Test-Based Accountability – Smokescreen for Cowardly Politicians and Unscrupulous Corporations

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There is no single education policy more harmful than test-based accountability.

 

The idea goes like this: We need to make sure public schools actually teach children, and the best way to do that is with high stakes standardized testing.

 

It starts from the assumption that the problems with our school system are all service-based. Individual schools or districts are not providing quality services. Teachers and administrators are either screwing up or don’t care enough to do the job.

 

But this is untrue. In reality, most of our problems are resource-based. From the get-go, schools and districts get inequitable resources with which to work.

 

This is not a guess. This is not a theory. It is demonstrable. It has been demonstrated. It is a fact.

 

No one even disputes it.

 

What is in question is its importance.

 

However, any lack of intention or ability on the part of schools to actually teach is, in fact, pure conjecture. It is a presumption, an excuse by those responsible for allocating resources (i.e. lawmakers) from doing their jobs.

 

Any time you hear senators or representatives at the state or federal level talking about test-based accountability, they are ignoring their own duties to properly provide for our public school children and pushing everything onto the schools, themselves.

 

That is the foundation of the concept. It’s hard to imagine more unstable ground from which to base national education policy.

 

But it gets worse.

 

With our eyes closed and this assumption swallowed like a poison pill, we are asked to accept further toxic premises.

 

Next comes the concept of trustworthiness.

 

We are being asked to question the trustworthiness of teachers. Instead, we are pushed to trust corporations – corporations that manufacture standardized tests.

 

I have no idea why anyone would think that big business is inherently moral or ethical. The history of the world demonstrates this lie. Nor do I understand why anyone would start from the proposition that teachers are inherently untrustworthy. Like any other group of human beings, educators include individuals that are more or less honest, but the profession is not motivated by a creed that specifically prescribes lying if it maximizes profit.

 

Business is.

 

Test manufacturers are motivated by profit. They will do that which maximizes the corporate bottom line. And student failure does just that.

 

Most of these companies don’t just manufacturer tests. They also provide the books, workbooks, software and other materials schools use to get students ready to take the tests. They produce the remediation materials for students who fail the tests. And they provide and grade the tests in the first place.

 

When students fail their tests, it means more money for the corporation. More money to give and grade the retests. More money to provide additional remediation materials. And it justifies the need for tests to begin with.

 

Is it any wonder then that so many kids fail? That’s what’s profitable.

 

There was a time when classroom teachers were not so motivated.

 

They were not paid based on how many of their students passed the test. Their evaluations were not based on student test scores. Their effectiveness used to be judged based on what they actually did in the classroom. If they could demonstrate to their administrators that they were actually making good faith efforts to teach kids, they were considered effective. If not, they were ineffective. It was a system that was both empirical and fair – and one to which we should return.

 

In fact, it was so fair that it demonstrated the partisanship of the corporations. Laws were changed to bring teacher motivation more in line with those of big business. Their evaluations became based on student test scores. Their salaries were increasingly tied to student success on these tests. And when some teachers inevitably felt the pressure to cheat on the tests, they were scapegoated and fired. There is no mechanism available to even determine if testing corporations cheat less than penalties for it.

 

After all, what is cheating for a testing corporation when they determine the cut score for passing and failing?

 

Yet this is a major premise behind test-based accountability – the untrustworthiness of teachers compared to the dependable, credibility of corporations.

 

Next, come the scores, themselves.

 

Time-after-time, standardized test scores show a striking correspondence: poor and minority students often do badly while middle class and wealthy white students do well.

 

Why is that?

 

Well, it could mean, as we’ve already mentioned, that poor and minority students aren’t receiving the proper resources. Or it could mean that teachers are neglecting these children.

 

There is a mountain of evidenceundisputed evidence – to support the former. There is nothing to support the later.

 

I’m not saying that there aren’t individual teachers out there who may be doing a bad job educating poor and minority children. There certainly are some. But there is no evidence of a systemic conspiracy by teachers to educate the rich white kids and ignore all others. However, there IS an unquestionable, proven system of disinvestment in these exact same kids by lawmakers.

 

If we used standardized tests to shine a light on the funding inequalities of the system, perhaps they would be doing some good. But this is not how we interpret the data.

 

Finally comes the evidence of history.

 

Standardized testing is not new. It is a practice with a past that is entirely uncomplimentary.

 

These kinds of assessments are poor indicators of understanding complex processes. Answering multiple choice questions is not the best way to determine comprehension.

 

Moreover, this process is tainted by the eugenicist movement from which it originates. Standardized testing is a product of the belief that some races are better than others. It is a product of white supremacy. It was designed by racist psychologists who used it to justify the social structure of past generations and roundly praised and emulated by literal Nazis.

 

It is therefore not surprising that test scores show privileged white kids as superior to underprivileged students of color. That is how the system was designed.

 

Why any educated person would unquestionably accept these scores as valid assessments of student learning is beyond me.

 

Yet these are the assumptions and premises upon which the house of test-based accountability is built.

 

It is a smokescreen to protect politicians from having to provide adequate, equitable, sustainable resources for all children. It likewise protects unscrupulous business people so they can continue to cash in on the school system without providing any real value for students.

 

We must no longer allow policymakers to hide behind this blatant and immoral lie.

 

Not only should voters refrain from re-electing any lawmakers whose constituents children are receiving inequitable school resources, they should not be eligible for re-election.

 

Not only should corporations not be trusted more than teachers, they should be barred from determining success or failure while also profiting off of that same failure.

 

In short, we need to stop worshipping at the altar of test-based accountability.

 

Schools can and should be held accountable. But it cannot be done with standardized tests.

 

Moreover, we must stop ignoring the role of policymakers and business in this system. They must also be responsible. We are allowing them to get away with murder.

 

It’s time to wake up and make them answer for what they’ve done to our nation’s children.

Personalized Learning Without People – An Education Scam from the 1980s Returns

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Sometimes it seems that education policy is nothing but a series of scams and frauds that becomes untenable in one generation only to pop up again 10 or 20 years later with a new name.

 

Take Personalized Learning, the latest digital product from the ed-tech industry to invade your local public school.

 

It’s cutting edge stuff.

 

Except that it isn’t.

 

It’s just the same old correspondence school nonsense of the 1980s thrown onto an iPad or a laptop.

 

It was crap back then, and it’s crap today.

 

But it sounds nice.

 

Personalized Learning.

 

I like that.

 

That’s exactly the kind of educational experience I want for my own daughter.

 

I’d like her schooling to be tailor-made for her. Teach her in a way she can best understand and that will best engage her mind and build upon her competencies.

 

However, that’s not what Personalized Learning means.

 

It’s a euphemism for Competency Based Education or Outcome Based Education.

 

It means plopping a child in front of a computer screen for hours on end while she takes standardized tests and standardized test look-alikes on-line.

 

Cartoon avatars lecture students how to answer multiple-choice questions in mind numbing detail before making them go through endless drill-and-kill practice. If kids don’t get a question right, they do it again-and-again until they do.

 

And somehow this is personalized?

 

I’ll give you a little tip. You can’t have personal learning without people.

 

This is personalized the same way Angry Birds and Candy Crush is personalized. Except it’s way less fun – and much higher stakes.

 

Imagine if all of your classes were taught at the end of an automated help line. That’s really what this is:

 

“If you don’t understand because you need me to define a word, press 1.

 

If you don’t understand because you need me to explain punctuation, press 2.

 

If you don’t understand because you need the question repeated…”

 

What if your question isn’t on the menu? You have no recourse other than to just keep pushing buttons until you hit the one that’s supposedly “correct”.

 

Forget for a moment how ineffective that is. Just imagine how boring it is for a growing child.

 

Nothing stifles a young person’s natural curiosity more than being forced to suffer through hours of tedium.

 

And what’s worse, we already know this.

 

We’ve tried this kind of garbage before with similar results.

 

Back in the 1980s, the Reagan administration deregulated everything it could get its hands on, especially education.

 

This opened the floodgates to for-profit corporations to offer mail order correspondence courses with little to no accountability but funded by the federal government.

For nearly a decade, student aide systems were systemically pillaged and looted by unscrupulous vendors offering correspondence schools as a trendy alternative for trade schools and credit recovery programs. They charged hefty tuition and fees for nothing more than sending students boilerplate instructional materials, multiple choice tests, and worthless diplomas in the mail.

 

The blatant fraud was documented by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in the hearings held by then-Chairman Sam Nunn of Georgia. This lead to eliminating correspondence schools from participation in federal aide programs.

 

Congress realized that sending students a book wasn’t the same as actually teaching them.

 

But by the late 1990s and early 2000s, things began to change. With the popularization of the Internet, the defunct business model could rebrand itself simply by offering similar materials on-line. And after significant lobbying efforts over the subsequent decades, Congress conveniently forgot its objections to almost the same kind of fraud.

 

However, this kind of malfeasance was at first mostly confined to credit recovery programs and on-line colleges. In K-12 this was primarily a way for students who had already failed a grade to pass the required core courses over the summer on-line. It was a way to boost graduation rates or even provide resources for students to get a G.E.D.

 

The poor quality of these programs has been demonstrated time and again.

 

But instead of limiting, fixing or eliminating them, we’re pushing them into the public school system.

 

This is seen as a way to save money by teaching without teachers. Sure, you still need a certified educator in the class room (for now) but you can stuff even more children into the seats when the teacher is only a proctor and not responsible for actually presenting the material.

 

The teacher becomes more of a policeman. It’s his job to make sure students are dutifully pressing buttons, paying attention and not falling asleep.

 

Moreover, this is sold as a way to boost test scores and meet the requirements of the Common Core. You can easily point to exactly which standards are being assessed on a given day and then extrapolate to how much that will increase struggling students’ scores on the federally mandated standardized test when they take it later in the year.

 

In fact, students’ answers on these programs are kept and recorded. They are, in effect, stealth assessments that can be used to judge and sort students into remediation classes or academic tracks.

 

In effect, the year-end high stakes test can be entirely forgotten. Students are given a standardized test every day. Even those whose parents opt them out of the federal assessment have no escape because the tests have become the curriculum, itself.

 

And all the while tech companies are raking in the cash.

 

Education policy is not concerned with how best to teach children. It is about how best to open the trough of tax dollars to education corporations – book publishers, test manufacturers and now tech companies.

 

Meanwhile, the public has almost no idea what’s going on.

 

Educators are sounding the alarm, but well-paid corporate shills are trying to silence them as being anti-progress.

 

Calling out bad educational practices conducted on a computer is not Ludditism. Certainly there are better ways to use the technology to help students learn than THIS.

 

Moreover, there are plenty of things from the ‘80s that deserve being revisited – new wave music, romantic comedies, even the old Rubik’s cube.

 

But putting crappy correspondence colleges on-line!?

 

No, thank you.

The Problem With Public Schools Isn’t Low Test Scores. It’s Strategic Disinvestment

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Imagine you’re settling in to enjoy an article on-line or in your favorite print newspaper and you come across this headline:

 

U.S. Schools Ranked Low Internationally!

 

Or

 

Out of X Countries, U.S. Places Far From the Top in Math!

 

You feel embarrassed.

 

Soon that embarrassment turns to anger.

 

Sweat starts to break out on your brow.

 

And then you start to grasp for a solution to the problem – something major, something to disrupt the current system and bring us back to our proper place in the lead.

 

TWEEEEEEEET!

 

That was me blowing a gym teacher’s whistle. I’ll do it again:

 

TWWEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEET!

 

Hold it right there, consumer of corporate media. You’ve just been had by one of the oldest tricks in the book.

 

It’s the old manipulate-the-data-to-make-it-look-like-there’s-a-crisis-that-can-only-be-solved-by-drastic-measures-that-you-would-never-approve-of-normally.

 

We also call it disaster capitalism or the shock doctrine.

 

It’s been used to get people to agree to terrible solutions like preemptive wars of choice, warrantless wiretapping of civilians, torturing prisoners, defunding public health programs and scientific research – just about everything the Koch Brothers, the Waltons, the Broads, Gateses and other billionaire hegemonists have on their fire sale wish list.

 

In the case of the American educational system, it’s the impetus behind high stakes standardized testing, Common Core, Teach for America, and charter and voucher schools.

 

And they’re all justified by misinformation about student test scores.

 

The argument goes like this: Our Kids Are Failing!? Quick! Standardize and Privatize Their Schools!

 

First, education isn’t a race.

 

There is no best education system followed by a second best, etc. There are only countries that meet their students needs better than others.

 

And if you really wanted to determine if our country was meeting student needs, you wouldn’t appeal to test scores. You’d look at specific needs and assess them individually.

 

But you rarely see that. You rarely see an article with the headline:

 

U.S. Schools More Segregated Than Any In The Industrialized World!

 

Or

 

Out of X Countries, U.S. Spends Most on Rich Students and Least on Poor Ones!

 

Second, we need to ask ourselves if standardized test scores are really the best way to assess (1) student learning and (2) the education system as a whole.

 

Multiple choice tests are written by large corporations that profit more off of student failure than success. That’s not exactly an objective measure.

Students are considered passing or failing based on an arbitrary cut score that changes every year. That’s not exactly unbiased.

 

Moreover, standardized tests are always graded on a curve. That means no matter how well students do, some will always be considered failing. We cannot have No Child Left Behind when our assessments are designed to do just the opposite – it’s logically impossible.

 

But whenever the media turns to these international rankings, they ignore these facts.

 

They pretend it’s a horse race and we’re losing.

 

I kind of expect this from the corporate media. But when so-called progressive writers fall into this trap, I have to wonder if they’re just lazy or ignorant.

 

At best, these test scores are a second hand indication of structural inequalities in our public education system. It’s no accident that student from wealthy families generally score higher than those from poor ones. Nor is it pure misadventure that minority children also tend to score lower than their white counterparts.

 

These tests are economically, racially and culturally biased. They are completely unhelpful in determining root causes.

 

Thankfully, they’re unnecessary. It doesn’t take a standardized test to determine which students are receiving the least funding. Nor does it take a corporate intermediary to show us which schools have the largest class sizes and lowest resources.

 

The sad fact is that there are an awful lot of poor children attending public school. The U.S. has one of the highest child poverty rates in the industrialized world. And despite spending a lot on our middle class and wealthy students, we’re doing next to nothing to actually help our neediest children.

 

A large portion of U.S. public schools have been left to their own devices for decades. What’s worse, when they struggle to meet students’ needs, we don’t swoop in with help. We level blame. We fire teachers, close buildings and privatize.

 

There’s absolutely zero proof that changing a public school to a charter school will help, but we do it anyway. There’s not a scrap of evidence that sending poor kids to a low end private school with a tax-funded voucher will help, but we do it anyway.

 

Think about it: why would getting rid of duly-elected school boards help kids learn? Why would allowing schools to spend money behind close doors with zero public accountability boost children’s ability to learn?

 

Yet our policymakers continue to push for these measures because they have no intention of helping poor and minority public school students. They just want to enrich their friends in the school privatization industry. They just want to divert public money to testing corporations and book publishers.

 

THAT is the problem with America’s education system.

 

Not test scores.

 

It’s time our nation’s journalists give up this old canard.

 

We must be honest about why our public schools struggle. That’s the only way to find real solutions.

 

We must acknowledge the increasing segregation – both racially and economically. We must acknowledge the blatant funding disparities. And we must acknowledge how the majority of education policy at the federal, state and local level has done little to help alleviate these problems – in fact it has exacerbated them.

 

We need to stop testing and start investing in our schools. We need to stop privatizing and start participating in our neighborhood schools.

 

And most of all, we need to stop the lies and disinformation.

Where Did All The Integrated Schools Go? Why Segregation is Still Bad

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School segregation is bad.

 

Still.

 

It is shocking to me that in 2017 making this argument remains necessary.

 

But everywhere you look in the education debate you’ll find people clinging to their segregated charter schools, pushing for more segregated school vouchers, and lobbying to increase segregation at our traditional public schools.

 

You might be forgiven for thinking that the issue was resolved way back in 1954 when the US Supreme Court ruled in the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case.

 

Justices decided that it was unconstitutional to have substandard schools for black and minority students while also maintaining pristine schools for white children, as was the practice in most parts of the country at the time.

 

They struck down the previous justification of “separate but equal” because when you have separate schools, they are rarely equal.

 

You might think that’s just common sense. When you have schools just for blacks and schools just for whites, the resources aren’t going to be divided fairly or evenly. One group will always get the upper hand. Better to mix the two groups so it’s harder to select against one or the other.

 

And this is true of almost every cultural division you can think of: race, gender, class, religion, etc. The only way to protect everyone is to make it harder to hurt one group without hurting them all.

 

Everyone should already know that. But it still strikes some as news.

 

What may be less well known is the long, racist history of resistance to this ruling. In fact, what we now call “school choice” was invented during this time as an explicit attempt to avoid desegregation. “Charter Schools” and “School Vouchers” are modern terms that could almost as easily be used to describe the multifarious discriminatory attempts to stop racial mixing by reference to “choice.”

 

Take vouchers – allocating tax dollars to parents so they could “choose” to send their kids to private schools that won’t accept minorities – they tried it.

 

Or charters – setting up schools that are privately run but publicly funded so parents can “choose” to send their kids to schools allowed to discriminate against minorities during enrollment – they tried it.

 

And they’re still trying it and getting away with it.

 

It took decades for Brown v. Board to truly be enforced nationwide, and even after it became unavoidable, the fight to undermine it never truly died.

 

Betsy DeVos probably doesn’t consider herself a segregationist. Barack Obama probably doesn’t consider himself an advocate of “apartheid education”. But that’s what the policies each of them support actually accomplish. Both major political parties have been complicit – and are still complicit – in keeping our public schools separated by race and class.

 

There’s big bucks in it. Privatization means reducing accountability and transparency for how tax dollars are spent, which means unscrupulous corporations can pocket public money with no questions asked.

 

But it’s not just the charter and voucher industry that increase segregation. Our traditional public schools have also become separate and unequal.

 

After initial progress, our traditional public schools have been allowed to slip back into segregation. In many parts of the country, they are actually more segregated today than they were at the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

 

According to a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, from 2000 to 2014, school segregation has more than doubled nationwide. That’s twice the number of schools comprised almost entirely of students living in high poverty and/or students of color.

 

The number went from 7,009 to 15,089 schools. And that’s just the worst offenders – schools with more than three quarters of students from only one race or class. Throughout the country there are thousands more schools not as extreme but still serving mostly poor and/or minority students, and thus receiving fewer resources, more teacher layoffs, dealing with larger classes and crumbling infrastructure.

 

It wasn’t always like this.

 

Classrooms were the most diverse from the 1970s through the early 1990s. At peak integration, four out of 10 black southern students attended a white school, while less than a third of all black students attended majority black schools.

 

What went wrong? The Supreme Court.

 

The highest court in the land laid down a series of decisions, starting with Milliken vs. Bradley in 1974, that effectively put the breaks on school integration. In fact, that first case is often criticized as “one of the worst Supreme Court decisions” ever.

 

It dealt with Detroit’s plan to integrate students by busing them from the inner city to the suburbs. The court ruled that such a plan was unconstitutional, because black students only had the right to attend integrated schools WITHIN THEIR OWN SCHOOL DISTRICT. If few white people lived there, well oh well.

 

And thus, de facto segregation was born.

 

If black and white people didn’t live together in the same neighborhoods – and they rarely do – then they wouldn’t be forced to go to school together. Forget that banks and insurance companies often refuse or limit loans, mortgages, and insurance to people of color for properties within specific geographical areas – a practice known as red lining. There was nothing municipal or school officials from minority jurisdictions could do to force integration across these artificial borders.

 

Between 1991 and 1995, the Court made matters even worse in three additional rulings. Justices decided that integration was merely a temporary federal policy and once the imbalance was righted, school districts should be released from any desegregation orders.

 

The results can be seen in almost every traditional public school in the country. There are rich schools and poor schools. There are black schools and white schools. And our federal and state education policies take advantage of the separation making sure that privileged schools get the lions share of resources while the others have to make do with less.

 

It is the key issue holding back our system of public education. Almost every school where students have low test scores has a disproportionately high level of poverty and students of color. If our schools were truly integrated, there would be none labeled “failing.” There would only be students who need extra help though they would be equally distributed throughout and thus not stigmatized. Unfortunately, re-segregation has allowed an easy scapegoat, and this, in turn, has been an excuse to build more charter schools and pass more school vouchers that drastically increase that same segregation.

 

Some people look at this situation and claim that it means we should abandon traditional public schools. If they’re already segregated, they argue, we should just invest in the choice schools.

 

However, doing so would not solve any of our problems. It would only exacerbate them. The solution to smoking is not more cigarettes. It’s quitting.

 

School segregation is terrible. That’s true at charter, voucher and traditional public schools.

 

The presence of segregation is no reason to abandon public education. It just means we need to fix it.

 

We need to overturn these destructive and short-sighted Supreme Court decisions. We need federal and state policies that recommit us to integration. At very least, we need a moratorium on new charter and voucher programs.

 

We need to value all children, not just those who resemble us racially, socially and/or economically.

 

That’s why school segregation is so bad.

 

It divides our children into discrete groups. It sets up the social structure and ensures the privileged will continue to be prized and the underprivileged will continue to be devalued. It teaches children to trust those like themselves and to distrust those who are different.

 

School segregation is the mother of racism and prejudice. And until we, adults, have the courage to tackle it, the next generation will grow up just like us – selfish, racist and blind.

 


John Oliver recently reported on the same issue (Warning: vulgarity):

 

National Education Association Seems to Endorse Replacing Teachers With Computers

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When all the teachers are gone, will America’s iPads pay union dues?

 

It’s a question educators across the country are beginning to ask after yet another move by our national unions that seems to undercut the profession they’re supposed to be supporting.

 

The National Education Association (NEA), the largest labor union in the U.S., published a shortsighted puff piece on its Website that seemingly applauds doing away with human beings working as teachers.

 

In their place would be computers, iPads, Web applications and a host of “devices” that at best would need human beings to serve as merely lightly trained facilitators while children are placed in front of endless screens.

 

The article is called, “As More Schools Look to Personalized Learning, Teaching May Be About to Change,” by Tim Walker.

 

Teacher-blogger Emily Talmage led the charge with a counter article on her site called “Anatomy of a Betrayal.” She outlined the NEA’s change from being critical of such initiatives to joining with the likes of Jeb Bush and various foundations, tech firms and school voucher advocates in celebrating it.

 

Make no mistake.

 

This is not merely an examination of changing teaching practices. It is a movement by tech giants to further standardize and privatize America’s public schools.

 

This isn’t to say that technology can’t enhance learning. But classroom teachers with any kind of experience know that simply plopping a child in front of a computer screen is a terrible way to do it. It’s the equivalent of having all your questions answered by an automated voice on the telephone versus being able to ask questions of a living, breathing person.

 

And they have the gall to call it “personalized learning” as if it were meeting all the needs of students one-on-one. It isn’t.

 

It’s one-on-one, but it isn’t meeting anyone’s needs except bankers, hedge fund managers, charter school operators and tech investors.

 

It’s a way to drastically reduce the cost of education for poor and minority students by removing the need for a teacher. It’s the educational equivalent of an automated cashier in the grocery store, but unlike at Giant Eagle, it doesn’t just tally your bill, it pretends to teach.

 

This is the definition of a McEducation. It’s the logical extension of policymakers who think that 5-week trained Teach for America recruits are equivalent to education graduates with four-five year degrees and years of classroom experience. They’re just replacing TFA recruits with Apps.

 

Don’t get me wrong. America’s public schools have a lot of problems. They’re segregated by both economics and race. The poor and minority schools are inadequately funded and inequitably resourced. They are forced to compete for what little money remains with charter school vampires who are allowed to spend it however they like with little to no accountability or transparency. More money disappears down the gullets of voucher schools to subsidize the rich and indoctrinate Christian fundamentalists. And to top it all off, our public schools are forced to give scientifically invalid standardized assessments that are incentivized to fail as many students as possible so the same corporations that make the tests can sell districts remediation materials. Meanwhile, a large portion of these profits earned off public schools are reinvested in lawmakers reelection campaigns so they’ll pass legislation that continues to treat our children as golden geese for business and industry.

 

The NEA should know that. We have more than enough enemies to fight. But instead of taking arms, our national unions have been racing toward the bottom to compromise and keep that proverbial seat at the table. They’ll fight for teacher tenure. They’ll fight right-to-work legislation. But policies that undermine the very fabric of the profession? NAH.

 

 

We saw the same thing with Common Core. Educators knew you can’t teach higher order thinking skills to children without first doing the groundwork of process. But the book publishers had new textbooks to market so the NEA backed a horse they knew was dead at the starting gate.

 

And now we have the tech giants – the Zuckerbergs and Gates – slobbering over the profits they can make by callously removing teachers from the equation.

 

I’ve seen this first hand.

 

My district has a one-to-one iPad initiative. For two years, each of my students has had a device in every class. It hasn’t dramatically improved learning. At best, it’s increased students’ computer literacy. At worst, it’s a toy that actually distracts from authentic learning.

 

They allow me, the teacher, to give all assignments digitally. But that requires the network to function perfectly, the devices to be fully charged, the assignments to be entered precisely, the students to engage with them correctly and creatively – when handing students a paper and having them hand it back is actually much more efficient.

 

They allow students to look up unfamiliar vocabulary quickly, but they rob students of the context skills necessary to know which definition is appropriate, and experience using prefixes, suffixes and roots.

 

They allow students to easily access infinite information but without the skills to critically read it. More kids read the summary on the Internet than read the book – and even then, they don’t understand it.

 

They allow students to make colorful Keynote presentations and iMovies, but do nothing to prepare them how to intelligently organize the materials.

 

And – worst of all – they convince number crunching administrators that assignments, tests and lessons can be given digitally with hours of screen time. As if that was equivalent to authentic learning.

 

That is the end goal.

 

Everyone knows it. Isaac Asimov wrote about it in 1954 with his classic science fiction story “The Fun They Had” about a future where computerized home schooling was the norm. But even in his story, kids felt like they were being cheated out of something important that their ancestors had experienced in a traditional public school setting.

 

Instead of heeding his warning, our unions are rushing to make that world a reality.

 

You don’t strengthen unions by undercutting the professionals they’re supposed to represent.

 

Somebody needs to tell our union leaders – preferably by replacing them.

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School Vouchers: Transubstantiate Your Cash For Fun and Profit

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When is a tax dollar not a tax dollar?

When it’s used to pay for a school voucher.

That’s the slight of hand behind much of our education policy today.

Lawmakers want to give away a huge bundle of your cash to religious schools, but they can’t because of that pesky old First Amendment.

The establishment clause sets up a distinct separation between church and state. It explicitly forbids public money being spent on any specific religion.

So these lawmakers do a bit of magic. They take that money, wave their hands over it, mumble a few secret words and Voilà! It’s no longer public; it’s private. And private money can be spent any way you want – even on religion.

Here’s how they do it.

You simply take public tax dollars and turn them into credits that can be used to pay for alternatives to public schools. Call it a “school voucher.”

 

But wait a minute. Isn’t that like a check? If Peter writes Paul a check, that money is no longer Peter’s. Now it’s Paul’s. Right?

Yes. But that’s not what’s happening here.

A school voucher isn’t a check. A check is an order to your bank to transfer funds to another account or to be exchanged for cash or goods or services. School vouchers do not come from your account. And they cannot be transferred into just any account or spent in any way.

They’re more like food stamps. It’s not money that can be used in any way you see fit. It’s money that can only be used to pay for a child’s education. And you can only use it at a private or parochial school.

You can’t go into a fancy restaurant and buy a filet mignon dinner with food stamps. Likewise, you can’t go to a real estate developer and buy a house using your school vouchers.

This money does not therefore change from public to private. Yes, individuals get a limited choice of how this money will be spent, but that’s true of all public money. Go to a local council meeting, a school board meeting, write your Congressperson, petition your state Senator – in all of these cases, you are exercising choice on how public tax dollars are being spent: Don’t spend tax dollars on that bridge. Don’t spend public money on that program.

Even in the case of food stamps, individuals decide how public dollars are spent for your private use – within specified limits.

If that was really private money, there would be no restrictions on how it could be spent – or certainly no more restrictions than on any other private money.

But lawmakers are pretending like this isn’t true. They’re pretending that simply changing the name of the money changes its substance. It’s a lie. It’s slight of hand. They’re trying to trick you into assuming a transformation has taken place that has not.

 

BAD DEAL

 

Moreover, it’s a metamorphosis we shouldn’t want in the first place.

Think about it.

We want our public money spent in an accountable fashion. We want there to be a record of how it was spent and what it was spent on. We want that information to be readily available, and if that money was misappropriated, we want to be able to act on that.

 

School vouchers remove much of that accountability. Private and parochial schools simply don’t provide the same transparency as traditional public schools. Often there is no elected school board, no public meetings, no open documents. Nada.

 

But if the parents who used the school voucher don’t like how the money is being spent, they can disenroll their child, right? So if they’re comfortable without this transparency, that’s all that matters, right?

 

Wrong. School vouchers are not paid for 100% by the parent. They are paid for with an aggregation of local tax dollars above and beyond what individual parents pay in school taxes.

 

In short, this is not just your money even if it’s spent on your kid. You shouldn’t be the only one who gets a say in how this money is spent. The community provided this money. The community should decide how it’s spent. At very least, the community should get a say.

 

If the community doesn’t want children to be raised with a distinctly Biblical view of history and science, the community shouldn’t have to contribute to that. If individual parents want to spend their own money on that, fine. That’s your prerogative. But school vouchers are made up of public tax dollars, yet we’re removing the majority of the public from having a voice in how that money is spent.

 

Moreover, traditional public schools are required not to discriminate against students. They can’t select against students based on learning disabilities, ethnicity, skin color, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc. And that’s a really good thing. Everyone’s money is used to pay for these schools. These schools should serve everyone.

 

But private and parochial schools (and charter schools, too, by the way) aren’t held to this same standard. It’s telling, for example, that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has refused to commit to holding private and parochial schools that accept school vouchers accountable if they discriminate against children. She seems to be implying that the U.S. government will stand aside and let public tax dollars be spent to support schools that discriminate. And the reason they think they can get away with this is the cynical monetary alchemy outlined above: school vouchers are private money and can be spent any way parents want. It isn’t and they can’t.

 

This is government sanctioned money laundering, pure and simple.

 

Lawmakers have been bought off with huge donations from the privatization industry to enact legislation friendly toward private and parochial schools.

 

NAME CHANGE

 

In some cases, they don’t even use the name “school vouchers.” They call it education tax credit scholarships, but it’s effectively the same thing.

 

Instead of distributing the vouchers directly to parents, they allow businesses and individuals to make tax deductible donations to nonprofits set up explicitly to distribute vouchers for private and parochial schools.

 

The reason? People don’t like school vouchers. But if you call it a “scholarship,” it’s more palatable. For instance, while school vouchers are mostly supported by Republicans, a substantial number of Democrats support education tax credit scholarships.

 

In 17 states you can get substantial tax credits for donating to one of these private and parochial school scholarships.

 

Louisiana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Virginia, for example, all provide tax credits worth between $65 and $95 on every $100 donated. Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Montana, and South Carolina go even further by reimbursing 100% of the donation. You read that right. Donate $100, get $100 back.

 

Oh, but it gets much worse. Since these are considered donations, you can also claim them as charitable deductions and get an additional 35% off your taxes. So you donate $100 and get back $135! Yes. You actually make money off this deal!

 

In my home state of Pennsylvania, investors can even “triple dip” receiving a state tax credit, a reduction in their state taxable income, and a reduction in their federal taxable income. And, yes, that means they sometimes get back more in tax breaks than they provide in contributions.

 

Meanwhile all of these “savings” come from money stolen from local public schools. Businesses and individual investors are profiting off of the deteriorating conditions at public schools.

 

Ever wonder why class sizes are ballooning, teachers are being furloughed and electives are falling by the wayside? It’s because people are making money off children’s suffering.

 

In my home state of Pennsylvania, we call this the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) and the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) programs.

 

The state Budget and Policy Center estimates that about 76% of these “scholarships” go to religious schools. That was approximately $95 million dollars in 2014-15 (the last year for which data was available).

 

Many of these educational institutions are explicitly fundamentalist. This includes the 155 schools in the Association of Christian Schools International (ASCI) where they boast of “the highest belief in biblical accuracy in scientific and historical matters.” It also includes 35 schools in the Keystone Christian Education Association.

 

How many more parochial schools are using tax dollars to teach fundamentalist curriculum? Without an audit, we’ll never know.

 

And that’s a really significant issue.

 

These scholarships are supposed to be eligible only to low income students. Yet a significant number of them are being utilized at private schools with average tuitions of $32,000 – far more than the few thousand dollars provided by the scholarships. They are apparently being used by wealthy and middle class students who can already afford private schools but are using public tax dollars to reduce the cost.

 

A total of $11.2 million in EITC and OSTC tax credits went to just 23 of the most exclusive and expensive private schools in 2014-15. That’s 9% of the total. Suburban Philadelphia’s Haverford School, alone, received $2.2 million, buying down its $37,500 tuition.

 

How many parents misused these scholarships in this way? What is the racial and ethnic makeup of recipients? Again, without an audit, we don’t know.

 

This is not how public money should be spent.

 

We need to put the breaks on these initiatives, not expand them into a federal incentive program as the Trump Administration proposes.

 

Whether you call them education tax credit scholarships or school vouchers, these programs do not transform public money into private.

 

They are a scam. They are theft. And their biggest victims are children.

Betsy’s Choice: School Privatization Over Kids’ Civil Rights

Betsy DeVos attends education meeting at the White House in Washington

 

Betsy DeVos seems to be confused about her job.

 

As U.S. Secretary of Education, she is responsible for upholding the civil rights of all U.S. students.

 

She is NOT a paid lobbyist for the school privatization industry.

 

Yet when asked point blank by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) whether her department would ensure that private schools receiving federal school vouchers don’t discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) students, she refused to give a straight answer.

 

She said that the these schools would be required to follow all federal antidiscrimination laws but her department would not issue any clarifications or directives about exactly how they should be doing it.

 

“On areas where the law is unsettled, this department is not going to be issuing decrees. That is a matter for Congress and the courts to settle,” DeVos said at a hearing before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education yesterday.

 

“I think you just said where it’s unsettled, such discrimination will continue to be allowed under your program. If that’s incorrect, please correct it for the record,” Merkley replied.

 

DeVos did not correct him.

 

Instead she simply repeated, “Schools that receive federal funds will follow federal law, period.”

 

Merkley said she was dodging the question.

“I think that’s very important for the public to know, that today, the secretary of education, before this committee, refused to affirm that she would put forward a program that would ban discrimination based on LGBTQ status of students or would ban discrimination based on religion,” he said.

 

“Discrimination in any form is wrong. I don’t support discrimination in any form,” DeVos replied.

 

But that doesn’t mean she’ll fight against it.

 

She held firm to her position that it is not her job as Secretary of Education to fight for students’ civil rights. That is the responsibility of Congress and the courts.

 

But she’s wrong.

 

The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is part of the Department of Education.

 

According to the department’s own Website, the “OCR’s mission is to ensure equal access to education and to promote educational excellence through vigorous enforcement of civil rights in our nation’s schools.”

 

There is nothing “unsettled” about that at all. What IS unsettled is how and if the U.S. Constitution allows federal funds to be spent on private schools in any manner whatsoever.

 

At very least, it has been argued that giving tax dollars to parochial schools violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment guaranteeing a separation of church and state. Moreover, the degree to which voucher schools that don’t explicitly teach religion would have to abide by federal laws about what they can and should do is likewise “unsettled.”

 

Yet DeVos has no problem advocating for the school privatization industry. In fact, it has been her lifelong calling. As a billionaire Republican mega-donor, that’s exactly what she’s done for years – shoving bundles of cash at candidates and lawmakers to support school vouchers and charter schools.

 

Someone needs to remind her that that is no longer her role. In her official capacity as Secretary of Education, her job is not to advocate for school choice. But it IS her job to protect students’ civil rights – regardless of the type of school those students attend.

 

If a school is at all public, she is responsible for ensuring those students’ rights. And receiving public funds makes a school public.

 

 

Specifically, she is responsible for ensuring no child is discriminated against on the basis of race, color and national origin, according to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  This includes protecting children who are being treated unfairly due to limited understanding of the English language or who are still learning to speak the language. This includes children experiencing bigotry as a result of their shared ancestry, ethnicity or religion such as Muslims, Sikhs or Jews.

 

 

It is also her job to protect children from sexual discrimination as per Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.  No matter her own personal conservative views, she must protect pregnant teens or teen parents. And to speak toward Merkley’s point, according to the Department’s Website, this explicitly includes, “…sex stereotypes (such as treating persons differently because they do not conform to sex-role expectations or because they are attracted to or are in relationships with persons of the same sex); and gender identity or transgender status.”

 

She is also required to be a champion of students with disabilities as per Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Moreover, Title II explicitly forbids public entities – whether or not they receive federal funds – from demonstrating any partiality against students with disabilities.

 

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. She has to protect against age discrimination per the Age Discrimination Act of 1975 and enforce the Boy Scouts of America Equal Access Act. She is responsible for investigating complaints about equal access to youth groups conducting meetings at public schools and/or that receive federal funding.

 

To quote the Website, one more time:

 

“These civil rights laws extend to all state education agencies, elementary and secondary school systems, colleges and universities, vocational schools, proprietary schools, state vocational rehabilitation agencies, libraries and museums that receive federal financial assistance from ED [the Education Department].”

 

I’m not so sure DeVos understand this – at all.

 

Nor do I expect her to get much help from the political ideologues she’s using to staff the department.

 

Take her choice for Assistant Secretary in the Office for Civil Rights, Candice Jackson.

 

She’s an ANTI-Civil Rights activist. She literally doesn’t believe in the office she’s running.

 

The 39-year-old attorney is anti-women’s rights, anti-distributive justice and possibly even anti-compulsory education and anti-Civil Rights Act of 1964!

 

She once filed a complaint against her prestigious college, Stanford University, for discriminating against her rights as a rich, white person by refusing to allow her access to free minority tutoring.

 

For all its faults, the Barack Obama administration took civil rights seriously. So much so that conservatives often criticized the Democratic organization as being overzealous in the execution of its duties.

 

The Obama era Education Department issued so many clarifications of the law that it received a record number of civil rights complaints. This required hundreds of additional lawyers and investigators and increasing the civil rights division by 30 percent.

 

Complaints went from more than six thousand in 2009 to almost ten thousand in 2015. Of these, the largest increase was in complaints of sex discrimination.

 

However, President Donald Trump has recommended the Department be downsized in his budget proposal.

 

The Reality TV star would cut the Department’s budget by 13 percent, or $9 billion, eliminating after-school and summer programming for kids and professional development for teachers.  Instead, he would invest $250 million in a school voucher incentive program and an additional $168 million for charter schools.

 

Also, getting a boost is personal security for DeVos, herself. She is spending an additional $1 million a month for U.S. Marshalls to guard her against protesters.

 

It should come as no surprise that Trump and DeVos don’t support the mission of the Department of Education. Both have expressed interest in disbanding the office altogether.

 

In a February magazine interview, DeVos said, “It would be fine with me to have myself worked out of a job. But I’m not sure that – I’m not sure that there will be a champion movement in Congress to do that.”

 

Likewise, Trump wrote in his 2015 book “Great Again: How to Fix Our Crippled America” that “if we don’t eliminate [the department] completely, we certainly need to cut its power and reach.”

 

That is exactly what DeVos is doing.

 

Under Presidents George W. Bush and Obama, it could be argued the Department was guilty of overreach. But Trump and DeVos are going in the opposite extreme.

 

Someone has to look out for students’ civil rights. That someone has traditionally been the Department of Education. With DeVos abdicating her responsibilities and continuing her role as a school privatization cheerleader, it is anyone’s guess who – if anyone – will step into the void.