Blame the Victim – America’s Favorite Pastime

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I watched a little girl at school refuse to get out of her seat and get pounded by the police.

I watched a teenager in his car try to zoom away from a cop and get shot dead through the driver’s side window.

I watched all of these things and more from the safety of my cell phone. I wasn’t there in person, but I felt like I was.

And I am not alone.

It seems these two events were on everyone’s lips yesterday.

This is one of the fruits of self surveillance – the selfie, the dashcam, the youtube video. Events that would have been shrouded in the haze of he-said-she said are now public domain. The shadowy corners and back alleys are now just as flooded with spotlights as the most crowded theater on Broadway.

In some ways, that’s a really good thing. So many events that only a decade ago would have been hidden forever are now open to public view.

You’d think that would solve a lot of our society’s problems. No more secrets. No more lies. Just objective facts. THIS is what happened. No denying it. We’ll need context, but facts are facts. Now we can come together and decide with clarity what really happened, why it happened and who’s to blame.

However, things don’t always work out as you’d expect.

We can – in fact – agree on the facts but not necessarily on their meaning.

We all see the same images but we somehow don’t see the same things. The same light enters our eyes and forms the same images, but our brains process those images very differently.

We all see a little girl forcibly removed by an officer of the law. We all see a victim and a perpetrator. But which is which?

We all see a police officer exit his car, approach another vehicle which flees from him before he draws his gun and shoots. But who is to blame – the cop or the driver?

We come to different conclusions. And I think the reasons why depend on deep human truths about each of us.

Which side you take says something about you. It shows what kind of person you are, what you value, what assumptions you make about human nature.

When I watch that South Carolina police officer violently grab the little girl and throw her from the room, I focus on the child. Here is a 16-year-old black teen. She apparently was told to leave the room and refused to do so. She was wrong. But my heart won’t let me side against her.

Maybe she hit the officer. Maybe she was verbally abusive. It doesn’t matter. I don’t think a police officer – or any adult – should manhandle a child. If she had a gun, a knife or some weapon, that would be different. But she was just sitting peacefully in her seat. She probably deserved some sort of punishment for insubordination – but not one that would cause her physical harm. I’d be furious if someone treated my daughter that way. And so I am angry at this police officer and all the bystanders who took pains to ignore what was going on.

In a similar manner, when I watch another South Carolina officer approach 19-year-old Zachary Hammond’s car, I begin on the adult’s side. When the teen starts to drive away, I’m with the police officer. The teen is breaking the law. He should listen to the cop who is reasonably asking to question him. However, when the officer draws his gun, things get muddy for me. As the car drives away and the officer shoots into the window, I demand answers. All ambiguity disappears when I discover the teen was unarmed. He wasn’t pointing a gun at the officer. As you can clearly see, the car was not pointed at the cop. The adult was obviously in no danger.

The officer overstepped his bounds. Despite his claims of self defense, despite prosecutors siding with him, I cannot. It seems to me this 19-year-old boy out on a first date was victimized. Yes, he may have had drugs in his system. Yes, he may have possessed drugs with the intention of selling them. None of that justifies murder by a public servant who is charged with protecting and serving society. It may justify arrest, but it does not give the officer the right to be judge, jury and executioner. Imagine if death was the consequence for your own 19-year-old misdeeds! Far too high a price.

However, there are many who disagree. They side in both cases with the adult, with the police. And I see their point to an extent. Police have very difficult and dangerous jobs. They put their lives on the line to uphold laws that are sometimes ambiguous and of dubious value. But there needs to be limits to their authority.

What I find even more troubling is the dynamic between adults and children. Too often grown ups act as if they can do whatever they want to young people. They can touch, hit, belittle. And all in the name of discipline and order.

But maybe this says more about me than anything else. I care deeply about children. Not only am I a parent, I’m a public school teacher. I’ve devoted my life to helping young people get a good start in life. As such, I think violence against children is the most heinous thing anyone can do. It is despicable beyond words. Harming or killing an adult is bad. But do the same thing to a child and it is much worse.

This should be a shared value. It should be a tenet upon which our society is built. But instead too many of us blame the child or the parents. We’re presented with facts but lapse into assumptions about the child’s upbringing and the parents shortcomings. If the youngsters parents had done this or that, things would have been different. And – heck! – that may even be true! However, unlike our infinite surveillance of moments, the facts are not there. We have no record of mass parental neglect. We have just the opposite. In so many cases parents work multiple jobs to feed and clothe these children. They work night shifts. They take classes to improve themselves. So they can’t be present to the degree they’d like. But here we are passing the blame with nothing to support our assumptions but a feeling in our bellies. And we’re so deadly certain about it.

It’s sad really. We all can see the same events but remain unclear about the blame. We share the same senses and most of the same values. But our life experiences and prejudices make all the difference.

When an adult looks at these situations and sides against the child, I think it shows a terrible blindness. When some people look at the student roughed up in the classroom, they automatically side against her for a variety of reasons – race, gender, age, etc. among them. They have preconceptions about how black people act. Preconceptions about little girls. Preconceptions about poor children and their parents. And frankly it shows their moral judgment to be sick, diseased and untrustworthy.

Likewise, when some people see the teen gunned down in his car, they have preconceptions about the police and young people. Anyone on the other side of a police officer’s barrel is wrong simply by virtue of the direction in which he is pointing his gun, they might say. Police are defined as right. Suspects are defined as wrong. This is deeply troubling. It’s counterfactual. It’s untrue. Police are just humans, too. They can be wrong. They have been wrong. If we always assume they are correct in every situation, we are being morally lazy and willfully blind. We’re refusing to look at the facts and then judge accordingly. We stop at who is involved and not at what they did.

It’s so easy to blame the victim. It’s reassuring and safe. It means nothing is out of sorts with the world. Everything is just as it should be. Only this one person who was beaten by the police or shot dead – only that person is to blame. The social order remains intact and proper and good and justified.

It takes a kind of intellectual and moral honesty to look the world in the face and accept that which is uncomfortable but true. Sometimes those charged with protecting us actually do harm. Sometimes adults know less than children. Sometimes actions are racially motivated.

Because when we watch the world, the world looks back. We reveal ourselves. And sometimes we show the world exactly how ugly and depraved we can be as a nation.


NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

 

Department of Education SorryNotSorry About High Stakes Testing

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The Obama Administration must think the nation’s parents, teachers and students are pretty darn dumb.

President Barack Obama and his hand-picked Department of Education are solely responsible for the knuckle dragging academic policies strangling our public schools day in, day out. Yet instead of doing anything to reverse course to proven methods that might actually help kids learn, the department trudges out its annual apology.

It goes something like this:

Hey, Everybody! So sorry about all those high stakes tests, Common Core Standards and Value-Added teaching evaluations. We know they’re bad and we’re going to stop.

Then whatever functionary drew the shortest straw toddles back into the building and for the rest of the year things continue on exactly the same as they always have.

Let’s just pause for a moment and imagine how incredibly stupid they must think we are. I’m surprised they don’t issue public service announcements reminding us to exhale, multi-colored pamphlets on the benefits of blinking, and puppet shows instructing us how to use the potty.

The Obama Administration has had 7 years to fix this mess, and the only things they’ve done are to make it worse. Most of us voted for this so-called progressive because we thought he’d improve upon George W. Bush’s astoundingly wrongheaded school policies. But instead he doubled down on them! We hired a competent janitor but he was successful only in creating greater disorder.

We thought someone with the intelligence and grace of Barack Obama would be able to understand more than the eternal C-student Bush that you can’t ensure equity by standardized testing. That’s like trying to ensure a bathtub was filling with hot water by using nothing but Tarot Cards. The cards don’t give you an accurate reading and even if they did, you’d need to adjust the faucet at some point!

We thought a Constitutional scholar would understand that a national school curriculum violates federal law – even if you get a faux state commission to propose it and slap a new name on the thing! The federal government is allowed to do some things and state governments are allowed to do others. It’s not that hard. Moreover, armchair generals who have zero understanding of educational pedagogy, psychology, sociology and no classroom experience have no business telling teachers what they should be teaching!

We thought a political party that claims to be on educators’ side wouldn’t then turn around and initiate a witch hunt against us using poor student test scores instead of pitch forks and torches. Every independent, peer-reviewed study shows that poor kids do badly on standardized assessments and rich kids do well. Every statistician says you can’t use a test created to measure one thing (students) to measure another (teachers). Yet this is exactly what this so-called intellectual president mandates, and then he and the Democrats expect us to be there for them at the polls!?

In short, we expected a liberal Democrat, but got instead a Conservative Democrat in Name Only (DINO). He took far right ideas that Bush could barely officiate and made them much more efficient and thus much more damaging.

And every year like an alcoholic stumbling off a bar stool, the administration swears they’re not going to take another drink. Then they hire the head of Anheuser-Busch (John King) as a nutritionist. And some of us still believe them!

Just look at the crumbs they’re throwing out to us, peons!

Hey, Girl. We’re going to cut testing down to 2% of the school year.

That’s 23 hours! Almost 3 full days! Imagine if the dungeon master told you he was only going to put you on the rack for 2% of the time! Would you thank him? Maybe, but it would be a pretty half-hearted thank you.

Can the administration prove any positive value for standardized testing? I’m not asking them to trot out the tired party line about equity. I mean can they prove that testing actually helps children learn in any appreciable way? If the answer is no (and Spoiler Alert: it is!) then we shouldn’t be wasting any more time with it. Not 2%. Not 1%. ZERO PERCENT!

Moreover, Obama has been talking about reducing testing since he ran for office in 2008. America’s schools are still waiting for him to come through on that one. Maybe on his last day in office we’ll have a testing moratorium. Fingers crossed!

The department says, “The assessments must be worth taking.” No shit. That’s exactly the problem! They aren’t! And they’re shrouded in secrecy under the guise of test corporations intellectual property. How will we be able to determine they’re “worth taking”? Will you just tell us? THAT sure puts my mind at ease!

You know what assessments have been proven worth taking? The ones created by teachers. Yet these are exactly the kinds of tests that schools have been forced to cut back on. Perhaps this is what the administration has in mind. No more teacher-created tests. Let’s just have tests made by the professional test creators who have no idea what the heck they’re doing!

And speaking teachers, this one’s for you: “No standardized test should ever be given solely for educator evaluation.” It sounds like a condemnation of Value-Added Measures (VAM), of evaluating teachers on student test scores. However, it’s just the opposite. Notice the word “Solely.” We’re not going to give kids tests if we ONLY use them to evaluate their teachers. Well woop-de-do! Professional flunkies will talk to you for hours (if you pay them enough) about how great the tests we give now are at doing both! So no change in policy, just some purple prose to light on fire and blow the smoke up educators hind ends.

Perhaps worst of all is the use of English Language Learners (ELL), students with disabilities and minorities as props. We’re doing it all for them, they say. Bull! Shit!

The administration has nothing to say about fully funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). There’s nothing about sanctions on districts that don’t provide proper services for ELLs. There’s nothing about ensuring adequate, equitable and sustainable funding for all students – especially the poor and minorities. Instead the Department of Education pretends like high stakes tests are candy bars and what poor disadvantaged minority ELL disabled kid doesn’t love the soft velvety chocolate taste of a multiple choice test!?

This announcement is not reason to celebrate. It’s more of the same fake apologies soaking wet in crocodile tears and bad candor.

If Hillary Clinton wants to get elected President, she’d better do more than that. If Bernie Sanders wants a shot, he’d better do more than spout socialism about Wall Street and silence about K-12 schools.

You can only lie to our faces for so long. Despite your best attempts to trash public education in the name of saving it, we’re not so dumb as to believe any more of your evasions, deceit and dishonesty.


NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

 

The Most Important Election You’ll Probably Skip

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The future prosperity of your state may be decided this November.

Will your public schools receive adequate, equitable and sustainable funding?

Will you be permitted to choose medical marijuana to treat certain ailments?

Will your state enact sensible gun reforms to keep firearms out of the hands of the criminally insane?

Will your voice be heard in future elections?

All this and more is on the table and YOU get to cast the deciding vote.

But more likely than not, you won’t show up.

Why? You’re too busy worrying about the upcoming Presidential election.

With both Democratic and Republican Presidential Primaries approaching in February through June, 2016, most people just don’t have the energy for another general election before the end of 2015.

However, most states will ask residents to cast a ballot on Nov. 3 for all kinds of important initiatives. There will be municipal, school board, gubernatorial and state legislative elections in a few states; as well as numerous citizen initiatives, and a variety of other local offices on the ballot.

Yet if history is any guide, most people will stay home while vastly important decisions are being made by the few who trudge to the polls. On the one hand, that means the results are bound to be unrepresentative. On the other, it means if you show up, your vote will have more weight than ever!

Either way, the course for the future of your state will be quietly and discreetly set for years to come.

Take my home state of Pennsylvania.

We’re holding a historic election with three state Supreme Court seats up for grabs. The last time this many seats were open on our highest court in the same year was 1704, and the body was still called the Provincial Appellate Court.

This is huge because it will determine who gets the final say on a plethora of contentious political issues.

For instance, four years ago, Republicans controlled every branch of Commonwealth government and redrew the state’s legislative districts to gerrymander in a GOP majority. They redrew district lines to ensure that conservatives got elected to public office by making boundaries around areas that have pockets of people who generally lean Republican.

With that foundation in place, the GOP ran the state into the ground. While most taxpayers didn’t agree with the corporate tax giveaways and draconian budget cuts to public services like children’s schools, there wasn’t much we could do about it. The redrawn district boundaries were such that legislators were free to do whatever they wanted without fear of reprisals from constituents.

Voters gave the GOP Governor the boot, but almost all of his good soldier legislators stayed in place. This was only possible because Republicans controlled the state Supreme Court. When those gerrymandered districts were challenged, the court backed the legislature. So, in practice, continued Republican control of state Senate and House districts was due not to voters but to the state Supreme Court.

Currently, Republicans hold the balance of power in the highest Commonwealth court by 3-2 with two vacancies. This election could rewrite that balance of power.

If Democrats win two or more seats in this Supreme Court election – thereby replacing two Republicans and one Democrat – it could change everything! Democrats would have a majority.

When redistricting comes up again in 2022, if Democrats want to re-draw the lines more fairly (or in their favor), a Democratic-controlled Supreme Court could make that possible.

Moreover, the new court would almost certainly rule on cases that will have a dramatic impact on the lives of everyday Pennsylvanians.

Perhaps the most hot button issue in the state is education funding. Republicans have been waging all out war on poor Commonwealth schools. For the past 4 years, the legislature slashed public school funding by almost $1 billion – an ideological divide that still rages between the newly elected Democratic governor and the legislature where Republicans remain in control.

Several lawsuits demanding more equitable school funding are winding their way through the state court system. These cases are bound to end up in the state Supreme Court. So if voters still care about making sure all Pennsylvania children have a fair shake at an education, voting for Democrats to retake the court may be the surest option! If recent history is any guide, Republicans sure won’t do it!

Other issues such as the death penalty and gun laws are likely to appear on the docket. Moreover, without opposition, it’s feared a GOP court could easily allow Tea Party legislators to enact so-called Right to Work and other union busting initiatives. A Democratic court could stop such shenanigans cold.

For decades, Pennsylvania politics have been like a game of tennis – power going almost exclusively from one party to another. Neither major party has held the governor’s office for more than two terms since 1955. Democrats broke the Republican Party’s hold on the state House in 2006 only to give back the chamber during the 2010 elections. So the Supreme Court remains the ultimate arbiter.

Voters will have the choice of 3 of the following candidates for Supreme Court Justice: Democrats Christine Donohue, Kevin M. Dougherty and David N. Wecht; Republicans Anne Covey, Michael A. George and Judith F. Olson; and independent candidate Paul P. Panepinto.

In my opinion, the Democrats are the strongest candidates – especially Wecht who is vowing to ban gifts for judges, tighten anti-nepotism policies, and broadcast court proceedings on television. Dougherty has strong union ties and clearly respects collective bargaining rights. Donohue is a strong supporter of personal rights including holding corporations accountable for fraudulent behavior and eliminating bias against LGBTs.

Of the Republicans, Covey is the most reasonable and has shown a willingness to reach across the aisle. The others are your typical extreme right Tea Party conservatives. Panepinto may be running as an independent, but I see little to distinguish him from the GOP candidates.

Choose carefully, Pennsylvania. Whoever you decide to support in the Supreme Court race, it will have a long-term impact. State Supreme Court justices hold 10-year terms! And three more justices will be replaced by 2018.

Whether you live in Pennsylvania or anywhere else in the US, it is vital that you get off your duff on Nov. 3 and vote. Focusing exclusively on Hillary vs. Bernie is not just myopic, it’s dangerous. Even if your candidate wins the presidency and does a fabulous job, the forces of stagnation and corporate greed could net tremendous gains in these other elections.

Unless we turn up.

Unless we vote.


NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

 

 

Education Does Not Cure Poverty – It Cures Ignorance

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What good is an education?

Will it get you money? Will it make you rich?

No. Not really.

And that’s one of the biggest problems with American public school policy of the last 15 years. It misunderstands the purpose of the very thing it purports to promote.

Poverty is skyrocketing. It’s been on the rise for at least three decades, but since the economy collapsed in 2008, the ranks of the poor have swollen like an untreated wound left to fester and rot.

We could be doing something about that. We could be working on a jobs package – on something to get people back to work. Instead we crowd around unemployment data and clap each other on the back because on paper it looks like we’ve overcome this obstacle.

Unfortunately, we haven’t.

Since President Barack Obama took office, there have been less people out of work than during the disastrous Bush years. However, most new jobs created since the crash only pay minimum wage. The good jobs are drying up and being replaced by poverty wage employment. And that’s not even counting the hordes of people who’ve given up even looking for a job but don’t merit a mention in these Pollyanna publications!

So how do we truly answer this dilemma? How do we get America back to work?

According to our policymakers, through magic.

Provide people more training, they say. Make sure those out of work obtain new skills and the next generation receives a rigorous education.

It’s the kind of solution our grandparents – who lived through the Great Depression – would have laughed to silence. Give someone a book, put them in a school, place them before a teacher and – POOF – they’ll be able to get one of the nonexistent well paying jobs that – may I repeat – DON’T EXIST!

It’s not that we have an unskilled workforce. We have more people than ever with Doctorates and Masters degrees living on food stamps. The problem is lack of well paying jobs. We’ve tax sheltered, down sized, and corporatized America into a land where the rich play Monopoly with all our cash while the rest of us subsist on McJobs.

Claiming that education alone can resolve this problem is like saying all a starving person really needs is a fork and spoon. But that won’t help if he has nothing to eat!

It should be no surprise that those championing our school system as a silver bullet to our jobless nation speak out of both sides of their mouths. On the one hand, they say, education can save us. On the other, they say, if education was better we wouldn’t need saving. And since they’re almost exclusively employed by the same people who gobbled up all the jobs in the first place and then spat them out to China, it’s a travesty that anyone listens to them.

They’re not offering a solution. They’re making a last ditch effort to clear the board of any remaining public money – education dollars.

If only the teachers had taught us better, they say, we’d all be able to have a corner office in the sky. But since those evil, lazy educators are doing such a bad job, we need to close as many schools as possible to save those kids. And then we can privatize them and swipe even more of that sweet, sweet public money to the 1% who can run charter schools and cut student services while scarfing up the rest as yummy profit.

To prove this thesis, policymakers force untested and irrational reforms on public schools – standardized testing, computerized test prep, Common Core. When none of this works (as planned), they simply blame the educators who never wanted any of this in the first place. But it helps us serve up teachers on a silver platter as the scapegoat of the day.

These so-called reforms solve nothing – they just make things worse.

Furthermore, they’re a distraction, smoke and mirrors so we won’t see the real issue of how we’re being swindled by the 1%. After all, THEY were the ones who got us into this mess in the first place! They were the ones who crashed the economy – not Mrs. Jones, the local science teacher.

We should know this already. It’s out in the open and easy to see. The media is not doing its job of reporting the truth. The public is being dazzled by propaganda that appeals to our basest selves. But most importantly, we’re being fooled because we no longer remember what education is for!

Even under the best of circumstances, education does not make someone rich. That’s not it’s goal. It never has been. Education seeks to enrich people’s minds, not their bank accounts.

Yes, there is a relationship between the two, but its several steps removed. A well educated person may be able to more easily obtain money than an uneducated one. She may be more prepared for a well-paying job. However, being prepared is rarely what makes someone rich.

People gain wealth most often by inheriting it (See Paris Hilton, Bill Marriott, Mitt Romney and Donald Trump). Others get money by cheating the public out of it. This takes a person with a weak moral code, not necessarily strong book smarts. For instance, look to the Walmart model of selling groceries cheaply by paying poverty wages to employees who then must rely on the federal government to survive and thus can only afford to shop at Walmart. That’s not smart. It’s sociopathic. Anyone could have thought that up, but it takes a person with a stunted conception of the value of other people to actually do it.

More important than a college degree are connections. The Rich know the right people. They have contacts in high places with whom they can barter for lucrative tips, jobs and partnerships. They have friends on Wall Street who can tip them off when a stock is about to rise or fall. They know editors at prominent papers who have no problem changing the headlines to match a preconceived narrative rather than the facts on the ground.

Again, that doesn’t require all A’s on your report card. It’s the result of a lottery of birth, social standing and an undeveloped sense of fairness.

There are some people who actually do gain riches on the merits of their intellects. But they are few and far between. Even among them there is a large portion who are more lucky than genius. I love Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, but it doesn’t take an Einstein to come up with it. Sometimes the gods of finance just smile on hippy dippy flavors with fun names.

Since the ancient world, thinkers have postulated that the purpose of education is not to increase material gain – it is to become a better person. The Ancient Greeks believed that there is value in knowledge and wisdom that doesn’t translate into gold. Aristotle called it eudaimonia or human flourishing. The best life includes wisdom.

This builds on the philosophy of Socrates – one of the founders of Western thought – who famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” We have strayed far from these ideals. Today we might say the unreciprocated action is unworth doing. If something doesn’t translate into cold, hard cash, it is considered weak, a wasted effort. Even philanthropy has become a way to gain control over the industry you’re ostensibly trying to help. (See Bill Gates immense influence on Education policy.)

In their hearts, most teachers would side with Aristotle and Socrates over the Waltons and Gates’. And that’s why our corporate masters look down on us. We represent an ethos that they have abandoned and tried to destroy.

They tell themselves the fairy tale that wisdom means cheating others out of money. The removal of ignorance, they say, is the removal of any obstacles toward clawing and punching your way to the top.

But true wisdom recognizes that people are more than mere animals. We do not need to continue the Darwinian struggle of survival of the fittest among ourselves. We can cooperate. We can value each others lives. We can love.

If people valued this kind of knowledge over money, what would happen to the rich? Wouldn’t it prove that they have wasted their lives betraying and manipulating the less fortunate? Wouldn’t it reveal the poverty of their souls?

Because if people were truly educated, they would see these sick, twisted individuals for whom they really are. And we would demand justice. Not so that we could replace these penny-ante tycoons with our own wealth addiction. But instead so that we could all live in peace and bask in the joy of knowledge, compassion and an unending quest to chip away at our own ignorance.


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

 

Near Silence on Education at First Democratic Debate

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None.

Null.

Nada.

That’s how many questions CNN anchors asked presidential hopefuls about America’s public schools at the first Democratic Debate.

Imagine if Anderson Cooper and company had been silent on Climate Change. The candidates would have brought it up anyway. Bernie Sanders actually did talk about the threat to the environment when asked a question about national defense.

Imagine if moderators had no questions about gun violence. Candidates competed with each other to demonstrate which took a stronger stance against the National Rifle Association.

Imagine if no one asked about finance reform. On that stage each candidate tried to position his or herself as the new sheriff of Wall Street.

But when it comes to one of the most important issues of the day – our children’s struggling schools – the media apparently thought it was of no interest to the viewing public.

Admittedly both Hillary Clinton and Sanders briefly brought it up when asked about other things.

Clinton said we need universal pre-kindergarten and good schools. However, she neglected to say what those good schools would look like.

It’s almost like saying nothing at all. EVERYONE wants good schools – Even dunderheads like Chris Christie, Jeb Bush and Donald Trump! But their ideas of good schools differ greatly from that of most parents, teachers and students. McCharter schools for the poor and Cadillac campuses for the rich isn’t exactly what real progressives have in mind.

And universal pre-k? Great! But that’s kind of the flavor of the month. Who really disagrees that we should help toddlers prepare for school? It’s like asking, “Who wants ice cream?” in a room full of little kids on a hot day. EVERYONE wants ice cream – even the kids who are lactose intolerant!

Sanders took a second in a diatribe about social services to mention the need to fund schools. However, he didn’t say a thing about equity or if that funding would have strings attached. President Obama talked about funding schools, too, when he was running for president in 2008. Once he got into office those education dollars came at the cost of accepting untested and developmentally inappropriate Common Core State Standards. And equity meant closing poor schools to save them.

I wonder if CNN would have felt more pressure to ask even a single token education question if the largest national teachers unions hadn’t already endorsed Clinton. Both the American Federation of Teachers representing 1.5 million members and the National Education Association representing 3 million members have backed Clinton.

Well, leadership has. Member outreach, polling, even voting by the organizations largest representative boards has been almost entirely absent.

But now that teachers have been pigeonholed in Clinton’s camp, what’s the point of asking education questions? In the public eye educators have already chosen their candidate. Why would they need to hear Clinton’s thoughts on education policy? Why hear her opponents thoughts? Their minds are made up.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration continues to run roughshod over teachers concerns. For 7 years education professionals from all walks of life have complained about the administration’s failing school policies and its buffoonish education secretary Arne Duncan. But now that Duncan is leaving, the President replaces him with John King – ex-New York State Commissioner of Education who enraged parents so much he was run out of the state on a rail.

The media just doesn’t care about public education. Nine times out of ten if they even print a story about schools, it’s a puff piece spin doctoring a school reform policy that isn’t working, never has been working and is – in fact – making things much worse for our nation’s students. Otherwise it’s an expose of how teachers can’t make these horrendous policies work so its their fault and don’t even glance at the ballooning child poverty rate – that’s completely irrelevant to the issue of all these lazy teachers who can’t be fired because we’d have to prove they’re bad first.

And what of the candidates? Do they care about public education?

The Democrats say they do and then zip their lips. They might make positive noises about preschool or universities – especially when it comes to funding. But they have next to nothing to say about K-12 schools. When the issue comes up, they deflect to toddlers or the college campus.

Meanwhile Republicans can’t contain their glee about mentioning teachers during debates and stump speeches. They want prospective voters to know that conservative types like them want to punch teachers in the face. During the first Republican debate, at least half of the candidates in that crowded boasted how much they stood up to the teachers unions.

And so there you have it, folks. That’s what passes for a substantive Democratic debate of all the important issues of the day. Now voters can make an informed decision in the primaries. There will be a few more debates, but they’ll probably be no different than this one.

And if you actually care about public schools, if you have children in the system, or derive your livelihood from it, or even if you just don’t want to live in a society of uneducated dummies – you’d be better served using Tarot cards to determine where the Democrats stand on this issue.


NOTE: This article also was quoted extensively on Diane Ravitch’s blog and published by Commondreams.org and on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

 

White Fragility Frames the Media Narrative of the Million Man March Forward

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White people will go a long way to avoid talking about racism.

Not only does it seem invisible to most melanin deficient folks like myself, but we refuse to acknowledge it when someone tries to bring it to our attention.

That’s not racism. There is no racism. Stop stirring up trouble.

Unless someone is wearing a white sheet and burning a cross on a black person’s lawn, most Caucasians close their eyes, stick their fingers in their ears and stay willfully blind.

Sociologists call this White Fragility, and it was on full display in the media response to the Million Man March Forward on Saturday.

Thousands of African Americans and a smattering of people of other races and ethnicities gathered in the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to demand “Justice or Else” and commemorate the 20th anniversary of the original Million Man March.

Like during that 1995 gathering, today’s media was quick to frame the narrative in a way that silenced legitimate black concerns while benefiting White America.

First, most media outlets refused to cover the event at all. I guess to them there was nothing newsworthy going on. Just tens of thousands of black folks gathering in the nation’s capital. No saggy pants. No guns. Nothing to see here.

When the mainstream news covered it at all, it was to minimized its importance. Short articles basically saying – Here were some black people. Remember that time they did this before? In other news…

I remember the first march back in the 90s. I wasn’t there, but I remember how white folks talked about it. At first there was a genuine fear – black people with a united purpose coming together to better their social standing!? But we quickly found a way to negate everything they were doing.

How? Math.

Har! Har! Look at all those black folks gathered in front of the Capital steps. They held a Million Man March and didn’t even get a million men!

And therefore by the logic of white fragility we can ignore everything they did and said.

Institutionalized racism? Sorry not a million people!

Racial prejudice in hiring and firing employees? Not a million. Can’t hear you!

Police brutality? Come back when you’ve got more people!

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Of course it’s still a major point of contention exactly how many bodies showed up that first time. Estimates of the original rally put between 400,000 to 2 million folks on the scene. Unsurprisingly white people almost always go with the smaller number. I guess they don’t think black people can count that high.

But what if the lower estimation is true? Is there some racial math that bestows relevance on a moral crusade based only on sheer numbers? Is it okay to deny a handful of people their rights, a thousand or even a hundred thousand – but somehow a million is the tipping point where I have to say “No more”?

Even if only hundreds of thousands of people showed up, that’s something. Quite a lot, really. Doesn’t that demonstrate an attempt at racial unity, at addressing a shared list of problems? After all, how many people need to attend for White America to take them seriously?

This weekend journalists were careful not to make estimates of the number of attendees at the March Forward. But they’d subtly state that it was less well attended than the previous rally which – given the pictures I’ve seen of both events and the above mentioned disparity – seems somewhat hard to corroborate.

Still the media didn’t stop there. They found other ways to invalidate the event.

For instance, who is leading these marches? The Nation of Islam? Louis Farrakhan? Oh my! White people don’t approve of that! Therefore the whole gathering is unjustified. Poof!

Funny how that works. Black leaders must be perfect. White leaders? Not so much. George W. Bush was a C-student. Bill Clinton had extramarital affairs. Both men served as two-term presidents, and somehow the Republicans and Democrats go on.

Finally there was the rhetoric. This rally was subtitled “Justice or Else.”

That just won’t do. Angry black people demanding justice? No, white people simply will not respond to that kind of tone. If only they had been more polite about it, we might listen, but “Justice or else”!? Nope.

Any rational human being should be able to comprehend why black folks are demanding justice; They aren’t getting much of it from our courts. Unarmed black people are increasingly being murdered by the police and white citizens which prompts the debate of whether a crime has even been committed – a debate in which the answer is often, “No.”

The Black Lives Matter movement has grown because of just such concerns and the group was even represented at the rally.

But white folks – in the guise of analysis – ask what that phrase means “justice or else.” Are black people threatening to attack white people if they don’t get justice? What justice is there beyond a court of law? Do they really expect us to change our laws and hold our courts accountable?

No. Nothing to see here, folks. This throng of humanity peacefully assembling clearly has no valid points to make. Turn the cameras off. Let’s go home.

But had these thousands suddenly thrown bottles, overturned cars or started fires, the spot light would have been turned on full force.

“Another black riot,” newscasters would have proclaimed with glee. CNN would have devoted 24-hour news coverage. Expensive graphics would show the exact extent of the damage between interviews with scared white folks wondering why black people were allowed to misbehave so!

But a peaceful rally of African Americans coming together to share their pain, commemorate their history of struggle and commit to solutions?

Who cares about that? It doesn’t fit the media narrative. It doesn’t help white people ignore their black brothers and sisters problems. It doesn’t help our system of white supremacy remain invisible.

As a representative of the white race, may I make a suggestion? Could we possibly consider listening to what these people have to say? And before rejecting it out of hand, might we look at it objectively and even find a valid point or two? Could we then try to offer our black brothers and sisters a hand?

But the answer is always the same from white folks. Excuse after excuse to ignore, reject, repulse and keep our fragile white eyes firmly shut.

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

 

If School Computer Use Reduces Standardized Test Scores, Doesn’t That Prove the Tests are Inadequate?

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Melvin’s hand is up.

He’s a 13-year-old African American with too much energy and not enough self-control.

He’s often angry and out of his seat. He’s usually in trouble. But today he’s sitting forward in his chair with his hand raised high and a look on his face like he’ll explode if I don’t pick him right this second.

So I do.

“Mr. Singer! Can I show my imovie now!?”

This is a first. He hasn’t turned in a lick of homework all month.

“Wow! You’re really excited about this, aren’t you?” I say.

“Yeah,” he responds. “I was up all night finishing it.”

I start to doubt this, but he does look awfully tired underneath that urgent need to share.

Airdrop it to me from your ipad,” I say, “and I’ll put it up on the SMART Board.”

This takes a few minutes.

Let’s face it.

We live in a world of high technology.

Our cell phones have more computing power than the Apollo missions to the moon.

The best, high paying jobs opening up on the world stage require increasing levels of computer literacy.

Yet according to a new study, America’s students don’t succeed as well academically if they have access to computers at school.

How can this be?

How can exposure to new technologies cause a nation of young people to fail at a system supposedly designed to prepare them for the jobs of the future?

Doesn’t real world experience usually make you better prepared?

A future chef would be helped by more time in the kitchen.

A future doctor would be helped by more access to dissection.

But a future computer-user is hurt by more time at a computer!?

Something is very wrong here.

But according to a new study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), students who use computers more at school earn both lower reading and math scores on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

The organization studied 15-year-olds across 31 nations and regions from 2012. The study just released in September even controlled for income and race.

Yet here in my classroom I see the exact opposite. Computer use increases my students test scores – on my teacher-created tests.

Melvin’s movie was ready. He had been tasked with explaining the differences between external and internal conflict. I pressed play.

High adrenaline music poured from the speakers. Pictures flashed across the screen of boxers and football players.

“This is external conflict,” came rushing forward followed by a brief definition. Then an image of Homer Simpson with an angel and devil on his shoulders. “This is internal conflict,” came zooming by our eyes.

The film might not win any Academy Awards, but it was pretty impressive work for 40 minutes of class time and however long Melvin decided to spend at home.

It’s the kind of thing my students never could have done before they each had ipads. And when they took my test, few of them got the questions wrong about conflict.

Yet according to the OECD, I was somehow hurting my students academically!?

Even in my high poverty district, students have always had access to technology. But the nature of that technology and how we use it has changed dramatically this school year.

I used to have eight computers in my classroom, but they were slowly becoming obsolete and inoperable. Some days they functioned best as extra illumination if we shut out the overhead light to show a movie.

Still, I tried to incorporate technology into my lessons. I used to have my students make their own Webpages, but reserving time in the computer lab became almost impossible. And even then, the district couldn’t afford to keep the devices in the lab updated enough to run anything but the most rudimentary software.

The one lab in the building that had new devices was reserved almost exclusively for a drill and kill test prep program we had received a state grant to operate. THIS was the apex of school technology – answering multiple choice look-a-like questions. It bored students to tears and didn’t even accomplish the stipulated goal of increasing standardized test scores. Yet we were blackmailed by the state government into initiating the program so we could gain additional funding to keep the school operational.

THIS is the kind of technology use you’ll find at most poor schools like mine. And it’s one of the reasons the authors of the OECD study came to their conclusion. It’s also one of the reasons why teachers like me have been skeptical of technological initiatives offered to impoverished districts.

However, the best use of technology is something quite different.

This year my district received a gift of ipads for all the students, and it’s changed everything. No longer do I have to beg and plead to get computer lab time for real high tech lessons. I don’t need it. The technology is already in the classroom in the palm of their hands.

But policymakers clutching their pearls because of this study have already began to make changes to international school curriculum. Schools in Asia have begun cutting back on student computer time. Should America follow suit?

Absolutely not.

The problem clearly is not computers. It’s the antiquated method we use to measure success.

Standardized testing has been around since 206 BC as an assessment for civil servants in ancient China. The same process spread to England in the 19th Century and then to the United States during WWI. Through all that time, the main process of rewarding rote learning through multiple choice questioning has remained the same.

But the world hasn’t. We’ve moved on a bit since the Han Dynasty. We no longer live in a medieval society of peasants and noblemen where the height of technology is an abacus. We live in an ever-changing interconnected global community where a simple search engine provides more information than could be stored in a thousand Libraries at Alexandria.

How can we possibly hope to rely on the same assessments as the ancients? Heck! Even as far back as 970 AD, standardized testing was criticized as being inadequate.

But a global multi-billion dollar industry relies on these primitive assessments. It’s the basis of an exceedingly lucrative business model.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that the same people who promise standardized testing and Common Core will best prepare students to be college and career ready are passing the blame.

They claim this report isn’t an indictment of their cash cow industry. It’s a warning against over-reliance on computers. And, yes, they’re right that technology is not a panacea. The mere presence of a computer won’t make a child smarter. Likewise, the mere presence of a book won’t make a person wiser. One must know how to use said computer and book.

But what I’m seeing in my classroom primarily is an opportunity – not a danger. Students like Melvin are more engaged and willing to take chances. They have greater freedom, intrinsic motivation and excitement about learning.

Many times when sharing Keynote presentations, after one or two, students ask to have their work back so they can improve them. That doesn’t happen with test prep.

They often elect to take ipad assignments to lunch and work on them between bites. That doesn’t happen with Pearson worksheets.

I’m not saying it’s easy. It’s up to me, my colleagues and administration to ensure technology is used to its full potential. Never should these devices be time fillers or babysitters. Nor can they ever replace the guidance of a thoughtful, creative educator to determine their best use. Teachers need to create and assign lessons that promote creativity and critical thinking skills.

Education professionals are constantly advised to individualize their lessons to meet the needs of diverse learners. Technology allows them a unique opportunity to do so. With district ipads I can talk to an English Language Learner in his own language. A struggling reader can have the device read test questions aloud. A student with poor motor control can type journal responses and have his writing be understood.

And these opportunities for enrichment don’t even need to be planned ahead of time. For instance, when discussing a short story about a character that was exceedingly proud, one of my students brought up the Seven Deadly Sins. She wasn’t exactly sure what they were or how exactly they related to pride, but one of her classmates quickly looked it up on her ipad. Then another found a medieval woodcarving to which someone else found a related manga text. The subsequent discussion was much deeper and relevant to these children’s lives than it would have been otherwise. And none of it was pre-packed, planned or standardized. It was individualized.

This is really no surprise. Administrators in charter or private schools aren’t asking themselves if they should close their computer labs and put their devices on ebay. They know the value technology can provide in the classroom, but they aren’t constrained by high stakes testing.

Even rich public schools don’t have to worry to the same degree because their students already score well on federally mandated assessments – after all, standardized tests are designed to favor children with wealthy parents over those from impoverished or minority backgrounds. It’s only in poor school districts where technology is either second hand or a charitable donation that administrators and school directors are being pressured to cut back.

As usual, best practices for the privileged become questionable when applied to the poor and minorities. You want technology? Prove it will boost your test scores!

It’s nonsense.

Think about it. Even the best use of computers won’t boost standardized scores. Computer skills aren’t on the tests.

Nor could these things ever be assessed effectively in this manner.

Yet such skills are exactly what education researchers tell us demonstrate the deepest levels of understanding and an ability to meet the demands of the best jobs of the future.

I wonder what Bill Gates thinks of this report. The Microsoft co-founder is also one of the biggest advocates for school standardization. If he had to pick between his two favorite children, which would he choose – laptops or Common Core tests? Maybe we needn’t wonder. His own children go to a private school with no standardization and a plethora of technology.

There comes a time when you have to admit the truth staring you in the face: standardized tests are poor measures of academic achievement. They are suitable only for turning our children into factory drones. They are for pawns, patsies and robots.

If we really want to prepare the next generation for the jobs of the future, we need to scrap high stakes testing. We need to invest in MORE technology, not less. We need to ensure technological lessons are being overseen by trained educators and the devices aren’t used as a babysitting tool. As such, we need to provide teachers with support and professional development so they can best take advantage of the technology they have.

America can prepare its children for the world’s high level management and administrative positions or we can prepare them to do only menial work that will soon by replaced by machines.

Computers do the former. Tests the latter.

Choose.


NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.