When All Else Fails, Cash In: Charter Schools as Miracle Cure

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Do you believe in miracles?

If you live in York, Pennsylvania – you’d better.

Still hurting from $1 billion in statewide education cuts, York City School directors are considering giving their entire district over to a failing charter operator. This would make it the first all charter district in PA.

It’s the kind of decision that no rational individual would normally even entertain. My school doesn’t have enough funding so I should give it to a company to run for-profit!?

Oh! That ALWAYS works!

Such a boneheaded idea could only be proposed by a government bureaucrat. Enter David Meckley, the district’s state-appointed chief recovery officer.

Tasked with guiding the district’s financial recovery, Meckley developed a plan that leads to charter conversion if monetary and academic goals are not met.

Let me get this straight.

Back in 2012, Gov. Corbett cut $8.4 million – over 15% – from York’s budget. To cope, the district cuts the arts, student services, increased class sizes, etc. And now we’re calling the school a “failure” simply because it couldn’t survive the funding cuts deemed necessary by the state.

Reminds me of a bully shouting, “Why are you hitting yourself!?” as he slaps a little kid in the face with the child’s own hands!

So, to review, the same people who hobbled the district in the first place by slashing its funding are responsible for fixing the problem they created. And their solution is to give up. Give the schools to someone else to run.

Q: What was the straw that broke the camels back? What was the final factor that convinced Meckley it’s charter time?

A: School directors can’t agree to a new teachers contract.

Of course! Those greedy teachers asking for a fair wage for a fair day’s work! How dare they!? Don’t they know the district is suffering from a manufactured crisis!?

Do doctor’s ask to be paid for working in poor neighborhoods? Do lawyers work exclusively pro bono to defend poor clients?

Of course not! They’ve got to earn a living! They’re freakin’ professionals after all! Not like these.. yuck! …teachers!

Okay, so the public sector can’t miraculously get blood from a stone. How will a for-profit company be able to succeed where democratically-elected school directors have failed?

The short answer: charters can fire the entire staff and rehire teachers at a lower rate. Yep. Cheap labor! That’s bound to increase the quality of kids’ educations!

Everyone knows the lower the salary, the better the service. That’s why NFL players are all on food stamps. It’s why the most luxurious hotels charge the least for a room! Want a good, Michelin star meal? Welcome to McDonalds, my foodie friends!

For Meckley there’s really only one question to consider. “What’s best for our kids?” he asked at a recent board meeting.

It’s hilarious he can even say that with a straight face! How could reducing teachers’ salaries be best for kids!? That means the most talented and experienced educators will leave for greener pastures. The kids will be left with only the most substandard teachers who have no choice but to accept whatever crumbs charter operators deign to throw their way.

Imagine that happening at a rich school. Imagine that happening at the (private) schools where President Obama or Bill Gates send their kids.

Ha! They demand the best for their children – as they should. But when it comes to your kids and mine – let them eat cake!

Let’s get something straight: most charter schools are not about academic excellence. They’re about high profit margins. Period.

Politicians and corporate school reformers rhapsodize about the power of the free market to cure all the ills of our school system. But from a market point of view, it makes sense to provide the most substandard product possible that parents will still allow their children to endure. The less money spent on the actual job of educating children, the more money to boost the bottom line.

Don’t believe me? Check out the two charter companies vying for a chance to take over York Schools: Charter Schools USA and Mosaica Education.

Charter Schools USA

“Floridian of the Year!” That’s what Florida Trend business magazine calls CEO of Charter USA Jonathan Hage. The rest of us would just call him a douchebag.

Hage probably considers himself some kind of pirate or profiteer. In fact, he brazenly advertises where he gets his precious booty by naming his yacht “Fishin’ 4 Schools.” That’s clever! Morally repugnant, sure! But clever!

To pay for it, he found a new revenue stream that’s just this side of legal. Charter Schools USA is the largest seller of charter school debt in the country. “It will sell $100 million worth of bonds this year, Hage says. … The bonds come with tax-exempt status because they are technically held by the nonprofit founding boards that oversee the schools.” Over a three-year period, the company made closer to $200 million.

So York Schools are considering bettering their financial predicament by giving their district to a company engaging in the same kinds of risky monetary practices that crashed our economy not even a decade ago. Run up debt, then sell it to others tax free! That’s not exactly a prescription for sound fiscal management.

Mosaica Education

This company has a string of scandals that go back decades. Let’s just look at some of the most recent.

  • In 2006, Mosaica was forced to end its contract to run Lafayette Academy Charter School in New Orleans, Louisiana, because it failed to align its curriculum to state standards, provide after-school programs for students below grade level and organize transportation to and from the school. The charter even ended up paying Mosaica $100,000 for early termination of the contract!
  • In 2009, Mosaica-run Howard Road Academy leaked a copy of the DC-CAS standardized test to two teachers, who then distributed copies of the test to their students prior to exam day. One administrator and two teachers were fired.
  • In 2012, Mosaica botched a situation similar to the one they may enter in York, PA. The company was contracted to manage a public school that had just been turned into a charter district in Muskegon Heights, Michigan. Prior to contracting with Mosaica, the emergency manager of the struggling district, Donald Weatherspoon, had fired the entire staff. Mosaica had “three months to hire and train staff members, including those rehired from the old district, bring neglected facilities up to code, and persuade parents to keep their children enrolled.” The school’s first principal quit within the first month and, within 3 months, a quarter of the teachers hired by Mosaica in the summer had left the district. According to Education Week, “the largest single proportion [of teachers who left the district]—28 percent—cited the charter district’s lack of participation in Michigan’s public school employee retirement plan as the reason [for leaving].” Helluva job!
  • As of 2013, Mosaica did such great work running Atlanta Preparatory Academy, the charter ranked in the bottom 20% of schools in Georgia. Atlanta Public Schools recommended that the state not renew the school’s charter. They were also concerned that the charter school’s board lacked sufficient independence because it owed $801,384 to Mosaica!

Read closely, York taxpayers. These are the people you’re being asked to invite to manage your school district! It just makes sense. Foxes make such excellent hen house guards!

Perhaps more disturbing, though, is the Tom Wolf connection.

The Democratic challenger to Gov. Corbett in the November election is a York resident and knows all parties involved too darn well.

Wolf eventually (reluctantly?) came out against turning York into a charter district but was too cozy with those involved, even calling Meckley, “my good friend.

Moreover, Wolf’s chief financial officer for his business and his campaign treasurer, Michael Newsome, served on the work group that recommended converting York to an all charter district. But don’t worry. Wolf says he disagrees with this trusted advisor, as well.

If you really disagree so much, Tom, why have you surrounded yourself with privatizers and profiteers!?

The Democrat seems poised to an easy victory over a certainly more radical Corbett, but let’s hope we don’t have another Wolf in Progressive clothing!

In any case, charterization is a terrible idea.

Turning public schools into charter schools will not solve any problems. It will only make them worse. There is no proof that charters as a whole are any better than public schools. In fact, as we’ve seen, there is plenty evidence to show that charters are much worse.

Yet despite this dismal track record, when public schools struggle, politicians and corporate school reformers keep suggesting charters are the only answer.

We need to look at the source of the problem. Our schools are being starved of funding through the reduction of tax revenue. When the state and federal government refuse to make the richest pay their fair share of taxes, the burden of funding our schools falls to the local taxpayer. In rich districts, this is fine. They can just raise taxes. However in poorer districts like York, this is unsustainable. Putting aside the issue of fairness, it’s impossible to raise local taxes where there is no tax base capable of supporting it.

In any sane country, the shortfall would be taken up by the state and federal government. Education is a right, after all, not a privilege. All schools should have adequate, equitable and sustainable school funding – not just the rich ones.

One wonders if this situation would be allowed to continue if there weren’t people making a mint off the suffering of our school children.

Do what’s best for our kids? Certainly. But it isn’t a charter school miracle.

Enough cashing in on our kids educations. As a nation, we need to grow up, put on our big boy pants and pay for shit. You want to live in a country that leads the world in innovation, industry, freedom and happiness? You want to live in a country that educates it’s children – all it’s children?

Then it’s time we force the rich to reach for their wallets and stop blaming us for being robbed by the policies they’ve bought and sold.

Class Warfare begins in the classroom.


As a result of this article, I was invited on the Rick Smith Show for an interview.

No Pineapple left Behind – the Consolation of Satire and Video Games

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Q: What’s the difference between a pineapple and a human child?

A: Pineapples are more profitable.

Let’s face it – kids have.. yuck … needs! Maslow even came up with a hierarchy of needs that must be met before you can get the little tykes to do anything. Physical well-being, safety, emotional… Argh! It’s just so much work!

Pineapples, however, are money-makers from the get go.

Chop them up, and you’ve got a tropical fruit salad.

Juice them, and you can make about a hundred different premium cocktails.

Heck! Just plop one in a hat and you’ve got an island-themed mascot!

But kids!? You can’t even get them to take a lucrative standardized test without… bleugh … educating them first.

Imagine if you could make pineapples take tests and get grades instead. Schooling would be like a gardening contest. Who has the best recipe for success? There would be no intangibles like the effects of poverty, home-life, special needs. It would all be neat, measurable and objective.

Yes, sir. Pineapples would be great for business – especially if your business is education.

That’s the premise of Subaltern Games current project No Pineapple Left Behind.

The satirical fantasy video game is the brainchild of former teacher, Seth Alter.

Alter taught at a Boston middle school before giving up the classroom for the programmer’s chair. According to his blog, he “became fed up with the callous administration” and decided he could teach more effectively through video games.

His first game, Neocolonialism, was inspired by world history and economics. The goal is to extract as much wealth as possible from the world through any means necessary. While many video games invite the player to engage in senseless violence, Neocolonialism inevitably forces players to consider the consequences of their actions. In fact, the game’s tagline is “Ruin Everything.”

The project was completed through a $10K Kickstarter campaign in January 2013 and released in November of the same year.

Now Alter and his 4-person team are writing No Pineapple Left Behind (NPLB) – a game he calls his “response to his old teaching job.”

While still in the early stages, the company has provided some video of what the game may look like when completed:

A Kickstarter campaign is anticipated to help the company finish this ambitious project.

Even in its early stages, NPLB confronts us with a host of essential questions about education:

1) WHO ARE PUBLIC SCHOOLS DESIGNED FOR – CHILDREN OR WIDGETS?

2) WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF OUR SCHOOLS – EDUCATING KIDS OR MAKING MONEY?

Examine the state and federal education policies of the last dozen years and you’ll be forgiven for thinking we’re servicing widgets.

Federal programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top increase high-stakes standardized testing to absurd lengths. Public schools are repeatedly defunded at the state and federal level, forcing them to rely on local taxes to survive. This is fine for affluent districts that can just raise property taxes, but it is unsustainable for the 99%.

To make up the difference, poorer schools are forced to compete for the remaining funds by enacting reforms that don’t benefit children but enrich the special interests that lobbied for them. Test companies like Pearson rake in the cash creating and scoring the tests on the one hand, and then earn even more profit providing the inevitable remedial test prep materials districts are forced to buy on the other.

Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates poses as a disinterested philanthropist funding Common Core, but then increases his company’s market share by providing the computers and technology necessary to take the standardized tests required by Common Core.

Moreover, for-profit companies entice away students to charter schools in order to garnish their per student funding. Then just before it comes time to take their standardized tests and thus be judged as effective or not based on these scores, charters boot the lowest achievers back to the public schools. The money, however, they keep. And they get to boast of how well they teach kids since the only ones left are the cream of the crop!

Children then become little more than a means to school funding. Schools are forced to use children to earn money for the district to remain open.

But schools are supposed to be places where funding is used to educate kids – not places where kids are used to earn funding.

3) IS COMPETITION THE BEST MOTIVE FOR A PUBLIC SERVICE?

No. Emphatically not. When you have competition, you by necessity have winners and losers. The goal of public schooling is to educate EVERYONE. Didn’t we call this nonsense No Child Left Behind? How can it be about doing that, if the goal is to see who wins the Race to the Top? In a race, the objective is to leave everyone else behind!

4) WHAT IS THE ROLE OF THE CLASSROOM TEACHER – GUIDE OR SORCERER?

In the early draft of NPLB, teachers will cast spells on their pineapple classes to get them to learn. This works well, apparently, for fruit. However, if classes are left unattended, the pineapples will turn back into children who are much harder to educate in this manner.

Go to any school of education in any university in the country and you’ll learn this simple fact: Education is not something someone does to you. No one can put a finger to your head and make you learn. There are no mystical words to engender wholesale epiphanies. Learning is a complex process that requires a relationship between the teacher and student. It happens gradually over time. There is no magic here.

However, our national education policy acts as if all children go to Hogwarts. Teachers are evaluated on how much their students learn. That’s only looking at one part of this complex relationship. What about the children? Aren’t they part of this equation, too?

Moreover, the metric administrators are being forced to use to determine if this learning has actually taken place is… standardized test scores! These are tests graded by temps who may or may not have an education degree working for corporations that make more money if more kids fail the tests! That’s a classic case of conflict of interests.

So we have a faulty evaluation method that is using faulty data to come up with faulty conclusions that will determine whether a teacher gets to keep his job or not. The ONLY way that works is through magic!

And so we’re left with the consolation of satire and video games. Will No Pineapple Left Behind be a big hit on the market? It’s still to early to tell.

However, the concept shows tremendous promise.

Perhaps players will recognize their own schools in the game.

Perhaps policy-makers will become embarrassed and discredited as the objects of virtual ridicule.

Perhaps encountering such everyday absurdism in video game form will serve as a wakeup call to the slumbering masses.

Otherwise, it may be game over for American Education.

UPDATE: No Pineapple Left Behind is now on Kickstarter looking to raise $35,000 to finish the project. New pictures, promos and information is available on the site.

Standardized Dress – School Uniforms and Conformity as Social Norm

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It was just a normal Monday. Two emotionally disturbed students chased each other into my classroom playing keep away with each others’ belongings.

I stopped them, reprimanded them and sent them to opposite corners of the room. Meanwhile the rest of the class hadn’t bothered to begin their warmup activity. I explained the assignment and got them back on track.

Finally, a girl sitting in the front row raised her hand and offered a solution to the problem on the board.

We were back in business and learning could continue.

At the end of class, an administrator stormed in. There was an urgent problem that needed solving immediately.

It wasn’t that the emotionally disturbed students were misplaced in the regular education setting. It wasn’t that the other students had needed redirection. It was the girl in the front row.

She was wearing a pink shirt!

When board members enact a school uniform policy – as was just accomplished at my district – they turn every educator in the building into the fashion police.

Individualized instruction, classroom management, content knowledge – all become secondary to the driving force of our schools: who isn’t conforming to the norm?

When did this become our educational philosophy? We should be doing just the opposite.

Schools should be engines of self-discovery and self-expression. In a world of stifling poverty and dangers from within and without, our schools should be places where kids can be themselves. We should be providing them safe places to learn who that is and what their relationship is to the rest of the world.

Instead, we standardize the curriculum with test prep and Common Core. We standardize their assessments with days of fill-in-the-bubble state-mandated testing and pretesting and post-testing.

To be fair, much of this is forced on us from the state and federal government. But now when your local school directors get an opportunity to make a rare decision about how to run their own community schools, they decide to standardize student dress!? They think having everyone look the same in drab colors and similar outfits is going to improve the situation!?

No! It simply continues the trend of turning our children into prisoners and turning our teachers into their wardens.

Case-in-point: my classroom is very cold. Even in summer the air conditioning blows out too much frigid air, and the maintenance department never seems able to adjust it properly.

I’ve almost given up complaining to administrators. After a few introductory attempts, I move on to things I can actually control.

In the past, I’ve simply told my students to bring a jacket. Most of them end up bringing a hoodie, but this year that’s against the dress code. They can wear a certain kind of plain sweatshirt or sweater, but they can’t wear one with a hood.

The result is a class of shivering children many of whom still try gamely to learn. I must admit, even standing there, myself, wearing a suit jacket, I go numb after a while.

So I took pity on my class and allowed them to discretely bring hoodies into class if that was all they had available. Almost immediately after the first student donned the verboten clothing, an administrator looked into my room and saw it. She pulled the student into the hall yelling and screaming that this was the second time the child had been seen wearing a hoodie, and disciplinary action would be taken.

The child turned to me with lost, helpless eyes before I spoke up and took the blame. He got off with a warning and shivered through the rest of my lesson.

Is this really the best use of our educational resources? We have real problems – such as dealing with the consequences of our “lowest responsible bidder” air conditioning service. But instead of tackling any of that, we’re pounding children into submission for a school uniform policy that doesn’t make any sense.

What lesson does it teach? Hoodies are evil? Wearing pink or – God help you! – navy blue will ruin your life!?

No. You must be the same as everyone else or you will be punished for being different.

This is what happens when school directors glance at the mountain of insurmountable problems they’ve volunteered to correct. But instead of solving any of them, they opt for a measure that solves nothing but looks good on paper – the newspaper, specifically.

A school uniform policy allows them to talk tough. We’re taking a strong stance against misbehavior by forcing student to dress the same way. We won’t put up with shenanigans at our school like gangs, violence and freedom of expression!

It’s ludicrous.

Do uniforms reduce violence and increase positive behaviors? There is no proof that they do. In every study that claims to prove the efficacy of uniforms for positive behaviors, districts made additional rule and administrative changes to the school environment at the same time. There is no way to isolate uniforms as the one factor among many that caused better behaviors.

What’s worse, there are long-standing, well respected studies that go further and conclude that uniforms are – at best – ineffective and – at worst – actually INCREASE negative behaviors.

Take this 1998 statistical study produced by the University of Notre Dame‘s Sociology Department that studied 10th grade students. Researchers showed that uniforms had no direct effect on “substance abuse, behavioral problems or attendance.” In fact, uniforms actually had a negative effect on student achievements for those students who previously considered themselves ‘pro-school’.

Researchers concluded:

“Student uniform use was not significantly correlated with any of the school commitment variables such as absenteeism, behavior, or substance use (drugs). In addition, students wearing uniforms did not appear to have any significantly different academic preparedness, proschool attitudes, or peer group structures with proschool attitudes than other students.”

What about academics? Supporters claim uniforms will boost academic achievement by removing distractions to learning.

It’s a curious claim to make.

Statistics show that mandatory school uniforms actually work AGAINST learning. States that require uniforms rank at the bottom for academic achievement. States without mandatory school uniforms rank at the top.

This is why school districts that adopt mandatory school uniforms often see a drop in property values. Mandatory uniforms are a hallmark of failing schools.

Consider what kinds of schools require uniforms. Hint: it’s not the rich suburban ones. It’s the poverty-stricken inner city ones. Specifically, 47% of high-poverty schools reported requiring school uniforms. While only 6% of low poverty schools did the same, according to the US Department of Education.

The National Center for Educational Statistics surveyed both primary and secondary school students from 1988 to 2004. Their conclusion: “Once I control for a number of factors, including race, sex and socioeconomic status… there is little evidence that school uniforms have an impact on student outcomes.”

In short, it’s time to stop reform for reform’s sake. We need to stop reaching for easy answers. Our children deserve better.

We need to give up this strange notion that in the land of the free, the home of the brave, the best ideal we can drum up for our schools is everyone marching in line, wearing the same clothing, thinking the same thoughts. That’s not the American dream. That’s the Communist one!

We’ve got to be okay with difference. In fact, we need to encourage it. Yes, there are limits, but they should be placed back as far as possible.

John Mason wrote, “You were born an original. Don’t die a copy.” Let’s not force our children into a mold.

Let’s guide them, nurture them to become independent thinkers who sometimes shock us with their originality.

Let our decisions today be worthy of the adults they may one day become.

Let them be free.

Tracking, Testing and the Myth of Meritocracy

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Why do we track students?

Why do we separate them into remedial, academic and gifted classes?

Is it to make the teacher’s job easier? To reduce the learning gap between the lowest and highest functioning students? Or is it for some other reason?

These questions were on my mind this morning. I teach academic language arts classes at my school. I teach the students who don’t have the grades, test scores, behavior or motivation to be enrolled in the gifted classes.

When the Pennsylvania legislature slashed education funding at the insistence of Gov. Corbett, some of the first things we lost were remedial classes. So those students come to me now, too.

Perhaps that’s why it was a shock in the early morning hours when my principal dropped a bomb on me.

This morning she pressed a spreadsheet under my nose and told me she would not allow one of my best students from last year to move up to the gifted class this year.

I was gobsmacked.

This is a child who put forth the maximum effort almost every day. I couldn’t hand out a complicated week-long assignment without him completing it with a high degree of accuracy within an hour or two.

This is a boy whose hand was always raised, the correct answer almost bursting from his lips.

His grade was exceptional. I can count on one hand the number of students I’ve had in my entire teaching career who have ever earned a 100% in my class during a single semester. But he’s one of them. And even in the instances where he fell short, it was only by a few points.

If we were ever to allow a student to move on up, this is the one.

I told the principal all of this and she just pressed her finger deeper into the spreadsheet. Oh, he had the grades alright. He just didn’t have the standardized test scores.

Let’s pause here for a moment to take this in. The import of this decision goes way beyond one student in one school. It touches us all.

My principal had decided to place this child into a class based solely on his standardized test score. The administrator had weighed three days of testing versus 180 days of classroom excellence and come down on the side of the tests.

I couldn’t believe it. Countless studies have shown GPA is a better indicator of academic success than standardized test scores. That’s why more than 800 colleges no longer even require applicants to take the SAT. But before I could protest, my principal was off, holy spread sheet in hand.

I could barely breath. I had just seen my former student and his mother the night before at open house. Mom gushed about how proud she was of him. She had always been afraid to place him in the gifted classes because she wasn’t sure he could handle it emotionally. She didn’t want him to get bogged down with extra work and fall behind. But after his stellar performance in my class last year, she was finally willing to give him a chance.

The pride he felt was all over his face. He had worked hard and he knew now that he could do it. He wasn’t afraid anymore. He was ready for the next challenge.

What would this new decision do to him? My heart broke at the prospect of finding out.

What had happened to make his standardized test scores so low? He hadn’t bombed them, but he hadn’t quite passed them either.

This is the first time I’ve ever had such a discrepancy between classroom grades and test scores. Usually students who get a high grade in my class at least pass their standardized tests. I’ve had one of the best records in this regard in the district for years.

But last year’s exam was an anomaly. Pennsylvania is in the process of revising the PSSA tests – given to elementary and middle school students – to more closely resemble the Keystone exam – given to high school students.

Almost a quarter of last year’s PSSA questions were field tested (See: PSSA Reading Inquiry). They didn’t count toward the student’s score. They were questions test-makers were considering counting next year depending on how students did on them this year.

A test is only as good as its questions. A confusing question can really put a student off – especially if he has test anxiety.

Even if the problem is the question and not the student’s ability, having to face queries of variable quality while taking a high-stakes test can easily reduce a student’s faith in himself. Sure the field tested questions don’t count, but they can hurt a student’s chances of getting correct the ones that do.

Moreover, there were plenty of changes to the scored questions. Teachers lobbied the state Department of Education to provide us with examples of how the test was changing but were given very minimal information. We ended up giving our classes the same preparation we always do. We taught them how to identify synonyms and antonyms, theme, the elements of plot, etc. But students were inevitably less prepared about what kinds of questions to expect. Therefore, anxiety levels were heightened.

In addition, this is the first year my district has not trusted classroom teachers to proctor standardized tests to their own students. The state has been strongly cautioning schools from allowing teachers to give the tests to their own students since various cheating scandals have rocked the news.

In an effort to forestall teachers giving any help to students struggling on the tests, they make teachers give the tests to children with whom they do not already have a strong relationship. I guess the thinking is that we’d be more prone to help kids if we know and care about them.

Rapport matters. Students will work harder for a teacher they respect and admire – for someone they know cares about them as a person and not just as a name on a roster. Moreover, kids shut down for teachers with whom they don’t get along. Guess which kind of teacher proctored my star pupil’s test last year.

Finally, we come to grading. How are these standardized tests graded in the first place? Administrators like mine take these scores as an objective measure of student performance, but are they?

Grading tests in Pennsylvania is done by Data Recognition Corporation (DRC) – the same company that created and distributed the exams in the first place. Unlike most classroom grades, test scores are NOT determined on the percentage correct. For instance, getting 80% of the questions right does not mean you have a B or even necessarily a passing score. What constitutes passing isn’t even determined until after all the exams are scored.

DRC trusts the job of grading their tests to temporary workers who may or may not have a teaching certificate. The only prerequisite is holding some sort of college degree and agreeing to work for $13 to $14.25 an hour. Once all the tests have been graded, temps get together and decide which range of correct answers will constitute Advanced, Proficient, Basic and Below Basic that year.

So a student could get the exact same percentage of questions correct one year and get a Proficient and the next year get a Basic. That’s not an objective measure. These temps can decide to put the bar low or high based on whatever reason they want. How does that make this score an impartial measure of students academic abilities?

Yet this is the essential metric by which students like mine are to be judged.

Thus, the myth of meritocracy vanishes from our classrooms.

Let’s face it. The most accurate predictor of success on standardized tests is parental income. In general, rich kids do well and poor kids don’t.

Children who have the proper nutrition, get enough sleep, aren’t stressed out by the challenges of living in poverty – those children simply do better when a snapshot is taken of their academic performance.

Don’t believe me? Take the smartest person you want and starve them of healthy food, make sure they don’t get enough sleep, hold them back from instruction and make them worry about their personal safety before giving them a test. Then a month later give them adequate resources and have them take the same test. Want to bet which score will be higher?

Therefore, tracking students isn’t based on true academic ability, either. It only serves to stratify kids by socioeconomic status. The rich kids get the advanced classes and the poor ones get the academic.

It’s not a conscious decision, but in accepting standardized test scores as an objective measure when they clearly aren’t, we are in effect refusing to look behind the curtain. The limited mobility we do allow between advanced and academic classes is just to preserve the myth of meritocracy and “prove” it can be done.

So here we were. As the day wore on, I saw my student in the hall with the most crushed and defeated look on his face. He had been looking forward to moving up. He had worked so hard and achieved so much only to be told he wasn’t good enough.

I wanted to cry. I walked past the principal’s office determined to give her a piece of my mind but realized if I told her even a fraction of what I was really thinking, I’d have to be escorted from the building.

So I did the next best thing. I asked the student to see me after class, and then with him present I called his mother. I explained the situation and asked her what she thought.

She said she agreed with me and had been stewing about the situation all day. I told her I would help her fight the decision. I told her we would go all the way to the superintendent if needed.

She was very grateful and asked what she should do about standardized testing in the future. She said her son has always had intense test anxiety and would never do well on high-stakes tests.

I told her what I would tell any parent, what I tell every parent who just asks me: opt out. Students don’t have to take these high-stakes standardized tests.

Don’t let small-minded administrators use these deeply flawed assessments to judge your child and make life-changing decisions based on flawed data.

Don’t let the corporate education reform movement continue to mask class warfare as meritocracy.

Parents and teachers unite!

NOTE: In an effort to preserve my student’s anonymity, unimportant details may have been changed.

UPDATE: Mom called the school the next day, and the student was moved to the advanced class.

Burning Questions From Lee Schools Opt Out Reversal

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There are two burning questions that come out of the Lee Schools Opt Out drama:

 

1) Why must our schools give standardized tests?

2) Who is in charge of our public schools?

 

To recap, the democratically-elected Board of Education for Lee Schools in Florida voted last week to opt out of all state standardized tests. Then fearing the consequences, the board voted again on Tuesday to reverse its original decision.

 

Why? A decision had been made due to a massive public outcry against standardized tests. Though it certainly wasn’t unanimous, the people had spoken. The voting public did not want this for their children. Why reverse the decision?

 

The only response we get from the superintendent, some school directors and other pro-testing advocates is that there are too many negative consequences for opting out. They fear the loss of state education funding and grant money. They fear students who haven’t taken state standardized tests will not be able to graduate. They fear that even if students do graduate, they won’t be able to get into good colleges or universities.

 

There is some truth to the worry about loss of funding. However, these other fears are baseless.

 

Opting out of standardized testing – whether individually or at the district level – cannot legally stop a senior from graduating. While rules vary from state to state, schools generally are required to allow senior projects and alternative assignments to count for whatever portion of their high school education is being displaced by opting out. At the very least, students can escape the endless multitude of state standardized testing given throughout elementary, middle and grade school and replace it with a single high school evaluation. A concordant score on SAT, ACT, PERT, or PSAT, can be used instead.

 

Moreover, this won’t hurt student’s chances of getting into college. Tests like the SAT originally were required by higher learning institutions as a way of predicting whether students would do well in college. However, studies continually show high school GPA is a better indicator of collegiate performance than standardized tests. As such, more than 800 colleges and universities no longer even require applicants to take the SAT.

 

What’s missing is any argument for the intrinsic value of the tests, themselves. Judging from the glaring absence of such arguments, one would be forgiven for concluding that standardized tests have no value in themselves. They only have value in what they can get you from the political system.

 

That, in itself, is very troubling. Why are we giving these tests in the first place? We have no pedagogical reason. In fact, much academic research has concluded that these tests at best serve no useful function and at worst actually cause harm. However, there is an entire cottage industry built around the manufacture, grading and preparation for these tests. Corporations are lobbying the state and federal government to continue this practice of increasing standardized testing.

 

So the reason our public schools are continually giving these tests is purely financial. People are making a pile of money off of it. Tax money. Your money.

 

Which brings us to the second question – who is in charge of our public schools?

 

On first glance, one would assume local school boards have this distinction. Voters decide who they want to represent them to run the public schools effectively. After all, school boards hire all the teachers, custodians, administrators and superintendent. They decide which extra-curricular activities to have and at what cost. They decide salary, bids for construction and repair of school buildings, etc. However, the role of the state and federal government has increased dramatically.

 

This is in large part due to budget crises at the state and federal level. While public schools are funded in part by local property taxes, a large portion of their budgets come from the state and federal government. This is especially true for districts that serve an impoverished population that cannot afford the same tax rates as more wealthy districts.

 

Meanwhile state and federal tax revenues are shrinking – partially due to a stagnant economy, but in large part because business taxes are continually forgiven, waived and incentivized. Public services like schools are left wanting. To garnish the shrinking pot of state and federal tax dollars, schools have had to sing for their supper.

 

Schools are told that if they want to continue operating, school directors must decide to enact certain education policies – chief among them are adopting Common Core State Standards and high stakes standardized testing.

 

So who’s really in charge here? Local school directors ostensibly have the right to make the decision but only with the gun of school funding held to their heads. Is that really a choice? Vote for standardized testing or we’ll take away your ability to operate?

 

It’s not much of a choice. I’d argue a forced choice is no choice at all. Therefore, even though it looks like we, the taxpayers and voters, are in control of our public schools, this is not the case. The major decisions affecting our children are made by bureaucrats at the state and federal level who have in turn sold their power to the testing industry.

 

You don’t have to be far left or far right to find that troubling. No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, you probably value democratic rule. And this is something we’ve lost in our public schools.

 

Our children are forced to sit through weeks of standardized testing for no benefit except it will needlessly impoverish taxpayers and increase the wealth of the testing industry.

 

But there is hope. While school directors like those in Lee County often find their hands tied by these political shenanagans, individual parents are not thus encumbered. They are free to make decisions about their own children based not on corporate profits but on what’s truly best for their kids. Parents can individually and in groups opt their children out of standardized testing.

 

Parents have the power. If enough of them utilize it, they’ll force their schools to confront the state and federal government huddled defensively around the testing industry. The government can’t withhold funding from everyone.

 

It just takes an act of civil disobedience. Do Mom and Dad have it in them?

 

 

You can find out more about opting out from the Web site for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.