Modernizing Education Starts With Questioning Our Assumptions

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When it comes to education, we take an awful lot for granted.

 

For example, we look at learning almost entirely from a behavioral standpoint.

 

Teachers provide inputs. Students give outputs. And those outputs demonstrate the intended learning.

 

Yet this framework was developed in the early 1900s. Using it today is to ignore a century of subsequent psychological advancements. It glosses over the impact of the unconscious, the social nature of understanding, physical differences, even the mediating thought processes between stimulus and response such as memory and problem solving.

 

Instead, we force students into inauthentic laboratory conditions (i.e. the classroom) upon which they are passive actors to be molded and shaped by expert educators.

 

Every time we post our learning objectives on the board or when we write our lesson plans beginning with the old chestnut – Students Will Be Able To (SWBAT) – we are hearkening back to early 20th Century thinking a hundred years out of date.

 

We are enshrining a host of assumptions long past their fresh by date:

-Learning is observable.

 

-It happens immediately.

 

-It is measurable.

 

-Once you learn something it never goes away.

 

-Most problems with learning are attributable to inputs provided by the teacher.

 

None of these assumptions have been proven.

 

In fact, there is considerable evidence against each and every one of these premises, yet our entire system of corporate education is based on them like a house built on a foundation.

 

If we are truly to create a 21st Century school system, the only place to begin is here. Recognize our bedrock beliefs are mere speculation and question whether we should really support everything else that’s been built on such shaky ground.

 

WHAT IS LEARNING?

 

It is an empirical fact that human beings are capable of learning. It’s something we do every day. But what exactly does it consist of? What happens when a person learns?

 

Perhaps it’s best to start with a definition. We generally characterize learning as the acquisition of knowledge; the possession of facts, information or skills.

 

But how does one gain knowledge? How does one possess the intangible?

 

It seems that learning always involves thoughts – usually conscious impressions but sometimes unconscious ones, as well. However, not all thoughts qualify, only thoughts of a certain kind.

 

The notion must be true of the world. And often it is an idea that has surfaced before but that now can be recalled at will and used to create new concepts.

 

Perhaps I’m wrong, but it seems that no matter how you flesh it out, we’re talking about internal mind states.

 

Learning takes place in and of the brain. And this has consequences for our education system – an apparatus designed to make these brain states more frequent along certain prescribed lines.

 

IS LEARNING OBSERVABLE?

 

That depends. Can we lop off the top of students’ heads and peer at the gelatinous mass inside?

 

Not really. And even if we could, we wouldn’t understand what we were seeing.

 

Even if learning may be reducible to a complex set of on-and-off switches among synapses, that does not make it generally observable – certainly not without greater knowledge of how the brain works and advanced neural imaging equipment.

 

As such, the idea that learning is directly perceptible is not necessarily true. It may be evident in some second hand manner, but this is not the same as first hand experience. At best, what we see is a pale shadow of what’s actually going on in students’ gray matter.

 

That alone should send shock waves through the edifice of modern corporate education. We’ve built an entire apparatus to label and sort kids based on observing students. If those observations are inadequate to give us the full picture of these internal learning states, our system is likewise inadequate.

WHAT IS THE ROLE OF TEACHER INPUT?

 

To answer this question we must start further back – when and why does learning takes place.

 

A student experiences a new neural state that constitutes the acquisition of knowledge. Why?

 

Does it happen because of the input made by a teacher? Is it the result of experience? Is it the result of some other input – reading, interacting, writing, doing something? Or is it the result of something even the student him- or herself cannot easily identify or explain?

 

All of these are possible. All of these (and more) are the catalyst to learning at various times.

 

Thus we lose another premise – that teacher input is the essential cause of inadequate learning. If we cannot place a primacy on the teacher, we cannot wholly place blame there either.

 

Certainly teachers are important. They can have a tremendous impact on their students. But they are not strictly necessary. They are not even the prime cause of learning. They facilitate learning in the way a doctor facilitates healing. The surgeon may set the broken bone, but it is the body that actually does the healing. And in the case of learning, the action is not entirely involuntary. It is much more active and intentional.

 

In short, teachers can call students attention to something that sparks learning. They can bring about optimal conditions for learning to take place. But they are not by themselves sufficient for that learning. They cannot make it happen. Insofar as it is voluntary at all, it is up to the student. To give teachers sole reward or blame for student learning is absurd.

 

IS LEARNING IMMEDIATE?

 

Learning may be a response to stimulus of some kind. But when does that response take place? Is it immediate?

 

There is no evidence that it must be so. Certainly there are times when one has learned something immediately. When a child first puts her finger in the flame, she quickly learns to remove it. However, there are some lessons that we don’t learn until many years after that stimulus. For instance, that our parents’ advice was often more sage than we initially gave it credit.

 

Thus, again it is inadequate to place reward or blame on teachers for their students’ learning. You can judge a teacher for what he or she did to help, but not what you take to be the result. Just because the teacher’s input may not have sparked learning in the student now, that doesn’t mean that the same input might not engender learning at a later date, given time.

 

IS LEARNING PERMANENT?

 

Which brings up another question – once you learn something, does it remain yours forever or is it susceptible to degradation?

 

If learning is an internal state – if it is the result of neural connections like any thought or memory – it is susceptible to fading. It can be lost or degraded.

 

Therefore, when students enter a class without prerequisite knowledge, it is not necessarily the fault of their previous teachers. Like any skill, memory or thought – recall is enhanced through repetition. Using the knowledge often results in greater retention.

 

If we want a more intellectual society, we should habitualize critical thinking and reward intelligence in our public interactions. Not the exact opposite.

 

CAN LEARNING BE MEASURED?

 

And finally, we are brought to perhaps the most vital question in the field of education – measurement.

 

What did students grasp and to what degree was it mastered?

 

There is an entire industry based on providing accurate accounting of learning.

 

There are corporations making billions of dollars based on providing this service. Moreover, the school privatization industry is almost completely predicated on the “failure” of public schools as shown by the measurements of these testing corporations.

 

As such, there is a tremendous amount of economic pressure to keep this premise that learning can be accurately measured. However, when looked at logically, it cannot be supported.

 

When we measure learning, what are we measuring? And how are we quantifying it?

 

If learning is an internal state, how do we calculate that? Possibly at some point in the future, we’ll be able to look at real time pictures of the brain and be able to tell which information has been learned and to what degree. But we are not at that point now. Perhaps we will never be.

 

Even if we were, what exactly would we be measuring? What units would we be using? Volts? Amps? Some new element susceptible to subdivision?

 

The fact that we can’t give a definitive answer to that simple question illustrates how vast our ignorance is of learning. We do not understand what goes on in our own heads that constitutes understanding expect in the broadest possible terms.

 

Yet how much importance we put on these crude attempts to measure the ineffable!

 

Grades and test scores are but the rudest approximations of the real phenomena hidden inside our skulls. Yet we sort and rank students on the pedagogical equivalent of cave paintings.

 

“It is easier to measure the number of semicolons used correctly in an essay than the wonderful ideas contained within it,” said Alfie Kohn. “The more focused you are on measurable outcomes, the more trivial your teaching tends to become.”

 

Or as Linda McNeil of Rice University famously observed, “Measurable outcomes may be the least significant results of learning.”

 

Kohn has repeatedly suggested that McNeil’s statement ought to be printed out in “36-point Helvetica, framed, and tacked to the wall of every school administrator’s office in the country” for these same reasons.

 

When we talk about knowledge and learning, we don’t know what we’re talking about.

 

CONSEQUENCES

 

That should make us reluctant to say anything definitive about learning beyond our own ignorance of it.

 

Yet, as in so much of human affairs, when has ignorance ever stopped us?

 

We have to go about the business of educating. We have a society to run, markets to establish and consumers to exploit.

 

Imagine if, instead, we approached learning like explorers or scientists, mapping the shores of our ignorance and determining what helps us comprehend more and better.

 

There are so many tantalizing clues about what helps students learn, ways to foster the spark of inspiration, creativity and critical thinking.

 

I wish we were invested in that activity instead of a capitalist sham of education. We talk much about the skills gap between white and black kids without doing anything constructive about it – a chasm predicated on the fact that one category is predominantly poor and the other privileged.

 

Perhaps we would do better to talk about the ignorance gap of our own understanding of what it means to understand.

 

Perhaps then we wouldn’t be so bold as to monetize that which is fallacious and foolhardy.

 

Perhaps then we would be more curious, thoughtful and kind.

 

Perhaps then we could build a truly modern system of education that values students and not just how they can be transformed into profit.


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

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Grades and Test Scores Don’t Matter. A Love of Learning Does.

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My daughter probably would be shocked to discover what I truly think about grades.

 

They don’t matter all that much.

 

The other day she brought home a pop quiz on sloths from her third grade class. It had a 40% F emblazoned on the top in red ink.

 

I grabbed the paper from her book bag and asked her to explain what had happened.

 

She smiled nervously and admitted that she had rushed through the assignment.

 

I told her I knew she could do better and was very disappointed.

 

Then we reread the article in her weekly reader and found the right answers to the questions she’d missed.

 

But if my little girl would be stunned, my students would probably be even more gobsmacked!

 

As a 7th grade Language Arts teacher, it’s my job to hand out grades. And I don’t give my students too much slack.

 

Just this morning, I turned to one of my kiddos placidly drawing a Spider-Man doodle in homeroom and asked if he had given me yesterday’s homework.

 

He wasn’t sure, so I pulled up the gradebook and surprise, surprise, surprise – no homework.

 

So he took out the half-completed packet, promised to get it done by the end of the day and promptly began working on it.

 

Don’t get me wrong. No one would ever confuse me for a teacher obsessed with grades and test scores.

 

I’m way too laid back for that. But my students know I will penalize them if they don’t hand in their assignments. And if it isn’t their best work, I’ll call them out on it.

 

The way I see it, grades and test scores offer an approximation of how well a student tries to achieve academic goals.

 

In Language Arts classes like mine, that’s reading, writing and communicating.

 

After a year of study, I want my students to leave me with an increased ability to read and understand what they’ve read. I want them to form a thoughtful opinion on it and be able to communicate that in multiple ways including verbally and in writing.

 

An overreliance on testing and grading can actually get in the way of achieving that goal.

 

According to a University of Michigan study from 2002, a total of 80% of students base their self worth on grades. The lower the grades, the lower their self-esteem.

 

Common Core fanatics like Bill Gates and David Coleman probably would say that’s a good thing. It provides incentive for children to take school seriously.

 

However, I think it transforms a self-directed, authentic pursuit of knowledge into grade grubbing. It makes an intrinsic activity purely extrinsic.

 

Learning no longer becomes about satisfying your curiosity. It becomes a chase after approval and acceptance.

 

We already know that measuring a phenomena fundamentally changes that phenomena. With a constant emphasis on measurement, children become less creative and less willing to take risks on having a wrong answer.

 

That’s one of the reasons I prefer teaching the academic track students to the honors kids. They aren’t used to getting all A’s, so they are free to answer a question based on their actual thoughts and feelings. If they get a question wrong, it’s not the end of the world. It hasn’t ruined a perfect GPA and put valedictorian forever out of reach.

 

Too much rigor (God! I hate that word!) creates academic robots who have lost the will to learn. Their only concern is the grade or the test score.

 

It also increases the motivation to cheat.

 

According to a national survey of 24,000 students from 70 high schools, 64% admitted to cheating on a test.

 

But if the goal is authentic learning, cheating doesn’t help. You can’t cheat to understand better. You can only fool the teacher or the test. You can’t fool your own comprehension.

 

If you find a novel way of realizing something, that’s not cheating – it’s a learning strategy.

 

I know this is heresy to some people.

 

Even some of my colleagues believe that grading, in general, and standardized testing, in particular, are essential to a quality education.

 

After all, without an objective measure of learning, how can we predict whether students will do well once they move on to college or careers?

 

Of course, some of us realize standardized testing doesn’t provide an objective measurement. It’s culturally and racially biased. Those test scores don’t just correlate with race and class. They are BASED on factors inextricably linked with those characteristics.

 

When the standard is wealth and whiteness, it should come as no surprise that poor students of color don’t make the grade. It’s no accident, for example, that American standardized testing sprung out of the eugenics movement.

 

Yet you don’t need to crack open a book on history or pedagogy to see the uselessness of testing.

 

High stakes assessments like the SAT do NOT accurately predict future academic success.

 

Kids with perfect scores on the SAT or ACT tests don’t do better than kids who got 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.

 

Yet even classroom grades have their limits.

 

I remember my high school graduation – sitting on the bleachers in my cap and gown listening to our valedictorian and salutatorian give speeches about the glorious future ahead of us.

 

Yet for each of those individuals, the future wasn’t quite so bright. Oh, neither of them burned out, but they didn’t exactly set the world on fire, either.

 

In fact, when I went to college, I found a lot of the highest achievers in high school struggled or had to drop out because they couldn’t adjust. The new freedom of college was too much – they partied and passed out. Yet a middle-of-the-road student like me (Okay, I was really good in English) did much better. I ended up in the honors college with a double major, a masters degree and graduating magna cum laude.

 

And it’s not just my own experience. The research backs this up.

 

A Boston College study tracked more than 80 valedictorians over 14 years. These high school high achievers all became well-adjusted professional adults. But none of them made major discoveries, lead their fields or were trailblazers.

 

For that, you need someone willing to take risks.

 

The folks the researchers followed admitted that this wasn’t them. Many confessed that they weren’t the smartest people in their classes. They just worked really hard and gave teachers exactly what they thought they wanted.

 

So what’s the point?

 

Some people will read this and think I’m against all testing and grading.

 

Wrong.

 

I give tests. I calculate grades. And I would do this even if I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted. (Though I would throw every standardized test right in the garbage.)

 

I think grades and testing have their place. But they aren’t the end, they are a means to an end.

 

They are crude estimations of learning. They’re an educated guess. That’s all.

 

We need to move beyond them if we are to modernize our public schools.

 

Don’t get rid of grades and testing, just change the emphasis. Put a premium on curiosity and creativity. Reward academic risk taking, innovation and imagination. And recognize that most of the time there may be several right answers to the same question.

 

Heck other countries like Finland already do this.

 

For the first six years of school, Finnish children are subjected to zero measurement of their abilities. The only standardized test is a final given at the end of senior year in high school.

 

As a result, their kids have some of the highest test scores in the world. By not focusing on standards and assessments, they counterintuitively top the charts with these very things.

 

There’s a lesson here for American education policy analysts.

 

And that lesson is the title of this article.

 


 

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

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Burning Down the House at TEDxCCSU – Speaking Truth to Power with a BOOM!

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There’s a reason our society rarely hands teachers the microphone.

We’ll tell you the truth.

Oh, we’re too good mannered to be brazen about it. We’d rather encourage you for trying than criticize you for getting something wrong.

But if you ask us for truth, that’s usually what you’ll get.

Just ask any first grader.

“Is my finger painting good, Miss Pebbles?”

“Oh my, it is!”

“Really?”

“Why yes. I love what you did with that smear of yellow and blue in the corner. Where they overlap, it turns green.”

“Do you think it’s good enough to compete against the seniors in the high school?”

“Maybe you’d better practice a bit more, Dear. At least wait until you can spell your name correctly before devoting your life to art.”

That’s why I was so delighted to get an invitation to do a TED talk.

Here was my chance to tell it like it is.

Sure, some people look to TED for encouragement and life affirming inspiration.

But the way I see it, the only real affirmation is honesty.

Otherwise, it’s just a bromide, a deception, an intellectual hard candy to plop into your skull and let your cranium suck on until all the sugar is gone.

We’ve all seen these TED talks on YouTube or the Internet – some well-dressed dude or dudette standing in front of a crowd with a headset microphone and a grin offering anecdotes and words of wisdom to a theater full of eager listeners.

But after hundreds of thousands of talks in scores of countries, the format has almost become a parody of itself. At many of these events, you’re just as likely to find some Silicon Valley tech millionaire waxing philosophic about his casual Friday’s management style as you are to hear something truly novel.

No, the way I see it, the TED extravaganzas are just asking for a bundle of truth wrapped in a plain brown box – quiet, unassuming and ticking!

For me, doing one was a long time coming.

The first I heard about it was at United Opt Out’s Education and Civil Rights Summit in Houston, Texas, two years ago.

I was rooming with Jesse “The Walking Man” Turner – an education professor at Central Connecticut University and famed social justice activist. He’s been involved with everyone from Moral Monday’s to S.O.S. Save Our Schools. But he’s most well-known for walking from Hartford to Washington, DC, to protest school privatization and standardization  – a feat he did not once, but twice!

Anyway, one night as I was fading into sleep, he whispered to me from across the room, “Steve, you ever thought about doing a TED talk?”

“Huh? Whas tha, Jesse?”

“A TED talk. You ever thought about doing one?”

“Oh I don’t know. That would be pretty cool, I guess.”

“I organize an independent TED event at my school every year. We should get you on the schedule.”

And that was it.

I think. If there was any more to that conversation my conscious mind wasn’t involved in it.

But then the following year I got a call from Jesse asking if I was ready to come to Connecticut.

I wasn’t. I’d just had two mild heart attacks and wasn’t in a condition to go anywhere. I could barely gather the strength to go to school and teach my classes.

What followed was a year of recovery.

I dedicated myself to my students and my blog and made it through the year. In the summer, I put together my favorite on-line articles into a book for Garn Press – “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform.”

After it was published in November, I worked to promote it, going from event-to-event, book store-to-book store lecturing, signing, and listening. I was even invited to Chatham College to address their graduating class of teaching students.

Then another surprise. I was one of three educators in western Pennsylvania nominated for a Champions of Learning Award in Teaching from the Consortium for Public Education. In the final analysis, I didn’t end up winning the award, but it was a huge honor.

And then to top it all off, Jesse called me back and asked me if I was ready to come to Hartford and give the TED talk another try.

I jumped on it.

How could I say no?

This year has been like a second chance, a new lease on life. I’ve been eating healthier, exercising, losing weight and taking nothing for granted.

But that comes with certain responsibilities.

I couldn’t go there and just mouth platitudes and self-help advice. I couldn’t just tell some touchy-feely stories from my classroom and conclude about how great it is to be a teacher.

Even though it is great – the best job in the world.

But our profession is under attack.
Public schools are being targeted for destruction. The powers that be are using segregation, targeted disinvestment and standardized testing to destabilize public schools and replace them with privatized ones.

The school house is on fire! This is no time for heart-warming stories. It’s time for anger, agitation and activism!

So that’s what I decided to speak about.

Frankly, that wasn’t what I originally planned.

At first, I was going to talk about how society expects too much of teachers – how we expect educators to do it all.

But then the opportunity came to “practice” my speech in front of my entire school building.

I thought to myself, is THIS really what I want to talk about?

If I only get one shot at this – and I probably will get only one shot – do I really want to spend it on society’s unfair expectations?

That’s when I scrapped what I had and started over, this time focusing on “The Plot to Destroy Public Education.”

I must have rewritten my presentation at least five times.

Jesse said I’d have no more than 15 minutes so I practiced just about every night to make sure I was within that time.

The word may have gotten out around my school because the invitation to speak to the entire building quickly evaporated. Maybe there really was a scheduling mix up. Maybe not.

But it didn’t matter. My presentation was ready like a bomb – no hand holding, no concessions, just the truth.

The weeks flew by.

Before I knew it, it was time to fly to Connecticut. I couldn’t believe it was really happening.

When I got there, Jesse picked me up from the airport. He was a consummate host. He couldn’t have treated me better if I was royalty. He paid for my hotel, paid for most meals, drove me everywhere, kept me in good company and entertainment and even gave me a “Walking Man” mug as a token of his appreciation.

I was the only person flying in from outside of the Hartford area. Most of the other seven speakers were from there or had roots in the community.

All but two others were PhDs. The list of names, vocations and stories were impressive. Dr. Dorthy Shaw, a famed education and women’s studies professor, talked about surviving cancer. Dr. Noel Casiano, a sociologist, criminal justice expert and marriage counselor, told a heartbreaking personal story about the three people who mentored him from troubled teen to successful adult. Dr. Kurt Love, a CCSU professor focusing on social justice and education, talked about the greed underlying our economic and social problems. Dr. Barry Sponder, another CCSU professor focusing on technology in education, talked about flipped classrooms. Dr. Johnny Eric Williams, a sociology professor, talked about the myth of whiteness and how it corrupts how we speak about race.

Elsa Jones and her son Brian Nance were the only other non-PhDs. Jones is an early education consultant and the daughter of the Rev. Dr. William Augustus Jones, Jr., a famed civil rights leader who worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

They were the ones I bonded with the most. All four of us went out for pizza after the talks.

But when I first entered the Welte Auditorium in the Central Connecticut State University campus, it was truly frightening.

The building could hold hundreds, perhaps thousands of people. Yet organizers had limited the audience to only a hundred. All the seats were up on the stage.

There was a little circular rug where we were to stand and the camera people were setting everything up.

Behind us, a ceiling high blue-purple backdrop would showcase the TED logo and any slides we had prepared.

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Which brings up an interesting distinction.

This was not a corporate TED event organized by the TED conference and sanctioned by their foundation. It was a TED “X” event, which means it was independently organized.

TED licenses its name for these grassroots X-events. There are a list of rules that organizers must follow. For example, all tickets to the event must be free. Contrast that with the corporate TED events where tickets go for thousands of dollars.

I was glad I was where I was. This was going to be the real deal – a thoughtful discussion of authentic issues. And somehow I was up there with these incredible thinkers and activists.

The moment came. Drs. Shaw and Casiano had already spoken. I got up from my seat in the front row to get my lapel microphone attached.

Jesse gave me a warm introduction letting everyone in on the secret of my tie – the design was a picture of my daughter repeated to infinity.

So I walked to my mark and started speaking.

It seems there was some sort of technical difficulty with the microphone. My voice didn’t appear to be coming from the speakers – or if it was, it wasn’t projecting very well. So I spoke louder.

Then Jesse came from the wings and gave me a hand mic and a music stand for my notes.

It took a moment to get used to handling the microphone, the clicker for my slides and my iPad (where I had my notes), but I got the hang of it.

And I was off and running.

I said it. I said it all.

The audience certainly didn’t seem bored. All eyes were on me. A few heads were nodding in agreement. Some faces seemed stunned.

When I ended, there was universal applause. A few folks patted me on the back when I got back to my seat and shook my hand.

And that was it.

I thoroughly enjoyed the remaining presentations but it was hard to concentrate in the post-TED elation.

Jones and Nance were probably the closest to what I was talking about and we got along like we’d known each other for years.

When I got back to the hotel, I felt elation and exhaustion in equal measure.

I had done it.

After months, years of planning, it was over.

Jesse tells me the video will be on-line in a matter of weeks. (I’ll revise this post with the video when it goes live.) Though he did mention that one point in my presentation made him a bit nervous – I had called out Bill Gates for his role in the destruction of public schools. However, Gates is a big donor to TEDs. Jesse half-jokingly said that the TED folks might take issue with that and refuse to upload my speech.

But whatever. I told the truth. If that gets me censored, so be it.

This will be something I’ll never forget.

I’m sorry this article has gone on so long, but there was much to tell. It’s not every day that someone like me gets such a stage and such a potential audience.

Hopefully, my video and my speech will be seen by many people who have never heard of this fight before. Hopefully it will open minds and stoke people to act.

And hopefully the mic issues at the opening won’t be distracting.

Thank you for following my blog and being there with me on this incredible journey.

I left nothing important unsaid. I gave it my all.

Now to see where it goes.

It’s NOT Education Reform – It’s School Sabotage

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“Language is a weapon of politicians, but language is a weapon in much of human affairs.”

-Noam Chomsky

  

“Words are things. You must be careful, careful about calling people out of their names, using racial pejoratives and sexual pejoratives and all that ignorance. Don’t do that. Some day we’ll be able to measure the power of words. I think they are things. They get on the walls. They get in your wallpaper. They get in your rugs, in your upholstery, and your clothes, and finally in to you.”


Maya Angelou

 

Names matter.

 

What you call something becomes an intellectual shorthand.

 

Positive or negative connotations become baked in.

 

Hence the Colorado Democratic Party’s criticism of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER).

 

After impassioned debate, delegates demanded DFER remove “Democrat” from their name.

 

It just makes sense. DFER is a group of hedge fund managers pushing for school privatization – a policy the Colorado Democrats vocally oppose.

 

 

In fact, one of the organization’s key founders, hedge fund manager Whitney Tilson, was quoted in the film “A Right Denied,” thusly:

“The real problem, politically, was not the Republican party, it was the Democratic party. So it dawned on us, over the course of six months or a year, that it had to be an inside job. The main obstacle to education reform was moving the Democratic party, and it had to be Democrats who did it, it had to be an inside job. So that was the thesis behind the organization. And the name – and the name was critical – we get a lot of flack for the name. You know, “Why are you Democrats for education reform? That’s very exclusionary. I mean, certainly there are Republicans in favor of education reform.” And we said, “We agree.” In fact, our natural allies, in many cases, are Republicans on this crusade, but the problem is not Republicans. We don’t need to convert the Republican party to our point of view…”

 

So by a 2/3 vote, the Colorado Democrats passed a motion saying in part:

 

“We oppose making Colorado’s public schools private, or run by private corporations, or segregated again through lobbying and campaign efforts of the organization called Democrats for Education Reform and demand that they immediately stop using the Party’s name, I.e., “Democrat” in their name.”

 

To which I say “Hurrah!”

 

DFER definitely is a misnomer.

 

However, which is more inaccurate – the term “Democrat” or the word “Reform”?

 

Members of the nefarious school privatization propaganda squad are, in fact, Democrats.

 

They have registered as voting members of that political party.

 

However, they certainly aren’t progressives.

 

They don’t adhere to the traditional views normally associated with the party.

 

So the Colorado Dems motion is a positive move toward taking back what it means to be a Democrat. And in that spirit, it should be celebrated and emulated by every state and national party association.

 

The Democrats have always been a big tent party with lots of different ideas being accepted under that umbrella. But putting corporate profits over student needs does not belong there.

 

My point is that the larger verbal slight of hand isn’t with the organization’s party affiliation. It’s with the term “Reform,” itself.

 

 

DFER is not alone in calling what they advocate “Education Reform.”

 

My question is this – is what they’re proposing really reform at all?

 

And if so, what kind of reform is it? Who does it benefit? And what does it conceal?

 

The word “Reform” has positive associations. It’s always seen as a good.

 

We always want to be reforming something – turning it from bad to good. Or at very least improving it.

 

And when it comes to education, this is even more urgent.

 

No one really wants to be against education REFORM. The only reason to oppose it would be if you thought the way we teach was perfect. Then we would need no reform at all. But this is nearly impossible. Human society does not allow perfection because it is created by human beings, who are, in themselves, far from perfect.

 

However, the term “Education Reform” does not mean just any kind of change to improve teaching.

 

It has come to mean a very specific list of changes and policies.

 

It has come to mean standardization, privatization and profitization.

 

It means increasing the number, frequency and power of standardized assessments to drive curriculum and teaching – More high stakes tests, more teaching to the test, more evaluating teachers based on student test scores, more school closures based on low test scores.

 

It means reducing democratic local control of schools, reducing transparency of how public tax dollars are spent while increasing control by appointed boards, and increasing the autonomy of such boards at the expense of accountability to the community actually paying for their work.

 

It means transforming money that was put aside to educate children into potential profit for those in control. It means the freedom to reduce student services to save money that can then be pocketed by private individuals running the school.

 

If the goal of education is to teach students, “Education Reform” is not about reforming practices for their benefit. It is not, then, reform.

 

If the goal is to increase profits for private businesses and corporations, then it truly is reform. It will increase their market share and throw off any extraneous concerns about kids and the efficacy of teaching.

 

However, this is not the goal of education.

 

Education is not for the benefit of business. It is not corporate welfare.

 

Education is essentially about providing positive opportunities for students. It is about providing them with the best learning environment, about hiring the best teachers and empowering them with the skills, pay, protections and autonomy to do their jobs. It’s about providing adequate resources – books, computers, libraries, nurses, tutors, etc. – to learn. It’s about keeping kids safe and secure, well-nourished, and healthy.

 

In short, it’s about everything bogus “Education Reform” either perverts or ignores.

 

Calling the things advocated by groups like DFER “Education Reform” is pure propaganda.

 

We must stop doing that.

 

Even if we use the term to criticize the practice, we’re helping them do their work.

 

It’s just like the term “School Choice.”

 

Despite the name, the reality has nothing to do with providing alternatives to parents and students. It really means school privatization.

 

It’s about tricking parents and students into allowing businesses to swipe the money put aside to educate children while reducing services.

 

In short, it’s about increasing choices for charter and voucher school operators – not parents or students.

 

In that way, it is a more limited version of faux “Education Reform.”

 

So I propose we stop using these signifiers.

 

Henceforth, “Education Reform” shall be Education Sabotage – because that’s really what it is.

 

It is about deliberately obstructing goods and services that otherwise would help kids learn and repurposing them for corporate benefit.

 

Likewise, I propose we stop using the term “School choice.” Instead, call it what it is – School Privatization.

 

Anyone who uses the older terms is either misguided or an enemy of authentic education.

 

Perhaps this seems petty.

 

They’re only words, after all. What does it matter?

 

It matters a lot.

 

As Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote:

 

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”

 

We cannot effectively fight the forces of segregation, standardization and privatization if we have to constantly define our terms.

 

We have to take back the meaning of our language, first. We have to stifle the unconscious propaganda that happens every time someone innocently uses these terms in ways that smuggle in positive connotations to corporatist ends.

 

To take back our schools, we must first take back our language.

 

To stop the sabotage, we must first stop repeating their lies.


 

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

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I Stand With Striking Teachers Because I Stand for Underprivileged Children

teacherstrike

 

America’s teachers are taking to the streets by the thousands.

 

In West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and soon to be Arizona and Puerto Rico, educators are leaving the classroom and storming their state capitals.

 

Why?

 

Not because they’re greedy. Not because they don’t want to do their job. But because this country doesn’t care enough to provide them the resources they need to do it.

 

America doesn’t care about black and brown children.

 

America doesn’t care about poor white children.

 

America only cares about middle class and wealthy kids, preferably if their skin has a melanin deficit.

 

Don’t believe me?

 

Just look at how much these states have cut education funding. Look at how the federal government has slashed financial assistance. Look at how districts are forced to increasingly rely on local tax revenues to pay for the kind of education their children receive.

 

This means poor kids get poor resources. This means minority kids have to do without.

 

For the dark and the destitute, this means larger class sizes, out of date text books, and narrowed curriculum. It means fewer tutors, reading specialists and librarians. It means being left to your own devices to deal with the effects of generational poverty which put them behind their wealthier, lighter peers before they even enter kindergarten. It means greater emotional disturbance, greater malnutrition, higher absences, more learning disabilities, and less help to deal with any of it.

 

On the other hand, for the economically privileged white kids, it means just the opposite – fewer social problems, and the best of everything to deal with whatever issues they have.

 

It’s an unfair system, and teachers aren’t having it. We’ve been sounding the alarm for years, but it has fallen on deaf ears.

 

We don’t want to strike, but lawmakers are giving us no choice.

 

We’re saying, Enough! We’ve had it with the excuses.

 

Society hires us to do a job – let us do it.

 

Don’t refuse us the money to get it done and then blame us for the results.

 

That’s why there was a 9-day teachers strike in West Virginia which won educators a 5% raise in February.

 

That’s why 30 districts closed in Kentucky this week after a statewide sick out inspired by the legislature’s plan to cut pension benefits.

 

That’s why thousands of teachers in Oklahoma walked out this week demanding higher wages and better school funding.

 

And it’s why educators in Arizona, Puerto Rico and other states and territories may be next.

 

When you deny teachers the basics necessary to do their jobs, you’re refusing your responsibilities toward children.

 

When you deny educators a fair wage, you’re discouraging young people from entering the profession and encouraging those already there to seek work elsewhere.

 

And that is what we’re talking about here – a fair wage. We’re not talking about teachers getting rich off the taxpayers dole. You’re asking us to get an advanced education and do a hard job – that requires a middle class income so we can pay off our student loans and support our families.

 

The same goes for pensions. When teachers took their jobs, a fair pension was part of the contract. You promised that after 30-some years, educators could retire and you’d take care of them. You can’t renege on that. And if you plan to offer less for those coming in to the field, you’re going to get fewer high quality teachers willing to take the job.

 

When you attack unions and union benefits, you’re really attacking students. A teacher who can be fired at the whim of an administrator or school director is not as affective at her job. She has less autonomy and freedom to do what is right for her given students. And she has less reason to take a chance on the profession in the first place.

 

This doesn’t mean that after three years teachers should have a job for life. They don’t. It just means that if you’re going to fire a teacher for negligence, you should have to prove she’s negligent first.

 

This is why there’s a so-called teacher shortage in most states. As a society, we’ve become less-and-less willing to pay for teachers to do their jobs. We’ve become less-and-less willing to offer them the independence and respect necessary to get things done.

 

Why?

 

Because we’ve swallowed a pack of lies from the business community.

 

Many of them look at our public schools and see an opportunity for financial gain.

 

School funding may not be enough to give every one of the 50.7 million students in public school a first class education, but it’s more than enough to make a cabal of entrepreneurs and corporate officers rich.

 

That’s why they’re pushing charter schools and voucher schools and standardized tests and edtech software scams.

 

They want to get rid of democratic rule, get rid of teacher-based assessments and – ultimately – get rid of teachers. They want to replace us with minimum wage temps and leave the work of educating to computers that can provide test prep and standardized assessments.

 

But only for the poor and minorities. The affluent and middle class white kids will still get the best money can buy. It’s only those other kids they’re willing to feed to the wolves of edu-profit.

 

THAT is what educators are fighting.

 

THAT is why teachers across the nation are striking.

 

We’re demanding this nation does right by its public school students.

 

And that begins by supporting their teachers.

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

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Every Public School Teacher Should Support Opting Out of Standardized Tests

Education-not-testing-chicago-protest

 

Over the last few years, educators and parents have built up a wall of opposition to high stakes testing in the Opt Out movement.

 

But now it seems some teachers are starting to tear it down.

 

Not so long ago, tens of thousands of parents refused letting their children take the tests – with full support of their teachers.

 

Yet today you hear some educators question their involvement or even if they’re on the right side.

 

It’s almost like an anthropomorphic red pitcher smashed through the bricks and offered beat down educators a drink.

 

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And far from refusing that rancid brew, some are actually gulping it down.

 

“OHH YEAH!”

 

You hear things like these:

 

“Opt Out’s dead. Stealth assessment schemes like Personalized Learning and Competency Based Education have replaced the federally mandated tests.”

 

GLUG. GLUG. GLUG.

 

“The tests often take up fewer days now so there’s no reason to opt out.”

 

GLUG. GLUG. GLUG.

 

“The kids who opt out aren’t doing it for the right reasons. They just want to get out of work.”

 

GLUG. GLUG…

 

Blargh! I can’t drink any more of that artificially flavored propaganda crap!

 

I’ve even heard of some teachers in New York State agreeing to call families who have refused testing in the past and asking them to reconsider!

 

What the heck!? Have we all lost our minds!?

 

We’re educators!

 

If anyone knows the problems with standardized testing, it’s us.

 

We know in intimate detail how these assessments are biased and unscientific.

 

So let me counter some of this dangerous disinformation going around.

 

1) You say the tests take up less time?

 

Marginally, yes. There are fewer test days.

 

But we’re still being pressured to narrow the curriculum and teach to the test just about every other day!

 

2) You say stealth testing has made the traditional standardized assessments irrelevant?

 

Okay. Competency Based Education is a real problem that threatens to make everyday test day – I’ll go with you there. In fact, schemes like Personalized Learning could transform every app into an opportunity to test kids without them even knowing it.

 

But that doesn’t mean the old fashioned high stakes tests have gone away!

 

Far from it. The federal government still requires all states to give these assessments to public school students in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

 

Let’s say the feds required teachers to give rich kids higher grades than poor children.

 

Or say the state commanded teachers to copy down sensitive information about students and give it to private corporations.

 

Imagine if the school board instructed teachers to put minority kids in slower classes than white kids.

 

If any of that happened, there would be wide scale revolt!

 

Yet standardized tests do all of these things!

 

They dishonestly give higher scores to rich kids and lower scores to poor kids.

 

The apps used for preparation and remediation often steal student data and sell it to third parties.

 

They are used to justify increased segregation within school buildings because implicit testing bias means white kids generally score higher than children of color. So the white kids get more advanced courses and the brown ones get test prep.

 

3) You say the Opt Out kids are just trying to get out of doing work. It’s just laziness.

 

First, of all, it is the parents who are opting their children out of standardized testing – not the students. Second, who are you to question their motives?

 

We serve the parents and children of the community. If they say they don’t want their children tested in this way, we should listen to them.

 

Third, why are you defending these tests? They are used by charter and voucher schools as “proof” that the public schools are failing.

 

These tests are used to justify unfairly evaluating YOUR work, narrowing YOUR curriculum, repealing YOUR union protections, reducing YOUR autonomy, cutting YOUR funding, and ultimately laying YOU off.

 

Why are you standing up for THAT?

 

So why are some teachers wavering in their opposition to high stakes tests?

 

I think it has to do with who we are.

 

Most teachers are rule followers at heart. When we were in school, we were the obedient students. We were the people-pleasers. We got good grades, kept our heads down and didn’t make waves.

 

But the qualities that often make for the highest grades don’t often translate into action. That, alone, should tell you something about the limits of assessment which are only exacerbated by standardized test scores. When it comes to complex concepts, it’s hard to assess and even harder to determine if success on assessments is a predictor of future success.

 

Bottom line: Every teacher should be in favor of the Opt Out movement.

 

And I don’t mean quietly, secretly in favor. I mean publicly, vocally in favor.

 

Many teachers are parents, themselves, with children in the districts where they teach. Every educator should opt out their own children from the tests.

 

If we can’t at least do that and lead by example, what good are we?

 

Next, we should force our unions to do the things that we can’t as safely do as individuals.

 

Call parents and ask them to opt IN!? We should be doing just the opposite, but that would put a target on our backs.

 

As a teacher, I can’t unilaterally call or send a letter home to my students’ parents explaining why they should opt their kids out. If I did that, I could find myself in administration’s cross hairs and face grave repercussions.

 

But isn’t that why we have a union? To stand up as a collective and do the necessary things we can’t do as individuals?

 

Imagine if every teachers union in the country routinely sent open letters to all parents asking them to opt their kids out! What an impact that would make!

 

Imagine if the unions put pressure on the school boards to pass resolutions against testing and in favor of opt out! What effect would that have on state legislatures and the federal government?

 

How could the feds continue to demand we give high stakes tests when nearly every school board across the country objected and advised parents to refuse testing for their children?

 

Taken individually, these aren’t really all that difficult things to do.

 

They require a certain degree of moral courage, to be sure. And teachers have been beaten down by a society that devalues their work and begrudges them just about everything.

 

But what do we have to lose?

 

Our backs are already against the wall.

 

We are being slowly erased – our numbers dwindle more every year while policymakers shrug and point to a teacher shortage that they refuse to explain by reference to the way we’re treated.

 

The tech moguls and the testing giants are salivating over the prospect of replacing us with apps and low-skilled, low paid babysitters to oversee students hunched over computers and tablets. (See? Told you Personalized Learning was poison.)

 

We shouldn’t be helping them destroy our own profession by advocating for the same tests they’re using as a tool in our destruction.

 

It’s high time teachers get some backbone.

 

We may all end up on the unemployment line, but that’s where we’re headed already.

 

I’d rather go kicking and screaming.

 

Who’s with me?

Testing Corporations Rake in Cash while Teachers Sell Plasma to Survive

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If you want to get rich in education, don’t become a teacher.

 

Open a charter school or take a job at a testing corporation.

 

Sure, charter schools are elaborate scams to make money off children while providing fewer services.

 

Sure, standardized tests are just corporate welfare that labels poor and minority kids failures and pretends that’s their fault.

 

And teachers? They’re just the people who do all the actual work of educating children. Yet there’s never enough money, never enough resources for the job they do.

 

 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary of public school teachers in Pennsylvania is between $53,000 and $59,000 per year.

 

Compare that with the salaries of the people who make and distribute the state’s federally mandated standardized tests – employees at Data Recognition Corporation (DRC).

 

DRC publishes numerous assessments in various states. However, in the Keystone state, the corporation makes everything from the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments (PSSA) to the Keystone Exams in Algebra, Literature and Biology.

 

At its 14 locations across the country, the company has more than 750 full time employees and 5,000 seasonal ones used mainly to help grade the tests.

 

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According to glassdoor.com, a site that showcases job listings, here are some openings at DRC and their associated salaries:

 

Test Development Specialist – $68K-$86K

 

Quality Assurance Analyst – $77K-$83K

 

Technology Manager – $77K-$84K

 

Business Analyst – $81,856

 

Software Developer – $83,199

 

Psychometrician – $95,870

 

Senior Software Developer – $96,363

 

So teachers spend 180 days in overcrowded classrooms with fewer resources than they need – often forced to buy school supplies for their students out of pocket – to get their students ready to take the high stakes tests.

 

Meanwhile, the test makers sit in luxury office buildings taking home tens of thousands of dollars more just to make the tests that students take over the course of a few weeks.

 

And these corporate test employees DO work in luxury.

 

Here are some of the benefits they receive listed on DRC’s own Website:

 

 

“DRC offers a comprehensive benefits program that allows employees to make choices that best meet their current and future needs.

Key Benefits

  • Choice of medical plans
  • Choice of dental plans
  • Flexible spending accounts
  • HSA account
  • 401K savings plan
  • Profit sharing
  • Short- and long-term disability plans

Wellbeing Benefits

  • Paid vacation
  • Paid holidays
  • Personal time off
  • Workout facilities/locker rooms at select locations
  • Tuition reimbursement
  • Community service hours
  • Discount programs
  • Adoption assistance
  • Fitness classes
  • On-site massage
  • Walking paths

Convenience Benefits

  • Business casual attire

  • On-site subsidized cafeterias

  • Dry cleaning pick-up and delivery

  • Company store”

 

It’s funny. Some folks get all in a lather about the much less extravagant benefits given to teachers, but I’ve never heard anyone in a rage about these benefits being paid to corporate test makers.

 

And keep in mind, both teachers and test makers are being paid with public tax dollars. YOU are funding the test makers on-the-job massage break just as you’re funding the public school teachers trip to the doctor for anti-anxiety meds.

 

The Pennsylvania legislature has entered into three contracts with DRC through 6/30/21 for services related to standardized testing for a total of $741,158,039.60, according to State Sen. Andrew Dinniman (D-West Chester).

 

That is your money funding the test makers workout facilities and flexible spending accounts. You pay for their walking trails, fitness classes, dry cleaning services and subsidized cafeterias.

 

Meanwhile, public school teachers – who do the bulk of the work educating children – are left struggling to make ends meet.

 

According to estimates by the National Education Association (NEA), teaching salaries from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia have stagnated by 2.3% in the past 15 years.

 

But that’s way better than in most parts of the country.

 

In West Virginia, teachers across the state went on a 9-day strike to get a 5% pay raise.

 

Teachers in Arizona and Oklahoma are planning their own strike due to even worse neglect.

 

In Oklahoma, some educators have actually had to resort to selling plasma in order to survive.

 

KOCO News 5, in the Sooner State, reported on a fifth grade teacher at Newcastle Elementary school, Jay Thomas, who sells blood to supplement his income.

 

“I’ve got a permanent scar doing that. Just did it yesterday,” Thomas said.

 

“I’ve been doing it for a couple of years. I’ve given over 100 times. It’s twice a week.”

 

Though Thomas has been an Oklahoma teacher for 16 years, he makes less than $40,000 a year after taxes.

 

Selling plasma nets him about $65 a week.

 

And if you think Thomas is the anomaly, when this story was spread on Twitter, other teachers responded that they do the same, some even including pictures of themselves at the blood bank.

 

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This is why there is a teacher shortage in many states. This is why fewer college students are entering the field. And it is why many of those educators who have stayed in the classroom are considering strikes.

 

We take teachers for granted. We value the work they do but not the people who do that work.

 

 

Meanwhile, we give extravagant rewards to the corporate vultures who provide very little for children but divert funding that should be going to educate students – the standardized testing corporations and the privatized school operators.

 

If we really want to improve our education system in this country, the first step is to value those who work in it.

 

We need to turn the money hose off for unnecessary expenses like standardized testing and allowing charter and voucher operators to pocket tax money as profit.

 

And we need to spend more on the people in the trenches day-in-day-out making sure our children get the quality education they deserve.

 

We need to give teachers the resources and respect they need to succeed and end the scams of high stakes testing and school privatization.

 

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

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