Charter Schools Are Quietly Gobbling Up My Public School District


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I work in a little suburban school district just outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that is slowly being destroyed by privatization.

 

Steel Valley Schools have a proud history.

 

We’re located (in part) in Homestead – the home of the historic steel strike of 1892.

 

But today it isn’t private security agents and industrial business magnates against whom we’re struggling.

 

It’s charter schools, voucher schools and the pro-corporate policies that enable them to pocket tax dollars meant to educate kids and then blame us for the shortfall.

 

Our middle school-high school complex is located at the top of a hill. At the bottom of the hill in our most impoverished neighborhood sits one of the Propel network of charter schools.

 

Our district is so poor we can’t even afford to bus our kids to school. So Propel tempts kids who don’t feel like making the long walk to our door.

 

Institutions like Propel are publicly funded but privately operated. That means they take our tax dollars but don’t have to be as accountable, transparent or sensible in how they spend them.

 

And like McDonalds, KFC or Walmart, they take in a lot of money.

 

Just three years ago, the Propel franchise siphoned away $3.5 million from our district annually. This year, they took $5 million, and next year they’re projected to get away with $6 million. That’s about 16% of our entire $37 million yearly budget.

 

Do we have a mass exodus of children from Steel Valley to the neighboring charter schools?

 

No.

 

Enrollment at Propel has stayed constant at about 260-270 students a year since 2015-16. It’s only the amount of money that we have to pay them that has increased.

 


The state funding formula is a mess. It gives charter schools almost the same amount per regular education student that my district spends but doesn’t require that all of that money actually be used to educate these children.

 

If you’re a charter school operator and you want to increase your salary, you can do that. Just make sure to cut student services an equal amount.

 

Want to buy a piece of property and pay yourself to lease it? Fine. Just take another slice of student funding.

 

Want to grab a handful of cash and put it in your briefcase, stuff it down your pants, hide it in your shoes? Go right ahead! It’s not like anyone’s actually looking over your shoulder. It’s not like your documents are routinely audited or you have to explain yourself at monthly school board meetings – all of which authentic public schools like mine have to do or else.

 

Furthermore, for every student we lose to charters, we do not lose any of the costs of overhead. The costs of running our buildings, electricity, water, maintenance, etc. are the same. We just have less money with which to pay them.

 

But that’s not all. The state funding formula also requires we give exponentially more money to charters for students labeled special needs – orders of magnitude more than we spend on these kids at my district.

 

Here’s how the state school code mandates we determine special education funding for charter school kids:

 

“For special education students, the charter school shall receive for each student enrolled the same funding as for each non-special education student as provided in clause (2), plus an additional amount determined by dividing the district of residence’s total special education expenditure by the product of multiplying the combined percentage of section 2509.5(k) times the district of residence’s total average daily membership for the prior school year. This amount shall be paid by the district of residence of each student.”

 

So authentic public schools spend a different amount per each special education student depending on their needs. But we have to pay our charter schools an average. If they only accept students without severe disabilities, this amounts to a net profit for the charter schools – and they can spend that profit however they want.

 

Moreover, if they reclassify students without disabilities or with slight disabilities as special needs, that means more money for them, too. Is anyone checking up on them to make sure they aren’t gaming the system? Heck no! That’s what being a charter school is all about – little transparency, little accountability and a promise of academic results (which don’t have to pan out either).

 

In the 2015-16 school year, Steel Valley paid the 19th highest amount of its budget to charter schools in the state (9%) and that number is growing.

 

According to the state Department of Education, here’s how our charter school spending has increased:

 

Steel Valley Per Student Charter School Tuition:

 

2000-01 – 2012-13

Non-Special Ed: $9,321

Special Ed: $16,903

 

2013-14

Non-Special Ed: $9,731

Special Ed: $16,803

 

2014-15

Non-special Ed: $10,340

Special Ed $20,112

 

2015-16

Non-Special Ed: $12,326

Special Ed: $25,634

 

2016-17

Non-Special Ed: $13,879

Special Ed: $29,441

 

2017-18

Non-Special Ed: $13,484

Special Ed: $25,601

 

2018-19

Non-special ed: $14,965

Special ed: $32,809

 

All of this has real world consequences in the classroom. It means fewer teachers and larger class sizes. It means narrowed curriculum and fewer extracurricular activities. It means reduced options and opportunities for all children – just so a new business can duplicate the services already being offered but skim tax dollars off the top.

 

Our State Senator Jim Brewster understands the problem.

 

“Charters are strangling school districts, eventually will put them out of business. When you lose your school district, you lose your city,” he said in an article published by Public Source.

 

Brewster is a Democrat from McKeesport with four school districts being likewise “cannibalized” by charter schools.

 

Steel Valley School Board President Jim Bulger also characterized the situation as dire.

 

“ Charter Schools have become a twisted profit-making machine and not what they were originally intended for,” he said.

 

 “Originally charter schools were meant to serve a demographic that the public schools could not. For example being heavy in the performing arts or items like that. It’s unfortunate that several people have decided to twist this decent idea into a profit-making scheme that bleeds public education and its very soul.”

 

Much of the problem is in Harrisburg where legislators refuse to see or address the issue. And that’s often the best situation. Others actively make things worse.

 

For instance, the state used to reimburse each district for 30% of its costs to charter schools. Then in 2011, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett cut that while slashing the education budget by an additional $1 billion a year.

 

Though some of that money has been restored in subsequent budgets, the charter reimbursement has not. Putting it back in the budget would go far to alleviating the bleeding.

 

But legislators need to get serious about charter school reform.

 

We can no longer afford a system that requires authentic public schools to fund their own competition. In fact, schools should never be in competition in the first place. Every school should be excellent – and the only way to get there is to start with adequate, equitable, sustainable funding in the first place.

 

There are seven charter schools within 5 miles of my district: Propel Homestead, Propel Braddock Hills, Environmental Charter School at Frick PA, Propel Hazelwood, Academy Charter School (in Pittsburgh), Propel Mckeesport, and Propel East (in Monroeville).

 

In addition, there are 55 private schools in the same area. Though the Commonwealth doesn’t have school vouchers, per se, it does have a backdoor version supported by both Democrats and Republicans. Many of these private and parochial schools gobble up $210 million of state tax dollars through these tax credit programs – the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) programs. And there’s a bill currently being considered in Harrisburg to increase that amount by $100 million this year and even more in subsequent years!

 

It seems our legislature has no problem spending on the school system so long as it isn’t the PUBLIC school system.

 

And the reason usually given for such support is the results privatized schools get. They claim to be better alternatives to the public system, but this is rarely if ever true.

 

Test scores are a terrible way compare schools, but charter and voucher schools rarely – if ever – outpace their authentic public school competitors. They either get similar scores or in many cases do much, MUCH worse.

 

For instance, take Propel Homestead.

 

In 2015-16, it served 573 students in grades K-12. Only 22% of students were proficient in math and 40% in Reading on state tests. Both scores are below state average.

 

Meanwhile, at Steel Valley High School during the same time period, we served 486 students in grades 9-12. In math, 50-54% of our students were proficient and 65-69% were proficient in Reading. That’s above state average in both cases. And we had similar results at our middle and elementary schools.

 

However, test scores are poor indicators of success.

 

Steel Valley Schools also had lower class sizes. We averaged 12 students per teacher. Propel Homestead averaged 15 students per teacher.

 

And then we come to segregation. Though both schools had significant minority populations, Steel Valley Schools had 42% minority enrollment, most of whom are black. Propel Homestead had 96% minority enrollment, most of whom are black.

 

So the authentic public school option is demonstrably of better quality, but our inability to bus students to-and-from school opens us up to predatory school charlatans who take advantage of our poverty.

 

And the situation is similar in surrounding communities. Poor districts serving impoverished minority students become targets for privatizers looking to make a fast buck off of our kids and families. They offer them a lower quality education and a slick sales pitch.

 

They increase segregation, lower academic quality, and get away with much needed funds that could help kids get a better education.

 

This nonsense has to stop.

 

The only schools that should be receiving public tax dollars are the authentically public ones.

 

They should have to abide by the same regulation, the same accountability standards, the same democratic governance, the same enrollment standards as authentic public schools. Otherwise, they should not qualify for public tax dollars.

 

We’re boring holes in the ship to make rickety life boats.

 

It’s time to stop the madness.

 

It’s time to stop letting our best chance to help all kids get eaten alive by the sharks of privatization.

 


 

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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Classroom Teachers are the Real Scholastic Experts – Not Education Journalists

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When you want an expert on health, you go to a doctor.

 

When you want an expert on law, you go to a lawyer.

 

So why is it that when the news media wants an expert on education they go to… themselves!?

 

That’s right. Education journalists are talking up a storm about schools and learning.

 

You’ll find them writing policy briefs, editorials and news articles. You’ll find them being interviewed about topics like class size, funding and standardized tests.

 

But they aren’t primary sources. They are distinctly secondary.

 

So why don’t we go right to the source and ask those most in the know – classroom teachers!?

 

According to a Media Matters analysis of education coverage on weeknight cable news programs in 2014, only 9 percent of guests on MSNBC, CNN and Fox News were educators.

 

This data is a bit out of date, but I couldn’t find a more recent analysis. Moreover, it seems pretty much consistent with what I, myself, have seen in the media.

 

Take Wyatt Cenac’s “Problem Areas,” a comedy journalism program on HBO. The second season focuses entirely on education issues. Though Cynac interviews numerous people in the first episode (the only one I saw), he put together a panel of experts to talk about the issues that he would presumably return to throughout the season. Unfortunately, only two of these experts were classroom teachers.

 

There were more students (3), policy writers (3) and education journalists (3). There were just as many college professors (2), civil rights leaders (2), and politicians (2). Plus there was one historian (Diane Ravitch).

 

I’m not saying Cynac shouldn’t have talked to these other people. From what I’ve seen, his show is a pretty good faith attempt to talk about the issues, but in under representing classroom teachers, we’re left with a false consensus. It’s like having one climate denier debate one scientist. They aren’t equal and should not be equally represented.

 

And that’s as good as it gets!

 

Turn to most discussions of education or scholastic policy in the news and the discourse is bound to be dominated by people who are not now and have never been responsible for a class full of K-12 students.

 

Allowing journalists who cover education to rebrand themselves as “experts” is just not good enough.

 

Take it from me. Before I became a classroom teacher, I was a newspaperman, myself. Yet it’s only now that I know all that I didn’t know then.

 

If anyone values good, fact-based reporting, it’s me. But let’s not confuse an investigator with a practitioner. They both have important jobs. We just need to be clear about which job is being practiced when.

 

Reporters are not experts on the issues they cover. Certainly they know more than the average person or some political flunkey simply towing the party line. But someone who merely observes the work is not as knowledgeable as someone who does it and has done it for decades, someone with an advanced degree, dedication and a vocation in it.

 

Moreover, there is a chasm between education reporting and the schools, themselves, that is not present between journalists and most fields of endeavor. In the halls of academia, even the most fair-minded outsiders often are barred from direct observation of the very thing they’re trying to describe. We rarely let reporters in to our nation’s classrooms to see what’s happening for themselves. All they can do most of the time is uncritically report back what they’ve been told.

 

It’s almost as if sportswriters never got to see athletes play or political reporters never got to attended campaign rallies. How could their ideas about these subjects be of the same value as the practitioners in these fields!?

 

It couldn’t.

 

Think about it. Journalists are rarely permitted inside our schools to see the day-to-day classroom experience. Legal issues about which students may be photographed, filmed or interviewed, the difficulty of getting parental permissions and the possibility of embarrassment to principals and administrators usually keeps the school doors closed to them.

 

In many districts, teachers aren’t even allowed to speak on the record to the media or doing so can make them a political target. So reporters often have great difficulty just disclosing the opinions of those most knowledgeable about what is going on.

 

At best, our nation’s education reporters are like aliens from another galaxy trying to write about human behavior without actually having seen it. It’s like a bad science fiction movie where some alien with plastic ears asks, “What is this thing you call love?”

 

Sorry. These are not experts. And if we pretend that they are, we are being incredibly dishonest.

 

Some of this obfuscation is by design.

 

Education reporting is incredibly biased in favor of market-based solutions to academic problems.

 

Why? The corporations that own the shrinking number of newspapers, news stations and media outlets are increasingly the same huge conglomerates making money off of these same policies. The line between news and advertising has faded into invisibility in too many places.

 

Huge corporations make hundreds of millions of dollars off of the failing schools narrative. They sell new standardized tests, new test prep materials, new Common Core books, trainings for teachers, materials, etc. If they can’t demonstrate that our schools are failing, their market shrinks.

 

Even when they don’t put editorial pressure on journalists to write what the company wants, they hire like-minded people from the get go.

 

Too many education journalists aren’t out for the truth. They’re out to promote the corporate line.

 

This is why it’s so important to center any education discussion on classroom teachers. They are the only people with the knowledge and experience to tell us what’s really going on.

 

And – surprise! – it’s not the same narrative you’re getting from corporate news.

 

Schools are being defunded and dismantled by the testing and privatization industry. Corporate special interests are allowed to feed off our schools like vultures off road kill. And all the while, it is our children who suffer the results.

 

High stakes standardized testing must end. Charter and voucher schools must end. Parasitic education technologies must be controlled, made accountable and in many cases barred from our schools altogether.

 

But that’s a truth you can only find by talking to the real experts – classroom teachers.

 

Until we prize their voices above all others, we will never know the whole truth.

 


 

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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The Best School Innovation Would Be More People

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Public schools thrive on innovation.

 

In nearly every classroom around the country you’ll find teachers discovering new ways to reach students and foster skills, understanding and creativity.

 

But if you pan out to the macro level, the overwhelming majority of innovations aren’t organic. They’re imposed on us by bureaucrats and functionaries from outside the classroom:

 

Education Technologies.

 

School privatization.

 

Standardized tests and Common Core.

 

For the last two decades, these are the kinds of innovations that have been forced on public schools at gun point.

 

And each and every one of them is pure bullshit.

 

They are corporate schemes written by the wealthy to cash in on education dollars for themselves. Big business hands them out to their paid political lapdogs to push through our state and federal legislatures to become laws and policies the rest of us have to obey.

 

They have nothing to do with helping students learn. Their purpose is to boost profits.

 

Just look at the difference between the ways the word innovation is defined.

 

Merriam Webster says the word signifies “the introduction of something new” or  “a new idea, method, or device: Novelty.”

 

But BusinessDictionary.com finds a tellingly distinct meaning:

 

“The process of translating an idea or invention into a good or service that creates value or for which customers will pay.”

 

 

It is that second business-friendly definition that has dominated our schools and narrowed our view until the only concept of advancement and revolution has been centered exclusively on the profit principle.

 

It is time to put a stop to all of it.

 

No more useless iPads, apps, software and so-called “personalized” educational technologies that do little more than allow marketers to steal student data and profit off of a new form of school where everything can be provided by technology at a cost while the quality of services takes a nosedive. No more technology for technology’s sake instead of using it as a tool to promote authentic learning.

 

No more laughable charter and voucher schools where education budgets become slush funds for corporations who don’t have to provide the same standard of services to students or the community. No more operating without  transparency or accountability.

 

No more outmoded and disproven standardized tests. No more canned academic standards that strip classroom educators of autonomy while reducing effective teaching behind a smoke screen of test scores that merely conflate the economic situation students live in with their academic abilities. No more corporations creating bogus multiple choice assessments whose only utility is to demonstrate how many more test prep materials we need to buy from the same company or industry.

 

It’s too bad we’re not interested in that FIRST definition of innovation, or at least innovation tied with the motive of providing quality education for children.

 

If we were interested in that kind of real, authentic school reform, we would focus on things that really matter. And chief among those would be one main thing, one major innovation that would be easy to accomplish but could change the fabric of our schools from top to bottom – people.

 

After all, that is what our public schools need the most – more people.

 

Have you walked into a public school lately? Peak your head into the faculty room. It’s like snatching a glance of the flying Dutchman. There are plenty of students, but at the front of the overcrowded classrooms, you’ll find a skeleton crew.

 

Today’s public schools employ 250,000 fewer people than they did before the recession of 2008–09. Meanwhile enrollment has increased by 800,000 students. So if we want today’s children to have not better but just the same quality of services kids received in this country only a decade ago, we’d need to hire almost 400,000 more teachers!

 

 

Instead, our children are packed into classes of 25, 30 even 40 students!

 

 

And the solution is really pretty simple – people not apps. Human beings willing and able to get the job done.

 

If we were fighting a war, we’d find ways to increase the number of soldiers in our military. Well, this is a war on ignorance – so we need real folks to get in the trenches and win the battle.

 

We need teachers, counselors, aides and administrators promoted from within and not functionaries from some think tank’s management program.

 

We need more people with masters or even more advanced teaching degrees – not business students with a three-week crash course in education under their belts who are willing to teach for a few years before becoming a self-professed expert and then writing education policy in the halls of government.

 

We need people from the community taking a leadership role deciding how our schools should be run, not simply appointing corporate lackeys to these positions at charter or voucher schools and narrowing down the only choices parents have to “Take It” or “Leave It.”

 

We need people. Real live people who can come into our schools and do the actual work with students.

 

And that means money. It means cutting the crap boondoggles to corporations and spending on flesh and blood reform.

 

It means fixing the funding inequality at the heart of nearly every public school in the country. No more spending tens or hundreds of thousands on wealthy students and merely hundreds on poor ones. No more dilapidated school buildings for the poor and palaces for the rich. No more socialistic pulling together for the wealthy and rugged individualism for the poor.

 

THIS is how you solve our education crisis – a crisis not caused by falling test scores or failing schools. A crisis caused by vulture capitalists preying on our educational institutions and our students as if they were some bloated carcass on the side of the road and not our best hope for the future.

 

It’s really that simple.

 

It’s a matter of ideology based on empiricism not “common sense” Laissezfaire maxims of “This is how we’ve always done it.”

 

We’ve been trying so-called corporate education reform for decades now – through Bush and Obama and now Trump. It doesn’t work.

 

It’s time we stopped making excuses for failing policies and got back to the best thing that works.

 

People.

 


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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The Forgotten Disaster of America’s First Standardized Test

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“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

George Santayana (1905)

 

The merry-go-round of history continues to spin because the riders forget they are free to get off at any time.

 

But we rarely do it. We keep to our seats and commit the same stupid mistakes over and over again.

 

Take high stakes standardized testing.

 

It was a disaster the very first time it was attempted in America – in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1845.

 

Yet we continue to prescribe the same error to students in schools today.

 

Judging learners, schools and teachers based on standardized assessments has the same problems now as it did 174 years ago. Yet we act as if it’s the only accurate way to assess knowledge, the only fair and equitable way to assign resources and judge the professionalism of our schools and teachers.

 

IT IS NONE OF THOSE THINGS.

 

If we simply remembered our history, we’d know that. But our collective amnesia allows this bad policy to reappear every generation despite any criticisms or protests.

 

So let me take you back to Boston in the middle of the 19th Century and show you exactly where things first went wrong and how they still go wrong in nearly the same way.

BOSTON SCHOOLS

 

Even back then Boston had a history of excellent schools.

 

One of the country’s most prestigious institutions – the city Latin School – was founded in 1635 and had a list of alumni that reads like a who’s who of American history up through modern times. This includes Cotton Mather, Sam Adams, John Hancock, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Leonard Bernstein and even Santayana, himself!

 

But Boston wasn’t known just for educating the elite. The city’s school committee had opened the nation’s first public high school in 1821. This wasn’t a charity. The community funded its public schools relatively well and took pride in its students’ accomplishments.

 

Testing was a much different affair in the early 1800s than it is today.

 

At the local English Grammar Schools, most examinations were strictly oral. Students were questioned in person about the various subjects in which they had received instruction. Teachers tested students’ memory in a recitation to find out whether or not they were proficient in the subject at hand.

 

The purpose behind such an assessment wasn’t to assign a grade like children were eggs or melons. It was to give the teacher information about how much his students had learned and where the students’ teacher should begin instruction next year.

 

However, critics complained that such assessments weren’t impartial and that a written exam might be better. Unfortunately, having every student complete one was impractical before the pencil and steel pen came into common usage in the late 1800s. Besides, teachers – then called School Masters – were trusted to use their judgment measuring student achievement and ability based on empirical observation of students’ day-to-day work.

 

It should also be noted that many more teachers were men at this time. This changed by the 1920s, when the majority of educators were women while most men had fled to the administrative offices. As this transformation took place, it accompanied greater trust in administrators and decreasing confidence in classroom teachers. And if you don’t see the sexism in that, you aren’t paying attention.

 

This shift began with standardized testing – an innovation first introduced by a Massachusetts lawyer and legislator named Horace Mann.

HORACE MANN’S TEST

 

To this day Mann remains a somewhat controversial figure. To some he was a reformer seeking to modernize education. To others he was a self-serving politician looking to increase his own power and that of his party no matter what the cost.

 

In 1837, Mann was appointed secretary of the newly created State Board of Education. As a member of the Whig Party, he wanted to centralize authority. To do that, he needed to discredit the history of excellence in Boston.

 

Mann had traveled abroad to see the innovations of European schools and concluded that Prussia’s schools, in particular, were far superior to America’s. His remarks were included in a highly publicized 1844 report that demanded action lest our country’s children be left behind. (Sound familiar?)

 

When other prominent Whigs including his friend Samuel Gridley Howe were elected to the School Committee and later the examining committee, Mann had everything he needed to make a change.

 

Howe dispensed with the oral exams in favor of written tests, what today we’d call short-answer exams. Without any warning to teachers or students, this new committee came to Boston’s grammar schools with preprinted questions. Teachers and administrators were furious. Students were terrified.

 

The examiners picked 530 out of the city’s approximately 7,000 students — allegedly the best below high school age – and made them take the new exams. This was about 20 or 30 children from each school. Students had an hour to write their responses on each subject to questions taken from assigned textbooks -geography, grammar, history, rhetoric, and philosophy.

 

Most failed.

 

A contemporary report on the exams concluded that the results “show beyond all doubt, that a large proportion of the scholars in our first classes, boys and girls of 14 or 15 years of age, when called upon to write simple sentences, to express their thoughts on common subjects, without the aid of a dictionary or a master, cannot write, without such errors in grammar, in spelling, and in punctuation.”

 

Examiners explained in a subsequent report that they had been looking for “positive information, in black and white,” exactly what students had learned. Teachers took no offense at that goal, but complained that the test questions had not pertained to what students had been taught.

 

Howe and his examiners countered that they had ensured their new assessment was valid with field testing – a practice that modern day corporations like Pearson and Data Recognition Corp. still do today.

 

Howe’s committee gave the same test in towns outside of Boston, including Roxbury, then a prosperous suburb. In all, the committee tested 31,159 students the previous summer. The result – an average score of 30 percent correct.

 

However, the wealthy Roxbury students outscored all the other schools. Therefore, they were made the standard of excellence that all other schools were expected to reach.

 

So when Boston students – all of whom did not have the privileges of Roxbury students – didn’t achieve the same scores, they were deemed failing, inadequate, losers.

 

Thus Mann could justify criticizing the district, firing teachers and administrators and consolidating control over the city’s schools.

BACKLASH

 

The result was pandemonium. Howe issued a scathing report lambasting the schools and even naming individual teachers who should be fired. Mann published the results in his influential Common School Journal and these kinds of tests started to appear at urban schools across the country.

 

However, Bostonians were not all convinced. Editorials were published both for and against the tests.

 

Every aspect of the exam was disputed – and in similar ways to the testing controversies we still see today.

 

To start, raising the stakes of the exams invited cheating. One teacher was caught leaking questions to his students before the testing session began.

 

The assessments also showed a racial achievement gap that far from helping diagnose structural inequalities was instead weaponized against the very people working hardest to help minority students learn. Examiners criticized the head teacher of the segregated Smith School because his African American students had scored particularly low. He was accused of not seeing the potential in black children. Never mind that these students were the most different from the Roxbury standard in terms of culture and privilege.

 

The tests also began the endless failing schools narrative that has been used by ambitious policymakers and disaster capitalists to get support for risky and unproven policies. Rivalries began between city and suburban schools with Bostonians wondering why their schools had been allowed to get so much worse.

 

Much of the criticism came back on Mann and Howe who reacted by throwing it back on the teachers for doing such a bad job.

 

In the end, a few educators were let go, but the voters had had enough of Mann.

 

Parents accused him of deliberately embarrassing students and in 1848 he was not re-elected to office.

 

The tests were given again in 1846, but by 1850, Boston had abandoned its strategy and reverted to non-standarized exams that were mostly based on oral presentations.

 

The experiment deeply disturbed many people. No one could explain why there was a discrepancy between scores of rich vs. poor students. The original justification of these exams was that they would eliminate partiality and treat students fairly and equally. Yet the results showed a racial and economic bias that didn’t escape contemporaries. In 1850 as the tests were being discontinued, the chairman of the examination committee wrote:

“Comparison of schools cannot be just while the subjects of instruction are so differently situated as to fire-side influence, and subjected to the draw-backs inseparable from place of birth, of age, of residence, and many other adverse circumstances.”

 

And that’s how standardized testing began.

 

It was a political power play justified by so-called universal testing.

 

Numbers, charts and graphs were used to mesmerize people into going along with policies that were never meant to help children learn, but instead to gain power for certain policymakers while taking it away from others.

HISTORY OF STANDARDIZED TESTING

 

In the years that followed, standardized testing became much more efficient. In 1915, the first test was given with multiple-choice questions – Frederick J. Kelly’s Kansas Silent Reading Test. It was roundly criticized and eventually disowned by Kelly for focusing almost exclusively on lower order thinking skills.

 

Then in the 1920s eugenicists like Robert Yerkes and Carl Brigham went a step further with similar IQ tests to justify privileging upper class whites from lower class immigrants, blacks and Hispanics. Their work was even used to justify the forced sterilization of 60,000 to 70,000 people from groups with low test scores, thus preventing them from “polluting” the gene pool. Ultimately this lead Brigham to create the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) to keep such undesirables out of higher education. It is still in wide use today.

 

It wasn’t until 1938 that Kaplan Inc. was founded to tutor students in these same tests. Stanley Kaplan, son of Jewish immigrants, showed that far from assessing learning, these tests merely assessed students’ ability to take the tests. Thus he was able to provide a gateway to higher education for many Jews and other minorities who had been unfairly excluded because of testing.

 

In the 1960s black plaintiffs began winning innumerable lawsuits against the testing industry. Perhaps the most famous case is Hobson v. Hansen in 1967, which was filed on behalf of a group of Black students in Washington, DC. The court ruled that the policy of using tests to assign students to tracks was racially biased because the tests were standardized to a White, middle class group.

 

And then in 2001, President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation revved the whole thing up into overdrive. With bipartisan support, he tied federal funding of schools to standardized test performance and annual academic progress – a policy that was only intensified under President Barack Obama who added competitive grants for additional funding based on test performance under Race to the Top.

 

Since then, standardized testing has grown from a $423 million industry before 2001 to a multi-billion dollar one decades later. If we add in test prep, new text books, software, and consultancy, that figure easily tops the trillion dollar mark.

 

Despite hundreds of principal, teacher, parent and student protests, tens of thousands of opt outs and a slew of lawsuits, high stakes testing continues to be the law of the land.

 

Yet the problems today are almost the same as those in Boston nearly two centuries ago.

LEGACY

 

These tests are political smokescreens used to stop policymakers from having to enact real reforms like equitable funding, wraparound services and addressing the trauma our most impoverished students deal with everyday. Instead, we push a school privatization and testing industry that makes trillions of dollars for corporations at the expense of our children.

 

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

 

Here’s hoping that one day we remember and get the heck off this runaway merry-go-round.


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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Schools That Hinder Opt Outs Are Participating in Their Own Demise

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You can’t be a public school and still ignore the will of the people.

 

That’s the problem at too many districts across the country where narrow-minded administrators are waging an all out war on parents opting their children out of standardized testing.

 

The federal government still requires all states to give high stakes tests to public school students in grades 3-8 and once in high school. So states require their districts to give the tests – despite increasing criticism over the assessments’ validity, age appropriateness, racial and economic bias and the very manner in which the scores are used to justify narrowing the curriculum, school privatization, funding cuts, teacher firings and closing buildings serving the most underprivileged children.

 

In response, parents from coast to coast continue to fight the havoc being forced upon their communities by refusing the tests for their children.

 

Yet instead of welcoming this rush of familial interest, at some schools we find principals, superintendents and every level of functionary in between doing whatever they can to impede parental will.

 

Most administrators don’t actually go so far as out right refusal of a parent’s demand to opt out their children.

 

That’s especially true in states where the right to opt out is codified in the law.

 

Three states – California, Utah, and Wisconsin – have enacted legislation permitting parents to opt their children out of standardized tests. However, at least five others, including my home of Pennsylvania, have laws respecting parents’ opt-out wishes for certain reasons. In others states there may not be specific legislation permitting it, but none have laws forbidding it either. At worst, test refusal is an act of civil disobedience like tearing down a confederate monument or freedom rides.

 

In Pennsylvania, the school code specifies that parents can refuse the test for their children for “religious reasons.” Those reasons and the religion in question never need be named. Citing “religious reasons” is rationale enough.

 

Consider:

 

“PA School Code Chapter 4.4(d):

 

(4)  …If upon inspection of a State assessment parents or guardians find the assessment to be in conflict with their religious belief and wish their students to be excused from the assessment, the right of the parents or guardians will not be denied upon written request that states the objection to the applicable school district superintendent, charter school chief executive officer or AVTS director.”

 

So when a parent provides just such an objection, it’s there in black and white that administrators must comply with that request.

 

However, some administrators are trying to game the system. When the other students are taking the state standardized test, the opt out students are rounded up and forced instead to take a district created assessment that just so happens to look almost exactly like the test their parents explicitly asked they not be subjected to.

 

So in my state, some parents have opted their children out of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) or Keystone Exams, but administrators are requiring them instead to take an assessment they cobbled together themselves that closely resembles the PSSA and/or Keystone Exam.

 

They take a little bit from the PSSA, a bit from the Partnership for Assessment of Reading Readiness for College and Careers (PARRC) test, a question or two from the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) and voila! A brand new Frankenstein’s monster of standardized assessment.

 

But that’s not all. Some districts go one step further. They tie the results of this bogus “district” assessment with class placement. The results of the faux test are used to determine whether students are placed in the remedial, academic or the honors class in a given subject (English Language Arts, Math or Science) in the next grade.

 

Does that violate the law? Parents did not want their children to be assessed with a standardized test, and that’s exactly what the school did anyway. The only difference is the name of the standardized test they used.

 

I am not a lawyer, but I’ve contacted several. The answer I’ve gotten is that this may not be technically illegal, but it does at least violate the spirit of the law.

 

Districts are given a certain latitude to determine their own curriculum and assessments. This kind of runaround is ugly, petty and possibly just on the line of legality.

 

But our administrators are not done. Not only are they requiring such students to take a cobbled together standardized assessment, when children are done, they are forced to do hours of test prep for the state assessment that their parents refused for them.

 

Imagine opting out of the PSSA and then being forced to spend that time preparing for that very test. Imagine refusing to allow your children to take the Keystone Exam but then having them forced to prepare for it instead.

 

Petty, small-minded, punitive and – in this case – possibly illegal.

 

The school code is specifically against this. From the same section (4.4):

 

“(d) School entities shall adopt policies to assure that parents or guardians have the following:

 

(3) …The right to have their children excused from specific instruction that conflicts with their religious beliefs, upon receipt by the school entity of a written request from the parent or guardians.”

 

Again, I am not a lawyer, but it seems pretty clear that this, at least, is a violation of the law.

 

They can request their children not be given specific instruction – in this case test prep. Yet that’s exactly what administrators are doing anyway.

 

So what are opt out parents to do? Should they lawyer up?

 

Possibly. Though no one likes to have to take their own school to court. Any monetary damages thus recovered come from the collective pot that should go to help all students learn. It’s unfortunate that some administrators play so freely with taxpayer dollars when it would be a simple matter to safeguard them AND respect parental rights.

 

A better course of action may be for opt out parents in such situations to seek redress directly from the school board.

 

School directors are elected officials, after all. They may not be appraised of the actions of the administrators in their employ.

 

And that is really where the buck stops. If school directors don’t approve of this sort of chicanery, they can easily put a stop to it.

 

These are public schools. They are supposed to be run by the public. Our democracy is supposed to be what defines us. We are run by the people, for the people.

 

We’re not some charter school where school directors are appointed to their positions, hold their meetings in private and rarely if ever have to account for their decisions.

 

It’s shocking that in an age when public schools are often set against privatized ones that we’d allow such foolishness.

 

We need to set ourselves apart. Instead of denying parental requests, we should go out of our way to accommodate them.

 

Parents could, after all, remove their children and try their luck elsewhere.

 

At charter schools, they would probably get an even worse welcome. After all, most such schools pride themselves on their test scores and test prep curriculum having kicked out any students who don’t score well.

 

However, parents of means could enroll their children in private or parochial schools that are not required by law to even take these high stakes tests.

 

I’m not recommending that course of action. These schools are expensive, restrictive, insular and extremely racially and economically segregated.

 

But how short sighted must public school administrators be if they play these sorts of games with parents and children in just such an environment?

 

Any public school leader who wars against opt outs is participating in their own schools demise.

 

This is doubly so at schools serving high poverty populations.

 

Children of the poor and minorities historically get lower test scores than those from wealthier families. These tests are used to justify budget cuts and firing school staff – including these administrators.

 

Opting out of testing is one way to deny this data to the state so that they can’t use it against the school.

 

Certainly having high numbers of students opting out can, itself, become an excuse for punitive action from the state. But nowhere in the country has it ever actually happened.

 

State legislatures, too, are run by majority rule. The same with the federal government.

 

Our lawmakers have no authority to tell voters they can’t opt their children out of testing. It is the voters who are the boss.

 

We’d all best remember that.


 

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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Diane Ravitch’s New Book is a Fun and Breezy Romp Through the Maze of School Policy

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Imagine you could talk with Diane Ravitch for 10 to 15 minutes everyday.

 
That’s kind of what reading her new book, “The Wisdom and the Witt of Diane Ravitch”, is like.

 
You’ve probably heard of Ravitch before.

 

She’s the kindly grandmother you see on the news who used to think standardized tests and school privatization were the way to go but actually had the courage to pull an about face.

 

She’s that rare thing in public policy – a person with the honesty to admit when she was wrong — and even lead the resistance to everything she used to believe in!

 

Now she champions teacher autonomy, fair and equitable school funding and authentic public schools with duly-elected school boards.

 

Her new book is full of shorter pieces by the education historian from all over the mass media – The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Huffington Post and even her own blog.

 
You’ll find an article explaining why she changed her mind about school reform nestled next to a reflection on what it’s like to grow up Jewish in Texas. Here’s a succinct take down of President Obama’s Race to the Top next to an article extolling the virtues of student activism in Providence. Ever wonder what Ravitch would say to her mentor Lamar Alexander about our current Education Secretary Betsy DeVos? It’s in there. Ever wonder what books on education she would recommend? It’s in there.

 
This new book from Garn Press is more personal than anything I’ve seen from Ravitch on the shelves before. And that’s because it’s not part of a sustained argument like “The Life and Death of the Great American School System,” or “Reign or Error.” It’s a collection of vignettes taken from the last decade of her writing. These are flashes of inspiration, snippets of thoughts, bursts of criticism and humor.

 
They’re perfect for perusing and really quite addictive.

 
I found myself jumping from an article in the first 20 pages to one at the end to another in the middle. There’s no reason any of it needs to be read chronologically though they are organized in the order of publication.

 
It’s really a lot like talking to Diane, something that I’ve had the privilege to do on a few occasions. Like any conversation, topics come up organically and you go from one to another without rhyme or reason.

 

 

At least that’s how I read the book.

 
It would be perfect in your school’s teachers lounge. Educators could pick it up at lunch or during their planning periods and use it as a springboard to talk about almost any issue that comes up during the day.

 
Well, it would be perfect if we ever actually had that kind of time.

 
I found myself repeatedly interrupted when trying to read it. But that’s actually not a problem. Given the brevity of the articles and their impressive concision, it doesn’t matter if you have to put a bookmark in the middle of a chapter here or there. It’s easy to pick up the thread and continue later.

 
There are so many highlights, but one of my favorites is “Don’t Like Betsy DeVos? Blame the Democrats” where she writes:

 

 

“I contend that it is immoral, unjust, and inequitable to advocate for policies that hurt 95% of students so that 5% can go to a private school. It is even more unjust to destabilize an entire school district by introducing a welter of confusing choices, including schools that open and close like day lilies. Why don’t the advocates of school choice also advocate for funding to replace the money removed from the public schools?”

 
Or how about “Flunking Arne Duncan”? I must admit, the title alone made my heart give a little cheer. Ravitch gives the former Education Secretary the following report card which deserves to be blown up to poster size and displayed in every classroom in the country:

 

 

“Report Card: Arne Duncan
Fidelity to the Constitution                                       F
Doing what’s right for children                               F
Doing what’s right for public education                F
Respecting the limits of federalism                        F
Doing what’s right for teachers                               F
Doing what’s right for education                            F”

 
As a public school teacher, I must admit getting an inordinate amount of pleasure from Ravitch’s criticism of the fools and frauds writing school policy. But she has a lot to say on so many subjects – standardized testing, Common Core, even the basic greed underlying the whole political mess.

 
Consider this gem from “What Powerful and Greedy Elites are Hiding When They Scapegoat the Schools”:

 

 

“I have nothing against the wealthy. I don’t care that some people have more worldly goods than others. I understand that life’s not fair. I just harbor this feeling that a person ought to be able to get by on $100 million or so and not keep piling up riches while so many others don’t know how they will feed their children tonight.”

 
I could offer a dozen more quotes from the book. My copy looks like a rainbow with all the different colored highlights I’ve made through its 451 pages.

 
So if you want my advice, go out and buy “The Wisdom and Wit of Diane Ravitch.” It’s a fun and breezy romp through the maze of school policy.

 
Just keep a good supply of highlighters and bookmarks handy.


 

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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Standardized Testing is a Tool of White Supremacy

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Let’s say you punched me in the face.

 

I wouldn’t like it. I’d protest. I’d complain.

 

And then you might apologize and say it was just an accident.

 
Maybe I’d believe you.

 

Until the next time when we met and you punched me again.

 

That’s the problem we, as a society, have with standardized tests.

 

We keep using them to justify treating students of color as inferior and/or subordinate to white children. And we never stop or even bothered to say, “I’m sorry.”

 

Fact: black kids don’t score as high on standardized tests as white kids.

 

It’s called the racial achievement gap and it’s been going on for nearly a century.

 

Today we’re told that it means our public schools are deficient. There’s something more they need to be doing.

 
But if this phenomenon has been happening for nearly 100 years, is it really a product of today’s public schools or a product of the testing that identifies it in the first place?

 

After all, teachers and schools have changed. They no longer educate children today the same way they did in the 1920s when the first large scale standardized tests were given to students in the US. There are no more one-room schoolhouses. Kids can’t drop out at 14. Children with special needs aren’t kept in the basement or discouraged from attending school. Moreover, none of the educators and administrators on the job during the Jazz Age are still working.
 

Instead, we have robust buildings serving increasingly larger and more diverse populations. Students stay in school until at least 18. Children with special needs are included with their peers and given a multitude of services to meet their educational needs. And that’s to say nothing of the innovations in technology, pedagogy and restorative justice discipline policies.

 

But standardized testing? That hasn’t really changed all that much. It still reduces complex processes down to a predetermined set of only four possible answers – a recipe good for guessing what a test-maker wants more than expressing a complex answer about the real world. It still attempts to produce a bell curve of scores so that so many test takers fail, so many pass, so many get advanced scores, etc. It still judges correct and incorrect by reference to a predetermined standard of how a preconceived “typical” student would respond.

 

Considering how and why such assessments were created in the first place, the presence of a racial achievement gap should not be surprising at all. That’s the result these tests were originally created to find.

 

Modern testing comes out of Army IQ tests developed during World War I.

 
In 1917, a group of psychologists led by Robert M. Yerkes, president of the American Psychological Association (APA), created the Army Alpha and Beta tests. These were specifically designed to measure the intelligence of recruits and help the military distinguish those of “superior mental ability” from those who were “mentally inferior.”
 

These assessments were based on explicitly eugenicist foundations – the idea that certain races were distinctly superior to others.
 
In 1923, one of the men who developed these intelligence tests, Carl Brigham, took these ideas further in his seminal work A Study of American Intelligence. In it, he used data gathered from these IQ tests to argue the following:
 

 

“The decline of American intelligence will be more rapid than the decline of the intelligence of European national groups, owing to the presence here of the negro. These are the plain, if somewhat ugly, facts that our study shows. The deterioration of American intelligence is not inevitable, however, if public action can be aroused to prevent it.”

 

 
Thus, Yerkes and Brigham’s pseudoscientific tests were used to justify Jim Crow laws, segregation, and even lynchings. Anything for “racial purity.”
 

People took this research very seriously. States passed forced sterilization laws for people with “defective” traits, preventing between 60,000 and 70,000 people from “polluting” America’s ruling class.
 
The practice was even upheld by the US Supreme Court in the 1927 Buck v. Bell decision. Justices decided that mandatory sterilization of “feeble-minded” individuals was, in fact, Constitutional.

 
Of the ruling, which has never been explicitly overturned, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind…. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
 

Eventually Brigham took his experience with Army IQ tests to create a new assessment for the College Board – the Scholastic Aptitude Test – now known as the Scholastic Assessment Test or SAT. It was first given to high school students in 1926 as a gatekeeper. Just as the Army intelligence tests were designed to distinguish the superior from the inferior, the SAT was designed to predict which students would do well in college and which would not. It was meant to show which students should be given the chance at a higher education and which should be left behind.
 

And unsurprisingly it has always – and continues to – privilege white students over children of color.

 
The SAT remains a tool for ensuring white supremacy that is essentially partial and unfair – just as its designers always meant it to be.
 
Moreover, it is the model by which all other high stakes standardized tests are designed.

 
But Brigham was not alone in smuggling eugenicist ideals into the education field. These ideas dominated pedagogy and psychology for generations until after World War II when their similarity to the Nazi philosophy we had just defeated in Europe dimmed their exponents’ enthusiasm.
 

Another major eugenicist who made a lasting impact on education was Lewis Terman, Professor of Education at Stanford University and originator of the Stanford-Binet intelligence test. In his highly influential 1916 textbook, The Measurement of Intelligence he wrote:
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“Among laboring men and servant girls there are thousands like them [feebleminded individuals]. They are the world’s “hewers of wood and drawers of water.” And yet, as far as intelligence is concerned, the tests have told the truth. … No amount of school instruction will ever make them intelligent voters or capable voters in the true sense of the word.

… The fact that one meets this type with such frequency among Indians, Mexicans, and negroes suggests quite forcibly that the whole question of racial differences in mental traits will have to be taken up anew and by experimental methods.

Children of this group should be segregated in special classes and be given instruction which is concrete and practical. They cannot master, but they can often be made efficient workers, able to look out for themselves. There is no possibility at present of convincing society that they should not be allowed to reproduce, although from a eugenic point of view they constitute a grave problem because of their unusually prolific breeding” (91-92).

 

This was the original justification for academic tracking. Terman and other educational psychologists convinced many schools to use high-stakes and culturally-biased tests to place “slow” students into special classes or separate schools while placing more advanced students of European ancestry into the college preparatory courses.

 
The modern wave of high stakes testing has its roots in the Reagan administration – specifically the infamous propaganda hit piece A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform.

 
In true disaster capitalism style, it concluded that our economy was at risk because of poor public schools. Therefore, it suggested circumventing the schools and subordinating them to a system of standardized tests, which would be used to determine everything from teacher quality to resource allocation.

 
It’s a bizarre argument, but it goes something like this: the best way to create and sustain a fair educational system is by rewarding “high-achieving” students.
 

So we shouldn’t provide kids with what they need to succeed. We should make school a competition where the strongest get the most and everyone else gets a lesser share.

 
And the gatekeeper in this instance (as it was in access to higher education) is high stakes testing. The greater the test score, the more funding your school receives, the lower class sizes, the wider curriculum, more tutors, more experienced and well compensated teachers, etc.
 

It’s a socially stratified education system completely supported by a pseudoscientific series of assessments.

 
After all, what is a standardized test but an assessment that refers to a specific standard? And that standard is white, upper class students.
 
In his book How the SAT Creates Built-in-Headwinds, national admissions-test expert, Jay Rosner, explains the process by-which SAT designers decide which questions to include on the test:

 

“Compare two 1998 SAT verbal [section] sentence-completion items with similar themes: The item correctly answered by more blacks than whites was discarded by [the Educational Testing Service] (ETS), whereas the item that has a higher disparate impact against blacks became part of the actual SAT. On one of the items, which was of medium difficulty, 62% of whites and 38% of African-Americans answered correctly, resulting in a large impact of 24%…On this second item, 8% more African-Americans than whites answered correctly…”

 
In other words, the criteria for whether a question is chosen for future tests is if it replicates the outcomes of previous exams – specifically tests where students of color score lower than white children. And this is still the criteria test makers use to determine which questions to use on future editions of nearly every assessment in wide use in the US.
 

Some might argue that this isn’t racist because race was not explicitly used to determine which questions would be included. Yet the results are exactly the same as if it were.

 
Others want to reduce the entire enterprise to one of social class. It’s not students of color that are disadvantaged – it’s students living in poverty. And there is overlap here.
 

Standardized testing doesn’t show academic success so much as the circumstances that caused that success or failure. Lack of proper nutrition, food insecurity, lack of prenatal care, early childcare, fewer books in the home, exposure to violence – all of these and more combine to result in lower academic outcomes.

 

But this isn’t an either/or situation. It’s both. Standardized testing has always been about BOTH race and class. They are inextricably entwined.

 
Which leads to the question of intention.

 
If these are the results, is there some villain laughing behind the curtain and twirling the ends of a handlebar mustache?
 

Answer: it doesn’t matter.
 

As in the entire edifice of white supremacy, intention is beside the point. These are the results. This is what a policy of high stakes standardized testing actually does.
 

Regardless of intention, we are responsible for the results.
 

If every time we meet, you punch me in the face, it doesn’t matter if that’s because you hate me or you’re just clumsy. You’re responsible for changing your actions.
 
And we as a society are responsible for changing our policies.

 
Nearly a century of standardized testing is enough.

 
It’s time to stop the bludgeoning.
 
It’s time to treat all our children fairly.
 

It’s time to hang up the tests.

 


NOTE: This article expands upon many ideas I wrote about in an article published this week in Public Source.


 

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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