The Trouble with Test-Obsessed Principals

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When I was a child, I couldn’t spell the word “principal.”

 

I kept getting confused with its homonym “principle.”

 

I remember Mr. Vay, the friendly head of our middle school, set me straight. He said, “You want to end the word with P-A-L because I’m not just your principal, I’m your pal!”

 

And somehow that corny little mnemonic device did the trick.

 

Today’s principals have come a long way since Mr. Vay.

 

Many of them have little interest in becoming anyone’s pal. They’re too obsessed with standardized test scores.

 

I’m serious.

 

They’re not concerned with student culture, creativity, citizenship, empathy, health, justice – they only care about ways to maximize that little number the state wants to transform our children into.

 

And there’s a reason for that. It’s how the school system is designed to operate.

 

A new research brief from the Tennessee Education Research Alliance concluded that the lowest rated principals generally work at schools with the most economically disadvantaged students.

 

So schools serving students with the highest poverty and lowest test scores often have the least experienced and least effective principals.

 

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Now the first question I had when reading this report was “How do they measure effectiveness?” After all, if they rate principals primarily on student test scores, then obviously those working at the poorest schools will be least effective. Poor kids earn low test scores. That’s all the scores consistently show – the relative wealth of students’ parents. If you define an ineffective principal as one who works in a building with low scoring students, it would be no shock that those principals worked in the poorest schools.

 

However, researchers didn’t fall entirely into this trap. According to the working paper:

 

“We measure principal quality in two ways: years of experience in the principal position and rubric-based ratings of effective principal practice taken from the state’s evaluation system.”

 

 

In Tennessee this means evaluating principals partially on student test scores at their buildings – 35%, in fact – higher than the 20% of classroom teachers’ evaluations. However, the remaining pieces of principals’ effectiveness are determined by an observation from a more senior administrator (50%) and an agreed upon score by the principal and district (15%).

 

 

Since researchers are relying at least in part on the state’s evaluation system, they’re including student test scores in their own metric of whether principals are effective or not. However, since they add experience, they’ve actually created a more authentic and equitable measure than the one used by the state.

 

It just goes to show how standardized testing affects nearly every aspect of the public education system.

 

The testing industrial complex is like a black hole. Not only does it suck up funding that is desperately needed elsewhere without providing anything of real value in return, its enormous gravity subverts and distorts everything around it.

 

It’s no wonder then that so many principals at high poverty schools are motivated primarily by test scores, test prep, and test readiness. After all, it makes up a third of their own evaluations.

 

They’ve been dropped into difficult situations and made to feel that they were responsible for numerous factors beyond their control. They didn’t create the problem. They didn’t disadvantage these students, but they feel the need to prove to their bosses that they’re making positive change.

 

But how do you easily prove you’ve bettered the lives of students?

 

Once again, standardized test scores – a faux objective measurement of success.

 

Too many principals buy into the idea that if they can just make a difference on this one metric, it will demonstrate that they’re effective and thus deserve to be promoted out of the high poverty schools and into the well-resourced havens.

 

Yet it’s a game that few principals are able to win. Even those who do distinguish themselves in this way end up doing little more for their students than setting up a façade to hide the underlying problems of poverty and disinvestment.

 

Most principals at these schools wind up endlessly chasing their tails while ignoring opportunities for real positive change. Thus they end up renewing the self-fulfilling prophesy of failure.

 

Researchers noticed the pattern of low performing principals at high poverty schools after examining a decade’s worth of data and found it to hold true in urban, rural and suburban areas. And even though it is based on Tennessee data, the results hold true pretty consistently nationwide, researchers say.

 

Interestingly enough, the correlation doesn’t hold for teachers.

 

Jason Grissom, an associate professor at Vanderbilt University and the faculty director of the Research Alliance, says that the problem stems from issues related specifically to principals.

 

For instance, districts are hiring lower-rated principals for high poverty schools while saving their more effective leaders for buildings with greater wealth and resources.

 

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As a result, turnover rates for principals at these schools are much higher than those for classroom educators. Think about what that means – schools serving disadvantaged students are more likely to have new principal after new principal. These are leaders with little experience who never stick around long enough to learn from their mistakes.

 

And since these principals rarely have had the chance to learn on the job as assistant principals, they’re more likely to be flying by the seat of their pants when installed at the head of a school without first receiving the proper training and mentorship that principals at more privileged buildings routinely have.

 

As such, it’s easy for inexperienced principles to fall into the testing trap. They buy into the easy answers of the industry but haven’t been around long enough to learn that the solution they’re being sold is pure snake oil.

 

This has such a large effect because of how important principals are. Though they rarely teach their own classes, they have a huge impact on students. Out-of-school factors are ultimately more important, but in the school building, itself, only teachers are more vital.

 

This is because principals set the tone. They either create the environment where learning can flourish or smother it before the spark of curiosity can ignite. Not only that, but they create the work environment that draws and keeps the best teachers or sends them running for the hills.

 

 

The solution isn’t complicated, says Grissom. Districts need to work to place and keep effective and experienced principals in the most disadvantaged schools. This includes higher salaries and cash bonuses to entice the best leaders to those buildings. It also involves providing equitable resources for disadvantaged schools so that principals have the tools needed to make authentic positive change.

 

I would add that we also need to design fair evaluation systems for both principals and teachers that aren’t based on student test scores. We need to stop contracting out our assessments to corporations and trust our systems of government and schools to make equitable judgments about the people in their employ.

 

Ultimately, what’s required is a change in attitude.

 

Too many principals look at high poverty schools as a stepping stone to working at a school with endless resources and a different class of social issues. Instead, the goal of every excellent school leader should be to end their career working where they are needed most.

 

Such professionalism and experience would loosen the stranglehold of test-and-punish and allow our schools not to simply recreate the inequalities already present in our society. It would enable them to heal the divide.

 

As John Dewey wrote in 1916:

 

“Were all instructors to realize that the quality of mental process, not the production of correct answers, is the measure of educative growth, something hardly less than a revolution in teaching would be worked.”

 

And that’s what’s needed – a revolution.


 

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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The Holiday Season Brings Fear and Resentment for Many Students

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“I hate Christmas.”

 

Teachers hear that with surprising regularity around this time of year.

 

I hate Christmas. I hate Thanksgiving. I hate every holiday.

 

America’s public school students are living under tremendous pressure.

 

The social safety net is full of holes. And our children are left to fall through the ripped and torn fabric.

 

The sad fact is that one in four students in America’s classrooms have experienced a traumatic event.

 

So if your classroom is typical, 25% of your students have witnessed violence or been subject to a deeply distressing experience.

 

That could be drug or alcohol abuse, food insecurity, severe beatings, absent caregivers or neglect.

 

These figures, provided by Neena McConnico, Director of Boston Medical Center’s Child Witness to Violence Project, are indicative of a truth about this country that we don’t want to see.

 

Our Darwinian public policies leave many children to suffer the effects of poverty – and our society doesn’t want to deal with it.

 

In impoverished communities, these percentages are even higher and the results more devastating.

 

The Center for Disease Control’s comprehensive Adverse Childhood Experiences study links the toxic stress of unaddressed trauma to heart disease, liver disease, and mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders.

 

Young children exposed to more than five adverse experiences in the first three years of life face a 75 percent likelihood of having delays in language, emotional, or brain development, according to McConnico.

 

This translates directly to negative behaviors in the classroom.

 

Children who witness violence often have trouble in school because they suffer from post-traumatic stress, which can manifest as inattention, distractibility, hyperactivity, insomnia, aggression, and emotional outbursts.

 

Or, alternately, these children can sometimes withdraw and appear to be unfazed by their experiences. In some ways, that’s even more dangerous because while they avoid negative attention, they often get no attention at all.

 

It’s bad enough in the everyday. But it gets worse around the holidays.

 

Some of it is due to the structure and safety of school being removed. During holiday breaks, children are left to the mercy of sometimes chaotic and uncertain home lives.

 

Some of it is due to unrealistic expectations inevitably conjured up by the holiday season, itself. Even grown adults have trouble with depression around this time of year. But when you’re a troubled child, the unrealistic expectations and disappointments can be doubly impactful.

 

Loved ones are missing due to incarceration, divorce, abandonment, health issues, or death. Talk of family gatherings or a special meal can trigger hurt feelings for children who know their caregivers can’t or won’t provide them.

 

And it’s not always neglect. Sometimes there just isn’t the money for these things. We live in a gig economy where many people work multiple jobs just to survive. All it takes is missing one paycheck or one illness to disrupt holiday celebrations.

 

Even when parents have enough money, some just don’t bother to buy their kids anything. Sometimes families get to a better financial point but children have had to live through a period of food insecurity and are haunted by it. So even though the household is stable now, kids eat all their treats on the way to school because they always are fearful that the food will run out.

 

When kids have these sorts of fears, the ubiquitous holiday movies, TV shows, Christmas songs and commercials can set them off further.

 

It’s the most wonderful time of year for some, but not for all. For many students, the holidays are a time of dread and resentment.

 

That’s why it’s so important for teachers to be aware of what’s happening to their students.

 

For the quarter of American children who experience trauma at home, school may be their only safe harbor in a world of storms. Teachers may be the only people they see all day who offer a safe place, a stable environment and a friendly word.

 

For some kids, teachers are the only adults in their lives who make them feel valuable and supported.

 

We offer our students so much more than reading, writing and math. We’re allies, mentors, protectors and role models.

 

I wish we could save them from all the terrors of this world, but we can’t.

 

Let me be clear – I am in no way a super teacher.

 

But here are a few things I do in my classroom to help alleviate some of the stresses of the season – and often year round.

 

1)  Prioritize Relationships

 

Let your kids know you care. The student-teacher relationship is sacred. Nourish it. Be reliable, honest, and dependable.

 

As Teddy Roosevelt famously said, “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”

 

2)  Listen to Them

 
Sometimes the best thing a teacher can do is just listen to students’ problems. You don’t always have to offer a solution. Our kids are dealing with so many adult pressures. Offering them the ability to get it all out in the presence of a caring adult can be a treasured gift.

 

“It’s really that simple,” McConnico says. “Listen, reflect back to them that they have been heard, validate the child’s feelings without judgment, and thank the child for sharing with you.”

 

3)  Create Opportunities to be Successful

Some people see teaching as essentially an act of evaluation and assessment. We observe students and then tell them what they did wrong.

This is extremely narrow-minded. When you get to know your students, you can offer them tasks in which you expect they’ll succeed. It’s the kind of thing we do all the time – differentiating instruction and offering choice so that students can achieve the goal in the manner best suited to them.

Sometimes you really have to work at it. If a child has extreme behavior issues, you can observe closely to find the one thing he or she does right and then praise them for it. This doesn’t always work, but when it does, it pays off tremendously!

Positive experiences lead to more positive experiences. It’s like putting training wheels on a bike. It scaffolds learning by supporting kids emotional needs before their academic ones.

4)  Routines

I am a huge fan of routine. Kids know exactly what we’re going to do in my class everyday – or at least they have a clear conception of the normal outline of what happens there.

I try to have very clear expectations, timelines and consequences. For kids who live in chaotic homes, this is especially comforting. It’s just another way of creating a safe place where all can learn.

 

5)  There’s Nothing Wrong With Downtime

I know. Teachers are under enormous pressure from administrators to fill every second of the day. But sometimes the best use of class time is giving students a break.

 

Let students finish assignments in class, read for pleasure, draw, even just daydream and relax. You can overdo it, but everyone can benefit from a little R & R.

 

This is especially true for traumatized children. Give them time to regroup from the mental and emotional stress. I find that it actually helps motivate kids to work harder when assignments are given.

 

The holidays can be a stressful time in school.

 

Kids get overexcited, they can’t concentrate, they’re torn left and right by the various emotions of the season.

 

As teachers, it’s our job to understand the full scope of what’s going on with our kids and make our classes as nourishing and safe as possible.


 

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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Wealth – Not Enrollment in Private School – Increases Student Achievement, According to New Study

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Students enrolled in private schools often get good grades and high test scores.

 

And there’s a reason for that – they’re from wealthier families.

 

A new peer-reviewed study from Professors Richard C. Pianta and Arya Ansari of the University of Virginia found that once you take family income out of the equation, there are absolutely zero benefits of going to a private school. The majority of the advantage comes from simply having money and all that comes with it – physical, emotional, and mental well-being, living in a stable and secure environment, knowing where your next meal will come from, etc.

 

The study published in July 2018 attempts to correct for selection bias – the factors that contribute to a student choosing private school rather than the benefits of the school, itself.

 

The study’s abstract puts it this way:

 

“Results from this investigation revealed that in unadjusted models, children with a history of enrollment in private schools performed better on nearly all outcomes assessed in adolescence. However, by simply controlling for the sociodemographic characteristics that selected children and families into these schools, all of the advantages of private school education were eliminated. There was also no evidence to suggest that low-income children or children enrolled in urban schools benefited more from private school enrollment.”

 

This has major policy implications.

 

Corporate school reformers from Barack Obama to Donald Trump, from Arne Duncan to Betsy DeVos, from Cory Booker to Charles and David Koch, have proposed increasing privatized school options to help students struggling in public schools.

 

Whether it be increasing charter schools or vouchers to attend private and parochial schools, the implication is the same – such measures will not help students achieve.

 

We need programs aimed at poverty, itself, not at replacing public schools with private alternatives.

 

According to the abstract:

 

“By and large, the evidence on the impact of school voucher programs casts doubt on any clear conclusion that private schools are superior in producing student performance…

 

“In sum, we find no evidence for policies that would support widespread enrollment in private schools, as a group, as a solution for achievement gaps associated with income or race. In most discussions of such gaps and educational opportunities, it is assumed that poor children attend poor quality schools and that their families, given resources and flexibility, could choose among the existing supply of private schools to select and then enroll their children in a school that is more effective and a better match for their student’s needs. It is not at all clear that this logic holds in the real world of a limited supply of effective schools (both private and public) and the indication that once one accounts for family background, the existing supply of heterogeneous private schools (from which parents select) does not result in a superior education (even for higher income students).”

 

Researchers repeatedly noted that this study was not simply a snapshot of student performance. It is unique because of how long and how in depth students were observed.

 

The study looks at student outcomes at multiple intervals giving it a much longer time frame and much greater detail than other similar investigations. Researchers examined wide ranging family backgrounds and contextual processes to reduce selection bias.

 

Participants were recruited in 1991 from ten different cities: Little Rock, Arkansas; Irvine, California; Lawrence, Kansas; Boston, Massachusetts; Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Charlottesville, Virginia; Seattle, Washington; Hickory and Morganton, North Carolina; and Madison, Wisconsin. They were followed for 15 years and had to complete a month long home visit. In addition, they submitted to both annual interviews and home, school, and neighborhood observations.

 

The final analytic sample consisted of 1,097 children – 24% of whom were children of color, 15% had single mothers, and 10% had mothers without a high school diploma.

 

Moreover, student academic achievement wasn’t the only factor examined.

 

Researchers also assessed students social adjustment, attitudes, motivation, and risky behavior. This is significant because they noted that no other study of private schools to date has examined factors beyond academics. Also, there is a general assumption that private school has a positive effect on these nonacademic factors – an assumption for which the study could find no evidence.

 

From the abstract:

 

“In short, despite the frequent and pronounced arguments in favor of the use of vouchers or other mechanisms to support enrollment in private schools as a solution for vulnerable children and families attending local or neighborhood schools, the present study found no evidence that private schools, net of family background (particularly income), are more effective for promoting student success.”

 

One reason behind these results may be the startling variation in “the nature and quality of private school classrooms.” There is no consistency between what you’ll get from one private school to the next.

 

The x-factor appears to be family income and all that comes with it.

 

We see this again and again in education. For instance, standardized test scores, themselves, are highly correlated with parental wealth. Kids from wealthier families get better test scores than those from poorer families regardless of whether they attend public, charter or private schools.

 

It’s time our policymakers stop ignoring the effect of income inequality on our nations students.

 

If we really want to help our children, the solution is not increased privatization. It is increased funding and support for anti-poverty programs, teachers and a robust public school system.


 

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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Study: Closing Schools Doesn’t Increase Test Scores

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You might be tempted to file this under ‘No Shit, Sherlock.’

But a new study found that closing schools where students achieve low test scores doesn’t end up helping them learn. Moreover, such closures disproportionately affect students of color.

What’s surprising, however, is who conducted the study – corporate education reform cheerleaders, the Center for Research on EDucation Outcomes (CREDO).

Like their 2013 study that found little evidence charter schools outperform traditional public schools, this year’s research found little evidence for another key plank in the school privatization platform.

These are the same folks who have suggested for at least a decade that THE solution to low test scores was to simply close struggling public schools, replace them with charter schools and voilà.

But now their own research says “no voilà.” Not to the charter part. Not to the school closing part. Not to any single part of their own backward agenda.

Stanford-based CREDO is funded by the Hoover Institution, the Walton Foundation and testing giant Pearson, among others. They have close ties to the KIPP charter school network and privatization propaganda organizations like the Center for Education Reform.

If THEY can’t find evidence to support these policies, no one can!

After funding one of the largest studies of school closures ever conducted, looking at data from 26 states from 2003 to 2013, they could find zero support that closing struggling schools increases student test scores.

The best they could do was find no evidence that it hurt.

But this is because they defined student achievement solely by raw standardized scores. No other measure – not student grades, not graduation rates, attendance, support networks, community involvement, not even improvement on those same assessments – nothing else was even considered.

Perhaps this is due to the plethora of studies showing that school closures negatively impact students in these ways. Closing schools crushes the entire community economically and socially. It affects students well beyond academic achievement.

The CREDO study did, however, find that where displaced students enrolled after their original school was closed made a difference.

If Sally moves to School B after School A is closed, her success is significantly affected by the quality of her new educational institution. Students who moved to schools that suffered from the same structural deficiencies and chronic underfunding as did their original alma mater, did not improve. But students who moved to schools that were overflowing with resources, smaller class sizes, etc. did better. However, the latter rarely happened. Displaced students almost always ended up at schools that were just about as neglected as their original institution.

Even in the fleeting instances where students traded up, researchers noted that the difference between School A and B had to be massive for students to experience positive results.

Does that mean school closures can be a constructive  reform strategy?

No. It only supports the obvious fact that increasing resources and providing equitable funding can help improve student achievement. It doesn’t justify killing struggling schools. It justifies saving them.

Another finding of the CREDO study was the racial component of school closings.

Schools with higher populations of blacks and Hispanics were more likely to be shuttered than institutions serving mostly white students. In addition, schools with higher poverty populations were also more likely to be closed than those serving middle class or rich children.

Yet you really don’t need an academic study to know that. All you have to do is read the news. Read about the closings in Chicago, New Orleans, Detroit – really any major metropolitan area.

The fact that CREDO admits it, only adds credence to arguments by critics like myself.

It is no accident that poor black schools get closed more than rich white ones. Poor students of color are targeted for this exact treatment.

Corporate education reform is not just bad policy; it is racist and classist as well.

Greg Richmond, President of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, was shocked by these findings.

“We are especially troubled by the report’s observation of different school closure patterns based on race, ethnicity, and poverty,” he said in a statement. “These differences were present among both charter schools and traditional public schools and serve as a wake-up call to examine our practices to ensure all schools and students are being treated equitably.”

But his industry benefits from these practices. Just as CREDO’s backers do.

Never has our country been less prepared to deal with the real problems besieging it. But if the time ever comes when sanity returns, we cannot simply go back to familiar habits.

School closures and charter school proliferation are bad no matter who proposes it – Republicans or Democrats.

Regardless of who sits in the Oval Office, regardless of who represents us in federal, state and local government, we have to make sure they do the right things for our children.

That means learning from our mistakes. Beyond partisanship. Beyond economics.

It’s the only way to build a better world.

CREDO’s study just adds fuel to the fire surrounding the regressive education policies of the last decade.

If we’re ever in the position to hold a match, will we have the courage to strike it?

I Am Not A Hero Teacher

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I’m sorry.

 

I am not a hero teacher.

 

I am not stronger than a locomotive.

 

I cannot jump tall ignorance in a single bound.

 

I am not faster than a tax-cutting zealot.

 

Up in the air – it’s a bird, it’s a plane, but it’s certainly not a teacher because we can’t fly.

 

I am not bullet proof.

 

If a gunman storms the building and shoots me, I will be wounded and may die.

 

Giving me a gun doesn’t help, either, because I am not a marksman.

 

I am just a man.

 

I cannot stand in front of a class of thirty and give them each my undivided attention. Not all at once.

 

When students ask a question, I need time to answer it.

 

When students hand in a paper, I need time to grade it.

 

During the workday, I need time to plan my lessons. I need time to call parents. I need time to read all the individual education plans, fill out all the weekly monitoring forms, finish all the administrative paperwork.

 

At the end of a long day, I get tired and need rest.

 

At the end of a long week, I need time to spend with my family.

 

At the end of a long year, I need time to myself – to get a summer job, to take continuing education courses, to plan for next year, to heal.

 

I need a middle class income – not because I’m trying to get rich, but because I’m human. I need food and shelter. I have a family for whom I need to provide. If you can’t give me that, I’ll need to move on.

 

Sorry, but it’s true.

 

I’ll tell you one thing I don’t need. I don’t need the state, federal or local government telling me how to do my job. When I plan my lessons, I need the freedom to teach children in the way that seems most effective to me – the professional in the room.

 

I also don’t need some bureaucrat telling me how to assess my students. I don’t need some standardized test to tell me what kids have learned, if they can read or write. I’ve spent an average of 80 minutes a day with these children for five days a week. If I can’t tell, I don’t deserve to be in the classroom.

 

And I don’t need my principal or superintendent setting my colleagues and me against each other. We’re not competing to see who can do a better job. We should be collaborating to make sure everyone succeeds.

 

What do I need? My union, for one.

 

I need my right to collective bargaining. I need the power to gather with my colleagues and co-workers so we can create the best possible work environment for myself and my students. I need due process, tenure, so I can’t be fired at the whim of the school board or administrators without having them prove my inequities.

 

I need my work to be evaluated fairly. Judge me on what I do – not on what my students do with what I’ve given them.

 

And when it comes to the racial proficiency gap, don’t look to me to exert some kind of supernatural teacher magic. I am not a white savior who can make school segregation, racism and prejudice disappear. I try to treat every student fairly, but my actions can’t undo a system that’s set up to privilege some and disadvantage others.

 

I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you’re expecting a superhero, I’m bound to disappoint.

 

And that DOES seem to be what many of you expect us to be.

 

Seven years ago, Davis Guggenheim characterized the public schools as if we were Waiting for Superman.

 

Things are so screwed up, he alleged back then, that we need someone with superpowers to swoop in and fix it all.

 

But there is no superman. There’s just Clark Kent.

 

That’s me – a bespectacled shlub who shows up everyday in the naive hope that he can make a difference.

 

According to landmark research by Dan Goldhaber and James Coleman, only about 9 percent of student achievement is attributable to teachers.

 

That’s right – 9 percent.

 

If you add in everything in the entire school environment – class size, curriculum, instructional time, availability of specialists and tutors, and resources for learning (books, computers, science labs, etc.), all that only accounts for 20 percent.

 

There’s another 20 percent they can’t explain. But the largest variable by far is out of school factors. This means parents, home life, health, poverty, nutrition, geographic location, stress, etc. Researchers estimate those count for 60 percent of student success.

 

Yet we somehow expect teachers (9%) to do it all.

 

I’m sorry, America. I can’t.

 

More than half of all public school students live in poverty. No matter how hard I try, I cannot solve that all by myself.

 

I try to teach children how to read though many are hungry and traumatized by their home lives.

 

I try to teach children how to write though many haven’t slept the night before, haven’t taken their ADD medication and – to be honest – many haven’t even shown up to school yet.

 

I most certainly try to get them to pass culturally biased, developmentally inappropriate standardized tests without sucking away every bit of creativity from the classroom.

 

But much of this is beyond my control.

 

I can’t help that the federal, state and local government are cutting school funding. I can’t help that my impoverished district has few school supplies, the students enter the building without them because their parents are too poor to buy them. But I can – and do – spend out of my own pocket to make sure all of my students have pencil, paper, whatever they need.

 

I can’t help that officials at every step of the way want me to narrow my teaching to only things that will appear on the yearly standardized test, that they want me to present it as a multiple choice look-a-like item, that they want me to teach by pointing at a Common Core standard as if that held any meaning in a child’s life. But I can make the lesson as creative as possible and offer kids a chance to engage with the material in a way that connects to their real lives, desires and interests.

 

I can’t help that kids don’t read like they used to and instead experience the bulk of text on the Internet, Facebook or Twitter. I can’t help that most of their real world writing experience is limited to thumbing social media updates, comments on YouTube videos or communicating through a string of colorful emojis. But I can try to offer them meaningful journal topics that make them think and offer them the chance to share their thoughts in a public forum with their peers.

 

There’s nothing super about any of it.

 

But it’s the kind of things teachers do everyday without anyone noticing. It’s the kind of thing that rarely gets noted on an evaluation, rarely earns you a Thank You card or even an apple to put on your desk.

 

However, when the day is done, students often are reluctant to leave. They cluster about in the hall or linger in the classroom asking questions, voicing concerns, just relieved that there’s someone there they can talk to.

 

And that’s reason enough for me to stay.

 

The odds are stacked against me. Help isn’t coming from any corner of our society. But sometimes despite all of that, I’m actually able to get things done.

 

Everyday it seems I help students understand something they never knew before. I’ve become accustomed to that look of wonder, the aha moment. And I helped it happen!

 

I get to see students grow. I get to nurture that growth. I get to be there for young ones who have nobody else.

 

It’s a wonderful feeling.

 

I know I’m making a difference.

 

So, yes, I’m no superman.

 

I have no special powers, no superhuman abilities. I can’t fix all of our social problems all by myself.

 

But I help to make the future.

 

That’s why I do what I do.

 

Thank you for letting me do it.

Why Care About Other People’s Children

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As a vocal critic of charter and voucher schools, one of the most frequent questions I get from readers is this:

“Why should I care about other people’s children?”

One reader put it this way:

“Why should my child’s education and safety have to suffer because of difficult and violent students? …it isn’t my responsibility to pay for a miscreant’s education.”

The question says more than any answer could.

It shows quite clearly that school choice is an essentially selfish position.

That’s why some folks champion privatized education – they only care about their own children. In effect, when a parent sends their children to a charter or voucher school, they are telling the community that they don’t care what happens to any one else’s kids so long as their kids are properly cared for and educated.

It is the root cause of most of our problems in education today and has nothing to do with children. It’s all about adults – adults lacking empathy.

On the one hand, I get it. As a parent, you can’t help but love your child more than anyone else’s. You would beg, cheat and steal to make sure your child has enough to eat, is clothed and sheltered, has everything she needs to succeed in this world.

That’s a position for which few would show any embarrassment. It’s just being human.

But it shouldn’t also mean that you don’t care at all for other children.

I’d like to pose a radical thought – loving my child does not mean I’m indifferent to yours.

Children are innocent. They haven’t done anything to earn the hate or enmity of the world. They see everything with fresh eyes. Many of them haven’t even learned the prejudices and ignorance of their parents. And even where they have, it is so new it can be changed.

When you look at a babe in arms do you feel the same indifference? I don’t.

Perhaps it’s just the way we’re built. I feel an immediate nurturing instinct. I want to protect and provide for children – any children – even if they’re not mine.

If you saw a baby all alone crying on the side of the road, would you stop to help her? I would. I couldn’t help it. I can do no other.

If I saw a toddler in distress, a tween, even an unruly teenager in need, I would try to help. And I think most of us would do the same.

Doing so wouldn’t hurt my child. In fact, it would show her how a decent person acts towards others. It would teach her empathy, kindness, caring. It would demonstrate the values I try to instill in her – that we’re all in this together and we owe certain things to the other beings with which we share this world.

Why would you not want to do that?

We do not live in a world where you have to choose between your child and all others. There is a middle course. We can do for all society’s children without unduly sacrificing our own.

And if we can, why wouldn’t we?

Public school is essentially a community endeavor. It is an attempt to give everyone in your neighborhood the same start, the same opportunity, the same advantages.

It means allowing all children who live in the community the ability to attend the community school. That’s better than selecting the best and brightest and to Hell with the rest.

It means the community pooling its wealth to help all students. That’s better than dividing that pool up and pitting one group against another so that some get what they need and others don’t.

It means having an elected school board who holds public meetings, deliberates in the open and has to offer almost all documents to the light of day. That’s just better than an appointed board of directors who hold private meetings behind closed doors and who aren’t compelled to show any documentation for how they’re spending public tax money.

When you send your child to school – any school – she will have to deal with other students. She will meet children who are mean, unkind, unruly and a bad influence. But this is true at all schools – public and private, voucher or charter, secular or parochial. The biggest difference is racial and economic.

Our educational institutions today have become so segregated by class and race that even our public schools offer white middle class and wealthy students the opportunity to learn in an environment nearly devoid of children of color or children who live in poverty. This divide is drastically widened by charter, private and parochial schools.

So when people complain about the class of children they want to keep separate from their progeny, it is always imbued with a racist and classist subtext.

What they mean is: I don’t want my child to have to put up with all those black students, all those brown children, all those unwashed masses of impoverished humanity.

I proudly send my daughter to public school for the same reasons that many withhold their children from it. I want her to experience a wide variety of humanity. I want her to know people unlike her, and to realize that they aren’t as different as they might first appear. I want her to know the full range of what it means to be human. I want her to be exposed to different cultures, religions, nationalities, world views, thoughts and ideas.

And I want it not just because it’s better for my community – I want it because it’s better for her, too.

I want my daughter and I to both live in a world populated by educated citizens. I want us both to live in a society that treats people fairly, and where people of all types can come together and talk and reason and enjoy each other’s company.

Only under the most extreme circumstances would I ever subject her to charter, private or parochial schooling. And things would have to come to a pretty pass for me to home school her.

Imagine! Thinking I could offer my child all the richness of a public school experience, all the knowledge of a district’s worth of teachers, all the variety of social contact – how vain I would need to be to think I could do all that, myself!

Some people want their children to become little versions of themselves. They want to create a generation of mini-me’s who’ll carry on their way of thinking into the future.

That’s not my goal at all.

I want my daughter to share my core values, I want her to learn from my experiences, but I don’t want her to think like me at all. I want her to be a new person, special and unique.

I want her to be her.

If you stop and think about it, that’s what most of us want for our children.

It’s a common goal that can be achieved with a common mechanism.

So why should we care about other people’s children?

Because it’s better for ours. Because doing so makes us better people. Because all children are ends in themselves. Because they’re beautiful, unique sparks of light in a dark universe.

If those aren’t reasons enough, I can’t help you.

I Am So Sick of White People’s Excuses (And I’m White!)

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What the heck is wrong with us, white people?

Systematic racism is all around, but we refuse to see it.

Oh, and I do mean REFUSE. It’s not a matter of being unable to see it. Our eyes and minds work just as well as anyone else’s. We can perceive reality. Too many of us just choose not to.

According to the Guardian, at least 793 Americans have been killed by police so far this year. That number includes 194 black people or 4.86 per million. That’s more than double the rate for white people at 1.96 per million.

This is not an opinion. This is an undeniable fact. Every number is backed up with verifiable data. And moreover, it follows the same pattern we’ve seen for a couple of years now since news organizations have taken up the slack from the federal government and started counting.

Why does that not worry more white people? It worries me. I don’t want to live in a country where police use lethal force so often against civilians, so much more than almost any other developed country on Earth. And I don’t want my black friends and neighbors to be targeted so much more.

I’m a middle school teacher. Most of my students are black. I don’t want to have to worry that they or their parents are going to be murdered just because of an excess of melanin. Street gangs are worrisome enough without having to add into the mix many of the very law enforcement officers that are supposed to keep us safe from those gangbangers.

But when you bring this up to white folks and other facts detailing the systemic racism that pervades our society, you get every excuse in the book.

They simply refuse to engage with what you’re saying. They deflect and redirect and change the subject – and they don’t even seem to realize they’re doing it.

Blue lives matter, they say. All lives matter. Every form of life seems to matter to white people – except explicitly black lives.

We seem to think it’s impossible to care about both police and African Americans. We seem to think any expression of the value of human life has to be universal without mentioning individual groups that are at a higher risk than others.

It’s wacko, clearly a way of shutting down a conversation white folks will do anything to avoid.

The easiest dodge seems to be talking about black-on-black crime. As if somehow that makes it right.

It goes something like this: You’re worried about police killing black people, what about other black people? Most African Americans are killed by other African Americans.

Of course what they omit is that the same is true for white Americans. White folks kill each other much more than any other race does. But you never see people wringing their hands about white-on-white crime, do you?

Moreover, it’s irrelevant. If I point to a single incident of a white person killing a black person, it is not therefore justified because black people kill black people more often. Would you think an African American is justified for popping a cap in your Caucasian mom’s ass because most of us, honkies, usually off other honkies? Of course not!

But so much for logic. One of the most popular evasions is to blame it all on inferior black culture.

It goes like this: Black people don’t suffer systemic racism. If there are any ways in which they are selected against in society, it’s because they’ve earned that treatment because of the way they act.

Black people come from unmarried parents. They are on Welfare and a host of other social ills. THESE are the reasons behind so-called racism, not unjust systems.

It’s pure nonsense.

How does coming from unmarried parents mean you deserve to be killed by police at a greater rate than white people? How does parental marital status affect the justice system handing out more severe and longer sentences for blacks than for whites who commit the same crimes? How does the Facebook status of your pops and your moms somehow translate into difficulty getting a job due to your black sounding name?

In short, the two have nothing to do with each other.

Yes, black people have children out of wedlock about twice as often as white people. So what? Some people aren’t meant to be married. Often it’s better for the children if the parents don’t stay married to people who mistreat each other, a marriage where there is no love. Would racism suddenly disappear if black people just kept their chins up and married each other irregardless of whether the relationship was healthy for them and their children?

Let’s get to what white people are really saying here. Whites aren’t saying marriage is a magical shield against prejudice. They’re saying: Damn! Look at these strangers! These others! These people who aren’t like you and me!

The fact that many of them don’t get married before having children just shows how morally inferior they are to us. They deserve their treatment because they don’t share our sensibilities.

This is a pretty heartless way to think. Not only do the parents, apparently, deserve to be selected against, but so do their kids who had nothing to do with whether daddy gave mommy a ring or not. Moreover, where did the culture of marriageless childbirth come from for black people? When their ancestors were kidnapped from Africa and brought to these shores as slaves, it was the white slave masters who forbade them from marrying. In many cases, that tradition doesn’t exist because we took it away. Meanwhile, about a quarter of white couples have children out of wedlock, too. What’s our excuse?

But this won’t be enough to convince most white interlocutors.

They’ll just huff and puff and spout some nonsense about welfare.

They’ll say Black people fall into immoral and violent behavior because they’ve been taught by liberals to exist on welfare and not get jobs of their own.

Again, the problem is black people, themselves, aided by bleeding heart liberals trying to give them a helping hand. Some white folks even go so far as to say this is real racism because by giving black folks such sweet benefits for not working, liberals purposefully destroyed black people’s natural inclination to productivity.

Think about it for about two seconds, and you can see how crazy it is.

Black people deserve to be killed at twice the rate of whites because they don’t have jobs? They deserve to be gunned down because they’re too lazy to work?

Or alternatively, they deserve not to get call backs when they turn in resumes with black sounding names because they’re lazy!? These people just handed in job applications. We can imagine they did that because they wanted freaking jobs! But being lazy makes them unqualified for the very jobs they tried to apply for in the first place?

Let’s look at the facts for a moment. Black people don’t accept the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) more than whites. It’s the other way around.

More than 40% of SNAP recipients are white. Only 25% are black.

But that’s raw data. When we look at it as a percentage of the population, black people are twice as likely to be on Welfare as Whites. Only 12% of the country is African American, after all.

So why bring up the raw data? Because if you’re upset about the sheer numbers of people on assistance, you’re mad at more white people than black people.

Moreover, black people actually need it more than whites. More than 27% of black people live in poverty compared to only 10% of whites. Hence the larger percentage of blacks on SNAP.

This isn’t meant to throw anyone under the bus for being on public assistance. Times are tough and well paying jobs are hard to come by. For instance, most of the people who accept SNAP benefits actually are employed, but their pay is too small to sustain them. Thanks, Walmart.

So how much does a family of four get on SNAP? It depends on how much money the household earns, but the total income must be below the federal poverty level – $23,050. For many families it comes to about $399 a month. That’s $1.10 per person, per meal.

This isn’t exactly living high off the hog. I can’t imagine anyone making bank who would throw it all away to live so luxuriously on food stamps.

However, this is exactly what a lot of white people think about blacks.

It goes against the facts, and it doesn’t explain the reality of systemic racism.

In so many ways our society is set up to give white people an advantage and black people a disadvantage. That doesn’t mean all white people have it perfectly. There are an awful lot of dirt poor white folks out there – many of their kids are in my classes, too. But while they may be disadvantaged socially, economically or many other ways, they aren’t disadvantaged racially.

That’s the whole point.

Racism still exists and talking about it doesn’t make you anti-white. It makes you pro-black and pro-justice.

Those aren’t bad things to be.

We, white people, have to stop being so fragile when racism is brought up. Though I’ve artificially concerned myself only with black people here, we need to listen to what all people of color are telling us about how they’re treated. We need to take a hard look at the facts.

Being white and admitting racism exists doesn’t make you a racist – though you probably benefit from it. It just means that if you want to stand on the right side of history, on the side of equity and justice, you may need to bring your thinking into agreement with reality.