When Good Students Get Bad Standardized Test Scores 

 
 
Ameer is a good student.  


 
He takes notes in class, does all his homework and participates in discussions.  


 
He writes insightful essays and demonstrates a mastery of spelling and grammar.  


 
He reads aloud with fluency and inflection. He asks deep questions about the literature and aces nearly all of his classroom reading comprehension tests. 


 
However, when it is standardized test time, things are very different.  


 
He still arrives early, takes his time with the questions and reviews his work when he’s done – but the results are not the same.  


 
His grades are A’s. His test scores are Below Basic. 


 
How is that?  


 
How can a student demonstrate mastery of a subject in class but fail to do the same on a standardized test?  


 
And which assessment should I, his teacher, take seriously?  


 
After all, they can’t BOTH be correct. 


 
This is a problem with which most classroom teachers are forced to contend.  


 
Bureaucrats at the administrative or state level demand teachers assess students with standardized tests but the results often contradict a year or more of observation. 


 
Take the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test.  


 
This year at my Western Pennsylvania district, administration decided to use this computer-based standardized assessment as a pre-test or practice assessment before the state mandated Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA). 


 
I’ve already written about what a waste of time and money this is. A test before the test!? 


 
But after reluctantly subjecting my classes to the MAP and being instructed to analyze the results with my colleagues, we noticed this contradiction. 


 
In many cases, scores did not match up with teacher expectations for our students.  


 
In about 60-80% of cases, students who had demonstrated high skills in the subject were given scores below the 50th percentile – many below the 25th percentile.  


 
These were kids with average to high grades who the MAP scored as if they were in the bottom half of their peers across the state. 


 
 Heck! A third of my students are in the advanced class this year – but the MAP test would tell me most of them need remediation! 


 
If we look at that data dispassionately, there are possible explanations. For one, students may not have taken the test seriously. 


 
And to some degree this is certainly the case. The MAP times student responses and when they are input fast and furious, it stops the test taker until the teacher can unlock the test after warning them against rapid guessing. 


 
However, the sheer number of mislabeled students is far too great to be accounted for in this way. Maybe five of my students got the slow down sloth graphic. Yet so many more were mislabeled as failures despite strong classroom academics. 


 
The other possibility – and one that media doom-mongers love to repeat – is that districts like mine routinely inflate mediocre achievement so that bad students look like good ones.  


 
In other words, they resolve the contradiction by throwing away the work of classroom teachers and prioritizing what standardized tests say


 
Nice for them. However, I am not some rube reading this in the paper. I am not examining some spreadsheet for which I have no other data. I am IN the classroom every day observing these very same kids. I’ve been right there for almost an entire grading period of lessons and assessments – formative and summative. I have many strong indications of what these kids can do, what they know and what they don’t know.  


 
Valuing the MAP scores over weeks of empirical classroom data is absurd.  


 
I am a Nationally Board Certified Teacher with more than two decades experience. But Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), a testing company out of Portland, Oregon, wants me to believe that after 90 minutes it knows my students better than I do after six weeks! 


 
Time to admit the MAP is a faulty product. 


 
But it’s not just that one standardized test. We find the same disparity with the PSSA and other like assessments.  


 
Nationally, classroom grades are better than these test scores.  


 
In the media, pundits tell us this means our public school system is faulty. Yet that conclusion is merely an advertisement for these testing companies and a host of school privatization enterprises offering profit-making alternatives predicated on that exact premise.  


 
So how to resolve the contradiction? 


 
The only logical conclusion one can draw is that standardized assessments are bad at determining student learning.  


 
In fact, that is not their primary function. First and foremost, they are designed to compare students with each other. How they make that comparison – based on what data – is secondary.  


 
The MAP, PSSA and other standardized tests are primarily concerned with sorting and ranking students – determining which are best, second best and so on. 


 
By contrast, teacher-created tests are just the opposite. They are designed almost exclusively to assess whether learning has taken place and to what degree. Comparability isn’t really something we do. That’s the province of administrators and other support staff.  


 
The primary job of teaching is just that – the transfer of knowledge, offering opportunities and a conducive environment for students to learn.  


 
That is why standardized tests fail so miserably most of the time. They are not designed for the same function. They are about competition, not acquisition of knowledge or skill. 


 
That’s why so many teachers have been calling for the elimination of standardized testing for decades. It isn’t just inaccurate and a waste of time and money. It gets in the way of real learning.  


 
You can’t give a person a blood transfusion if you can’t accurately measure how much blood you’re giving her. And comparing how much blood was given to a national average of transfusions is not helpful. 


 
You need to know how much THIS PERSON needs. You need to know what would help her particular needs.  


 
When good students get bad test scores, it invariably means you have a bad test.  


 
 
An entire year of daily data points is not invalidated by one mark to the contrary.  


 
Until society accepts this obvious truth, we will never be able to provide our students with the education they deserve.  

Good students will continue to be mislabeled for the sake of a standardized testing industry that is too big to fail.


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Classroom Grades Show Learning Better than Standardized Test Scores

“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

William Bruce Cameron

This summer my family suffered a tremendous blow.

My grandmother, Ce Ce, died.

She was in her 90s and had been unwell since before COVID. But she was also our matriarch, the point around which so much of our interrelations orbited and met.

After the funeral, I found myself at my uncle’s house somehow tasked with watching over several young cousins who had had just about enough of sitting around quietly in itchy suits and dresses.

To get a moment to myself, I set them a task: go downstairs among the assorted relatives and ask them to tell you a story about Ce Ce. Best story wins.

They went off like an explosion. And when they came back, they each had a touching tale about Ce Ce.

One was about how she defended a niece who wanted to marry someone of another faith. Another story was a fond recollection of the sweet and sour spaghetti sauce she used to make, the recipe of which is lost forever.

I was even surprised to hear some stories I had never known like that after my grandfather died, a semi-famous painter had asked Ce Ce on a date!

When my little cousins’ recitations were done, they were united in one thing – wanting to know who won.

I stumbled. I stammered.

I really had no way of judging such a thing.

They had all brought back such wonderful stories. Who won? We were ALL enriched by hearing them.

And that’s kind of how I feel about learning.

It is a fool’s errand to try and compare one person’s acquisition of knowledge with another. But that’s exactly what our current education system is built on.

Unless opted out by a parent or guardian, every public school child in America is required to take standardized tests in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

And the results of these tests are used to make high stakes decisions about which classes the students can enroll in, which enrichments, field trips or remediation they require, and even how much funding will be given or withheld from the schools and districts where they attend.

As a result, the social effects of poverty and racial discrimination end up being transformed into numbers. Thus, instead of being seen as indictments of the economic and racist status quo, they are viewed as the problem of schools and the individual students, themselves.

Standardized tests purport to show that poor children and/or children of color aren’t learning at the same rate as other children. So by the end of 12th grade they have learned less. When they are discriminated against in the job market then, that discrimination is justified – because it is not based on economics or race; it is based on numbers.

However, to perform this alchemy, we have to ignore the fact that standardized assessments are not the only way to determine whether students have learned anything. In fact, for the majority of students’ school experience that learning is assessed by something else entirely – classroom grades.

What if we took classroom grades as seriously as we take standardized test scores?

What if we valued them MORE?

The world would be a very different place.

The entire narrative of failing students and failing schools would turn on its head. After all, graduation rates have steadily increased over the last decade.

Students are completing more courses and more difficult courses. And students are even getting higher grades in these classes!

Yet at the same time, standardized test scores on national exams have remained at about the same level or gone down.

How is that possible?

The new analysis comes from the U.S. Department of Education, and tracks transcripts of a representative sample of high school graduates in 1990, 2000, 2009, and 2019.

It does not include scores from 2020 and 2022 when both classroom grades and national test scores fell. But that’s clearly because of the pandemic and the fact that most students educations and testing schedules were disrupted.

Before COVID, students increasingly were taking higher-level courses, and their Grade Point Averages (GPAs) were steadily rising — from an average of 2.68 in 1990 to 2.94 in 2000, 3.0 in 2009, and 3.11 in 2019. 

This is true of students from all backgrounds, but disparities still existed. On average, white and Asian students had higher GPAs than Black and Hispanic students. Though girls, overall, had higher GPAs than boys.

However, on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), given to a sample of students across the country, test scores during the same period did not show a similar increase. Math and reading scores in 2019 were slightly lower than in 2009 and unchanged from 2005. Science scores haven’t budged since 2009. 

Why the disparity?

It seems that either teachers are making it too easy to get good classroom grades or standardized testing does not assess student learning accurately.

Scholars, teachers, parents and students have been complaining about the validity of standardized testing for more than a century. But business interests make billions of dollars off the industry it creates. Guess which group policymakers continue to heed over the other.

It doesn’t take much to show why classroom grades are better at assessing student learning. Compare them with standardized test scores.

Students earn grades based on a wide range of assessments, activities, and behaviors – quizzes, class participation, oral and written reports, group assignments, homework, and in-class work.

Standardized tests, on the other hand, are not assigned on such a multifaceted range of factors. Instead, they are designed to obtain a measure of student proficiency on a specified set of knowledge and skills within limited academic areas, such as mathematics or reading.

Classroom grades are tapestries sown from many patches showing a year’s worth of progress. Standardized tests are at best snapshots of a moment in time.

In class, students can speak with teachers about grades to get a better sense of how and why they earned the marks they did. They can then use this explanation to guide them in the future thus tailoring the classroom experience to individuals.

The value seen in standardized test is its apparent comparability. Scores are supposed to reflect student performance under roughly the same conditions, so the results can be equated and analyzed.

So the biggest difference isn’t a matter of validity, it is pragmatism. Test scores can be used to rate students from all over the country or the world. They can be used to sort kids into a hierarchy of best to worst. Though why anyone would want to do that is beyond me. The purpose of education is not like the National Football League (NFL). It’s to encourage learning, not competition based on a simulation of learning.

And there is evidence that classroom grades are more valid than standardized test scores.

After all, high stakes assessments like the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) do NOT accurately predict future academic success as classroom grades, in fact, do.


 
Kids with perfect scores on the SAT or American College Testing (ACT) tests don’t achieve more than kids who received lower scores or never took the tests in the first place.


 
Numerous studies have shown this to be true. The most recent one I’ve seen was from 2014.


 
Researchers followed more than 123,000 students who attended universities that don’t require applicants to take these tests as a prerequisite for admission. They concluded that SAT and ACT test scores do not correlate with how well a student does in college.


 
However, classroom grades do have predictive value – especially when compared to standardized tests. Students with high grades in high school but middling test scores do better in college than students with higher test scores and lower grades.

Why? Because grades are based on something other than the ability to take one test. They demonstrate a daily commitment to work hard. They are based on 180 days (in Pennsylvania) of classroom endeavors, whereas standardized tests are based on the labor of an afternoon or a few days.

Classroom grades would not have such consistent predictive value if they were nothing but the result of grade inflation or lenient teachers.

In fact, of the two assessments – classroom grades and standardized tests – one is far more essential to the daily learning of students than the other.

We could abolish all standardized testing without any damage to student learning. In fact, the vacuum created by the loss of these high stakes tests would probably result in much less teaching to the test. Days, weeks, months of additional class time would suddenly appear and much more learning would probably take place.

Academic decisions about which classes students can enroll in or what remediation is necessary could just as easily be made based on classroom grades and teacher observations. And funding decisions for schools and districts could be made based on need and equity – not the political football of standardized testing.

However, getting rid of classroom grades would be much more disruptive. Parents and students would have few measures by which to determine if students had learned the material. Teachers would have fewer tools to encourage children to complete assignments. And if only test scores remained, the curriculum would narrow to a degree unheard of – constant, daily test prep with no engagement to ones life, critical thinking or creativity.

To be fair, there are mastery-based learning programs that try to do without grades, but they are much more experimental and require a complete shift in how we view learning. This is a more holistic system that requires students to demonstrate learning at one level before moving ahead to the next. However, it is incredibly labor intensive for teachers and often relies heavily on edtech solutions to make it viable.

I’m not saying this is an impossible system or even taking a stance on its value. But a large scale shift away from classroom grades would be chaotic, confusing and probably a failure without serious support, scaffolding and parental, teacher and student buy-in.

At the end of the day, classroom grades are the best tool we have to determine whether learning has taken place and to what degree. We should do everything we can to change the way policymakers prefer the standardized approach to the personalized one.

To return to a fuller quote by sociology professor Cameron with which I began this article:

‘It would be nice if all of the data which sociologists require could be enumerated because then we could run them through IBM machines and draw charts as the economists do. However, not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

Thus, the urge to quantify student learning seems predicated on the popular maxim: If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.

Standardized testing is about managing students – sorting them into valuable and disposable for the workforce.

Classroom grades are actually concerned with the project at hand – assessment of learning.

Which brings me back to my little cousins.

When I told them I couldn’t possibly pick a winner between them based on their stories, there were lots of groans of annoyance.

They viewed the whole project as a competition and they wanted to win.

I hope on reflection they’ll see that we all won.

Everything isn’t a contest. We are not all opponents.

If they can grasp that, it would be the greatest lesson I could teach.


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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!

I Will NOT Lead My Students in Prayer and Neither Should You

As a public school teacher, I have a responsibility not to bully my students into believing as I do.

In fact, I go out of my way to respect their right to form their own opinions – to think, not just to accept what they’re told.

The US Supreme Court apparently has no idea how this works.

The six Republican members (I refuse to call them justices) paved the way for organized prayer in public schools by ruling this week in support of a high school football coach who lead his team in prayer on the field.

Anyone who has ever been in the minority knows that when an authority figure leads students in an activity, it is not optional – no matter what they say.

I know this from personal experience.

When I was in elementary school, I was one of a handful of Jewish kids in a building of mostly Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, etc.

In December, the kids were preparing for a choral concert where we’d sing a slew of holiday songs.

I loved to sing and enjoyed Frosty the Snowman, Jingle Bells and all the other classics…

Except one – Silent Night.

I just didn’t feel right singing things like “Round yon virgin mother and child” and “Christ the savior is born.”

So when we practiced that song, I’d stop singing.

I’d enthusiastically belt out all the other tunes, but I just stood there when it was time for Silent Night.

I didn’t think it would make a difference. There were hundreds of others kids. No one would notice me.

But the choral teacher did.

She pulled me out of line and demanded to know why I wasn’t singing. I told her I was Jewish and didn’t want to sing that song.

She chided me for making everyone else look bad and told me to just move my mouth during the song so it looked like I was singing.

I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want people to even THINK I was singing things I didn’t believe.

It’s not that I really accepted Santa and his reindeer, either, but this was somehow different. I didn’t want my parents to go to the concert and see me participating in this farce. I didn’t want to be forced to go onstage and before everyone profess the opposite of all I had been taught – to declare myself other than what I really was.

But the other kids were right there listening to this whole conversation and giggling. It was yet another way I was being marked as an outsider, as different – so I gave in and did what she demanded.

In retrospect, I now know I could have complained to my parents and gone to the principal and we could have even taken the matter to court like the aforementioned coach.

However, when you’re a little kid in elementary school you usually just listen to what the adults tell you to do. At least I did.

It took me decades to get over it. Really.

Whenever that song would come on the radio or I’d hear it in a department store, I’d get all tense and upset. Like something had been stolen from me.

So it was with some trepidation many years later that I attended my daughter’s first winter concert when she was in elementary school.

It was with some relief that I noticed no holiday songs like Silent Night. They were all pretty secular and even multicultural.

And my daughter goes to the same district I went to as a child.

We’ve come a long way in the past three decades.

By and large, public school teachers today make an effort not to force their ways onto their students.

It’s a lesson I take to heart, myself, in my middle school classes.

When we discuss things – as you must in Language Arts – I encourage students to agree OR disagree with me or anyone else. Either option is okay so long as they try to explain why they think the way they do.

Moreover, I encourage them not to just speak but to also listen to what their classmates have to say and even be open to revising their original thoughts based on what they’ve heard.

And this includes discussions of religion.

When something Biblical or theological comes out of a book like “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “The Outsiders,” we give it our full attention.

I tell my kids that they can say or think whatever they want about it. If they want to talk about God or religion, that is fine. It’s just me who is constrained. I am not allowed to give them my own opinion on these matters.

Often I tell them that this isn’t necessarily what I believe, but I’ll propose one idea or another to get them thinking.

I remember one year my students were particularly interested in religion, and they complained that they couldn’t pin me down on anything – they couldn’t tell if I was religious or an atheist.

And that’s how it should be.

Kids have never been forbidden from talking about God or praying in school.

It’s just that teachers have been forbidden from telling them what to think or leading them in prayer.

Until now.

However just because an increasingly illegitimate Supreme Court makes a regressive ruling doesn’t mean teachers have to change.

Even if we CAN lead kids in prayer, that doesn’t mean we SHOULD.

I don’t plan on altering a single thing in my classroom, and I don’t think my colleagues should, either.

But there are 3.2 million teachers in public schools. There are bound to be some who will use this ruling as an excuse to give in to their worst tendencies.

So here’s what I suggest we do.

We should not coerce our students to do anything, but we damn well can and SHOULD pressure our colleagues not to indoctrinate their students.

Principals should give crappy assignments to teachers who break this taboo. Keep them away from students if at all possible. After all, they don’t belong in the classroom if they’re going to misuse the trust students have in them.

Teachers should give them the cold shoulder in the faculty room and at the copier.

Want to borrow my grammar unit? Not if you’re going to subject your classes to your faith and encourage them to follow along.

Consenting adults can do what they like on their own time, but this is public school.

When it comes to undue influence, inculcation and alienation of kids who are different, we cannot be bystanders.

We may not have dark money and Christian Nationalists behind us, but until we have a rational Supreme Court to overturn this decision or a Congress with enough guts to codify freedom from religion into law, teachers still have some modicum of power.

We should use it to protect our children.


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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!

Doug Mastriano’s Rootin’ Tootin’ School Shootin’ Prevention Plan in PA

A teenage boy in a black trench coat walks down a school hallway.

A young girl abruptly turns a corner and is about to walk past when she stops and notices an oblong shape in his coat.

He pulls out an AR-15 and points it at her head.

She gasps. He smiles.

“Hold it right there, Patrick.” Says a voice behind him.

“Mr. Callahan?” The boy says starting to bring the barrel around.

‘Uh-uh. Stop right there,” says the voice shoving something in the boy’s back.

“I know what you’re thinking,” the teacher continues. “My homeroom teacher, Mr. Callahan, has a gun in his desk. Did he remember to bring it with him to hall duty? Well to tell you the truth in all this excitement I kinda lost track myself. But being it’s a 500 S&W Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head clean off, you’ve gotta ask yourself one question: “Do I feel lucky?” Well, do ya, punk?”

Apparently this is how Doug Mastriano thinks school shootings can best be prevented.

The Pennsylvania State Senator and Republican candidate for governor plans to introduce a bill allowing school employees to arm themselves while on school property if they have a concealed carry permit and pass a firearms course.

Not gun control. Not stopping teens from buying assault weapons. Not keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.

Instead, arm the teachers. Arm the principals. Put a piece in the hands of Lunch Lady Doris. Maybe even the custodians will be packing heat with a bucket and mop.

This is not the kind of serious proposal Commonwealth residents deserve from a representative of the legislature or executive branch. It’s not the kind of serious proposal you’d expect from a grown adult. Heck. It’s not what you’d expect from a small child still unable to tie his own shoes.

School shootings are not action movie scenarios. They’re not run-and-gun video games. They’re not cops and robbers. They’re real life.

They’re the cause of elementary kids being decapitated by assault weapons fire.

They’re the cause of fifth grade bodies so unrecognizable they have to be identified by their green Converse sneakers.

They’re the cause of child sized coffins adorned with cartoon doggies and kitties – brightly colored friends to accompany little kids to their final resting places.

Mastriano’s suggestion would be pathetic if it weren’t so dangerous.

He thinks school shooters are attracted to places where they know people aren’t armed.

However, history proves him wrong.

The overwhelming majority of school shootings either involved armed police stationed at the school or police responding quickly thereafter.

Lest we forget, there were police officers on both the campuses of Robb Elementary School in Texas and Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where shootings cumulatively took the lives of more than 30 students.

According to a 2021 JAMA Network study that looked at 133 school shootings from 1980 to 2019, armed guards did not significantly reduce injuries or deaths during school mass shootings.

In fact, when researchers controlled for location and school characteristic factors, “the rate of deaths was 2.83 times greater in schools with an armed guard present.”

Put simply, school shootings are not rational activities subject to cost benefit analysis from the people contemplating doing them. Would-be shooters do not expect to come out alive. They don’t care if there is armed resistance or not. In fact, the presence of armed resistance only encourages them to bring deadlier weaponry – especially semi-automatic guns.

That’s why police in Uvalde, Texas, were too scared to go into Robb Elementary School and stop the perpetrator armed with an AR-15 – perhaps the most common weapon used in school shootings.

And when trained police are afraid, Mastriano expects better from school staff – teachers, secretaries, aides, and nurses!!!?

A similar proposal permitting the arming of school employees passed the state Senate in June 2017 but it died in a House committee. In the district where I work as a middle school teacher, we talked about the issue at a staff meeting.

The few people who thought it was a good idea and said they would gladly bring a gun with them to school are nice people – but they’re the last ones you’d want armed.

Moreover, we have a school resource officer who said he was not in favor of the measure because it would make things tougher for law enforcement responding to a shooting. It would make it that much more unclear who the shooter was and increase the chances of friendly fire.

It’s hardly surprising Mastriano is making such boneheaded proposals.

If elected governor, he also promises to cut public school funding IN HALF and make it harder for educators to collectively bargain for better salaries, benefits, and working conditions.

He is an extremist who wants to destroy public education in favor or charter and voucher schools, take away people’s freedom to choose what to do with their own bodies, discriminate against anyone with a different sexuality or religious belief and give away as much tax money as possible to private businesses.

Mastriano is either a fool who does not understand the issues or a patsy of the lunatic fringe of his party or both.

He wouldn’t arm teachers with books, funding or resources to teach – just guns.

He is an embarrassment to the people of Franklin County who elected him to the legislature and the Republican base who chose him to represent them in the governor’s race.

I know it’s trendy for the GOP to pick the candidate most likely to piss off the people across the aisle, but this isn’t a game.

Fools like Mastriano are going to get innocent people and their children killed – not to mention the suffering thousands will have to endure if his policies ever see the light of day.

He thinks the answer to school shootings is to turn the school librarian into Yosemite Sam.

If you vote for him in the general election, you will reap what you sow – misery and death.


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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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!

How Teachers Like Me Can Renew Ourselves This Summer

This school year was perhaps the most difficult one I’ve experienced in two decades in the classroom.

From constantly having to cover for sick or otherwise absent staff, to absorbing student traumas suffered in years of a pandemic, to increased student fights, social awkwardness and administrators demanding more paperwork and untried initiatives that get dropped for another fad next week…

It’s been rough!

Now that most K-12 schools have begun or are about to begin summer break, it can be hard to rest and renew yourself for the coming year.

To be honest, many teachers have already decided to leave.

At my district, more teachers have retired this year than at any time since I was hired – about 10% of the staff.

And some even quit in the middle of the year – something that hardly ever happens.

If things don’t change this year, it will be worse next year.

But for those like me planning on returning in the Fall, congratulations. You made it through.

Now what?

I don’t know about you, but I often find myself nibbled by stress and anxiety.

I try to sleep, I try to rest, but worry and hopelessness settle down on me like a shroud.

If you’re like me, you may need some help getting through it all.

So here’s a list of five things we can do – not just you, but me, too – that hopefully will help us rejuvenate ourselves somewhat in the next few months and set us up for a successful year with our students.

1) Be Present with Friends and Family

Teachers often live in their heads.

We’re always planning a new lesson or thinking about how to help a student or improve something from the year before.

But this is summer break.

It’s time to tune out and turn off.

You’re home and hopefully you can find some time to spend with friends and family.

Just remember to try to be there. Actually be there.

Don’t live in your head. Live in the moment.

Let the present open up in front of you and actually enjoy the things you’re doing.

Our professional lives often demand we sacrifice so much time with our significant others, our kids, and the people we care about. Now is the time to balance the scales and enjoy their company. And nothing else.

This can be easier said than done, but it’s worth a try.

2) Don’t Focus on Things You Can’t Change

There is so much going on in the world, and we’re teachers. We’re problem solvers.

We want to fix broken things, and there is so much broken out there. The news is often not our friend.

I’m not saying to ignore what’s going on. We do so at our peril. But we have to try to put it all in context.

We’re just people – individuals caught in nets of complexity. We can’t solve all these problems ourselves.

A horrible regressive monster is running for Governor in the Fall who would destroy your profession and endanger your child’s future. Got it.

The government still hasn’t passed any meaningful measures to keep guns out of the hands of school shooters. Got it.

Politicians are still attacking your profession, history, science, math and enlightenment values. Argh!

And they’ll still be doing it at the end of August.

Take a break from it all.

Worrying will not change anything. And it will all be there for you later.

Just try to focus your mind elsewhere – for a little while.

3) Let Go of Resentments

This can be really hard but important.

There are a lot of people who have probably said or done things that made your life difficult this year.

It could be that parent who screamed at you on the phone over an assignment their child didn’t turn in.

It could be an administrator who made another stupid initiative that makes him/her look good while increasing your work load but does nothing to help the students.

It could be a sincerely stupid politician accused with pedophilia and insurrection who thinks taking pot shots at teachers will win him votes from the lowest common denominator.

It could be… so many people.

Take a deep breath and let it go.

You don’t need that baggage weighing you down.

As Nelson Mandela is supposed to have said:

“Having resentment against someone is like drinking poison and thinking it will kill your enemy.”

Leave that behind.

There will be plenty more next year.

4) Don’t Expect Too Much of Yourself

Often our harshest critic is ourselves.

We try so hard to be kind to everyone all year. This summer, be kind to yourself.

It’s break time. You don’t have to clean the whole house top to bottom. You don’t have to finally rearrange the utility drawer or any of a million other things that have been waiting around for you to get to them.

By all means, make those doctor’s appointments you’ve been waiting on. Buy a new pair of shoes. Cut the grass.

But if something doesn’t get done, don’t feel like it’s a failure.

You are allowed to simply do nothing.

Sometimes that’s the best thing we can do.

Be as productive as you want. Sometimes that helps alleviate stress, too – the satisfaction of getting things accomplished.

However, this break is not all about crossing things off your TO DO list.

It’s about rest and renewal.

Cut yourself some slack.

No one else will.

5) Remember Why You Got into Teaching

When you feel ready to turn your mind back to the job, try not to think of all the negative things waiting for you.

Don’t even let your mind rest on the uncertainties and anxieties ahead.

Focus on why you’re still a teacher.

You’re not chained to this profession. You probably had the chance to leave if you’d wanted.

Why did you get into education in the first place?

What are the things about it that you still love and enjoy?

For me, it’s nearly everything in the classroom, itself.

It’s interacting with students.

It’s helping them succeed and then seeing the look of joy on their faces when they do.

I love everything about my job – the subject I teach, the students, being there when there’s no one else.

It’s just all the stuff outside the classroom that I can’t stand.

I make a file during the year full of Christmas cards, goodbye messages from parents and students, positive emails, etc. During the summer is a perfect time to read through them and remember the good things.

At least, that’s what I try to do anyway.

So there’s my list. I hope you found it helpful.

Health, relaxation, calm. Be warned – I’m certainly no expert on the subject.

Remember the words of author Nakeia Homer:

“You are not lazy, unmotivated, or stuck. After years of living your life in survival mode, you are exhausted.”

Finding ways to recharge and renew is something I know I desperately need – maybe as you do, too.

Here’s hoping we can find the peace we need this summer.

The new academic year will be here before we know it.


 

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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!

‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is Still Relevant Because it Forces Us to Confront Ourselves 

 
 
Parris is peering into a crumpled paperback with a huge smile on his face. 


 
“Mr. Singer, I love this book…” he says.  


 
He stops, pauses and adds, “I hate what’s happening, but I love the book.” 


 
In my middle school classroom, that’s a pretty routine reaction to Harper Lee’s classic, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” 


 
My 8th grade students approach the climax and resolution with equal parts dread and delight.  


 
But it doesn’t always start that way. 


 
No book I teach has gone through a greater change in cultural opinion than “Mockingbird.” 


 
It used to be considered a bastion of anti-racism. Now some folks actually consider it to be racist. 


 
The story is about Scout and her brother Jem as they grow up in Alabama during the Great Depression. Most of the drama centers on their father, Atticus, who defends a black man, Tom Robinson, in court against trumped up charges of raping a white woman.  


 
Ever since its publication in 1960, people have tried to ban the book from school libraries and from school curriculum.  


 
And that’s still true today. However, this used to be the work of the far right. Today there are almost as many objections from the far left – though for very different reasons. 


 
For 50 years, the biggest complaints came from conservatives about the book’s strong language, discussion of sexuality, rape, and use of the n-word. Though today you’ll find almost as many on the left proclaiming that the book actually perpetuates the racial intolerance it purports to be against. 


 
Republicans have become more extreme than ever. They see any discussion of race as “Critical Race Theory” – a conflation of a legal framework not actually taught in K-12 schools with any substantive discussion of racial inequality. It’s really just a simple dog whistle to try and shut down any discussion of the racial status quo. 


 
Teachers have become accustomed to conservatives hyperventilating that discussing racism and prejudice might mean having to admit these things still exist and therefore requiring us to do something about them. They’re terrified their kids might come to different conclusions about the world than their parents, and instead of confronting their own views with the facts, they prefer to sweep reality under the rug to preserve the fictions underlying their ideologies. 


These sort of complaints are typified by the Biloxi Public School Board in Mississippi which in 2017 removed Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from its curriculum because, “It makes people uncomfortable.” 


 
What they don’t seem to realize is that the discomfort is part of the point. 


 
On the other side of the coin are people on the other pole of the political spectrum. Writers like Kristian Wilson Colyard don’t object to a discussion of racism and prejudice. They think “Mockingbird” doesn’t go far enough – or at least that the discussion it has is framed incorrectly. 


 
Colyard doesn’t think the book should be banned or removed from libraries, but instead insists it isn’t a good teaching tool.  


 
She writes


“Lee’s is not the best book to teach white kids about racism, because it grounds its narrative in the experiences of a white narrator and presents her father as the white savior.” 


While I think Colyard has a fair point of literary analysis, I don’t agree with her conclusion.  


At first glance, there is something strange about approaching racism through the lens of white people, but that doesn’t make it invalid. In fact, racism is a product of whiteness. In this country, white people are the ones doing it. Therefore, it makes sense to speak directly to and from the experience of white people. 


 Oppression, after all, is relational. It takes both the experience of the oppressed and the oppressor to fully understand it. And if we want to help end the cycle, it makes sense to show the oppressor how to bring that about. 


Moreover, the book sneaks up on its themes. There’s very little about outright intolerance on the first page or even the first few chapters. The idea creeps up on you as the narrator slowly becomes aware of the prejudices around her and the trial comes deeper into focus. 


As to the question of white saviorism, I think this is more often a buzzword than a legitimate criticism. White people are not heroes for attempting to put right something they put wrong. It is their responsibility, and seeing someone do that in fiction is a really powerful thing.  


Atticus doesn’t think he’s saving his client Tom Robinson. He doesn’t think he’s special for doing so. He’s doing what he thinks is right. Now Scout certainly views this through rose-colored glasses and lionizes him for it, but that’s a character’s point of view. It’s up to the reader to look at all this critically and come to your own judgement about it.  


Frankly, I think that’s one of the real values of the book. It provides a deep narrative, well told, for readers to examine and discuss very complex issues.  


 
If you think Atticus is given too much credit for what he does, that’s something you can discuss with other readers. I don’t see how doing so cheapens or hurts the cause of antiracism.  


In addition, the problem of centering the story on the white people is rectified by reading more widely in the literature. “Mockingbird” shouldn’t be the only book on the topic you read. To be well-rounded, you should read more from the point of view of people of color subjected to white people’s intolerance. And there are so many wonderful books to choose from – Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” Ralph Ellison’s “The Invisible Man,” Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple,” etc.  


However, teachers shouldn’t be made to feel like they’ve wasted an opportunity by using “Mockingbird” in the classroom – even if it’s the only book that year they read on this topic. There must be more opportunities in years to come. Racism and prejudice should not be a one-and-done topic in US schools. It is too important for that. 


In my classroom, this book is far from our first discussion of the issue.  


We talk about Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party. We talk about the 1968 Olympics Black power fist. We talk about Black cowboys like Bass Reeves. We talk about Bessie Coleman, Angela Davis, James Baldwin, and so many others.  


When we read S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders,” – a book that almost entirely eschews the topic – I make sure to point out that the narrative takes place in and around Tulsa, Oklahoma, and we discuss Black Wall Street and the massacre of Black people perpetrated by their White neighbors.  


And so when we get to “Mockingbird,” the discussions we have of the text is rich and deep. Students of color feel seen because of the book’s portrayal of the kind of racial injustice they experience in their own lives. Likewise, white students feel empowered to join in the struggle against it. 


When the verdict of the trial comes down, there are real tears and stares of disbelief.  


One of my students this year, Mya said, “I shouldn’t be surprised, but I thought it was going to turn out differently.” 


Me, too. Every time I read it. 


The book confronts students with the world as it is and challenges them to do something about it.  


White or Black, it holds up the reality of injustice and demands we take a side.  


And that’s why this book remains relevant and just as important today as it ever was. 


 

 

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Social-Emotional Learning vs. Classroom Culture 

 


 
A student accidentally drops her books in the hall.  


 
Another student stops and helps her pick them up.  


 
Then a teacher homes in on the two and gives the helper a little yellow card which can be redeemed for candy.  


 
This is what social-emotional learning (SEL) looks like in my school. 


 
Teachers instruct on proper behaviors and then reward students they see going above and beyond to achieve them.  


 
Here’s another example. 


 
A student at his lunch table is yelling and throwing food. Nearby another student is sitting quietly and reading a book.  


 
Then a teacher walks over and gives the quiet child a yellow card which can be used to enter a raffle for a special prize. He might win an Oculus VR game system or tickets to a baseball game.  


 
That’s social-emotion learning, too.  


 
Instead of just cracking down on the negative behaviors, we try to reward the positive ones.  


 
To be fair, it works to a degree.  


 
But most of the time, it doesn’t. 


 
The same kids end up with huge stacks of yellow cards and the rest get just one or two. Few students actually change their behavior. They just become virtue signalers whenever an adult is present.  


 
Moreover, there’s an incredible amount of pressure on teachers to not just instruct but to closely observe every student’s behavior and constantly give positive reinforcement to those doing what should be the norm.  


 
And that’s not even mentioning the frequent disruptions necessary to reward those children who can best navigate the system. 


 
But that’s only one way of addressing the problem of bad behavior.  


 
Especially now (most student’s first full year of in-person classes after the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic), students don’t seem to know how to interact.  


 
Snubs, insults and instigation seem to be their defaults ways of relating to each other. Some definitely need explicit boundaries and reinforcement.  


 
But it only goes so far in the halls, the cafeteria and during unstructured times.  


 
Inside the classroom is another beast altogether – as it always has been. 


 
Ever since I first started teaching more than two decades ago, it’s been necessary to work to achieve a classroom culture. 


 
The teacher has to expend significant time and energy with the students as a whole and each student individually to set up a mini-society where each member gets respect by giving respect. 


 
We try to set up the environment so everyone feels safe and involved, everyone is accepted for who they are, comfortable to be themselves and feels empowered to take the chances necessary to learn. 


 
It’s not easy, but it’s more about relationships than behaviorism. The reward isn’t something extrinsic – it’s participation in the classroom culture, itself.  


 
Both approaches attempt to do the same thing – create an environment in which learning is possible.

 
 
It reminds me of the famous quote by conductor Leopold Stokowski


 
“A painter paints pictures on canvas. But musicians paint their pictures on silence.” 


 
In the same way, you might say that learning in a group requires a canvass of positive behaviors or beneficial social interaction.  


 
This has always been the case, though today the concept has become elevated to buzzword status – SEL. 


 
It’s not so much a single program but a loose conglomeration of ideas that have been around forever. 


 
However, like so much about school these days, the work of teachers and students has become both monetized and demonized. 


 
For those on the far right, SEL is code for teaching kids how to think and feel.  


 
They fear leftwing teachers will instill the values of accepting LGBTQ people, different races and cultures.  Why that’s something to be avoided, I don’t know. Perhaps if you want your child to share your own bigotries, public school isn’t for you, no matter what you call the offending programs.  


 
However, for me the worst part is monetization.  


 
An army of corporate education consultants are looking for ways to give shallow professional development to teachers (at a cost to the district) and then run complicated programs from afar.  


 
This means: (1) testing students’ abilities in SEL, (2) holding teachers accountable for student behaviors, and (3) pretending educators are developmental psychologists.  


 
The problem with testing is multifaceted. First, it almost always comes down to more standardized assessments. Nothing is easier to measure but less accurate than multiple choice assessment created by psychometricians far removed from the reality of the classroom. Kids hate it, this wastes class time and makes the entire educational experience sterile and bland. 


 
Holding teachers responsible for the way 20 or more kids act at one time is ridiculous. Even parents with one or two children can’t control how they act – nor should that be the ultimate goal. School isn’t the military. It shouldn’t be about obedience. It should be about critical thinking and cognitive growth.

 
 
Finally, there is something incredibly unfair about expecting teachers who are already overloaded with jobs and responsibilities to suddenly become psychologists, too. Sure, we have some training in childhood psychology as part of our coursework to get our degrees, but we aren’t experts. We’re practitioners. We’re like auto-mechanics at your local garage. We can fix your car if something’s busted, but we can’t rewire the whole thing for greater efficiency. 


 
So when it comes to SEL, educators role should be focused and limited.  


 
We should be fully engaged in the creation of classroom culture.  


 
That is where we can have the greatest impact in the construction of our own interpersonal relationships with classes and students.  


 
When it comes to the way students interact outside of the class, teachers should be part of the planning process but the main responsibility of conducting it should be with administrators.  


 
And, finally, we mustn’t ignore the responsibility of parents and guardians.  


 
Roughly 60% of academic achievement can be explained by family background – things like income and poverty level. School factors only account for 20% – and of that, teachers account for 15%.  


 
We must free parents from overwork and professional pressures so they can do more to teach their children how to interact with others.  


 
It takes a village to raise a child – a village that knows how to communicate with each other and respect each member’s role. 

 


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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!

Covid Has Hobbled Public Schools. Here’s Why They’re Worth Saving 

 
 
 
Is public education worth saving? 


 
That’s the question in the air these days.  


 
In the last century, the US academic system helped us reach the moon, defeat Communism and become the world’s largest super power.    


 
However, today our public schools are more damaged than ever before.  


 
An increasing number of families are leaving them for charter and voucher schools.  


 
Teachers are quitting their jobs in droves with few people willing to fill the vacancies they leave behind.

 
 
And above all, many people seem to think the schools, themselves, are failing


 
Isn’t it time to move on to something else? 


 
I’m here to tell you – no, it is not. 


 
In fact, we need to guard and cherish our public schools more than ever before. Because we face the real possibility of losing them for good.  


 
The Covid-19 pandemic on top of years of corporate sabotage and propaganda have obscured what public education really means and why it is absolutely necessary to the functioning of our society and any possibility of social, racial or economic justice. 


 
Let’s begin by looking at how the current disaster exacerbated an already difficult situation and then consider why we should care enough to fix the mess. 


 
 
The Pandemic Effect 


 
 
Public schools got a bloody nose from the Coronavirus crisis.

 
 
After decades of segregation, inequitable funding, incentives to privatize, and federally mandated standardized testing, it took a deadly virus to finally hobble the system.  


 
Being forced to contend with the uncertainties of Covid-19 damaged people’s faith in public education more than anything that had come before it. 


 
Issues of masking, contact tracing, safety of immunocompromised students and staff, and when to open or close buildings (among other issues) lead to inevitable dissatisfaction from all fronts.  


 
However, none of these issues should have been decided at the local level in the first place.  


 
These were issues of national significance. We needed a unified strategy to fight a global pandemic as it washed over our shores – not scattershot policies by part-time officials unequipped to deal with them


 
These problems should have been tackled by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and enforced by the federal government without deference to big business.  


 
Instead, the CDC made conflicting decisions based more on the needs of the economy than public health (many of which were roundly ignored anyway). Then federal and state governments either refused to decide safety protocols leaving it up to individuals or municipalities, or when they did decide matters, they were embroiled in partisan battles over any kind of restrictions.  


 
In fact, it was the failure of federal, state and even local municipal governments that often made public schools the de facto legislators of last resort. And this is something they were never meant to be. 


 
Public health should be decided by scientists not school directors


 
The result was widespread dissatisfaction no matter what school boards decided and an exodus of students and faculty. 


 
Many families, upset at local school board decisions, enrolled their children in charter, cyber or voucher schools.  


 
Overall, charters saw a 7% increase in enrollment – an influx of roughly 240,000 students -during the 2020-21 school year, according to a new report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. This is the largest increase in five years. By comparison, public school enrollment dropped by 3.3% – or 1.4 million students – in the same period. 


 
The biggest increases were in cyber charter schools. For example, in Pennsylvania 99.7 percent of the charter enrollment growth occurred in virtual charter schools. Enrollment at the Commonwealth’s 14 cyber charter schools swelled from about 38,000 students in October 2019 to more than 60,000 students in October 2020, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education. 


 
But it wasn’t just students leaving our public schools. It was staff, too. 


 
Teachers and other school employees who felt unsafe or were crushed by the incredible pressure thrust on their shoulders either quit or retired in droves.  


 
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 567,000 fewer educators in our public schools today than there were before the pandemic. And finding replacements has been difficult. Nationwide, an average of one educator is hired for every two jobs available. 


 
 
This has left us with a weakened system suffering from more problems than before the pandemic hit.

 
 
 
Why Are Public Schools Important? 


 
 
Because of what they are and what they represent.  


 
We hear about public education so often – usually in deprecating terms – that we forget exactly what the term signifies.  


 
A public school is a school meant for everybody and anybody.  


 
It is a school where any child can go to get an education.  


 
You don’t have to pay tuition. You don’t have to have a special ability or qualification. You don’t have to be neurotypical, a certain race, ethnicity, belong to a certain faith or socioeconomic status. If you’re living in the US – even if you’re here illegally – you get to go there.  


 
That may seem simple, but it is vitally important and really quite special.  


 
Not all nations have robust systems of public education like we do in the US. 


 
This country has a commitment to every single child regardless of what their parents can afford to pay, regardless of their access to transportation, regardless of whether they can afford uniforms, lunch or even if they have a home.  


 
We simply define education differently. We look at it as a right, not a privilege. And for a full 13 years (counting kindergarten) it’s a right for every child, not just some. 


Perhaps even more significant is our commitment to children with special needs. 


We have developed a special education system to help children at the edges that many other countries just can’t touch. In some nations these students are simply excluded. In others they are institutionalized. In some countries it’s up to parents to find ways to pay for special services. The United States is one of the only countries where these children are not only included and offered full and free access, but the schools go above and beyond to teach these children well beyond their 12th academic year. 


In every authentic public school in the United States these students are included. In math, reading, science and social studies, they benefit from instruction with the rest of the class. And this, in turn, benefits even our neurotypical students who gain lessons in empathy and experience the full range of human abilities. 


That isn’t to say the system has ever been perfect. Far from it. 


 
There are plenty of ways we could improve. Even before the pandemic, we were incredibly segregated by race and class. Our funding formulas were often regressive and inadequate. Schools serving mostly poor students didn’t have nearly the resources of those serving rich students.

 
 
But at least at the very outset what we were trying to do was better than what most of the world takes on. You can’t achieve equity if it isn’t even on the menu. 


 
Without public schools, equity is definitely not on offer. 


 
 
 Public is Better Than Private 


 
 
That’s really the point.  


 
Charter, cyber and voucher schools are not set up around this ideal.  


 
They are not instruments of inclusion. They are instruments of exclusion.  


 
They are about who is sent away, not about letting everyone in.  


The United States is a big country – the third most populous in the world. We have 332,630,000 people and growing. That’s about 50 million students in public schools. 


 
No private system in the world has ever been able to work at that scale. If we lose our public schools, many kids will be left wanting.  


The market-driven approach does not guarantee an education. It guarantees competition for an education


 
It forces students to compete to get into schools and schools to compete for their very existence. Think of how that affects instruction. Schools have to spend a considerable amount of time and money attracting students to enroll. That’s time and money that doesn’t go to education. It goes to advertising. 


  
Moreover, any school that attracts a surplus of students can choose which ones its wants to enroll. The choice becomes the school’s – not the parents’ or students’. In fact, administrators can turn away students for any reason – race, religion, behavior, special needs, how difficult it would be to teach him or her. This is much different from authentic public schools. There, any student who lives in the district may attend regardless of factors such as how easy or difficult he or she is to educate. 


  
Another major change with this approach is how privatized schools are run. Many are operated behind closed doors without the input of a duly-elected school board, without transparency for how they spend tax dollars, without even the guide rails of most regulations


  
Like in the charter school sector, these schools get almost free reign to do whatever they want.  


This means corporate interests get to run charter schools while cutting services and increasing profits. In fact, administrative costs at charter schools are much higher than at traditional public schools. Students lose, the market wins. 


  
Moreover, many charter schools provide a sub-par education. To put it more bluntly, they do things that would be impossible for public schools to do. One in Philadelphia literally transformed into a nightclub after dark. Another funneled profits into the CEO’s personal bank account to be used as a slush fund to buy gifts and pay for rent at an apartment for his girlfriend. Another CEO used tax dollars to buy a yacht cheekily called “Fishin’ 4 Schools.”  


 
And virtual charter schools are even worse. A study found that cyber-charters provide almost less education than not going to school at all. Even brick and mortar charter schools can close on a moments notice leaving students in the lurch. 


  
It’s a Darwinian model made to benefit the predators, not the prey. It’s a boon for any unselfconscious businessman who doesn’t mind getting rich stealing an education from children. 


 
We Must Fight 


 
That’s why we must fight to keep our public schools.  


 
As flawed and bruised as they are, the public school model is far superior to the alternative.  


 
But many will look only at their own individual situation and stop there.  


 
They will say, “At MY charter school we do this…” Or “That’s not the way things are at MY voucher academy…” 


 
First of all, a well-functioning privatized school is like a castle built precariously on a cliff. Things may work well now, but they could change at any moment and there’s nothing you could do but vote with your feet. When authentic public schools go bad, you have a democratic process to fix the problem.

 
 
But you may luck out. Every privatized school isn’t a scam. Just most of them. So if you have found a charter, cyber or voucher school that is working for your child and doesn’t self-destruct in the time your child is enrolled, you may wonder why you should worry about the rest of us – the kids caught up in a web of privatized predation and neglect?  


 
Because it’s not all about you and your child. Selfishness cannot be the foundation of a just society.

 
 
Even a well-functioning charter or voucher school is publicly funded. It splits the funding that would normally go to one school and divides it among two or more. So students at both have to make do with less. 


You have to live in this society. Do you really want to live in a country with a large population of undereducated citizens who cannot figure out how to vote in their own interests? Do you really want to live in a society where crime is a better career choice for those who were not properly educated?  


 
That’s why we can’t let public education disappear.  


 
It is a necessary condition for democracy, shared economic prosperity and a just society.  


 
I know it may sound like an insurmountable task, but saving our public schools can be done.  


 
It will require collective action. 


 
We will need to actively participate in our school board elections, go to school board meetings and possibly even run to serve on the board, ourselves. 


 
Many people are upset with what local boards did during the pandemic, but the way to solve this isn’t to flee to schools without democratic principles. It is to seize those principles and make them work for you and your community. 


 
We will need to change the way our system treats teachers. If we want to encourage educators to stay on the job and even entice young people to enter the field, we need to make the profession more rewarding. That means higher salaries, more autonomy, more respect, smaller classes, less paperwork, and actually listening to educators on the subject of education.  


 
We also need to discontinue countless policies and programs that have been dragging our public schools down for decades. We need to eliminate high stakes standardized testing. We need to ensure every school is adequately, equitably and sustainably funded. We need to actively integrate our schools and classrooms. We need to stop supporting privatization through charter and voucher schools and instead support authentic public schools.  


 
And to do that, we need real political change at every level of government – local, municipal, state and federal.  


 
None of this is easy. All of it takes work.  


 
But it is the fight we must wage if we are ever to keep our democracy.  


 
It is the fight we must win to create the better world our children deserve.  


 
Public schools are worth saving, but it is up to you and me to do it. 


 

 


 

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!

 

Top 5 Charter School Myths Debunked 

If there’s one thing people love to argue about, it’s charter schools.

Go to any school board meeting, PTA forum or editorial page, and you’re bound to see folks from all different walks of life getting red in the face over these institutions.

But what are they anyway? And why do they generate so much passionate disagreement?

To answer these questions and many more, I’m going to examine five of the most pernicious myths about charter schools, debunk the fallacies and come to the simple truths.

1. Charter Schools are Public Schools 

That’s what charter school supporters say, anyway. But it’s only partially true.

In short, charter schools are schools that were opened by special arrangement (or charter) with a state or authentic public school district that allows them to exist without having to abide by all the rules and regulations that govern all the other schools. Thus, the charter school can go without an elected board, it can pocket public money as private profit, hire uncertified teachers, refuse to admit special education students, etc. The degree of latitude depends on the special arrangement.

Is that a public school? In one way it most certainly is. All charter schools are funded by public tax dollars. Everything else is up for grabs.

They don’t even have to accept all the students in their coverage area like authentic public schools do. You still have to support them with your taxes though.

Is that a public school?

QUICK ANSWER: NO.

2. Charter Schools Save Money 

This is another claim by the charter school industry that has been in contention for their entire 30 year existence.

Charter schools were invented in 1991 and only exist in 43 states and the District of Columbia. They enroll about 6% of the students in the country – roughly three million children.

However, the idea that they could save money is pretty absurd. They duplicate services that already exist at neighborhood public schools. When you pay for two providers to do the same thing, that doesn’t lower the cost.

It drains money from the existing public schools and often forces school directors to raise taxes so they can continue to provide the same services as before.

However, not only do charter schools increase costs, they often waste the extra money taxpayers are forced to provide.

Consider that more than a quarter of charter schools close within 5 years of opening. By year 15, roughly 50% of charter schools close. That’s not a stable model of public education.

Moreover, 1,779 charter schools (37 percent that receive federal grants) never opened in the first place or were quickly shut down. Since 1994, the federal government has spent $4 billion on these types of schools. Think of how much money has been wasted that could have been put to better use in our much more dependable authentic public schools!

To be fair, some charter defenders will argue that since they are free from the same regulations as public schools, they can cut costs WITHIN their institutions and provide the same services for less. However, they never return that savings to the taxpayers. They simply cut services for their students and then pocket the savings. Lowering quality may be a way to cut costs, but it’s not exactly an innovation – and certainly not something to be envied.

This may be cost effective to the bureaucrats and profiteers running charter schools, but it is not a savings to you and me – to speak nothing of how it hurts the students hoping to receive a quality education.

So do charter schools save money?

QUICK ANSWER: NO!

 
 
3. Students do Better Academically in Charter Schools 

This is what it says on all those charter school advertisements you see popping up everywhere. But is it true?

The problem with answering that is one of apples and oranges. How do you fairly compare charter and public school students when each group is so different?

Charter schools can legally cherry pick their students. They serve far fewer students with disabilities and English Language Learners. If a student is hard to teach, they “convince” them to go somewhere else.

Meanwhile, authentic public schools can’t do that. They take all comers.

As a result, charter schools can APPEAR to do better for their students but that appearance is due to privileged rules not better teaching or academic programs.

However, even with such advantages, charter schools have failed to show consistent results over authentic public schools on comparative studies.

According to a 2010 Mathematica Policy Research study funded by the federal government, middle-school students who were selected by lottery to attend charter schools performed no better than their peers who lost out in the lottery and attended nearby public schools. This was the most rigorous and most expensive study of charter school performance commissioned by the US Department of Education, and it found no overall positive benefit for charter schools.

And there have been many others. A 2016 study found that Texas charter schools had no overall positive impact on test scores and, in fact, had a negative impact on students’ earnings later in life.

Even a 2020 study by the charter-friendly Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) found that charter schools are not exceeding public schools in most areas of the country. In addition, the study found vast variations in the quality of charter schools – some being better and many being much worse than the norm.

So, taken as a whole, do charter schools outperform authentic public schools?

QUICK ANSWER: NO!

 
4. Charter Schools are About Innovation 

This was, in fact, one of the selling points of the charter school concept when it was first proposed. Being freed of the regulations that authentic public schools have to abide by would allow charter schools to be laboratories for innovation.

However, after 31 years, practices at charter schools can be seen as somewhat different than at authentic public schools, but are they innovative?

According to a 2018 report by IBM Center Visiting Fellow for Evidence-Based Practices, the practices connected with most positive academic outcomes at charter schools are:

1) Longer school days or academic years


2) Zero tolerance and other strict discipline policies associated with rewards and sanctions


3) Centering the curriculum on improving test scores and test prep.

These are pretty much the opposite of what developmental psychologists, education experts and civil rights activists want for children.

Forcing adolescents to spend more time in the classroom is the exact opposite of what other high achieving countries (like those in Scandinavia) do. Treating children like prisoners with harsh punishments for not conforming to strict rules is not considered best for developing young minds. And narrowing the curriculum to drill and kill reading and math test prep may improve scores but it certainly doesn’t create well-rounded adults with strong critical thinking skills.

Moreover, those few charter schools that do engage in creative practices such as organizing the curriculum around a theme like creative arts or racial justice issues aren’t doing anything that isn’t already being done at authentic public schools – specifically magnet and lab schools.

The creativity and innovation you find at most charter schools is in the accounting department – finding new ways to reduce the services students would find at the neighborhood public school and redefining the savings as profit. That and circumventing conflict of interest regulations to allow the corporation that manages the charter school to buy properties from itself at a hefty mark up.

Is any of this innovation?

QUICK ANSWER: NO!

 
5. Charter Schools Improve Civil Rights 

This is perhaps the most often cited benefit of charter schools. In fact, the impression has been that charters are the choice of people of color and serve them better than their neighborhood public school.

However, the facts show a somewhat different reality.

Yes, charter schools do serve a disproportionately high percentage of children of color. According to 2016 data from the National Center for Education Statistics, 26% of all charter school students are black (832,000) compared with 33% of Hispanics (1,056,000) and 32% of whites (1,024,000).

However, approximately 57% of charter schools are located in cities compared to only 25% of authentic public schools.

So black people aren’t selecting charter schools more often as much as charter schools are deciding to locate in areas where more black people live and are often marketing their services directly to black and brown populations.

Are these schools doing a better job of meeting the needs of these children? A 2016 report from UCLA casts doubt on this idea.

Charter schools are notorious for suspending their black students at much higher rates than their white students. While suspensions for students of color are high at public schools as well, they are much more extreme at charter schools.

More than 500 charter schools suspended Black students 10 percent more often than white students. Moreover, the same figure holds for students with disabilities at 1,093 charter schools. In fact, 374 charter schools suspended 25% of their entire student bodies at least once.

Charter schools are also notorious for increasing racial segregation in the neighborhoods where they locate. Nearly half of all Black secondary charter school students attended a charter schools that was hyper-segregated (80% Black) and where the aggregate Black suspension rate was 25%.

However, this increased segregation isn’t just something that affects Black charter school students. It affects white charter school students, as well.

A 2018 report by The Hechinger Report found that 10 percent of charter schools enrolled a disproportionately high number of White students as compared to the racial demographics of the district at large. Writer Kimberly Quick calls these “White-Flight Charters”. 

In the first case, the charter schools end up with a disproportionate percentage of Black students and the white students are left in the public schools. In the later case, the Black students are left in the authentic public schools and the white kids flee to the charter schools.

Both cases are not good for civil rights. They allow students of color to be targeted for disinvestment and reductive curriculum while further privileging the white students.

Don’t Black students deserve the right to an education where corporations can’t teach them on the cheap? Don’t they deserve educations free from developmentally inappropriate long days, harsh discipline policies and narrowed curriculum? Don’t their parents deserve the right to participate in the running of their schools through elected school boards?

The idea that it is somehow in the best interest of children of color to be provided with schools containing fewer safety precautions is kind of insulting.

Far from improving civil rights, charter schools too often violate them.

This is why the NAACP has repeatedly called for a moratorium on new charter schools. Members of the organization’s educational task force released a statement saying:

“With the expansion of charter schools and their concentration in low-income communities, concerns have been raised within the African American community about the quality, accessibility and accountability of some charters, as well as their broader effects on the funding and management of school districts that serve most students of color.”

Black Lives Matter organizers also called for a charter school moratorium. Charters, they wrote, represent a shift of public funds and control to private entities. Along with “an end to the privatization of education,” the Movement for Black Lives organizers are demanding increased investments in traditional community schools and the health and social services they provide.

Moreover, the Journey for Justice Alliance – a coalition of grassroots community, youth, and parent-led organizations in over 30 cities – has gone even further calling for an end to all school privatization.

The organization posted on it’s Website:

“The evidence is clear and aligns with the lived experience of parents, students and community residents in America’s cities: school privatization has failed in improving the education outcomes for young people. There is no such thing as “school choice” in Black and Brown communities in this country. We want the choice of a world class neighborhood school within safe walking distance of our homes. We want an end to school closings, turnarounds, phase-outs, and charter expansion.”

So do charters improve civil rights?

QUICK ANSWER: NO!


There are a lot of myths spread about charter schools – many of them being propagated by the charter school industry, itself.

Most of these are not facts; they are marketing.

While there are some charter schools that do a decent job educating children, the charter school concept is deeply flawed.

Authentic public schools are far from perfect, but taken as a whole they are much more effective, reliable, economical, transparent and democratic than the alternatives.

We should take steps to end the charter school model and transition those schools that are working back to the authentic public school system that has served our students well for more than a century.


 

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If Standardized Tests Were Going to Succeed, They Would Have Done So By Now 


 
 
 
Standardized tests were supposed to be the magic remedy to fix our public schools.  


 
 
They were supposed to make all students proficient in reading and math.  


 
 
They were supposed to ensure all students were getting the proper resources.  


 
 
They were supposed to ensure all teachers were doing their best for their students.  


 
 
But after more than four decades, standardized tests have not fulfilled a single one of these promises.

 
 
 
In fact, all they’ve done is make things worse at public schools while creating a lucrative market for testing companies and school privatization concerns.  


 
 
So why haven’t we gotten rid of them? 


 
 
To answer that question, we have to understand how we got here in the first place – where these kinds of assessments came from in the US and how they became the guiding policy of our public schools. 


 
Standardized testing has been around in this country since the 1920s.  


 
It was the product of the pseudoscientific eugenicist movement that tried to justify white supremacy with bad logic and biased premises.  


 
Psychologists Robert Yerkes and Carl Brigham invented these assessments to justify privileging upper-class whites over lower class immigrants, Blacks and Hispanics. That was always the goal and they tailored their tests to find that result. 


 
From the very start, it had serious consequences for public policy. The results were used to rationalize the forced sterilization of 60,000 to 70,000 people from groups with low test scores, thus preventing them from “polluting” the gene pool.  


 
However, Brigham’s greatest claim to fame was the creation of the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) to keep such undesirables out of higher education. These tests were not central to school curriculum and mainly used as gatekeepers with the SAT in particular still in wide use today. 


 
The problem then – as now – is that standardized tests aren’t very good assessments. They work okay for really simple things like rudimentary math. However, the more complex a skill you’re assessing, the more inadequate the tests. For example, imagine just trying to have a conversation with someone where your only choices of reply were limited to four canned responses. That’s a multiple-choice assessment. The result is a testing system that selects against the poor and minorities. At best, it reproduces the economic and racial disparities of society. At worst, it ensures those disparities will continue into the next generation. 


 
That isn’t to say the system went unchallenged. By the 1960s, the junk science and leaps of logic behind standardized testing were obvious and people began fighting back in court. Black plaintiffs began winning innumerable lawsuits against the testing industry.  


 
 
Perhaps the most famous case is Hobson v. Hansen in 1967, which was filed on behalf of a group of Black students in Washington, DC. The court ruled that the policy of using tests to assign students to tracks was racially biased because the tests were standardized to a White, middleclass group. 


 
 
Nevertheless, just as the tests were beginning to disappear, radical economists like Milton Friedman saw them as an opportunity to push their own personal agenda. More than anything, these extreme capitalists wanted to do away with almost all public services – especially public schools. They hoped the assessments could be repurposed to undermine these institutions and usher in an era of private education through measures like school vouchers. 


 
 
 
So in the 1980s, the Reagan administration published “A Nation at Risk,” a campfire tale about how America’s public schools were failing. Thus, the authors argued we needed standardized testing to make American children competitive in a global marketplace. 


 
 
However, the report, which examined test scores from the past 20 years, was misleading and full of statistical and mathematical errors.  


 
 
For instance, it concluded that average student test scores had decreased but didn’t take into account that scores had actually increased in every demographic group. It compared two decades worth of test scores, but failed to mention that more students took the test at the end of that period than at the beginning, and many of the newer students were disadvantaged. In other words, it compared test scores between an unrepresentative group at the beginning of the comparison with a more representative group at the end and concluded that these oranges were nothing like the apples they started with. Well, duh. 


 
Most people weren’t convinced by the disaster capitalism at work here, but the report marks a significant moment in the standardization movement. In fact, this is really where our modern era began.

 
 
Slowly governors and state legislators began drinking the Kool-aide and mandating standardized testing in schools along with corporate-written academic standards the tests were supposed to assess. It wasn’t everywhere, but the model for test-and-punish was in place. 


 
It took an additional two decades, until 2001, for President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation to require standardized testing in ALL public schools.  


 
With bipartisan support, Bush tied federal funding of schools to standardized test performance and annual academic progress. And from then on, the die was cast. This policy has been upheld through both Republican and Democratic regimes.  


 
In fact, standardized testing intensified under President Barack Obama and was continued with few changes by Donald Trump and even Joe Biden. Far from changing course, Biden broke a campaign promise to discontinue the tests. Once in office, he thought testing was so important that he forced schools to give the assessments during the Covid-19 pandemic when districts had trouble even keeping school buildings open. 


 
And that brings us to today.  


 
From the 1980s to 2022 we’ve had wide scale standardized testing in our schools. That’s roughly 40 years where the entirety of what is done in public school has been organized around these assessments. They drive the curriculum and are the ultimate benchmark by which success or failure is judged. If this policy was ever going to work, it would have done so by now.  


 
 
However, it has achieved NONE of its stated goals.  


 
NCLB specifically stated that all children would be proficient in reading and math by 2014. That has not happened. Despite spending billions of dollars on remediation and completely reorganizing our schools around the assessments, test scores have remained mostly static or even decreased. 


 
The law also justified its existence with claims to equity. Somehow taking resources away from districts with low test scores was supposed to increase funding at the neediest schools. Unsurprisingly this did not happen. All it did was further increase the funding gap between rich and poor schools and between wealthy and disadvantaged students.  


 
NCLB also championed the idea that competing for test scores would result in better teachers. However, that didn’t happen either. Instead, educators were forced to narrow the curriculum to cover mostly what was assessed, reduce creativity and critical thinking, and teachers who served poor and minority students were even punished for doing so.  


 
If the purpose of standardized testing was all the things the law purported, then it was a decades long failure. It is the policy equivalent of slamming your head into a wall repeatedly and wondering why you aren’t moving forward. (And where did this headache come from?) 


 
If, however, the purpose of standardized testing was to fulfill Friedman’s privatization dreams, then it was a resounding success. Public schools still persist, but they have been drained, weakened and in many ways subverted.  


 
Look at the evidence. 


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


 
Huge corporations make the tests, grade the tests and then sell remediation materials when students fail. It’s a huge scam. 


 
But that’s not the only business created by this policy. Test and punish opened entirely new markets that hadn’t existed before. The emphasis on test scores and the “failing schools” narrative stoked unwarranted distrust in the public school system and a demand for more privatized alternatives. 


 
 Chief among these was charter schools. 


 
The first charter school law was passed in 1991 in Minnesota. It allowed for the creation of new schools that would have special agreements (or charters) with states or districts to run without having to abide by all the usual regulations. Thus, the school could go without an elected board, pocket public money as private profit, etc. The bill was quickly copied and spread to legislatures across the country by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). 


  
Today, there are charter schools in 43 states and the District of Columbia educating nearly three million students. Charter schools enroll about 6% of the students in the country.  


 
 
However, charter schools are rife with fraud and malfeasance. For instance, more than a quarter of charter schools close within 5 years of opening. By year 15, roughly 50% of charter schools close. That’s not a stable model of public education. It’s a get rich quick scheme. And since these types of schools are free from the kinds of regulations, democratic governance and/or transparency that keeps authentic public schools in check, another charter school scandal pops up almost every day. 


 
 
But let’s not forget school vouchers. Before high stakes testing, the idea of using public money to pay for private or parochial schools was widely considered unconstitutional. Now about 4% of US students go to private and parochial schools some of which are funded with school vouchers. This is an option in 32 states and the District of Columbia, and more than 600,000 students participated in a voucher, scholarship tax credit or education savings account program last school year, according to EdChoice, a pro-voucher and school choice group.  


 
There is little evidence that school vouchers actually improve student performance, however, and there’s even evidence that students who receive vouchers to attend private schools may do worse on tests than they would have if they had stayed in authentic public schools.  


 
Moreover, the cost of attending one of these private or parochial schools isn’t completely covered by the voucher. On average, vouchers offer about $4,600 a year, according to American Federation for Children, which supports voucher programs. The average annual cost of tuition at a private K-12 school nationwide is $12,350, according to Educationdata.org, though that can be much more expensive in some states. In Connecticut, for example, the average tuition is almost $24,000. So vouchers only REDUCE the cost of attending private or parochial schools for a few kids while siphoning away tax dollars that should go to educating all kids.  


 
In short, they’re subsidies for wealthier kids at the expense of the middle class and disadvantaged. 


 
Without standardized testing, it is impossible to imagine such an increase in privatization.

 
 
 
High stakes testing is a Trojan horse. It is a way to secretly undermine and weaken public schools so that testing corporations, charter schools and voucher schools can thrive. 


 
 
Judged by its own metrics of success, standardized testing is an abject failure. Judged by the metric of business and school privatization it is a rousing success.  


 
And that’s why it has been so hard to discontinue.  


 
This is corporate welfare at its finest, and the people getting rich off our tax dollars won’t allow us to turn off the flow of funding without a fight.  


 
 
On the right, policymakers are often boldly honest about their goals to bolster privatization over public schools. On the left, policymakers still cling to the failed measures of success testing has not been able to meet time-and-again.  


 
However, both groups support the same system. They only give different reasons.  


 
 
It is past time to wake up and smell the flowers.  


 
 
If we want to ensure education dollars go to education and not profiteers, we need to end standardized testing. 


 
 
If we want to help students learn to the best of their abilities, we need to stop gaslighting them with faulty measures of success or failure. 
 


 
If we want to allow teachers to do the best for their students, we need to stop holding them back with antiquated eugenicist shackles. 


 
 
And if we truly want to save our public school system, we have to stop propping up privatization.  


 
 
In short, we need to end standardized testing.  
 


 
The sooner, the better. 


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!