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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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. 


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Standardized Testing During a Pandemic is Stupid. And Cruel.

When the Biden administration announced that schools across the nation would have to give standardized tests during the global Coronavirus pandemic this year, America’s teachers let out a collective sigh of disgust.

If it had to be put into words, it might be this:

“I can’t even.”

Imagine a marine biologist being told she had to determine if the water in the dolphin tank is wet.

That’s kind of what the demand to test is like.

Determine if the water is wet and THEN you can feed the dolphin.

Imagine a person on fire being told to measure the temperature of the flames before you could put them out.

Imagine a person staving in the desert being required to take a blood test to determine previous caloric intake before anyone would offer food or water.

It’s literally that dumb.

No, it’s worse.

The reason the Biden administration gave for requiring testing this year was to determine the amount of learning loss students had suffered during the pandemic.

I wrote that in one sentence but it will take several to show how dumb that idea is.

First, there’s the idea of learning loss.

What does it mean?

It’s based on the idea that kids learn on a schedule.

You need to know A, B and C when you’re in 3rd Grade. You need to learn D, E, F in 4th grade. And so on.

And if you miss one of the letters somewhere in there, you’re learning will be disrupted forever.

The Biden administration seems to be worried that kids are not intellectually where they SHOULD be because of the pandemic and that if we don’t do something about it now, they will be irreparably harmed.

It is pure fantasy.

There is no developmental, psychological or neurological basis to it.

Some fool at a standardized testing company just made it up to sell more product.

And it doesn’t take much to prove it wrong.

Do a thought experiment with me.

Imagine you needed directions to the store.

You didn’t get them yesterday. You got them today.

Was your brain irreparably harmed?

You were still able to learn how to get to the store, weren’t you? You just did it one day later. No problem.

It might have stopped you from getting your groceries yesterday, but you can certainly go shopping today.

Now imagine we weren’t talking about directions. Imagine we were talking about addition and subtraction.

Some kids are ready to learn these concepts earlier than others. Does that mean there’s something wrong with them?

No. Absolutely not. It’s just that people’s brains develop at different rates.

And if you don’t learn something one year, that doesn’t mean you can’t learn it a year or two later.

There may be issues with core concepts like language acquisition being delayed too long over larger amounts of time, but these are extreme cases.

Delaying one or two years of school curriculum won’t make or break you.

For most of us, not learning something now doesn’t preclude learning it later.

So learning loss is nonsense.

No child has lost the ability to learn because of the pandemic – except any who died as a result of catching Covid.

That’s perhaps the biggest way the Biden administration’s testing requirement is dumb. It’s justified on assessing something that doesn’t exist.

But if we redefine learning loss into the next best thing that DOES exist – learning – it at least makes sense.

So maybe Joe meant that we need standardized tests to find out how much kids have learned (not what learning they’ve lost).

It’s still deeply stupid, but at least it’s coherent.

Here’s the problem. Standardized tests are completely unnecessary to assess learning. In fact, they’re notoriously terrible at measuring this.


Under normal circumstances, standardized tests don’t show how much a child has learned. They show how well the child can take the test. They show how well the test taker can play the game of test taking.

Most questions on these tests are multiple choice. They limit the possible answers to 4 or 5 choices.

If you’re asking something extremely simple and clear, this is achievable. However, the more complex you get – and by necessity the more subjective the question gets – the more the test taker has to think like the person who wrote the question.

That’s why it’s a standardized test. That’s what it means – conforming to a standard.

Out of all the possible ways to answer the question, the standard test taker will answer like THIS. And whatever that is becomes the correct answer.

The test makers get to decide what kind of person to set the standard as, and most of the time it’s white, male, Eurocentric kids.

This doesn’t matter so much when you’re asking them to calculate 2+2. But when you’re asking them to determine the meaning behind a literary passage or the importance of a historical event or the cultural significance of a scientific invention – it matters.

As a result, kids from richer, whiter homes tend to score better on these tests than those from poorer, browner homes.

And that doesn’t mean poor, brown kids aren’t intelligent. It just means they don’t necessarily think like the standard rich, white kids.

We don’t need to give standardized tests to tell us who gets low scores during a pandemic. It will be the poor minority kids. During a pandemic, during a recession, during a stock market boom, during a revolution, during anything.

Moreover, the idea that the amount of learning children have done in school is a mystery is, itself, a farce.

Of course, most kids have learned less during the pandemic than under normal years.

Schools have been disrupted. Classes have been given remotely, in-person and/or in some hybrid mix of the two. Parents, families, friends have gotten sick, jobs have been lost or put in jeopardy, social interactions have been limited.

You really need a standardized test to tell you that affected learning?

You might as well ask if water’s wet. Or fire’s hot? Or if a starving person is hungry?

But let’s say you needed some independent variable.

Okay. How about looking at the classroom grades students have earned? Look at the amount of learning the teacher has calculated for each student.

After all, most of these kids have been in school to some degree. They have attended some kind of classes. Teachers have done their best to assess what has been learned and to what degree.

Look at teachers’ grades. They will give you 180-some days worth of data.

Look at student attendance. See how often children have been in class. I’m not saying that there aren’t justifiable reasons for missing instruction – there are. But attendance will tell you as lot about how much students have learned.

Ask the parents about their kids. Ask how they think their children are doing. Ask what kind of struggles they’ve gone through this year and how resilient or not their children have been. Ask about the traumas the children have experienced and what solutions they have tried and what kind of help they think they need.

And while you’re at it, make sure to ask the students, themselves. I’m sure they have stories to tell about this year. In fact, many teachers have suggested students keep Covid diaries of what they’ve been going through.

Finally, take a look at the resources each school has. How much do they spend per pupil and how does that compare with surrounding districts? Look at how segregated the school is both in comparison to other districts, other schools in the district and class-by-class within the school. Look at class size, how wide or narrow the curriculum is, how robust the extra curricular activities offered, what kind of counseling and tutoring each school offers. That will tell you a lot about how much learning students have achieved – not just during Covid times but ANYTIME!

If that’s not enough data, I don’t know what to tell you.

There are plenty of measures of student learning this year. Standardized testing is completely unnecessary.

But unfortunately that doesn’t end the stupid.

Now we come to the rationale behind assessing learning in the first place.

The Biden administration says we have to give standardized tests to tell how much students have learned SO THAT WE CAN PROVIDE RESOURCES TO HELP KIDS CATCH UP!

Are you freaking kidding me!?

That’s the reason behind this fool’s errand?

You need something to tell you where to direct the resources?

Let me give you a little advice. If you’ve got a hungry dolphin, stop worrying about the wetness of the water. Feed the dang thing!

If someone’s on fire, put away the thermometer and take out the hose.

If someone’s starving, put away the needle and take out a glass of water and a sandwich.

Because that’s the ultimate problem with test-based accountability.

It purports to offer resources to students in need but never really does so.

There is no additional funding coming to help kids overcome the hurdles of Covid. Just as there were no additional resources to help children of color after many failed standardized assessments.

There’s just a boondoggle to be given to the testing companies on the dubious promise that the next time kids take the tests, they’ll do better.

There’s no money for tutoring or counselors or extra curricular activities or reducing class size. But there’s a treasure chest full of gold doubloons (i.e. tax dollars) for testing companies to give us test prep materials.

Common Core workbooks, standardized test prep software, test look-a-like apps – they’re all there.

It’s all just corporate welfare for the standardized testing industry. It’s not about helping kids learn.

In any normal year, that would be bad enough.

But this year it’s even worse.

Not only will the tests fail to bring any relief to children struggling to learn in a pandemic, they will actually stop them from learning.

Because, after all, one of the most precious resources this year is time. And that’s exactly what these tests will gobble up.

Wasting time on testing is bad in any year, but in a year when school buildings have been closed and learning has been conducted remotely, when we’ve struggled with new technologies and safety precautions, when we’ve seen our friends and neighbors get sick, quarantine and hospitalize… Every second learning is that much more valuable.

Instead of using what few days remain of the academic year to reinforce skills, discuss new concepts or practice problems, the Biden administration insists teachers proctor standardized tests.

That takes time. A lot if it.

Yes, Biden is allowing all kinds of leniency in HOW we take the tests. They can be shortened, taken in school, taken remotely, even taken at a later date – but they must be taken.

So goodbye, time that could have been spent on authentic learning. Hello, hours, days and weeks of test-taking drudgery.

That’s not a trade off many teachers, parents or students think is fair.

So President Biden can stop the charade.

America’s teachers aren’t buying it.

We know how deeply stupid this testing mandate is.

Stupid and cruel.

Paging, Dr. Jill Biden. Paging, Dr. Jill Biden. Where you at?


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!

Standardized Testing During the Pandemic is Corporate Welfare Not Student Equity

We’ve got to be able to tell how badly the pandemic is affecting student learning.

So let’s give standardized tests.

That’s the rationale behind the Biden administration’s mandate that schools across the country still struggling just to keep buildings open somehow manage to proctor standardized assessments.

Nearly 29 million people have contracted Covid-19 in the United States. More than 514,000 people have died from the virus.

Only about half of the nation’s schools are open for in-person learning, and many of those are operating on a hybrid basis. The rest are completely virtual.

Children have lost parents, siblings, family members, friends, teachers. Families are struggling just to survive with some members still recovering from the longterm health consequences of contracting Covid.

It is absurd to claim that only standardized tests can show whether the pandemic has impacted student learning.

It has. Nearly everywhere.

Insisting on testing is like bringing a thermometer into a burning building to tell firefighters where to spray the hose.

But pay attention to the messenger.

In this case, it’s acting education secretary Ian Rosenblum, former executive director of pro-testing organization, the Education Trust.

He sent the letter to state superintendents on behalf of the Biden administration telling them that blanket waivers of the federal testing mandate would not be considered this year as they were in 2019-20.

Let’s be honest. Rosenblum is not an educator.

He is a corporate lobbyist given a government job where he has continued to lobby for his industry.

This has nothing to do with helping students overcome the problems of a pandemic.

It is corporate welfare. Plain and simple.

Standardized testing is a multi-million dollar business.

States spend more than $1.7 billion every year on testing. In 45 states, assessments at the primary level alone cost taxpayers $669 million.

This money isn’t going to mom and pop organizations. The four major testing companies are Wall Street heavy hitters – Harcourt Educational Measurement, CTB McGraw-Hill, Riverside Publishing (a Houghton Mifflin company), and NCS Pearson.

In 2001 the first three agencies accounted for 96% of the tests administered, while Pearson was the leading scoring agency of those tests. And since then the market has exploded.

In 1955 the industry was valued at only $7 million. By 1997 it had ballooned to $263 million. This is a 3ooo% increase. Today the estimated worth of the industry is $700 million.

However, that only takes into account actual assessment.

When you consider that many of these companies (or their parent conglomerates) also provide remedial materials for students who fail the tests, the profits really start rolling in. It’s no coincidence that McGraw-Hill, for example, also publishes books and other materials many of which are used by schools to remediate the same students who fail the company’s tests.

It’s a captive market. The testing company makes and distributes the test (for a fee), scores the test so that a majority fail (for another fee), and then sells schools the materials it claims will help students pass next time (for an even further fee).

However, for the first time in two decades, the pandemic threw a monkey wrench into the machine.

Last year, the Trump administration cancelled all standardized tests as schools were closed to protect students from Covid-19.

Former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos had already signaled that she would not cancel them again this year, but when Trump lost the election, many educators and families had hoped in-coming President Joe Biden would think differently.

He had, in fact, promised that if he were elected he would not continue forcing states to give standardized testing.

I was there at the Education Forum in Pittsburgh in 2020 when my friend Dr. Denisha Jones asked him about it point blank.

You can watch his full answer here, but the crux of it was “Teaching to a standardized test makes no sense.”

Unfortunately, caving to a powerful corporate lobby does. And that’s exactly what Biden has done here.

In fact, it goes a long way to explaining his perplexing rush to reopen schools in his first 100 days regardless of the level of community infection.

Biden, who ran on being friendly to teachers and that his wife Dr. Jill Biden was an educator, has pushed some extremely absurd education policies in his short time in office.

Not only has his administration decided to ignore community infections, he has insisted that schools can be opened safely if districts follow certain safety precautions like universal masking, contact tracing and social distancing.

However, many schools are not following these protocols and even more simply cannot because doing so would be exorbitantly expensive. For example, you can’t have all students return to a cramped school building AND have them be 6 feet apart. There simply isn’t the available space. Moreover, contact tracing doesn’t effectively track Covid cases since most students who contract the virus are asymptomatic.

Then there is the absurd prescription that schools don’t even have to prioritize teachers for the Covid vaccine before reopening. In many states educators aren’t even eligible yet to receive the vaccine. Yet the Biden administration expects them to enter the classroom without necessary protections to keep them, their families and students safe.

These are all perplexing policies until one looks at it from an economic vantage.

Waiting for all teachers to have the opportunity to take a two dose vaccine would take at least a month and a half – that’s if every teacher could start the process today.

In addition, if we wait for community infections of the virus to dissipate, testing season will be far from over. In fact, it’s likely the rest of the school year would be gone.

So if the Biden administration had prioritized safety, it would have been forced to cancel standardized tests again this year.

Instead, it has prioritized the testing-industrial complex.

The economy is more important to the powers that be once again.

As a compromise measure, Biden is allowing flexibility in just about every way the tests are given. They can be shortened. They can be given remotely. They don’t have to be given now – they can be given in the fall.

However, this completely erases any measure of standardization in the processes.

Standardization means conforming to a standard. It means sameness. A test taken by a student at home is not the same as one taken by a student in school. A short version of a test is not the same as a long one. A test taken with 180 days to prepare is not the same as one taken with 250.

And if standardization is not NECESSARY in this case, why can’t we rely on non-standardized assessments teachers are already giving to their students? For example, nearly every teacher gives her students a grade based on the work the child has done. Why isn’t that a good enough measure of student learning?

It’s based on a year’s worth of work, not just a snapshot. It’s in context. And it’s actually more standardized than the hodge podge of assessments the Biden administration is allowing this year.

Why isn’t that allowed?

Because the testing companies won’t make any money.

Moreover, it could ruin their future profits.

If student grades are enough to demonstrate student learning during a pandemic, why aren’t they enough at other times?

The very project of high stakes standardized testing is thrown into question – as it should be.

Educators across the country will tell you how worthless standardized tests are. They’ve been telling people that for decades but policymakers from Republicans to Democrats refuse to listen. It’s almost as if they’re distracted by another sound – the jingle of money perhaps?

Those who claim standardized testing is necessary to determine where students are struggling have the weight of history to overcome.

Standardized assessments were created as a justification of racism and eugenics. They have never shown learning gaps that couldn’t be explained by socio-economics. Impoverished and minority students score poorly on the tests while privileged and white students score well.

If one really wanted to invest more resources where these alleged deficiencies exist, one wouldn’t need standardized assessments. You could just look at the poverty level of the community and the percentage of minority students.

But even more telling is the fact that this has never happened. Testing has never resulted in more resources being provided to needy children other than providing more remedial test prep material purchased from – you guessed it – the testing industry.

Under normal circumstances standardized testing is a scam.

During a pandemic, it’s the most perverse kind of corruption imaginable.


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Standardized Tests Increase School Segregation

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Let’s say your community has two schools.

 

One serves mostly white students and the other serves mostly black students.

 

How do you eliminate such open segregation?

 

After all, in 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down school segregation in Brown vs. Board of Education as essentially separate and unequal.

 

It’s been nearly 70 years. We must have a recourse to such things these days. Mustn’t we?

 

Well, the highest court in the land laid down a series of decisions, starting with Milliken vs. Bradley in 1974, that effectively made school integration voluntary especially within district lines. So much so, in fact, that according to a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, from 2000 to 2014, school segregation more than doubled nationwide.

 
But let’s say you did find some right-minded individuals who cared enough to make the effort to fix the problem.

 

What could they do?

 
The most obvious solution would be to build a single new school to serve both populations.

 

So if you could find the will and the money, you could give it a try.

 
Unfortunately, that alone wouldn’t solve the problem.

 

Why?

 

Standardized tests.

 

Even when students from different racial or ethnic groups aren’t physically separated by district boundaries or school buildings, the way we rate and sort these students within the same space causes segregation.

 

This is because our manner of placing kids into classes, itself, is discriminatory.

 

We have exactly this situation in my own western Pennsylvania district, Steel Valley. We have two elementary schools – Barrett and Park – one of which serves mostly black kids and the other which serves mostly white kids. However, even when the children get to our single middle and high schools, segregation persists.

 

They may finally be in the same building, but they aren’t in the same classes.

 

Most academic tracks have at least a lower and a higher level of each course. The former is invariably organized around remediation and basic skills, the latter around critical thinking and creativity.

 

Moreover, being in the higher level course comes with increased opportunities for mentoring, field trips, special speakers, contests, prizes, and self esteem. And the lower courses can degenerate into mindless test prep.

 

Which would you rather your child experience?

 

We don’t enroll students in one or the other at random. Nor do we place them explicitly based on their race or ethnicity.

 

Increasingly schools enroll students based primarily on their test scores.

 

Classroom grades, student interest, even teacher recommendations are largely ignored. Kids who pass their state mandated standardized assessments generally get in the higher classes and those who fail get in the lower classes.

 

And – Surprise! Surprise! – since test scores are highly correlated with race and class, most of the black kids are in the lower classes and most of the white kids are in the higher classes.

 

Let me be clear.

 

This isn’t because there’s something wrong with the poor kids and children of color or something right about higher socioeconomic status and white kids.

 

It’s because of (1) economic inequality, and (2) implicit bias in the tests.

 

In short, standardized assessments at best show which kids have had all the advantages. Which ones have had all the resources, books in the home, the best nutrition, live in the safest environments, get the most sleep, don’t live with the trauma of racism and prejudice everyday.

 

However, even more than that is something indisputable but that most policymakers and media talking heads refuse to acknowledge: standardized testing is a tool of white supremacy.

 

It was invented by eugenicists – people who believed that white folks were racially superior to darker skinned people. And the purpose of these tests from the very beginning was to provide a scientific (now recognized as pseudo scientific) justification for their racism.

 

A standardized test is an assessment where the questions are selected based on what the “standard” test taker would answer. And since this norm is defined as a white, middle-to-upper-class person, the tests enshrine white bias.

 

I don’t mean that 2+2=4 has a racial bias. But most questions aren’t so simple. They ask test takers to read passages and pick out certain things that are more obvious to people enculturated as white than those enculturated as black. They use the vocabulary of middle to upper class people just to ask the questions.

 

This is white supremacy. Using these tests as a gatekeeper for funding, tracking, and self-respect is educational apartheid.

 
Black students make up almost 17 percent of American students nationwide. If all things were equal, you’d expect them to make up a similar percentage of advanced courses. However, they account for only 10 percent of students in Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) classes.

 
In some areas it’s worse than others.

 

For example, according to a Department of Education Office for Civil Rights report from 2014, black students in the northern California city of Sacramento make up 16.3 percent of the population but only 5.5 percent of GATE programs. Meanwhile, in the south of the state, in San Diego, 8 percent of students are black, but make up just 3 percent of GATE classes.

 

Those are big disparities. In fact, the phenomenon is so common that social scientists created a term to describe it – racialized tracking.

 

But it has also been the subject of civil rights complaints.

 
In New Jersey the imbalance was so extreme the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a complaint in 2014 against the South Orange–Maplewood School District. In a statement, the ACLU said racial segregation across academic tracks “has created a school within a school at Columbia High School.” More than 70 percent of students in lower classes were black while more than 70 percent of students in advanced classes were white.

 

Even so there wasn’t much that could be done. The matter ended with the Office for Civil Rights ordering the district to hire a consultant to fix the problem, but it still persists to this day.

 

This “school within a school” went from metaphor to reality in Austin, Texas. In 2007, a city school, the Lyndon Baines Johnson Early College High School, split into two different entities existing within the same building. And the main factor separating the two was race.

 

The second floor became the Liberal Arts and Science Academy (LASA), a public magnet high school serving mostly white and Asian students. Meanwhile, the majority black and Latino students stayed on the first floor taking regular education courses.

 

How can that be legal? Because too many people want it that way.

 

LASA is ranked the best Texas high school and the 11th-best high school in the United States. In fact, whenever you see those lists of the best schools in the country, they are often the result of a wealthy local tax base combined with how many poor and minority kids they were able to keep out.

 

It’s a matter of priorities.

 

Many people – especially white people – talk a good game about equity but what they really want for their own children is privilege.

 

It’s what happens when you let scarcity dominate public education, and it doesn’t have to be this way.

 

We can invest in our schools so that all children have what they need – so that they aren’t in competition for dwindling resources.

 

But this must go hand-in-hand with an emphasis on social justice. Black lives matter. We cannot continue to treat black children as disposable.

 

Being gifted, talented or advanced can’t be reduced to a score on a standardized test. In fact, I’d argue that such measures should be banished from our conception of excellence altogether as the tests, themselves, should be discontinued.

 

This doesn’t mean we can ignore the centuries of racist policies that keep our children of color down – housing segregation, inequitable funding, over policing, a lack of resources, being left out of specialized programs. Nor does it mean that we can ignore implicit bias white teachers invariably have about black students.
But we have to dismantle the systemic racism enshrined in our school policies. The most well-meaning individuals will make little headway if the system, itself, is corrupt.

 

The two must be accomplished hand-in-hand, at the micro and macro level.

 

Integration is absolutely essential. We must ensure that all of our students get to go to school together – but not just in the same buildings, in the same classes.

 

This requires an end to standardized testing but maybe also an end to advanced placement courses as we know them. Why focus on higher order thinking only for the privileged kids – do it for all. Individual student needs can be met with dual teachers in the room, pullout resources and the like.

 

It is important to meet the needs of every student, but we cannot in doing so allow unspoken bias to be the gatekeeper of opportunity.

 

Equity is not just a pretty word. It has to be one of our most cherished goals.

 

Otherwise our policies and our people will leave many children behind.


 

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Pennsylvania Wants YOU to Give Standardized Tests to Your Kids at Home

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A multi-million dollar corporation wants to make sure Pennsylvania’s children keep getting standardized tests.

 
Data Recognition Corporation (DRC) and the state Department of Education are providing the optional Classroom Diagnostic Tools (CDT) assessments for use in students’ homes.

 

 

Students are not required to take the CDT in the Commonwealth unless their district decides to give it. The test is encouraged by the state as a way of telling how students will do on the required tests.

 
With this new option, parents finally can give multiple choice standardized tests to their own children on-line.

 
Which is kind of hilarious because no one really asked for that.

 
In fact, many parents, teachers and students breathed a sigh of relief when the requirement that students take high stakes assessments was waived this year nationwide.

 
With the Coronavirus pandemic closing most school buildings and students transitioning to on-line classes created from scratch by their teachers, there hasn’t been much time for anything else.

 
But the folks at DRC, a division of CTB McGraw-Hill, have been busy, too.

 
The Minnesota-based corporation sent out an email written by Matthew Stem, Deputy Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education at the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) to district contacts from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia encouraging the use of this newly available online CDT.

 
“I am pleased to announce that PDE is providing the Classroom Diagnostic Tools (CDT) as an optional additional resource for your Continuity of Education Plan,” Stem began.

 
“We anticipate that this option will be available through the reopening of schools in 2020.”

 
So if school boards and administrators choose, districts could assign the CDT at the end of this school year, during the summer or at the start of next school year even if school buildings are not yet open due to lingering pandemic problems.

 
This is the kind of academic continuity we should be rethinking not finding new ways to force on children.

 
For some state officials and testing executives perhaps it’s comforting that no matter what happens in this crazy world, at least we’ll still be able to sort and rank kids into Below Basic, Basic, Proficient or Advanced.

 
The rest of us would prefer more authentic education and assessment.

 

 

EVERYDAY USAGE

 

 

It should be noted that the CDT is not, in itself, a high stakes test.

 
It’s an optional test districts can assign to students in reading, math and science to predict how well they’ll do on the actual high stakes tests.

 
Normally, districts are encouraged (but not required) to give the CDT to students multiple times a year to determine where they’ll struggle on DRC’s other fine products like the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests given to children in grades 3-8 and the Keystone Exams given to high schoolers.

 
Of course this data is often used to determine which classes students are placed in, so it can play a huge role in deciding which resources and opportunities kids have.

 
A child who scores well can get in the advanced courses and gain access to all the field trips, guest speakers, pizza parties and other perks. Kids who score badly are often placed in remedial courses where they forgo all the glitz for extra test prep and the abiding label that they’re inferior to their classmates in the higher academic tracks.

 
However, you don’t really need the CDT to make such placements. Just put all the kids from wealthier families in the higher courses and kids living in poverty in the lower courses and you’ll have pretty much the same distribution.

 
Because standardized testing doesn’t really measure academics. It appraises socio-economics. And race. Let’s not forget race!

 
The Coronavirus pandemic actually leveled the playing field for the first time in nearly a century. Everyone – rich and poor – had their education disrupted.

 
But at least now with the reintroduction of the CDT, we can continue to discriminate against the poor black kids while privileging the richer whiter ones.

 
In some ways, that’s just the everyday injustice of American school policy.

 
However, the method DRC and PDE are using to clear the way for this particular scheme is truly spectacular.

 

 

A DISASTER WAITING TO HAPPEN

 

 

They’re enlisting parents as test proctors.

 
Normally, as a classroom teacher when my administrator demands I give the CDT to my students, I have to block out a few days and give the tests, myself.

 
I have to pass out entry tickets with each student’s username and password so they can login to the DRC app on their iPads and take the test.

 
If there’s a problem signing in, I have to try and fix it.

 
If kids are kicked out of the testing program and can’t sign back in, I have to deal with it.

 
If there’s a problem with the Internet connection…. I think you get the idea.

 
And all of these problems are extremely common.

 
In the last five years of giving the CDT, I have never had a single day go by when I didn’t experience multiple technological snafus, disruptions or downright clusters.

 
And that’s not to say anything of the times students read a question, don’t understand what it’s asking, wave me over and I’m just as dumbfounded as they are.

 
In fact, the only positive I can imagine from such a situation is that parents will finally get to see how badly written and full of errors these tests truly are. Even the guidance materials are full of misspellings and confusing verbiage.

 
When presented with this nonsense, many kids simply zone out, clicking random answers so they can be done as soon as possible and then put their heads down for the remainder of the time.

 
This is the lions den the state wants to throw parents into.

 

 

PARENTS AS CORPORATE DEFENSE

 
Admittedly, parents won’t have a full class of 20-30 students to deal with, but complications are guaranteed.

 
However, the good folks at DRC are prepared for that.

 
They have a handy “Parent/Guardian Test Administration Guide.”

 
Here’s what it has to say on ASSESSMENT SECURITY:

 

 

“Parents/Guardians should remind their student that the CDT test content must remain secure at all times. None of the materials from the online test may be copied or recorded in any manner.”

 
That’s quite a step down from what the same company warns students on the PSSA:

 

 

“…Copying of material in any manner, including the taking of a photograph, is a violation of the federal Copyright Act. Penalties for violations of the Copyright Act may include the cost of replacing the compromised test item(s) or a fine of no less than $750 up to $30,000 for a single violation. 17 U.S.C. $ 101 et seq”

 
I guess that since the CDT questions are just the ones that prepare you for the REAL test questions, it doesn’t matter as much if their security is put at risk here. Or perhaps the risk of letting kids go without testing and having people realize how unnecessary these tests are is greater than any loss in test security or accuracy.

 

 

TECHNICAL ISSUES EXPECTED

 
The guide also cautions that the test only may be taken using a Google Chrome Internet browser. If students don’t have one installed, there is a link for parents to follow so they can install it for their kids.

 
For some parents, I’m sure this would be no problem. But many of my students’ parents have little access or knowledge of technology. They would pull out their hair at the very suggestion and come running to teachers and administrators for help.

 
Which is exactly what DRC suggests they do.

 
Here’s what the guide recommends for technical support:

 

 

“If technical issues arise during testing, parents/guardians are asked to contact the student’s teacher and/or the student’s school office for technical support. DRC customer service staff cannot directly support issues related to each home’s technology configurations.[Emphasis mine.]

 
And this is true even if the test, itself, directs parents to contact the corporation:

 

 

“If a student receives an error message during the test administration that includes instructions to contact DRC for technical support, the parent or guardian who is assisting with the test administration should contact the student’s teacher or school office for additional instructions. Parents or students should not attempt to contact DRC’s customer service directly for technical assistance.

 
Teachers and/or a school’s technology staff will have the information needed to provide parents/guardians with the level of support to resolve most technology issues. If additional support is required, a school or district representative will reach out to DRC to determine a resolution.”

 
This is certain to put quite a strain on districts since these technological problems will occur not as they normally do within school buildings but potentially miles away in students’ homes.

 
Moreover, one of the most common glitches with the CDT often occurs with the entry tickets. These are typically printed by administrators and distributed to teachers who give them to students on test day. Students use the logins and passwords to gain access to the tests.

 
Stem’s plan would have these tickets distributed digitally over Google Classroom or whatever file sharing service is being utilized.

 
So this requires yet another level of distance and technological competency from parents and students just to access the tests. And once that access is gained, these logins need to be readily available in the highly likely event that students get booted from the program and have to reenter this data.

 

 

I’m sure there will be noooooooo problems at all with this. It will run very smoothly.

 

 

PARENTS AS PRISON GUARDS

 
But let’s say parents are able to help their children login to the test and no technical problems arise.

 
Can parents let their kids simply take the test alone up in their rooms?

 
No.

 
As a test proctor, you are expected to watch your children every second they’re testing to ensure they aren’t copying any information or cheating.

 
You can let your child have scratch paper, highlighters and calculators. But no preprinted graphic organizers, cell phones, dictionaries, thesauri, grammar or spell checkers, other computers or devices.

 
One concession DRC makes is that parents are encouraged to give the shorter Diagnostic Category CDT and not the full version. I’m sure distinguishing between the two on your child’s screen will be no problem at all.

 
This would reduce the test to 35-45 minutes – about half of the full CDT. However, times may vary – my own students have taken more than 180 minutes sometimes to finish the full version.

 
Still, none of this comes close to my favorite part of this catastrophe in waiting.

 
If parents still are uncertain about how to do all this, there is a link to a series of training videos on the PDE Website.

 
These are pretty much the same videos teachers are required to watch every year before giving the CDTs.

 

 

As you can imagine, they are perhaps our favorite moments of the year. We sometimes watch them over and over again. Not because they’re so riveting but because we’re required to before we give these infernal tests!

 
Oh, parents, you are in for a treat if your district decides to take advantage of this wonderful opportunity!

 

 

AN IMPOSITION ON PARENT’S TIME

 

 

Speaking of which, I wonder when Stem thinks parents will have the time to do all this.

 
Parents are working hard just to make ends meet. They’re trying to earn enough money to support the household, cook dinner, clean house, do laundry, and a host of other things.

 
Teaching is a full-time job and most parents don’t have the privilege to set aside that kind of time nor are they disposed to do this stuff in the first place.

 
When I teach my students over ZOOM, I rarely see parents guiding their kids through the lessons.

 
If a kid falls asleep, it’s up to me to somehow prod him awake over the Internet. If a child isn’t paying attention or playing on her phone, it’s up to me to direct her back on task.

 
In class, that’s fine. It’s my job and I’m right there in front of the child.

 
On-line, I cannot do it nearly as effectively. But I do my best because I can’t realistically expect all parents to step in here.

 
Yet DRC is expecting parents to do just that by becoming test proctors.

 

 

CONCLUSIONS

 
This is a terrible idea.

 
It will lead to fabulous disasters where teachers, administrators and parents fumble to make things work as DRC pockets our tax dollars.

 

 

Over the past decade, Pennsylvania and local school districts paid more than $1.3 billion for standardized testing. In particular, the state paid DRC more than $741 million for the PSSAs, Keystone Exams and CDT tests. Two of three DRC contracts were given sole source no-bid extensions.

 
Imagine what cash-strapped districts could do with that money.

 
Yet Stem, a former assistant superintendent in Berks County and former administrator in Lancaster, thinks we should give this money to corporations and then break our own backs meeting their needs.

 

 

Even if we could give the CDTs seamlessly online at home, it would hurt our most underprivileged children by taking away opportunities and unjustly labeling them failures.

 
No, if you ask me,it is not time to try to save standardized testing with a tone deaf plan to enlist parents as test proctors while kids are chained to the Internet.

 
It’s well past time to rethink the value of these tests in the first place.

 
We don’t need them.

 
Teachers can assess learning without the help of corporate America.

 

 

Our kids and their families deserve better than this.

 
Contact your local school directors and demand they NOT give the CDT – not now, not during the Coronavirus pandemic, not when the crisis is over, not ever again.

 
And if they won’t listen, opt your children out of standardized testing including diagnostics like the CDT. Then run for school board, yourself, with other likeminded parents and community members.

 
Write letters to the editor of your local paper, make some noise.

 

 

The people still hold the power. And we’re all being tested in more ways than one.

 

 

 

THE FULL EMAIL:

The following communication was initially broadcast by the Pennsylvania Department of Education on May 18, 2020. DRC is forwarding the same message to the district and school contacts on file in our databases.

 

 

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May 18, 2020

 
To: Superintendents, Principals, Charter School CEOs, and IU Directors
From: Matt Stem, Deputy Secretary
Subject: Availability of the Classroom Diagnostic Tools (CDT) for use by students at home

 

 

I am pleased to announce that PDE is providing the Classroom Diagnostic Tools (CDT) as an optional additional resource for your Continuity of Education Plan. The CDT is a set of online tools designed to provide diagnostic information to guide instruction and provide support to students and teachers. It is aligned with the content assessed on the PSSA and Keystone exams. We anticipate that this option will be available through the reopening of schools in 2020.

 

 

This at-home testing option will allow students to access the CDT from a “public” browser without having it installed on their computers or being configured to their District’s Central Office Services network. The test-setup tasks that teachers/school assessment coordinators routinely complete for classroom administrations of the CDT are the same for the at-home administrations. Test tickets (login credentials) will be distributed directly to the students by school staff. Teachers will have access to all CDT data/reports from the at-home administrations as usual. An overview of the at-home testing option and a guidance document for parents/guardians can be accessed from the following links (or directly from DRC’s INSIGHT Portal under General Information >> Documents >> 2019-2020 Classroom Diagnostic Tools >> Memos/Documents).

 

 

At-Home Testing Overview: https://pa.drcedirect.com/Documents/Unsecure/Doc.aspx?id=32997b8e-13cf-42f0-9c2c-af1689d89323 
Parent/Guardian Guidance: https://pa.drcedirect.com/Documents/Unsecure/Doc.aspx?id=cc242168-e06e-44d1-9fd4-ef859a519dab 

 

All CDTs (Full and Diagnostic Category) are available for use. However, it is highly recommended to only have students take the Diagnostic Category CDTs at this time. Students and their parents/guardians may benefit from a much shorter testing experience using the Diagnostic Category CDTs that are aligned to current instructional content. The shorter, more focused testing will still provide teachers and administrators with the same level of reporting and resources to adjust instruction and planning during distance learning.

 

Thank you for all your efforts to support students during this challenging time. If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, please contact the curriculum coordinator or CDT point of contact at your local Intermediate Unit. If you are interested in using CDT for the first time, contact PDE here.

 

 

Sincerely,

 

Matthew Stem
Deputy Secretary, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education
Pennsylvania Department of Education

 

 

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

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Just CLICK HERE.

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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!

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Public Schools Can Recover from the COVID-19 Quarantine by Skipping High Stakes Tests

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There is one plus from being sick during a global pandemic.

 

You get perspective.

 

While all the schools in Pennsylvania are closed for at least the next two weeks to help stop the spread of COVID-19 (colloquially known as the Coronavirus), I self-quarantined a day early.

 

No, I don’t think I have the virus, but I’m not taking any chances.

 

Still, sitting here at my laptop with a steaming mug of tea, I’m filled with optimism.

 

My symptoms don’t match those of the virus – no fever, no dry cough, no difficulty breathing, no runny nose or sore throat. I just sneeze occasionally, have an intermittent wet cough and feel a bone deep fatigue.

 

Probably not the culprit sending the world into shutdown mode. But best to rest up anyway.

 

I’m also filled with a deep sense of gratitude that I’m a public school teacher.

 

My last class was a rough one – 7th graders running around the room with half written poetry demanding instruction, guidance, reassurance. My morning 8th graders were likewise rushing to complete a poetry assignment – frantically asking for help interpreting Auden, Calvert, Henley, Poe, Thomas.

 

What a privilege it has been to be there for them! How much I will miss that over the few next weeks!

 

Who would ever have thought we’d go into self quarantine to stop people from getting infected?

 

It says something about us that what seemed impossible just a few days ago has become a reality. We actually saw a problem and took logical steps to avoid it!

 

I know – we could have done a better job. We could have acted more quickly and in many areas we haven’t done nearly enough (New York, I’m looking at you).

 

But what we have done already shows that human beings aren’t finished. We have massive problems waiting to be solved – global climate change, social and racial inequality, the corrupting influence of money in politics, etc. However, we CAN do the logical thing and solve these problems!

 

No matter how crazy it seems now, tomorrow could be filled with rational solutions. If only we allow ourselves that chance.

 

So my spirits are high here in my little hollow nestled in with my family.

 

But being a teacher I can’t help thinking about what’s to come next.

 

Eventually this whole ordeal will be over.

 

Schools will reopen. Things will get back to normal. Or try to, anyway.

 

The challenge will be attempting to overcome the month or more of lost schooling.

 

Some will be thankful they relied on virtual schooling to fill in the gaps. When this whole crisis began, officials chided us to make preparations for “teleschool” in case of just this eventuality.

 

I’m glad we didn’t.

 

Frankly, (1) it would have been a huge cost that schools don’t have the money to meet and (2) it would have been money down the drain.

 

There is nothing innovative about sending kids on-line to do their assignments. The majority of work that can be done that way is of the lowest quality.

 

That’s workbook nonsense that the laziest and most checked out educators of generations past gave to their students to keep them quiet.

 

We see students in China who are being educated that way finding ways around it – giving their education apps low star reviews in the app store so that they’ll be removed, etc.

 

Here in the USA, all children don’t even have access to the Internet. They rely on the local libraries to get online – not a good idea in a pandemic.

 

So most schools have had to do without.

 

School is cancelled for about a month or so, and then – hopefully – it will return.

 

The question remains – what do we do when we get back to class?

 

We could extend the school year, but families have vacations planned and other obligations. This wouldn’t solve much and frankly I don’t think it will happen unless we’re out for longer than expected.

 

I anticipate being back in school by mid April or so. That would leave about a month and a half left in the year.

 

This really leaves us with only two options: (1) hold our end of the year standardized tests and then fit in whatever else we can, or (2) forgo the tests and teach the curriculum.

 

If we have the tests, we could hold them shortly after school is back in session. That at least would give us more time to teach, but it would reduce the quality of the test scores. Kids wouldn’t be as prepared and the results would be used to further dismantle the public school network.

 

Much better I think is option two: skip the tests altogether.

 

Frankly, we don’t need them. Teachers observe students every day. We give formal and informal assessments every time we see our kids. We’re like scientists engaged in a long-term study taking daily measurements and meticulously recording them before coming to our year end conclusions called classroom grades.

 

In my classes, I think I could teach just about the same material in the remaining time if I didn’t have to worry about the high stakes tests.

 

In 7th grade, this would mean finishing up our almost completed poetry unit – having kids put together their poetry portfolios and sharing them. Then we’d begin our final novel of the year, “Silent to the Bone” by E.L. Konigsburg, talk about mystery stories, reader perspectives and how truth impacts fiction.

 

In 8th grade, we could likewise finish up poetry with some presentations on students’ favorites from the assigned group. Then we could read the play version of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and selections from Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”We could discuss propaganda, prejudice and compare the historical perspective of Europe and the United States.

 

In both cases, we might have to forgo a year-end project, but at least we’d cover the majority of what we proposed at the beginning of the year.

 

Students would leave their respective grades with just about everything we set out to give them. They’d be prepared and ready to meet the challenges of the coming grade.

 

That seems a worthy goal to me.

 

But I hear someone ask – what about the standardized testing? Won’t students be less prepared having skipped over those assessments?

 

The answer is no. They would not be less prepared.

 

They would be better educated without a sword of Damocles hanging over their heads.

 

The shame is that this alteration in schedule would probably only last one year.

 

In 2020-21, we’d probably reinstate these standardized assessments.

 

This is at least a month of wasted schooling. If we got rid of all the pretests and administrator required teaching-to-the-test, we could clear up a good 9-weeks of extra class time.

 

Imagine what teachers could do with those surplus days!

 

My 8th graders could read the whole of “Mockingbird,” for one. instead of just selections. My 7th graders could read another entire novel – probably Paul Zindel’s “The Pigman.” Not to mention the addition of more women and writers of color, the extra time for creative writing, an emphasis on finding your own point of view.

 

And for me that’s the benefit of this COVID-19 crisis. It shows us what could be – what we could do if we were only brave enough to try.

 

Happy self-quarantine, everyone!


 

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Teachers Are Not Responsible for Student Growth or Achievement

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Earlier this week, I was rushed to another urgent early morning staff meeting at my school.

 

I had my laptop with me and was frantically trying to get everything ready that I’d need for the day.

 

Text dependent analysis question? Check.

 

Discussion guide to introduce the concept of science fiction? Check.

 

Questions on literacy, analogy, vocabulary and sentence structure suitable for 7th grade? Check.

 

The same suitable for 8th grade? Check.

 

And as I was anxiously trying to get all this together in time for me to rush to my morning duty when the meeting was over, I quickly took a sip of my tea and tried to listen to what my administrator was saying from the front of the room.

 

He handed out two white sheets of paper with a compilation of standardized test scores – last year’s and those from the year before.

 

He asked us what we noticed about these two sets of scores and I almost spit out my tea.

 

“THIS IS WHAT YOU BROUGHT US HERE FOR!?” I wanted to shout.

 

“THIS IS WHAT YOU’RE STOPPING US FROM DOING OUR WORK TO DISCUSS!?”

 

But I choked down my response and waited for someone to tell him what he wanted to hear.

 

The scores have gone down in the preceding year.

 
 
Nothing drastic but enough.

 

When he got his answer – actually he had to say it himself because none of us were ready to play this game so early in the morning – he offered us an olive branch.

 

Isn’t that the way of it? Shame then reconciliation. Blame then peace.

 

Those are just the achievement scores, he said. Admin. generously doesn’t expect us to be able to do much about those. They go up one year and down the next.

 

But look at these growth scores!

 

That’s where we can have an impact!

 

And again I felt my throat convulse and a mouthful of Earl Grey came back up my gullet.

 

Growth!?

 

It doesn’t make that much difference whether you look at growth or achievement. If you’re holding teachers accountable for either, you’re expecting us to be able to do things beyond our powers as mere mortal human beings.

 

I hate to break it to you, but teachers are not magical.

 

We cannot MAKE things happen in student brains.

 

Nothing we say or do can cause a specific reaction inside a human mind.

 

That’s just not how learning and teaching works.

 

We can INFLUENCE learning.
 
We can try to create some kind of optimum condition that is most likely to spark learning.

 

But we cannot make it happen like turning on a switch or lighting a candle.

 

Let me give you a real world example.

 

The day before the meeting I was conferencing with a student about his essay on Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” I pointed out that he had misspelled Christmas as “Crismist.”

 

He refused to fix it.

 

Literally refused.
 
I pointed out that the word was already typed out and spelled correctly in the prompt. All he had to do was erase what he had written and rewrite it correctly.

 

He said he didn’t care – that it didn’t matter.

 

So I tried to explain how people who don’t know him would read this paper and make snap judgments about him based on simple mistakes like this.

 

I told him that I knew he was smart, that I had heard his verbal discussion of the story and was impressed by his arguments about Scrooge’s character. He had made good points about Scrooge’s guilt being motivated by fear and that once the ghosts were gone he might return to his old ways.

 

But no one was going to get that far or give him the benefit of the doubt if he didn’t even try to spell Christmas correctly!
 
And he still wouldn’t do it.

 

That is literally where I was yesterday – yet today my administrator wanted to hold ME accountable for this kid’s growth!

 

As this child’s teacher, it IS my responsibility to try to reach him.

 

I am responsible for providing him with every tool I know how that can help him succeed.

 

I am responsible for trying to motivate, inspire and explain. I am responsible for knowing what are best practices and using them.

 

By all means – evaluate me on that.

 

But I can do nothing about what a student actually does with all I give him.

 

To paraphrase the old adage about horses, I can lead a student to knowledge, but I can’t make him think.

 

And, moreover, I shouldn’t be forced, myself, only to be able to acknowledge certain kinds of thinking. If a student’s ideas don’t fit neatly into a multiple choice framework, I shouldn’t be impelled to ignore or constrain them.

 

That may seem simple or even obvious with reflection, but it also goes counter to nearly every teacher evaluation system in practice in the United States.

 

Because that’s really what’s motivating my administrator’s directives here.
 
He’s just being real, he said. This is what we’ll be evaluated on and it’s something we can impact.

 

Then he asked us what each of us can do to better impact student growth.

 

Hands went flying into the air to offer suggestions about how administration could help us better accomplish these goals.

 

How about some consistency in which courses we’re instructed to teach from year-to-year?

 

How about not splitting up classes so that students leave one room to have a special and then return to finish a course already in progress?

 

How about mandating fewer diagnostic tests so there’d be more instruction time?

 

Well that last one was just too much. We were told that Admin. planned to do just the opposite – to make the Classroom Diagnostic Tools (CDT) tests MORE invasive by changing the schedule to make them appear more like the end of the year state mandated tests.

 

He said eventually we could look at some of these other ways to change things administratively, but he wanted to put the onus on us. What can WE do to increase growth?

 

A hand went up.
 
If we help a student grow this year, won’t there be less room for him to grow next year – at least within a given academic standard? Don’t we reach a point of diminishing returns?

 

To which I wanted to add – where are we measuring growth from? One standardized test to another? That’s not authentic learning – it’s assessing how well students take a test and how well they think like the corporation that makes and grades it.

 

But the meeting was already over.

 

The bell rang and we had to rush to our duties.

 

I scrambled back to my classroom to deposit my computer before getting to the cafeteria just as student breakfast began.

 

This is madness, I thought.

 

Growth and achievement. It’s all just gas lighting educators for not being superhuman.

 

The decision makers either don’t understand how learning works or they don’t care to understand.

 

They are putting everything on teachers and students without providing either of us with the tools we need to succeed.

 

Students need more than another standardized test. And they need more than another teacher who only cares about their test scores – regardless of whether you measure them in growth or achievement.

 

These kids are stressed out, living under immense pressure, coping with poverty, prejudice, an unstable society, climate change, an uncertain future and an economy that promises them little more than crushing debt as a best case scenario.

 

Educators are supposed to wade into all that, say a few incantations and it will all just go away?

 

Many parents are struggling so much to provide for their kids they don’t have time to help with homework, provide guidance or support. And you think I’ve somehow got the secret sauce in my teacher’s bag?

 

Wake up, America.

 

It’s time we faced a truth about our schools.

 

Teachers can’t do it all alone.
 
Growth, achievement, whatever.

 

Until society commits to supporting its children with equitable resources, social justice and an evaluation system that’s more valid than standardized testing, the next generation will continue to struggle.

 

If you want to make an impact, a good place to start would be a realistic conception of what it means to be a teacher and what we actually can and should be held responsible for.

 


 

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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Are Teachers Allowed to Think for Themselves?

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As a public school teacher, I am often told what to do and how to do it.

 

Go teach this class.

 

Report to lunch duty at this time.

 

Monitor this student’s progress in this way, that student’s progress in another way, differentiate the following, document this medical condition, write up this behavior, check for that kind of hall pass, post and teach these academic standards, etc., etc., etc.

 

Some of these directives I agree with and others I do not. But that is treated as an irrelevance because the one thing I’m never told to do is to think for myself.  The one thing that seems to be expressly forbidden – is that I think for myself.

 

 

 

In fact, it’s such a glaring omission, I often wonder if it’s actually prohibited or so obviously necessary that it goes without saying.

 

 

 

Am I expected to think or just follow directions?

 

 

 

Does society want me to be a fully conscious co-conspirator of student curiosity or a mindless drone forcing kids to follow a predetermined path to work-a-day conformity?

 

Most days, it feels like the later.

 

Every last detail of my job is micromanaged and made “foolproof” to the degree that one wonders if the powers that be really consider teachers to be fools in need of proofing.

 

Teaching may be the only profession where you are required to get an advanced degree including a rigorous internship only to be treated like you have no idea what you’re doing.

 

And the pay is entirely uncompetitive considering how much you had to do to qualify for the position and how much you’re responsible for doing once you get hired.

 

It makes me wonder – why did I take all those courses on the history of education if I was never supposed to have the autonomy to apply them? Why did I have to learn about specific pedagogies if I was never to have the opportunity to create my own curriculum? Why was I instructed how to assess student learning if I was never meant to trust my own judgment and rely instead solely on prepackaged, canned standardized tests?

 

And now after 16 years in the classroom, I’m routinely told by my principal to use student testing data to drive my instruction. And, moreover, to document how I am doing so in writing.

 

But what if I don’t trust the student testing data in the first place?

 

What if – in my professional opinion – I don’t agree that the state should have purchased this standardized assessment from some corporate subsidiary? What if I don’t think it does a good job evaluating a child’s aptitude as a prediction of subsequent achievement on the next test? What if I don’t think the test provides valuable data for actual, authentic learning? What if I want to do more than just improve test scores from one standardized assessment to another? What if I want to actually teach something that will affect students’ whole lives? What if I want to empower them to think for themselves? What if my goals are higher for them than the expectations thrown on me as shackles on an educator’s waist, hands and feet?

 

Because it seems to me that there is a bit of a mixed message here.

 

On the one hand, teachers are given so many directives there’s no room for thought. On the other, teachers can’t do their jobs without it.

 

So what exactly do they want from me?

 

The principal can’t educate classes from his desk in the administrative office. The school board director can’t do it from his seat in council chambers. Lawmakers can’t do it from Washington, DC, or the state capital. Only the teacher can do it from her place in the classroom, itself.

 

You have to see, know and interact with your students to be able to tell what their needs are. No standardized test can tell you that – it requires human interaction, knowledge and – dare I say it – discernment.

 

You need to gauge student interest, background knowledge, life skills, special needs, psychology and motivation. And you need to design a curriculum that will work for these particular students at this particular time and place.

 

That can’t be done at a distance through any top-down directive. It must be accomplished in the moment using skill, empiricism and experience.

 

The fact that so many lawmakers, pundits, and administrators don’t know this, itself, has a devastating impact on the education kids actually receive.

 

Instead of helping teachers do their jobs, policymakers are accomplishing just the opposite. They are standing in the way and stopping us from getting things done.

 

We’re given impossible tasks and then impeded from doing them. At least get out of the way and leave us to it.

 

It’s ironic. The act of removing teacher autonomy results in dampening our effectiveness.

 

So as many of these same bureaucrats complain about “failing schools” and “ineffective teachers,” it is these very same complaints and the efforts taken in their name that result in ineffectiveness.

 

If we trusted teachers to do their jobs, they would be empowered to accomplish more. And I don’t mean blind trust. I don’t mean closing our eyes and letting teachers do whatever they want unimpeded, unadvised and unappraised. I mean letting teachers do the work in the full light of day with observation by trained professionals that know the same pedagogy, history and psychology we do – trained administrators who are or were recently teachers, themselves.

 

That would be both accountable and effective instead of the present situation, which is neither.

 

Moreover, it might incentivize policymakers to realize teachers can’t do everything themselves. Hold us accountable for what we do – not what you’d like us to do but over which we have no control.

 

After all, home life has a greater impact on students than anything that happens in class. And helping students to self-actualize into mature, productive members of society requires we equip them with the ability to work things out independently.

 

However, that does not seem to be the goal.

 

We don’t want free thinking students just as we don’t want free thinking teachers.

 

We don’t want a school system that produces independent thinkers. We want it to simply recreate the status quo. We want the lower classes to stay put. We want social mobility and new ideas to be tightly controlled and kept only within certain boundaries.

 

And that is why our school system keeps teachers so tightly constrained – because we want status quo students.

 

Educators have always been the enemy of standardization, privatization and conformity. We are on the side of liberty, emancipation and release.

 

Which side are you on?

 


 

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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Greater Test Scores Often Mean Less Authentic Learning

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The main goal of schooling is no longer learning.

 

It is test scores.

 

Raising them. Measuring growth. Determining what each score means in terms of future instruction, opportunities, class placement, special education services, funding incentives and punishments, and judging the effectiveness of individual teachers, administrators, buildings and districts.

 

We’ve become so obsessed with these scores – a set of discrete numbers – that we’ve lost sight of what they always were supposed to be about in the first place – learning.

 

In fact, properly understood, that’s the mission of the public school system – to promote the acquisition of knowledge and skills. Test scores are just supposed to be tools to help us quantify that learning in meaningful ways.

 
Somewhere along the line we’ve misconstrued the tool for the goal. And when you do that, it should come as no surprise that you achieve the goal less successfully.

 

There are two kinds of standardized assessment – aptitude and achievement tests. Both are supposed to measure scholarship and skill – though in different ways.

 

Aptitude tests are designed to predict how well a student will do in the future. Achievement tests are designed to determine how much a student knows now.

 

There is, of course, intense overlap between these two types because aptitude tests base their predictions on assessment of achievements. So they’re basically achievements tests that go one step further. They ask questions designed to give more information than just the present state but also about whether a student has progressed to a state which is most likely to then give way to another state in the future.

 

Either way, standardized assessments are supposed to be based on what students have learned. But the problem is that not all learning is equal.

 

For example, a beginning chef needs to know how to use the stove, have good knife skills and how to chop an onion. But if you give her a standardized test, it instead might focus on how long to stir the risotto.

 

That’s not as important in your everyday life, but the tests make it important by focusing on it.

 

The fact of the matter is that standardized tests do NOT necessarily focus on the most important aspects of a given task. They focus on obscurities – things that most students don’t know.

 

This is implicit in the design of these exams and is very different from the kinds of tests designed by classroom teachers.

 

When a teacher makes a test for her students, she’s focused on the individuals in her classes. She asks primarily about the most essential aspects of the subject and in such a way that her students will best understand. There may be a few obscure questions, but the focus is on whether the test takers have learned the material or not.

 

When psychometricians design a standardized test, on the other hand, they aren’t centered on the student. They aren’t trying to find out if the test taker knows the most important facts or has the most essential skills in each field. Instead, there is a tendency to eliminate the most important test questions so that the test – not the student – will be better equipped to make comparisons between students based on a small set of questions. After all, a standardize test isn’t designed for a few classes – it is one size fits all.

 

New questions are field tested. They are placed randomly on an active test but don’t count toward the final score. Test takers aren’t told which questions they’ll be graded on and which are just practice questions being tried out on students for the first time. So students presumably give their best effort to both types. Then when the test is scored, the results of the field test questions determine if they’ll be used again as graded questions on a subsequent test.

 

According to W. James Popham, professor emeritus at the University of California and a former president of the American Educational Research Association, standardized test makers take pains to spread out the scores. Questions answered correctly by too many students – regardless of their importance or quality – are often left off the test.

 

If 40 to 60 percent of test takers answer the question correctly, it might make it onto the test. But questions that are answered correctly by 80 percent or more of test takers are usually jettisoned.

 

He writes:

 

“As a consequence of the quest for score variance in a standardized achievement test, items on which students perform well are often excluded. However, items on which students perform well often cover the content that, because of its importance, teachers stress. Thus, the better the job that teachers do in teaching important knowledge and/or skills, the less likely it is that there will be items on a standardized achievement test measuring such knowledge and/or skills.”

 

Think about what this means.

 

We are engaged in a system of assessment that isn’t concerned with learning so much as weeding people out. It’s not about who knows what, but about which questions to ask that will achieve the predetermined bell curve.

 

We talk about leaving no child left behind, and making sure all students do better on standardized tests, but these tests are norm-referenced. By definition, all students cannot score well no matter how great their knowledge or skills. If you gave a standardized test to a class of genius-level intellects, there would still be the same percentage of failures and outstanding scores with the majority clustered in the middle. That’s how the tests are designed.

 

And if this highly suspect method of question selection, alone, doesn’t achieve that end, the test companies have a way to correct the scores at the end of the process through the way they grade them.

 

These tests are graded with cut scores. In other words, the state or the testing company or the graders, themselves, decide anew each year which scores are passing and which failing.

 

One year a 1200 might be proficient. Another year it’s basic. It all depends on what the decision makers come up with on a given year.

 

What do they base this on? No one has ever given a definitive answer. In fact, I doubt there is one. In each case, the deciding body just makes it up.

 

We’ve seen countless times when state scores are criticized for being too low one year, and then they miraculously bounce up the next. It’s not that students score differently, it’s that the cut score was raised. Why? Perhaps to stifle questions about the test’s validity. After all, people are less angry when more students pass.

 

The goal is always getting the bell curve. That is what validates the tests. But it’s a human construction, not a function of assessment. It says less about the test takers than the test makers and their enablers.

 

This has huge implications for the quality of education being provided at our schools. Since most administrators have drunk deep of the testing Kool-Aid, they now force teachers to use test scores to drive instruction. So since the tests don’t focus on the most essential parts of Reading, Writing, Math, and Science, neither does much of our instruction.

 

We end up chasing the psychometricians. We try to guess which aspects of a subject they think most students don’t know and then we teach our students that to the exclusion of more important information. And since what students don’t know changes, we end up having to change our instructional focus every few years based on the few bread crumbs surreptitiously left for us by the state and the testing corporations.

 

That is not a good way to teach someone anything. It’s like teaching your child how to ride a bike based on what the neighbor kid doesn’t know.

 

It’s an endless game of catch up that only benefits the testing industry because they cash in at every level. They get paid to give the tests, to grade the tests and when students fail, they get paid to sell us this year’s remediation material before kids take the test again, and – you guessed it – the testing companies get another check!

 

It’s a dangerous feedback loop, a cycle that promotes artificially prized snippets of knowledge over constructive wholes. But this degradation of education isn’t even the worst part.

 

The same method of question selection also builds economic and racial bias into the very fabric of the enterprise.

 

According to Prof. Martin Shapiro of Emory University, when test makers select questions with the greatest gaps between high and low scorers, they are selecting against minorities. Think about it – if they pick questions based on the majority getting it right, which minority got it wrong? In many cases, it’s a racial minority. In fact, this may explain why white students historically do better on standardized tests than black and Hispanic students.

 

This process may factor non-school learning and social background into the questions. They are based on the experiences of white middle-to-upper class children.

 

So when we continually push for higher test scores, not only are we ultimately dumbing down the quality of education in our schools, but we’re also explicitly lobbying for greater economic and racial bias in our curriculum trickling down from our assessments.

 

As Ibram X. Kendi, author of “How to be an Antiracist” puts it:

 

“Standardized tests have become the most effective racist weapon ever devised to objectively degrade Black minds and legally exclude their bodies.”

 

 

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Popham is less critical of high stakes testing. He sees more of a problem in using student test scores to assess teacher performance. But even he thinks the tests and the scores are being over valued and misunderstood in a wider context.

 

He writes:

 

“Merely because these test scores are reported in numbers (sometimes even with decimals!) should not incline anyone to attribute unwarranted precision to them. Standardized achievement test scores should be regarded as rough approximations of a student’s status with respect to the content domain represented by the test.”

 

I’d go even further.

 

Standardized test scores are tools used by big business to make money. That is as far as their validity goes.

 

And the fact that we make so many vital educational decisions on them is nothing less than criminal.

 

The tests are bogus nonsense at best and a conspiracy against the poor and minorities at worst.

 

When well-meaning people let themselves get wrapped up in knots over low scores and what that means for student learning, they are actually hurting the very thing that they value.

 

Student learning is not bettered by higher test scores. It is often made worse by them.

 

High test scores don’t mean greater learning. They often mean learning the knowledge du jour to the detriment of what’s really important. They mean biased education against the poor and minorities.

 

And they make those with real concerns complicit in a sham being perpetrated on our children and our society.

 


 

 

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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