Middle School Suicides Double As Common Core Testing Intensifies

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Here’s a high stakes testing statistic you won’t hear bandied about on the news.

 

The suicide rate among 10- to 14-year-olds doubled between 2007 and 2014 – the same period in which states have increasingly adopted Common Core standards and new, more rigorous high stakes tests.

 

For the first time, suicide surpassed car crashes as a leading cause of death for middle school children.

In 2014, the last year for which data was available, 425 middle schoolers nationwide took their own lives.

 

To be fair, researchers, educators and psychologists say several factors are responsible for the spike, however, pressure from standardized testing is high on the list.

 

In fact, it is a hallmark of other nations where children perform better on these tests than our own.

 

In our efforts to emulate these countries, we’ve inadvertently imported their child suicide problem.

 

In South Korea, one of the highest performing nations on international tests, youth suicide is a national epidemic.

 

According to the National Youth Policy Institute in Korea, one in four students considers committing suicide. In fact, Korea has the second highest youth suicide rate among contemporary nations.

 

For several years, the Korean school system has topped the roughly 70 member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) educational league, which measures 15-year-old students’ knowledge through the PISA test, an international student assessment exam within OECD member states.

 

However, the system is roundly criticized for its emphasis on memorization and test prep with little real-life application. In fact, 75 percent of South Korean children attend “cram schools” where they do little else than prepare for standardized assessments.

 

 

Likewise, Chinese students suffer similar curriculum and rates of child suicide. Though Shanghai students have some of the highest scores in OECD, abuse runs rampant.

 

According to the China Daily, teachers at Hubei Xiaogan No 1 High School in central Hubei province actually rigged their students up to IV drips in the classroom so they could continue studying after being physically exhausted.

 

Brook Larmer of the New York Times reports visiting student dormitories in Maotanchang, a secluded town in Anhui province, where the windows were covered in wire mesh to prevent students from jumping to their deaths.

 

In the United States, education “reform” hasn’t reached these depths, but we’re getting closer every year.

 

Efforts to increase test scores have changed U.S. schools to closer resemble those of Asia. Curriculum is being narrowed to only the tested subjects and instruction is being limited to testing scenarios, workbooks, computer simulations, practice and diagnostic tests.

 

A classroom where students aren’t allowed to pursue their natural curiosities and are instead directed to boring and abstract drills is not a place of joy and discovery. A school that does not allow children to express themselves but forces constant test prep is a lifeless environment devoid of hope.

 

But that’s not the worst of it.

 

American students are increasingly being sorted and evaluated by reference to their test score rather than their classroom grade or other academic indicators. Students are no longer 6th, 7th or 8th graders. They’re Below Basics, Basics, Proficents and Advanced. The classes they’re placed in, the style of teaching, even personal rewards and punishments are determined by a single score.

 

In some states, like Florida, performance on federally mandated tests actually determine if students can advance to the next grade. Some children pass their classes but don’t move on purely because of test scores well within the margin or error.

 

The results are devastating.

 

Marion Brady tells a gut-wrenching story on Alternet about a 9-year-old Florida boy who tried to hang himself after failing the state’s FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test) by one point.

 

His mother explains that he had to take a summer remediation course and a retest, but still failed by one point. She couldn’t bear to tell him, but he insisted that he had failed and was utterly crushed.

 

After a brief period where he was silent, alone in his room, she became apprehensive:

 

“I … ran down the hall to [his] room, banged on the door and called his name. No response. I threw the door open. There was my perfect, nine- year-old freckled son with a belt around his neck hanging from a post on his bunk bed. His eyes were blank, his lips blue, his face emotionless. I don’t know how I had the strength to hoist him up and get the belt off but I did, then collapsed on the floor and held [him] as close to my heart as possible. There were no words. He didn’t speak and for the life of me I couldn’t either. I was physically unable to form words. I shook as I held him and felt his heart racing.

 

“I’d saved [him]! No, not really…I saved him physically, but mentally he was gone…The next 18 months were terrible. It took him six months to make eye contact with me. He secluded himself from friends and family. He didn’t laugh for almost a year…”

 

The boy had to repeat the third grade but is haunted by what had happened as is his mother.

 

And this is by no means an isolated incident.

 

According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, the suicide rate for 5- to 14- year-olds jumped by 39.5 percent from 2000 to 2013. The rate for 15- to 24-year-olds, which was already 818% higher than for younger children, also increased during the same time period by 18.9 percent.

 

That’s more than 5,000 children and rising each year taking their own lives.

 

Again, high stakes testing isn’t responsible for all of it. But the dramatic increase along with a subsequent increase in high stakes testing is not unrelated.

 

The Alliance for Childhood, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that advises on early education, compiled a report from parents, teachers, school nurses, psychologists, and child psychiatrists noting that the stress of high-stakes testing was literally making children sick.

 

On testing days, school nurses report that their offices are filled with students complaining of headaches and stomachaches. There have even been reports of uncontrollable sobbing.

 

In 2013, eight prominent New York principals were so alarmed by this increasing student behavior that they wrote a letter to parents expressing their concerns:

 

“We know that many children cried during or after testing, and others vomited or lost control of their bowels or bladders. Others simply gave up. One teacher reported that a student kept banging his head on the desk, and wrote, ‘This is too hard,’ and ‘I can’t do this,’ throughout his test booklet.”

 

And they’re not alone.

 

In fact, student anxiety is so common on test day that most federally mandated tests include official guidelines specifically outlining how to deal with kids vomiting on their test booklets.

 

School counselors note increasing student anxiety levels, sleep problems, drug use, avoidance behaviors, attendance problems, acting out, etc. that increase around testing time and during test prep lessons. This is a major contributor, they say, to the unprecedented increase in the number of young children being labeled and treated for psychiatric illnesses ranging from learning disabilities and attention disorders to anxiety and depression.

 

And the psychological trauma isn’t limited to the students, alone. The adults also suffer from it.

 

In 2015, Jeanene Worrell-Breeden, a West Harlem elementary school principal, took her own life by jumping in front of a subway train to escape a standardized testing scandal. Under intense pressure from the federal and state government to improve academic achievement, she had allegedly instructed her staff to change students’ answers on a new Common Core aligned high stakes test.

 

But the trauma isn’t always so dramatic. Teachers and principals often suffer in silence. And when it affects the adults in the room, imagine what it does to the children.

 

It isn’t that teachers aren’t trying to teach or that students aren’t trying to learn. It’s that the expectations and testing are developmentally inappropriate.

 

Middle school children’s brains are still growing. They are only physically able to learn certain concepts and skills, but we’re forcing them to deal with increasingly advanced and complex concepts at younger ages.

 

And when expectations and high stakes consequences come crashing down on children, they can feel there is no way out.

 

This is why thousands of parents have refused to allow their children to take high stakes standardized testing.

 

This is why there is a growing grass roots movement against these sorts of assessments and other corporate school reforms.

 

It’s time the media connect the dots and report these sorts of stories in context.

 

Don’t just shrug when reporting on child suicide rates, if you report it at all. Give the microphone to experts who can point the finger where it belongs.

 

And the rest of us need to make sure our representatives at the state, local and federal level know where we stand.

 

High stakes testing is child abuse. We should not emulate other nations’ scores especially when they come at such a cost.

 

The fact that we don’t engage in the worst abuses of Asian schools should be a point of pride, not jealousy.

 

We should cherish and nurture our children even if other nations sacrifice theirs on the altar of competition and statistics.

The One Reform We Never Try: Increase Teacher Salary

 

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There are many suggestions for improving America’s public schools:

 

More standardized tests.

 

New academic standards.

 

Increase charter schools and/or allow kids to attend private schools with public money.

 

But one reform you hardly ever hear about is this: pay teachers more.

 

Isn’t that funny?

 

We’re willing to try almost everything else but that.

 

Sure, some folks want to tie teachers’ salaries to test scores, but that’s not increasing pay. That’s just doubling down on standardized testing.

 

Isn’t it shocking that no one is willing to invest more money into the actual act of educating children?

 

Consider this: full-time employees making minimum wage earn between $15,000-$20,000 a year. (Some states have voluntarily raised the minimum wage above the federally mandated $7.25 to as much as $10 an hour.)

 

Compare that to a teacher’s starting salary.

 

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), the low end for teachers entering the field is around $30,000. That’s a mere $10,000 above the most generous minimum wage.

 

There are places in this country where going into debt earning a four year degree in education, serving an (often unpaid) internship in the classroom and agreeing to teach the next generation gets you a few notches above fry chefs and WalMart greeters.

 

This isn’t to disparage burger cooks or grocery clerks. I, too, love a crispy French fried potato and a sincere greeting. But which profession is more important to our future as a nation? The quality of our service industries or the education of every single child in the country – all our future doctors, lawyers, politicians and… well… EVERYTHING!

 

Average starting salary for teachers nationwide is only $37,000, according to NACE.

 

Compare that to other professions.

 

Computer programmers start at $65,000. Engineers start at $61,000. Accountants (mathematics and statistics majors) start at $54,000. Even philosophers and priests (philosophy and religious studies majors) start at $45,000.

 

Are they more important than teachers? Do they provide more value for society?

 

I humbly suggest that they do not.

 

Who taught the programmers how to program? Who taught the engineers and accountants how to add and subtract? Who taught the philosophers how to think logically? Who taught the priests how to write their sermons?

 

TEACHERS. That’s who.

 

Yet if we judge purely by starting salary, we certainly don’t value their services much.

 

To be specific, they make 14 percent less than those from professions that require similar levels of education, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

 

Sadly, it only gets worse as time goes on.

 

Teacher salary starts low, and grows even more slowly.

 

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According to a report by the Center for American Progress, the average base salary for a teacher with 10 years of experience and a bachelor’s degree is $45,000. That’s a mere $800 annual raise. No wonder more than 16 percent of teachers have a second or third job outside of the school system. They simply can’t survive on the salary.

 

They can’t buy a home or even rent an apartment in most metropolitan areas. They can’t afford to marry, raise children, or eke out a middle class existence.

 

What effect does this have on students?

 

Well, for one, it often leaves them with inexperienced or exhausted teachers.

 

Nationwide, 46 percent of educators quit before reaching the five year mark. And it’s worse in urban districts, where 20 percent quit every single year!

 

That translates to more students learning from educators who are, themselves, just learning how to teach. If we took pains to keep them in the profession, think of what a positive impact that would have on the quality of education the nation’s students  receive – Teachers learning from experience and improving their practice every year instead of a continual flux of novices just trying to figure out the basics and survive!

 

But it’s not all intangibles. It costs bookoo bucks to constantly find and train new teachers – roughly $7.34 billion a year, to be exact. Imagine if we could invest that money into salaries instead.

 

This is exactly what they do in many other countries.

 

We’re always comparing ourselves with nations in Europe and Asia where students average higher standardized test scores. Yet we rarely enact the policies that got them these results.

 

Many of these countries recruit the top graduates to become teachers. How? By offering sweeteners and incentives to become a life-long educator.

 

In Singapore and Finland, for example, they actually cover the cost of the college coursework needed to become a teacher. And when it comes to salary, they leave us in the dust. In South Korea, they pay educators an average of 250 percent more than we do!

 

For many people, education is a calling. You feel drawn toward the job because it holds meaning to you. But how many people ignore that calling because of simple economics? There are plenty of things you can do with your life; If you can’t earn a living doing one thing, you may opt for something else.

 

How many more excellent teachers would we have in this country if we prized and rewarded those practitioners we already have?

 

It doesn’t take a deep dive into the news to see how teachers are treated in American society far beyond the low pay.

 

Everything that goes wrong in our public schools is laid at their feet whether they have any control over it or not. Child poverty, inequitable and inadequate resources, regressive and nepotistic policy, backward education legislation – it’s all somehow the teacher’s fault.

 

Imagine if we saw teachers as part of the solution! What effect would that have on teacher turnover?

 

Look no further than our foreign counterparts. In South Korea, turnover is only 1 percent per year. In Finland, it’s 2 percent. In Singapore, it’s 3 percent.

 

It’s certainly worth a try.

 

As reforms go, this is one with more evidence behind it than 90 percent of the garbage that comes floating out of partisan think tanks.

 

Pay teachers more.

 

Starting salary should be at least $65,000. End pay after 30 years should be at least $150,000.

 

THAT would boost educational outcomes.

 

And, please, don’t give me any nonsense about summer break, teacher tenure, the power of unions or whatever else you heard on talk radio or the corporate news media. Teachers average 53 hours a week August through June – making up for any downtime in the summer, tenure doesn’t mean a job for life – it means due process, and unions aren’t evil – they just ensure workers more rights than the bosses would like.

 

Moreover, don’t tell me we can’t afford it. We spend more on the military than the next 8 nations combined.

 

Imagine if we put a priority on raising our own children instead of guns and missiles. Imagine if we spent more on life than death.

 

Imagine if we tried the one reform left in the box – increase teacher pay.

 

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.

More Truth in Teacher-Written Education Blogs Than Corporate Media

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Let’s get one thing straight right from the get go: I am biased.

 

But so are you.

 

So are the parents, students, principals and school directors. So are the policymakers, the corporate donors and professional journalists.

 

Everyone involved in education policy is interested in one side or another of the debate. It’s just that some pretend to practice a kind of objectivity while others are open about their partiality.

 

It’s unavoidable. I’m a public school teacher. Not merely someone who’s taught in a public school for a few years – I’m an educator with more than 15 years experience in the classroom. And I’m still there.

 

I’m not a Teach for America recruit who committed myself to three years in front of children after a few weeks crash course. Where I am now was my goal in the first place. I’m not doing this to get the credentials for my real dream job, being an education policy advisor for a Congressperson or Senator. Nor do I plan to become a Superintendent, Principal or school administrator someday.

 

All along, my goal was to have a classroom of my own where I could help children learn.

 

Moreover, I’m a public school parent. My daughter goes to the same public school my wife and I both attended as children. We could have sent her to a charter or private school. But we made the conscious choice not to, and we’ve never regretted it.

 

Our local district serves a mostly high poverty population. More than half of the students are minorities. The facilities aren’t as up to date as you’ll find in richer neighborhoods. Class sizes are too large. But we decided that being a part of the community school was important, and much of what my child has learned there simply isn’t taught at schools where everyone is the same.

 

So when you read one of my blogs (even this one), it comes from a certain point of view. And I’m okay with that. You should be, too.

 

However, when you read an article in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times or Pittsburgh Tribune Review, there is a presumption of detachment and neutrality. But it’s bogus.

 

Those articles are written by human beings, too, and thus they are likewise biased.

 

The only difference is what exactly that bias is.

 

My preference is plain and on the surface. I am in favor of public schools over privatized ones. I support teachers over corporations making decisions about how to educate. I’m an advocate for children and families.

 

When you read an article in the mainstream media, you frankly have no idea which direction their inclinations swerve.

 

However, you do know that money often plays a major role in their editorial spin.

 

Journalism is a business. Perhaps it should be a public good. We used to look at it that way. We used to try to keep it separate from advertising. It didn’t have to make a profit.

 

But that’s all changed. Now it’s expected to bring in money. It’s expected to generate “value” for the corporation that owns it. However, we rarely stop to think how corrupting an influence that is.

 

For some people, my position as an educator discredits my knowledge of schools. Yet getting paid by huge testing corporations doesn’t discredit journalists!?

 

I speak here from experience, too. I used to be a professional journalist.

 

Before becoming a teacher, I worked full-time at various daily and weekly newspapers in Western Pennsylvania. I can tell you first hand that sometimes editors encouraged or physically rewrote articles to spin the story the way they wanted.

 

I remember writing a story about a local tax collector seeking re-election. I didn’t know him, personally, but I had heard several rumors about unsavory practices he had allegedly engaged in while employed in a different capacity as a public servant. So I did research and found that they were true. I had proof. I even confronted him, personally, with what I had found to give him a chance to explain.

 

However, when I submitted the article, my editor had a conniption. Apparently, the tax collector had called the paper threatening to cause trouble. So the article was completely rewritten to downplay what I had discovered.

 

None of it mattered that much. It was just a local tax collector’s race. Frankly, I can’t even remember if he won re-election. But it was demonstrative of what happens in editorial departments.

 

I’ve seen businesses complain about news articles and threaten to withdraw advertising. I’ve seen colorful, glossy info-packets sent to reporters seeking articles about subjects enticing them with the ease of approaching it from their point of view. I’ve had editors assign me stories that I thought were non-issues and then they tweaked my finished product so it had the implications they intended from the get-go.

 

If that happens at the local level, imagine what happens at the biggest corporate offices.

 

Now don’t get me wrong.

 

I’m not saying that mainstream media is nothing but lies. I’ll leave that claim for the President. But it IS biased. And as smart consumers of media, we need to be aware of it.

 

We need to be aware that corporate media is often going to take the side of big corporations. They’re going to be in favor of standardized testing, Common Core, charter and voucher schools. They’re going to talk up computer-based depersonalized learning. They’re going to uncritically criticize those standing in the way of corporate profits – i.e. teachers.

 

This doesn’t mean readers shouldn’t trust education reporting from professional journalists. There are writers out there who are trying to present both sides of the issue without editorial meddling. There are reporters who understand the big picture and are trying to expose the truth. Moreover, they have resources that bloggers often don’t – copy editors, fact checkers, knowledgeable and experienced colleagues in media, etc.

 

However, they are frankly working with significant limitations that teacher bloggers don’t have.

 

When I want to know how public schools work, I can simply appeal to my first hand experience. When a reporter want to do that, she is often stymied by rules and regulations that keep people like them out.

 

They are rarely permitted inside our schools to see the day-to-day classroom experience. Legal issues about which students may be photographed, filmed or interviewed, the difficulty of getting parental permissions and the possibility of embarrassment to principals and administrators often keeps the doors closed. In many districts, teachers aren’t even allowed to speak on the record to the media or doing so can make them a political target. So reporters are often in the position of being unable to directly experience the very thing they’re reporting on.

 

If I read a book about baseball, I might know a lot of facts about the players. But that can’t compare with someone who’s actually been to the games, been on the field, even played in the World Series!

 

 

At the same time, education blogs aren’t perfect either. For one, you have to be cognizant of who is writing them.

 

You’re currently reading The Gadfly on the Wall Blog. But that’s worlds different than reading the Education Gadfly. The latter site is owned and operated by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. This organization actually runs charter schools in Ohio. They spend millions of dollars spreading propaganda on charter authorization, school choice, standardized curriculum, digital learning, standards, testing, etc.

 

I, on the other hand, am just a school teacher with a laptop. Education Gadfly has a paid staff. No one pays me a dime nor do I even sell advertisements.

 

To be fair, I operate on a free WordPress site and sometimes WordPress puts ads on my page. But I don’t see any of that money. It’s just the cost of having a free site. If I wanted to pay for it, I could get an ad-free site.

 

Also, once in a blue moon a Website that reposts my blog pays me a couple of bucks for the privilege. So maybe I’ve ordered a pizza or two with money from the blog, but I certainly couldn’t survive off the revenue from it. I would literally make more money working one week at WalMart than I’ve ever pulled in from three years of education bloggery.

 

 

These are the reasons why teacher-written education blogs are superior to the competition.

 

They aren’t beholden to corporate money or influence. They have first-hand experience of the subject.

 

Journalists have a hard job and they deserve our respect. But they can’t compare to the expertise of practicing educators.

 

If editors included our voices more, perhaps the mainstream media wouldn’t be so skewed towards corporate interests.

 

But that’s really the goal, in the first place.

Teachers Don’t Want All This Useless Data

26948475_l-too-much-data

One of the most frustrating things I’ve ever been forced to do as a teacher is to ignore my students and concentrate instead on the data.

 

I teach 8th grade Language Arts at a high poverty, mostly minority school in Western Pennsylvania. During my double period classes, I’m with these children for at least 80 minutes a day, five days a week.

 

During that time, we read together. We write together. We discuss important issues together. They take tests. They compose poems, stories and essays. They put on short skits, give presentations, draw pictures and even create iMovies.

 

I don’t need a spreadsheet to tell me whether these children can read, write or think. I know.

 

Anyone who had been in the room and had been paying attention would know.

 

But a week doesn’t go by without an administrator ambushing me at a staff meeting with a computer print out and a smile.

 

Look at this data set. See how your students are doing on this module. Look at the projected growth for this student during the first semester.

 

It’s enough to make you heave.

 

I always thought the purpose behind student data was to help the teacher teach. But it has become an end to itself.

 

It is the educational equivalent of navel gazing, of turning all your students into prospective students and trying to teach them from that remove – not as living, breathing beings, but as computer models.

 

It reminds me of this quote from Michael Lewis’ famous book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game:

 

“Intelligence about baseball statistics had become equated in the public mind with the ability to recite arcane baseball stats. What [Bill] James’s wider audience had failed to understand was that the statistics were beside the point. The point was understanding; the point was to make life on earth just a bit more intelligible; and that point, somehow, had been lost. ‘I wonder,’ James wrote, ‘if we haven’t become so numbed by all these numbers that we are no longer capable of truly assimilating any knowledge which might result from them.'”

 

The point is not the data. It is what the data reveals. However, some people have become so seduced by the cult of data that they’re blind to what’s right in front of their eyes.

 

You don’t need to give a child a standardized test to assess if he or she can read. You can just have them read. Nor does a child need to fill in multiple choice bubbles to indicate if he or she understands what’s been read. They can simply tell you. In fact, these would be better assessments. Doing otherwise, is like testing someone’s driving ability not by putting them behind the wheel but by making them play Mariocart.

 

The skill is no longer important. It is the assessment of the skill.

 

THAT’S what we use to measure success. It’s become the be-all, end-all. It’s the ultimate indicator of both student and teacher success. But it perverts authentic teaching. When the assessment is all that’s important, we lose sight of the actual skills we were supposed to be teaching in the first place.

 

The result is a never ending emphasis on test prep and poring over infinite pages of useless data and analytics.

 

As Scottish writer Andrew Lang put it, “He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp posts – for support rather than for illumination.”

 

Teachers like me have been pointing this out for years, but the only response we get from most lawmakers and administrators is to hysterically increase the sheer volume of data and use more sophisticated algorithms with which to interpret it.

 

Take the Pennsylvania Value Added Assessment System (PVAAS). This is the Commonwealth’s method of statistical analysis of students test scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) and Keystone Exams, which students take in grades 3-8 and in high school, respectively.

 

It allows me to see:

  • Student scores on each test
  • Student scores broken down by subgroups (how many hit each 20 point marker)
  • Which subgroup is above, below or at the target for growth

 

But perhaps the most interesting piece of information is a prediction of where each student is expected to score next time they take the test.

 

How does it calculate this prediction? I have no idea.

 

That’s the kind of metric they don’t give to teachers. Or taxpayers, by the way. Pennsylvania has paid more than $1 billion for its standardized testing system in the last 8 years. You’d think lawmakers would have to justify that outlay of cash, especially when they’re cutting funding for just about everything else in our schools. But no. We’re supposed to just take that one on faith.

 

So much for empirical data.

 

Then we have the Classroom Diagnostic Tools (CDT). This is an optional computer-based test given three times a year in various core subjects.

 

If you’re lucky enough to have to give this to your students (and I am), you get a whole pile of data that’s supposed to be even more detailed than the PVAAS.

 

But it doesn’t really give you much more than the same information based on more data points.

 

I don’t gain much from looking at colorful graphs depicting where each of my students scored in various modules. Nor do I gain much by seeing this same material displayed for my entire class.

 

The biggest difference between the PVAAS and the CDT, though, is that it allows me to see examples of the kinds of questions individual students got wrong. So, in theory, I could print out a stack of look-a-like questions and have them practice endless skill and drills until they get them right.

 

And THAT’S education!

 

Imagine if a toddler stumbled walking down the hall, so you had her practice raising and lowering her left foot over-and-over again! I’m sure that would make her an expert walker in no time!

 

It’s ridiculous. This overreliance on data pretends that we’re engaged in programming robots and not teaching human beings.

 

Abstracted repetition is not generally the best tool to learning complex skills. If you’re teaching the times table, fine. But most concepts require us to engage students’ interests, to make something real, vital and important to them.

 

Otherwise, they’ll just go through the motions.

 

“If you torture the data long enough, it will confess,” wrote Economist Ronald Coase. That’s what we’re doing in our public schools. We’re prioritizing the data and making it say whatever we want.

 

The data justifies the use of data. And anyone who points out that circular logic is called a Luddite, a roadblock on the information superhighway.

 

Never mind that all this time I’m forced to pour over the scores and statistics is less time I have to actually teach the children.

 

Teachers don’t need more paperwork and schematics. We need those in power to actually listen to us. We need the respect and autonomy to be allowed to actually do our jobs.

 

Albert Einstein famously said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

 

Can we please put away the superfluous data and get back to teaching?

Here’s an Idea: Guarantee Every Child an Excellent Education

Little African Girl At Wooden Fence With Thumbs Up.

Let’s get one thing straight: there are plenty of things wrong with America’s school system. But they almost all stem from one major error.

We don’t guarantee every child an excellent education.

Instead, we strive to guarantee every child THE CHANCE at an excellent education. In other words, we’ll provide a bunch of different options that parents and children can choose from – public schools, charter schools, cyber schools, voucher schools, etc.

Some of these options will be great. Some will be terrible. It’s up to the consumer (i.e. parents and children) to decide which one to bet on.

In many places this results in children bouncing from school-to-school. One school is woefully deficient, they enroll in another one. One school closes suddenly, they start over again at another.

It’s terribly inefficient and does very little good for most children.

But that’s because it’s not designed with them in mind. It does not put the child first. It puts the education provider first.

It is a distinctly privatized system. As such, the most important element in this system is the corporation, business, administrator or entrepreneurial entity that provides an education.

We guarantee the businessperson a potential client. We guarantee the investor a market. We guarantee the hedge fund manager a path to increased equity. We guarantee the entrepreneur a chance to exploit the system for a profit.

What we do NOT guarantee is anything for the students. Caveat emptor – “Let the buyer beware.”

Imagine if, instead, we started from this proposition: every child in America will be provided with an excellent education.

Sound impossible? Maybe. But it’s certainly a better goal than the one we’re using.

And even if we somehow managed to do it – even if every school was excellent – that doesn’t mean every child would become a genius. You can only provide the basis for an excellent education; it is up to the individual learner – with help from parents, teachers, and other stakeholders – to take advantage of what is put before him or her.

That is not a crazy goal to have. Nor does it mean that education would necessarily become stagnated.

It doesn’t matter what kind of school students go to – it matters that each and every school that receives public funding must be excellent.

That doesn’t mean they each must be excellent in the same ways. One wouldn’t expect them to be carbon copies of each other. Students have different needs. One would expect each classroom and each teacher to be doing different things at different times.

However, there are some things that are universal. There are some principles that are just better than others. Here are four:

First, it is better for schools receiving public funding to have to spend that money openly. They shouldn’t be able to spend that money behind closed doors without any public scrutiny or accountability.

Second, it’s better that the majority of the decisions made about how the school is run are made in public by duly-elected school board members drawn from the community, itself. That is much more preferable to political appointees who are not accountable to the parents and community.

Third, it is better if a school cannot deny a student enrollment based on that student’s special needs, race, religion, creed, sexual orientation, academic record or other factors. If the school receives public funds, it should not be allowed to turn anyone away.

Finally, it is better if a school teaches material that is academically appropriate, generally accepted as mainstream core concepts of the subject and Constitutional. Schools funded with tax money should not teach religious concepts like Creationism. They should not teach history and science from a Biblical point of view. They should not teach racial, sexual and religious discrimination.

None of these four principles should really be controversial. But each of them is violated by our current education system.

Some voucher schools violate the latter proposition. The other three are often violated by charter, cyber and voucher schools.

The only type of school that does not routinely violate these propositions is traditional public schools. Yet that is also the type of school being consistently undermined by most of our current educational policies.

So if we start from the idea that every student should get an excellent education, we start with the proposition to support and renew our public schools.

In doing so, we would need a national commitment to bringing every public school up to snuff.

Many of them already are – Hint: they’re found in rich neighborhoods. The ones that struggle are almost always found in poorer neighborhoods, and that’s no accident. It’s the result of savage funding inequalities.

What we’d need to do is ensure schools serving impoverished students receive equitable funding compared with schools serving the middle class and wealthy kids. Impoverished students must by necessity receive as much funding as the privileged ones. In fact, given the deprivations and increased needs of impoverished students, they should actually receive more funding. Middle class and rich kids have academic advantages over poor kids before they even enter kindergarten. They have more books in the home, more educated parents, better nutrition, better neonatal care, and often more stable home environments. If we really committed ourselves to making sure even these kids got the best possible education, we’d need to start spending more money on them.

Next, we’d need to do something about school segregation. Our public school system is now almost as segregated – and in some places even more segregated – than it was before the landmark Brown vs. Board decision 50 years ago. The only way to guarantee everyone an excellent education is to make it increasingly difficult to hurt some students without hurting all. There is no separate but equal. When we keep students apart by race or class, we ensure inequality among them.

And perhaps most important is this: we must remove the profit principle from education. We cannot allow decisions to be made based on what is best for corporations. Academic decisions about how to teach, how to assess student learning and how to assess teaching should be made by professional classroom educators.

This means no more high stakes standardized testing. No more Common Core. No more depersonalized computer-based learning. No more value added measures used to evaluated teachers. No more union busting. No more Teach for America.

We need to start valuing teachers and teaching again. And we need to pay and treat them as one of the most valuable parts of our society.

These measures would not be easy to accomplish, but they would have an immense impact on our schools.

This would require a substantial outlay of additional funding. We could save money by discontinuing costly practices that don’t benefit children (i.e. testing, charter and voucher funding, etc.). But make no mistake, it would cost money. However, we’re one of the richest countries in the world. We spend a ridiculous amount already on the military. You’re telling me we can’t find the money to spend on our children? If we’re not willing to spend on our future, we don’t deserve to have one.

It requires only a change in focus, a reevaluation of our priorities and goals.

Education should not be market driven. It should be student driven.

We should no longer guarantee business a class of consumers.

Instead, every student in this country no matter if they are rich or poor, black or white, male or female, gay or straight, religious or not – every student should be guaranteed an excellent education.

It’s really that simple.