Always Be Testing – The Sales Pitch for Corporate Education Reform

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(After the “Brass Balls” speech in “Glengarry Glen Ross,” by David Mamet.)

 

(Rated PG-13 for language)

 

(Interior: a public school classroom during an after school staff meeting. Teachers are seated at student desks including Singer, Moss and Aaronow. Williamson, a middle school principal, stands in front of the room flanked by Blake, a motivational speaker brought in by the state. Singer is furiously grading papers. The other teachers are pleasantly chatting about trifles before Blake calls the gathering to attention.)

 

[Blake]
Let me have your attention for a moment! So you’re talking about what? You’re talking about that kid you failed, some son of a bitch who doesn’t want to pass, some snot-nosed brat you’re trying to remediate and so forth. Let’s talk about something important. Are they all here?

 

[Williamson]
All but one.

 

[Blake]
Well, I’m going anyway. Let’s talk about something important! (to Singer) Put that colored marker down!

 

[Singer]

But I’m grading papers…

 

(Blake)

I said Put that marker down! Markers are for testers only.

 

(Singer scoffs)

 

[Blake]

Do you think I’m fucking with you? I am not fucking with you. I’m here from downtown. I’m here from the Governor and the Legislature. And I’m here on a mission of mercy. Your name’s Singer?

 

[Singer]
Yeah. Mister Singer, actually.

 

[Blake]
You call yourself a teacher, you son of a bitch?

 

[Moss]

I don’t have to listen to this.

 
[Blake]
You certainly don’t, Madam. Cause the good news is – you’re fired. The bad news is you’ve got, all you got, just one week to regain your jobs, starting today. Starting with today’s meeting.

 

[Moss]

What!? The union contract doesn’t allow you to just fire us all without cause.

 

[Blake]

Union!? There ain’t no more union! This is a Right to Work state now, Bitch. And that means you have the right to work – for less – until I fire your sorry ass.

 

(Assorted grumbling)

 

[Blake]

Oh, have I got your attention now? Good. Cause we’re adding a little something to this month’s merit pay. As you all know, the teacher whose students get the highest test scores gets a bonus. First prize is a thousand bucks. Anyone want to see second prize? Second prize is a box of pencils. Third prize is you’re fired. You get the picture? You’re laughing now?

 

[Singer]

That’s ridiculous. Mrs. Moss teaches the advanced kids. All her students get high test scores.

 

[Blake]

What? And your kids are in the general track? They don’t get high test scores? Then step it up, Singer! You want to get a paycheck in this district, you’ve got to earn a paycheck. You got test prep manuals. The school board paid good money for them. Get those workbooks so your kids can pass the test!

 

[Singer]

Workbooks!? That’s not learning?

 

[Blake]

That’s where you’re wrong. Workbooks are the only learning that counts! Kids take the tests that show whether you’re doing your fucking jobs! You want to keep working here? You want to keep sucking at the public tit? You get those kids to pass the motherfucking tests. And those workbooks do that. They teach kids how to pass the motherfucking tests!

 

[Singer]

But my kids are all from poor homes. They’re malnourished. They don’t get the same medical care. There are no books in their homes. Many of them suffer from PTSD from abuse or exposure to violence….

 

[Blake]

And you think they deserve some kind of entitlement? A medal? Fuck them and fuck you! Let me make one thing perfectly clear – If you can’t get your students to pass shit, you ARE shit, hit the bricks, Pal, and beat it cause you are going out!

 

[Singer]

Are you kidding me right now? You want my students to pass these tests. The tests are unfair. They’re economically and culturally biased. The connection between the tests and learning is weak.

 

[Blake]
The fucking tests are weak? You’re weak. I’ve been in this business for fifteen weeks.

 

[Moss]
Fifteen weeks? Try thirty years.

 

[Blake]

Anyone who’s still a teacher after thirty years should be put to sleep. All you need is a year or two. That’s what I’m doing. Teach for America. Five weeks training, two year commitment, then move on to Washington where you can advise lawmakers on what schools need.

 

[Moss]

What’s your name?

 

[Blake]

Fuck you, that’s my name! You know why, Missy? Cause you drove a Hyundai to get to work. I drove an eighty thousand BMW. That’s my name.

 

[Singer]

I took the bus.

 

[Blake]

(To Singer) And your name is “you’re wanting.” You can’t play in a man’s game. You can’t teach them. (at a near whisper) And you go home and tell your wife your troubles.

(to everyone again) Because only one thing counts in this life! Get them to score above basic. Get them to demonstrate the minimum skills necessary!

 

[Singer]

What about what they think and feel?

 

[Blake]

No one gives a shit about what they think and feel. You hear me, you fucking faggots?

 

(Blake flips over a blackboard which has two sets of letters on it: ABT, and AITP.)

 

[Blake]

A-B-T. A- Always, B-be, T-testing. Always be testing! Always be testing!! A-I-T-P. Attention, interest, testing, passing. Attention — do I have your attention? Interest — are you interested? I know you are because it’s fuck or walk. Your kids pass or you hit the bricks! Testing – you will test those students by Christ!! And passing. A-I-T-P; get out there!! You got the students comin’ in; you think they came in to get out of the rain?

 

[Singer]

Actually, many of my students live in public housing down there by the railroad tracks. You know those slums? Roofs leak in half those units…

 

[Moss]

And for a lot of kids school is the only structure they get all day. Their parents are out working two to three jobs. They have to take care of themselves and often younger siblings.

 

[Singer]

And food. Don’t forget food. If it wasn’t for the free breakfast and lunch program, many of my kids wouldn’t eat…

 

[Blake]

Bullshit. A kid doesn’t walk into this school unless he wants to pass. That’s why they’re here! They want to learn! They’re sitting out there waiting to be told what to do. Are you gonna’ tell ‘em? Are you man enough to tell them?

 

[Moss]

I’m a woman. Most of us are women.

 

[Blake]

(to Moss) What’s the problem, Pal?

 

[Moss]

You think you’re such a hero, you’re so rich. Why are you coming down here and wasting your time on a bunch of bums?

 

(Blake sits and takes off his gold watch)

 

[Blake]
You see this watch? You see this watch?

 

[Moss]
Yeah.

 

[Blake]

That watch cost more than your SMART Board. (Takes off his shoe) You see this shoe? Italian. It costs more than your entire salary. (slicks back his hair) You see this haircut?

 

[Moss]

I get it.

 

[Blake]

Do you? Because I do. I made 26 million dollars last year. How much do you make? You see, Pal, that’s who I am. And you’re nothing. Nice person? I don’t give a shit. Good mother? Fuck you – go home and play with your kids!! (to everyone) You wanna work here? Test!! (to Aaronow) You think this is abuse? You think this is abuse, you cocksucker? You can’t take this — how can you take the abuse you get in a classroom?! You don’t like it — leave. I can go out there tomorrow with the materials you got, make myself a thousand dollars in merit pay! Tomorrow! In one class! Can you? Can you? Go and do likewise! A-I-T-P!! Get mad! You sons of bitches! Get mad!!

 

[Singer]

Oh, I’m mad. I’m mad that a shallow schmuck like you thinks he can come in here and tell us how to do our jobs. School is about so much more than test scores. You can’t reduce it all to a multiple choice assessment. These kids need a broad curriculum, not just reading and math. They need science, art, social studies, foreign language, recess – all the stuff the rich kids get at the $50,000 a year private schools. And all you want to give them are standardized tests!

 

[Blake]

You know what it takes to teach public school?

 

(He pulls something out of his briefcase. He’s holding up a hammer and a plastic model of a one-room schoolhouse. He puts the model down on Aaronow’s desk and then smashes it to pieces with the hammer.)



[Blake]
It takes school choice to teach in a public school. It takes charter and voucher schools, schools run like a business – not this mamby, pamby, commie, socialist shit!

 

[Moss]

Choice? Is that what you call letting private interests suck up public tax dollars without the same transparency and regulations as public schools? You mean schools not run by an elected school board, who meet in private and do almost whatever they please with our tax dollars? You mean schools that can turn away the hardest to teach children – unlike public schools that take everyone?

 

[Blake]
I’m talking about schools with balls!
(He puts the hammer over his crotch,– he puts it away after a pause)



[Blake]
You want a paycheck? Do like the choice schools do — Go and do likewise, folks. The money’s out there, you pick it up, it’s yours. You don’t–I have no sympathy for you. You wanna go into your classes tomorrow and test and get your kids to pass, it’s yours. If not you’re going to be shining my shoes. Bunch of losers sitting around in a bar. (in a mocking weak voice) “Oh yeah, I used to be a teacher, it’s a tough racket.” (he takes out a software package from his briefcase) This is the new Common Core aligned diagnostic system. It’s like the MAP, Study Island, iReady and iStation – only better.

 

[Singer]

Those programs suck.

 

[Blake]

This is better. With it, your students will sit behind a computer screen for several hours every day taking stealth assessments.

 

[Singer]

You mean mini-tests?

 

[Blake]

No. Not mini-tests. They’ll run through the program and get instruction on every Common Core standard and their answers will show how much they’ve learned.

 

[Singer]

They’re tests. Standardized tests. Every day.

 

[Blake]

This is the Pearson leads. And to you, it’s gold. And you don’t get it. Why? Because to give it to you is just throwing it away. (he hands the software to Williamson) It’s for testers. (sneeringly) Not teachers.

 

I’d wish you good luck but you wouldn’t know what to do with it if you got it. (to Moss as he puts on his watch again) And to answer your question, Pal: why am I here? I came here because the Governor and Legislature are paying me to be here. They’re paying me a lot more than you. But I don’t have to take their money. I can make that tying my shoes. They asked me for a favor. I said, the real favor, follow my advice and fire your fucking ass because a loser is a loser.

 

(He stares at Moss for a sec, and then picking up his briefcase, he leaves the room with Williamson)

 

[Singer]

What an asshole.

 

[Moss]

He may be an asshole but he’s got the state on his side.

 

[Aaronow]

This isn’t what I signed up for. This isn’t why I became a teacher.

 

[Moss]

What did you sign up for?

 

[Aaronow]

TO TEACH! Not to be some… some… glorified real estate agent!

 

[Singer]

It’s funny. We know how crazy all this testing, Common Core, and charter school crap is, but no one wants to hear us.

 

[Moss]

And now without collective bargaining, we can’t even speak up without fear of being fired.

 

[Aaronow]

Fear!? If we don’t push all this teaching to the test nonsense, they’re going to fire us. And if we do, they can replace us with computer programs. We’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t.

 

[Singer]

Not if people wake up. (Moss and Aaronow scoff) Not if the public takes a stand, if parents and teachers opt their kids out of the tests…

 

[Aaronow]

Didn’t you hear the man!? They’re putting the kids on computer programs to test them every day!

 

[Singer]

Then we fight every day. We protest every day. We get parents together and other concerned citizens and we go to the capital and we fight. Call your representative. Go to your Senator’s office. Stage a sit in. Hold a mock trial. Write a blog parodying a scene from a famous movie. Get public attention. Make some noise.

 

[Aaronow]

And you think people will care? You think people will know?

 

[Singer]

We’ll teach them. We’ll show them. That’s what we do.

 

[Moss]

We have no other choice.

 

[Aaronow]

Always be testing?

 

[Singer]

Always be teaching.

 

(Curtain)

 

The Original Scene from GlenGarry Glen Ross:

The Child Predator We Invite into Our Schools

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There is a good chance a predator is in the classroom with your child right now.

He is reading her homework assignments, quizzes and emails. He is timing how long it takes her to answer questions, noting her right and wrong answers. He’s even watching her body language to determine if she’s engaged in the lesson.

He has given her a full battery of psychological assessments, and she doesn’t even notice. He knows her academic strengths and weaknesses, when she’ll give up, when she’ll preserver, how she thinks.

And he’s not a teacher, counselor or even another student. In fact, your child can’t even see him – he’s on her computer or hand-held device.

It’s called data mining, and it’s one of the major revenue sources of ed-tech companies. These are for-profit business ventures that produce education software: programs to organize student information and help them learn. They make databases and classroom management tools as well as educational video games and test prep software.

As schools have relied more heavily on technology to enhance lessons, they’ve invited big business into a space that is supposed to be private.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) protects student privacy, but it also gives school districts the right to share students’ personal information with private companies for educational reasons.

Companies are supposed to keep test scores, disciplinary history and other official records confidential. They’re not supposed to use them for their own ends. But the law was written in 1974 before the Internet went mainstream or many of these technologies were even conceived.

It’s unclear exactly who owns this data or whether FERPA protects it.

For every child utilizing these programs, there’s a good chance their data has been put into a portfolio with their name on it. That portfolio could be sold to advertisers and other business interests so they can better market their products to young consumers. With this information, these companies are turning children into guinea pigs so they can improve the profitability of their products.

Let me be clear. It’s not that technology is essentially evil. There are many ways in which it can be used to enhance student learning when provided under the supervision of a trained educator. But the current laws offer little protection for children and parents from rampant abuse by the ed-tech industry.

In most cases no one explicitly gives permission for student data to be shared. No one knew it was even happening.

This is an area that is almost completely unregulated. Hardly anyone is investigating it. After all, why should they? It’s just harmless big business. It’s just corporations we invited to the party; we may even have paid them to be there.

Individual school districts could write privacy protections into their contracts with ed-tech corporations, but few do.

According to a nationwide study by the Center on Law and Information Policy at Fordham University, just 7 percent of the contracts between districts and ed-tech corporations barred the companies from selling student data for profit.

Few contracts require companies to delete sensitive data when they are done with it. And just a quarter of companies clearly explain why they need personal student information in the first place, according to the same study.

To make matters worse, the publicly stated privacy policies of these corporations can be extremely dense and full of provisos. You may need a lawyer specializing in this field to truly understand what they’re promising to keep private and what might fall under a loophole.

For instance, even if a company promises not to share student information for nonacademic reasons, it can farm out some of its services to third party companies that have no such compunction about student privacy. These third party vendors or even the primary ed-tech company can put cookies on your child’s computer or device that continue to gather data on her and report back on it indefinitely. Moreover, even if the ed-tech company is diligent about protecting student privacy, that policy can change without notice and without parents being notified. For instance, many of these ed-tech companies are rag tag start-ups that are just hoping to be purchased by a bigger organization. In that case the privacy policy will almost certainly alter, possibly without notice.

Data mining isn’t exclusive to education software applications. If you’ve ever passed up a product on-line and then immediately saw an advertisement for that product on a different Website – congratulations – You’ve been data mined. Many of the applications adults use every day in their virtual lives practice this to some extent – Facebook, Google, Netflix, etc. However, there’s a difference between an adult user who enters into virtual relationships with eyes wide open and a child just completing the classwork her teacher assigned in school.

But even beyond the philosophical difference is the extent to which our children are being data mined. No where is it more pervasive than in our schools.

A really efficient ed-tech firm can collect as much as 10 million unique data points on each child, every day. That’s exponentially more than Facebook, Google or Netflix collect on their users.

Moreover, the ed-tech industry hungers for even more data on our children.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded a $1.4 million research project to provide middle-school students with biometric sensors designed to detect how kids responded on a subconscious level to each minute of each lesson. Like Common Core State Standards – Gates’ attempt to force uniform academic standards on the nation’s public schools – data mining is all about turning real children into information. Intelligence and knowledge are reduced to numbers. Biological functions, heat indexes, even eye movements are tabulated as a function of a salable commodity – your child.

In the not too distant future, ed-tech companies could sell information about which prospective job applicants or college students have the proper aptitude to be successful. In some ways, this is just an extension of the ways standardized tests like the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) are used to unfairly label students worthy or not of a post-secondary education. However, those tests are taken by high school juniors and seniors. The coming data mining boom would judge children based on their performance all the way back to kindergarten or even pre-kindergarten.

As usual the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is already planning for this dystopian nightmare. The conservative lobbying organization has drafted a model bill to make this a reality.  If picked up and offered in any state legislature, the bill would set up a central database for student records and allow colleges or businesses to browse them in search of potential recruits.

In addition, these student portfolios could allow corporate vultures to prey on customers vulnerable to particular sales pitches. For instance, young adults who had struggled at math in high school would make dandy targets for high-priced payday loans.

In the meantime, hedge fund managers and other investors are pouring money into the ed-tech market. More than $650 million flowed into technology firms serving K-12 and higher education each year for the past three years. That’s nearly double the $331 million invested in these markets in 2009. The national market for education software and digital content is nearly $8 billion, according to the Software & Information Industry Association.

Yet there is little evidence these applications are truly helpful in educating children. Even the technology-loving Gates Foundation, found in a national survey that only 54 percent of teachers thought the digital tools used most frequently by their students were effective.

Let’s get something straight: the reason most of these firms exist is not education. It is spying on children. It is stealing their valuable data for corporations’ own ends.

The ed-tech market is intimately entwined with the latest fad in education policy – Competency Based Education (CBE).

This has come to mean teaching and assessment conducted online, where students’ learning is continuously monitored, measured, and analyzed.

However, the goal seems to be replacing big end of the year standardized tests with daily stealth assessments. In this way, it would be more difficult for parents to refuse testing for their children. It would hide the ways in which a standardized curriculum narrowed student learning to the very basics. It would hide how children’s every tiniest action is being used to judge and evaluate their schools and teachers. And this information of dubious validity could be used to close public schools and replace them with shoddy but more profitable charter schools.

Education historian Diane Ravitch talks about a meeting in August of 2015 with The State Commissioner of Education in New York, Mary Ellen Elia, and several board members of New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE), a highly successful state opt out organization.

She says:

 

“At one point, Commissioner Elia said that the annual tests would eventually be phased out and replaced by embedded assessment. When asked to explain, she said that students would do their school work online, and they would be continuously assessed. The computer could tell teachers what the students were able to do, minute by minute.”

The plan has been laid bare. Our students privacy has been compromised and is being used against them. If big business has its say, our children will be forever pawns in a system that reduces them to data and profit.

That’s not what public school should be about.

It should be a place centered on learning not earning.

It should be a place that values the student and not her data.

It should be a place of creativity, imagination and wonder.

But as long as we allow ed-tech companies to run unregulated in the shadows, it will always be susceptible to these dangers.

The only one who can stop these predators in your child’s classroom is you.

What Real School Choice Would Look Like – And Why What They’re Selling Isn’t It

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I can’t hear the words “School Choice” without thinking of Inigo Montoya from the classic film “The Princess Bride.”

 

I hear Mandy Patinkin’s voice saying, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

 

Because just like the constant cries of “Inconceivable!” from Sicilian boss Vizzini (portrayed by the inimitable Wallace Shawn), policymakers seem a bit confused.

 

You would expect School Choice to mean that parents would get to choose the school their children attend. However, the policy being pushed by corporate education reformers has nothing to do with that.

 

It’s about allowing schools to choose students, not the other way around.

 

Want your child to attend a charter school? Great! In many cases he needs to meet the requirements of admission – good grades, well behaved, no learning disabilities – otherwise they boot him back to the traditional public school he came from.

 

Want your child to use a voucher to attend a private school? Fine! The voucher will pay for some of her tuition, but you’d better be able to make up the rest AND she needs to meet the criteria for admission.

 

If administrators don’t want to accept your child, they don’t have to, nor do they ever have to explain why, nor do you get a public forum where you can question them, nor do you have any power to vote them out.

 

They could decide to turn you down because your child is a minority, disabled, gay, has a belief system of which they do not approve, anything really! And they will never have to explain themselves to anyone.

 

To me, that’s not school choice. But that’s what they’re selling and some folks are buying it all up like an email sent to you by an inconvenienced Nigerian Prince who just needs your help with a funds transfer.

 

However, this isn’t to say that the idea of School Choice – REAL School Choice – is inconceivable. (Forgive me, Vizzini.)

 

You could devise a system of School Choice that actually involved parents being able to choose the school their children attend.

 

I wouldn’t suggest it. I’m opposed to all forms of School Choice for reasons I’ll make clear later. But I would certainly be more amenable to a plan that actually did what it seems to promise.

 

So what would real educational choice look like? What would we need to achieve this goal?

 

First, it would require a massive increase in school funding.

 

Think about it. You’re asking the government to pay for several separate, parallel systems of education. Students won’t just have School A to choose from. They’ll have School A, B and C.

 

So we need to construct more schools. We need to staff them. We need to provide each one with books, computers, equipment, etc. That’s going to cost an incredible amount of money.

 

We’re talking about at least doubling the amount of money we pay for public schools – more likely tripling or quadrupling it.

 

This is certainly possible. Maybe it’s even preferable. But it won’t be politically acceptable for many people. The push has been to downsize government, do things on the cheap, lower taxes, etc.

 

Strangely, School Choice cheerleaders often push their agenda as a way to save money. That’s because they don’t care about the quality of the choices they’re offering. They’re not providing enough money for several excellent schools that parents can pick from. They’re taking the money we already spend on one school and having multiple schools fight for it.

 

It’s like a dogfight for schools. They’ll rip and tear at each other, and the winner gets to take away the most funding. It’s a bad model for animals and an even worse one for schools because everyone loses. No one walks away with enough money to get the job done. You end up with several choices but none of them can really provide the best academic experience. None of them can even provide the kind of education that would come from having just one well-funded choice.

 

What’s worse, in most states even before you start adding parallel schools, the current funding system is broken. We simply don’t provide enough funding for the schools we already have without adding even more choices.

 

All public schools don’t get the same amount of money per pupil. That’s true even when you adjust for costs.

 

Under the current system, schools with a rich tax base provide Cadillac resources for their children. Meanwhile, schools with a poor tax base can’t provide everything that is needed so their kids have to do with less. That means fewer resources, fewer teachers, larger classes, etc.

 

So-called School Choice policies only make this worse. Schools that already don’t have enough funding to meet their students needs have to give larger portions of their shrinking budgets to charter schools. So instead of one school without enough funding, we have two. That doesn’t fix anything.

 

However, both of these problems are solvable and the solution is the same in both cases – money.

 

If you want real choice, you need to do two things: (1) discontinue funding schools based on local property taxes and (2) dramatically increase school funding. Both the state and federal government would have to kick in much more. Local taxes could still be collected to pay a portion for public schools – this could even be collected based on how much each community can afford – but no longer could we allow poor students to get less funding than rich kids. No matter where you lived – in the slums or in a gated community – you’d get whatever funding your school deemed necessary.

 

This would probably be paid for with a substantial tax increase, though you could also make cuts in other places in local, state, and federal budgets. For most people, I think this would be unacceptable, but it is certainly conceivable.

 

Second, you need the same rules governing these separate systems – especially when it comes to admissions.

 

This would be especially hard on charter school and private school administrators.

 

There could be no more picking and choosing which students get to attend your school. If an emotionally disturbed student with bad grades and an even worse record of behavior wants to attend your charter school, you’ve got to accept him. If a poor student whose parents don’t have the money for tuition (even with the voucher in hand) want to attend your private school, you’ve got to accept her.

 

This shouldn’t be such a burden. It’s what traditional public schools do now. They take everyone regardless of grades, ability, behavior or poverty.

 

Third, all schools would have to be transparent and democratically controlled. Their budgets and internal documents would have to be open to public record. Moreover, decisions about how to run the school could not be made behind closed doors – they would have to be made in public. And school directors would have to be subject to democratic control. Decision-makers could no longer be appointed by boards of investors, the mayor or any other bureaucrat. They’d be selected by voters. These would all be public schools, after all, and as such would be subject to rule by the public.

 

Think about what that means. If your child attends a school, you should get a say in what happens at that school. Even if your child doesn’t attend the school, even if you have no children, you should have a say simply because you pay taxes.

 

This has been the practice at traditional public schools since forever. In fact, unless the school has been taken over by the state, it’s required by law. But at charters and private schools, it’s not always the case.

 

It’s funny. In many ways under our current system, the public gets much more input, much more choice at traditional public schools than at so-called School Choice institutions.

 

Many charters and private schools would balk at this. They are not run democratically and are not beholden to the public.

 

That’s just the way they like it. Their business model requires it. If they had to be fully transparent and accountable to taxpayers, what would happen to those schools organized for-profit?

 

I would assume that they would disappear. I think very few parents and taxpayers would allow a fully transparent school to pocket a large chunk of its budget like that. I can’t imagine the public approving a decision to cut student services to boost the bottom line – but this is exactly what happens at certain charter schools every day. Only the protection of current School Choice policies that shield investors from taxpayers allows this kind of malfeasance.

 

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

 

We can have real School Choice without all the drawbacks of charters and voucher schools. We can have a system where parents get to pick their children’s schools, where the public is in control, where every child gets an excellent education.

 

To do so, we’d need a series of fully funded, fully transparent, democratically run schools subject to the same rules and expectations.

 

Hmm. But that’s not so different than the traditional public school system we have now. Perhaps doing so would give all schools the latitude to experiment that is usually given to charter schools. But for the most part, we’ve equalized our school system and simply eliminated the worst abuses of charter and voucher schools.

 

We’ve also radically increased the raw number of schools in the system. And we’ve allowed students to attend schools where they don’t necessarily live, but ensured they get adequate funding no matter where they attend.

 

The result is real Student Choice. Parents get to decide where their children attend, and – at least in theory – all choices would be excellent.

 

I’ve got to admit – from a certain vantage point – it doesn’t look so bad. Sure it’s going to cost a lot of money, but maybe it’s worth it.

 

However, finding the cash isn’t the only obstacle. For instance, how do you adequately administrate such a system?

 

I cannot imagine how administrators could decide how much money their school needs from year to year if the student population can change so dramatically in that time period. How would administrators know how many teachers they need and in which subjects? How would they be able to determine the number of classrooms, how many school lunches are necessary and a host of other things? Wouldn’t it be terribly disruptive to have teachers moving from school-to-school every year following student mobility?

 

Additionally, how do we provide transportation with students traveling hither and thither? It would be difficult just to organize buses to get kids to school. Older students could be given bus passes, but that wouldn’t be safe for elementary and middle school kids to be traveling this way unaccompanied by adults.

 

I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it would be very difficult. Perhaps someone could find a system that works. However, I fear this kind of institutional instability would result in some schools being woefully understaffed and underprepared while others have too much.

 

Moreover, such a situation would be extremely wasteful. We’d be spending much more than we need to provide children with an excellent education. We’d be duplicating services unnecessarily. Personally, I can deal with that much more than its opposite. However, flushing tax dollars down the toilet is a bad practice.

 

Is there a middle ground that provides parents and students choice without wasting so much money?

 

Yes.

 

Instead of providing a series of parallel education systems, supply one system that is able to deliver multiple services.

 

First, you’d need to fix the funding inequities mentioned above. You don’t have to double or triple what we spend, but you’d probably have to increase support somewhat. And it would have to be distributed fairly.

 

Then once every school has the funding necessary to give every student what he/she needs, we can work on individualizing that experience. This is exactly the opposite of current education policies from the Bush and Obama administrations.

 

I’m not talking about Competency Based Education, either, the latest scam to make standardization look like a student centered model. I mean no more high stakes standardized tests, no more Common Core, no more corporate education reform.

 

Imagine if every district allowed parents and students to choose what kind of education they got within the system. Your child wants to study music? We’ve got an excellent music program. You want your child to study a foreign language? We have plenty of award-winning programs to choose from.

 

Schools would be able to meet the needs of all students because they would be fully funded. No more poor schools and rich schools – just schools.

 

To meet this ideal, we need to forgo the fake School Choice being offered at present. We need to stop having schools fight over dwindling resources like pit bulls.

 

THAT would be a choice worth making.

 

It would be the best kind of school choice.

Summer Break – the Least Understood and Most Maligned Aspect of a Teacher’s Life

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It’s inevitable.

Once the weather gets warm and school lets out, it’s no longer safe for teachers to be out in public.

You’ve got to stay indoors, get off the Internet, hide the cell phone – do whatever you can to stay away from non-educators.

Because if, like me, you happen to be out and about – let’s say standing in line at your favorite neighborhood burger joint waiting for a juicy slab of ground beef to stop sizzling on the grill – you’re bound to hear the kind of willful ignorance that sets a teacher’s nerves permanently on edge.

Imagine just two normal people – they seem nice enough – standing in line having a friendly conversation. It’s hot outside, so you might hear the usual topics discussed: the weather, the best place to buy ice cream, which public pool has the best prices – that an oh I don’t know, how easy teachers have it with their summers off.

Son of a…!

Normal folks, I know you often get the urge to talk about this. You think it’s just another topic of polite conversation. It’s nothing serious. You think it’s just like complaining about the heat or how the price of admission at the local theme park always seems to be on the rise.

But you’re wrong.

Here’s why: first, you aren’t alone in the comfort of your own home. You’re out in public. And I guarantee there’s probably a teacher somewhere within earshot. Second, you have no idea what the heck you’re talking about. You are completely talking out of your ass.

Oh, you think you know. Everyone thinks they know what it’s like to be a teacher. Everyone thinks they can do that job no matter what qualifications they have.

It’s funny. I never presume to assume I could do other people’s jobs without some kind of training or skill. I’d never say, “Police officers have it so easy. I could do that!”

I’d never say that about any public servants. Not firefighters, sanitation workers, social workers, lawyers, doctors – even politicians.

I think most people feel the same way – except when it comes to teaching. That’s the one job where everyone has an opinion and it’s based on next to nothing.

Here’s how it goes: I’ve been a student, therefore I can be a teacher.

Imagine if we applied that logic elsewhere. I’ve been sick, therefore I can be a doctor. I’ve been to court, therefore I can be my own lawyer. I can turn on a light, therefore I can run the electric company.

No one would be so ignorant. Except when it comes to teaching.

But that’s not all.

Not only are most folks comfortable opining about a topic of which they are so ignorant, but they feel themselves to be particular experts about one aspect of the job more than any others – summer break!

Those teachers sure have it easy, they say. They get their summers off! That’s one sweet deal!

Don’t get me wrong. As a public school teacher, I’m grateful for summer break. But it’s not what non-teachers think it is.

First off, summer break is not a vacation.

When you work a regular job you get a vacation day here and there. You get a week or two of paid time off. Teachers don’t get that.

During the summer teachers don’t get salaried like that. Some of us don’t even get a paycheck, and those of us that do aren’t earning money for those days off. We’re getting money that we already earned from August through June. This is money that was withheld from our pay during the fall and winter, money given to us now in the summer.

Wait a minute. Money withheld from our salaries? When someone pays you later for services rendered, don’t they owe you interest? Usually, they do. But not for teachers.

We work for the government. We get paid with tax dollars from the community at large. If the community had to give us our salaries up front – like almost every other job in existence – it would be harder on the taxpayers. So we let the community pay us later – interest free.

Like I said, summer break isn’t a vacation. It’s more like an annual couple months of being laid off.

When I say this to non-educators, though, they often smirk. “It must be pretty sweet getting so much money that you can afford to have it paid out like that.”

Let me just say this – You don’t know me. You don’t know what the heck I can and cannot afford. Teachers aren’t millionaires. We’re barely thousandaires. Many of us CAN’T afford it. We work a second job in the summer – often at little more than minimum wage.

Moreover, during the school year, teaching is not a 9-5 job. We don’t punch a clock working 8 hours with an hour lunch and then punch out.

If I’m not at least working 10 hours a day, I’m not even trying. Those 8 hours on the books barely cover my time in front of a class of students. I get a 30-40 minute lunch, various duties throughout the day and about 40 minutes to plan what I’m going to teach. That’s time to make any materials for my classes, design programs for the students, grade papers and fill out the never-ending and ever-expanding piles of paperwork.

As a language arts teacher, I routinely have my students write essays. You think they grade themselves? I’ve got to read those things, son, each and everyone. I’ve got homework to grade. I’ve got scores to input into the computer. I’ve got parents to call, students to tutor and a stream of detentions to oversee. And that’s just the minimum, not counting any extra-curriculars, clubs, PTA meetings, meet the principal nights, etc.

So the way I see it, I’m owed a little bit of down time during the summer. I need it just to recharge my batteries. During the school year, I’m going at a pace like lightning every day. If I didn’t have some time in the summer to unwind, I wouldn’t be able to keep up that pace for the majority of the year.

Heck. If I’m sick one day, when I come back to school it takes a few days to get back up to speed.

But non-teachers don’t know any of that, because students don’t know. Students just see the teacher in class and they assume that’s all we do. And that’s a forgivable assumption for students. You know why? Because they’re children! But you? You’re an adult human being. You don’t have the right to make such assumptions without any pretext at even trying to find out.

However, this is exactly what most people do. They think there’s nothing wrong with complaining about teachers, especially during the summer.

And here’s the worst part.

When you complain like that, you make my job so much harder.

You’re going to go home with that negativity, you’re going to keep voicing it, you’re going to say it in front of your own impressionable children who might not seem like it, but they listen to every word you say. Not just that, but they listen to HOW you say it. Even more than the words, they hear the disdain.

So when school is back in session, they bring that false impression of how easy their teachers have it, and that becomes disrespect, just another thing I have to overcome in order to help your child succeed.

You hear a lot in the news about foreign countries having better education systems than ours. It’s mostly B.S. propaganda, playing with statistics for political ends, but there is one area where there’s a grain of truth to it – respect.

In many foreign countries especially in Asia, teachers are held in the highest esteem. It wouldn’t even cross parents’ minds to scorn educators, and if their kids did it, the adults would be mortally ashamed!

But not in the U.S.A. We take the one profession most dedicated to helping our children have better lives and we crap all over it.

You know that’s why I’m there in the classroom – to help your child succeed. Sure I get a paycheck, but there are lots of jobs I could do to support my family, many of them paying a whole lot more while requiring less hours a week and providing actual paid vacation days.

Like most educators, I’ve got a masters degree. Every year I take continuing education courses. Heck! I’m even nationally board certified – a distinction of which only about 34% of teachers throughout the country can boast. I’ve been nominated for teachers excellence awards. I travel across the country multiple times a year at my own expense to enrich my field. I write letters, I protest, I lobby my congresspeople to support our national system of public education. I’ve devoted my life to making a difference in young people’s lives.

Isn’t that something worth a little bit of respect? Don’t you want someone like me to be there for your child in the classroom?

It’s funny. When it comes to most public services, you wouldn’t dream of denigrating a helping hand.

You’d never hear anyone say something like this:

Those damn firemen! There would be fewer fires if it weren’t for them! Have you ever seen a building burning without it being surrounded by firemen? If they’d just work a little bit harder, there’d be fewer burning buildings!

Or:

Those damn doctors! All they do is make people sick! You never see a sick person unless he’s surrounded by doctors prescribing him medicines, doing surgeries. If we had fewer doctors, fewer people would get sick! Let’s close more hospitals!

But this is how people talk about teachers. Regular folks have been convinced that far from helping children escape ignorance, teachers actually cause it. They don’t work hard enough. They don’t care enough. They have too many union protections.

I’ve never heard anyone complain that firemen would fight fires better if they didn’t have helmets and fireproof clothing. I’ve never heard anyone say police would work harder to fight crime if they didn’t have Kevlar and service pistols.

But somehow when it comes to teachers, the situation is different.

Normal people, you’ve got to understand something. We live in a world where rich folks want to take away teachers for the poor and middle class. They want your kids to learn from computer programs and YouTube while their kids get… teachers!

For your kids it’s always narrow the curriculum, more standardized tests, more unproven academic standards, more corporate profits, less parental control, fewer regulations, fewer student services.

And do you know who has volunteered to fight against all this craziness to make sure your kids actually get some kind of quality education?

THE TEACHERS!

That’s right – the same people you feel empowered to deride while standing in line waiting for your burgers and fries. The same people who you have no problem denigrating with just as much certainty as ignorance.

So please, think about that next time.

Don’t bitch and moan about your community’s teachers. How about giving them some support?

At very least add teaching to the list of impolite topics to address in public. That’s right – religion, politics AND TEACHING.

Because every time a non-educator vents their spleen about those lazy, no-good teachers, they make it that much easier for the powers that be to continue eroding your child’s educational experience.

Great Reading Must Be Felt, Not Standardized

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I made my classes cry today.

That sounds terrible, but if I’m honest, I knew it would happen and meant to do it.

I teach in an urban district and most of my 8th grade students are African American and/or impoverished. We’re reading Harper Lee’s classic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” together, and the kids were loving it.

Until today when we got to the verdict in the Tom Robinson trial.

Jaquan closed his book with wide eyes.

“What the heck happened?” he asked.

Other students in the room murmured their agreement.

“They found him guilty!? What the F!?”

“I hate this book.”

“This is so freakin’ racist.”

I let them go on for a moment.

Frankly, it was the reaction I had been expecting.

It happens every year around this time.

Until this moment, my kids were really into the book. They were enjoying the case and excited by how well the defense attorney, Atticus Finch, had proven that Tom, a black man in the 1930s South, is innocent of raping a white woman.

But even last night I knew what was coming. The next day – today – I’d have to go and break their hearts when they read what the jury actually decides. Some of them were bound to be crushed. And today they were.

For those who haven’t cracked this book open in decades, let me recap.

There is no physical evidence that the crime actually took place. Moreover, because of a crippling injury as a child, Tom is physically incapable of perpetrating the crime in the first place.

In a world where black males could be tortured and killed just for whistling at a white woman – like Emmett Till – it’s clear that Tom is the victim, not the aggressor.
It seems like a slam dunk case. Yet the all-white jury finds Tom guilty, and ultimately he is shot 17 times in prison after losing all hope and trying to escape.

It’s no wonder that when we read that cascade of Guilty’s from the jury’s mouths today, my kids couldn’t believe it.

Some of my best students closed the book or threw it away from them.

So I let them express their frustrations. Some talked about how the story hit too close to home. They have family members in jail or who have been killed in the streets by police. One girl even told us that she’s never met her own mother. The woman has been locked away since the child was an infant, and because of a missing birth certificate, my student hasn’t even been allowed to visit.

“Mr. Singer, when was this book written?” one of the girls in the back asked.

“The late 1950s,” I said.

“I thought you were going to say it just came out.”

And so we talked about what the book has to do with things happening today. We talked about Eric Garner. We talked about Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray.

At a certain point, conversation ceased.

My class of rowdy teenagers became quiet. We could hear people stomping in the hall, a movie being shown a few doors down.

There might have been a few tears.

I knew it would happen.

Last night I debated softening the blow, preparing them for what was about to take place. When we read “The Diary of Anne Frank” a month ago, I made sure they’d know from the very beginning that Anne dies. It should have been no surprise to them when Anne and her family are captured by the Nazis. It’s scary and upsetting but not entirely unexpected.

However, with “Mockingbird” I just let events unfold. And I stand by that decision.

It’s frustrating and painful, but my students need to feel that. It’s something I can’t shield them from.

It’s not that they have never felt this way before. Many of them have experienced racism and injustice in their everyday lives. But for this book to really have the desired impact, they need to FEEL what the author meant. And it needs to come from the book, itself.

A book isn’t just sheets of paper bound together with glue and cardboard. It’s a living entity that can bite. That’s the power of literature.

I can’t in good conscience shield them from that. They need to see it and experience it for themselves.

Writer Flannery O’Connor put it like this:

“I prefer to talk about the meaning in a story rather than the theme of a story. People talk about the theme of a story as if the theme were like the string that a sack of chicken feed is tied with. They think that if you can pick out the theme, the way you pick the right thread in the chicken-feed sack, you can rip the story open and feed the chickens. But this is not the way meaning works in fiction.

“When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you experience that meaning more fully.”

This is what our policymakers either misunderstand or forget when they demand we assess understanding with standardized tests.

The meaning of a story is not expressable in discrete statements A, B, C, or D. We wouldn’t read them if it was.

Every person is unique. So is every reaction to literature.

You can’t identify the meaning of this story on a multiple choice test. You can’t express what it means to YOU. All you can do is anticipate the answer the test maker expects. And that’s not reading comprehension. It’s an exercise in sycophantry. It teaches good toadying skills – not good reading strategies.

Perhaps that’s why Common Core encourages us to shy away from complex texts like “Mockingbird.” We’re told to focus on short snippets of fiction and to increase our student’s diet of nonfiction. Moreover, we’re told to stay away from narratives like Anne Frank’s. Instead, we should have our children read from a greater variety of genres including instruction books, spreadsheets, recipes – just the facts – because as Common Core architect David Coleman famously said, “No one gives a shit what you think or feel.”

Frankly, we don’t do a whole lot of that in my class. We still read literature.

Today, even after the blowout, we kept reading “Mockingbird.”

My kids suffered along with Jem and Scout. They reveled in Atticus’s example. They feared where it was all going.

And when class was over, a few of them had come around.

“This is such a good book, Mr. Singer,” one girl told me on the way out.

“Is Atticus going to die?” another asked to which I smiled and shrugged.

Jaquan stayed after the bell to ask his own question.

“Do you think in a hundred years things will be any different?”

“How do you mean?”

“I mean do you think people will still do things like THIS?” he said holding up his book.

I looked at him and swallowed.

“I don’t know, Jaquan,” I said. “But things are better now than they were. We can hope.”

He nodded.

I clapped him on the back and wished him a good weekend.

You don’t get that kind of reaction from Common Core, and you can’t assess it on a standardized test.

Students can’t ask such questions to computer programs.

They need teachers with the freedom to teach and assess as they see fit.

Otherwise, it is not just Tom Robinson that suffers a miscarriage of justice.

We all do.

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

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Cuckoo!

 

Cuckoo!

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

It’s one of the most common brood parasites.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

And on and on.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

We must guard our nests like watchful mama birds.

 

The cuckoos are out there.

 

They are chirping in the darkness all around us.

 

Don’t let them in.

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

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Kelly Ann Braun said it best.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

But that’s not really news, is it?

 

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

 

What’s new is us.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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