Economists Worry Covid-19 May End Standardized Testing Altogether

The sky is falling for standardized test enthusiasts.

Economists Paul Bruno and Dan Goldhaber published a paper this month worrying that the Coronavirus pandemic may increase pressure to end high stakes testing once and for all.

The paper is called “Reflections on What Pandemic-Related State Test Waiver Requests Suggest About the Priorities for the Use of Tests.” It was written for The National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER) – a Walton funded, pro standardized testing policy concern.

It’s easy to see why Bruno (who also taught middle school) and Goldhaber (who did not) are distressed.

Last school year President Joe Biden forced districts nationwide to give standardized assessments despite the raging Covid-19 pandemic.

Schools could barely keep their doors open and conduct in-person classes. Many educators were still teaching their students on-line or both on-line and in-person at the same time. Hundreds of teachers died from the virus. Thousands of students have lost parents, relatives or became sick, themselves.

Yet the Biden administration refused to give them any relief from the burden of standardized testing as the previous administration had just a year before.

And if increasing cases of the even more contagious Delta Variant continue to spread in 2021-22 while the last 30% of American adults are reluctant to get the vaccine, the situation could be even worse this spring.

For a third year in a row, standardized testing could be yet another unnecessary hurdle for students already overburdened with trauma. Would Biden double down on last year’s mistake or finally see the error of his ways?

The result has been an overwhelming backlash against the already unpopular education policy.

In their paper, Bruno and Goldhaber looked at last year’s waiver requests asking for permission to cancel or modify statewide exams in 11 states and the District of Columbia.

Only the District of Columbia’s waiver was granted. All other states had to give the exams, but there was much leeway in how and when.

In the most revealing part of the paper, the economists explain why they think the US Department of Education seems to have refused blanket waivers last year:

We speculate that there was concern that even temporarily waiving statewide tests would give momentum to those advocating for the elimination of testing all together. That is, [the US Department of Education] USDOE (and perhaps states that did not request that common assessments be waived) may be less interested in what happens with testing this year than worried about a slippery slope toward increasingly lax testing requirements.” [Emphasis mine]

So refusing testing waivers wasn’t about the need for last year’s scores. It wasn’t about making sure struggling students get resources. It was about ensuring that high stakes testing would go on for years to come.

In other words, it was about politics.

Speaking of which, the report then becomes focused on advice for standardized testing advocates to combat mounting pressure to end these mandated federal assessments.

If the public doesn’t see the value in the tests, Bruno and Goldhaber say, policymakers must explain why the tests are important, and not just in generalities. They must explicitly show how standardized test scores improve education and help specific students.

They write:

“We encourage policymakers to think carefully, explicitly, and publicly about how they have tailored their standardized testing policies to achieve various diagnostic, research, and accountability objectives. This will help to ensure that standardized tests have benefits for more schools and students and will bolster fragile political support for statewide tests.”

However, nowhere in the entire paper do Bruno and Goldhaber actually do this, themselves.

How do standardized tests help students?

That’s exactly the question at stake here.

In short, I would argue as I have countless times before that they DO NOT help students.

They DO NOT help allocate resources to struggling students.

They DO NOT help diagnose student learning difficulties.


They DO NOT even do a good job of showing what students have learned.

If the authors had good counterarguments, now would have been a good time.

The authors do say that standardized test scores are predictive of latter student outcomes but they ignore whether other assessments or factors are MORE predictive.

Yes, students with high test scores often graduate, excel in college or trade schools, etc. However, the same can be said with classroom grades. In fact, classroom grades are even more accurate.

This just makes sense. Classroom grades are based on at least 180 days of formal and informal assessment. Standardized tests are merely a snapshot of a few days work.

However, even more predictive is child poverty. The rich kids usually do much better than the poor kids. Same with race, class and the funding each student receives at his or her school.

If you want to help students, that’s where you need to begin – equitable resource allocation. Make sure all students have what they need to succeed, and realize that the more poverty you have, the greater the need, the greater the resources necessary.

Test scores are effectively useless.

If the only hope for testing is for cheerleaders to prove the policy’s efficacy, then have at it. Testing opponents have been demanding substantive answers to that question for decades.

To paraphrase Motown singer Edwin Starr:

“Testing! HUH!

What is it good for? ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!

And while you’re struggling to answer that question in the positive, make sure to explain why an assessment strategy designed by eugenicists is the best way to judge today’s children.

Standardized tests literally were invented to justify bias. They were designed to prove that higher income, higher class, white people were entitled to more than poorer, lower class, brown people. Any defense of the assessments today must explain how the contemporary variety escapes the essential racist assumptions the entire project is based on.

Standardized testing is a multi-billion dollar industry. The tests are written by huge corporations. They are graded by the same corporations. And when students fail, it is often the exact same corporations who provide the remediation materials, software and teacher training.

That is why the Biden administration didn’t waive the tests last year. That’s also why economists like Bruno and Goldhaber are sounding the alarm.

This is about saving an endangered cash cow. It’s protecting the goose that lays golden eggs.

It has nothing to do with helping children learn.

And there is no better image to prove that than forcing kids to take a meaningless test during a global pandemic.


 

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The Government Should Make Unvaccinated Students & Staff Mask Up in Schools

As a classroom teacher, I cannot enforce safety protocols in my school all by myself.

I can’t make students and coworkers wear masks.

I can’t require people to show me their medical records to determine with any degree of certainty who is and is not fully vaccinated.

But when it comes to Covid-19, the federal government is again throwing up its hands and leaving all safety protocols to small town government officials, local school directors, and schmucks like me.


The result is a patchwork of inconsistent and inadequate safety directives that put far too many at risk.

Here we go again.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued new guidelines Friday that it is safe for public schools to open for in-person learning so long as unvaccinated students and staff wear masks and an attempt is made to keep people 3 feet apart.

Children and adults who are fully vaccinated do not need to wear masks, according to the CDC.

However, these are all just suggestions.

There are no laws backing them up.

There is no federal mandate that anyone wear masks, that anyone prove their vaccination status or ANYTHING!

And as many parts of the world are battling new and more virulent strains of Covid-19 and some of the worst such as the Delta Variant are even beginning to show up on our shores, I want to know WHY.

Why is our government abrogating its responsibility to keep us safe?

It’s not like lawmakers aren’t already dedicated to protecting us in other ways.

The federal government has strict regulations to keep our foods and medicines safe. It has regulations to keep our motor vehicles and buildings safe. It even has specific regulations about which other vaccines children must have before they can enter the public school system.

Why is Covid-19 any different?

The government won’t let you drive without putting on a seat belt, it regulates your speed on the highway, and it won’t let you smoke a cigarette in a public place.

Why won’t it do the same kind of thing with Covid-19?

If the CDC is correct that unvaccinated people should wear masks in schools particularly in indoor and crowded settings, then our government should mandate we follow those guidelines.

Period.

“Vaccination is currently the leading public health prevention strategy to end the Covid-19 pandemic. Promoting vaccination can help schools safely return to in-person learning as well as extracurricular activities and sports,” the CDC said in a statement.

Unfortunately, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky has been her own worst enemy often garbling the organization’s message to avoid controversy. For instance, she stressed that decisions on safety measures should be put in place locally.

This has often been interpreted as leaving room for fewer safety precautions.

But this goes against Walensky’s other statements that MORE RESTRICTIONS may be necessary, not less.

In areas with low vaccination rates, higher viral spread or with increasing cases of new strains of the virus, she has suggested universal masking and other measures.

Whether this miscommunication is a result of a cowardly Joe Biden administration or Walensky’s own fault, it has hurt the vaccination effort. Instead of meeting the goal of 70% of Americans fully vaccinated by the July 4th holiday, we’re stalled at nearly 50%.

If there were actual mandates about what vaccinated people were allowed to do and those mandates were enforced, it would probably incentivize more people to get the shots.

At very least we should mandate masks at every elementary school in the nation. After all, children 11 or younger aren’t even eligible for the vaccine because it hasn’t been cleared for that age group yet. No need to check medical records. Elementary schools will be filled with the unvaccinated.

But no. Nothing.

It’s not even like these new CDC guidelines are extreme.

They fall well short of safety guidance in other parts of the globe.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is calling for all vaccinated people to continue to wear masks because of increased spread of variants of the virus.

The CDC isn’t going that far because of confidence that the vaccines being used in the US – the ones made by Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson and Johnson – are effective against new variants, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci.

“We know from good studies that the Delta variant is protected against by the vaccines that fundamentally are being used here. And that’s the reason why the CDC feels at this point they should not change their recommendation,” he said.

If the CDC guidelines are sensible and moderate, why won’t the federal government enforce them?

The answer seems to be multifaceted.

First, the vaccine and even Covid-19, itself, have been politicized by the Republican Party.

At this summer’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), participants cheered low vaccination numbers. Though vaccinated, himself, the former President has continually used fear of the vaccine as a tool to rally support.

There may be reluctance among Democrats to let their own political agenda be derailed by bogus cries of tyranny at public safety measures. (Of course given that those efforts already seem to be mostly derailed by reluctance to override the filibuster, this hardly seems to matter.)

Another overriding concern throughout the pandemic has been the economy.

Governmental officials from the federal to the state to the local level have been unwilling to put safety concerns ahead of capitalism. Business interests have repeatedly been prioritized over protections for human life.

In short, keeping schools open to in-person learning is necessary to keep parents working at their jobs. So any safety precautions that could jeopardize keeping the schools open jeopardizes profits.

Without the federal government stepping in, the decision probably will fall to most local school districts.

And this is entirely unfair to school directors. They should not have to make these kinds of life and death decisions.

In most cases, I would expect they’ll pass the buck on to individual teachers, parents and students.

If you want to mask up, you can. If you don’t, you won’t have to do it.

This will make individuals essentially powerless to protect themselves from the virus since wearing a mask doesn’t provide much protection to the wearer – it mostly protects others from the wearer.

And as to 3 feet social distancing, that’s impossible in most school buildings so it will just be ignored.

Like last school year, people will unnecessarily catch the virus.

The question is how much this will affect the national picture.

With schools closed for the summer, infection rates are mostly down. However, that could change in late August and September as they reopen.

If enough people don’t get the vaccine, that increases the chances for new variants of the virus to come into existence. With enough time, they can become resistant to the vaccines we have.

On the other hand, the pandemic could be over.

I fervently hope it is.

I want my classroom to return to normal.

I want to continue to make it better than normal.

But without the government stepping in here, we’re all just engaged in a game of chicken.

A game of chicken with a pandemic.


 

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If Pittsburgh Council Really Wants to Help City Schools, There’s an Obvious Solution

Ricky Burgess and Daniel Lavelle really have some nerve.

Back in February, the two Pittsburgh City Council Members proposed an “Education Emergency” at city schools due to Covid-19.

It died.

Now that the pandemic is on the wane, the two were back Wednesday to propose another “Education Emergency” but this time because the schools are “failing.”

I wonder what Fall’s crisis will be.

Let’s get something clear. Pittsburgh Public Schools are NOT in an education emergency, and the district certainly is not failing – though the students, teachers and administrators do have very real problems.

Namely money.

These are inner city schools serving students from very different neighborhoods. Some kids have every benefit possible before they even enter the schoolhouse doors. Others bring more traumas and developmental deficits with them than school books.

Yet Burgess and Lavelle – who aren’t even on the school board (and Bugress’ kids and grandkids attend or attended parochial schools) – want to continually characterize this as something the district is doing wrong.

Fellas, it’s not a matter of the district willfully withholding anything from students. It’s the district not having the resources to provide every student with the help they need.

Even James Fogerty of the sometimes corporate minded A+ Schools organization backed this up.

The district spends about the same on every child regardless of their needs, according to A+ Schools data. However, students with greater needs require more funding to keep up with those who have fewer academic deficits.

It’s like if you have two cars, one already with half its tank full and the other running on fumes. If you give them both an additional half a tank of gasoline, one car is going to go much further than the other one.

That doesn’t mean one car is better than the other. It simply means, you didn’t give BOTH what they needed.

Burgess and Lavelle like grand standing on this issue every few months despite the fact that running the district isn’t in their job description. That’s for the school board to do.

However, as luck would have it, there is something these two City Council Members could do to make a real difference in the lives of students at Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Pay back the $20 million in wage taxes that city schools loaned city government every year since 2004.

That’s right. The City of Pittsburgh continues to take money from the district that the city didn’t get originally and that it doesn’t need.

When the city was on the verge of financial collapse 17 years ago, the school district agreed to help by diverting a portion of its tax revenue to the city.
 


 
Now that the city is out of financial distress (and has been since 2018), some folks such as Superintendent Dr. Anthony Hamlet have suggested the city should return that money – not back payments, just stop taking the additional tax revenue. Administrators estimate that would bring in another $20 million for the city school district.


 
 
It wouldn’t solve all the district’s financial shortfalls, but it would certainly make a difference.

So Burgess and Lavelle don’t have to continue making these symbolic resolutions. Just do your job and stop the City of Pittsburgh from leeching off of school children.

They could do it today. They could do it tomorrow. They could have done it years ago. But they didn’t. They don’t. They won’t.

Why?

Because they aren’t interested in helping the schools.

They just want an opportunity to hear themselves speak.

This kind of trash talk from City Council used to be kindled by outgoing Mayor Bill Peduto. However, with Ed Gainey beating him in the primary, it looks like Gainey will be the next mayor.

Unfortunately, Gainey has not yet made a statement about returning the wage tax revenue to the district.

Nevertheless, there are encouraging signs. As a State Senator, he served on the Education Committee.

And he has said the following about the relationship between city and district governance:

“I want to be able to come in and begin to build a relationship where we’re working together and we’re building a level of cohesiveness. You can’t build if you’re not talking and so that’s one of the major issues … let’s talk and find out how we can help each other.”


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Stop Transforming US Schools into Prisons in the Name of Security

You probably heard about the Texas mom who became Internet famous for posing as her daughter in school last week.

Casey Garcia, 30, was arrested after she was caught attending her 7th grade daughter’s classes while disguised in a hoodie, a mask and thick black glasses.

In a viral video she posted to YouTube, she said the stunt was a “social experiment” to “prove a point.”

“We need better security at our schools,” Garcia said. “I kind of feel that I proved it.”

“There have been one too many mass shootings,” she added, arguing that schools should have metal detectors and possibly ban backpacks.

However, most schools already DO have metal detectors, and the presence of these devices won’t stop a parent like Garcia from posing as a teen during a pandemic when students are often required to cover their faces behind masks.

Hopefully sometime next school year when more teens are vaccinated and mask restrictions disappear, no one will be able to take advantage of pandemic safety precautions to sneak into classes.

Don’t get me wrong, teachers should have caught Garcia last week long before the end of the day, but the El Paso parent did more to prove the necessity of smaller class sizes than additional security.

You can pay millions of dollars on new complicated and time wasting screening processes to enter the building, or you can simply have teachers responsible for fewer kids so they can actually give them all more attention. It’s less costly and would reap educational benefits along with improving safety.

The fact is, we already spend an awful lot on school security. And often those measures and the costs to enact them directly impede teachers ability to teach and students willingness to learn.

Let’s start with cost.

The United States is one of the richest countries in the world. You’d expect that we could afford to buy BOTH security AND education for our students.

However, in practice, it doesn’t work that way.

To put it bluntly – we’re cheap. Especially when it comes to children.

Correction: Especially when it comes to OTHER PEOPLE’S children.

Right wing pundits love to quote exorbitant figures of how much the US spends per student as compared with the rest of the world.

However, they neglect to mention (1) this money is spent unevenly so that we spend much more on rich kids versus poor kids, and (2) we spend that money on services in this country that most other nations do not.

One of those things is security.

It’s not that schools in Europe and other comparable nations don’t concern themselves with keeping students safe. But they typically don’t have metal detectors, armed police, and high tech security systems. While secondary entrances and exits tend to be locked, main entrances usually remain open and unmonitored throughout the day.

Nor do they have the same dangers as we do. In the US, there are more firearms – roughly 400 million – than people. Not true in other countries.

Moreover, even in other nations like Switzerland where gun ownership is high, they have comprehensive background checks that make it much more difficult for criminals or the mentally ill to get a hold of a gun.

In the US, we have a large population that is racially diverse, a history of social strife, runaway income inequality, and a crumbling social safety net. All of which, when mixed together, are a recipe for conflict.

Not so in most other countries.

Moreover, the way most European nations, for example, have addressed safety is completely opposite to the way we do it in the US.

School shootings were on the rise in Europe in the early 2000s, but instead of buying security systems to stop shooters from entering the building, most schools focused on prevention. They realized that the overwhelming majority of shooters were not interlopers from outside but were disgruntled students. So these schools invested in more psychologists, social workers and resources to help children navigate the turmoil of growing up. The result was an almost complete disappearance of shootings.

If you ask me, a similar investment in the US would have similar success. However, given the differences in our societies, I don’t expect it would solve all of our problems.

In fact, emphasis on security certainly hasn’t.

Since 2012, US schools spending on high tech security programs has increased by at least $3 billion – not counting the billions more spent on armed campus police officers — with very little research proving these measures are at all effective, according to the Washington Post.

In fact, there is evidence that these measures don’t work. A federally funded 2016 study by Johns Hopkins University, for instance, concluded there was “limited and conflicting evidence in the literature on the short- and long-term effectiveness of school safety technology.”

But in the United States, when there’s an entire industry lobbying to take advantage of a crisis, that industry will likely be seen as the solution. It might not actually work, but at least huge corporations are making a profit. That’s often enough to justify spending more and more.

Security firms tout their products as the solution just as hammers scream we need more nails. Never mind that buying them will impede our progress and bankrupt us in the process.

Which brings me to education.

Even if heightened security was 100% effective against violence, it has a negative impact on learning.

No one wants to go to a prison for school.

Prisons are not welcoming environments. Children don’t want armed guards watching their every move. They want empathetic teachers and adults to help them understand their world.

This is especially true for low income and students of color. There is already a tendency among white faculty (and others) to criminalize their behaviors. In a punitive environment, this is even more so. Children become not something precious to be protected but the inmates, themselves, whose adolescent behaviors become the excuse for treating them like suspects and criminals.

Even preparing for violent situations can have negative impacts.

Active shooter drills – especially those from the ALICE Training Institute — do more to traumatize students than make them safer. The increasingly popular ALICE program teaches kids to physically confront gunmen under any circumstances. Consultants, school psychologists, safety experts and parents say this is dangerous and irresponsible.

“There is no research/evidence . . . that teaching students to attack a shooter is either effective or safe,” Katherine C. Cowan, spokeswoman for the National Association of School Psychologists, says. “It presumes an ability to transform psychologically from a frightened kid to an attacker in the moment of crisis, the ability to successfully execute the attack on the shooter (e.g., hit the shooter with the book or rock, knock them down, etc.) again in a crisis situation, the ability to not accidentally hurt a classmate, the reality that unsuccessfully going on the attack might make that student a more likely target of the shooter.”

However, the feeling that we are doing SOMETHING that we are at least preparing for a crisis is what keeps programs like this viable.

It’s also why Home Depot and Walmart market $150 bulletproof backpacks to parents. They may not actually help in a real life emergency, but they give the illusion of safety.

That’s what most of this really is – an illusion.

The fact is that the risk of being the victim of gun violence is low.  There are more credible risks traveling to and from school, catching a potentially deadly disease or suffering a life-threatening injury playing interscholastic sports. But we rarely worry about those.

Moreover, the risk of being a victim of gun violence is the same in the US whether you’re in school or not. And it’s higher in this country than in most others. A 2016 study in the American Journal of Medicine found that, among high-income nations, 91 percent of children younger than 15 who were killed by guns lived in the United States. Schools cannot solve that problem. We need sensible gun regulations and background checks in combination with measures for universal healthcare, racial equity and a reduction in income inequality.

However, our public schools are so often left to solve the problems our policymakers refuse to tackle.

If our teachers and administrators weren’t tasked with such a heavy burden and were actually given the funding and support they needed, perhaps they could better do the job of educating students.

That is the central purpose of public schools, after all.

Not gratifying parents to make points on the internet.

Not even security or profiting huge corporations.

It’s to teach kids.

We’d do best to remember that.


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

Top 6 Administrative Failures of the Pandemic Classroom

This school year has been a failure in so many ways.

But don’t get me wrong.

I’m not going to sit here and point fingers.

The Covid-19 pandemic has tested the public school system like never before.

Teachers, administrators and school directors have been under tremendous pressure and I believe most really tried their best in good faith to make things work as well as possible.

But as the year comes to a blessed close, we need to examine some of the practices common at many of our schools during this disaster and honestly evaluate their success or failure.

Some things worked well. Many made the best of a bad situation. But even more were blatant failures.

We need to know which was which.

As a classroom teacher with 17 years experience who worked through these times, let me clarify one thing.

I am not talking about things that were specific to individual classrooms.

Teachers struggled and stretched and worked miracles to make things run. We built the plane as we were flying it. As usual, this is where policy meets execution and that can differ tremendously from place-to-place.

What I’m talking about for the most part is policy. Which policies were most unsuccessful regardless of whether some super teachers were able to improve on them or not in their classrooms.

Here are my top six administrative failures of this pandemic school year:

1) SOCIAL DISTANCING

Health officials were clear on one point – keeping space between individuals helps stop the spread of Covid-19.

Exactly how much space we need to keep between people has varied over time.

At first, we were told to keep 6 feet apart. Then as health officials realized there wasn’t enough physical space in school buildings to keep students that far apart AND still have in-person school, they changed it to 3 feet.

The same happened with violating social distancing.

At first, you were considered a close contact only if you were within the designated space for 15 consecutive minutes. Then that was changed to 15 minutes in total even if that time was unconsecutive.

In any case, classes were held in physical spaces. Many schools at least tried to make an effort.

Was it successful? Did we actually keep students socially distanced all day?

Absolutely not.

Walk into nearly any school during a class change and you will see the same crowded halls as you would have seen pre-pandemic. Observe a fire drill, and you’ll see the same students right next to each other, skin against skin as they try to quickly find an exit.

These times generally aren’t 15 minutes consecutively, but think about how many class changes there are a day. If you have 8 or 9 classes, with each class change averaging 3 minutes, that’s 24 to 27 minutes of exposure a day.

If it weren’t for the fact that most children are asymptomatic, what would the result of this have been? How many kids did we expose to Covid-19 because of the sheer difficulty of administering social distancing protocols?

2) MASKING

Health officials told us it was important to wear masks on our faces to stop the spread of respiratory droplets that contain the virus. True there was some discrepancy on this issue at the beginning of the pandemic, but over time it became an agreed upon precaution.

There was also some discrepancy about what kinds of masks to wear and whether one should double mask.

However, putting all that aside, did schools that had in-person classes abide by this policy?

It actually depends on what part of the country you’re in. Some schools were directed to do so and others were not.

However, even in districts where it was an official policy, it rarely worked well.

Not only is it difficult to teach when the most expressive parts of your face are covered, it’s difficult to be heard. And for students, it’s even worse. They are still adolescents, after all. They abided by mask mandates with various degrees of success.

In my own classes, about a quarter of my students could never get their masks over their noses. No matter how many times I reminded them, no matter how often I spoke up, the masks always slipped below their noses – sometimes moments after I made a remark. Sometimes three, four or more times in succession to the point that I gave up.

Administration didn’t seem to take the matter as seriously as the school board written dress code policy, and teachers (including me) didn’t want to come down too hard on kids for neglecting to do something that many of them seemed incapable of doing.

Were we all exposed to respiratory droplets? Definitely. Without a doubt. Especially during lunch periods which were almost exclusively conducted in doors without even the possibility of opening a window.

Did partial masking have some positive effect? Probably. But I do not think we can call this policy a success.

3) CONTACT TRACING

How do you tell if someone has been exposed to Covid-19?

Health officials advised contact tracing. In other words, when someone exhibits symptoms and then tests positive for the virus, you identify people who came into close contact (within 3 feet for 15 minutes total).

However, this was conducted entirely on the honor system. So it was only as accurate as those reporting it were perceptive or honest. If someone was a close contact but didn’t want the hassle of quarantine, they could usually just refrain from reporting themselves.

Even worse was the fact that most children are asymptomatic when infected with Covid-19. Hundreds or thousands of kids could be walking around the school as carriers of the virus and you’d never know with contact tracing.

Random blood tests for Covid-19 and Covid-19 antibodies would have actually solved this problem, but it was never even recommended. This may have been because of costs or fears of inconveniencing students. However, it demonstrates perhaps the worst failure of the entire pandemic.

Any sense of security was completely false. Every week – often every few days – I’d get phone calls and emails from my district about students and staff testing positive for Covid-19 but miraculously there were no close contacts. Districts, administrators, school directors, health officials have lost a tremendous amount of credibility from this which may damage our society much worse than Covid-19 ever did.

4) STANDARDIZED TESTING

We threw caution to the wind and reopened in-person classrooms so children could have live instruction. Then the Biden administration mandated standardized testing which would eat up much of that time.

It’s nonsensical.

My last month of school is divided up almost equally in half between teaching and testing.

I’ve had to cut my curriculum to ribbons just to get a semblance of instruction done by the last day.

And it serves no purpose.

We all know students haven’t had the kind of robust instruction time they normally would. Why do we need tests to show that? It’s like looking at a person bleeding from an open wound and then testing to see if there was blood loss.

Not to mention the fact that these standardized tests have been shown to be bad assessments long before Covid-19 came on the scene.

This is a total policy failure that the kids are paying for with less time to learn.

But at least the testing corporations will get paid.

5) CYBER SCHOOL

Many students spent some or all of the last year on-line. The reasons why are clear and even potentially sound.

Their parents wanted to mitigate infection, and going cyber certainly did that.

However, the quality of instruction provided was variable to say the least.

At best, classroom teachers provided lessons through distance learning platforms like Zoom using accessories like Google Classroom.

At worst, prepackaged cyber curriculum based on credit recovery programs was used as the main provider of curriculum.

Platforms like Edmentum – which my daughter had to use – provided material that was not developmentally appropriate, assessed unfairly, and full of typos.

This just demonstrates the inferiority of cyber programs in general. The more interaction possible between teachers and students, the better. However, even at its best this is not as effective as live instruction.

Those districts that simply gave up and threw students onto fully cyber programs almost abrogated their responsibilities to educate at all.

However, I can certainly see why parents may have chosen this option for their children. After all, I made such a choice for my own daughter.

The best result though would be safety from Covid but somewhat less instructional quality. Either way, it’s a failure, but the degree will vary.

6) HYBRID MODELS

Many districts choose a hybrid education model combining some cyber and some in-person learning.

This tried to strike a balance between keeping children safe and providing the best possible education. However, both models were flawed and thus the hybrid model combines these flaws.

The worst part of this type though was how it often forced educators to educate.

Teachers usually had to instruct both live students in the classroom and cyber students on-line at the same time.

This is nearly impossible to do well. It’s like trying to perform a play to two different audiences at the same time. What works in-person does not work as well on-line and vice versa.

I found myself catering to one group and then another. Often it lead to the on-line students being left more to their own devices. Since most of them had their cameras off and rarely responded to questions, I fear they got an even worse education than under fully cyber circumstances.

In-person students also had to exercise patience as the teacher divided his or her attention to the on-line group.

And the degree of technical wizardry expected of teachers was astronomical.

In every class I was required to post material to a central in class TV screen so my in-person students could see it, while also making sure it was displayed on-line for my cyber kids. Sometimes it wouldn’t work for one group and I’d have to trouble shoot the problem in real time.

There were often instructional videos or examples I wanted to show where the volume or video wouldn’t display for one group or another. And sometimes on-line students couldn’t hear the teacher or their classmates.

Then we had Internet connection issues where cyber students were inexplicably dropped or in-person students couldn’t access materials on Google Classroom.

It was a nightmare – an every day, every period, never ending nightmare.

But teachers just got on with it and achieved amazing things despite all the issues.

CONCLUSIONS

This pandemic year can be characterized by epic failures at all levels.

But each failure contains within it a success.

In short, things could have been much worse.

At each level, these failures were mitigated by everyday classroom teachers who made the best of it.

The school year was not a complete waste academically for most students.

It would have been better under normal circumstances, but these were not normal circumstances.

Likewise, students, their families and educators were put at unnecessary risk of infection. And many paid the price for that with long illnesses, lingering symptoms and even death.

However, it could have been worse. Safety efforts – though insufficient – did protect people and fewer people were infected than might have been otherwise.

As more people are vaccinated against the virus and we move forward with vaccinating those 12 and older, risk should become even less prominent.

I dearly hope infection levels will be legitimately low enough in August that we can dispense with social distancing and masking, that we can have universal in-person classes.

However, we probably will do away with these measures WHETHER IT’S SAFE TO DO SO OR NOT!

And that is the worst problem!

Throughout the Covid pandemic, our policies have demonstrated a blatant disregard for human life and safety. Instead we have prioritized economics and capitalistic pragmatism.

Don’t let anyone tell you “Safety was our number one priority.”

It wasn’t. And it isn’t.

In America, the almighty dollar reigns supreme and your life and the lives of your children come in a distant second.


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

PA Gov. Wolf Fires Charter School Appeals Board. Every. Single. Member.

Being Governor of Pennsylvania must be one of the most thankless but important jobs ever.

With a hopelessly gerrymandered legislature, a majority of Republican lawmakers representing a minority of voters stops nearly anything from getting done for the rest of us.

If it weren’t for a Democratic Governor to act as a check and balance on this lunatic fringe, the state would devolve into chaos.

Case in point: the Charter School Appeals Board (CAB).

It took Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, seven years to fire his predecessor’s appointments and nominate replacements to the CAB.

Yet the GOP legislature is crying crocodile tears that he’s exceeding his authority by doing so.

The board is supposed to be a place where charter schools can challenge decisions made by their local school boards.

Charters are schools that are funded by taxpayer dollars but can be privately operated.

They have to ask the local school board for permission to open a new school in their district. Since the new charter would double services already present at the existent public school and require both schools to split existing funding, there is little incentive for school boards to grant these requests.

But charters can bypass local government by going to the CAB. Or at least they could when the board still had sitting members on it.

The CAB consists of the Secretary of Education and six members who are appointed by the Governor and approved by the state senate.

However, closed door negotiations with the Republican controlled senate over who they would even consider approving over the years continually stopped Wolf from putting people forward as official nominees.

After all, why would Republicans work with Wolf? What incentive did they have to do so?

Refusing to work with the Democratic Governor kept the previous Republican Governor’s appointees in place long after their tenure should have expired.

This kept the CAB ideologically right wing so the members could rubber stamp charter schools left and right bypassing the will of duly elected school boards all over the Commonwealth.

Take the most recent approval in March of the Pennsylvania STEAM Academy – a school founded by Carolyn Dumaresq, former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s Education Secretary.

She literally sat on the board and worked with several sitting members of CAB when she was part of the Corbett administration. Now all these years later she appears before CAB for a hearing asking them to overrule the Harrisburg School Board that had originally denied her charter school’s application.

Guess who won?

The CAB unanimously sided with Dumaresq over elected members of the local community.

So Wolf finally gave these privatization zealots their walking papers.

It’s a pattern we’ve become sickeningly familiar with in Pennsylvania.

A problem arises. The GOP legislature does nothing or has no power so the Governor takes action to fix it. Then the GOP throws a hissy fit.

The house was just on fire and you doused the flames! You shouldn’t be allowed a bucket of water!

We saw the same thing with COVID. Wolf closed the state down to stop a global pandemic. And Republicans are still crying “Tyrant” over his use of executive power.

The far right love crying “Wolf” and blaming everything on the Governor, but make no mistake –  gridlock is exactly what they want.

That’s why Wolf’s action on CAB is so clever.

By firing the remaining members of the board, Wolf has functionally erased it from existence.

If the senate wants there to be a charter school appeals board, lawmakers need to vote on his nominees.

Wolf has nominated the following people to the board:

-Jodi Schwartz, a school board member from the Central Bucks School District

-Shanna Danielson, a teacher in the East Pennsboro School District in Cumberland County and former state senate candidate

-Stacey Marten, a teacher in the Hempfield School District in Lancaster County

-Ghadah Makoshi, a business owner and former candidate for Pittsburgh’s school board

-Nathan Barrett, superintendent of the Hanover Area School District in Luzerne County

 
One of the most exciting things about these nominees is how they might interpret the state’s 20-year-old charter school law.

Previous CAB members have refused to let school boards consider the financial impact of opening a new charter school. However, the state constitution requires public schools to provide a quality education to students in their district. Therefore, if opening a new charter school would adversely affect a districts finances, doesn’t the constitutional necessity to provide a quality education take precedence?

Many school privatization critics think it does. Will Wolf’s nominees?

Unfortunately, they have several hurdles to clear before the senate would vote on them and we’d find out.

Senate Republicans are already throwing a tantrum because Wolf placed Pennsylvania in a regional initiative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

How dare he endanger short term fossil fuel profits just to provide a cleaner environment for our kids and grandkids!

As a result, they’ve vowed to block the Governor’s appointment to a state utility commission. It’s doubtful they’d let CAB nominees through while blocking Wolf’s other appointment.

Moreover, there will doubtless be legal challenges to the Governor’s firing of previous CAB members.  

In the meantime, there are at least nine cases scheduled to be decided by CAB from Souderton, Southeast Delco, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and Philadelphia. And that’s not even counting a recent pair of charter schools in Philadelphia where backers said they would appeal the local school board’s decision to deny their request to open.

Republicans may find themselves forced to choose between waiting out protracted legal challenges while their pet charters languish in appeals limbo or swallowing their pride, doing their damn jobs and voting on Wolf’s nominees!



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

Can Unions Defang Charter School Vampires?

What if a vampire suddenly lost its fangs?

Would it still be a vampire?

That’s the question at the heart of a major change in the largest charter school network in western Pennsylvania.

This week, staff at the Propel network of charter schools voted overwhelmingly to unionize.

So the money men behind the Allegheny County system of charter schools are probably wondering if they’re still investing in charter schools at all.

After all, when encumbered by the need to collectively bargain with employees, can a charter still do all its usual profitizing tricks?

Thursday, Propel teachers and other staff voted 236-82 to join the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA).

The drive took 9 months to achieve. Propel enrolls about 4,000 students at 13 schools in Braddock Hills, Hazelwood, Homestead, McKeesport, Pitcairn, Turtle Creek, Munhall, McKees Rocks and the North Side.

Though PSEA represents staff at about a dozen charters throughout the state, unionization is a rarity at charter schools.

And the reason is pretty obvious.

Charter schools are all about escaping the rules that authentic public schools have to abide by.

Though publicly financed, they are often privately operated.

They don’t have to be run by elected school boards. They don’t have to manage their business at public meetings. They don’t have to open their budgets to public review. Heck! They don’t even have to spend all the money they get from taxes on their students.

They can legally cut services and pocket the savings.

Nor do they have to accept every student in their coverage area. They can cherry pick whichever students they figure are cheapest to educate and those who they predict will have the highest test scores. And they can hide this discrimination behind a lottery or whatever other smoke screen they want because – Hey! The rules don’t apply to them!

I’m not saying every charter school does all this, but they all can. It’s perfectly legal to do so, and we rarely even see it happening until the school goes belly up and taxpayers are left paying the tab.

So how do unions change this system?

Most obviously, they put a check on the nearly limitless power of the charter operators.

Now you have to pay a living wage. You can’t demand people work evenings and weekends without paying them overtime. You have to provide safe working conditions for students and staff. And if you want to cut student services and pocket the difference, the staff is going to have something to say about that – AND YOU HAVE TO LISTEN!

How much will union power beat back charter bosses?

It’s hard to say. But there is no doubt that it will play a moderating influence.

And how much it does so may depend to a large degree on the individuals working at the school and the degree of solidarity they can exercise against their bosses.

One thing is for sure, with a union the gravy train is over.

Wall Street speculators often fawn over the charter industry because it’s possible to double or triple your investment in seven years.

This will probably not be the case in a unionized charter. And the impact of such a reality has yet to be felt.

Will the worst financial gamblers abandon school privatization because unions make it too difficult to make handfuls of cash? One can hope.

If it happened, the only charters left standing would be those created without profit as their guiding principle. The goal would really have to be doing the best thing for children, not making shadowy figures in the background a truckload of money.

Do such charter schools even exist? Maybe. With staff continuing to unionize, maybe there will be even more of them.

However, even if all of them become altruistic, there still remains a problem.

There still remains an authentic public school with which the charter must compete for limited funding.

Even a positive charter school that only does the best for its students still needs money to operate. And most districts barely have enough funding for one education system – certainly not two parallel ones.

This is a problem I don’t think unions can solve.

The state and federal government will have to find a better way to fund education. Relying on local property taxes to make up the largest share as we do in most parts of the country must come to an end.

But even if we figure out how to adequately, equitably and sustainably fund one education system, the presence of a charter school requires we do it twice.

Fiscal watchdogs may object to this as irresponsible, and one can certainly see their point.

However, in a country where we spend more on the military than the next ten nations combined, perhaps it isn’t so much to ask that we more than double spending on education.

Maybe there is something to be gained by having two parallel school systems. But there are certainly dangers.

Obviously the situation would be rife for de facto segregation. Charter schools already increase racial and economic segregation wherever these schools exist. However, if we regulated them to eliminate this risk, it is at least conceivable that these two systems could coexist.

It could certainly solve the problem of large class sizes by decreasing student to teacher ratios.

But will it?

Most of the people who work at charter schools are dedicated to their students and want them to succeed. They deserve every opportunity to thrive in a profession centered around children, not profit.

But can a system created to enrich the few ever be fully rehabilitated into one that puts children first?

When you defang a charter school, are you left with something harmless?

Or have you simply forced the beast to find other ways to feed?



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

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

Let the Children Play – My Prescription for Covid “Learning Loss”

Things are different in school these days.

The classes are smaller.

The kids are more subdued.

The teachers are exhausted.

But that’s life as we try to overcome the Covid-19 pandemic and somehow get back to normal.

I come into the room every day and sit behind a glass barrier.

My kids either stumble in from the hall wearing masks (often below their noses) or they log in to Zoom and participate on-line.


It’s far from ideal, but we get things done.

Right now we’re reading the play version of “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

The kids were reticent at first.

With the unreliable schedules of in-person vs remote learning, it took us months to get through our last text, “The Outsiders.”

Now we’re speeding through scenes of the play with each person required to read a part aloud.

The results have been amazing.

In any normal year, I have to stop the class at various points to discuss what’s happening in the play.

This week, the students, themselves, stop us with questions, comments, and more curiosity than I’ve seen since the pandemic hit last year.

It’s as if they’re starving to learn something, and this play is nourishing their hearts and minds.

I laugh because my first thought was to come down on the shouting out and side commenting until a deeper part of me realized this was all okay. They were on-task, if unrestrained.

It’s something, going from the near silence of a Zoom chat room with its black boxes instead of student faces to a classroom full of rambunctious teenagers getting excited by the lesson.

We’re having a great time as we discuss WWII, parental relationships, racism, dating etiquette, and Hitler’s genitalia.


(Hey! They brought it up!)

We only have about a month or so left of actual instruction time because the Biden administration is demanding we take standardized tests.

That’s weeks of class I could be teaching and they could be learning.

But whatever.

I’m tired of fighting for things that make sense in the classroom.

No one listens to teachers. That’s why I’m running for office.

I figure as a member of Allegheny County Council, people will have to listen to me. And I’ll bring all of the concerns of those around me out in the open, too.

But that brings me to the title of this piece:

Let the Children Play – My Prescription for Covid “Learning Loss”

As my students and I are racing to learn something in the classroom, the same folks who demand we waste that precious time on high stakes tests are also bemoaning kids learning loss.

“Oh, woe are the children!” They cry.

“How many years and months are they getting behind because of this pandemic!?”

It’s like a flat Earther complaining that we need to build a fence around the planet’s edges so no one can fall off.

What these fools fail to understand is that there is no learning loss.

Comprehension is not a race. There is no one ahead or behind. Everyone goes at their own pace. And if you try to force someone to go more quickly than is best for them, they’ll stumble and fall.

Or they’ll refuse to go forward at all.

These folks pretend that learning is all about numbers – test scores, specifically.

You need to hit this score before you’re ready for the next grade. That score’s required before high school. This one before college.

It’s all nonsense, and I can prove it with one question:

What do these numbers represent?

What are they measuring?

What is the basic unit of comprehension?

Okay. I lied. That was three questions. But you get the point.

Learning is not quantifiable in the way they pretend it is and teaching is not the hard science they want it to be.

You can’t look into someone’s mind and see what they’ve learned and what they still need to know.

You can give a test that tries to assess understanding of certain subjects. But the more complex the knowledge you’re testing for, the more tenuous the results of that test will be.

And an assessment made by someone miles away who never met the person taking it is less accurate – not more accurate.

But let’s be honest, these learning loss champions are not really worried about children. They’re representatives of the standardized testing industry.

They have a vested interest in selling tests, selling test prep materials, software, etc. It’s just a pity that so many of our lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are persuaded by their arguments (or the hefty campaign contributions that come with that persuasion).

So as the school year rapidly comes to a close, I have a suggestion to make.

I know I’m not qualified to do so.

I’m just a public school teacher with 17 years experience. I’ve never sat on any think tank boards. No testing corporation has ever paid me a dime to hawk one of their high quality remediation products.

But being in the classroom with kids day-in, day-out for all that time, I have observed some things about children and how they learn.

Most importantly – children are people.

I know that’s controversial, but I believe it to be true.

As such, they need down time.

They need time to regroup and recharge.

This pandemic has been hard on everyone.

As of April 1, nearly 3.47 million children have tested positive for COVID-19, most with mild symptoms, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. A few hundred have died, mostly children of color. Many more kids probably contracted the virus but were asymptomatic spreaders of the disease to adults.

As a result, between 37,000 and 43,000 children in the United States have lost at least one parent to COVID-19, according to USC research.

They have suffered through changes in routine, disruptions in learning, breaks in the continuity of their healthcare, missed significant life events like birthday parties, vacations and graduations. But worst of all they have suffered the loss of safety and security.

We should not be demanding they work harder at a time like this.

We should be providing them with kindness, empathy and love.

In the classroom, I no longer have a thing called “Late Work.”

If a student hands in an assignment passed the due date, there is no penalty. I just grade it. And if it isn’t done correctly, I give them a chance to redo it.

As many chances as they need.

I remediate. I tutor. I offer advice, counseling, a sympathetic ear.

It’s not that much different than any other year, except in how often children need it now.

Kids AND their parents.

I can’t tell you how many adults I’ve counseled in the last several months.

So when the last day of school arrives, I will close my books.

There will be no assignments over the summer from me.

No homework. No requirements. No demands.

The best things kids can do is go out and play.

Have fun.

Recharge.

The corporate testing drones will tell you that’s a waste of time. Our kids are getting behind doing things like that.

Nonsense.

Play is the best kind of learning kids can do.

It is an independent study in whatever they are curious to discover.

Play is the mind’s way of finding out how things work, what a person can do, how it feels to do this or that.

Honestly, there is not a second wasted in play.

Taken moment-by-moment, there is more learning done during play than in any classroom. Because play is self-directed and driven entirely by curiosity.

I want all of my students to go play this summer.

And I want the children who will be in my class next year to have had a fantastic summer of fun and excitement.

That way they’ll come into the classroom energized and ready to learn what I have to show them.

They won’t be ahead. They won’t be behind.

They’ll just be.

And that’s my prescription for a productive 2021-22.




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

The Year Without Standardized Testing

Last year was the first in nearly two decades that the US did not give standardized tests to virtually every student in public school.

Think about that.

Since 2001 almost every child took the tests unless their parents explicitly demanded they be opted out.

For 19 years almost every child in grades 3-8 and once in high school took standardized assessments.

And then came 2019-20 and – nothing.

No multiple guess fill-in the bubble questions.

No sorting students into classes based on the results.

No evaluating teachers and schools based on the poverty, race and ethnicities of the children they serve.

And all it took to make us stop was a global pandemic.

What are the results of that discontinuity?

We may never really know.

There are so many variables at play.

The Covid-19 pandemic closed school rooms across the nation for various lengths of time. Some are still closed. Some are beginning to close again.

Many classes were conducted remotely through conferencing software like Zoom and file sharing programs like Google Classroom. Others were conducted through a hybrid model combining in-person instruction and cyber instruction. While still others met in-person with numerous mitigation efforts like masks, social distancing and air purifiers.

Many students were absent, struggled to learn and experienced countless traumas due to the isolation, sickness and deaths.

About 561,000 people are dead in the United States because of Covid-19.

That’s more than Americans who died in the attack on Pear Harbor (2,403), the 9/11 terrorists attacks (3,000), WWI (116,000) or WWII (405,000).

Only the Civil War (600,000 – 850,000) has a larger death toll. For now.

As of April 1, nearly 3.47 million children have tested positive for COVID-19, most with mild symptoms, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. A few hundred have died, mostly children of color. Many more kids probably contracted the virus but were asymptomatic spreaders of the disease to adults.

As a result, between 37,000 and 43,000 children in the United States have lost at least one parent to COVID-19, according to USC research.

How do you sort through all these tragedies and traumas and say THIS was caused by a lack of standardized testing?

You probably can’t.

But you can ask questions.

For example, how many teachers really missed the data the standardized tests would have shown?

How many students and parents agonized over what last year’s test scores would have been?

How many government agencies really wanted to provide resources to schools but couldn’t figure out where they should go because they didn’t have test scores to guide them?

I’m not sure exactly how we could find answers.

We could survey teachers and staff about it.

We could survey parents and students.

We could even subpoena Congresspeople and ask them under oath if a lack of test scores determined their legislative priorities.

But we’re not really doing any of that.

It’s a prime opportunity to find out something valuable about standardized tests – mainly if people really think they’re valuable.

But we’re not going to stop and do it.

Instead we’re rushing back onto the testing treadmill this year while the Coronavirus pandemic still rages.

Is that logical behavior?

Not really.

We already have almost 20 years of data showing that annual testing did not improve student learning nationally. US kids were no better off from 2001-2019 having yearly tests than students in Scandinavia who were tested much less frequently. In fact, the countries with the highest academic achievement give far fewer assessments.

The effectiveness and fairness of standardized testing have come into question since before George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation enshrined them into law.

They were designed by eugenicists to justify racism and prejudice. Their partiality for wealthier whiter students and discrimination against poorer browner students has been demonstrated time and again.

But in 2001 we created an industry. Huge corporations write the tests, grade the tests and provide the remediation for the tests. Billions of dollars in taxes are funneled into this captive market which creates monetary incentives for our lawmakers to keep the system going.

Yes, some civil rights organizations have waffled back and forth over this as big donors who value the tests make or withhold contributions. Meanwhile, many other more grassroots civil rights organizations such as Journey for Justice Alliance (JJA), a group made up of 38 organizations of Black and Brown parents and students in 23 states, have continuously called for the abolition of high stakes testing.

It should be no surprise then that President Joe Biden – though as a candidate he promised to stop standardized testing if he were elected – did an immediate about face this year and insisted we reinstate the assessments.

A scientific mind would be empirical about this. It would examine the results as much as possible and determine whether moving forward made any sense.

This is especially true as the pandemic health crisis continues to make the act of giving the tests difficult at best and dangerous at worst.


There is no way a logical mind can look at the situation and not come to the conclusion that the status quo on testing is a triumph of capitalism over science and reason.

In a month or so, the year without testing will be just that – a single year.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill:

We shall go on to the end. We shall test during Covid, we shall test in the classes and on-line, we shall test with growing confidence and growing strength wearing masks, we shall defend our industry, whatever the cost may be. We shall test in the homes, we shall fill in bubbles on sanitized desks, we shall test in the fields and in the streets, we shall test in the hospitals; we shall never surrender!



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

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

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

Why a Public School Teacher is Running for Allegheny County Council

People seem surprised when I knock on their doors.

Perhaps it’s the fact that they weren’t expecting anyone to drop by.

Perhaps it’s because we’re still in a global pandemic.

But when they peek through their screens or poke their heads out with a quizzical look, the one thing that seems to put them at ease is when I tell them I’m a public school teacher.

It’s certainly not that I’m running for Allegheny County Council near Pittsburgh, Pa.

A teacher, they know and understand. Their kids had teachers. They had teachers when they were young.

But County Council?

Many of them seem to struggle with what that governmental body even is.

Municipal council, they know. School board, magistrate, even their local dog catcher.

But County Council is the kind of thing that falls through the cracks between state and local.

So why is a public school teacher like me trying to get their support on May 18 and get elected?

In truth, it’s been a long time coming.

I teach at Steel Valley Middle School in Munhall, just outside of District 9 where I’m running for office.

Being an educator is the greatest job I’ve ever had.

It’s challenging, time consuming, exhausting, but at the end of every day I go home with the feeling that I really did something worthwhile.

I help kids learn to read and write. I open them up to new possibilities and give them opportunities to express themselves.

Sure, I teach grammar and vocabulary, but we also read “The Diary of Anne Frank.” We read “The Outsiders” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” We read authors from Edgar Allan Poe to Charles Dickens to Langston Hughes, Toni Cade Bambera and Gwendolyn Brooks.

We have heated discussions about race, class, gender, punishment, justice.

For 17 years I’ve watched my students learn and grow as the resources available to them withered and died. Privatization expanded like a new frontier as constraints upon what counts as learning became more rigid and reductive.

Class sizes got larger every year. Electives, extra curricular activities, tutoring all disappeared.

They were replaced with standardized testing, test prep for the standardized testing, testing before the testing, and workbooks about how to do the testing right.

Every year it got a little harder.

Then came Covid-19 and the response to it.

In one year the system nearly collapsed.

The only thing that kept us going was the tenacity of teachers.

They closed our classrooms and we figured out how to do the job from home with our laptops and home computers. We became experts overnight in Zoom, Google Meets, Google Classroom and every other file sharing, digital conference software there is.

And that would have been okay I guess – if the rest of society had held up its side of the bargain.

Immunologists told us we had to shelter in place but our governments didn’t provide the means to do so.

The economy needed a kickstart. People just got a kick.

And schools were caught in the maelstrom.

Many schools reopened unsafely. Not only did people get sick, but the quality of education was subordinate to babysitting services so parents could get back to nonessential jobs that kept their bosses showered in profit.

Too many school directors became like the mayor in Jaws, proudly announcing the beaches were open, then trying desperately to find any excuse for the mangled bodies washing up on shore other than a hungry shark.

I will never forget the calm certainty with which policymakers announced schools were reopening without even mentioning the impact on the teachers who still had to staff these schools and put themselves and their families at increase risk of infection. Nor will I forget the CDC advising that vaccinating teachers first was nice but not necessary.

However, as bad as all of that was, it was the insurrection at the Capitol that pushed me over the edge.

Here we had a group of white terrorists dressed up for comic-con proudly rushing our highest legislative body to kill lawmakers who wouldn’t perform a coup.

I had had enough.

Somewhere inside myself – as I tried to calm my students and explain the significance of what was happening – I promised that I would try to make a change.

If so few people tasked with making the important decisions couldn’t do it, I would offer to do it, myself.

If so many easily corrupted fools could cheer the destruction of democracy, I would do what I could to defend it.

So when the opportunity arose to run for County Council, I took it.

Like I said, it’s a strange position.

Allegheny County is one of the biggest counties in Pennsylvania second only to Philadelphia. Being on council would allow me to have a say in everything from transportation to law enforcement to business to – yes – education.

First, the area where I live – the Mon Valley – is made up of former steel towns left behind by the rest of the county. In most parts of the city, if you need to get somewhere, you can just take a bus. Not in the Mon Valley.

So many Port Authority routes have been cut that getting in to the city on public transportation is nearly an all day affair – if possible at all. I should know. My wife used to ride to work on the bus, but after the latest round of cuts, that become too hard to fathom.

On County Council, I could do something about that.

Then there’s our air quality – some of the worst in the state.

When the steel mills closed, we lost most of the smog and haze, but it didn’t last. With the fracking boom and well-meaning efforts to keep as many mills open as possible, the air became a thick, rusty tasting mess.

On County Council, I could do something about that.

Well-paying union jobs are harder to come by these days, and those that do exist shouldn’t require us to poison the environment. We have all these rivers, all these corridors free from trees or phone lines. We could build wind turbines on the shores and generate more power than we’d know what to do with. We could checker the rooftops with solar panels and not have to worry about the latest thunderstorm knocking out our power.

And doing so would require hiring people to build, maintain and improve this green infrastructure. No more sewage overflowing into the river during flood times. No more pollution from industries not required to monitor and regulate their output. No more lead from flaking paint getting into our food and water.

On County Council, I could do something about that.

Let’s not forget law enforcement.

The County Jail is located right in the middle of Pittsburgh, and the way it’s run is a disgrace.

About 80% of the people incarcerated there have not been convicted of any crime. They simply can’t afford cash bail, failed a drug test (often for something like marijuana) or violated our county’s inordinately long parole period. It’s ridiculously expensive not to mention inhumane. It costs $100 a day to keep someone in lockup. That’s $100 million a year or 27 cents from every dollar of county taxes collected.

We need to stop this madness, get civilian oversight of police and cut out the military style policing.

On County Council, I could do something about that.

And of course there’s education.

According to state law, community colleges are supposed to be bankrolled completely by the state, the county and student tuition. However, the state and the county have always shortchanged the college, only paying about 20% instead of the 33% they owe. The result has been an increased burden on students and families with rising tuition and fewer services. That’s appalling, especially in a county where one third of all residents have taken at least one class through Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC). I, myself, took a math course there when I was preparing to become a teacher. And my father-in-law was a teacher there until they cut his job.

Moreover, County Council plays a role in appointing people to boards and authorities including those that administer CCAC. Yet council has rarely appointed any educators or people who understand the profession.

On County Council, I could do something about that.

Which brings me to my final point.

What about public schools?

Does the county have any role to play in what happens to them?

At present, the answer is mostly no. But it doesn’t have to be.

In Pennsylvania, as in most states, public schools are primarily funded by local property taxes. So rich communities spend a boatload per student and poor communities scrape together whatever they can afford.

It’s a problem only the state and federal government can truly solve, but that doesn’t mean we’re helpless at the county level.

We have a $2 billion budget. We have an awful lot of big corporations that hide behind a non-profit status but act a lot more like for-profit companies.

We wouldn’t have to scrape together much to make a real difference in the lives of underserved students.

We could help them get pre-kindergarten services, decrease class size, increase arts and humanities, get more after-school tutoring

On County Council, I could do something about that, too.

So that’s why I’m running for office.

That’s why I’m willing to trade in a few nights from the classroom to the council chambers.

I’d still be a teacher. I wouldn’t be giving up my day job.

But if people see fit to support my candidacy, I could get a seat at the table, a chance to form coalitions to bring real change for the people of my district and the county as a whole.

That’s why I’m going door-to-door, introducing myself and asking for support.

I want to make a difference.

I want to be able to look my students in the eye with the full knowledge that I’m doing everything I can to ensure they have a future.

But I can’t do it alone.

We can only do it together.


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