PA Officials Want to Replace Bad Keystone Exams with Bad College Entrance Exams

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Pennsylvania officials are scandalized that the Commonwealth is wasting more than $100 million on unnecessary and unfair Keystone Exams.

 
They’d rather the state spend slightly less on biased college entrance exams.

 
State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale and State Sen. Andy Dinniman held a joint press conference last week to introduce a new report compiled by DePasquale’s office on the subject which concludes with this recommendation.

 

Replacing bad with bad will somehow equal good?

 
Under the proposal, elementary and middle school students would still take the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests. However, instead of requiring all high school students to take the Keystone Exams in Algebra I, Literature and Science, the report proposes the same students be required to take the SAT or ACT test at state expense.

 

This is certainly an improvement over what the state demands now, but it’s really just replacing one faulty test with another – albeit at about a $1 million annual cost savings to taxpayers.

 

The report does a good job of outlining the fiscal waste, lack of accountability and dubious academic merits of the Keystone Exams, but it fails to note similar qualities in its own proposal.

 

From 2008 to 2019, the state already paid Minnesota-based Data Recognition Corp. more than $426 million for the PSSAs, Keystone Exams and Classroom Diagnostic Tools (an optional pretesting program). The federal government paid the company more than an additional $106 million. Officials wonder if this money couldn’t have been better spent elsewhere, like in helping students actually learn.

 

DePasquale, who recently launched a congressional bid, puts it like this:

 

“When the federal law changed in 2015, why didn’t Pennsylvania begin to phase out Keystone Exams? I could understand if they use them for a short period of time after that, but it’s been four years, and will cost taxpayers nearly $100 million by the end of the contract for tests our students do not even need to take.”

 

The federal government dropped its mandate four years ago and the state legislature did the same last year.

 

Originally, state lawmakers intended to make the Keystone Exams a graduation requirement, but in 2018 they passed legislation to make the assessments one of many avenues to qualify for graduation starting in 2021-22. Students can instead pass their core courses and get into college among other things.

 

“The Department of Education itself said they [the Keystone Exams] are not an accurate or adequate indicator of career or academic readiness,” Dinniman said. “So what I’m always surprised about is, they said it and then they continue to use it. These tests have faced opposition from almost every educational organization that exists. And when we got rid of the requirement and put in [more] pathways to graduation, this was passed unanimously by both the Senate and the House.”

 

The federal government also changed its testing mandate. It used to require all public school students to take state-specific assessments in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

 

When Congress reauthorized the federal law overseeing education in 2015, it offered states more flexibility in this regard. Elementary and middle school students still have to take a state-specific test. But now the high school portion can be fulfilled with college admissions tests – and, in fact, a dozen other states legislate just such a requirement.

 
Democrats DePasquale and Dinniman think the SAT and ACT test are an improvement because students who taken them are more likely to go to college. But that’s a classic case of confusing correlation and causation.

 

Students motivated to go to college often take these exams because they are required to get in to a lot of these schools. Taking these tests doesn’t make students MORE motivated and determined to enroll in post-secondary education. They’re ALREADY motivated and determined.

 

Moreover, one of the faults the report finds with the Keystone Exams is that the assessments measure student’s parental income more than children’s academics.

 

Kids in wealthier districts almost always do better on the Keystone Exams than those in poorer districts. In fact, the report notes that of the 100 state schools with the highest scores, only five were located in impoverished districts —where the average household income is below $50,000.

 

Yet the report fails to note that this same discrepancy holds for the SAT and ACT tests. Poor kids tend to get low scores and rich kids get the highest scores.

 

In fact, the College Board – the corporation that makes and distributes the SAT – recently started adjusting scores on its test in an attempt to counteract this effect thereby accounting for high schools and neighborhoods “level of disadvantage.”

 

Does this creative scoring actually work? Who knows – but it’s kind of like being forced to swallow poison and an antidote at the same time when any sensible person would simply refuse to swallow poison in the first place.

 

And that’s the best solution state officials have for our children.

 

They’re suggesting we replace discriminatory Keystone Exams with discriminatory college entrance exams.

 

To be fair, DePasquale and Dinniman are somewhat constrained by boneheaded federal law here.

 

Though the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is an improvement over No Child Left Behind, it still requires all high school students to take standardized tests.

 

Given what we know about the limits and biases of these assessments, policymakers should remove that hurdle altogether. But until the federal government gets its act together, one could argue that DePasquale and Dinniman’s policy suggestion may be the best available.

 

When you can’t do right, maybe it’s best to do less wrong.

 

But we must acknowledge that this isn’t the ultimate solution, it’s only a stopgap. We must continue to push for intelligent assessment policy that’s best for our children.

 

Standardized testing should be eliminated altogether – especially in high stakes situations. Instead we should rely on classroom grades, portfolios of student work and/or other authentic measures of what children have learned in school.

 

Accountability – the typical reason given behind these assessments – should be determined by the resources provided to students, not a highly dubious score given by a corporation making a profit off of its testing, test prep and ed tech enterprises.

 

The most we can expect from DePasquale and Dinniman’s program if it is even considered by the legislature is a band-aid on a gaping wound.

 


Read the full report, Where Did Your Money Go? A Special Report on Improving Standardized Testing in Pennsylvania.


 

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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Busing and School Segregation Used for Politics not Policy

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If children of all races went to the same schools with each other, it would be harder to treat them unequally.

 

Moreover, it would be harder for them to grow up prejudiced because they would have learned what it’s like to have classmates who are different from them.

 

And though most people agree with these premises in principle, our laws still refuse to make them a reality in fact.

 

Perhaps that’s why it was so astounding when Kamala Harris brought up the issue of school segregation and busing at the first Democratic debates.

 
If you’re anything like me, for the first time these debates made Harris look like a viable contender for the party’s Presidential nomination to face Republican incumbent Donald Trump in 2020.

 

But then she immediately contradicted herself when people actually started to take her seriously.

 

During the debates, Harris called out front runner and former vice president Joe Biden for opposing court-ordered busing in the 1970s as a way of combating school segregation.

 

The California Democrat and former federal prosecutor rightly said that 40 years ago there was a “failure of states to integrate public schools in America,” so “that’s where the federal government must step in.”

 

But her star-making moment was when she made the whole matter extremely personal.

 

“There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bused to school every day,” Harris said. “That little girl was me.”

 
The tactic was so successful that Biden has been fumbling to apologize and explain away a history of obstructing desegregation ever since.

 

A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted after the debate showed Biden had lost half of his support among black voters since earlier in June.

 

Meanwhile, the Harris campaign was quick to cash in on the political capital she earned by selling t-shirts with a picture of herself when she was in school with the emblem “That Little Girl Was Me.”

 

It could almost be a masterclass in how to make a political point to both boost your own campaign and change the narrative to improve national policy.

 

That is if Harris actually backed up her rhetoric with action.

 
Unfortunately, she has been tripping all over herself to keep this a criticism of Biden and not let it become a policy prescription for today.

 
While perfectly happy to support busing as a measure to stop segregation in the past, she seems much less comfortable using it to stop our current school segregation problems.

 

Because even though the landmark Supreme 
Court decision that found racial segregation to be unconstitutional – Brown v. Board of Education – is more than 60 years old, our nation’s schools are in many places even more segregated now than they were when this ruling was handed down.

 

So the question remains: in some areas should we bus kids from black neighborhoods to schools located in white ones and vice versa to ensure that our classrooms are integrated?

 

Since the debates, Harris has waffled saying busing should be “considered” by school districts but she would not support mandating it.

 

In subsequent comments, she said she’d support a federal mandate for busing in certain situations where other integration efforts have not been effective or when the courts have stepped in to provide the federal government that power. However, she does not believe that either of these conditions have been met.

 

Frankly, it sounds a whole lot more like someone desperately making things up as she goes along than someone with a true plan to fix a deep problem in our public education system.

 

She rightly attacked Biden on his record but then came up short trying to prove that she would be much different, herself, if elected.

 

However, that doesn’t mean all Democratic candidates are so unprepared. A handful have detailed integration policy proposals.

 

The most obvious is Bernie Sanders.

 

In fact, it is a cornerstone of his “Thurgood Marshall Plan for Education.” Not only would he repeal the existing ban on using federal transportation funding to promote school integration, he would put aside $1 billion to support magnet schools to entice more diverse students. However, the most ambitious part of his desegregation effort goes beyond legislation. Sanders promises to “execute and enforce desegregation orders and appoint federal judges who will enforce the 1964 Civil Rights Act in school systems.”

 

Sanders understands that the courts have largely sabotaged most desegregation efforts in the last 40 years.

 

At least two Supreme Court rulings have taken away the federal government’s power to enforce Brown v. Board. The first was 1974’s Milliken v. Bradley ruling which established that federal courts could not order desegregation busing across school district lines. They could only do so inside districts. So in big cities like Detroit – where the case originated – you have largely black city schools surrounded by mostly white suburban ones. The ruling forbids busing from city to suburban districts and vice-versa thereby destroying any kind of authentic desegregation efforts.

 

More recently, in 2007, the Supreme Court’s Parent’s Involved decision put even more constraints on voluntary busing programs.

 

Sanders is acknowledging these problems and promising to select judges to the bench who would work to overturn these wrongheaded decisions.

 

To my knowledge, no one has yet offered a more comprehensive plan.

 

However, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary and San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro comes in at a close second.

 

As you might expect, his school integration plan focuses on real estate and housing issues. According to his Website, Castro’s plan includes:

 

“Fulfill the promise of Brown v Board of Education through a progressive housing policy that includes affirmatively furthering fair housing, implementing zoning reform, and expanding affordable housing in high opportunity areas. These efforts will reduce racial segregation in classrooms.”

 

In other words, Castro hopes to work around the courts by incentivizing integration in neighborhoods which would also increase it in our schools.

 

It’s a good plan – though perhaps not enough in itself.

 

Unfortunately, there are reasons to doubt Castro’s sincerity here. Unlike Sanders’ plan, Castro’s education policy statement is littered with jargon right out of the school privatization, edtech and high stakes testing playbook. These are, after all, the same people who have worked to increase segregation with the promotion of charter and voucher schools.

 

For instance, the second point of his plan is called “Reimagining High School” – a monicker stolen from the XQ Superschools program, a philanthrocapitalist scheme to rebrand school privatization funded by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Steve Jobs.

 

This shouldn’t be surprising coming from 
Castro. In 2013, the mayor went on a tour of cities sponsored by Education Reform Now – an arm of Democrats for Education Reform, a school privatization lobbying network. In the same year, he was also a featured guest at a ribbon cutting ceremony for IDEA charter schools. In 2010, he admitted he had no problem taking money with strings attached – a reference to the Obama administration’s chief education initiative of offering education grants if states increased reliance on high stakes testing and charter schools. In particular, Castro said: “I would have taken the Race to the Top money if I was mayor, dogcatcher, or whatever.”

 

And speaking of standardized testing and edtech, there are other telling hints that he’s on the neoliberal bandwagon in his current education plan:

 

“Provide educators and public schools flexibility in defining success, including competency-based assessments and support for transitions away from seat-time requirements. Provide maximum flexibility for school leaders, teachers, and students to work together to develop rigorous, competency-based pathways to a diploma and industry recognized credentials,” [Emphasis mine].

 

These terms “competency-based” and “rigorous” have strong associations with the privatization industry. “Competency-based” education programs usually mean making kids do daily mini-standardized tests on iPads or other devices and other untested cyber education programs. “Rigorous” has been associated with topdown academic standards like the Common Core that provide students with few resources or even taking them away and then blaming kids for not being able to meet arbitrary and developmentally inappropriate benchmarks.

 

Castro has some good ideas, but his troubling associations and language give any person familiar with these issues reason to pause.

 

Of course, Castro has not yet made a real mark among those Democrats seeking their party’s nomination.

 

Perhaps more important is the relative silence of a more popular candidate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

 

She hasn’t spoken much about integration efforts on the campaign trail. Along with Sanders, she is a co-sponsor of the Strength in Diversity Act, the leading congressional vehicle for school integration. However, that legislation is deeply flawed because it not only increases grant money for desegregation but also gives a big chunk of change away to charter schools.

 

In the past, Warren has supported a kind of school voucher program to separate where a student is enrolled in school from where they live entirely, but you can add it to the list of education issues she has not seen the need to clarify as yet.

 

It’s no surprise that so few Democratic hopefuls want to address the issue of desegregation – especially doing so through busing.

 

White middle class and wealthy people generally don’t support it.

 

They simply don’t want their kids going to schools with large numbers of black and brown students.

 

And this is a real moral weakness in white culture.

 

I went to an integrated school from Kindergarten to high school. My daughter goes to the same district. I teach at another integrated school.

 

The benefits of attending such a school far outweigh any negatives.

 

If students have to spend more time getting to and from school via buses to reach this goal, it wouldn’t matter if we valued the outcome.

 

In fact, many white parents don’t mind putting their kids on buses or driving them to get away from minority children.

 

Certainly we should try to minimize the time it takes to get to and from school but that shouldn’t be the only consideration.

 

They say we get the leaders we deserve.

 

If white people really want to defeat Trump, they may have to start by defeating the bigot inside themselves first.


 

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 Last Day of School

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On the last day of school this year, my 8th grade students gave me one of the greatest salutes a teacher can get.

 

They reenacted the closing scene of “The Dead Poets Society.”

 

You know. The one where Robin Williams’ Mr. Keating has been fired from a boarding school for teaching his students to embrace life, and as he collects his things and leaves, the students get up on their desks as a testament to his impact and as a protest to the current administration’s reductive standardization.

 

That’s what my students did for me. And I almost didn’t even notice it at first.

 

The whole thing went down like this.

 
The bell rang and an announcement was made telling us that the day was done.

 
I was immediately rushed by a crowd of children turning in final projects, shaking my hand, saying goodbye.

 
In fact, I was so occupied with the students right in front of me that I didn’t notice what was happening with the ones just behind them.

 
I heard someone say in a ringing voice, “Oh Captain, my Captain!”

 
I looked up and there they were.

 
About a dozen students were standing on their desks, looking down at me with big goofy grins.

 

Some had their hands on their hearts. One had raised his fist in the air. I think someone in the back was even making jazz hands. But they were each standing up there with the same look on their faces – a mixture of independence, humor and gratitude.

 

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that this happened. Some of them had threatened months ago to make just such a demonstration.

 
We had watched the movie together back in April at the introduction of our poetry unit. I guess it was my way of trying to show them that poetry could make a deep impact on people. But I certainly hadn’t wanted them to put themselves at risk by standing on the furniture.

 

In fact, I had specifically cautioned them NOT to do this exact thing because someone might fall off their desk and hurt themselves.

 

But on the last day of school after the last bell has rung and my tenure as their teacher has expired – well, things are different then.

 

“Thank you,” I said. “That is really one of the nicest things students have ever done for me.”

 

Then I took out my phone and asked if I could snap a few pictures, because who’d ever believe me if I didn’t? They didn’t mind.

 

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When I was done, they hopped down one at a time, many of them rushing forward to give me a hug.

 

This class will always be a special one in my heart.

 

We’ve come a long way together.

 

For most of them, I was their language arts teacher for two years. When they first came in the classroom they were just babies. Now they are going off to high school.

 

Unless you’re a parent, you wouldn’t believe how much kids can grow and change in just a few short years. And the middle school years are some of the most extreme. The line between child and adult fades into nothingness.

 

I’ve had a handful of children who were enrolled in my classes for multiple years before, but I’d never had so many. In some ways, we were more like a family than a classroom.

 

I had been there when parents got sick, left, died. I knew them all so well – who would ask questions just to stall, who never got enough sleep and why (often Fortnite), which ones had athletic aspirations, which were incredible artists, etc. Some had come out of the closet to me and their classmates but not at home.

 

Many of us went on a school field trip to Washington, DC, together. We’d toured the Holocaust Museum and Arlington National Cemetery. When I was invited to do a TED talk, they tracked it down on YouTube. They even found my Twitter account and made merciless fun of my profile picture. And when I actually had my book published on education issues last year, a bunch of my kids even came out to hear me talk about it at local book stores.

 

It’s hard to explain the depth of the relationship.

 

At the end of the year, I always give my students a survey to gauge how they think I did as their teacher. It’s not graded, and they can even turn it in anonymously.

 

The results are almost always positive, but this year, I got responses like never before:

 

“I love you, Mr. Singer. Thanks for a great 2 years. I will terribly miss you.”

 

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“I’ve never been bored here. You are the first teacher that made me want to go to their class and has been one of my favorites.”

 

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“He stayed cool as a cucumber and was never angry… Basically the greatest teacher I’ve had all year.”

 

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 He was “fair to all students.”

 

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“He was more inclusive to many different groups.”

 

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“He made sure I didn’t fool around. He let me hand in my work late. He was always very kind and he cares about us. He shows us that he cares about how we feel. He made sure everything was fair.”

 

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“He breaks things down A LOT better than other teachers. He’s a very nice person. I like the way he teaches.”

 

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“Mr. Singer did well to motivate us and help us to succeed and get a better grade.”

 

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“He explained things better than other teachers.”

 

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“He helped me mentally and physically to be ready for the PSSAs. Also he gave us good books to read and not bad ones such as “The Outsiders,” “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Also you taught me a lot these past 2 years to be ready for high school.”

 

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“To be absolutely honest, I don’t think my teacher needs to improve. He actually has done more than the rest of my teachers.”

 

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“Well he encouraged me to succeed more in his class and in life as well. He also taught me that the meaning of life is not how you take it but where you go with it. I’m thankful that he taught me more than the history my actual history teacher taught me. He also told me the truth of our history. He talked about the parts no one else would talk about.”

 

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I’m not sure there’s much to say beyond that.

 

As these now former students reluctantly walked away in ones or twos, a few stayed behind.

 

I did a lot of reassuring that 9th grade would be great and that I’d probably be right here if they needed me.

 

I overheard one girl say to another that a certain teacher was good but not “Mr. Singer good.” I thanked her and she blushed because I wasn’t supposed to hear that.

 

There were tears. Some of them shed by me.

 

But when the last student left, I remained at my desk surrounded by a hum of fluorescent lights and ear numbing silence.

 

There is no emptiness like that of a space that has just been filled – a space that cries out for more.

 

My classroom is like that. And so is my heart.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I need this summer break to recover.

 

But I also need the end of August, when a new group of students will come rushing through those doors.

 

Here’s looking forward to the first day of school.

 


 

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

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Charter Schools Will Always Waste Money Because They Duplicate Services

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You can’t save money buying more of what you already have.

 

Constructing two fire departments serving the same community will never be as cheap as having one.

 

Empowering two police departments to patrol the same neighborhoods will never be as economical as one.

 

Building two roads parallel to each other that go to exactly the same places will never be as cost effective as one.

 

This isn’t exactly rocket science. In fact, it’s an axiom of efficiency and sound financial planning. It’s more practical and productive to create one robust service instead of two redundant ones.

 

However, when it comes to education, a lot of so-called fiscal conservatives will try to convince us that we should erect two separate school systems – a public one and a privatized one.

 

The duplicate may be a voucher system where we use public tax dollars to fund private and parochial schools. It may be charter schools where public money is used to finance systems run by private organizations. Or it may be some combination of the two.

 

But no matter what they’re suggesting, it’s a duplication of services.

 

And it’s a huge waste of money.

 

Consider the case of my home state of Pennsylvania.

 

Charter schools cost Commonwealth taxpayers more than $1.8 billion a year and take more than 25 percent of the state’s basic education funding – yet they only enroll about 6 percent of students.

 

Just imagine – 94% of Pennsylvania students lose out on opportunities because we’re allowing so much money to be siphoned off for a small fraction of students.

 

The Keystone state only has 179 charter schools enrolling 135,100 students – the sixth highest charter enrollment in the country. Of those, about a fourth are online cyber charters.

 

Is it fair to Ma and Pa Taxpayer that they are forced to bear the extra burden of reproducing these services for a handful of students?

 

And make no mistake. This is one of the leading causes of property tax increases in the state.

 

The ideology of some results in a direct hit to everyone’s pocketbooks.

 

According to a recent report by the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO), “Charter school tuition is one of the largest areas of mandated cost growth for school districts.”

 

The report found that state charter schools are growing at a rate of 10 percent a year. The PASBO calculates at least 37 cents of every new dollar of property taxes in the fiscal year 2017-2018 went right to charters. And that percentage is only expected to grow.

 

Part of this is due to a blind, deaf and dumb state legislature that no longer does anything to help alleviate these costs to local school districts. Neighborhood schools can only try to compensate by cutting services for students where it can and raising property taxes where it can’t make ends meet.

 

More than one third of school superintendents surveyed by PASBO report a worsening financial picture in their districts—and they put the blame on charter schools.

 

“With the state providing no state support for mandatory charter school tuition costs,” the study says, “the increases in this single budget item have the potential to decimate school district budgets.”

 

Part of this is the extremely unfair way the state determines how much money to give charter schools.

 

The legislature has constructed a funding formula that gives every advantage to charter schools while short changing authentic public schools at every turn.

 

For instance, as Jeff Bryant puts it in his article “The Charter School ‘Dumpster Fire’ in Pennsylvania Provides an Important Lesson for 2020 Democratic Candidates”:

 

 

“Charter school tuition charged to Pennsylvania public schools is calculated as if charters had to provide the same services public schools have to provide, such as transportation—they don’t. Also, the tuition bill public schools pay to charters is calculated as if every student cost the same to educate—they don’t.

 

 

Instead, the state requires authentic public schools to pay charters way more than authentic public schools get to educate the children in their care – and state law even allows charter operators to pocket the savings as profit.

 

But this just pours lighter fluid on Bryant’s already raging “dumpster fire.”

 

Even if Pennsylvania was entirely equitable in how it allocated funding between these two types of school, it would still be wasting our tax dollars because it would still be engaged in duplication of services.

 

There is simply no good reason to do this. At least, not if providing the best education to students is our goal.

 

There are few places in the entire country – if any – where charter schools are able to accommodate all students. They cater to nitch markets where operators expect they can turn a profit. There are essentially no communities with a charter school and no authentic public school but many where you find just the opposite.

 

Moreover, the quality of education provided at charter schools does not live up to the hype of its advertising.

 

Except in extremely rare circumstances, charter schools have never been shown to provide better outcomes than authentic public schools. Almost every study conducted – even those funded by the school privatization industry – show that these two types of schools produce similar results or in many cases that authentic public schools are much better.

 

And this despite the fact that such studies are already stacked in charter schools favor because unlike authentic public schools, charter schools often have selective enrollment. A school that gets to cherrypick the best and brightest students has an incredible advantage over those that can’t – yet even with such an uneven starting point charter schools rarely show large academic gains.

 

For instance, a recent study of charter school students in Pennsylvania conducted by the school privatization friendly Center for Research on EDucation Outcomes (CREDO), found that charter students do about the same on reading exams but score worse in math than students in authentic public schools. The study also found major disparities between charter schools – with cyber charters performing especially poorly.

 

However, this study’s methodology has been called into question suggesting that even its meager praise of charter schools may be exaggerated. Yet the overall results are in-line  with previous research that also found charter schools in the state generally  produce students who aren’t as prepared as authentic public school students.

 

Pennsylvania passed its charter school law in 1997.

 

It’s way passed time for lawmakers in this state and beyond to acknowledge that was a mistake.

 

We cannot continue to force voters to pay for a supply-side ideology that not only has been disproven through decades of data but that many do not share.

 

That is why we have charter and voucher schools – a prejudice against authentic public education and desire to allow businesses to cash in on education dollars.

 

The duplication of services has nothing to do with helping students learn.

 

It’s about creating a slush fund for unscrupulous corporations and hangers on to get easy cash.

 

No true fiscal conservative can support charter schools.

 

Just as no one who values children can continue to justify this economic double vision.

 


 

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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School Field Trip Turns Into a Tour of Our Nation’s Unhealed Scars

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You’ve got to be a little crazy to take a bunch of teenagers on a field trip – especially overnight and out of town.

 

But that’s what I did, and – yeah – guilty as charged.

 

For the second time in my more than 15-year career as a public school teacher, I volunteered along with a group of parents and other teachers to escort my classes of 8th graders to Washington, DC, and surrounding sights.
 
And I never regretted it. Not for a moment.

 

Not when Jason bombed the bathroom in the back of the bus after eating a burrito for lunch.

 

Not when Isaac gulped down dairy creamers for dessert and threw up all over himself.

 

Not when a trio of teenage girls accidentally locked themselves in their hotel room and we needed a crowbar to get them out.

 

But as I stood in Manassas, Virginia, looking at a statue of Stonewall Jackson, the edge of regret began to creep into my mind.

 

There he was perched on the horizon, ripped and bulging like an advertisement for weight gain powder.

 

“We call him the superman statue,” the park ranger said.

 

And as I stood amongst the confused looks of my western Pennsylvania teens, I felt a wave of cognitive dissonance wash over me like a slap in the face.

 
Stonewall Jackson, a lanky Confederate General whose horse was too small for him, here mythologized, enshrined and worshiped like a hero. Yet he was a traitor to our country.

 

They call him Stonewall because the union army couldn’t get through his battle lines. He was like a wall the North could not break through.

 
So what?

 

He was fighting to preserve human slavery. Who cares how well he fought or how great his tactics? He was on the losing side of history.

 

We shouldn’t be praising him. He should be forgotten, at best a footnote in a record that celebrates those fighting to overturn human bondage, not those battling to uphold it.

 

But the confusion didn’t start at the statue. It began before our tour bus even arrived at the national park.

 

I teach Language Arts, not history, but I had never heard of the battle of Manassas. I knew it was close to Bull Run, a nearby creek where the two Civil War battles of that name were fought.
 
It was only when the park ranger was showing us the sights (of which there weren’t many) that the truth became clear.

 
Even today more than 150 years since Lee surrendered to Grant at the Appomattox Court House, the two sides can’t agree on the names of the battles.

 

In the South, they name them after the nearest city or town. In the North, we name them after the nearest geologic landmark.

 

So even though this battle took place on a farm in northern Virginia, we still can’t agree even on what to call the confrontation – much less its import to our shared history.

 

Before we stepped out onto the battlefield, the park service treated us to a short documentary film about the site and its history – “Manassas: End of Innocence.”

 

The film was narrated by Richard Dreyfus. I marveled at hearing Mr. Holland nonchalantly inform us that this first battle of the Civil War marked the titular “end of innocence.”

 
I’m still not sure who suffered such an end. Was it the nation, as a whole, which had never before experienced such a bloody war among its own citizenry, pitting brother against brother? Was it the North who had not until this point realized the South would resist with shot and shell?  Was it the South who had not yet tasted the bitterness of Northern aggression?

 

The latter seemed to be the narrator’s implication.

 
Dreyfus painted a scene of peaceful life on the farm shattered by the sneak attack of union soldiers.
 
THAT is what marked this “end of innocence.”

 
“Innocence!?” I thought.

 

These people were not innocent. They owned slaves. Mrs. Judith Carter Henry, the 85-year-old who refused to evacuate her farm and was killed in the fighting, owned another human being.

 

In my book, that disqualifies you from any kind of innocence.

 

And that’s what this whole war was essentially about. Should people be allowed to own other people?

 
The answer is an unequivocal – NO.

 

The fact that an entire segment of our population still drags its feet on that question has implications that reverberate through our history and up through our last Presidential election.

 
A few days before venturing to Manassas, my students and I toured Washington, DC. We stopped in front of the White House.

 
I’d been there before. It’s a popular place for protests of every kind. But never had I seen it so crowded with discontent.

 

Political critics had set up booths and tents. They even brought speakers to blast out music to accompany their protests. My favorite was the song “Master of the House” from Les Miserables booming from a booth with multicolored “F- Trump!” signs.

 

But as we took our picture in front of that iconic Presidential manor, itself, partially built by slaves, I couldn’t help noticing another kiosk across the way – one selling MAGA hats.
 
In fact, they were everywhere.

 
A few students even bought them – cheap red knockoff baseball caps with a slogan of dog whistle hatred emblazoned on the front.

 

Make America Great Again? Like when union troops couldn’t get passed Stonewall Jackson?
 
We hit many more famous sites.

 

We went to the Jefferson memorial and all I could think about was Sally Hemings. We went to the FDR memorial and all I could think about were the Japanese internment camps. We went to the Martin Luther King memorial and all I could think about was how the struggle continues.

 

We didn’t talk much about what we were seeing. We just raced through the experience of it – going from one to another – gotta’ get back on the bus in time to hit the next one.

 
We had a really good time together on that field trip. Me, included.

 

But we took a lot more home with us than souvenirs.

 
It wasn’t just sight seeing or a vacation from the normal school day.

 

We toured the historic scars of our nation.

 

Scars still red and ripe and bleeding.

 

Will they ever heal, I wondered.

 

Will our nation ever become whole, healthy and clean?

 

I suppose that depends on us.

 

Because the first step to healing them is recognizing that they’re still there.


 

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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SAT Adversity Score is an Antidote to Poison None of Us Need Take

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Let’s say someone gave you a vial of poison.

 

Would you drink it? Of course not.

 

What if he gave you the antidote, too. Would you take the poison then?

 

Heck no!

 

Why would anyone knowingly ingest poison even if they knew they could counteract its effects?

 

But that’s pretty much the situation high school students across the country are in today with the SAT test.

 

The College Board has admitted that the test unfairly assesses students – especially poor and minority students. However, if we add an “adversity score” to the raw score, then voila! Fairness!

 
The organization is piloting a program at 150 colleges and universities to adjust SAT scores to account for high schools and neighborhoods “level of disadvantage.”

The program is called the “Environmental Context Dashboard” and has been in the works since 2015 at the request of colleges. It provides admissions officers with information about students’ neighborhoods and high schools, such as the poverty level and the availability of challenging coursework. This is supposed to allow them to put raw scores into context before making admissions decisions.

 
But even if this actually remedies the inherent racial and economic biases inherent in the 93-year-old assessment, why take the bloody thing in the first place!?

 

The College Board is a 119-year-old organization boasting 6,000 member colleges, universities and other organizations. And despite its nonprofit status, it does make an awful lot of money.

 
The organization’s annual revenue is more than $750 million, according to its most recent publicly available 990 form. The organization’s CEO David Coleman makes $750,000 a year, its President Gaston Caperton makes more than $1.5 million a year, and 22 other employees earn at least $200,000.

 

Nice work if you can get it.

 

As such, the College Board needs to ensure millions of teenagers keep taking its moneymaking test as they apply to institutions of higher education. But more than 1,200 colleges and universities no longer require students seeking enrollment to take the SAT and among those that do the upstart ACT test is gaining popularity and market share.

 

The SAT’s new adversity score is a marketing tool – nothing more.

 

It’s the act of rats trapped in a corner. They’re admitting everything critics always said about them and offering a white flag.

 

We have no need to take it. In fact, we would be incredibly stupid to do so.

 

What the world needs is not an adversity score to counteract all the bad things the SAT does. It needs the absence of the SAT and all such standardized gatekeeper assessments.

 

Coleman is infamous as the father of a number of failed education reforms including the Common Core.

 

It’s absolutely hilarious to hear him admitting the biases of standardized testing since he’s been one of its leading proponents since the 1990s. It’s like hearing Colonel Sanders admit he doesn’t really like fried chicken all that much.

 

In the case of the SAT, he said colleges need to recognize student qualities that the test can’t capture, such as resourcefulness. Essays, letters of recommendation, and the “profiles” most high schools post sometimes capture the challenges and circumstances students face, he said, but in many cases colleges don’t find this information because they’re blinded by students’ tests scores.

 

Without a tool like the dashboard, he said, “the SAT could be misleading.”

 

YOU DON’T SAY!

 

“To warrant that the playing field is now level isn’t right or just,” Coleman added. “In the America we live in … the vast majority of students are working with a lot less than the top third. To then say that the SAT is enough to reflect what you can do, no, it isn’t.”

 
All of which begs the question of why we need the SAT test at all.

 

Why not just look at those essays and letters of recommendation. Look at student extra curricular activities, employment record – heck! – grades!

 

Classroom grades represent 180 days worth of data compiled by multiple educators over at least 12-13 years.

 

Admittedly, they aren’t completely objective but neither are standardized test scores. We do not have the power to crack open children’s skulls and see what’s going on in their brains. But classroom grades offer exponentially more data and of a much more equitable kind.

 

If all of that isn’t enough to make admissions decisions, then nothing will ever be.

 

But let’s be honest. This isn’t about the needs of schools or students.

 

It’s about the needs of big business enterprises like the College Board and the standardized testing companies; it’s about their need to turn a profit.

 

THAT is what this adversity score is out to save.

 

We’ve been criticizing the SAT and similar standardized assessments since they were first implemented in 1926. They were the creation of group of psychologists led by Robert M. Yerkes and Carl Brigham.

 

They were eugenicists who believed that white Europeans were superior to all others and used their pseudoscientific assessments to “prove” their biases. If there’s any doubt of that, I refer you to this passage from Brigham’s seminal work A Study of American Intelligence:

“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.”

 

Yerkes added:

 

“We should not work primarily for the exclusion of intellectual defectives but rather for the classification of men in order that they may be properly placed.”

 
It’s no wonder that the SAT is biased. Its creators were, and their assumptions about human nature still underlie the entire standardized testing enterprise.

 

No adversity score will ever undue that.

 

There comes a time when we need to simply stop the stupid racist crap we’ve been doing for generations – not try to prettify it so we can keep cashing in.

 

These sorts of conversions of scores have been tried before and routinely criticized as inaccurate.

 

The College Board tried something similar in the late 90s called the “striver’s tool.” It identified students who scored higher than expected based on racial, socioeconomic, and other data.

 

But it was shut down after it became a political football comparable to that of affirmative action – the same that has happened among certain conservatives with the new adversity score.

 

We’ve been engaged in unfair standardized testing for almost a century now.

 

Isn’t it time we admitted our mistake and moved on?

 

Or should we just keep drinking our poison and chasing it with a dubious antidote while our betters count their dirty money?

 


 

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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