I Wrote a Book! Yeah. I Can’t Believe It Either.

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How did this happen?

It was only three and a half years ago that I sat down at my computer and decided to write my first blog.

And now I’ve got a book coming out from Garn Press “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform.”

Like the title says, I’m just a public school teacher. I’m not important enough to write a book.

A blog? Sure. That could disappear any day now.

All it would take is WordPress deleting the site or maybe the power goes out and never comes back or a zombie apocalypse or who knows…

But a book. That’s kinda’ permanent.

It has mass and takes up space.

 

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That won’t just poof out of existence if someone unplugs the wrong server.

It would take some sort of conscious effort for a book to go away. People would have to actively work to destroy it. They’d have to pile those rectangular paper bundles in a fire pit, douse them in gasoline and light a match.

Otherwise, they’d just maybe sit in a basement somewhere in boxes, unopened and collecting dust.

Or could it really be that people might actually crack the spine and read the things?

It’s a strange sort of birth this transition from cyberspace to 3-dimensional reality.

And it’s about to transpire with selected bits of my writing.

I am flabbergasted. Shocked. Almost in denial that this is really happening.

 

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Did I mention that I’m a public school teacher? No one is supposed to listen to us.

School policy is made without us. Decisions impacting our kids and our careers are made by people who haven’t seen the classroom in years – if ever. And when we politely raise our hands to let people know that something isn’t working, the best we can hope for is to be ignored; the worst is to be bullied into silence.

Yet my blog has 1,184,000 hits. I’ve got 12,545 followers on Twitter and via email. And now – a book.

So, let me propose a theory: the people at Garn Press are just incredibly nice.

Denny, David and Benjamin Taylor are just fulfilling one of those Make a Wish thingies for a downtrodden soul like me.

Maybe I’ve got some sort of debilitating disease and no one’s told me yet.

 

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The book officially comes out on Nov. 28. So when I’m handed my first actual copy, I’d say it’s even money that the next thing I’ll be handed is some medical document showing I only have moments left to live.

But whatever.

I’ll die with a smile on my face.

It reminds me of a few lines from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451:

Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there.

In my 40-some years, I’ve tried to do that. I’ve tried to make some lasting mark on the world. Tried to leave it a better place than I found it.

 

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I started as a journalist.

It was great! I could shake up a whole community just by writing something, uncovering some hidden truth, asking a tough question.

But I needed to eat, too, and you can’t do that when you’re on call 24-hours a day for nearly minimum wage under the constant threat of downsizing and meddling by the publisher and advertisers.

So I got my masters degree and became a school teacher.

And it’s been great! I can alter the course of a child’s entire life by helping her learn to read, encouraging her to write and getting her to think and ask questions.

But I’m under constant threat by bureaucrats who know nothing about pedagogy and child psychology trying to force me to do things in ways I know are wrong, detrimental or prejudicial.

So I became an activist, too.

And it’s been great. I joined groups of likeminded individuals and we took to the streets and the legislature and lawmakers offices and parent meetings and teachers conferences and just about anywhere you could stir things up and get people to start asking the right questions.

That led directly to the blog and now the book.

 

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So what’s in it?

In short, it’s my hand-selected favorite articles. These are the ones that either got the most readers or that have a special place in my heart or both.

And this summer I sat at my kitchen table and intensively revised almost all of them. Even if you’ve read them before, these are definitive versions. In some cases, they’re considerably different than the versions you might still find up on-line.

Who did I write it for?

You, I hope.

But, if I’m honest, the people I most had in mind reading it were my daughter and my students.

One day my little girl will grow up and she may wonder what her old man thought about X, Y and Z.

What did Daddy think about racism? What did he think a good teacher did? What were his thoughts about politics, prejudice and reform?

I can see some of my students doing the same.

Perhaps I flatter myself that they may dimly remember me – their crazy 7th or 8th grade Language Arts teacher. I wonder what Mr. Singer would have said about… whatever.

I guess this is my way of telling them.

It’s a time capsule of my present day thoughts. And a guide for how to get to a better future.

You’re cordially invited to read it.

If you’re a longtime follower of this blog, let me just say – thank you from the bottom of my heart.

I never would have had the courage to continue without you.

If you’re new to my writing, welcome aboard. I hope I’ve given you reason to keep reading.

And I hope that one or two of you will be inspired to seek out a certain oblong bundle of papers wrapped in a blue and white cover proclaiming my undying, self-chosen, provocative descriptor:

Gadfly on the Wall.

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(Oh! And a special shout out to Denisha Jones and Yohuru Williams for writing incredible introductions to the book! I am beyond honored!)

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I Was Blocked From Facebook for Criticizing School Privatization

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“Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.”
-George Orwell

 

I have had many strange experiences as an education blogger.

People have adapted my writing into a play.

People have written to express a sincere desire for my death.

I’ve had a teacher send me pictures of essays his composition students wrote in response to one of my articles.

 
And I’ve had people email my workplace demanding I be fired.

I guess Internet fame is a mixed bag.

But after more than three years of blogging about education and social justice issues while teaching in the public school system, there’s one thing I’ve never experienced before: censorship.

This is social media, after all.

I’ve got no advertisers to please, no editor breathing down my neck. I can write whatever I want.

That’s the benefit of being a blogger. No one can stop you from telling the truth.

Well, no one except Facebook, apparently.

For the first time in my blogging career, I was blocked from Mark Zuckerberg’s social networking platform because I had the audacity to post my blog to it.

Now keep in mind I’ve been doing just that every week since July, 2014.

Moreover, the article I posted was in no way different from my previous work.

The article is called “School Choice is a Lie. It Does Not Mean More Options. It Means Less.” You can read it HERE

But almost as soon as I posted it to the Facebook page I keep for my blog, Gadfly on the Wall, I got a message saying I was blocked for a week for “violating community standards.”

What community, exactly, is that?

My article contains no hate speech. For once I even managed to control my own potty mouth.

This is just an examination of why charter and voucher schools reduce options for parents and students – not increase them.

It’s an argument. I lay out my reasons with reference to facts and make numerous connections to other people’s work and articles.

I don’t understand how that “violates community standards.”

A blogger friend of mine tells me that someone probably saw my article and reported it to Facebook as spam. That’s happened to him multiple times, he says, especially when he criticizes groups like Teach for America.

Perhaps that’s what’s happened here.

Some folks get so furious when I criticize their charter and voucher schools.

Maybe they saw my latest piece and just wanted to silence me.

I don’t know.

I suppose another option is that it came from Zuckerberg, himself.

He’s a big fan of school privatization. Perhaps he changed Facebook guidelines to crack down on people like me who throw shade on his pet school reforms.
Or maybe my work was targeted because I’m critical of President Donald Trump. I did, after all, write an article this week called “Donald Trump is a Pathetic Excuse For a Human Being” that includes a picture of the chief executive as a poop emoji.

 

Or maybe it was the National Rifle Association (NRA). The article before the school privatization piece was called “Guns and Profit – Why We’ll Do Absolutely Nothing New After This Las Vegas Shooting.” It was picked up by Commondreams.org, the LA Progressive and other left-leaning sites. Perhaps the firearms lobby had had enough.

Who knows? I’ve pissed off a lot of people in three years.

But I find it hard to believe I was actively targeted. I mean, this is still America, right?

Right?

Another option might be a rogue algorithm.

Facebook is known to use various processes or sets of rules to govern calculations about what should and should not be allowed on the site. After all, they can’t leave all these decisions to living, breathing, human beings. That would cost too much money. Better to leave it to bots and computers.

Perhaps something in my article tripped their robotic alarm bells. (ROBOT VOICE: He’s against Competency Based Education! EXTERMINATE!)

I guess I’ll probably never know.

In the meantime, Twitter is still open for my business. I can still share links in 140 characters or less – with hastags. And, the best part is that Trump might see it!

But what about friends not on the Twitterverse?

How do I even let people know what happened to me? Send a million separate emails!? Pick up the phone and – yuck – talk to people!?

I sent a note to friends through Facebook Messenger about what happened, but that soon stopped working on me. I can’t message anyone else now. Still, the story seems to have leaked.

People who know what’s happened have been kind enough to share the article. It’s being read and appreciated.

I don’t know if my Facebook imprisonment has had a major effect on its distribution. But it’s probably had some dampening effect.

I have to admit, it’s kind of frustrating.

After all this time, many of us rely on Facebook for so much. I’m a member of the Badass Teachers Association, a group of more than 64,000 members who use the social media platform to discuss, plan and engage in various actions against corporate school reform. I’m also in United Opt Out National. It’s increasingly difficult for me to help plan our protest in Washington, DC, without Facebook.

It never really hit me before how much of our lives flow through this one network.

If someone wanted to disrupt political organizations dedicated to reforming the status quo, censoring people and posts on Facebook could be very effective.

I haven’t been silenced, but I’ve been effectively muted. Most of my readers see my work through Facebook. Without it, my writing is out there, but much fewer people probably are in contact with it.

So I suppose that brings me to you, intrepid reader.

Somehow you found this article.

Assuming Zuckerberg and his bots don’t change their minds, I probably won’t be able to post this article to Facebook. So if you saw it, you found it somewhere else. Or perhaps a friendly radical took a chance and posted it on Facebook, themselves, defiant in the possibility that the social media gestapo might crash down on them.

Will you please do the same?

Share my story.

Let the world know what happened to me today.

It’s not the most important thing that’s happened this week. And hopefully it will all be settled in seven interminable days. 168 hours. 10,080 minutes. But who’s counting?

Or – who knows – perhaps I’ll be cleared of all charges, write a new article and the same thing will happen when I try to post it.

I don’t know.

In the meantime, I’m going to spend some time off the computer.

Maybe I’ll open the doors and windows, let in some natural light and see what this “outside world” is like that people used to talk about.

See you in a week.

Live from Facebook Jail,

The Gadfly on the Wall

#FreeGadfly

What Diane Ravitch Means To Me

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Am I crazy?

That’s what many of us had been wondering before we read Diane Ravitch.

As teachers, parents and students, we noticed there was something terribly wrong with our national education policy. The Emperor has no clothes, but no one dared speak up.

Until Diane Ravitch.

We were told our public schools are failing – yet we could see they had never done better than they were doing now.

We were told we should individualize our lessons – but standardize our tests!? We were told teachers are the most important factor in a child’s education – so we need to fire more of them!? We were told the best way to save a struggling school – was to close it!? We were told every child has a right to a quality education – yet we should run our schools like businesses with winners and losers!?

It was absurd, and the first person to question it was Diane Ravitch.

In doing so, she saved many people’s sanity, she saved a generation of students and educators, gave parents clarity and direction, and she started a social movement fighting against the preposterous policies being handed down from clueless businessmen and bureaucrats.

This weekend the Network for Public Education will honor Dr. Ravitch at a dinner on Long Island for her tireless work fighting against this corporate school reform.

I wish I could be there in person to tell her what she means to me and others like me. Instead I offer this modest tribute to a person who changed my life and the lives of so many others.

I was a different person when I read “Life and Death of the American School System” back in 2010.

I had been in the classroom for about seven years, but I was just starting to feel like a real teacher.

I had just completed my National Boards Certification and felt like I wasn’t just surviving with my students anymore but could actually make intelligent decisions about how best to educate them.

And a big part of that was Dr. Ravitch’s book.

For a long time I had noticed that things weren’t as they should be in public schools.

I had put in a great deal of work to get my masters in teaching, to engage in hundreds of hours of professional development, not to mention three to four extra hours every day at the school passed dismissal time doing tutoring, leading extracurricular activities, grading and planning for the next day. I spent hundreds of dollars every month buying books, pencils, erasers, even snacks and meals for my students. Yet the school still treated me – it treated all of us – like greeters at WalMart.

We were highly educated, highly dedicated professionals but our opinions were rarely sought on policy matters. We were the experts in our fields and in our students who we saw everyday more than many of their own parents. Yet we were told where to be and when, what to teach and how long to teach it. We were told how to assess the success of our students and ourselves. And we were told how to best remediate and what else we should be doing that we never had time to do.

Was I really such a failure, I remember thinking. I work hard with my students everyday, see them make tremendous strides and still the standardized tests say it isn’t enough. What was I doing wrong?

Then I read Diane’s book and saw the whole thing from a different perspective.

It wasn’t me that was wrong. It was the system.

It wasn’t the students that were failing. It was the tests that didn’t assess fairly.

It wasn’t the schools that were deficient. It was the way they were resourced, valued and set up to fail by government and industry.

That book and its 2013 sequel, “Reign of Error,” really opened my eyes. They did for many people. Without them, I’m not sure I would still be a teacher today. I’m not sure I could have kept at it thinking that my best efforts could never be enough, that my exhaustion, my fire, my skills would never bridge the gap.

Diane Ravitch put it all in context of the social and historical struggle I had learned about, myself, in high school. I was engaged in the good fight for the civil rights of my students. Brown vs. Board wasn’t just a story in some textbook. I could see how the outmoded excuse of “separate but equal” was still being given today in my own increasingly segregated school and segregated workplace. Why was it that most of my academic students were poor and black? Why was it that the honors kids were mostly upper middle class and white? Why was it that my school situated in a poorer neighborhood was crumbling and the school a few blocks over in the richer neighborhood looked like the Taj Mahal by comparison? And why was it that teachers in my district got $10-20,000 less in their paychecks with the same experience than those in the wealthier community?

Dr. Ravitch made sense of all of that for me. And it made me very angry.

When colleagues came to me to discuss how they wished we had merit pay, I could turn to her books and see how it was a trap. When students came into my classroom after being kicked out of the local charter school, I had an explanation for why they were so academically behind their peers. And when contrarians complained about our union dues and wondered what they were getting in return for their money, I could give them an intelligent answer.

Diane Ravitch gave me the light that made sense of my whole professional world. I had been living and working in it for years, but I never really understood it before. And that gave me the courage to act.

When my state legislature cut almost $1 billion from K-12 education, armed with her books and blogs, I volunteered to lead educators in social actions against them. I sat down with legislators asking them to help. And when they refused, I knew we could protest outside their offices, make noise and the story would get to the media.

Ultimately it didn’t convince the legislature to heal all the cuts, but it helped minimize them, and when the next election cycle came around, we sent the governor packing.

I read Diane’s blog religiously and through her found so many other teachers, professors, parents, and students whose stories weren’t being told by the mainstream media. In fact, whenever so-called journalists deigned to talk about education at all, they rarely even included us in the conversation. So I started my own blog to give voice to what I was seeing.

Through Diane I found a community of likeminded people. I found other teachers on social media who were standing up for their students and communities. I found the Badass Teachers Association and joined and acted and was invited into leadership. We all loved Diane Ravitch and apparently she loved us, too. She became a member, herself, and encouraged us to keep fighting.

Then with Anthony Cody she started the Network for Public Education where even more educators from around the country joined forces. I went to the second annual conference in Chicago and got to meet her in person.

I’ll never forget it. There were hundreds of people gathered together, and she was just standing in the hall talking with a small group. I said to myself, “Oh my God! That’s Diane Ravitch! She’s right there! I could go up and talk to her!”

I looked around and everyone else standing with me had the same look like we’d all been thinking the same thing. Somehow I mustered the courage to walk up to her.

They say you should never meet your idols, but I’m infinitely thankful I didn’t listen to that advice. Diane was eminently approachable. Here I found that same voice I had read so many times, but also a generosity and a goodwill you couldn’t get from the page alone.

She knew who I was, had read my blog and asked me to send her more of my writing. I couldn’t believe it. I thought she was just being polite, but she gave me her email address. I sent her a few articles and she published them on her own site.

Since that day I’ve talked with Diane a few times and she’s always the same. Her intelligence is combined with a boundless empathy and insatiable curiosity about people and ideas. She really cares to know you, to hear your story and to help if she can.

When I had a heart attack about a month ago, she sent me an email telling me to take care of myself. She suggested I change my diet and exercise before confiding that she was having trouble doing this, herself.

Who does that? I’ve never experienced anything like it. I’ve read authors before and maybe written to them, maybe even had them write back. But I’ve never met someone like her who’s actually cared enough to relate to me as an equal, as someone who is important enough to be taken seriously.

In the media, talking heads will sometimes criticize her for changing her mind, because she did do an about face. She had once been Assistance Secretary of Education under President George H. W. Bush where she advocated for standardized testing and the corporate model in education. But when she saw what that really meant, she changed her mind.

To the media, that’s a defect, but to me, it’s a strength. It’s how we learn. We come up with a theory, we test it and if it doesn’t work, we come up with another one. Her philosophy of education is a response to the real world.

That’s what teachers do everyday. We try to reach our students one way and if that doesn’t work, we try something else.

Perhaps that’s really why so many educators have embraced her. She’s like us – a passionate, compassionate empiricist.

I can’t say enough good things about her. I can’t put into words how important Diane Ravitch is to my life. Her ideas changed me. Her ethics invigorated me. Her friendship humbles me.

I’d love to be there this weekend to say all this to her, but I really don’t need to make the trip. Diane Ravitch is always with me. She is in my heart every day.

I love you, Diane.

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.

 

 

 

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.

Dr. Jill Stein is the Best 2016 Presidential Candidate, But Can She Win?

 

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In 2008, I shook Barack Obama’s hand.

 

Yesterday Dr. Jill Stein gave me a hug.

 

Eight years ago, I was so inspired by Obama’s campaign speech in my hometown of Pittsburgh that I rushed forward along with the crowd to grab his hand. It was soft but firm with a tinge of moisturizer. Now I look at his incredibly regressive education policies and feel the need to scrub my palm.

 

This weekend in Philadelphia, I was at the United Opt Out Conference and saw Stein sitting in the audience.

 

I walked past the Green Party Presidential candidate the first time thinking I must be mistaken. Then her name tag removed all doubt.

 

“You’re Jill Stein!” I stuttered.

 

She smiled warmly, stood up and said, “You’re Steven Singer!”

 

I want to believe she knew who I was, but I was wearing a name tag, too.

 

We talked for a moment about what most of us were here for – education policy. She reaffirmed that she wanted to end all high stakes testing and school privatization.

 

Think of it – a presidential candidate speaking in specifics. Not “We test too much.” Not “Some charter schools are bad.” But I want to end these two perverse school policies!

 

And to top it all off, before she hurried off to tidy up as the time approached for her campaign speech, she game me a warm, tight hug.

 

Compare that to Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders.

 

As part of the Badass Teachers Association, we reached out to all the Democratic and Republican candidates on these exact same issues. The Republicans ignored us entirely, but both Democrats gave us phone calls by campaign aides.

 

Even then, the Democratic response was far from convivial. It mostly came down to something like “Education is important.” Well, duh.

 

In Sanders’ case, we had to conduct an impromptu sit-in at the Senator’s Washington office before anyone would talk to us about policy. And Hillary only started to speak in measured tones about public schools after our national teachers unions voted to endorse her – well, the leaders of those unions voted. No one ever really asked us, rank-and-file.

 

Moreover, when Sanders voted for the horrible Murphy Amendment of what became the Every Child Succeeds Act, several teachers including myself wrote him an open letter asking him to explain his apparent support for a Test and Punish education provision. One of his aides sent us a replysome nonsense about accountability.

 

And Jill Stein just gave me a hug.

The difference is huge!

 

When activists were holding this conference centering on the movement to Opt Out of Standardized testing, Sanders and Clinton didn’t even send campaign literature. Stein came in person and even gave a keynote address!

 

Don’t get me wrong. Hillary is far preferable to any Republican candidate seeking the office. I just wish her Presidential bid wasn’t funded by the very people we’re fighting against.

 

I love Bernie, too. I’ve even got the t-shirt to prove it. I just wish he loved us as much by throwing out a few more specifics. The general thrust of his campaign seems tailor-made to support test resistance and a fight against corporate education reform, but he rarely connects the dots with anything that we could hold him accountable for saying.

 

And then you have Stein, perhaps the most human politician I’ve ever met.

 

One look at her platform and it’s obvious she’s the best candidate for President in 2016. But is she electable?

 

Think about that for a moment.

 

What does it say about our country?

 

Design an excellent platform that benefits the most people, organize a movement to get your message out there, draw on the experience of experts in various fields… and you’re an incredible long shot to win the office.

 

The media says the same thing about Sanders as he speaks to overcapacity crowds and struggles against party politics seemingly written to hobble any populist campaign like his.

 

Yet Stein has no giant crowds. She has no adoring fans, no comedian on Saturday Night Live giving her friendly jibes.

 

She’s almost completely ignored by the media. Yet her actual policies make even a progressive like Sanders look like… well… Hillary Clinton!

 

For instance, Sanders wants to make college free to everyone. Stein wants to do that, too, AND erase all existing student debt.

 

Sanders is (kind of) against for-profit charter schools but has been vaguely supportive of Test and Punish school accountability practices. Stein is unequivocally against all forms of school privatization and high stakes standardized testing.

 

Sanders wants single-payer healthcare paid for by raising taxes (but net savings over all). Stein wants single-payer healthcare paid for by cutting our bloated military budget with no raise in taxes.

 

In fact, while Sanders is against unnecessary military action and an increase in military spending, he is in favor of keeping the $1 trillion military budget mostly intact. Stein wants to cut it by 50%, stop selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, stop giving weapons to Israel, freeze terrorist-funder’s bank accounts, end the War on Terror and engage in a policy of peace.

 

Moreover, Stein wants the savings from slashing our biggest federal expenditure to be used to fund a New Green Deal, creating full employment and a living wage all while transitioning to 100% clean energy by 2030!

 

Correct me if I’m wrong, but all of Stein’s policies sound rather sane and measured. Yet she is the one the media labels a radical and out-of-touch – if they talk about her at all.

 

It’s a testament to how perverted our politics have become: Sanity looks like the exact opposite. Logic and intelligence are revolutionary concepts.

 

And only the activists and intellectuals seem to know this is happening.

 

When Stein was done speaking, someone asked her the inevitable question about Ralph Nader. Wouldn’t casting a ballot for her just divide the Democratic vote and give the race to the Republicans as it did in 2000?

 

Her response was a bit evasive – the only time, in fact, where she seemed a bit uncomfortable.

 

She said that Nader wasn’t a member of the Green Party, where she is. She is engaged in building the party and the movement even beyond 2016.

 

On the one hand, it sounded like she was suggesting that even if she loses, it will bring real progressive issues into the limelight. However, this is not what happened when Nader lost as a third party candidate against Bush and Gore.

 

On the other hand, she stressed that she actually could win. About 43 million people are trapped by student debt, which she wants to unilaterally eliminate, she said. That’s a large enough chunk of the population that if they all voted for her, she would win.

 

It’s time for a Hail Mary moment, she said. We have to take a chance to vote for the best policies and not continue to compromise by supporting the lesser evil. Concession is the road to what we have now – continued oligarchy and global hegemony.

 

We need a functioning world for our children. If we don’t do something about Climate Change, the Earth may not be habitable in as little as five decades.

 

It’s now or never, she said.

 

I offer all this not as an endorsement of Stein. Nor of Sanders or Clinton (though seriously stay away from the Republicans, they’re freaking crazy).

 

I offer this only as food for thought.

 

Stein is offering us the best platform, bar none. But can we afford to vote for her? Can we afford not to?

Who’s Your Favorite Gadfly? Top 10 Blog Posts (By Me) That Enlightened, Entertained and Enraged in 2015

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“Pennsylvania educator and public school advocate Steven Singer is one of the most powerful voices in the nation when it comes to speaking out for students, parents, teachers and our public schools.”
Jonathan Pelto, founder of the Education Bloggers Network

 

 

“Steven Singer wrote these five terrific posts last year. I didn’t see them when they appeared. Probably you didn’t either. You should.”
Diane Ravitch, education historian

 

“Your name should be Sweet Steven Singer. You are a delight.”
Karen Lewis, President of the Chicago Teachers Union

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Hello. My name is Steven Singer, and I am a gadfly.

I make no apologies for that. It’s what I set out to do when I started this blog in July of 2014.

I told myself that people were too complacent. There was no curiosity. People were too darn sure about things – especially education policy and social issues.

They knew, for instance, that standardized testing was good for children. Why? Because Obama said so. And he’s such a nice man. It’s too bad all those mean Republicans keep making him do all this bad stuff.

They also knew racism was over. After all… Obama! Right? Black President, therefore, the hundreds of years of struggle – finished! Move along. Nothing to see here.

Yet all this “knowledge” went against everything I saw daily as a public school teacher.

Standardized tests are good for children? Tell that to more than half of public school kids now living below the poverty line who don’t have the same resources as middle class or wealthy kids yet are expected to magically ace their assessments. Tell that to the kids who get hives, get sick, or throw up on test day. Tell it to the black and brown students who for some unexplainable reason almost always score lower than their white peers.

Racism is over? Tell that to all my minority students who are afraid to walk home from school because they might get followed, jumped, beaten or killed… by the police! Tell it to their parents who can’t get a home loan and have to move from one rental property to another. Tell it to the advertising executives and marketing gurus who shower my kids with images of successful white people and only represent them as criminals, thugs, athletes or rappers.

So when I started this blog, I consciously set out to piss people off. But with a purpose. To quote the original historical gadfly, Socrates, my role is, “to sting people and whip them into a fury, all in the service of truth.” It seems well suited to a school teacher. After all, Socrates was accused of “corruption of the youth.”

It’s been quite a year. When I went to the Network for Public Education conference in Chicago last April, some folks actually seemed to know who I was. “Don’t you write that Gadfly blog?” was a common question.

When I met NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia and AFT President Randi Weingarten, they both said, “I read your blog.” And then they looked me up and down suspiciously as if they were thinking, “THIS is the guy who writes all that stuff!? THIS is the guy giving me such a hard time!?”

Of course, I am human, too. One can’t sting and bite every day. Sometimes the things I write are met with love and approbation. Some weeks even Lily and Randi like me. Sometimes.

Education historian Diane Ravitch has given me tremendous moral support. I can’t tell you how gratifying it is to have one of your heroes appreciate your work! Her book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” really woke me up as a new teacher. I’m also on the steering committee of the Badass Teachers Association, an organization that has changed my life for the better. The more than 56,000 people  there are my support. I would never have had the courage to start a blog or do half of the crazy things I do without their love and encouragement.

And there are so many more people I could thank: my fellow bloggers Jonathan Pelto, Peter Greene, Russ Walsh, Nancy Flanagan, Mitchell Robinson, and Yohuru Williams. Also the good people at the LA Progressive and Commondreams.org. The incredible and tireless radio host Rick Smith.

There are just too many to name. But no list of acknowledgment would be even close to completion without mentioning my most important supporter – you, my readers. Whether you’re one of the 9,190 people who get every new post delivered by email or if you otherwise contribute to the 486,000 hits my site has received so far, THANK YOU.

So in celebration of my first full year of blogging, I present to you an end of the year tradition – a Top 10 list. Out of the 90 posts I wrote in 2015, these are the ones that got the most attention. Often they incensed people into a fury. Sometimes they melted hearts. I just hope – whether you ended up agreeing with me or not – these posts made you think.

Feel free to share with family, friends, co-workers, etc. After all, I’m an equal opportunity gadfly. I always cherish the chance to buzz around a few new heads!


 

10) The Democrats May Have Just Aligned Themselves With Test and Punish – We Are Doomed

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Published: July 17, 2015
Views: 7,122

Description: It hit me like a slap in the face that almost all Senate Democrats voted to make the reauthorization of the federal law governing K-12 public schools a direct continuation of the same failing policies of the Bush and Obama years. Heroes like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren seemed to be turning their back on teachers, parents and school children. And they were stopped in their efforts by… Republicans!

Fun Fact: This story had some legs. It inspired a bunch of education advocates like myself who are also Bernie Sanders supporters to write the candidate an open letter asking him to explain his vote. His campaign eventually responded that it was about accountability!?


 

9) Punching Teachers in the Face – New Low in Presidential Politics

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Published: Aug. 3
Views: 14,735

Description: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie thought he’d run for the Republican nomination for President. He thought threatening to metaphorically punch teachers unions in the face would get him votes. It didn’t.

Fun Fact: This new low in Presidential politics came just after Donald Trump had announced he was running. Christie’s new low now seems almost quaint after Trump’s calls to tag all Muslims and monitor their Mosques. How innocent we were back in… August.


 

8) This Article May Be Illegal – Lifting the Veil of Silence on Standardized Testing

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Published: April 18
Views: 15,818

Description: Teachers and students may be legally restrained from telling you what’s on federally mandated standardized tests, but we’re not restrained from telling you THAT we’re restrained. Is this just protecting intellectual property or direct legal intimidation of educators and children?

Fun Fact: I have not yet been arrested for writing this piece.


 

7) Stories about Teachers Union Endorsements of Hillary Clinton

Did the AFT Rank and File REALLY Endorse Hillary Clinton for President? If So, Release the Raw Data

(July 12 – 4,448 hits)

 

The NEA May Be About to Endorse Hillary Clinton Without Input From Majority of Members

(Sept. 21 – 3,873 hits)

A Handful of NEA Leaders Have Taken Another Step Toward Endorsing Hillary Clinton Despite Member Outcry

(Oct. 2 – 739 hits)

Teachers Told They’re Endorsing Hillary Clinton by NEA Leadership, Member Opinions Unnecessary

(Oct. 4 – 7,074 hits)

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Published: July 12 – Oct. 4
Views: 16,134 TOTAL

Description: You expect your union to have your back. Unfortunately it seems our teachers unions were more interested in telling us who we’d be endorsing than asking us who the organizations representing us should endorse.

Fun Fact: I broke this story pretty much nationwide. News organizations like Politico were calling me to find out the scoop.


6) Why We Should Have ZERO Standardized Tests in Public Schools

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Published: Jan. 30
Views: 16,443

Description: Someone had to say it. We don’t need any standardized tests. We need teacher-created tests. And that’s not nearly as crazy as some people think.

Fun Fact: This was written back when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was being rewritten and naïve fools like me thought we might actually get a reduction in high stakes testing. Spoiler alert: we didn’t.


 

5) Atlanta Teacher RICO Conviction is Blood Sacrifice to the Testocracy

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Published: April 3
Views: 18,187

Description: There is something terribly wrong when we’re using laws created to stop organized crime as a means to convict  teachers cheating on standardized tests. I’m not saying cheating is right, but the mafia kills people. These were just teachers trying to keep their jobs in a system that rewards results and refuses to balance the scales, listen to research or the opinions of anyone not in the pockets of the testing and privatization industries.

Fun Fact: Watching all those seasons of “The Wire” finally came in handy.


4) Not My Daughter – One Dad’s Journey to Protect His Little Girl From Toxic Testing

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Published: March 20
Views: 26,420

Description: How I went to my daughter’s school and demanded she not be subjected to high stakes testing in Kindergarten.

Fun Fact: They were very nice and did everything I asked. If you haven’t already, you should try it!


 

3) I Am Racist and (If You’re White) You Probably Are, Too

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Published: June 2
Views: 28,906

Description: White folks often can’t see white privilege. This is my attempt to slap some sense into all of us. If you benefit from the system, you’re responsible to change it.

Fun Fact: Oh! The hate mail! I still get it almost every day! But I regret nothing! A black friend told me I was brave to write this. I disagreed. Anytime I want I can hide behind my complexion. She can’t.


2) I Am A Public School Teacher. Give Me All the Refugees You’ve Got

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Published: Nov. 19
Views: 45,196

Description: Our public schools are already places of refuge for our nation’s school children. Send me more. I’ll take them all. I’d rather they end up in my classroom than drowned by the side of a river.

Fun Fact: I got equal love and hate for this one. Some folks were afraid of terrorists. Others didn’t think we could afford it. But many told me my heart was in the right place. Lily and the folks at the NEA were especially supportive.


 

1) White People Need to Stop Snickering at Black Names

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Published: Sept. 6
Views: 96,351

Description: Maybe we should stop laughing at black people’s names. Maybe we should try to understand why they are sometimes different.

Fun Fact: You’d have thought I threatened some people’s lives with this one! How dare I suggest people should stop mocking other people’s names! If you want to know how strong white fragility is in our country, read some of the comments! But many people thanked me for bringing up something that had bothered them for years but that they had been too polite to talk about, themselves. This is easily my most popular piece yet.