Why We Should Have ZERO Standardized Tests in Public Schools



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Zero.

That’s the number.

No annual testing. No grade span testing. Not even one measly graduation requirement.

Zero.

We need exactly ZERO standardized tests in our public schools.

I know that sounds extreme. We’ve been testing our children like it was the only thing of academic value for more than a decade. When the question finally arises – how many tests do we need? – it can sound radical to say “none.”

But that’s the right answer.

And finally Congress is asking the right question.

The U.S. Senate is holding hearings to rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) – the federal law that governs K-12 schools. One of the biggest issues at stake is exactly this – how many standardized tests should we give students?

Sen. Lamar Alexander – head of the Senate Education Committee – is asking the public to email testimony to FixingNCLB@help.senate.gov. Parents, teachers and concerned citizens are writing in with their concerns about testing.

But will they have the courage to tell the whole truth in this – our moment of truth?

We’ve fought so long just to get someone to recognize there is a problem. Will we be able to honestly assess the solution?

We’re like a lifetime smoker who’s been diagnosed with lung cancer being asked how many packs he needs.

Or an alcoholic waking in a puddle of vomit being asked how many drinks he needs.

Or a junkie after a near-death overdose being asked how many crack pipes he needs.

We all know the right answer in those situations – and it’s the same for us about standardized testing.

We need None. Nada. Negatory.

But our hands shake. We get cold sweats. Withdrawal sets in.

Will we face our national addiction? Or again double down in denial?

Remember there is no positive benefit for forcing our children to go through this mess. It is not for them that we mandate these policies. It is for us – so that we can pretend we have control over something that is uncontrollable.

Learning is not something measurable in the same way as water being poured into a glass. It defies the precision of our instruments.

Don’t think so? Then answer me this: which unit of measurement should we use to determine how much learning has been accomplished? Pounds? Grams? Liters? Hectares?

Billy got hisself 20 pounds of book learnin‘ at the school today?

Not really.

We use grades like A, B, C – but there’s nothing precise about them. They’re just a percentage of assignments completed to the teacher’s satisfaction.

I don’t mean to say that you can’t tell if learning has taken place. But how much? That’s difficult to gauge – especially as the complexity of the skill in question increases.

You can tell if your dog knows how to sit by commanding it to sit and observing what it does. It’s a much different matter to ask someone to evaluate the themes of a novel and determine how much literary analysis that person understands based on his answer.

Of course teachers do it every day, but that determination is, itself, subjective. You’re required to trust the judgment of the educator. You have to believe the instructor knows what she’s talking about.

That’s the best you can get in the humanities – and teaching is a humanity – more an art than a science.

Perhaps some day neuroscientists will allow us to determine the relationship between firing synapses and brain events to internal states like learning. At such time, perhaps the very act of comprehension will be closer to loading a program onto your hard drive. But until that day, education is a social science.

The push for increased standardized testing, however, is an attempt to hide this fact. And the results are less – not more – valid than a teacher’s classroom grades.

Why?

Cut scores.

Most people don’t know how you score a standardized test. If they did, they wouldn’t automatically trust the results.

Fact: standardized tests are graded by temporary workers – many of whom have no education background – determining at will what counts as passing and failing in any given year. In fact, they have an incentive to fail as many people as possible to increase the market for their employer’s test prep material.

That is NOT objective. In fact, it is LESS objective than the grade provided by the classroom teacher. After all, what is the educator’s incentive to pass or fail a student other than successful completion of the work?

In fact, statistics back this up. Taken as a whole, standardized test scores do NOT demonstrate mastery of skills. They show a students’ parental income. In general, poor kids score badly and rich kids score well.

Moreover, the high stakes nature of testing distorts the curriculum students receive. Instead of a well-rounded course of study focusing on higher order thinking skills, high stakes testing narrows what is taught to that which can most easily be tested. This creates a market for the test prep materials that are often created and distributed by the same corporations who create, distribute and grade the standardized tests. It’s a conflict of interests, a feedback loop, a Ponzi scheme – in short, fraud perpetrated on the public as if it were education reform.

Honestly, we know all this at heart. Every teacher, politician, statistician, and student. But as a society, instead of devising a better method, we continually reach for the same failing solutions.

When No Child Left Behind failed to produce results, we doubled down with Race to the Top. When a focus on state standards didn’t help, we created Common Core.

That’s an addiction.

Likewise calls to reduce testing without ending it are just cries from the junkie for another fix.

Yes, grade span testing (three exams spaced out over elementary, middle and high school) is better than annual testing (once in each grade from 3-8th and once in high school). So is a single graduation test. But why do it at all?

The burden of proof is on those defending tests. If these assessments really are as toxic as we’ve shown, why would less of them be more beneficial than none?

I see no reason to suppose that even limited testing would avoid these criticisms. Grade span testing would still be appraised with cut scores, still assess socioeconomics – not academics, still deform the curriculum… Why keep it – even in smaller quantities?

But what’s the alternative, naysayers will complain. If we don’t standardize test our children to death, what do we do?

Answer: focus on the problem – poverty.

More than half of all US public school students live below the poverty line. These children have increased needs for tutoring, counseling, nutrition, and wraparound services. Moreover, these are exactly the children who go to the most underfunded schools. They have the largest class sizes and the smallest offerings of arts, music, foreign languages and extra-curricular activities. The equipment and often buildings which serve these kids are overwhelmingly out-of-date and in need of repair, remodeling or replacement.

If you really wanted to improve the US education system, you’d address this glaring problem.

Equally, you need to elevate the profession of teaching, not denigrate it. Return the creation and execution of education policy to the experts – educators. Provide them with the resources they need to get the job done. Equip them with professional development that helps instruction, not testing. Help them individualize students’ educational experience, not standardize it. And offer racial sensitivity training to maximize cultural understanding between teachers and students.

How would we tell if any of this worked?

Easy. First, stop pretending that our current system of accountability works. It’s a sham.

Despite a media narrative of failing schools, comparisons with international education systems put American students at the very top – not the bottom – if you take poverty into account. Of course, no one wants to do that because we’d have to admit these comparisons are based on – you guessed it – standardized test scores, which AGAIN show economic disparity not intellectual achievement!

So we deify testing as the only thing that can hold schools accountable, then ignore data that disproves our findings and pretend like we have some hard-nosed system that keeps educators responsible. It doesn’t. It’s just a story like The Three Little Pigs, Little Red Riding Hood or Climate Change Denial.

So how do we start to actually tell if our education system works? Easy. Trust our nations parents, students and teachers to tell us. And actually listen to what they say!

Now is the time.

Speak or forever hold your peace.

Whether our policymakers will even listen to us is a separate question. If WE’RE strung out on testing, they’re at least as dependent on the lobbying dollars of the assessment industry.

But we have to try.

Our collective hands may shake. A quaver may creep into our voices. We may get hot and cold sweats.

But the truth must come out.

How many standardized tests do we need?

NONE.


This article was also published on the Education Bloggers Network page and the Badass Teachers Association blog.

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Confession of a Standardized Test Proctor

A boy receiving a failing test score

Hello. My name is Steven.

HI, STEVEN!



And I’m a standardized test proctor.

(Clapping!)

I’ve been a proctor for over 10 years now. I used to be a teacher. Some days I still get to be one, but most of the time… I’m just a proctor.

(Clapping. Shouts of “YEAH!”)



I give my students standardized tests.

WOO-HOO!



And I make them do test prep.

(Cheers!)

But…

(Breaks down. Someone walks up behind him, claps him on the back and whispers in his ear. Encouraging noises from the crowd of people sitting in folding chairs around the room.)



Let me start with the box.

(Laughter)



The box came to my middle school classroom right before Christmas break. You know the one. Like a cinder block made of cardboard. 

A high school student brought it down from administration. She shook it like a huge maraca and asked, “Mr. Singer, where do you want it?”

For a second I had no idea what it was. Then I remembered – it was almost time again to take the GRADE Test. And I knew what it was – a box full of those black and green test booklets, Scantron sheets wrapped in plastic, a box of No. 2 pencils, a monitor’s booklet, scratch paper, student rosters and ID numbers… Everything I wanted for Christmas.

(Laughter)



So I put it on the shelf, went on teaching and forgot about it until December was over, until after the holiday break.

I didn’t want to even think about it.

But when I came back to school in January all rested and raring to go, I saw it there like some sinister Elf on the Shelf.

So I put it off for another week. No rush. I had until the end of the month to make my students take it.

I just…

I couldn’t have them come into my classroom and first thing take a standardized test. That would have been heartless. They didn’t come back to school to fill in bubbles. They wanted to do something interesting, something that they really cared about.

They wouldn’t admit it, but they wanted to learn Goddammit!

And I wanted to teach!

(Grumbling) TELL US ABOUT IT!



What?

TELL US ABOUT THE WEEK BEFORE YOU TESTED!



Okay. I…

It was great. We read S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. Or at least a few chapters of it. 

The kids couldn’t put it down. If there were only a few minutes left in class, they didn’t want to stop reading – they wanted to keep going. 

We wrote journal entries about what we might have done in the characters’ places, examined the use of slang and how it has evolved over time.

We participated in a Socratic Seminar discussion where we made connections between the novel and our own lives, explored gender issues, the role of socioeconomic status and race – it was higher level thinking all around. You know? The stuff they tells us we’re supposed to teach – the stuff all the research tells us helps learners grow.

But it didn’t last. The week ended. And I had to give the GRADE Test.

OOOH! (a few claps)

You know, it’s funny. Working in a poor school district like mine, you hear a lot about accountability. If administrators don’t enact this reform, or teachers don’t do that paperwork or students don’t score this high – they’ll close us down. But no one talks about holding politicians accountable for making sure we have the resources we need.

Case in point: when I came back from break, the fan in my room’s cooling system had broken down. I have no windows and the air wasn’t circulating. It was hot and muggy and miserable. Yes, in January with arctic temperatures outside!

I asked the grounds keeper and administrators to do something about it, but was told repeatedly “the part is on order.” Nothing happened.

The first week wasn’t too bad. We managed. But it wasn’t until the second week – when I gave out the test – that it went from annoying to miserable!

(He pauses, shaking his head.)

I don’t know. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if it was a different test, but the GRADE…

…. is such a waste of time!

 

(good natured laughter. Mumbling.)


They call it a reading diagnostic test because it’s supposed to diagnose the kids’ deficiencies in reading. But it doesn’t do that for a host of reasons – chief among them the fact that kids take the same exact test over-and-over again for at least three years!

That’s right! No variation! The same questions in the same order three times a year – year-after-year. Heck! This was the second time they were taking this same test just this year alone!

Sure there’s one alternative version we COULD give to mix things up, but administration rarely lets us do that. And even if we did, it wouldn’t help that much.

(Snickers!)


What’s worse, it isn’t even aligned with the high-stakes tests kids have to take in March and April!

Yeah! They stick a gun to our heads and say if your students don’t score well on the all-or-nothing, win-or-lose state tests, we’ll label you a “failure,” cut your funding or close you down.

So you’d think we’d practice – try to do look-alikes and get comfortable with the format and everything.

But the rehearsal we’re forced to do is the GRADE test! That’s like practicing a layup when you’re getting ready for the chess tournament!

The preparation doesn’t reflect what students will be asked to do when it comes to the make-or-break exams!

It wasn’t always like this.

We used to have kids take a diagnostic test called the 4SIGHT. It wasn’t perfect. Kids took it on computers, but there was an essay section they’d write on paper, too, that I was actually allowed to grade, myself!

I thought there were better uses of class time, but at least the 4SIGHT was actually a good dry run for the kind of high-stakes tests they were going to take later in the year. And sections they took on the computer gave you a score immediately. 

It was something you could look at as a rehearsal, as reducing test anxiety, as providing you data you could use to make decisions about the students.

(Laughter)



Yeah! As if you’d need it! Any teacher who knows his students so poorly that he needs standardized tests to tell their strengths and weaknesses is a pretty poor teacher.

The only reason we changed to the GRADE Test in the first place is because the district got a grant from the state. 

First, the governor and legislature slashed our budget, then they offered to give us back a small portion of it if we enacted certain reforms – one of which was to replace our somewhat helpful diagnostic test with a totally useless Pearson product.

(clapping. A few catcalls of “PEARSON! OOOH! OOOH!”)

Come to think of it – 4SIGHT was also made by Pearson.

(Laughter)



And the time it takes to give this thing! There are only four sections – Vocabulary, Sentence Completion, Listening Comprehension and Passage Comprehension. But it takes a minimum of two days – and I have double periods! That’s two 80-minute sections – actually more like three so I can give the make-ups!



(unhappy noise from crowd)



That’s right! If a student is absent, I have to somehow proctor the whole thing over again just for him. Administration says it’s too hard for them to pull students out of class and give the make-ups, themselves. So I’m forced to give busy work to students who completed the assessment so they have something to do while the stragglers catch up.

(grumbles)

So to review: today was day three of testing. Day six if you count the first time I proctored this darn thing. And three more days will be coming in May.

This is day seven of no air flow. Kids sitting at their desks like they’re half dead. Sad, bored looks on their faces, and I completely sympathize but I’m the one who’s forced to do this to them!

Every now and then one of them asks, “Why are we doing this, Mr. Singer? Will this affect my grade?” 

And I find the lies hard to get out. Because, no, it won’t affect your grade. There’s really no good reason you’re taking this, except that some of those books on the shelf you enjoy during sustained silent reading were bought with money we get for making you go through this nonsense.

I used to believe in standardized testing. I did!

When I first started teaching it made a certain kind of sense. We had the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests then. My 8th grade kids took one in Reading and one in Writing.

It was challenging but at least the expectations were clear. I knew exactly what kinds of things they would be tested on and what they were expected to do. 

There were reams of remediation material available, and I could have my pick of the best – the clearest and most engaging – as test prep materials go.

But then Pennsylvania adopted Common Core – or at least it adopted the look-a-like PA Core – and had to develop new tests! 

Today, high school students take a test called the Keystone and middle schoolers still take the PSSA. But they’re both just different versions of the PARCC test with a Pennsylvania-sounding name on it. We just pretend it’s something new and ground breaking.

That might be acceptable if the PARCC was a valid assessment. However, it’s notorious throughout the country for being designed to fail students – not fairly evaluate them. 

Moreover, the state Department of Education is extremely stingy with examples teachers can look at so we know what’s on the test. I doubt even they know what’s on it because they keep changing it from year-to-year.

So all of my remediation material is almost useless. I can’t even buy something new because it takes several years after a test is developed for the preparatory material to appear, and we’re still chasing a moving target!

And on top of all that – the state is forcing all schools to use the scores from these tests to evaluate teachers performance!

We use incomplete test prep and unaligned pretests to prepare for more tests that don’t fairly assess student learning – and then use these invalid scores to blame teachers and bemoan the state of education!

WHAT THE HELL!?

Yeah! So…

(Someone walks up behind him and whispers in his ear. Hands him something.)

I get this… chip?

(Cheers! He looks it over.)

One week. I’m a one week man!

(Clapping. People standing.)

I’ve accepted my lot for one week?

(Volume gets louder on applause.)

I’m a test proctor.

(Catcalls. ONE OF US! ONE OF US!)

I’m a test proctor!

(Insane yelling!)

I’M A PROCTOR! A PROCTOR! A TESTING PROCTOR!

(The crowd rushes to the stage and engulfs the speaker. More and more approach. They just keep coming – more than could possibly fit in this room. The clamor continues to gain in volume until its unclear whether its celebratory cheering or out of control insanity. One word is heard through it all until even it cannot be made out in any distinctness.)

PROCTOR!

(curtain.)


This article also appeared in the LA Progressive, Education Bloggers Network, Public School Shakedown and the Badass Teachers Association blog.

Trust Tests, Not Teachers – Accountability for Dummies

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This week, the American Federation of Teachers decided – after years of opposing high-stakes testing – to embrace it.

That’s right. The second largest teachers union in the country took everything their constituent educators hate and gave it a big old sloppy wet kiss.

They call it grade span testing. Tests would still be given almost every year, but only three – one in elementary, one in middle and one in high school – would be high-stakes. The rest would just be “informational.”

Why not get rid of all high stakes tests?

Why not at least get rid of the “informational” ones and reduce the total to three?

ACCOUNTABILITY!

The idea goes something like this. We have to ensure our schools are serving the needs of all our students. And the ONLY way to do that is through standardized tests!

Huh!? The ONLY way!?

That’s what they’re saying. Anything else – unless it is coupled with test scores – is unreliable.

Classroom grades? Insufficient!

Portfolios of student work? Insufficient!

A sworn affidavit by classroom teachers on the lives of their firstborn children!? Probably insufficient, too!

To be fair, one could argue at least the AFT is trying to reduce the number of high-stakes tests. But the total number of tests will remain the same as it is now – ridiculously high! Kids will still test just about every year – much more than any other comparable country. Test prep will remain the de facto curriculum at most schools.

Moreover, the very idea that all the other non-high stakes tests could somehow remain purely informational is naive at best!

Even if the terrorists only put the gun to your head occasionally, that still perverts the whole process.

Why would the AFT change its long-held position now?

It’s no accident. The law that governs our entire K-12 school system is about to be rewritten.

Congress is trying to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). When the law went through its last rewrite, it was called No Child Left Behind – a classic Bush era euphemism to hide that the legislation did exactly the opposite of its name.

Simply put: it was a disaster.

It made annual standardized testing the centerpiece of our whole school system. We couldn’t do anything without it. Bubble tests became the only measure of success.

Forget that all the evidence shows standardized tests don’t actually measure student learning. They show parental income. Rich kids generally score high and poor kids score low.

Forget that they’re based on highly subjective cut scores that fluctuate each year and are determined by temporary workers most of whom have no education degree and have an incentive to fail the most students they can.

Forget that they steal time from actual learning, create an environment of fear and are the prime excuse to punish and close schools serving minorities and the poor.

But ACCOUNTABILITY!

Standardized tests return a score, yes. And if you ignore how that score is subjective and educationally inaccurate, you can pretend it’s a universal measure of learning. Then you can use it to justify almost anything as being educationally necessary.

Skimp on education funding? They deserved it because Accountability.

Privatize a school? They deserved it because Accountability.

Bust a union? They deserved it because Accountability.

That’s nonsense!

We used to know better.

Students used to be accountable to teachers and parents. If you didn’t do your homework or try your best in school, you’d earn a failing grade.

Teachers used to be accountable to their principals. Administrators would observe their teachers throughout the year and determine if they were doing a good job.

Principals were then accountable to superintendents who were, in turn, accountable to the school board and finally the community of voters.

The buck stopped at the voting booth. But not anymore!

Now the student, teacher, principal, superintendent, etc. are all at each others throats being held accountable to the standardized tests.

Who’s accountable for the tests? The for-profit corporation that developed them. And who is the corporation accountable to? It’s shareholders.

So we’ve gone from a system where the buck stopped at the community to one where it stops at investors.

Does no one else see a problem with this? Communities are made up of people many of whom have a vested interest in the children who live and go to school there. We’re talking about parents, teachers and taxpayers who want to live among other educated people.

But shareholders only care about getting a return on their investment. They don’t care about the quality of the service they’re providing – only that they can make money providing it. And if lowering the quality will raise the payout, so be it!

So when people justify standardized testing based on accountability, they’re really deifying the bottom line – profits.

But, of course, you can’t say that aloud.

The move is being cloaked in the costume of Civil Rights and progressive politics. The AFT partnered with the Center for American Progress – a privatization cheerleader that poses as a bastion of liberalism. Likewise, 19 Civil Rights organizations including the ACLU and NAACP were convinced to sign on.

Silly me. I thought Dr. King had a dream that everyone would be judged by the content of their character – not the results of their bubble tests!

But – say-it-with-me – Accountability.

There can be no alternative but standardized tests.

We can’t trust classroom grades. We can only trust cut scores.

We can’t trust teachers. We can only trust corporations.

We can’t trust the school board. We can only trust the shareholders.

And thank goodness! Otherwise, Congress might listen to what ordinary folks have to say!

Heck! Congress is starting hearings on it next week! They could vote to stop mandating annual standardized testing! Can you imagine how that would hurt the testing industry!? Billions of dollars might be lost! Imagine the kickbacks and political favors at risk!

So raise your glass to the bottom line, and say a prayer that the parents, teachers and taxpayers don’t do anything to hold us accountable…

Like, for example, emailing testimony against testing to the US Senate at FixingNCLB@help.senate.gov by Monday, Feb. 2.


-Special thanks to Aixa Rodriquez and Owen Jackman for being extra sets of eyes when my own couldn’t stay open anymore. If there are remaining errors, they are mine alone.

-This article also appeared in the LA Progressive, Public School Shakedown and the Badass Teachers Association Blog.

 

Dear Gov. Wolf – 10 Ways to Help Pennsylvania’s Schools

wolf-edu-infographic-blog-photo

Dear Gov. Tom Wolf:

It’s so nice to hear your name. Wolf. Wolf. Wolf.

I could write it all day. It’s so much better than Corbett.

As one of millions who voted for you, campaigned for you and even posted a yard sign for you – I want to offer my most cordial congratulations and welcome to office.

I know it may take a few weeks to get used to the new job. Heck! It could take a month just cleaning out all the skeletons left by your predecessor. It’s no coincidence that most of them are child sized.

Your forerunner treated public education like his own private piggy bank. He slashed education budgets with glee blaming it on federal stimulus dollars, Gov. Rendell or anyone but himself. Moreover, he trashed a newly created funding formula designed to ensure needy districts received adequate support. He stopped partially reimbursing poverty-stricken districts for the extra costs of having charter schools drain their coffers. And for a candidate who campaigned on limited government, he dramatically expanded the state role in education policy.

In short, it was a disaster. As a public school teacher, those were the four longest years of my life. I dearly hope we can expect better from you. One could easily make the case that you owe your position as governor to your stance against all these policies and the expectation that you would reverse course.

So let me offer some help. This is what I’d like to see you do as governor. I know it won’t be easy. I know you’ll probably have to compromise to work with a Republican legislature that enabled all these disasters to take place.

But you play a vital role – to set the agenda. And I fully expect you to do that for the children of Pennsylvania.

These are the top 10 ways to Help Pennsylvania’s schools:

1) Reverse Course in York

Talk about an American tragedy! York City Schools is a victim of your predecessor’s Draconian budget cuts. But instead of actually helping the district recover from years of underfunding, it was further hobbled by ideologues and profiteers.

First, Pennsylvania underfunds the already impoverished York Schools. Then when the district can’t cope with the lack of support, it’s labeled a “failure” and forced into a ridiculous recovery program. How does this make sense: tighten your belt, try a few targeted reforms and if that doesn’t work, give control of the district to a for-profit charter operator with a record of failure!?

And when the duly-elected school board has second thoughts, the state snatches control away from them and sends the school into receivership so this ridiculous privatization scheme can be instituted unmolested by Democracy!?

No. You need to listen to the taxpayers. Give control of the district back to the school board. Give the so-called Chief Recovery Officer his walking papers, throw his “Recovery Plan” into the trash and properly fund the district. No charters. Just common sense reform.

2) Return All Schools to Local Control

Public schools should be exactly that – public. Their actions should be governed by the community – not the state. Within certain Constitutionally mandated limits, the state has no business deciding what schools should be doing. The state’s main job is to ensure schools have what they need to function.

Yet Pennsylvania is running a handful of districts. Philadelphia Schools have been under control of the School Recovery Commission and appointed CEO for almost two decades with no improvement. Likewise, Duquesne and Chester Upland districts have struggled through receivership with nothing to show for it but misery and lack of services.

That’s why these schools were taken over in the first place. New leadership was never the problem. It was lack of funds.

Restore all Pennsylvania districts to the taxpayers and democratically elected school boards. Fund properly and stand back. Watch them flourish.

3) Increase the Education Budget

You campaigned on it. It’s time to do it. Bring funding back to pre-Corbett levels. In fact, increase it to reflect the increased costs of services. And bring back the charter school reimbursement.

A small increase will not be enough. Our schools have suffered through too much neglect. We need to lower class sizes and restore arts and music, extra-curricular activities, school nurses, librarians – everything we lost under your forerunner.

Critics will say this is throwing money at the problem. The rest of us call it an investment. We need to put more money toward educating children than locking up high school dropouts. We need to put all the strength and power of the Commonwealth into ensuring the next generation will have a better chance at succeeding than the current one.

That takes money. It takes taxes – especially on the wealthy and corporations that have had a tax holiday for the past four years. It’s time to pay up.

4) Institute a Fair Funding Formula

This is another of your campaign promises. Even your predecessor eventually came around to supporting it – after he trashed the one that had already been in place.

We need to make sure schools get the money they need to operate. This means the state has to provide more funding to cash-strapped schools than rich ones. After all, wealthy districts can rely more on local taxes. Poor districts cannot.

Start by re-instituting the funding formula the legislature created in 2008.

5) Halt Charter School Expansion

Speaking of money, it makes no sense to have two separate educational systems. It’s unnecessary and wasteful. We don’t need traditional public schools AND charters.

It’s all about performance. Traditional public schools often do much better or as well as charters – especially cyber charters.

So put a moratorium on new charter schools. Then make the ones we have transparent and accountable. You know? Like we already do for public schools!

No more holding board meetings in private, keeping budgets secret and discouraging difficult students from enrolling. Otherwise, the potential for malfeasance is huge – especially at those organized for-profit.

Direct the state Department of Education to investigate all existent charter schools to determine which are exemplary and which substandard. Close the bad, keep the good.

We simply can’t afford letting profiteers suckle on Pennsylvania’s school budgets.

6) Divest from Common Core. Return to PA Standards

Technically Pennsylvania never adopted Common Core State Standards. It just plagiarized them. We pretend our wonderful PA Core Standards are something new and innovative. They’re not. They’re just Common Core with Pennsylvania in the name.

What a waste of time and money! We don’t need the state telling districts what to do. There’s nothing wrong with benchmarks – suggested goals to which districts can aim. But unfunded mandates? No, thank you.

The Pennsylvania Standards that preceded PA Core were closer to the benchmark ideal. They were a guide – not a high-stakes mandated gun-to-your-head de facto curriculum.

Every teacher knows you don’t help children by simply changing the bar. But you do help textbook publishers by making them uniform. You create a market.

It’s time to do what’s best for children, not corporations. Throw out Common Core. Return to PA State Standards.

7) Cut Back on Standardized Testing

Everyone is sick of standardized tests. Teachers are sick of them. The kids and parents are sick of them. Even politicians are sick of them.

It’s time to do something about it.

Pennsylvania’s standardized test system is a joke. We took our own Pennsylvania System of School Assessments (PSSAs) – flawed as they were – and threw them away in favor of copying the horrific PARCC tests. The PSSAs weren’t exactly fair, nor did they accurately evaluate student learning. But at least they held reasonable goals.

The new state tests are so much like the PARCC, they expect students to be far above what is developmentally appropriate. Kids just aren’t ready for certain concepts until they’re older. These new tests ignore everything we know about how the growing mind works in favor of a scheme to fail more kids and sell more remedial textbooks.

We need to scrap these new tests and – in fact – dramatically reduce the number of standardized tests we give. In a perfect world, we’d give only one standardized test in high school and call it a day. Let kids in elementary and middle school learn their basic skills without the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads.

Moreover, don’t attach high-stakes to any test. That corrupts the score. Use it as a tool. It’s a way of checking the oil on a school’s educational engine. But you don’t throw a temper tantrum and blame the car when it’s low on oil. You add more oil. (See increase school funding.)

8) Abolish VAM Teacher Evaluations. Let Districts Design Their Own Evaluations.

When experts like those in the American Statistical Association are complaining that you’re using statistics incorrectly, you need to listen. Value-Added Measures are a horrible way to evaluate teachers. You simply can’t use student test scores to judge the effectiveness of teachers. It’s like measuring the size of the potholes on your work route to determine if you’re a good driver.

Moreover, the evaluation system now in place is a gothic, baroque mess. It’s cumbersome, takes way too much time from teachers and administrators and ultimately doesn’t provide a fair evaluation.

Let each school district come up with its own evaluation system. Yes, this probably means going back to relying on principals to actually observe their own teachers in their own ways.

Critics will complain this system is flawed because too many teachers get positive evaluations. So what? Most principals, parents and students are well satisfied with the quality of the teachers in their districts. Who are these corporate bureaucrats to tell them they’re wrong?

9) Appoint a Teacher as Secretary of Education

The state should have a limited role in setting education policy. You’d think your predecessor would agree seeing how he downsized the state Department of Education. But those employees he did keep – especially at the highest levels – had little to no education background.

In the rare case when an educator was hired, that background was almost completely in management positions – hardly any time in the classroom.

The Secretary of Education and the majority of staff running the Department of Education should be teachers – not CEOs, political advocacy nuts with an agenda – not even principals, superintendents, or academics. They should have real world experience doing the job recently. No more corporate shills. If you want the state to do what’s right for children, you need to employ their best advocates, people who know what’s needed and how to achieve it – teachers.

10) Kick Out TFA

Speaking of teachers – that’s who should be running our classrooms – Not lightly trained temps who have no intention of staying in the field.

It is a sad joke that our politicians have valued Teach for America recruits equally or more than educators. Teachers graduate from intensive education programs at our best colleges. TFA recruits go through a few weeks of training.

It is ridiculous and insulting to accept TFA as a substitute for well-trained staff – especially at our poorest schools. As governor, you should push for a moratorium on any new TFA recruits at our public schools. Every student matters. Every student deserves a real teacher.

In closing, thank you for your time. I hope you will consider enacting these reforms. You would be doing what’s truly in the best interests of the citizens, parents, teachers and children of the Commonwealth.

But be warned. We have had enough of politicians who come into office on a promise and a smile but don’t back it up with real action. We gave you our overwhelming support in the last election. Now it’s up to you to keep it.

Yours,

Steven Singer


This article appeared in its entirety on the Badass Teachers Association blog, and a shortened version was published in the York Daily Record. I also did a radio interview on the Rick Smith Show where I went over all 10 points. 

Stealing Your Right to Appeal – Tortured Logic in York Schools Takeover

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Q: When can’t you take a robber to court for stealing your stuff?

A: When the robber steals your ability to appeal.

Such is the tortured logic being used by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania against one of its own public school districts.

Last week, a judge ruled that the state was entitled to take over York City Schools from taxpayers.

The district filed an appeal, which the state is trying to strike down.

None of that is surprising. But the justification the state Department of Education is using to overturn this appeal is something out of Alice in Wonderland.

Get this! When the state was granted control of York Schools, the district lost the ability to appeal unless that appeal was approved by the state.

So goes a motion filed by the state in York County Court.

When the judge allowed the district to go into receivership, control of almost all functions except taxation went to the Chief Recovery Officer David Meckley.

“Consequently, at the time that he filed the notice of appeal, the (school district) solicitor had no lawful authority to appeal the order on behalf of the district,” the state argues.

And Meckley did not approve the appeal to unseat himself.

That this is ridiculous should need no explanation. There can be no justice when wronged parties lose the ability to petition for a redress of grievances in a court of law.

If the court rules for the state, one could easily imagine a murderer getting off because his victim was unavailable to testify. Or a thief might complain that the original owner has no right to sue because he no longer owns the item in question.

But what’s obvious to you and me is sometimes obscure to judges.

The state also accuses York School Directors of violating the state’s open meeting “Sunshine” laws by voting to appeal the decision in a closed meeting.

The school board should have voted to authorize the appeal during an open meeting in full view of the public, the state alleges.

While the state’s first objection is absurd, this one is simply incorrect. School boards are – in fact – allowed to vote behind closed doors in executive sessions for various reasons including litigation matters. School boards are given this right because if they had to discuss legal matters publicly, they could easily endanger their cases.

A judge is expected to rule on the state’s motion Tuesday.

It’s just another sad page in a history of governmental overreach and circular logic in York, Pennsylvania.

First, outgoing Governor Tom Corbett slashes $1 billion from education funding, taking the lion’s share from impoverished districts like York that need it the most. For York Schools that was an $8.4 million cut – over 15% of the district’s budget.

Then when York can’t cope with the loss of funding nor does it have the tax base to make up the difference, the state labels the district a failure.

So the state swoops in to save the day – not with the money the district desperately needs – but with a bureaucrat to come up with a recovery plan: Meckley.

And what a plan it is! Let’s try these few targeted reforms, tighten our belts and if that doesn’t work, give the entire district over to a charter school operator.

How will that help?

It’s funny, but no one ever answers that question. They just assume it makes sense.

It doesn’t.

Unfortunately, the school board approved this plan in 2013, but it was having second thoughts. Thus the bid by the state Department of Education to take it over and let Meckley continue with his privatization scheme.

Let’s hope the court doesn’t fall for the Mad Hatter defense against appeal.

Even if the judge allows the appeal to move forward, the court still needs to decide who controls York Schools in the meantime.

One would assume it should be the school board.

That seems to be a no brainer.

Obviously the state shouldn’t be in control of York Schools until the appeals process is completed.

Obviously Meckley shouldn’t be able to move forward with charterizing the district until his legal right to do so has been firmly established.

But in York, a “no brainer” no longer means something obvious – it often means people with no brains get to make the decisions.

The district’s appeal isn’t the only one.

Attorneys for the district’s two employees’ unions also filed appeals mere hours after the court decision allowing the state takeover.

The matter should be tied up in court for a while. However, this move by the state and the question of who controls York in the meantime may make the court’s other actions irrelevant.

The Corbett administration – which backs the privatization of York – has only a few weeks left before Governor-elect Tom Wolf takes office on Jan. 20.

Wolf has said he is not in favor of privatizing the district. In fact, he asked the Corbett administration to hold off on the state takeover until the Gov.-elect takes office.

He was ignored.

One could easily read this motion to strike the school district’s appeal and remain in control of the district as a last ditch effort to push through a charterization scheme that no one else seems to want.

The school board is against it. The parents are against it. The students are against it. The teachers are against it. Even many York County Commissioners such as President Steve Chronister – a Republican – are against it.

The people have spoken. Unfortunately, the lame duck Corbett administration doesn’t care.

When Wolf takes office, he could easily direct the state Department of Education to drop the whole matter, return control of York Schools to its duly-elected school board and create a recovery plan that makes sense.

But if this matter is settled before he takes office, his power to intervene becomes questionable.

So once again in York, the rule of the people hangs by a thread.

Will it hold for just a few more weeks?


NOTES:

-This article was also published in the LA Progressive and on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

-Please sign the petition from York residents asking the PA Department of Education drop the petition for receivership, replace David Meckley as Chief Recovery Officer, and to approve a new recovery plan that does not include turning the school district over to charter schools.

-Feel free to use the following memes created by madly talented BAT Sue Goncarovs to help spread awareness of the injustice unfolding in York:

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