Small Class Size – A Reform We’re Just Too Cheap To Try

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Taken as a whole, the American people are an awfully cheap bunch.

We’ll spend trillions of dollars on guns and tanks to fight an overseas war, but if someone suggest we build a bridge or conduct a social program or anything that would help people actually live longer, happier lives, well, F- ‘em.

Tax cuts for the rich – WONDERFUL!

Feed the hungry – NOT ON MY DIME!

And it’s true even of our attitude toward little children.

Don’t believe me? Just look at our public schools.

Pristine Taj Mahal-like buildings for rich kids with broad curriculums and plenty of teachers to instruct privileged progeny one-on-one, and then across town on the other side of the tracks you’ll find dilapidated shacks for the poor forced to put up with narrow curriculums focused on standardized test prep and as many underprivileged children as they can fit in the room with one beleaguered teacher.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

We’re one of the richest countries in the world, yet we treat our own children – especially if they’re poor and brown – as if they were refugees from the third world.

Well, perhaps marginally better. To my knowledge no one is suggesting we send the unwashed masses back to Africa, Europe or wherever else they originally came from – at least those who can prove they were born here.

But we certainly aren’t bothering ourselves too much about taking care of them.

What would that look like? Nothing all that radical.

Imagine a classroom where students have the space to be individuals and not nameless cogs in the system.

Imagine ensuring students get consistent, individual feedback from the teacher on a minute-by-minute basis.

Imagine increasing the ability for the teacher to focus on learning and not on policing behaviors.

Imagine allowing students to concentrate on education and not various adolescent social issues?

All of these things are accomplished through reducing class size.

In education circles, small class size is the one universal constant. There is some debate about exactly how small classes should be (at least less than 20, maybe even closer to 10 or 15 students) and for which student groups it is most important, but the consensus in favor of small class size is overwhelming.

Study after study concludes that small class size increases academic performance. When compared with peers in larger classes, those in small settings end up being months ahead. They cover more material, with greater depth and achieve better comprehension in less time.

This is partly due to increased student engagement. Children are more interested in what’s being taught when they have a more personal relationship to it. In smaller classes, students are able to express themselves and participate more. Even children who don’t normally engage in such activities find themselves forced to do so. They can no longer hide behind the greater numbers of their peers. Everyone is visible, seen and heard.

As a result, students have better relationships with their peers and teachers. These better social interactions and trust often results in academic gains. This also can lead to less disruptive behaviors – even for students who typically act out in larger classroom environments. Previously troubled students end up spending less time in detention or suspension and more time in class learning.

As such, teachers are better able to see students as individuals and determine how best to differentiate instruction to meet every child’s needs.

The benefits go far beyond the classroom. Numerous studies concluded that reducing class size has long lasting effects on students throughout their lives. It increases earning potential, and citizenship while decreasing the likelihood students will need welfare assistance as adults or enter the criminal justice system. In short, cutting class size puts a stop to the school-to-prison pipeline.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that those students who benefit the most from this reform are the young, the poor and minorities.

Small class sizes in the elementary grades have long lasting effects even if class sizes increase in middle and high school. However, minority and impoverished students (child groups often experiencing significant overlap) benefit regardless of age. Small class sizes help combat the trauma and deprivations of living below the poverty line. Moreover, while small class size has a varying effect on different disciplines, it invariably helps increase writing instruction – even up to the college level. Schools that put a premium on writing would do best to reduce class sizes in all language arts classes, for instance.

However, students aren’t the only ones positively affected by small class size.

This also has an impact on teachers. Reducing class size increases teacher job satisfaction and retention. This is pretty important in a profession bleeding away practitioners. Fewer college students are entering education programs every year. Salaries are falling even as responsibilities and paperwork are increasing. A reform that helps counteract that while also helping students would appear to be just what the doctor ordered.

Unfortunately, administrators don’t seem to be getting the message. Instead of reducing class size for the most effective teachers, they often increase it. The main reason – test scores. Number crunching administrators think giving the best teachers more students means helping the most students. However, they aren’t taking into account the law of diminishing returns.

The biggest obstacle to reducing class size is financial.

Cutting class size often means hiring more staff. In the absence of state and federal legislators offering to fund such initiatives, district school directors invariably think it’s beyond them. They don’t want to do anything that might result in a tax increase.

However, in today’s dog-eat-dog public school environment, you either pay a little now or a lot later. Right or wrong, competition is our overarching education policy. Public schools have to fight for education dollars with charter and voucher schools. And smaller class size is the number one selling point for so-called choice schools over their traditional public school counterparts.

Sure, it’s expensive to cut class size, but it’s also expensive to continue funding the district when students leave due to smaller classes at the local charter school. Though the media over-reports the value of high test scores, parents rarely decide where to send their children on that basis. Class size is often their number one consideration. They don’t want their children to be lost in the crowd. They want their children to be valued as individuals and their education to be properly personalized.

According to “More Than Scores: An Analysis of How and Why Parents Choose Schools,” two of the top five reasons parents who choose private schools over public institutions specifically reference class size – 48.9% cite class size out right and 39.3% cite “more individual attention for my child.” And the other three reasons – better student discipline, better learning environment, and improved student safety – are all dramatically influenced by class size.

If public schools want to continue to compete, school directors may have to commit to investing in class size reduction.

Yet the trend of the last decade has been in exactly the opposite direction.

Today public schools employ 250,000 fewer people than before the recession of 2008–09. Meanwhile enrollment has increased by 800,000 students. Unsurprisingly, class sizes in many schools are at record highs.

Is this something we could really change?

Of course! It really wouldn’t be that hard.

We’ve accomplished much more difficult tasks as a nation. We beat back Hitler, became a global superpower and even put people on the moon!

After all that, we can’t find the will to hire more teachers and properly educate all of our native sons and daughters?

Yes, there are plenty of competing ideas for how to improve our schools. And most of them come from corporate think tanks and big business lobbyists more interested in enriching themselves on the public dime than helping students.
Corporate education reformers want us to pay private companies to educate the poor. They want us to invest in privatized schools and standardized test conglomerates. They want us to subsidize publishers and tech corporations with new, untried, unnecessary academic standards that require us to buy boatloads of crap that don’t help and we don’t need.

But the answer isn’t to hand over boatloads of additional monies to private industry. In large part it’s to hire an increased workforce to actually get in there and do the job of educating.

And before you cry about the cost, imagine the savings of cutting all the corporate education reform garbage! If we weren’t committed to corporate handouts as education reform, we might be able to increase the quality of our public education system and still save some money!

You see the answer to improving education for the poor isn’t corporate welfare. It starts with equitably funding schools dedicated to the poor and minorities. It starts with providing them with the money required to meet student needs. And a large part of that includes cutting class size.

There is a significant consensus behind it. Moreover, it has parental, student and teacher support.

It’s a no brainer.

All it takes is a change in priorities and the will to actually get up off our collective asses and do something to help America’s children.

Let’s cut the crap. Cut class size.

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Top 10 Reasons Public Schools are the BEST Choice for Children, Parents & Communities

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Everywhere you look today you’ll find profits prophets of doom bemoaning the quality of our public school system.

 

We’ve got too many failing schools, they say. The only thing to do is to invest in private and privatized institutions vouchers, charters, ANYTHING but public.

 

But as education professors Christopher and Sarah Lubienski wrote in their landmark book “The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schoolsthere’s little evidence behind the hype. Public schools are far from perfect, but even given their deficiencies, they have benefits that far outweigh those of privatized schools. Indeed, market-based educational reform, wrote the Lubienskis, is “increasingly a belief system rather than a policy theory.”

 

Privatized schools are sometimes great at boosting standardized test scores, but when it comes to authentic indicators of student learning, they often fall well behind their traditional public school counterparts.

 

And when you stop to consider things like finances, accountability, self-governance, social justice and life-long learning, then public schools prove themselves to be a much better choice than any privatized system.

 

Clearly we’re speaking in generalities here. Every school – public or privatized – is different. But there is enough commonality to identify certain trends between each type of school to make general conclusions about each category. In short, despite any media or political propaganda to the contrary, public schools come out on top.

 

Here are the top 10 reasons public schools are the best choice for children, families and communities

 

1) Public Schools Attract the Best Teachers

 

When choosing a school for your children, you want them to have the best teachers possible. You want life-long, committed educators – people who entered the profession as a calling, who dedicate their lives to young people.

 

This is not the case at many charter or private schools. Their teachers often don’t have the same high level of education, experience, or commitment. In many states, they aren’t required to earn a 4-year degree from an accredited college, they routinely have less experience and higher turnover.

 

Compare that with public schools. With rare exceptions, teachers must have at least one bachelors degree in a specialized education field, and many have masters degrees or more. In addition, teacher turnover is much lower. This is partly because public school teachers usually earn a higher salary than those at privatized schools. (It’s still not comparable with professionals in other fields with similar levels of education, but it’s better than they get at privatized schools.) In addition they have higher job satisfaction because of increased union membership, which enables greater stability and helps create a safer workplace for teachers and their students.

 

Think about it. If you were one of the best teachers in the country, wouldn’t you want to work where you get the highest salary and benefits? Of course!

 

2) Public Schools Have a Greater Sense of Community

 

Most public schools have been around for a long time. They are the heart of the communities they serve. They do so much more than just teach children. They host continuing education courses for adults, extracurricular activities, sporting events, academic clubs, public swimming pools, open libraries, and invite the community for local events, concerts, seminars, etc.

 

This is rarely the case at privatized schools. Charters and private institutions are often fledgling startups. They’re located in rented office spaces, renovated store fronts and other locations chosen more for their cost benefits to investors and not for their efficacy as places of education or community outreach.

 

Public schools have histories that go back generations. Everyone in the community knows the teachers who work there. Parents often send their kids to the same educators who taught them when they were young. Sometimes this goes back to grandparents and even great grandparents. Older brothers can advise younger sisters what it was like to have this teacher or that principal. The kinds of relationships you get at public school just aren’t there at institutions that model themselves on big box stores like WalMart and Target.

 

3) Public Schools Increase Educational Choice

 

Privatizers often talk about charters and voucher schools as if they are the only places that offer parents and students choice. It’s simply untrue. Many public school districts offer a tremendous amount of alternatives for students living in their neighborhoods. Larger urban districts often have magnet or theme schools. But even beyond that, most schools offer a wide variety of classes and curriculum. Students can take foreign languages, vo-tech, arts and humanities, independent studies, and advanced placement or college credit courses. Students can take advantage of a plethora of services designed to personalize their academic experience to meet their individual needs with special and gifted education, even choosing which teachers are the best fit for their learning styles.

Obviously, these options increase with the degree of wealth in a community, but they prove that increasing choice doesn’t have to mean privatization. It means equitable funding.

 

 

4) Public Schools Have Greater Diversity

 

Students learn a lot more than reading, writing and arithmetic in school. They also learn how to deal with different kinds of people – they learn to share this world with other humans from various racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual backgrounds. The more diverse an environment they grow up in, the more well-adjusted they will be for the adult world, and the less racist, sexist and prejudiced they’ll probably become.

 

Public schools are often a sea of diversity. They are the best place to meet the entire spectrum of humanity. On the other hand, charter and voucher schools are routinely segregated and homogenous. Sometimes privatized schools make efforts to fight against this, but you can’t make much headway when your entire system is based on sorting out the underprivileged in favor of white, affluent children whose parents can afford tuition (private schools) or poor black but high achieving children (charter schools).

 

5) Public Schools Are More Fiscally Responsible

 

Public schools spend their money more wisely than privatized schools. They have to! Their records are an open book. All the spending decisions happen in public view. And the law requires that all expenses must relate to educating children.

 

Privatized schools rarely do this, and if they do, it’s by choice not necessity. They could close their books any day, make whatever decisions they like behind closed doors and layout bundles of cash for their CEOs or investors. Privatized schools are for-profit. Even when they aren’t explicitly labeled as such, they usually operate in the same way – cut student services to increase the bottom line. Their explicit goal is to make money off your child – not simply earn a middle class income like public schools. No, they want to get rich off of your dime.

 

Privatizers buy mansions and yachts with your money. Public school teachers pay off their mortgages. And in the rare instances where public school employees break the law and try to embezzle funds, they are much more likely to be caught because the books are right there for all to see.

 

6) Public Schools Are More Reliable

 

When you send your child to most privatized schools, you never really know if it’s going to be there tomorrow. Charter schools often close without a moments notice. Private schools declare bankruptcy.

 

If there’s one thing you can be reasonably sure of, it’s that your neighborhood public school will still be there. It’s been there for decades, sometimes hundreds of years. Charter and voucher schools are often fly-by-night affairs. Public schools are solid bedrock. If public schools close, it’s only after considerable public comment and a protracted political process. No one ever shows up to find the local public school chained shut. Not the same at charters or private schools.

 

 

7) Public Schools Have Greater Commitment to Students

 

Charter and vouchers schools don’t have to accept your child. Public schools do.

 

When you enroll in a privatized school, the choice is all up to administrators. Is your child a safe bet? Can they let your little one in without breaking the bank? Will he or she make the school look good with better test scores? Will he or she be easy to educate?

 

Public schools, on the other hand, have a commitment to educating every child who lives in the district. They even take homeless children. Only under the most extreme circumstances would they expel a young person. No matter who your offspring is, no matter how good or bad a student, public school operators have faith they can help the youngster succeed.

 

8) You Have Ownership of Public Schools

 

With privatized schools, you’re paying for a business to provide services. Public schools belong to you. In fact, you’re the boss.

 

Public schools are run by your friends, neighbors and co-workers. Privatized schools are most often run by appointed boards of directors who are not beholden to you but to the investors. As education blogger Peter Greene puts it, “The charter is a business, run by people who don’t ever have to let you into their board room.”

 

In addition, many public schools go beyond even this level of parental involvement. They more often have PTAs or PTOs. They have advisory councils where elected parents, teachers and community members can work together to advise the school board on important maters like hiring superintendents. If parents and the community want a voice, the public school system is overflowing with options. Ironically, the community rarely has any say over privatized schools and parents can only vote with their feet.

 

9) Public Schools Provide More Amenities

 

Public schools routinely offer so much more than privatized schools. At many charter and voucher schools, parents are required to buy supplies for the whole institution. Public schools accept donations and sometimes teachers ask for help, but if parents can’t (or won’t) send in pencils or tissues, the school provides it gratis. And even when the district is cheap in this regard, teachers often make up the difference from their own pockets. It’s not right that they have to do so, but they constantly step up for your children.

Moreover, public schools offer a much expanded range of services for your children than privatized schools. Special education and gifted programs are first rate at public schools while often intermittent or nonexistent at privatized schools. And the requirements put on parents at public schools are much lower – less restrictive dress codes, fewer demands on parents’ time and they take a greater responsibility for your children.

Heck, private schools rarely even pay for transportation. Public schools offer a free ride via the school bus from home and back again.

 

10) Public Schools Match or Outperform Privatized Schools

 

When it comes to academic performance, comparisons all come down to what data you think is indicative of student learning and which factors you exclude. You can find plenty of studies funded by privatizers that unsurprisingly conclude their backers business model is the best. However, when you look at peer reviewed and nonpartisan studies, the story changes.

The Lubienskis, in particular, paint an extremely compelling picture of public school superiority based on numerous complex statistical models including hierarchical linear modeling and multivariate regression. In short, the authors conclude that after accounting for the demographic differences among various school sector populations, traditional public school students outperform those at private schools over time. Students typically enter public schools with much greater degrees of poverty than those entering private schools. As such, public school students start with greater academic deficiencies. Even so, public schools are able to make up for these deficiencies over time more easily than privatized schools. And by fourth grade, public school students actually have greater academic success than their demographically similar peers at private or charter schools. The Lubienskis call it “The Public School Effect.”

 

With all these benefits, you’d think we’d be cheering on our public school system, not denigrating it. However, the failing schools narrative sells a lot of people on privatized alternatives. But it’s not fact. It’s marketing.

 

It’s time someone explicitly outlined the benefits of our public schools. We could be doing a lot more to help make them even better. But the first step is recognizing what an asset these schools already are.

 

Public schools, they’re what happens when we value children over profit.

XQ Live – Desperate School Choice Rebrand After Trump Touched It

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What do you do when your corporate brand has become repugnant to consumers?

You REBRAND, of course! And that’s exactly what uber-rich widow, Laurene Powell Jobs, paid a boatload of celebrities to do last night all over your TV.

The program was called XQ Superschools Live, and it took over four major networks.

It’s ironic really. Using an almost 100 year old medium to push “schools of the future.” They tweeted and Facebooked all over it, but the focus was on the old boob tube.

Why? Because the audience they wanted wasn’t so much the young. They wanted the old – those deep pocketed investors who might be startled by all the flash and bombast and ask their grandkids if this was “cool.”

It was the most pathetic display of desperation I have ever seen in my life.

If there is any justice, Tom Hanks, Yo-Yo Ma, Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Hudson and Common will have to spend the rest of their lives to regain even a fraction of street cred.

 

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They were nothing but a series of singing and dancing sell outs. This was a modern day minstrel show. A bunch of highly paid shills pretending to represent the common folk.

I’m talking raised fists at the end of dance numbers meant to evoke all the power of authentic activists like Black Lives Matter without really having any grassroots support or message.

To be honest, my overwhelming response was pity.

Did anyone really think this was going to connect with an audience?

And speaking of that audience, if you had no idea who XQ or corporate education reform was, you probably watched the screen in bemused confusion. What the heck was this crap? It was platitudes about improving high schools broken up by song and dance numbers. It made the MTV Video Music Awards seem like a college dissertation.

Yet, to the initiated, you could see the subtle nods to privatization and charter schools, the shade thrown on traditional public schools.

Rethink high school?

Sure! Let’s do that! Let’s rethink inequitably funding it. Let’s rethink high stakes standardized testing. Let’s rethink Common Core, stealing local control, teacher autonomy and a host of the kinds of top down bull crap XQ tried obscure while selling  an issue of Tiger Beat.

So now that it’s over, what have we learned?

1) Corporate education reformers are THAT desperate to distance themselves from Donald Trump.

His wholehearted endorsement of their agenda has done them serious life threatening damage. He has exposed their racist, privileged, corporatist policies for exactly what they are. No amount of celebrities will replace that in the public consciousness.

2) Rich people cannot set education policy.

Steve Jobs widow may be a very nice lady. But she has no freaking clue about public education. Nor is she honest enough to engage actual classroom teachers in the discussion to find out.

Instead of relying on the billionaires of the world, we should tax them. Then we can afford to fully fund our schools and let the people actually in the classroom decide what’s best for the students in their care. Let parents decide. Let school boards decide. Not a privileged tech philanthrocapitalist.

3) Celebrities will do anything for money.

The things these Hollywood elite prostitutes did last night to sell snake oil would make porn stars blush. I will never look at any of these people the same. Some of them I knew were true believers because of other projects. Heck! As much as I love Common’s new album, he does rap about Corey Booker – so warning there. Viola Davis is an amazing actress but she was in the parent trigger propaganda film “Won’t Back Down.”

Being famous doesn’t mean you know a damn thing. We recognize their faces. We associate them with past roles and characters we loved. We think their political stands are authentic when they are often just a pose. We’ve got to stop respecting these people just because they’re celebrities.

What will the long-term effect of last night’s propaganda be?

I don’t know.

I seriously doubt anyone really bought that. But you know what they say – no one ever went broke betting on the stupidity of the public.

And that’s what this was – a high stakes wager on American gullibility.

A Teacher’s Dilemma: Take a Stand Against Testing or Keep Abusing Children

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What am I?

 

Seriously. What is it I do for a living?

 

When I wake up to go to work in the morning, am I preparing to be a teacher or a test proctor?

 

Am I engaged in the practice of nurturing young minds or am I a tool of the establishment?

 

Should I be held accountable to the dozens of students in my classroom, their parents and the community – or to my administrators, the bureaucrats and moneyed interests ordering us around?

 

I ask these questions not as a rhetorical device. I really don’t know the answers. Because the solution begins with me.

 

Today was not a banner day in my classroom, and I can honestly say it was not my fault.

 

I had to give my 7th grade students the Classroom Diagnostic Tools assessment in Reading/Lit for grades 6-high school.

 

If you’re not familiar with the CDT, this is an optional test offered by Data Recognition Corporation for students in Pennsylvania’s public schools. It’s a way to assess student learning to predict whether they’ll pass there annual federally mandated standardized tests (also created by Data Recognition Corp. in the Keystone State). In addition, it offers example questions of the type that students struggled to answer correctly on the diagnostic.

 

It’s very helpful if you want to print out a buttload of test prep, give it to students and then read the paper quietly at your desk – something I never do.

 

For the second straight year, I’ve been forced to give it to my students three times annually – twice before the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests and once after.

 

I am not a fan.

 

Students hate it. It does not return valuable data. And it takes precious time that I could be using to actually teach something.

 

When I told my kids they were going to have to take the assessment this morning, one girl said, “I hate the CDTs. It stands for I Can’t Do This.”

 

Another girl had a more visceral reaction. When she saw the letters “CDT” on the board, she literally began rolling around on the floor and groaning.

 

These are the kinds of students I have – victims of generational poverty, malnutrition, childhood trauma, violence, drug abuse and systemic racism and prejudice. Strong-arming them into another standardized test isn’t doing them any favors.

 

Compare their reaction this morning to yesterday’s lesson.

 

We had just finished a unit on plot using Dr. Seuss stories and cartoons to illustrate complex concepts like exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, resolution, theme, etc.

 

I made a competitive review game through a program called Kahoot, and kids were out of their seats, jumping around, squealing with delight as they demonstrated their knowledge of what they’d learned. It got so loud one of the principals came running over from the office to make sure things weren’t getting out of hand. But what he found were students so engaged by the work they could barely contain themselves.

 

Heck! I even gave them a test of my own creation right afterward. There were no groans. There were no protests.

 

They sat at their seats like grown adults, concentrated and answered the questions to the best of their abilities.

 

Compare that with today’s assessment.

 

Behaviors off the hook. Sullen looks. Demands to use the restroom, go to their lockers, visit the nurse – ANYTHING but be here in class and do this test.

 

Why the difference?

 

Because they knew what was expected on MY test, and they knew they could meet my expectations. I was there for the lesson. I made the test. I would grade it. I have a relationship with these kids and they know I will assess them fairly.

 

But not on this standardized CDT nonsense!

 

Data Recognition Corp isn’t there for the lesson. It has no rapport with students. Kids don’t know what the expectations are and don’t think they can meet them. And they have no sense that this multi-billion dollar corporation will grade them fairly for their efforts.

 

So they act out.

 

They throw wads of paper or airdrop pictures to each others’ iPads.

 

And here I am in front of this room of unruly children forced to have to defend the bullcrap garbage that I’m being coerced to do to them.

 

I want to apologize. I want to tell them this is not my idea. And after a while, I even DID that. But it’s no use.

 

It matters little whether the executioner does his job with reluctance or not. He’s still here to end your life. And I was still cast in the role of ending their education for the day and replacing it with “proof” that they aren’t good enough.

 

When the test was over, so many children showed me their scores with hurt faces.

 

“Mr. Singer, I really tried!” one boy said.

 

“This is rigged!” another said.

 

And what am I supposed to say to that? Should I explain how they’re right – how standardized tests have always been culturally and economically biased? Why would they care!? What kind of teacher would that make me!?

 

I know this is wrong, but I still do it!?

 

What use am I?

 

What purpose do I serve enforcing policies I know to be detrimental?

 

I went through five years of college to become a teacher – not a prison guard. But on days like today that’s what I am. I’ve devoted over a decade of my life to nourishing children, not ordering them all to march in line single file.

 

But here I am, a paid thug who browbeats and coerces innocents into doing things they don’t want to do for purposes that won’t benefit them and will in fact be used against them.

 

I wonder what the school board would say if I had the guts to stand in front of them at a public meeting and tell them.

 

I guess I’ll just have to keep wondering because the last time I tried to address that august body without an explicit invitation, I was told I wasn’t allowed to do so since I don’t live in the district where I teach.

 

But sometimes I question whether the elected representatives of my district even understand what I’m being bulldozed into doing in their name.

 

Do you know I am abusing your children? I am crushing their creativity, their self-respect, their curiosity. Is that really what you want of me? Is that what you hired me for?

 

Don’t get me wrong.

 

It’s not really anything new. I’ve been doing this for almost 15 years. It’s just harder every year.

 

I heap on justifications – you have to do the bad stuff so you can do the good stuff. You have to enforce the testing so you can do authentic teaching.

 

And every year the mandates get more restrictive, the teaching gets a little less and the testing a bit more.

 

Meanwhile, politicians pretend like they’re doing something to fix it. Gov. Tom Wolf (whom I generally like) cuts off a few days from the PSSA tests this year. But he keeps the recommendation that we take the CDTs. He keeps the entire test-and-punish framework in place. Like most Democrats, he’s willing to twiddle around the edges but has no guts to do away with what’s wrong and replace it with what’s right.

 

Meanwhile, parents in my state are generally clueless.

 

You have some strong advocates here and there. Some moms and dads who understand what’s going on. But most are either oblivious, too busy putting food on the table, in jail or dead.

 

I used to send home a letter to parents reminding them of their right to opt out of standardized tests. It almost got me fired.

 

And for my efforts, I think maybe one or two parents over five years actually took me up on it.

 

I go to my local union and tell them my concerns. They nod and ask for more information and then quietly forget it.

 

Meanwhile, the national unions are behind the testocracy 100%. They’ll wag their fingers and complain about testing, but they’re too busy making sure the teaching profession even exists tomorrow to stop for small potatoes like bad practices.

 

I feel so alone here.

 

I’m pulling my hair out and the only response I get is from the choir (Hallelujah!) and the corporate education reformers (How dare you!?).

 

The majority stays silent. And complicit.

 

I’m just not sure I can do it anymore.

 

I’ve thought about calling in sick whenever I have to give a standardized test. It would be a lot of days, but I could do it.

 

That might be safe, but it would be cowardly.

 

I’d just be saving myself the pain and humiliation of giving the tests. My students would still be forced to take them.

 

So what do I do?

 

I write.

 

I write blogs like this one.

 

I pound out my cares and reservations, put them in a virtual bottle and set it adrift on the seas of the Internet.

 

It’s a constant gamble.

 

Someday someone may read them who can end my career.

 

Or maybe someone with the power to make a difference will read them.

 

Maybe that’s you.

 

Maybe it’s all of us.

 

I don’t know.

 

I have no solutions today. Just shame and regrets.

 

A dilemma that I cannot solve.

Who is Responsible for Student Achievement?

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Billy is an average middle school student.

 

He sits down and takes a test.

 

The grade comes back.

 

Who is responsible for that grade?

 

This should be the dumbest question you can ask in the field of education.

 

The answer should be obvious.

 

Billy is responsible.

 

Billy did the work, he took the test, he earned the grade.

 

But all across this great country of ours we’re giving the wrong answer.

 

We’re saying teachers are responsible for that grade.

 

This is ridiculous. Teachers could not do the work for the student. Teachers could not take the test for the student. How can you possibly assume the teacher is responsible for the grade?

 

In fact, if the teacher really were responsible – if she did all the work and took the test – how could you rationally say this grade belonged to the student? No, it wouldn’t be Billy’s, it would be his teacher’s.

 

The truth goes something like this: You are responsible only for things within your control. The greater your degree of control, the greater your degree of responsibility.

 

This is not complicated.

 

It is simple logic. Cause and effect.

 

But ignoring it is perhaps the most virulent, incorrigible, fact-resistant mistake in the entire field of public education.

 

Lawmakers are getting it wrong. The media is getting it wrong. Superintendents, principals – even teachers are getting it wrong.

 

And the reason is somewhat pernicious.

 

We’ve been sold a lie.

 

We’ve been told for so long that educators are responsible for their students’ work that we’ve begun to accept it without question.

 

Just today at a training in my district, I was shown a spreadsheet of student test scores and told in no uncertain terms that this was something I have control over.

 

I DON’T.

 

I don’t have control over the raw scores. I don’t even have control over how much a student improves from one year to another.

 

The student does.

 

HE controls how hard he works on assignments. HE exhibits the most control over the results of his assessments.

 

This doesn’t mean I’m completely helpless.

 

I do have control over certain aspects of students’ academic experience.

 

I control what work is assigned, when it is assigned and to whom.

 

I control whether there is extra credit, what counts as homework, who gets extra help, etc.

 

In many cases, I even get to decide whether students have completed their work and if assessments have been completed successfully.

 

As long as I am exhibiting best practices, giving age-appropriate work and evaluating it fairly, I’m doing my part.

 

It is not then justified to assume I am solely responsible for the end result.

 

I raise the hurdles, but the student actually goes through the obstacle course.

 

The teacher is a factor, but not the largest one. That is the student, Billy.

 

Yet he is not alone here. Besides, me, his teacher, there is also the principal, the student’s parents, his friends and even society as a whole.

 

All of these and more contribute to student success.

 

The principal controls school policy. He determines what discipline the student receives, the clarity of school rules, etc.

 

Likewise, students’ friends are part of their social network. They can help with homework, form a study group, or distract from school work, denigrate work ethic, etc.

 

Society also plays a role. If a student is part of a community that values education and work ethic, that student will more likely put forth more effort. If the student lives in a community where school is seen as unimportant and teachers are not respected, that will have a negative impact, etc.

 

And the number one factor other than the student, himself, that contributes to his success is parents. They control home life, emotional support, tutoring, nutrition, etc.

 

All of these complex factors combine to add up to an individual student’s success. However, at the end of the day, it is the student, himself, that bears the brunt of the responsibility for what he does.

 

That’s why we call it HIS grade and not someone else’s.

 

This is the most obvious thing in the world, but it has certain consequences for education policy.

 

For instance, it immediately invalidates the majority of teacher evaluations given throughout the country. The reason? Most evaluations are based at least in part on student test scores.

 

As we’ve seen, this misrepresents the student-teacher relationship. It blames the teacher for things well beyond his or her control.

 

It turns students into passive objects acted on by magical super teachers who can somehow make them learn simply by – what – endless repetition of test prep materials?

 

Why would students put forth their best in this scenario? If they’re failing, it’s somehow not their fault. It’s their teachers!

 

But even worse than this misrepresentation, it completely ignores a plethora of vital factors in the education process.

 

Parents, for instance, are crucially important, but we’re leaving them completely out of the loop.

 

When parents struggle to fulfill their responsibilities, why is there little to no help? The answer: because we’ve hidden the fact that such responsibilities even exist. We’ve thrown it all on the teacher and the school.

 

All these out-of-school factors are obscured, yet taken together they are almost determinate. After all, this is why poor and minority students disproportionately struggle academically.

 

You can demand every student jump six feet straight up, but those with the best resources will meet this goal much more frequently than those without.

 

And who is in control of those resources? Who decides which children get the smallest class sizes, the best home environments, the most conducive social networks, etc.?

 

The myth of teacher accountability is what stops such resources from being sent.

 

We’re told all you need is a good teacher.

 

But this is not true.

 

You need much more.

 

The ultimate responsibility may rest with the student, but until we all realize and acknowledge our collective responsibilities to all students, success will always be out of reach for far too many of them.

 

Billy may take the test, but it is society that is failing to meet its responsibilities.

Florida Looks to Hide Minority Students with Accountability Waiver

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What do you do with minority students?

 

The state of Florida is looking to hide them under the rug.

 

The state is seeking a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education for certain provisions of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) – a move that has some civil rights groups alarmed.

 

The request goes something like this:

 

Federal Government: How are your English Language Learners doing?

 

Florida: Dunno. We lumped them in with everyone else.

 

Fed: Are there any big discrepancies between white students and poor, black or Latino students?

 

Florida: Dunno. We don’t look at that.

 

Fed: Do you at least allow English Language Learners to take tests in their native language?

 

Florida: Nope. They need to speak English or fail.

 

Aaaaand scene.

 

The waiver hasn’t even been fully drafted yet and submitted to the federal Department of Education.

 

However, civil rights groups such as The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), and several local activists are asking that the state reconsider sending it and/or the federal government categorically deny it.

 

These organizations are worried that such measures, if approved, would allow Florida to ignore the needs of minority students.

 

In fact, lumping minority students’ test scores in with the majority white population would obscure whether they were struggling at all. So would explicitly ignoring any achievement gaps between the majority and minority populations.

 

And forcing students to take tests in a language with which they aren’t even proficient yet is just plain cruel.

 

But it highlights several conflicts at the forefront of the public education debate.

 

First, there’s the question of who controls our schools – the state, local or federal government.

 

Second, there’s the question of what is the best way to ensure every child is getting a quality education.

 

The first question is at the heart of a disagreement between many on the political left and right. Democrats generally favor more federal intervention, while Republicans favor more state control.

 

Which side will end up victorious is hard to say. In situations like this, it’s even hard to say who SHOULD be victorious.

 

In general, local control is better than administration from a far. But it’s kind of hard to stand up for a state legislature that has no problem segregating minorities, under funding their schools and then trying to hush it all up.

 

It’s kind of like parenting. It’s better that children stay with their parents, but if their mom and dad are abusive jerks, perhaps all bets are off.

 

Secondly, we have the question of accountability. What is the best measure of whether a school is providing a quality education?

 

Like the No Child Left Behind legislation before it, the ESSA specifically uses standardized test scores for this purpose.

 

However, test scores are terrible at determining accountability. They’re economically and culturally biased. Rich kids tend to pass and poor kids tend to fail. At best, they show which students have been the most economically privileged and which have not.

 

But we don’t need test scores to see that. We can simply look at students’ socio-economic status. We can look at whether they’re living below the poverty line or not. We can look at their nutrition and health. We can look at whether they belong to a group that has historically been selected against in this country or not.

 

And once we find that out, we shouldn’t punish the school for having the audacity to teach poor and minority children. We should give them extra funding and resources to meet those students’ needs. But the current test-based accountability system doesn’t do that. Instead it cuts off funding to schools that need it most while pushing public schools to be closed and replaced with charter and voucher institutions that have a worse record of success.

 

In short, accountability is vital in our public schools, but the way we determine who needs help and what we consider help are drastically out of step with student needs.

 

These are two issues that desperately need resolution, and we’re putting them on the desk of the one Education Secretary in our nation’s history least equipped to deal with them – Betsy DeVos.

 

Fed vs. states? She’s for whichever pushes school privatization.

 

Test scores? She loves them!

 

Civil rights? Her administration is infamous for expressing doubts that such things even exist.

 

But at the same time, some on the corporate left may use her dunderheaded opposition to justify test-based accountability.

 

“See?” They’ll say. “We need standardized tests to protect minority children!”

 

Um. No. You don’t.

 

Likewise, some on the right might try to characterize Florida’s attempted waiver as an act of defiance against test-based accountability.

 

It’s not. Officials in the Sunshine State aren’t concerned with undoing the testocracy. They’re perfectly fine with high stakes testing – so long as they don’t have to do anything special to help black and brown kids.

 

It’s a situation where blatant self-interest can easily be hidden under a fake concern for children.

 

On balance, civil rights groups’ concerns are justified in relation to Florida’s drafted ESSA waiver. But they’re wrong if they think test-based accountability is in the best interests of the minorities they serve.

 

If you’re going to use standardized tests to hold schools accountable for providing a quality education – and that’s a Big IF – it’s unfair to obscure data about minority students and possible achievement gaps. Moreover, it’s reprehensible that you wouldn’t even bother to test them fairly by letting them take these assessments in their native languages.

 

However, it would be even better to dispense with test-based accountability in the first place. It would be better to see student needs directly and not as a reflection of test scores. That would more easily allow help to reach the students and not the vulture industries circling above our public schools waiting to pick them apart in the name of accountability.

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.