Economists Worry Covid-19 May End Standardized Testing Altogether

The sky is falling for standardized test enthusiasts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In other words, it was about politics.

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

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

They write:

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

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

How do standardized tests help students?

That’s exactly the question at stake here.

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

They DO NOT help allocate resources to struggling students.

They DO NOT help diagnose student learning difficulties.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Test scores are effectively useless.

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

To paraphrase Motown singer Edwin Starr:

“Testing! HUH!

What is it good for? ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!

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

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

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

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

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

It has nothing to do with helping children learn.

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


 

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Stop Transforming US Schools into Prisons in the Name of Security

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s start with cost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of those things is security.

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

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

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

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

Not so in most other countries.

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

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

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

In fact, emphasis on security certainly hasn’t.

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

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

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

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

Which brings me to education.

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

No one wants to go to a prison for school.

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

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

Even preparing for violent situations can have negative impacts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not gratifying parents to make points on the internet.

Not even security or profiting huge corporations.

It’s to teach kids.

We’d do best to remember that.


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My Favorite Teacher in a Pandemic

Mr. Singer, you are the best ELA teacher I’ve ever had. I’ve always loved ELA but for years now I started not enjoying [it] anymore mostly because of the teachers. But you changed my whole view about ELA. You made me enjoy these classes, the books, and even the Zooms. You taught me that teachers can have fun in classes, too. Thank you for not giving up on me, for always trying to help me, for showing me the books at school are interesting. THANK YOU FOR TEACHING ME!”

These words were written on a folded up piece of paper handed to me by an 8th grade English Language Arts (ELA) student the day before school let out this year.

It means a lot.

Especially this year.

Teaching is always challenging. That’s part of its appeal. But teaching through a global pandemic was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.

We were on-line, in-person, BOTH at the same time.

We were wearing masks, ensconced behind plexiglass, wiping down surfaces with cleanser between classes.

We were praised then blamed, deified, demonized, vaccinated.

Nearly every week – sometimes every few days – someone (adult or child) came down with COVID-19.

Yet through it all we somehow managed to teach.

Now that the school year is over for me, I’m left here cleaning up the mess looking back on everything.

One thing I keep hearing from policymakers, pundits and other people with no teaching experience is a frantic concern abut learning loss.

They’ve spent decades looking at spreadsheets attempting to quantify learning, and turn it into a commodity – but they have no idea what it really is.

I’m not sure I do either.

But I know this much: Learning is never lost. It’s never late or early. It’s always right there when the circumstances allow.

On the last day of class, I invariably give my students a survey about how things went. I tell them I’ve graded them all year. This is their chance to grade me.

I tell them the surveys are not part of their grade and they can even turn them in anonymously if they choose – or not at all.

But most turn them in – many with their names clearly visible.

After a year like this one, you might expect the comments to be more variable than usual. You might expect them to go on about the difficulties, the problems, all the things they didn’t learn but hoped they would.

Instead, I got mostly gratitude.

And if you haven’t taught middle school, let me tell you, that can be rare for teenagers:

“He was the best ELA teacher I’ve ever had… [He} Never stopped helping me [on] every assignment I didn’t do. He would comment on it. He would always try to help me on it.’

And:

“I think you are a kind teacher and you should keep it up so more kids can like you like me :)… When I didn’t catch on to something and I asked what we’re doing, you didn’t get upset. Instead you announced politely what we had to do and I liked that about you because most teachers would yell at me for not paying attention.”

And:

“You actually want to teach the class!”

The biggest thing they singled out about my teaching was the way I interacted with them:

“My teacher helped me with something that helped me succeed this year, and that was patience. Mr. Singer was patient with me this year and worked through what I didn’t understand.”

And:

“He helped with turning in assignments late and explaining how it works. He also explains when and what everyone needs to do it on time.”

I even had students who were thankful for the difficulty of the work:

“I liked how we did essays to get us ready for next year. I also liked how we did essays along with the short stories.”

And far from low academic scores, I had students who earned better grades than ever before:

“This is my first class in ELA when I have gotten a C or higher [in] the past 9 years.”

All of those comments were from my regular language arts students. However, I also taught two sections of a creative writing class for the same age group.

They particularly liked my comments on their written work:

“[You] gave descriptive details on what I was doing right and wrong in my writing. It helped me understand and then improve my writing skills.”

And:

“[You did well] With helping people and not being mean about what we got wrong. That actually helps by telling us the mistakes that we did. I think that helps us get better.”

They also singled out my interactions:

“You’re nice and don’t harshly judge us or yell. You’re always willing to help.”

And:

“Our teacher helped us understand that there are many ways to improve writing.”

Of course, more of them had ideas for ways I could improve:

“…I actually like your class. It’s just sometimes there could be hand injuries [from overwriting]. Also, you can sometimes [let us] make up our own [prompts].”

And this from an honors student:

“The writing prompts were good and challenging. I like how unique they were. Overall, the instruction was good, but after I finished writing my journal, I found myself sitting around with nothing to do for about 15 minutes. Maybe provide extra assignments to keep us busy.”

And that about wraps up another year.

I hope things will be different at the end of August when we return to class.

This 2020-21 has been a year like no other. But reading through these comments it’s clear it wasn’t a waste.

My students learned something.

They learned a lot of somethings.

Like every year, I gave them my all.

And like every year, it was worth it.

And to prove it, here’s one more student response from a child I had in 7th grade and in this year’s 8th grade. He also was in my creative writing class where responses had to be a minimum of 5 sentences:

Dear Mr. Singer,

I never liked reading class. I have had you for two years now and you have made me like it. You helped me to write even though I don’t like it. You push me to write when I didn’t give details to my stories. You made me read books and I enjoyed them. Every book you picked this year I liked. I even would tell my parents and my sister about them. And since she read them we could talk about them. I enjoyed watching the movies, too. I even did well with you with Zoom classes and that wasn’t easy at times. Thanks for being my favorite teacher in middle school. by the way, I wrote more than 5 sentences.”


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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!

Pittsburgh Media Runs Right Wing Propaganda About Public Schools As If It Were Real News

The Commonwealth Foundation is not a reliable news source


 
It’s a right wing propaganda network that provides the motivation behind American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) sponsored bills.  


 
ALEC writes the laws. The Commonwealth Foundation justifies them. And GOP lawmakers pass them (often with help from neoliberal Democrats). 


 
So why are otherwise reputable Pittsburgh television and radio stations running stories based on Commonwealth Foundation reports?  


 
On May 25, WTAE-TV ran a story called “Pennsylvania school districts flush with federal cash, but many still considering tax hikes.” It was a love letter to the Koch Brothers funded ideological network. 

The basic thrust of the story is captured in the headline. It says that public schools throughout Pennsylvania have received an influx of funding to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic but school directors are unnecessarily planning to increase taxes anyway.

For example, Pittsburgh Public Schools has received $161 million in three rounds of federal disaster funding. Yet the district is still projecting a $38 million deficit this year. 


 
Ideologues at the Harrisburg based Commonwealth Foundation don’t understand how that’s possible. They want to know why districts can’t just use the disaster funding to pay for continuing expenses?

Because it’s illegal. Duh.

Pittsburgh Superintendent Dr. Anthony Hamlet explains:


 

“That’s one-time dollars. That money cannot supplant the general fund so the general fund is different. These are supplementary dollars that can’t be used for personnel or anything like that.”

Most of those funds will go to pay for after-school or summer school programs to help students with declining academics after they spent much of the past year at home, he continues.

Moreover, if districts spent that money (illegally) to fill pre-existing budget holes, all they’d be doing is kicking the can of funding deficits down the road a year or two.

Ideologues at the Commonwealth Foundation know that.

In fact, later on in the exact same story, they worry about this very thing.

At the beginning of the story, Elizabeth Stelle, Director of Policy Analysis for the Commonwealth Foundation, says, “We see no reason why the federal funding is not more than enough to cover the needs of districts today.”

But then later in the same story she says, “I’m very concerned they’re going to spend that money on ongoing needs and we’ll be in a very difficult situation a couple years from now.”

Well, which is it Stelle? Are you worried about districts REFUSING to use disaster funds to pay for ongoing needs or are you worried that they WILL use disaster funds for this exact purpose?

You can’t have it both ways.

Stelle made headlines in March lobbying to eliminate the minimum wage in Pennsylvania and allowing slave labor.

WTAE should have had the journalistic integrity to ask her about her blatant contradiction in this story and her reprehensible positions on record. Or perhaps have the integrity not to invite such members of the lunatic fringe on their network and legitimize her position with coverage.

Unfortunately, producers are content to broadcast clickbait to get low information voters agitated against schools without any good reason.

I suppose it gets ratings.

If it bleeds it leads, and if it antagonizes it televises.

Sadly, WTAE wasn’t the only local television station to do so.

On march 15, WPXI ran a similar story under the headline, “Study claims Pa. schools don’t need COVID-19 relief money, local districts pushing back.” 

This at least was a more skeptical look at the same Commonwealth Foundation report.

But why run anything on the report to begin with?

Were the Flat Earthers busy? Was Q-anon out of conspiracies? Has no one spotted the Illuminati lately? 

WPXI characterized the report less about COVID funding misuse than additional funds being unnecessary to begin with.

Reporters said the Commonwealth Foundation report concluded that state districts were not hurting from the pandemic in the first place. And then journalists went to local districts who flatly contradicted that statement with facts. 


Gateway School Board President Brian Goppman, for example, said the district cut $3 million from its operating budget due to the pandemic. Moreover, the tax base, itself, has suffered from COVID. When businesses close, that’s less tax revenue to fund social programs like schools.

“Monroeville and especially our district… we get a lot of money from the businesses. Every day that we’re in the pandemic with these restrictions is another day we’re wondering if that business will be around tomorrow,” Goppman said. 

And this doesn’t even factor in additional costs to hire more teachers and support staff to help students deal with a year and a half of less than ideal academics caused by quarantines and other safety measures.

However, the worst of all may have been the report on The KDKA Radio Morning Show with Larry Richert and Kevin Battle from May 27.

They had on Jennifer Stefano, Chief Strategist and Vice President at the Commonwealth Foundation, to talk about public school funding. Stefano is a former Tea Party member and frequent talking head on Fox News and other radical right propaganda networks who famously attacked the Head Start Program that provides early childhood education, health, nutrition, and parent services for low-income families.

She could not have found a more friendly audience in Richert and Battle.

KDKA is one of the oldest commercial broadcasting radio stations in the US with a more than 100 year history. However, in 2017, KDKA Radio split from the television station of the same name and was purchased by radio conglomerate Entercom. Since then it has become increasingly rightwing and reactionary.

Richert and Battle were pathetically begging for relevance and ratings while letting Stefano spout nonsense statistics about public schools for 8 minutes.

This may come as a shock, but a group like the Commonwealth Foundation that advocates for cutting governmental services doesn’t like public schools.

They think schools have too much money. Privatized institutions like charter and voucher schools need and deserve an influx of cash, but those pesky government schools are already rolling in it.  

Of course, this isn’t true at all. 


 
A real investigative journalist might have just walked into an inner city school to check it out. She would have seen that many schools are literally falling apart.  


 
Or she could look up actual statistics. A full 35 states provide less overall state funding for education today than they did in 2008. Most states still haven’t recovered from George W. Bush’s Great Recession and the subsequent state and local budget cuts it caused. And schools in 27 of those states actually saw per pupil funding fall even further.  


 
Moreover, Pennsylvania is one of the worst. The state government pays only 38% of the cost to educate children leaving the majority up to local communities to make up the difference.  That’s the 46th lowest in the country. The national average is 51%. 


 
In fact, our funding inequality is the worst in the nation. According to the U.S. Department of Education, poor schools in the Commonwealth spend 33 percent less on their students than rich ones. 


 
These are the reasons why the parents of six school children, six school districts, the NAACP and a rural schools group are suing the state over education funding.  


 
Not because public schools are “flush with cash” – a characterization right out of the mouth of Donald Trump. 

However, the Commonwealth Foundation plays with the numbers to mask this reality.

For example, they claim the US spends more per student than nearly any other country in the developed world. But that figure varies tremendously by state with some spending much more than others. Moreover, American schools have costs educational institutions in other countries don’t have such as security and other non-instructional costs.

As we’ve seen, even when you look at per pupil spending across the state, you’re masking funding inequalities from district to district. You’re looking at an average of all spending, which ignores how little we spend at lower income schools and how much we spend at districts catering to rich communities.

Moreover, if we compare the percentage of GDP spent on education with other countries, you’ll see the US spends much less than comparable nations. For example, we spend about 5% of our GDP on schools compared with 6.4% in New Zealand, 6.9% in Finland, 7.5% in Iceland and 7.6% in Denmark.

This has been the situation for decades and it relies on one basic fundamental catastrophe – much of American education funding is determined by local property taxes.

If you live in a rich neighborhood, your kids get all the best. If you live in a poor one, you don’t get comparable services.

Trolls like the Commonwealth Foundation feed off this burning dumpster fire by covering the inequity of our taxing system which relies too heavily on the poor and middle class and lets the wealthy get by without paying their fair share.

Instead of pointing out the real problem and demanding the rich do their part, the Commonwealth Foundation covers for their billionaire masters. Partisans at the foundation ignore low taxes on the wealthy and blame high taxes on the poor and middle class on things like public schools.

And stories like these only go to further enrage taxpayers so that they’ll support tearing down the very systems that help keep them and their kids afloat.

No news organization should be falling for these lies.

WTAE, KDKA and WPXI should know better.

They are helping tear down media trust in this post truth age.

How ironic that in doing so they are helping destroy education – the one tool essential to navigating through such a landscape.

Find out more about state education funding shortfalls HERE.


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

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

Top 6 Administrative Failures of the Pandemic Classroom

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

But don’t get me wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

We need to know which was which.

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

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

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

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

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

1) SOCIAL DISTANCING

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

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

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

The same happened with violating social distancing.

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

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

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

Absolutely not.

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

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

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

2) MASKING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3) CONTACT TRACING

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

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

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

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

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

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

4) STANDARDIZED TESTING

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

It’s nonsensical.

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

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

And it serves no purpose.

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

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

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

But at least the testing corporations will get paid.

5) CYBER SCHOOL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6) HYBRID MODELS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSIONS

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

But each failure contains within it a success.

In short, things could have been much worse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that is the worst problem!

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

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

It wasn’t. And it isn’t.

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


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Can Unions Defang Charter School Vampires?

What if a vampire suddenly lost its fangs?

Would it still be a vampire?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the reason is pretty obvious.

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

Though publicly financed, they are often privately operated.

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

They can legally cut services and pocket the savings.

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

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

So how do unions change this system?

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

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

How much will union power beat back charter bosses?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But will it?

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

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

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

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



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

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

Things are different in school these days.

The classes are smaller.

The kids are more subdued.

The teachers are exhausted.

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

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

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


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

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

The kids were reticent at first.

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

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

The results have been amazing.

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

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

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

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

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

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


(Hey! They brought it up!)

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

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

But whatever.

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

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

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

But that brings me to the title of this piece:

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

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

“Oh, woe are the children!” They cry.

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

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

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

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

Or they’ll refuse to go forward at all.

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

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

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

What do these numbers represent?

What are they measuring?

What is the basic unit of comprehension?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I know I’m not qualified to do so.

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

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

Most importantly – children are people.

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

As such, they need down time.

They need time to regroup and recharge.

This pandemic has been hard on everyone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As many chances as they need.

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

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

Kids AND their parents.

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

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

There will be no assignments over the summer from me.

No homework. No requirements. No demands.

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

Have fun.

Recharge.

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

Nonsense.

Play is the best kind of learning kids can do.

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

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

Honestly, there is not a second wasted in play.

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

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

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

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

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

They’ll just be.

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




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

The Year Without Standardized Testing

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

Think about that.

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

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

And then came 2019-20 and – nothing.

No multiple guess fill-in the bubble questions.

No sorting students into classes based on the results.

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

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

What are the results of that discontinuity?

We may never really know.

There are so many variables at play.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You probably can’t.

But you can ask questions.

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

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

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

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

We could survey teachers and staff about it.

We could survey parents and students.

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

But we’re not really doing any of that.

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

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

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

Is that logical behavior?

Not really.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

To paraphrase Winston Churchill:

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



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

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

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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!

A New Children’s Fund – Reducing Student Inequality Through Allegheny County Council

Public schools are not funded fairly.

Every child does not receive equitable resources or even close to what they need.

The state and federal government provide some funding, but they leave it up to each neighborhood to take the brunt of the burden.

So the majority of funding comes from local tax revenues – rich communities give their kids more than enough and poor ones struggle to give them enough to even get by.

This means things like class size, access to tutoring and remediation, extracurricular activities, advanced placement courses, field trips, counseling, even access to a school nurse often depends on how rich of a community kids live in.

It’s a backward and barbaric way of supporting children – a kind of economic Darwinism that gives the richest kids the most advantages from the very start while holding back everyone else.

It doesn’t have to be this way, but don’t look to the state or federal government to fix it.

No matter who has been in power in the Oval Office or held majorities in Congress, national lawmakers don’t seem to care much about public schools unless it has to do with standardized testing or school privatization – policies that only make things worse.

In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf has been working his entire tenure to make the system more fair, but the Republican controlled legislature has blocked him at nearly every turn. And given our hopeless gerrymandered legislative districts, this isn’t about to be rectified anytime soon.

So what are we to do? Give up?

No.

In the Pittsburgh area, we have a solution ready at hand to at least reduce the inequality among rich and poor kids. All we have to do is reach into the trash.

Three years ago we had a ballot initiative called The Children’s Fund. It would have created a voluntary 5% property tax hike to pay for early learning, after-school programs and healthy meals for kids. It was defeated by voters.

And for good reason.

The proposal was an absolute mess.

As a local teacher, education activist and blogger, I advised against the plan because it raised taxes without stipulating where the money would go, it was unclear who would have been in charge of the money and other reasons.

But that doesn’t mean there was nothing of value there.

The idea of county tax revenues being used to help balance the scales of public school funding is not a bad one.

We could fix the problems with the original children’s fund and create a new one.

In fact, that’s one of the reasons I’m running for county council. I want to increase our local investment in children and the future.

Here’s how we do it.

The 2018 Children’s Fund would have raised taxes by 0.25 mills of property tax — $25 on each $100,000 of assessed value. This would have generated an estimate $18 million a year and gone to a newly created government office under the supervision of the county manager. There would have been an advisory commission but it was really left under the discretion of the County Executive to figure out how all this would work. He’d get to pick who was in charge of the money and where it went.

This was a terrible idea.

We don’t need a big pot of money that a king gets to dole out as he chooses. Nor do we need to created unnecessary bureaucracy.

All we need is a funding formula. Collect X amount of tax revenues and send it to Y schools according to these guidelines prioritizing Title I schools and other institutions serving needy children.

Moreover, the fund doesn’t even need to include a tax increase. Council should first look to cut wasteful spending already in the budget to generate the money needed.

We already have a $2 billion budget. We spend $100 million of it to keep people locked up in the county jail, and 80 percent of them are nonviolent offenders who haven’t been convicted of anything. Many simply can’t pay cash bail, failed a drug test for something like marijuana or violated our ridiculously long parole period.

Finding $18 million might not be too difficult if we took a hard look at our finances and our priorities. And even if we couldn’t find the full amount, we could propose a lower tax increase. And if we do have to increase revenues, we can look to do so by making corporations and the wealthy pay their fair share before putting more burden on residents.

We should at least explore these options before jumping on another across the board tax increase even if the cause is a good one.

Another problem with the 2018 proposal was that it was too broad. For instance, it suggested some of this money be used to offer meals to children in school. However, much of that need has been met by a program called the Community Eligibility Provision which is available nationwide as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act passed in 2010.

While food insecurity remains a problem for low income students and their families, I think there are better solutions such as increasing the minimum wage and creating more well-paying union jobs.

We should limit the new children’s fund to increasing pre-K access to needy children, offering funding to school districts to create or fund existent after school tutoring programs, reduce class size and increase teacher salaries at low income schools.

Another problem with the 2018 proposal was that it worked around instead of with local government.

Though almost everyone agreed with the stated goals of the proposal, many organizations and government officials complained that they were not consulted and made a part of the process.

There’s an easy fix for that.

Before enacting any new legislation, County Council should seek input from school districts and pre-K programs. That way, the legislation can be best crafted to meet need.

I care about schools, students and families, but I don’t know everything and neither does County Council or the County Executive. We should be humble enough to listen to what stakeholders tell us they need and then find a way to meet it.

Finally, there’s the question of fraud and mismanagement of funds.

One of the biggest red flags around the 2018 campaign is that it was not grass roots.

Financial documents show that the whole initiative had been funded by various nonprofit organizations that could, themselves, become beneficiaries of this same fund.

We have to make sure that the money is going to help children, not corporate raiders or profit-obsessed philanthrocapitalists.


To ensure this does not happen, we should put some restrictions on how the money can be used.

For example, the federal government is infamous for offering money to schools with strings attached. President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top, for example, was a huge corporate welfare scheme to enrich standardized testing and school privatization corporations. Schools could compete for limited funds by increasing test scores, and then if they won, they’d have to spend that money on test prep or privatization.

We don’t need any of those shenanigans in Allegheny County.

The new Children’s Fund should be barred from use in standardized testing preparation programs, it should not be available to buy new technologies or apps, and it should be used at the K-12 level ONLY at strictly public schools.

County residents cannot afford to bankroll people’s kids to private schools.

This money should not be available at any private schools even if those schools use school vouchers, Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC), Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) programs or other tax scholarship programs that function like school vouchers.

Moreover, county residents shouldn’t be pouring our tax dollars into schools that don’t have the same high fiscal accountability requirements as our fully public schools even if these schools claim to be fully public.

Unlike public institutions, charter schools do not have to be run by elected school boards, do not have to have school board meetings open to the public or even open their budgets to annual public review.

That’s why this new funding should be available at charter schools ONLY if those schools charters are in good standing AND if the charter schools will admit to a yearly public audit of how the money has been spent. Any misappropriation or unaccounted for funding would disqualify the charter school from further funding and prompt an immediate full state audit.

I think if we enacted legislation along those lines, we could really make a difference for the children of our county.

We have to face the facts.

Pennsylvania is one of the worst states in the country when it comes to educational equity for poor and non-white students.

The commonwealth ranks 47th in the nation for the share of K-12 public education funding that comes from the state.

The state ranks 48th nationally in opportunity gaps for high school students of color compared with white students and 47th for Hispanic students, according to a 2018 report from the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Research for Action.

A separate 2016 study found that Pennsylvania has one of the widest gaps between students along racial and socioeconomic divides in the country.

And the list goes on and on.

Only the federal and state government can truly fix the problem long term. But that’s not going to happen anytime soon.

We can sit idly by as our children get left behind or we can stand up and do something about it.

If elected to county council, I will do everything in my power to right this wrong.

Our kids deserve more than governmental dysfunction, class warfare and de facto racism.

Please stand with me to enact a new children’s fund that helps support our kids.

Please help me gain a seat on Allegheny County Council.


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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!

 

Lawmakers Backing Standardized Tests Should Practice What They Preach

When it comes to the whip, one side is definitely better than the other.

Everyone wants to hold it by the stock. No one wants to get hit by the lash. 

That’s why politicians as diverse as Donald Trump and Joe Biden have struggled so desperately to defend standardized testing.

They want to keep control of the torture device they’ve inherited from their predecessors without feeling its sting, themselves.

Take the current Covid crisis in our public schools.


 
Educators are scrambling to teach safely and most lawmakers stand aside unsure how to help.

We can’t figure out which students to assist, they say, without first giving them all a batch of standardized tests.


 


It’s absurd, like paramedics arriving at a car crash, finding one person in a pool of blood and another completely unscathed – but before they know which person needs first aid, they have to take everyone’s blood pressure. 


 
I mean come on! We’re living through a global pandemic.  


 
Nearly every single class has been majorly disrupted by it. 


 
So just about every single student needs helpBUT SOMEHOW WE NEED DATA TO NARROW THAT DOWN!?  


 

Our duly-elected decision-makers seem to be saying they can only make decisions based on a bunch of numbers


 


The fact that they have so little imagination that they can’t visualize the problem without a bar graph is truly disturbing. 


 
But this isn’t rocket science. They don’t HAVE TO be creative thinkers.  


 


Just use class attendance to see which students have received consistent instruction and which have been absent all year.


 
Look at classroom grades, which outline students’ academic performance from day to day.  


 
Those are numbers. And they clearly show which kids have been impacted the most by Covid-19. 


 
But for some reason actually using the data we already have is just crazy talk! 


 


Scores on a standardized test are the ONLY data that counts


 
Okay.

Then I have a suggestion for these legislators. 


 
Why don’t you practice what you preach? 


 
If the only logical way to make decisions is based on test scores, you should provide those scores to the greatest decision-making body in the country: voters.  


 
Every lawmaker who CHAMPIONS standardized tests should have to TAKE standardized tests.  


 
I don’t mean the same tests as the students.  


 
That would be silly.  


 
After all, student tests are designed to favor answers from privileged white people. Most of these lawmakers are the target demographic already. They passed a standardized test (or paid someone to pass the test for them) as a smokescreen getting into whichever prep school or ivy league college where they were legacy enrollments, anyway.  


 
I’m talking about a new series of standardized tests designed to show how much these lawmakers adhere to the principles of their respective political parties. 


 
So there’d be two versions – one for Republicans and one for Democrats.  


 
A high score means the test taker is a bona fide example of their party’s ideals. A low score means they should probably be booted out on their butts. 


 
For example, a question for Democrats might be: 


 


Which policy is progressive? 


 
A) School privatization 
B) Fracking on native lands 
C) Drone strikes 
D) Universal healthcare 


 


And an example for Republicans: 


 
Which policy is fiscally responsible? 


 
A) School privatization 
B) Tax cuts for billionaires 
C) More unnecessary wars  
D) Investing in infrastructure  


 
The answers are both D and that’s because this test would be in high De-mand! Get it? 


 
Think of what we could do with these scores! 


 
Lawmakers could tout their assessment achievements as they campaign. 


 
They could say, “Vote for Sam Smith. He got an Advanced Score on the Democratic System of Statesperson Assessments (DSSA).”  


 
Or “Don’t vote for Megan Mission. She only scored a Satisfactory on the Partnership for Assessment of Republicanism for Congress or Klan (PARCK).” 


 
What an improvement that would be! 


 
Finally, we wouldn’t have to rely on a politician’s voting record or campaign contributions or platform….  We could just look at the score and vote accordingly. 


 
But who would we get to make and grade the tests? 


 
It couldn’t be the politicians, themselves, or even their respective political parties. That wouldn’t be standardized somehow.  


 
If we can’t let teachers create tests for their own students, we certainly can’t trust politicians to do the same for their fellow campaigners. 


 
I guess we could task the testing corporations with making these assessments, but that’s a conflict of interests. We should instead rely on the educational experts, people with the credentials and the most experience actually giving standardized tests. 


 
And that would be…. Classroom teachers


 
So these tests should be written by the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT).  
 


But, of course, this isn’t free. We’ll have to pay these test-creators, and pay them handsomely.  


 
That’s billions more dollars spent on assessment. What an expense! What a waste of tax dollars! 


 
Still, can we really afford not to?  


 
I’m sure would-be lawmakers would like a leg up on the competition, so the teachers’ unions could make workbooks and software packages and apps and teach remedial courses to help folks pass the tests. That would probably bring in more money than the tests, themselves.  


 
And since the teachers would get to grade the assessments, they could make sure the scores are curved so only a very limited number pass each year. We can’t have grade inflation, after all.  


 
What would the teachers do with this money, I wonder?  


 
Well, they could reinvest it in our schools.  


 
See? We’ve just solved two problems at once.  


 
No more under-resourced schools. No more educational inequality. Every school in the country could be like the Taj Mahal!  


 
And all of this just because of standardized testing! 


 
Maybe the lawmakers have the right idea in prioritizing high stakes testing! 


 
Or maybe they understand the value of benefiting from the testing industrial complex and not being subjected to 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!