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.

Charter School Lotteries – Why Most Families Don’t Even Apply

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Who gets to enroll in your school?

 

This question is at the heart of the charter school debate.

 

While traditional public schools have to accept any student who meets residency requirements, charter schools can be entirely more selective.

 

They don’t have to take just any student. They can pick and choose based on pretty much whatever criteria they want.

 

Despite the fact that charters are publicly funded and privately run, transparency requirements are so low in most states that regulators aren’t even allowed to check up on their enrollment practices.

 

It’s a situation rife with the potential for fraud and abuse with America’s most vulnerable students often being victimized and huge corporations raking in record profits.

 

Critics say that charter schools routinely accept only the easiest students to educate. They take those with the best academic records, without disciplinary problems or special education needs. This allows them to spend less money to run their schools and claim all their students are doing well because of artificially inflated test scores.
But when critics level such charges against the charter school industry, the most common reply is an appeal to charter school lotteries.

 

When these privatized schools get more applications than they have seats, they often resort to a lottery to determine which students get to enroll.

 

The infamous propaganda movie “Waiting for Superman” had a much quoted scene where poor children held onto their lottery tickets as they hoped and prayed to be saved from a “failing public school.”

 

Advocates claim this is what makes charters fair: Students get in by pure chance.

 

But it’s not true.

 

More often than not, whenever enrollment data is available, it shows that charter administrators are, in fact, selective.

 

Take BASIS School Inc., a charter chain with 18 schools in Arizona, three in Texas and one in Washington D.C. The chain’s schools in Tucson and Scottsdale are highly ranked on Newsweek’s “America’s Most Challenging High Schools” list, and on the Best High Schools list of U.S. News & World Report.

 

However, their enrollment figures show them to be out-and-out cherry pickers.

 

They typically over-enroll Asian-American students and under enroll Latinos. They also enroll a much lower proportion of special education students than the state average and – shockingly – have zero English Language Learners.

 

Despite corporate accolades, this is not a successful model of public education. It is prejudicial, exclusionary and entirely the goal of for-profit educational institutions everywhere.

 

But besides outright corruption from charter administrators, there are other factors that suppress the neediest students from even applying to charter schools.

 

In short, they don’t want to go to these types of schools. They can’t afford losing the services and amenities they would typically receive at traditional public schools. They can’t afford the extra out-of-pocket costs charters demand.

 

Frankly, many charter schools are set up for middle class or wealthier students. Even if accepted, the poor would get fewer services and be forced to pay more than they could afford.

 

1) They Can’t Afford Uniforms

 

Many charter schools require students to wear uniforms. Most traditional public schools do not. Therefore, even though your local charter school is funded by tax dollars, it can be a hefty financial burden to attend.

 

How much more does it cost? That depends. Each charter school has different requirements.

 

For instance, in the New Orleans Parents’ Guide, the cost for a single uniform is estimated at more than $70. That’s at least $350 for a week’s worth of clothes. However, many estimates I’ve seen have been much higher.

 

Many charters require students to wear blazers – something a traditional public school student wouldn’t be caught dead wearing. These are pretty expensive items. They can cost anywhere from $80-$250 each.

 

Moreover, some charters, like most in the KIPP network, require everyday items like socks and shirts to contain an embroidered school logo. That’s at least an additional $10-15 per item.

 

For impoverished parents who routinely shop at local thrift stores or the Salvation Army, charter school uniforms can put them out of reach.

 

To be fair, about 19% of traditional public schools also require uniforms. However, they are typically much less expensive. In fact, they rarely amount to more than requiring clothing to be of a wide variety of colors and/or styles.

 

And if parents can’t afford the extra cost, traditional districts are required to either forgo the requirement or help parents meet it. They cannot deny children an education based on their parents inability to buy uniforms. Charter schools, on the other hand, can.

 

2) They Need Special Education Programs

 

 

Charter schools are rarely – if ever – known for their special education programs. Traditional public schools, on the other hand, are renowned for meeting the needs of diverse students with various abilities. If your child has special needs, going to a charter school simply may not be an option.

 

One reason for this is the basic structure of each type of institution. Traditional public schools are usually much bigger than charter schools. As a result, they can pool their resources to better meet special students needs.

 

At charter schools nationally, disabled students represent only about 7-8% of all students enrolled. At traditional public schools, they average a little more than 11%, according to a Government Accountability Office analysis of Department of Education data. So traditional public schools already have the staff, infrastructure and experience to help these children. Moreover, it would be cost prohibitive for charters to add them, especially when they’re designed specifically to make a profit.

 

Perhaps more troubling is this: charter schools rarely identify students as having special needs. Students who would get extra help and services in a traditional public school setting, do without in charter schools. In fact, parents who feel their children’s needs aren’t being met at charters, often disenroll them and place them back in their traditional public school for the extra help.

 

Parents with students who have learning disabilities or extra needs simply can’t afford letting their children languish in a privatized school setting that may well ignore their child’s individual needs.

 

3) They Need Free/Reduced Breakfast and Lunches

 

Though the state and federal government pay for free or reduced breakfast or lunch programs, charter schools often don’t offer them. Traditional public schools do. It’s that simple. If you’re having trouble feeding your children, sending them to a charter school can mean letting them go hungry.

 

Take Arizona. Statewide, more than 47% of all students receive free or reduced-priced lunch. However, charter schools in the BASIS network have none.  This doesn’t mean none of their students qualify. Clearly some of them do. The BASIS chain has chosen not to participate.

 

Why? Perhaps it’s to keep away students who have greater needs.

 

If so, it’s working.

 

Even when charters don’t actively weed out hard to teach students, they can set things up to make them less likely to apply.

 

4) They Need Busing To-And-From School

 

Often students don’t live within walking distance of their school. Traditional public schools routinely provide busing. Charter schools often do not. If you can drive your child to-and-from school, this is not an issue. If you’re poor and don’t have your own means of transportation, this is an added burden.

 

And if you think this is only a feature of the most fly-by-night charters, think again. The BASIS network – again, which includes some of the highest rated charters in the country – does not provide busing.

 

Traditional public schools are often at the heart of the community. They spring up around community centers, parks, and social gathering places. Charter schools are more often located at new or repurposed sites that can be miles away from the people they serve.

 

When the traditional public school offers a free ride to-and-from school, it can be an insurmountable burden to go to a charter where you have to find another way to get there. Parents who are working multiple jobs and/or the night shift may find it impossible to take their kids to the local charter. But perhaps this is exactly why charters aren’t offering busing in the first place. They don’t want these children.

 

5) They Don’t Have Time and/or Money For Extra Charter Demands

 

Charter schools demand an awful lot from parents. Traditional public schools do not. While children often benefit from involved parents, that’s not always possible. It’s unfair to require parental involvement as a prerequisite of enrollment.

 

Many charter schools require parents to volunteer at the school for so many hours a week. They often require “suggested” donations for extra services and for parents to buy books, supplies, or to pay an additional fee for extra curricular activities that would be provided for free at traditional public schools.

 

The BASIS network, for instance, requests that families contribute at least $1,500 a year per child to the school to fund its teacher bonus program. Families are also required to pay a $300 security deposit, purchase books, and pay for activities that would be free if the student attended a public school.

 

This is simply out of reach for the most disadvantaged students. Their parents are out of work or working multiple jobs to support them. They can’t volunteer at the school when they have to serve a shift at WalMart. They can’t afford the additional costs.

 

So, yes, charters often select against the poorest and neediest students when deciding whom to enroll.

 

However, even when they conduct fair lotteries to determine enrollment, they often set things up to discourage the neediest families from even applying in the first place.

 


NOTE: Special thanks to Priscilla Sanstead on this article.

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

Little African Girl At Wooden Fence With Thumbs Up.

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

We don’t guarantee every child an excellent education.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We should no longer guarantee business a class of consumers.

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

It’s really that simple.

PA: Want to Get Rid of Keystone Exams? Then Let Us Evaluate Teachers More Unfairly

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It’s the classic Harrisburg switch.

 

Want something good passed by the legislature? Then let us pass something terrible – something you would never even consider unless something you cared about was on the table.

 

That appears to be the game being played by the Pennsylvania Senate Education Committee today as they consider SB 756.

 

On the one hand, the proposed bill would eliminate the state’s terrible Keystone Exams. On the other, it would force a new teacher evaluation system that is tremendously unfair.

 

Which one is more important?

 

The answer: both.

 

If lawmakers had any moral courage – and most don’t because they’re lawmakers after all – they would consider each of these measures one at a time on their own merits.

 

But if they did that, conservatives wouldn’t vote to help students by getting rid of unfair tests, and progressives wouldn’t vote to help corporations by installing unfair teacher evaluations. So they’ve apparently decided to compromise behind closed doors by putting both together in a huge omnibus bill.

 

Who knows what other treasures lurk in its pages!? Well if you have a limitless amount of time and energy, go ahead and read it!

 

THE GOOD

 

The bill would put an end to our costly, cruel and dishonest Keystone Exams. Not only would we no longer threaten to require these tests in Literature, Algebra and Biology as graduation requirements, but we would stop giving them altogether.

 

In their place to meet federal accountability regulations, the state would substitute the Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SAT), Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT), armed forces exam, competency assessment or certificate for technical students, or Pennsylvania Alternative Assessment for students with special needs.

 

But perhaps the best part is that the bill makes explicit and generous provisions for parents to opt their children out of high school standardized tests altogether. In this case, students would NOT be required to take a substitute assessment.

 

Here is the exact language from the bill:

 

“A school entity’s governing board shall adopt a policy that provides that the parent or guardian of a student may request that the student be exempt from taking an assessment that is required for the purpose of Federal accountability as permitted under ESSA [Every Student Succeeds Act]. The policy shall provide that parents and guardians of students receive written notice of the option for a student to be exempt from taking the assessment and that the exemption shall be permitted upon the school entity’s receipt of a written request from the parent or guardian of the student. A substitute assessment or an alternative assessment, course or program may not be required of a student exempted under this section. Grounds for exemption in the school entity’s policy shall include, but not be limited to:
(1) Religious grounds.
(2) The basis of a strong moral or ethical conviction
similar to a religious belief.
(3) Philosophical grounds.
(4) Privacy concerns.
(5) Health concerns for the child, which may include stress and anxiety in preparation for the assessment.”

 

This is a huge improvement over our current opt out policy. At present, parents can opt out their children from the Keystone Exams but students must take an alternate assessment. This could include a project based assessment and not merely a standardized test. Also, it only allows these exemptions based on religious convictions. Parents needn’t explain these convictions in any detail, but this is the only option they are given with which to opt out.

 

The proposed legislation would go into effect during the 2018-19 school year, when the Keystone Exams would otherwise become a graduation requirement. Students would take the SAT or other assessment in 10th grade.

 

However, students in 3-8th grade would still be subjected to the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments (PSSA) tests. I assume parents could still opt out their children from these exams, but the wording is a bit murky there.

 

In addition, the law would require the state to establish a task force to reevaluate whether the Commonwealth should use the PSSA in the future and how to reduce the time it takes to give the assessment. If the task force concludes the PSSA is inappropriate, they must look for an alternative exam. They are required to issue a report in 6 months from passage of the bill.

 

This is particularly important since the PSSA has been rewritten to be closer to the Keystone Exam. It is Keystone Exam-lite. If the legislature is against the high school test, one would imagine they should be against a very similar test being given in elementary and middle school.

 

THE BAD

 

Despite all the good this proposed bill would do for our school children, it would drastically worsen the situation for our classroom teachers.

 

Half of a teacher’s current evaluation is based on classroom observations by district administrators. That just makes sense. The best way to tell if an educator is doing a good job is to observe what he/she is actually doing in the classroom.

 

This new system would reduce classroom observations to only 30% of a teacher’s annual score.

 

This would allow 10% to come from a “parental” score and 10% to come from “peer evaluation.” In a non-high stakes environment, input from both of these stakeholders is vital to a teacher’s success. But when you add that high stakes component, you pervert both relationships.

 

Having parents evaluate teachers puts them in kind of a touchy place. Teachers are required to push students to do their best. This requires them to often make calls home and ask for help from parents. If parents control a portion of a teacher’s evaluation, it incentivizes educators not to bother them with student misbehavior or failing grades. Instead teachers could be pressured to unfairly increase students grades or ignore misbehavior so as to better parental evaluations.

 

Moreover, peer observations can be extremely subjective when tied to teacher assessment. Administrators are discouraged from giving out distinguished evaluations to more than a handful of teachers. This incentivizes peers who are forced to compete for these few plum scores to unfairly suppress positive evaluations from their fellows.

 

But the worst is still to come.

The new evaluations require 50% of teachers’ evaluations to come from student growth and achievement measures. For math and English teachers, this largely means using standardized test scores to assess educators.

 

It’s a terrible practice that has been shown to be ineffective and downright damaging to student learning time and again. But it does help testing corporations by discouraging opt outs. Just imagine. If you have students who you think will score well on the tests but who may opt out, you are incentivized to discourage them from doing so. Otherwise, your teacher evaluation will drop.

 

This makes teachers the testing policemen. Learning doesn’t matter, only how well your students do on the tests. It dramatically tips the scale away from things the teacher has any control over. As such, it would cause serious harm to the quality of education students receive across the state.

 

CONCLUSION

We cannot support this bill in its present form. It should not go on to consideration by the full House and/or Senate. And if it somehow is passed by these Republican-controlled bodies, our Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf should not sign it.

 

This is unfortunate because there is much to like about it. However, you can’t save students from unfair assessments by forcing teachers to be evaluated by – drum roll please – unfair assessments.

 

This sets up an unsustainable and unfair relationship between students and teachers. It puts educators in the position of having to look out for their own interests and not those of their students. The interests of both should be interlinked, not separated. Teachers get into the profession to help kids learn – not to have to look out for an arbitrary score from their administrators that may require them to act against their students needs.

 

If legislators had any ethical fortitude, they would propose both of these measures in separate bills where they could be examined on merit. But I long ago gave up expecting such qualities from our politicians.

 

In my book, they almost all deserve a failing grade.

School Vouchers: Transubstantiate Your Cash For Fun and Profit

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When is a tax dollar not a tax dollar?

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s how they do it.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

BAD DEAL

 

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

Think about it.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

This is government sanctioned money laundering, pure and simple.

 

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

 

NAME CHANGE

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

And that’s a really significant issue.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

This is not how public money should be spent.

 

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

 

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

 

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

Is Love Enough to Fight Today’s White, Male Terrorists?

trump-oregon-stabbing-victims-stood-up-against-hate-and-intolerance_1

When I was growing up, I was told that love is all you need.

But now in the face of such hatred toward people of color, I’m not so sure.

Three brave people put their lives on the line to stop a knife-wielding white supremacist on a bus in Portland, Oregon, yesterday. Two of them – Ricky Best and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche – lost their lives defending two young women being menaced with anti-Muslim slurs. The other – Micah Fletcher – was viciously wounded but survived.

As Meche was bleeding out on the floor of the bus, a witness recorded his last words: “Tell everyone on this bus that I love them.”

It’s heartbreaking.

What are we to do with such knowledge? Three people filled with love and one maniac filled with hate.

Was love enough?

It saved the would-be targets this time. The attacker is behind bars. But two precious lives have been snuffed out.

Why? So one scared little man can vent his xenophobia and intolerance?

The America I grew up in seemed to have learned the lessons of the Civil Rights movement. I was born after the murders of Dr. King, Malcolm X and the Kennedys. I was born after the church bombings, bus boycotts, freedom rides and marches.

I grew up in a time when we could look back on all that and wonder what we would have done had we been faced with the same challenges. And now

Marx said, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” What better term to define the age of Trump and the Alt-Right than farce?

Capitalism is dying and the one percent are so ignorant they’re only fueling the fires of their own demise. They ship jobs overseas and then wonder why no one has any money to buy their products. Meanwhile the frightened and forgotten white American men who used to sit atop the social ladder are once again looking for someone to blame. And the same convenient scapegoats present themselves.

I find myself asking what so many generations have asked before: will we survive this time?

It is not just racism and prejudice. It is not just economic uncertainty and systemic inequality. It’s climate change and nuclear proliferation. It’s a world on the brink of collapse and civilization-ending war.

And the only thing we have to fight all these enemies at the gates, the only thing we have is love.

Will it be enough?

Do we have enough love to overcome all the fear and hate?

I don’t know.

I love my daughter. That I can say with absolute certainty.

I look at her innocent enthusiastic face as she draws a crayon portrait of Ruby Bridges, the first black girl to desegregate a historic New Orleans public school in 1960. I smile and try to hope.

I love my wife.

I watch her look of triumph as she beats me again at Jeopardy. She can read the answers faster than I can voice the questions.

I love my students.

I smile as they furiously write their final 8th grade projects connecting The Outsiders, “The Diary of Anne Frank”, and To Kill a Mockingbird in one glorious essay. How much more confident they are now completing a project that would have seemed impossible 8 months before!

But do I love the stranger, too?

Will I look across the aisle at the black and brown boys and girls riding with me on the bus and have the courage to love them as much?

When a man who looks just like me stands and threatens them, will I love them enough to stand in his way? Will I suspend the love of all those I know to protect those I don’t?

Do I have enough love?

I hope so. Because in writing this article one thing has become clear to me about myself that I didn’t realize when I began.

I don’t know if love can save the world. I don’t know if it can heal the environment, stop global war, provide an equitable economy and eradicate racism.

But I still believe in spite of everything that it’s the only way to live.

We may not survive today. But we’ll love each other.

And maybe that matters the most.

Destroying the Separation of Church and State is Beyond Stupid

religious-fanatic

There is a special place in Hell for those trying to destroy the separation of church and state.

 

It’s kind of like:

 

Hey! Let’s turn this country into a Christian version of Iran!

 

Or:

 

If only my child’s school was more like a terrorist training camp!

 

Seriously, what the heck is wrong with you? Torquemada and Osama Bin Laden are not role models of 21st Century education.

 

But okay. In a way I get it. You’re a Christian fundamentalist, and you’re afraid secular education will turn your child against your faith.

 

Well, Number One, if your beliefs are so weak that just hearing an alternative will destroy them, then maybe they deserve to be destroyed. And, Number Two, that’s what religious schools are for! Reach into your pocket and pay for your little choirboy or choirgirl to be educated in the church basement. But I’m not using my tax dollars to help indoctrinate your child in whatever medieval mumbo jumbo you believe in.

 

You think the world was created in six days? You think the sun orbits around the Earth? You think the Earth is flat!? FINE! I’m not going to pay so your kids grow up just as ignorant!

 

Mixing religion with our public school curriculum is not a good thing.

 

When my kids take science, I want them to learn things based on empiricism and the scientific method – not whatever “truth” is enshrined in a holy book written before the germ theory of disease. The answer to a question about whooping cough isn’t “God did it.”

 

The same goes for literature. I want my child to read a wide variety of texts from various points of view, written by people of various faiths, from a multitude of cultures, genders and world views – not just a pantheon of iron age tribal chiefs and a smattering of cloistered feudal monks! I want my child to think about what she’s read and come to her own conclusions – not have “the truth” handed down to her from on high.

 

And when it comes to social studies, I want my child to understand history and government without the biases of the right wing taught as if they were the only logical ways to organize a society. I want my child to be a good citizen with a working knowledge of how government functions complete with a catalogue of the errors of past centuries. I don’t want my child molded to think a certain way and only that way so that she’ll vote a certain way and only that way.

 

Oh, and math? That’s just for boys.

 

It’s ironic that the advocates of school vouchers often couch their arguments in the language of liberty and choice when they’re really advocating for the elimination of those very things.

 

This isn’t about school choice. It’s about eliminating my child’s right to free thought. It’s about society pumping out a generation of religious zealot clones to feed the polling places of one political party so that they’ll vote against their own interests and keep the rich and powerful gobbling up 99% of the wealth.

 

But shouldn’t kids be allowed to talk about religion in school?

 

Sure. And they can and do right now in public school.

 

There is nothing to stop children from discussing their views about God and religion in school. They can even pray. No one will discriminate against them for it. That’s their right.

 

The only prohibition is against a religious discussion or prayer conduced by a teacher. When my students bring up God during a class discussion – and it happens – I let them talk. If they ask my views, I politely decline. I might say that some people believe this or some people believe that. But I never say what I believe.

 

Why would you want anything different? Do you really want teachers forcing their faith (or lack of faith) on your children? I suppose if you choose exactly the kind of school with teachers who think exactly like you, then this doesn’t matter. But isn’t it better to let kids figure out their own theologies perhaps with help from you, their parents?

 

When it comes to facts, an education professional is just what the doctor ordered. When it comes to opinions – and faith is the ultimate opinion – children should be free to think for themselves. If you want a religious leader to lend his or her normativity, that’s up to you. But don’t step on other parents who have different worldviews, cultures, faiths.

 

And please don’t give me this crap that the words “separation of church and state” don’t appear in the Constitution. Neither do the words “self-protection” appear in the Second Amendment, but you still cling to your guns on the excuse that they keep you and your family safe.

 

The separation of church and state is a long-standing interpretation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It has been upheld time and again. You may call yourself a “conservative” for going against it, but actually you’re the very definition of a radical. It is I who is being conservative in defending it.

 

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.”

 

The same can be said of those with torches and pitchforks gathered around the separation of church and state. They seek no freedom other than the freedom to discriminate against those unlike themselves.

 

They are our racists, sexists and xenophobes. They are those prejudiced against anyone who thinks thoughts unsanctioned by their clergy. They seek to pour cement over the social structure and keep it in place with ignorance.

 

We must fight them to our last breath because if they win… God help us!