Co-opting the Language of Authentic Education: The Competency Based Education Cuckoo

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Cuckoo!

 

Cuckoo!

 

Such is the incessant cry of the hour from one of the most popular souvenirs of the black forest of Germany – the cuckoo clock.

 

Time is demarcated by the chirp of an 18th century animatronic bird jumping forward, moving a wing or even opening its beak before making its distinctive cry.

 

However, in nature the cuckoo has a more sinister reputation.

 

It’s one of the most common brood parasites.

 

Instead of investing all the time and energy necessary to raise its own young, many varieties of cuckoo sneak their eggs into the nests of other birds. When the baby cuckoos hatch, they demand an increasing amount of their clueless foster parents’ care often resulting in neglect of the birds’ own children.

 

Parental care is co-opted. The love and affection natural to raise parent birds’ own children are diverted to another source. And the more parent birds try to help the interloper’s child, the less they can help their own.

 

Corporate education reformers must be bird lovers. Or at very least they must enjoy antique cuckoo clocks.

 

In fact, one could describe the entire standardization and privatization movement as a Homo sapien version of brood parasitism.

 

Profiteers co-opt authentic education practices so that they no longer help students but instead serve to enrich private corporations.

 

When parents, teachers and administrators unwittingly engage in corporate school reform strategies to help students learn, they end up achieving the opposite while the testing industry and charter school operators rake in obscene profits.

 

But some of us have seen through the scam, and we think it’s cuckoo.

 

We’ve seen this kind of bait and switch for years in the language used by oligarchs to control education policy. For instance, the defunct federal No Child Left Behind legislation had nothing to do with making sure no kids got left behind. It was about focusing obsessively on test and punish even if that meant leaving poor kids in the rear view.

 

Likewise, the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program has nothing to do with quickening the pace to academic excellence. It’s about glorifying competition among students while providing them inequitable resources. Teach for America has very little to do with teaching or America. It’s about underpreparing poor children with unqualified instructors and giving cover to privatization operatives. School Choice has nothing to do with giving parents educational alternatives. It’s about letting privatized schools choose which students they want to admit so they can go through the motions of educating them as cheaply as possible and maximize profits for shareholders.

 

And on and on.

 

The latest such scheme to hoodwink communities out of authentic learning for their children is Competency Based Education (CBE) a term used interchangeably with Proficiency Based Education (PBE). Whatever you call it, this comes out to the same thing.

 

Like so many failed policy initiatives that came before it offered by the same group of think tank sycophants, its name belies the truth. CBE and PBE have nothing to do with making children competent or proficient in anything except taking computer-based tests.

 

That’s what the whole program consists of – forcing children to sit in front of computers all day at school to take unending high stakes mini-tests. And somehow this is being sold as a reduction in testing when it’s exactly the opposite.

 

This new initiative is seen by many corporate school reformers as the brave new world of education policy. The public has soundly rejected standardized tests and Common Core. So this is the corporate response, a scheme they privately call stealth assessments. Students will take high stakes tests without even knowing they are doing it. They’ll be asked the same kinds of multiple-choice nonsense you’d find on state mandated standardized assessments but programmers will make it look like a game. The results will still be used to label schools “failing” regardless of how under-resourced they are or how students are suffering the effects of poverty. Mountains of data will still be collected on your children and sold to commercial interests to better market their products.

 

The only difference is they hope to trick you, to hide that it’s even happening at all. And like a cuckoo pushing its egg into your nest, they hope you’ll support what’s in THEIR best interests while working against what would really help your own children.

 

And the method used to achieve this deception is co-opting language. They’d never enact what real classroom teachers want in school, but they will take our language and use it to clothe their own sinister initiatives in doublespeak.

 

So we must pay attention to their words and tease out what they really mean.

 

For instance, they describe CBE as being “student-centered.” And it is – in that their profit-making machine is centered on students as the means of sucking up our tax dollars.

 

They talk about “community partnerships,” but they don’t mean inviting parents and community members into the decision making process at your local school. They mean working together with your local neighborhood privatization firm to make big bucks off your child. Apple, Microsoft, Walmart – whatever huge corporation can sell computers and iPads to facilitate testing every day.

 

 

They talk about “personalized instruction,” but there’s nothing personal in it. This just means not allowing students to progress on their computer programs until they have achieved “mastery” of terrible Common Core standards. If standardized testing is a poor form of assessment, these edu-programs are worse. They don’t measure understanding. They measure zombie cognitive processes – the most basic surface type of spit-it-back to me answers.

 

And if that isn’t bad enough, such an approach subtly suggests to kids that learning is only valuable extrinsically. We don’t learn for intrinsic reasons like curiosity. We lean to get badges on the program, to progress forward in the game and compulsively collect things – like any good consumer should.

 

Today’s children already have problems socializing. They can more easily navigate cyber relationships than real flesh-and-blood interactions. And CBE will only make this worse. Not only will children continue to spend hours of after-school time on-line, the majority of their school day will be spent seated at computer terminals, isolated from each other, eyes focused on screens. And every second they’ll be monitored by that machine – their keystrokes, even the direction their eyes are looking!

 

I’m not making this up! It shows engagement, tenacity, rigor – all measurable, quantifiable and useful to justify punishing your school.

 

They call it “one-to-one computer technology.” Yes, each child will be hooked up to one device. But how does that alone help them learn? If every child had a book, would we call it one-to-one book access? They call it “blended learning” because it mixes instruction from a living, breathing person with sit-and-stare computer time. It sounds like a recipe. I’ll blend the sugar and milk until I have a nice whipped cream. But it conceals how much time is spent on each.

 

Don’t get me wrong. There are effective uses of technology in schools. But this is not one of them.

 

Students can make Keynote presentations, record movies, design graphics, write programs, etc. But taking endless testing disguised as a video game adds nothing but boredom to their day. A few years ago, I was forced by administrators to put my own students on iStation twice a week. (I’ve since convinced them to let us be.) In any case, when we used the program, it would have been more effective had we called it nap time. At least then my kids wouldn’t have felt guilty about sleeping through it.

 

The corporate education reformers are trying to sneak all of this under our noses. They don’t want us to notice. And they want to make it harder to actually oppose them by stealing our words.

 

When public school advocates demand individualized learning for their children, the testocracy offers us this sinister CBE project. When we decry annual testing, they offer us stealth assessment instead.

 

We must continue to advocate for learning practices that work. We can’t let them steal our language, because if we do, they’ll steal our ability to engage in authentic learning.

 

And to do that, we must understand the con. We have to deny the technocrats their secrecy, deny them access to our children as sources of profit.

 

We must guard our nests like watchful mama birds.

 

The cuckoos are out there.

 

They are chirping in the darkness all around us.

 

Don’t let them in.

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School Accountability Without Standardized Testing

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Q: Is it possible to ensure educational accountability without giving standardized tests?

 

A: Not only is it possible, it is necessary.

 

In fact, we will never have accountability while we continue giving standardized tests.

 

This is the irony of modern education policy.

 

High stakes testing is seen as the only tool that can ensure schools operate correctly when in reality it is the very thing that blocks true responsibility.

 

Pundits and policymakers cry crocodile tears as they draw up elaborate ways to punish teachers and students for low test scores. Meanwhile they ignore some of the most basic facts about how education works.

 

FACT: Students and teachers are not the only factors.

 

FACT: Students and teachers don’t decide how much funding their schools get.

 

FACT: Students and teachers don’t get to decide education policy.

 

FACT: An education system is made up of a complex interplay of several interconnected factors that include parents, the community, the economy, culture, media, and local, state and federal governments.

 

FACT: High stakes testing ensures that teachers and students are held accountable for the entire education system including the vast majority of factors beyond their control.

 

So let’s stop pretending that standardized tests hold schools accountable. They don’t. They just point the finger without offering anything to help.

 

True accountability would be about diagnosing problems so we can fix them, not trying to fire your way to the top. When you break your arm, the doctor doesn’t immediately suggest you chop it off. He sets the bone and puts it in a cast and sling so it can heal.

 

When it comes to true accountability, we need to look beyond the school at all the factors involved. We also need to look to the legislature, the taxpayers, parents, the community, the media, and all stake holders.

 

However, this does not mean there are no ways to assess if schools, superintendents, administrators, teachers, and students are doing a good job.

 

In fact, it’s not even difficult to achieve. And we don’t need a single standardized test to do it.

 

We need a two-pronged approach. We must assess student learning, but we also must assess the adequacy of school funding, where it’s going and where it needs to go.

 

These measures are most often ignored in accountability discussions. When it comes to adequate funding, we usually blame the poor for being unable to provide for their children. And since many states allocate education funding based largely on local property taxes, we have rich schools with oodles of cash and poor schools that are falling over. True accountability would ensure all students – both rich and poor – start from an equal playing field. When society neglects this, it is society that is failing, not poor children.

 

When it comes to how funding is spent, we either throw up our hands that there’s no way to evaluate school funding or we pretend that school directors will be transparent just because. Both are untrue.

 

I still believe that local control is the best way to ensure true accountability. When school directors are not elected but appointed– as they are in charter schools – there is no reason to spend wisely. In fact, the laws are set up to shield charter school boards from having to show the community how they are spending taxpayer money. And since most are set up for-profit, there is an incentive to reduce services for students while keeping the saving as profit for themselves and their shareholders.

 

When school boards are elected and are required to hold deliberations in public, accountability is built in. Voters decide who gets to make decisions and if those decisions made in the light of day are in the best interests of their children. Moreover, elected school directors who come from the community have an incentive to make that community in which they live the best it can be and to provide the best quality education they can.

 

This isn’t to say that elected school boards are perfect. They are made up of human beings and are therefore fallible. You don’t have to go far to find local school directors who try to deliberate important decisions in private without notifying the public, circumvent the bidding process, make backroom deals, etc.

 

But there are ways to hold them and the community accountable for providing a quality education.

 

California has come up with an ingenious plan.

 

For the second year, the Golden State has been engaged in a bold experiment. Policymakers have initiated a new K-12 finance system: the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) and the Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAPs) that go with it.

 

Basically, California public schools use multiple-indicators to determine where funding needs to go and how to hold schools accountable for spending it wisely.

 

It’s not perfect. It certainly has some bugs in it, and I do NOT recommend we simply extend the program nationwide as is.

 

For instance, the program still uses standardized testing as one of many multiple measures of success. This is better than having testing be the sole measure or even the most important one. But – as you shall see – we can do better.

 

The law requires each district to identify specific goals and spending priorities in eight areas. I would modify them as follows:

  1. Basic services such as equipped classrooms, qualified teachers, textbooks and materials. It is essential to know if these needs are being met so we can budget accordingly. If funding is lacking, assessing the deficiency in this way helps make the argument for an increase of cash.

 

  1. Implementation of District Created Standards for all students, including English Learners (ELs). California specifically denotes Common Core standards here. I think that is a mistake. Accepting wholesale a set of unproven standards made by non-educators who have never been inside a district building or in front of a classroom is a recipe for disaster. Instead, teachers in each district should develop their own standards and then test whether they are achieving their goal. Many policymakers are in love with the idea of national standards but that’s like suggesting all restaurants must have some version of the McDonalds value menu. Standards should be locally developed to meet the needs of real students not idealized ones.

 

 

  1. Parental Involvement. This simply cannot be ignored. Schools need to know if parents are invested in the district, and if not, administrators and faculty need to work to find ways to bring them in. Schools can institute family game nights, community picnics, parent-teacher nights with food and babysitting services. No school can ever achieve greatness without parents. We must find ways to increase involvement where it is lacking and encourage increased involvement where it is present at all. We must work to make parents feel welcome and make them a part of the decision-making process for school activities and functions.

 

  1. Student Achievement as measured by district assessments, English Learner reclassification to fluency, and other criteria. California includes Common-core aligned standardized tests in this area. I think this is a mistake and that we can find better assessments here. I’ll return to this in a moment.

 

  1. Student Engagement determined by rates of attendance and absenteeism, dropout rates, and graduation. We must gauge how well students are buying in to what the school has to offer. And if it is lacking, we must take steps to improve it. Schools shouldn’t just provide a prepackaged product. They should actively engage students and provide classes and services suited to their needs. Student engagement is one way to determine if schools are successfully doing that.

 

 

  1. School Climate evident in rates of suspension and expulsion, as well as other locally-identified measures. Discipline is very important but must be conducted judiciously. It must be fair and not unduly harsh. It must serve the purpose of improving academic outcomes. Moreover, we need to make sure there are no racial or cultural biases at work – even if they are unconscious. We want to create an inviting atmosphere, not a stepping stone to the prison system.

 

  1. Access to a Broad Curriculum evident through student enrollment across grade levels and subject areas. We know high stakes testing narrows the curriculum. We must work to actively broaden the curriculum and offer students a wide range of classes to maximize their educational experience. This includes arts, music, foreign languages and extra curricular activities. If we don’t have the funds to make that happen, what better tool to help argue for an increase than a detailed account of what’s missing and why it’s important?

 

  1. Other Student Outcomes as identified locally, which may include locally chosen tests and assessments. This could include participation in AP exams, college courses, etc. No accountability system would be complete without an “Other” category. Districts should be free to customize to meet the needs of students, parents and the community.

 

Which brings us back to testing.

 

We’ve got to have it. There must be some way to assess student learning. But we needn’t resort to money-making corporate products.

 

Teachers have been creating tests since the beginning of time. No one ever thought there was anything wrong with that until giant corporations discovered they could make huge profits selling us their standardized assessments.

 

We need to trust teachers again to assess as they see fit. But we can do more than that. We can have district-wide assessments systems that are not standardized – that are personalized – yet comparable across the district.

 

Performance or portfolio-based assessments.

Schools around the country are incorporating direct demonstrations of student learning into their assessment programs. These include projects, individual and group presentations, reports, papers and portfolios of work collected over time. These provide much more accurate reflections of student learning than snapshot tests developed far from the classroom. Moreover, if properly coordinated by departments and administrators, these assessments are comparable across the district.

 

The New York Performance Standards Consortium is leading the way. It consists of 28 schools, including grades 6-12, throughout the state that rely on these teacher-created assessments to the exclusion of standardized tests.

 

And the results have been tremendous! These public schools have higher graduation rates and better college-retention rates, while serving a population similar to that of other urban schools. We say we’re looking for innovations that work. This is it!

 

Just imagine a school that used such an accountability system. It would have a plethora of data about what’s working, what isn’t working and what needs to be done to correct deficiencies.

 

We forget that accountability systems show our values. High stakes testing pretends that the only thing that matters is the results of a standardized test. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

 

A system like the one I’ve described would ensure every student receives a robust education that is assessed fairly. It would invigorate children, parents and the community. And when students graduate from such a school, they would be prepared for whatever comes next.

 

Moreover, there’s not a single standardized test necessary in the whole system!

 

Our policymakers need to start thinking along these lines. These aren’t pie in the sky suggestions. Most of these ideas already have been tested and proven effective.

 

We need to free our minds from a reliance on the testing industry. We need to think outside the bubble and free our children from corporate servitude as education policy – a system that ensures they won’t receive a quality education – all under the guise of “accountability.”

 

Can real accountability exist without standardized tests?

 

Yes. That’s the only way it can.

Five Ways Hillary Clinton is Running a Dirty, Underhanded, & Disingenuous Campaign

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Dirty politics is nothing new.

Negative campaign adds, spreading false rumors, jamming the other party’s telephones, sabotaging opponents, stealing an opponent’s debate playbook, staging fake riots even sabotaging peace talks to help an incumbent.

Historically, we’ve seen all this and more during presidential campaigns from politicians on both sides of the aisle.

But even with that said, the Hillary Clinton campaign is finding new and more unsavory ways to wage political warfare against her challenger Bernie Sanders.

The race for the 2016 Democratic nomination has been marked by some of the most underhanded and repulsive moves we’ve seen in years.

When the dust clears, Democrats will be asked to support the winner, but given the scorched Earth policy of Clinton, it may be very difficult to put the base back together if she eventually comes out on top.

Here are five ways the Clinton campaign has sunk to new lows in its race against Sanders:

1) Voter Suppression in New York

In numerous general elections across the nation, Republicans have gleefully passed voter ID laws they admit were designed to keep down Democratic votes.

However, in this year’s primary election, we may be seeing Democrats working to stop other Democrats from voting.

Consider this: Sanders has won seven of the last nine Democratic primaries. The two won by Clinton were marked by massive “voter irregularities.” And in the overwhelming majority of cases, these problems affected Bernie supporters and not Hillary devotees.

In New York this week, 126,000 people were mysteriously dropped from the voter roles in Brooklyn, where Bernie was born and raised. They were registered in October, but on election day they were gone.

Another 60,000 Brooklyn Democrats had their registrations mysteriously changed to Republican so they couldn’t cast a ballot for their native son. What’s more, these changes were made after the April 1 deadline for voters to make these modifications, themselves. Someone else had to alter registrations in secret without voters’ knowledge.

This fraud wasn’t limited to one Sanders stronghold. According to various reports, approximately 30% or more of the Democrats throughout the Empire State who went to vote found their registrations had been changed, making those Democrats (invariably Sanders supporters) ineligible to vote. Had these people been counted, the state would probably have gone Bernie.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer – both Hillary supporters – have each called for an investigation. But the results won’t come until after the election. By then, there will be nothing we can do about it.

Is this just a coincidence? Given the stakes at hand, could someone have specifically targeted these people?

Yes. Someone could. Read on.

2) The DNC is Taking Sides

The Democratic National Committee (DNC) is supposed to be working to help both Clinton and Sanders coordinate their campaigns. The party is supposed to be impartial. It is not supposed to favor either candidate, but it clearly does.

It is staffed by Clinton supporters like Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the party’s national chair and a former Clinton campaign manager. Moreover, the company hired by the DNC to collect campaign information for both parties, NPG Van, has its own ties to Clinton.

This is significant because NPG Van was shown in at least one instance to having exposed privileged campaign information to both sides.

Facts about who supports each candidate and where they live is kept in a database run by NGP Van. The data helps each side figure out phone banking schedules, where to effectively campaign, etc. So when the company experienced a brief “glitch,” it exposed all this information to both the Clinton and Sanders campaigns.

A Sanders staffer was fired for looking at Clinton’s data to determine the scope of the leak. However, the DNC and the Clinton campaign spun this so it looked like the Sanders campaign was stealing the information when the staffer knew perfectly well everything he was doing would be traceable back to him. The DNC even cut off the Sanders campaign from accessing its own files until Bernie took the party to court.

Let’s say the situation had been reversed. Let’s say Clinton staffers had accessed Sanders information about who supports him and where they live. What would they have done with the data? Who knows? But it would have given them the exact information necessary to pull off the voter suppression we saw in New York – which communities need to have “voter irregularities,” and which voters to disenfranchise in order to ensure a Clinton victory.

But if Clinton activists had accessed Sanders information, the DNC would have gone public about it just as the party did about the Sanders staffer, right?

Would they? Would a party that has shown such favor to one candidate, staffed in large part by supporters of that candidate, would it be entirely transparent and forthcoming about improprieties from that campaign? Maybe. Maybe not. But the fact that SOMEONE clearly had access to Sanders information and used it against his campaign in New York leaves us with many unanswered questions.

3) Voter Suppression in Arizona

Voters in Democratic districts of Arizona went to the polls to exercise their civic duty only to find lines literally miles long and wait times of several hours.

The most populous county in the state, Maricopa County, reduced polling locations from 200 during the last election to just 60 this year. That amounts to over 20,000 voters for every location.

The reason given was financial. The Republican administration was trying to save money.

But in retrospect two other explanations seem worthy of consideration. First, this may have been a dry run for the general election. The GOP may have been trying to gauge how well it was suppressing the vote in the highest democratic districts.

Or this may have been an attempt to hurt one specific candidate – Sanders – and help another – Clinton. Once again these “voter irregularities” disproportionately affected Sanders supporters more than Clinton advocates.

Hispanics and Latinos in the state leaned Sanders. They make up more than 40% of the population of Phoenix (30% state wide). Yet in these densely populated neighborhoods, there were few to no polling places open. Faced with such difficulties, many working class people didn’t have the time to wait up to 5 hours to cast a ballot – they had to get to work.

Why would Republicans help Clinton? In polls she is weaker against every GOP presidential candidate than Sanders. Moreover, even if she wins, she is much farther right than Bernie.

Add to that suspicious actions by the media. At roughly 8:30 pm, a little over an hour after polls closed, with less than one percent of precincts reporting, the Associated Press declared Hillary Clinton the winner.

In Democratic primaries delegates are awarded proportionally. It’s not winner take all. Delegates are awarded by the percent of the vote each candidate receives. If the race is really close delegates are split.

Prematurely declaring Hillary the winner while hundreds are still waiting to vote discourages Sanders supporters from staying in line and, thus, can reduce the number of delegates he receives.

The media is clearly biased in favor of Clinton, and she enjoys a cozy relationship with pundits and talking heads everywhere.

4) Hiring Social Media Trolls

On the Internet, Clinton supporters have been silencing dissent and lowering the conversation. A Super PAC headed by a longtime Clinton operative is actually spending $1 million to hire online trolls to go after Sanders’ supporters on social media.

Correct The Record (CTR) is operated by Clinton friend and new owner of Blue Nation Review David Brock. CTR just launched an initiative called “Barrier Breakers 2016” for the purpose of debating Sanders supporters on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and other social media platforms.

The “Barrier Breakers” also are tasked with publicly thanking Clinton’s superdelegates and fans for supporting her campaign. These paid trolls are professional communicators, coming from public relations and media backgrounds.

I may have come afoul of the group, myself. Until recently, I had been a member in good standing of the closed Facebook group Democrats Only. It was a place for fellow progressives to basically talk trash on conservatives and champion Democratic initiatives. However, in recent weeks it has become something else entirely. Posts started to appear that were nothing more than Clinton campaign press releases. For every pro-Bernie post, there were 99 pro-Clinton ones. Posts would appear calling Bernie and his supporters “assholes.” That’s how a site for Democrats talks about fellow Dems!?

And when I politely brought up these disparities, I was kicked out of the group!

This is not about convincing fellow progressives why Hillary is the best choice. It’s about silencing dissent and creating a false sense of Clinton’s inevitability.

5) Misappropriating Sexism

Clinton is clearly the most successful woman candidate in American history to date. She came close to getting the Democratic nomination for president in 2008 against Barack Obama. She has been a Senator and Secretary of State. If she is actually elected president, she will forever shatter the glass ceiling of the highest office in the land for women.

But that doesn’t mean that every criticism she receives is by definition sexist. Calling for her to release her paid speeches to Wall Street is not anti-woman. Demanding an accounting of her hawkish pro-war policies is not being a male chauvinist. Questioning her commitment to the black community given her support for the privatized prison industry is not a faux pas.

However, this is how the campaign, supporters and even the candidate, herself, talks. They call any male who oppose them a Bernie Bro – a loaded, nudge, nudge, wink, wink term implying that any male opposition to Clinton cannot be based on reason and logic but only on sexism.

On the one hand, this is politics as usual. The Clinton campaign is using the same coded language Hillary has always been so adept at – she knew the term “super predator” was a racist dog whistle.

On the other, this misappropriation hurts women everywhere. It devalues the concept of sexism. It cheapens it.

If simple opposition to a female candidate is sexism, then when real sexism rears its ugly head, we’ll be less apt to take it as seriously as we should. The fact that women make only 79 cents an hour for every dollar earned by men is sexism. The fact that women’s healthcare is under attack and so much harder to access than men’s is sexism. The fact that toy companies limit or refuse to market female characters that aren’t overtly “girly” is sexism.

Asking Clinton to explain her record is not.


When this election cycle began, I considered myself a strong Democrat.

No matter who won the primaries – Clinton or Sanders – I was pretty certain I’d support that candidate in the 2016 general election for President.

Now I’m not so sure.

Scaremongers say it may come down to deciding between Clinton or Trump. That’s not much of a choice: one candidate is a member of the 1% and the other is bought and paid for by the 1%.

What’s the difference?

If the Clinton campaign continues to disenfranchise voters, receive an unfair advantage from party leaders, silence dissent and misappropriate sexism, I may end up casting a write-in for Sanders or voting for the Green candidate Dr. Jill Stein.

Either way, I won’t be bullied into giving my vote to a candidate that’s done nothing to deserve it and has worked to make sure people like me often don’t get the chance to vote at all.

Whiteness: The Lie Made True

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“The discovery of a personal whiteness among the world’s peoples is a very modern thing,—a nineteenth and twentieth century matter, indeed.” – W. E. B. Du Bois

 

 

What color is your skin?

 

You don’t have to look. You know. It’s a bedrock fact of your existence like your name, religion or nationality.

 

But go ahead and take a look. Hold out your hand and take a good, long stare.

 

What do you see?

 

White? Black? Brown?

 

More than likely, you don’t see any of those colors.

 

You see some gradation, a hue somewhere in the middle, but in the back of your mind you label it black, white, brown, etc.

 

When I look, I see light peach with splotches of pink. But I know that I’m white, White, WHITE.

 

So where did this idea come from? If my skin isn’t actually white – it’s not the same white I’d find in a tube of paint, or on a piece of paper – why am I labeled white?

 

The answer isn’t scientific, cultural or economic.

 

It’s legal.

 

Yes, here in America we have a legal definition of whiteness.

 

It developed over time, but the earliest mention in our laws comes from the Naturalization Act of 1790.

 

Only 14 years after our Declaration of Independence proclaimed all people were created equal, we passed this law to define who exactly has the right to call him-or-herself an American citizen. It restricted citizenship to persons who resided in the United States for two years, who could establish their good character in court, and who were white – whatever that meant.

 

In 1896 this idea gained even more strength in the infamous U.S. Supreme Court decision Plessy v Ferguson. The case is known for setting the legal precedent justifying segregation as “separate but equal.” However, the particulars of the case revolve around the definition of whiteness.

 

Homer Plessy was kicked off the white section of a train car, and he sued – not because he thought there was anything wrong with segregation, but because he claimed he was actually white. The U.S. Supreme Court was asked to define what that means.

 

Notably the court took this charge very seriously, admitting how important it is to be able to distinguish between white and non-white. Justices claimed whiteness as a kind of property – very valuable property – the denial of which could incur legal sanction.

 

In it’s decision, the court said, “if he be a white man, and be assigned to the color coach, he may have his action for damages from the company, for being deprived of his so-called property. If he be a colored man and be so assigned, he has been deprived of no property, since he is not lawfully entitled to the reputation of being a white man.”

 

Plessy wasn’t the only one to seek legal action over this. Native Americans were going to court claiming that they, too, were white and should be treated as such. Much has been written about the struggle of various ethnic groups – Irish, Slovak, Polish, etc. – to be accepted under this term. No matter how you define it, most groups wanted it to include them and theirs.

 

However, it wasn’t until 1921 when a strong definition of white was written in the “Emergency Quota and Immigration Acts.” It states:

 

“A White person has been held to include an Armenian born in Asiatic Turkey, a person of but one-sixteenth Indian blood, and a Syrian, but not to include Afghans, American Indians, Chinese, Filipinos, Hawaiians, Hindus, Japanese, Koreans, negroes; nor does white person include a person having one fourth of African blood, a person in whom Malay blood predominates, a person whose father was a German and whose mother was a Japanese, a person whose father was a white Canadian and whose mother was an Indian woman, or a person whose mother was a Chinese and whose father was the son of a Portuguese father and a Chinese mother.”

 

So there you have it – whiteness – legally defined and enforceable as a property value.

 

It’s not a character trait. It’s certainly not a product of the color wheel. It’s a legal definition, something we made up. THIS is the norm. THAT is not.

 

 

Admitting that leads to the temptation to disregard whiteness, to deny its hold on society. But doing so would be to ignore an important facet of the social order. As Brian Jones writes, the artificiality of whiteness doesn’t make it any less real:

 

“It’s very real. It’s real in the same way that Wednesday is real. But it’s also made up in the same way that Wednesday is made up.”

 

You couldn’t go around saying, “I don’t believe in Wednesdays.” You wouldn’t be able to function in society. You could try to change the name, you could try to change the way we conceptualize the week, but you couldn’t ignore the way it is now.

 

 

And whiteness is still a prominent feature of America’s social structure.

 

 

Think about it. A range of skin colors have become the dominant identifier here in America. We don’t like to talk about it, but the shade of your epidermis still means an awful lot.

 

 

It often determines the ease with which you can get a good job, a bank loan or buy a house in a prosperous neighborhood. It determines the ease with which you can go to a well-resourced school, a district democratically controlled by the community and your access to advanced placement classes. And it determines the degree of safety you have when being confronted by the police.

 

 

But to have whiteness as a signifier of the good, the privileged, we must imply an opposite. It’s not a term disassociated from others. Whiteness implies blackness.

 

 

It’s no accident. Just as the concept of whiteness was invented to give certain people an advantage, the concept of blackness was invented to subjugate others. However, this idea goes back a bit further. We had a delineated idea of blackness long before we legalized its opposite.

 

 

The concept of blackness began in the Virginia colonies in the 1600s. European settlers were looking to get rich quick through growing tobacco. But that’s a labor-intensive process and before mechanization it frankly cost too much in salaries for landowners to make enough of a profit to ensure great wealth. Moreover, settlers weren’t looking to grow a modest amount of tobacco for use only in the colonies. They wanted to produce enough to supply the global market. That required mass production and a disregard for humanity.

 

So tobacco planters decided to reduce labor costs through slavery. They tried enslaving the indigenous population, but Native Americans knew the land too well and would escape quicker than they could be replaced.

 

Planters also tried using indentured servants – people who defaulted on their debts and had to sell themselves into slavery for a limited time. However, this caused a lot of bad feeling in communities. When husbands, sons and relations were forced into servitude while their friends and neighbors remained free, bosses faced social and economic recriminations from the general population. Moreover, when an indentured servant’s time was up, if he could raise the capital, he now had all the knowledge and experience to start his own tobacco plantation and compete with his former boss.

 

No. planters needed a more permanent solution. That’s where the idea came from to kidnap Africans and bring them to Virginia as slaves. This was generational servitude, no time limits, no competition, low cost.

 

It’s important to note that it took time for this kind of slavery to take root in the colonies. Part of this is due to various ideas about the nature of Africans. People at the time didn’t all have our modern prejudices. Also it took time for the price of importing human beings from another continent to became less than that of buying indentured servants.

 

The turning point was Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. Hundreds of slaves and indentured servants came together and deposed the governor of Virginia, burned down plantations and defended themselves against planter militias for months afterwards. The significance of this event was not lost on the landowners of the time. What we now call “white” people and “black” people had banded together against the landowners. If things like this were to become more frequent, the tobacco industry would be ruined, or at very least much less profitable for the planters.

 

After the rebellion was put down, the landed gentry had to find a way to stop such large groups of people from ever joining in common cause again. The answer was the racial caste system we experience today.

 

The exact meaning of “white” and “black” (or “colored”) was mostly implied, but each group’s social mobility was rigidly defined for the first time. Laws were put in place to categorize people and provide benefits for some and deprivations for others. So white people were then allowed to own property, own guns, participate in juries, serve on militias, and do all kinds of things that were to be forever off-limits to black people. It’s important to understand that black people were not systematically barred from these things before.

 

Just imagine how effective this arrangement was. It gave white people a permanent, unearned social position above black people. No matter how hard things could get for impoverished whites, they could never sink below this level. They would always enjoy these privileges and by extension enjoy the deprivation of blacks as proof of their own white superiority. Not only did it stop whites from joining together with blacks in common cause, it gave whites a reason to support the status quo. Sound familiar? It should.

 

However, for black people the arrangement was devastating.

 

As Brian Jones puts it:

 

“For the first time in human history, the color of one’s skin had a political significance. It never had a political significance before. Now there was a reason to assign a political significance to dark skin — it’s an ingenious way to brand someone as a slave. It’s a brand that they can never wash off, that they can never erase, that they can never run away from. There’s no way out. That’s the ingeniousness of using skin color as a mark of degradation, as a mark of slavery.”

 

All that based on pigmentation.

 

Our political and social institutions have made this difference in appearance paramount in the social structure, but what causes it? What is the essential difference between white people and black people and can it in any way justify these social distinctions, privileges and deprivations?

 

Science tells us why human skin comes in different shades. It’s based on the amount of melanin we possess, a pigment that not only gives color but blocks the body from absorbing harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Everyone has some melanin. Fair skinned people can even temporarily increase the amount they have by additional solar exposure – tanning.

 

If the body absorbs too many UV rays, it can cause cancers or produce birth defects in the next generation. That’s why groups of people who historically lived closer to the equator possess more melanin than those further from it. This provided an evolutionary advantage.

 

However, the human body needs vitamin D, which often comes from sunlight. Having a greater degree of melanin can stop the body from absorbing the necessary Vitamin D and – if another source isn’t found -health problems like Sickle-cell anemia can occur.

 

That’s why people living further from the equator developed lighter skin over time. Humanity originated in Africa, but as peoples migrated north they didn’t need the extra melanin since they received less direct sunlight. Likewise, they benefited from less melanin and therefore easier absorption of Vitamin D from the sunlight they did receive.

 

Map_of_Indigenous_Skin_Colors

 

That’s the major difference between people of different colors.

 

Contrary to the persistent beliefs of many Americans, skin color doesn’t determine work ethic, intelligence, honesty, strength, or any other character trait.

In the 19th through the 20th Centuries, we created a whole field of science called eugenics to prove otherwise. We tried to show that each race had dominant traits and some races were better than others.

 

However, modern science has disproven every scrap of it. Eugenics is now considered a pseudoscience. Everywhere in public we loudly proclaim that judgments like these based on race are unacceptable. Yet the pattern of positive consequences for light skinned people and negative consequences for dark skinned people persists. And few of us want to identify, discuss or – God forbid – confront it.

 

And that’s where we are today.

 

We in America live in a society that still subscribes to the essentially nonsensical definitions of the past. Both white and black people have been kept in their place because of them.

 

In each socio-economic bracket people have common cause that goes beyond skin color. But the ruling class has used a racial caste system to stop us from joining together against them.

 

This is obvious to most black people because they deal with the negative consequences of it every day. White people, however, are constantly bombarded by tiny benefits without noticing they’re present at all. White people take it as their due – this is what all people deserve. And, yes, it IS what all people deserve, but it is not what all people are receiving!

 

We are faced with a difficult task. We must somehow both understand that our ideas about race are man-made while taking arms against them. We must accept that whiteness and blackness are bogus terms and yet they dramatically affect our lives. We must preserve all that makes us who we are while fighting for the common humanity of all.

 

And we can’t do that by simply ignoring skin color. That kind of colorblindness only helps perpetuate the status quo. Instead, we must pay attention to inequalities based on the racial divide and actively work to counteract them.

 

In short, there are no white people and black people. There are only racists and anti-racists.

 

Which will you be?

How Far We Have Come Fighting Against the Testocracy: Network for Public Education Conference Ramblings

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Kelly Ann Braun said it best.

 

“Do you remember three years ago when I said this would all be over in 6 months?”

 

And we all laughed. Me the loudest, because back then I had thought the same darn thing.

 

Corporate education reform is on its last legs. Once we tell people about the terrible mistakes of standardized testing and Common Core, it will all be over in an election cycle or two.

 

Kelly, that incredibly dedicated member of the Badass Teachers Association (BATs) from Ohio, hadn’t been the only one.

 

It seemed so reasonable back then. Once it became common knowledge, our leaders couldn’t keep perpetuating policies that harm our children, we thought.

 

No one would actually continue to stomp on the futures of our little kids once we’d pointed out that that was what they were actually doing! Right?

 

Now the Network for Public Education is having its third annual conference – this one in troubled Raleigh, North Carolina. And far from being on its last legs, the testocracy is mightier than ever with a new federal education policy, the Every Student Succeeds Act, rebranding and refreshing its same horrific disdain for the young.

 

But that’s not really news, is it?

 

The powerful have always tried to find ways to keep the poor and minorities under heel. It’s a struggle as old as civilization, itself.

 

What’s new is us.

 

Yes, us – the ragtag band of rebels and revolutionaries who gather together every year to celebrate our victories, lament our losses and plan for the future.

 

This is a real community – stronger than anything I’ve ever experienced. During the year we all have our separate support systems, be they Badass Teachers, United Opt Out, our teachers unions, our communities or – for many of us – some unique combination.

 

But once a year we all come together from our separate corners of the country (and in some cases beyond) to commune, to gather strength from each other so we can carry on the fight.

 

I cannot express to you the power and the glory I got this morning listening to Chicago parent activist Rousemary Vega talking about the pain of losing her children’s community school. This is still a raw wound for her, gushing blood. One moment she was heartbreaking sorrow; the next she was frightening strength and determination.

 

She told us how to learn from her example, how to put up a fight, how to make it as difficult as possible for anyone to ever do this again. And when she was done and I had dried the tears that she had somehow cried with my eyes, I found that I had a tiny Rousemary inside my heart. I will never forget her story. I hope I can call on even a fraction of her strength.

 

Later I sat in on a conference about Competency Based Education. Two of the founders of United Opt Out, Denisha Jones and Morna Mcdermott, gave the best presentation on the topic I have yet heard.

 

This is the future of standardized testing. It goes something like this: you don’t want a big high stakes test at the end of the school year? Okay. How about we sit your kids in front of a computer all day, everyday, and they can take endless high stakes mini-tests?

 

Morna would keep apologizing that what she was saying sounded too far-fetched to be true, but then she’d prove its veracity. Subsequently, Denisha explained how proponents of this new educational scheme had slipped this all under our noses by redefining and co-opting language we all thought we knew. You want “individualized” education? Fine! Kids can sit by themselves as individuals and take these standardized test snippets – in perpetuity.

 

I left them with a much clearer understanding of how this was happening and exactly what kind of push back is necessary.

 

Perhaps most inspiring so far though was the keynote address by the Rev. William Barber, president of North Carolina’s NAACP and organizer of Moral Mondays. He put the whole fight in perspective.

 

History, philosophy, economics, religion all mixed together into a picture that would have been grim if he hadn’t made it so beautiful. Our children are being harmed by the standardization and privatization of public education. The ones hurt the most are those who are poor and minorities, but that doesn’t make them any less “our” children.

 

This fight can’t just be about your school and your child. We have to love and care about all children and all schools. Only then can we really have a public school system worthy of the next generation.

 

Finally, the moment came when I couldn’t just sit in the audience and passively take all this in. I was actually on the program – I was part of a bloggers panel!

 

It was called “Blogging and Other Tools to Educate, Persuade and Mobilize Targeted Audiences.” It featured the amazing talents of Julian Vasquez Heilig, Susan DeFresne, Dora Taylor, Anthony Cody, Jonathan Pelto and – somehow – me!

 

It was the first time I had presented anything at one of these conferences. Sure I’m in front of my students every day, but this was a room full of adults, many with PhDs or more, who really know what they are talking about.

 

I had agonized over what I was going to say, wrote out a few remarks and then was told by fellow BAT and activist Gus Morales that I shouldn’t read it. I should just go with the moment. That’s what he says he did during his TWO TED Talks!

 

I practiced. I tried it his way, but I just couldn’t make it work. So when my time came, I compromised. I talked off the cuff when I could and then returned to the script when I couldn’t.

 

It seemed to work. I got laughs. I got applause. It looks like no one noticed how utterly terrified I was. (Sh! Our secret.)

 

And so another year’s worth of inspiration has ended – all stuffed into that first day.

 

We’re a different group than we were last year. We’re more somber, perhaps. Maybe a bit more seasoned, more knowledgeable.

 

There’s a sadness that society hasn’t joined us to crush those who would harm our children. But there’s also a renewed commitment to the struggle. A feeling of our place in history.

 

We hear the marching feet of those who came before. We see their pale upturned faces, their sad smiles. And somewhere in the distance that may be the sound of our own children marching in our footsteps continuing this same fight.

 

We will have victories. We may end high stakes testing. We may abolish Common Core. But we may never see the promised land.

 

One day perhaps our children will get there. And the only thing we have to propel them to that place is our love and activism.

 

At the Network for Public Education, you begin to realize these are really the same thing.

 

 

 

New PAC Descends on Pittsburgh Public Schools to Charterize and Take Over School Board

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Prepare yourself, Pittsburgh.

A new Political Action Committee (PAC) has descended on the ‘Burgh to further privatize our public schools and wrest control away from parents who are in favor of school reforms that actually work.

It’s called Campaign for Quality Schools, but make no mistake. The wealthy special interests behind it don’t care about quality schools – they care about quality profits for their investors.

PACs are political committees organized for the purpose of raising and spending money to elect and defeat candidates. Unlike federal PACS which can only give up to $5,000 to a candidate per election, state PACs in Pennsylvania have no spending limits. In that way, they are like federal Super PACs which also have no limits on donation size.

Besides giving an unfair advantage to special interest groups, PACS also have notoriously been used for nefarious ends. For instance, former Republican U.S. Rep. John Doolittle’s leadership PAC paid 15% to a firm that only employed his wife. One Leadership PAC purchased $2,139 in gifts from the Bose Corporation. Former Republican U.S. Rep. Richard Pombo used his leadership PAC to pay almost $23,000 in hotel bills and buy $320 in baseball tickets for donors.

And now we’ve got one in Pittsburgh with its sights on city schools.

The moneyed interests behind it want to swipe control of even more Pittsburgh schools away from the community and give them to for-profit companies in the shape of charter schools. Since charter school boards are appointed, not democratically elected, this means the decisions about how these newly charterized schools operate would be made behind closed doors out of public view. The community would have no way to hold them accountable. Likewise, this means operators could spend taxpayer money however they want with little to no oversight. They would have nearly unlimited power to reduce student services and pocket the savings as profit.

THAT’S what they mean by “Quality” schools.

The PAC is run by the usual suspects of Pittsburgh corporate school reformers.

In 2015, four of the nine Pittsburgh School Director seats were up for grabs and voters sided in all cases against candidates running on a standardization and privatization platform. One of these losers is Kirk Burkley. He lost against Lynda Wrenn for school board and now is listed as chairman of the political action committee.

Though Burkley well outspent Wrenn, voters made it clear they didn’t want the lawyer specializing in bankruptcy, restructuring and creditors rights anywhere near our public schools. He only got 19% of the vote. Apparently Pittsburghers want candidates who support well-resourced community schools, positive discipline policies with supports, etc. But a host of wealthy investors behind this PAC must feel otherwise. They know better than you and me.

The PAC’s treasurer is Cate Reed, our own Teach for America (TFA) recruiter. Perhaps she took it personally when the newly elected school board overturned a decision by its predecessors to contract with TFA for three-years and pay $750,000. This is one of the few times – if not the only time –this has happened across the nation. Reed is also a Broad Center residency recipient. Established by billionaire Eli Broad, the Broad Center runs an unaccredited training program for school leaders, where candidates learn Broad’s philosophy of school management. Broad has no education experience. He is a self-proclaimed expert, a businessman who made his billions in home-building, mortgage lending, and insurance (AIG).

On the Broad alumni page, Reed speaks about making sure every child has an opportunity to succeed, especially students of color in low income communities.

“The Broad Residency affords me the opportunity to be a part of the change I wish to see—and to use my skills to pursue my wildest dream of educational equity,” she says.

The problem she identifies is real. However, her solution is ludicrous. You don’t provide better opportunities for poor black children by making the leaders of their schools unaccountable to the public. You don’t help poor black kids by removing qualified teachers from their classrooms and replacing them with lightly trained Teach for America recruits. You don’t help poor black kids by giving them an endless series of culturally and economically biased standardized tests and ignoring the fact that they receive substantially less resources than their richer, whiter peers.

Leigh Halvorson, one of the managers of the Heinz Endowment, gave the PAC a boost soliciting donations. She sent an email in early March asking for money. I’ll post the entire email below, but here is Halverson’s description of the PAC:

“I am proud to be part of a group that is launching Campaign for Quality Schools-Pittsburgh, a bi-partisan Political Action Committee that is committed to supporting candidates of any political party who (1) believe that all children, regardless of their background can succeed; (2) embrace policies that hasten the growth of high-performing schools that serve all children; and (3) have the courage to challenge the status quo and tackle this problem with fierce urgency and determination.”

In other words, she’s looking for folks willing to (1) pay lip service to helping kids while actively working to hurt them, (2) will work to privatize more Pittsburgh schools and (3) are willing to run for office counter to the emphatic will of Pittsburgh voters who soundly rejected the corporate school reform agenda in the last election.

Halvorson continued:

“Our kick-off event on March 2nd at 5:30 pm, at the home of Cate Reed and Doug Anderson, will feature State Representative Jake Wheatley, from District 19 here in Pittsburgh who embodies these principles.”

Wheatley, a Democrat, has been a longtime supporter of charter schools and an enemy of public school teachers. He is one of only two Democrats to vote a bill out of the House Education Committee that was meant to eliminate due process for teachers. The bill has been languishing in the legislature, but if approved, it would allow teachers to be fired for almost any reason. It would eliminate the provision that teachers cannot be furloughed for “economic reasons.” (NOTE: it could come up for a vote any day now.)

Wheatley also teamed up with Republican House Speaker Mike Turzai to hold a roundtable discussion praising charter schools and the need to increase them in the city. He joined Turzai again in January for a school choice rally in Harrisburg.

Halvorson closed her email like this:

“If you are unable to attend, but would like to donate, please see the attached invite for instructions how you can do that.”

The invite asked for donations of between $50 and $250 per person.

Reed and Halvorson are both on the board of A+ Schools – Pittsburgh Community Alliance for Public Education. The organization serves an advisory position to help improve city schools. Though the organization includes people on both sides of the standardization and privatization movement, it has been co-opted in recent years by a $1 million grant from the Gates Foundation given between 2011 and 2013. Since the grant, the organization went from issuing an annual “Report to the Community” on the state of city schools to pushing for corporate education reform measures such as doing away with teacher seniority. Many disillusioned volunteers now consider it to be a paid proxy for Gates to make it appear his pet projects are supported by communities.

Like most urban districts, Pittsburgh Public Schools is struggling because of lack of resources. If you live in a poor neighborhood, your school gets less money from local taxes to help kids learn. Moreover, the district has lost almost $1 billion annually in state funding for the last five years. Living in poverty increases the need for wraparound social services, tutoring, nutrition and counseling that isn’t present for more affluent kids. But there’s no money to help them, and it’s hard for students to concentrate on school when they’re experiencing food insecurity and post traumatic stress. Likewise, state and federal education policies are giving an increasing portion of our shrinking funding to charter schools while forcing the traditional public schools to give new and more difficult standardized tests and enact unproven and developmentally inappropriate academic standards. If these corporate education reformers actually wanted to improve Pittsburgh schools, they’d focus on the real problems – not make wild attempts to grab more money for charter schools, deprofessionalize our kids’ teachers and grab power for themselves.

It’s unclear how many people showed up to the PACs kickoff fundraising event and how much money the PAC took in. But one thing is certain – consider yourself on notice, Pittsburgh.

After being defeated for school board and after the board rejected Teach for America, the corporate education reformers are preparing to strike back.

They are gathering people and resources to take the five school board seats up for re-election in 2017.

Will we let them steamroll over us with their big money and political connections or will we continue to fight for reforms that actually help our children?

It’s up to you, n’at.


Halverson’s email:

Dear friends,

The single most important civil rights issue facing our country is the disparity in our education system. We have far too many children who are trapped in persistently failing schools, Here in Pittsburgh alone, 23 of the 52 PPS schools are performing in the bottom 15% in the state. It is unacceptable. We know we can do better because we’ve seen it — transformative school exists that are proving that poverty is not destiny- and we need more of them, right here in Pittsburgh. I am proud to be part of a group that is launching Campaign for Quality Schools-Pittsburgh, a bi-partisan Political Action Committee that is committed to supporting candidates of any political party who (1) believe that all children, regardless of their background can succeed; (2) embrace policies that hasten the growth of high-performing schools that serve all children; and (3) have the courage to challenge the status quo and tackle this problem with fierce urgency and determination. Our kick-off event on March 2nd at 5:30pm, at the home of Cate Reed and Doug Anderson, will feature State Representative Jake Wheatley, from District 19 here in Pittsburgh who embodies these principles. I know for some of you, political contributions or political action is unfamiliar, so if you have questions or just want to talk further about why we believe groups like this can make a real impact on the future of our city and on behalf of our little people, don’t hesitate to reach out. My cell phone is 503.320.2384. I hope you can join us in supporting policymakers that put students and families first. Please see the attached invitation for more details and drop Cate or I a quick email if you can attend. If you are unable to attend, but would like to donate, please see the attached invite for instructions how you can do that. If you know people that should be invited to this event, please share their emails with us ASAP. Any questions can be directed to campaignqualityschoolspgh@gmail.com. I hope to see you on March 2nd.

High Stakes Testing Holds The Most Powerful the Least Accountable

 High Stakes Testing Does Not Hold Schools Accountable. It Ensures That Those Most Responsible Escape Accountability

 

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People should be accountable for their actions.

 

If you make a mess, you should have to clean it up. If you decide how things run, you should be responsible if it fails.

 

So why do we allow those most responsible for our public school system to escape from accountability? Why do we instead blame everything on teachers and students?

 

Public school policy at the federal, state and local level has been dominated by high stakes testing for the last 15 years. It has not improved educational outcomes for students. In fact, just the opposite. But we are doing NOTHING to change it.

 

It’s called test and punish. We give students standardized tests and if enough of them fail over time, we close their schools and/or fire their teachers. We force them to move to a new school or a charter school where they continue to struggle without a single additional resource to help them succeed.

 

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) installed most of these policies in 2001. This year we revised the federal law that governs K-12 schools into the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). It does little more than continue these same policies while rearranging the deck chairs on our sinking system.

 

Kids aren’t failing because they’re lazy or dumb. Their teachers aren’t shirking their duties. Instead we have a nationwide epidemic of child poverty. And the effects of that lifestyle make it extremely hard to achieve academically. Kids aren’t focused on book learning when they’re physically and emotionally exhausted, experiencing post-traumatic stress and undernourished.

 

Why has nothing been done to help them?

 

The answer is accountability.

 

Not real accountability. Not holding people accountable for things under their control. Not going up to the people and institutions that actually cause the errors and malfeasance. Instead we push all the blame onto teachers and students and call that “Accountability.”

 

Make no mistake. When politicians and policymakers talk about “accountability” this is what they mean – scapegoating educators and children for things well beyond their control.

 

An education system is made up of a complex interplay of several interconnected factors that include parents, the community, the economy, culture, media, and local, state and federal governments. Students and teachers are only two such factors.

 

High stakes testing ensures that ONLY teachers and students are held accountable. They are responsible for the entire education system but have control of very little of it.

 

For instance, do students and teachers decide how much funding their schools get? No.

 

Do students and teachers decide which education policies are enacted? No.

 

So why are they being held responsible for these things?

 

When schools without adequate funding can’t provide the necessary resources for students to succeed, we pretend like it’s the teachers and students fault. When academic policies handed down by non-educators fail to help kids learn, we pretend like it’s the students and teachers fault.

It’s not.

 

 

As New York University Education Professor Pedro Noguera said:

 

“We’ve designed an accountability system that holds those with the most power the least accountable. The governors are not accountable, the state legislature is not accountable… You can’t hold kids and teachers accountable and not hold the people in control in the first place.”

 

 

It’s not a difficult concept – we test the kids and punish the teachers if they fail. And since the focus is firmly on only those two factors, all others become invisible. No one’s holding lawmakers accountable for providing equitable funding. No one’s holding policymakers and think tanks accountable for forcing inadequate and untested Common Core academic standards down our throats. No one’s holding billionaire philanthropists accountable for using our schools as their private playgrounds for whatever social engineering scheme they thought up in the Jacuzzi. No one’s holding privately run charter schools accountable for – just about anything – instead of letting them operate behind a curtain of deniability and unending profit.

 

 

This would be impossible without standardized testing. It frames the question. It defines the debate. It assumes that only teachers and students are relevant. Therefore, it ensures that none of the obscured factors will have to do anything to help the system improve. And so it ensures that our education system will fail many of our students – especially those most in need.

 

This is the irony of modern education policy. The apparatus that allegedly ensures accountability makes that very thing impossible.

 

That’s how the system is designed. And policymakers are terrified you’ll notice. So they have developed a scapegoat for their own failures – the public school teacher.

 

Students may score badly – and they’ll have to pay for that when their school is closed or charterized as a result – but it is the teachers who are the true enemy. After all, if teachers did a better job, pundits claim, students wouldn’t fail.

 

The idea goes like this:

 

Children won’t learn unless we force teachers to educate them.

 

Teachers don’t get into that profession because they care about children. They just want an easy job with summers off where they don’t have much to do but collect huge salaries.

 

This is the great lie, the diversion, smoke and mirrors to get you to stop paying attention to lawmakers, policy wonks, environmental and other factors. Instead look only to those lazy/evil teachers and their satanic labor unions.

 

THAT’S why they say we need standardized testing!

 

If we remove the testing, they say, no one will be responsible for making sure kids learn. After all, why would teachers teach unless we threaten their jobs first?

 

As if teachers can heroically control all the factors involved in student learning. (Spoiler alert: they can’t.) As if teachers get into their profession because they don’t want to practice it. (Spoiler alert: teachers become teachers because they want to teach!) As if earning a middle class income for providing a valuable societal resource were unreasonable. (Spoiler alert: it isn’t.) As if due process meant you can’t be fired for cause. (Spoiler alert: unionized teachers are fired for cause every day.) As if teachers were paid for summers off. (Spoiler alert: they aren’t though some have their salaries earned during 9 months paid out over 12.)

 

If we really wanted to improve public education, we’d look at ALL the factors involved. We’d throw back the assumptions that have mired us in this quagmire.

 

And the first assumption that has to go is that standardized testing is a valuable assessment tool.

 

Standardized tests are terrible assessments. We’ve known that for almost a century. Invariably they narrow the curriculum. They suck up countless hours of class time that could be better spent. They measure more the circumstances kids live in than any academic ability. They’re culturally, racially and economically biased.

 

But we keep giving them with no end in sight – not because they make teachers do a better job, but because they give cover to those actually responsible for harming our children’s education.

 

There is such a thing as accountability without standardized tests. It is possible to examine all the factors involved and make changes accordingly.

 

We can, for instance, make sure all schools receive the same basic services. We can make sure all classrooms are equipped with up-to-date books, materials, desks, etc. We can make sure no schools go without heat, have crumbling infrastructure and/or suffer from infestation of vermin, mold and filth. We can make sure all children have access to healthy food. We can make sure no children are drinking water poisoned with lead.

 

We can look at parental involvement. An overwhelming amount of research shows this is vital to academic success, but in our poorest neighborhoods parents are often the least involved in their children’s schooling. Why is that? Many of them are working three or more minimum wage jobs just to feed and clothe their children. There’s little time to help with homework when you’re working the night shift. So countermeasures such as raising the minimum wage and increasing the frequency, access and training for well-paying jobs would actually improve education as well as the economy.

 

We can look at school climate. What are the rates of suspensions and expulsions? What are the root causes? How can we improve student discipline without being overly punitive? How can we increase student engagement? How do we improve student attendance and graduation rates?

 

We can update our broken system of student assessment. This may come as a surprise to our policymakers, but there are many ways to assess student learning that have nothing to do with standardized tests. For example, we can institute performance or portfolio-based assessments. Instead of evaluating students based on a snapshot of their performance on a given day or week, we can base it on a grading period or even an entire school year. Assessments can include projects, individual and group presentations, reports and papers and portfolios of work collected over time. You don’t have to be an education expert to realize these would be better measurements of academic achievement than multiple choice tests – BUT IT HELPS! And we can do this without resorting to stealth assessments like competency based education.

 

Does this mean that teachers should escape accountability? Absolutely not. But we can ensure they’re evaluated fairly. Don’t judge them based on factors beyond their control. Judge them based on what they actually do. As the old adage goes, you can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. Evaluate teachers on whether they’ve brought their little ponies to water. Did they engage in best practices? Are they engaged in professional development? How do they treat their students? Are they grading fairly? In almost every profession, workers are evaluated based on observation from their superiors. Teaching should be no different.

 

It’s shocking that no one on the national stage is talking about this. Pundits and policymakers shake their heads at standardized test scores, they point their fingers and cry crocodile tears for the children. But hardly anyone is doing a thing to make positive change.

 

Our schools have been transformed into factories. We’ve let them become resegregated based on race and wealth. We’ve let the rich schools get Cadillac funding while the poor ones struggle to survive on the leftovers. We’ve let non-educators set the standards and curriculum. We’ve let the testing industry co-opt and bribe our lawmakers and social institutions. We’ve opened the door wide for privitizers to steal as much of the shrinking funding pie as possible and funnel it into their own bank accounts without producing any quality for the students they’re supposed to be serving.

 

In short, we’ve let those responsible for setting our public schools aflame get away scot-free!

 

They’re laughing all the way to the bank. And the tool that lets them get away with it is standardized testing.

 

Throw back the curtain and show them for what they truly are.

 

Fight back. Refuse the tests for your children. Join the Badass Teachers Association, United Opt Out and the Network for Public Education. Write your legislators. Write to the newspapers. Take to the streets. Make some noise.

 

Hold them accountable.