, more holding funding hostage to test scores – just like both Republicans and Democrats in the US.

 

However, the New Zealand Labour Party ran on significant reductions to standardized education, substantial cuts to standardized testing, repealing national standards and considerable investment in students, schools and teachers.

 

We in the US simply have no political equivalent.

 

There is no political party – right, left or centrist – that puts the needs of children, parents, teachers and working people at the center of its platform.

 

Both the left and right take billions of dollars in campaign contributions from the testing and privatization industries and thus support policies that serve the interest of their donors over their constituents.

 

There is a tremendous political opportunity here for one party to change course and support a winning strategy.

 

Republicans tried it in 2016 by lambasting Common Core and then quietly forgetting they could do a thing about it at the state level every day since.

 

Including today.

 

Admittedly their education policy is incoherent since they support every standardization and privatization initiative on record so long as a black President didn’t touch it. And even then their opposition melts away when they have the power to do something about it but no one’s looking because the President is too busy playing nuclear chicken with North Korea on Twitter.

 

Imagine if politicians promised to fix something and then had the courage to actually do it!

 

It worked in New Zealand.

 

It’s worked in many places all over the world.

 

Why can’t it work here?

 

There Are Very Few Bad Students, Bad Parents and Bad Teachers

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Maybe the problem with public schools is that people just aren’t trying hard enough.

 

There are too many bad students, bad parents, and bad teachers out there.

 

At least, that’s what the rich folks say.

 

They sit behind their mahogany desks, light a Cuban cigar with a thousand dollar bill and lament the kind of gumption that got them where they are today just isn’t present in the unwashed masses.

 

Never mind that they probably inherited their wealth. Never mind that the people they’re passing judgment on are most often poor and black. And never mind that struggling schools are almost always underfunded compared to those in wealthier neighborhoods and thus receive fewer resources and have larger class sizes.

 

Tax cuts feed the rich and starve the poor, but somehow the wealthy deserve all the breaks while OUR cries are always the fault of our own grumbling stomachs.

 

As a 15-year veteran teacher in the public school classroom, I can tell you I’ve seen very few people who aren’t trying.

 

I’ve seen plenty of struggling students but hardly any I’d simply write off as, “bad.” That’s a term I usually reserve for wilted fruit – not human beings.

 

I’ve seen plenty of parents or guardians striving to do the best with what they have, but few I’d honestly give up on. And I’ve seen lots of teachers endeavoring to do better every day, but hardly any that deserve that negative label.

 

In fact, if anything, I often see people trying their absolute hardest yet convinced that no matter what they do it won’t be enough.

 

“It’s not very good.”

 

That’s what I hear everyday.

 

Ask most students to share their writing and you’ll get that as preamble.

 

“I didn’t do a very good job.”

 

“This sucks.”

 

“It’s butt.”

 

“I can’t do this.”

 

“It’s grimy.”

 

“It’s trifling.”

 

Something to let you know that you should lower your expectations.

 

This piece of writing here is not worth your time as teacher, they imply. Why don’t you just ignore it? Ignore me.

 

But after all this time, I’ve learned a thing or two about student psychology.

 

I know that they’re really just afraid of being judged.

 

School probably always contained some level of labeling and sorting, distinguishing the excellent from the excreble. But that used to be a temporary state. You might not have done well today, but it was a step on the journey toward getting better.

 

However, these days when we allow students to be defined by their standardized test scores, the labels of Advanced, Proficient, Basic or Below are semi-permanent.

 

Students don’t often progress much one way or another. They’re stuck in place with a scarlet letter pinned to their chests, and we’re not even allowed to question what it really means or why we’re forced to assess them this way.

 

So I hear the cries of learned helplessness more often with each passing year.

 

And it’s my job to dispel it.

 

More than teaching new skills, I unteach the million lashes of an uncaring society first.

 

Then, sometimes, we get to grammar, reading comprehension, spelling and all that academic boogaloo.

 

“Mr. Singer, I don’t want you to read it. It’s not my best work.”

 

“Let me ask you something?” I say.

 

“What?”

 

“Did you write it?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Then I’m sure it’s excellent.”

 

And sometimes that’s enough. Sometimes not.

 

It’s all about trust, having an honest and respectful relationship. If you can’t do that, you can’t teach.

 

That’s why all this computer-based learning software crap will never adequately replace real live teachers. An avatar – a simulated person in a learning game package – can pretend to be enthusiastic or caring or a multitude of human emotions. But kids are very good at spotting lies, and that’s exactly what this is.

 

It’s a computer graphic pretending to care.

 

I actually do.

 

Which would you rather learn from?

 

When a student reads a piece of their own writing aloud, I always make sure to find something to praise.

 

Sometimes this is rather challenging. But often it’s not.

 

Most of my kids come to me because they’ve failed the government-mandated test, their grades didn’t set the world on fire, and/or they have special needs.

 

But I’ve been privileged to see and hear some of the most marvelous writing to come out of a middle school. Colorful adventures riding insects through a rainbow world, house parties with personal play-lists and famous friends, political discourses on the relative worth of the Roman Empire vs. African culture, and more real life crime dramas than every episode of every variation of Law and Order.

 

It’s just a matter of showing kids what makes them so special. And giving them the space to discover the exceptional in themselves and each other.

 

There’s a danger in my profession, though, of becoming bitter.

 

We’re under so much pressure to fix everything society has done to our children, and document every course of action, all while being shackled to a test-and-punish education policy handed down from lawmakers who don’t know a thing about education. We’re constantly threatened with being fired if test scores don’t improve – even for courses of study we don’t teach, even for kids we don’t have in our classes!

 

It can make the whole student-teacher relationship adversarial.

 

You didn’t turn in your homework!? Again! Why are you doing this to me!?

 

But it’s the wrong attitude. It’s understandable, but it’s wrong.

 

Every year I have a handful of students who don’t do their work. Or they do very little of it.

 

Sometimes it’s because they only attend school every third or fourth day. Sometimes it’s because when they are here, they’re high. Sometimes they’re too exhausted to stay awake, they can’t focus on anything for more than 30 seconds, they’re traumatized by violence, sickness or malnutrition. And sometimes they just don’t care.

 

But I don’t believe any of them are bad students.

 

Let me define that. They are bad at being students. But they aren’t bad students.

 

They aren’t doing what I’ve set up for them to demonstrate they’re learning.

 

They might do so if they altered behavior A, B or C. However, this isn’t happening.

 

Why?

 

It’s tempting to just blame the student.

 

They aren’t working hard enough. They lack rigor. They don’t care. They’re an active threat to this year’s teaching evaluation. They’re going to make me look bad.

 

But I rarely blame the student. Not in my heart.

 

Let me be clear. I firmly deny the pernicious postulation that teachers are ultimately responsible for their students’ learning.

 

I believe that the most responsible person for any individual student’s education is that student.

 

However, that isn’t to say the student is solely responsible. Their actions are necessary for success, but they aren’t always sufficient.

 

They’re just children, and most of them are dealing with things that would crush weaker people.

 

When I was young, I had a fairly stable household. I lived in a good neighborhood. I never suffered from food insecurity. I never experienced gun violence or drug abuse. And my parents were actively involved.

 

Not to mention the fact that I’m white and didn’t have to deal with all the societal bull crap that gets heaped on students of color. Security never followed my friends and I through the shopping mall. Police never hassled us because of the color of our skin. Moreover, I’m a csis male. Young boys love calling each other gay, but it never really bothered me because I wasn’t. And, as a man, I didn’t really have to worry about someone of an opposite gender twice my size trying to pressure me into sex, double standard gender roles or misogyny – you know, every day life for teenage girls.

 

So, no. I don’t believe in bad students. I believe in students who are struggling to fulfill their role as students. And I think it’s my job to try to help them out.

 

I pride myself in frequent success, but you never really know the result of your efforts because you only have these kids in your charge for about a year or two. And even then I will admit to some obvious failures.

 

If I know I’ve given it my best shot, that’s all I can do.

 

Which brings me to parents.

 

You often hear people criticizing parents for the difficulties their children experience.

 

That kid would do better if her parents cared more about her. She’d have better grades if her parents made sure she did her homework. She’d have less social anxiety if her folks just did A, B or C.

 

It’s one of those difficult things that’s both absolutely true and complete and total bullshit.

 

Yes, when you see a struggling student, it’s usually accompanied by some major disruption at home. In my experience, this is true 90% of the time.

 

However, there are cases where you have stable, committed parents and children who are an absolute mess. But it’s rare.

 

Children are a reflection of their home lives. When things aren’t going well there, it shows.

 

Does that mean parents are completely responsible for their children?

 

Yes and no.

 

They should do everything they can to help their young ones. And I think most do.

 

But who am I to sit in judgment over other human beings whose lives I really know nothing about?

 

Everyone is going through a struggle that no one else is privy to. Often I find my students parents aren’t able to be home as much as they’d like. They’re working two or more minimum wage jobs just to make ends meet. Or they work the night shift. Or they’re grandparents struggling to pick up the slack left by absentee moms and dads. Or they’re foster parents giving all they can to raise a bunch of abused and struggling children. Or they’re dealing with a plethora of their own problems – incarcerations, drugs, crime.

 

They’re trying. I know they are.

 

If you believe that most parents truly love their children – and I do believe that – it means they’re trying their best.

 

That may not be good enough. But it’s not my place to criticize them for that. Nor is it society’s.

 

Instead we should be offering help. We should have more social programs to help parents meet their responsibilities.

 

It may feel good to call parents names, but it does no good for the children.

 

So I don’t believe in bad parents, either. I just believe in parents who are struggling to do their jobs as parents.

 

And what about people like me – the teachers?

 

Are we any different?

 

To a degree – yes.

 

Students can’t help but be students. They have no choice in the matter. We require them to go to school and (hopefully) learn.

 

Parents have more choice. No one forced adults to procreate – but given our condemnation of birth control and abortion, we’ve kind of got our fingers on the scale. It’s hard to deny the siren song of sex and – without precautions or alternatives – that often means children.

 

But becoming a teacher? That’s no accident. It’s purposeful.

 

You have to go out and choose it.

 

And I think that’s significant, because no one freely chooses to do something they don’t want to do.

 

After the first five years, teachers know whether they’re any good at it or not. That’s why so many young teachers leave the profession in that time.

 

What you’re left with is an overwhelming majority of teachers who really want to teach. And if they’ve stayed that long, they’re probably at least halfway decent at it.

 

So, no, I don’t really believe in bad teachers either.

 

Certainly some are better than others. And when it comes to those just entering the profession, all bets are off. But in my experience, anyone who’s lasted is usually pretty okay.

 

All teachers can use improvement. We can benefit from more training, resources, encouragement, and help. Cutting class size would be particularly useful letting us fully engage all of or students on a more one-on-one basis. Wrap around services would be marvelous, too. More school psychologists, special education teachers, counselors, tutors, mentors, aides, after school programs, etc.

 

But bad teachers? No.

 

Most of the time, it’s a fiction, a fantasy.

 

The myths of the bad student, the bad parent and the bad teacher are connected.

 

They’re the stories we tell to level the blame. They’re the propaganda spread by the wealthy to stop us from demanding they pay their fair share.

 

We know something’s wrong with our public school system just as we know something’s wrong with our society.

 

But instead of criticizing our policies and our leaders, we criticize ourselves.

 

We’ve been told for so long to pick ourselves up by our own bootstraps, that when we can’t do it, we blame the boots, the straps and the hands that grab them.

 

We should be blaming the idiots who think you can raise someone up without offering any help.

 

We should be blaming the plutocrats waging class warfare and presenting us with the bill.

 

There may be few bad students, parents and teachers out there, but you don’t have to go far to find plenty of the privileged elite who are miserable failures at sharing the burdens of civil society.