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.

The Essential Selfishness of School Choice

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Say your friend Sheila invites you over to her house.

Sheila has just made a fresh pumpkin pie.

She offers you a slice.

You politely refuse, but she insists. She hands you the knife so you can take as big a piece as you like.

You start to cut and then ask, “Does it matter where I cut from?”

Sheila says, “No. Take whatever you want.”

You don’t like crust, so you cut a perfect triangle piece from the middle of the pie.

Sheila’s face reddens.

This wasn’t exactly what she meant, but what is she going to do? You took your slice, and now the rest of the pie is ruined. No one else can take a whole piece. Your choice has limited everyone else’s.

That’s what school choice does to public education.

It privileges the choice of some and limits the choices of others.

Advocates say parents should be able to choose the school their children attend.

And parents today do have many choices. About 90% send their kids to traditional public schools. Others home school, pay for private schools or opt for charter or voucher schools.

The problem comes with these last two options. In both cases, tax money meant to help all children is siphoned off for just one child. In the case of vouchers, tax money goes to pay part of the tuition at a private or parochial school. In the case of charters, we’re diverting tax money to a school that’s public in name but privately run.

That means less money for traditional public schools and more money for privately run institutions. That’s really what school choice is – a way to further privatize public schools.

Why is that bad?

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First, it increases the cost and reduces the services for everyone.

 

Public schools pool all the funding for a given community in one place. By doing so, they can reduce the cost and maximize the services provided. One building costs less than two. The same goes for one staff, one electric bill, one infrastructure, etc.

When you start adding additional layers of parallel schools, you increase the costs even if you somehow divided the children evenly between the two systems (which hardly ever happens). You buy less with the same money. That translates to fewer services for the same kids, larger class sizes, narrowed curriculum, etc. Why? So that parents could choose School A or School B. So that privatizers get a bigger slice of the pie – right from the middle.

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Second, each type of school has different goals.

 

Public schools are designed to educate. Corporate schools are designed to profit. Those are their very reasons for existing. It’s built into their DNA and is reflected in the way they’re administrated.

By law, public schools are not for-profit. They pay for goods and services, but at the end of the day, they aren’t beholden to shareholders or investors. They don’t need to bring in more money than they spend. All they have to do is educate children, and if they somehow end up with extra money at the end of that process, that money is bound by law to be reinvested as savings for next year.

Charter and voucher schools are not so constrained. Their reason for being is not education – it is profit. Where they can, they will cut services for children and reduce quality so that they can increase the bottom line. Even a casual glance at the news will show you a plethora of charter and voucher school scandals where privateers have stolen millions of dollars of taxpayer money instead of educating. To return to the dessert metaphor, they don’t care what their slice does to everyone else – they only care about the size of the slice.

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Third, charter and voucher schools aren’t as accountable as traditional public schools.

 

Each type of school is supported by tax money. Therefore, each school should be held accountable for spending that money wisely. But the rules are radically different for public schools vs. choice schools.

Public schools have elected school boards made up of taxpayers from the community. Choice schools often do not. They are run by appointed boards who are only accountable to investors. Public schools are required to be transparent. Their documentation, budgets and meetings must be available to the media and community for review. This is not true of privatized choice schools.

If taxpayers are unhappy with the way a traditional public school is being run, they have multiple options for changing it. With choice schools, their only option is to withdraw their child. And in the case of taxpayers who do not have children in the system at all, they have no recourse at all. This is fiscally irresponsible and amounts to taxation without representation. This alone should be enough to make any true conservative withdraw support – however ideology has trumped logic and reason. Not only do they ruin the pie, they get to do so in secret.

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Fourth, school vouchers rarely cover the entire cost of attending private schools.

 

They end up subsidizing costs for rich and upper middle class students while keeping away the poor. As such they create a system of cultural and racial education segregation. They create tiers of schools – the public schools being only for the poor, cheaper private schools for the middle class and expensive private schools for the rich.

This is not the best way to educate children. It is not the best way to organize a society. It entrenches social and class differences and builds in entitlements and racism for the wealthy. Surely our public schools have become more segregated even without vouchers, but that is no reason to make the situation exponentially worse. The size and placement of one’s slice shouldn’t depend on the color of your skin or the size of your bank account.

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Fifth, all schools are not equally successful.

 

Though the media would have you believe otherwise, traditional public schools do a much better job of educating children than charter or voucher schools. Some choice schools have better outcomes, but the majority do no better and often much worse than traditional public schools. Moreover, children who continually move from school-to-school regardless of its type almost always suffer academically.

So when parents engage in these choice schemes, they often end up hurting their own children. The chances of children benefiting from charter or voucher schools is minimal. You can cut a slice from the center of the pie, but it’s likely to fall apart before you get it on a plate.

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So in summary, school choice is essentially selfish. Even in cases where kids do benefit from choice, they have weakened the chances of everyone else in the public school system. They have increased the expense and lowered the services of children at both types of school. They have allowed unscrupulous profiteers to make away with taxpayer money while taxpayers and fiscal watchdogs are blindfolded. And when students return to their traditional public school after having lost years of academic progress at a substandard privatized institution, it is up to the taxpayers to pay for remediation to get these kids back up to speed.

Choice advocates talk about children being trapped in failing schools, but they never examine what it is about them that is failing.

Almost all public schools that are struggling serve impoverished students. That’s not a coincidence. It’s the cause. Schools have difficulty educating the poorest children. Impoverished children have greater needs. We should be adding tutoring, counseling and mentor programs. We should be helping their parents find jobs, providing daycare, healthcare and giving these struggling people a helping hand to get them back on their feet.

But instead we’re abandoning them. Most impoverished schools serving poor children receive less funding than those serving middle class or wealthy populations. In other western countries, it’s just the opposite. They provide more funding and resources for poor students to meet their greater needs.

School choice ignores all of this. If I may momentarily switch metaphors, instead of fixing the leak in our public school system, advocates prescribe running for the lifeboats. We could all be sailing on a strong central cruise-liner able to meet the demands of a sometimes harsh and uncaring ocean together. Instead we’re told to get into often leaky escape craft that even under the best of circumstances aren’t as strong as the system we’re abandoning.

And the reason is profits.

Have you ever noticed that the overwhelming majority of school choice proponents are rich white people?

Many of them own charter school companies or otherwise invest in the field. They aren’t advocating a policy to help children learn. They’re enriching themselves at public expense. Sure they point their fingers at union teachers making a middle class wage. Meanwhile these choice advocates rake in public money to buy yachts, condos and jewelry.

Make no mistake – school choice is essentially about selfishness. At every level it’s about securing something for yourself at the expense of others. Advocates call that competition, but it’s really just grift.

Public education is essentially the opposite. It’s about ensuring that every child gets the best education possible. Yes, it’s not perfect, and there are things we could be doing to improve it. But it is inherently an altruistic endeavor coming from the best of what it means to be an American.

We’ve all got choices in life. The question is what kind of person do you want to be? A person who takes only for his or herself? Or someone who tries to find an option that helps everyone?

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Yes.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

THAT would be a choice worth making.

 

It would be the best kind of school choice.

Who’s Your Favorite Gadfly? Top 10 Blog Posts (By Me) That Enlightened, Entertained and Enraged in 2015

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“Pennsylvania educator and public school advocate Steven Singer is one of the most powerful voices in the nation when it comes to speaking out for students, parents, teachers and our public schools.”
Jonathan Pelto, founder of the Education Bloggers Network

 

 

“Steven Singer wrote these five terrific posts last year. I didn’t see them when they appeared. Probably you didn’t either. You should.”
Diane Ravitch, education historian

 

“Your name should be Sweet Steven Singer. You are a delight.”
Karen Lewis, President of the Chicago Teachers Union

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Hello. My name is Steven Singer, and I am a gadfly.

I make no apologies for that. It’s what I set out to do when I started this blog in July of 2014.

I told myself that people were too complacent. There was no curiosity. People were too darn sure about things – especially education policy and social issues.

They knew, for instance, that standardized testing was good for children. Why? Because Obama said so. And he’s such a nice man. It’s too bad all those mean Republicans keep making him do all this bad stuff.

They also knew racism was over. After all… Obama! Right? Black President, therefore, the hundreds of years of struggle – finished! Move along. Nothing to see here.

Yet all this “knowledge” went against everything I saw daily as a public school teacher.

Standardized tests are good for children? Tell that to more than half of public school kids now living below the poverty line who don’t have the same resources as middle class or wealthy kids yet are expected to magically ace their assessments. Tell that to the kids who get hives, get sick, or throw up on test day. Tell it to the black and brown students who for some unexplainable reason almost always score lower than their white peers.

Racism is over? Tell that to all my minority students who are afraid to walk home from school because they might get followed, jumped, beaten or killed… by the police! Tell it to their parents who can’t get a home loan and have to move from one rental property to another. Tell it to the advertising executives and marketing gurus who shower my kids with images of successful white people and only represent them as criminals, thugs, athletes or rappers.

So when I started this blog, I consciously set out to piss people off. But with a purpose. To quote the original historical gadfly, Socrates, my role is, “to sting people and whip them into a fury, all in the service of truth.” It seems well suited to a school teacher. After all, Socrates was accused of “corruption of the youth.”

It’s been quite a year. When I went to the Network for Public Education conference in Chicago last April, some folks actually seemed to know who I was. “Don’t you write that Gadfly blog?” was a common question.

When I met NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia and AFT President Randi Weingarten, they both said, “I read your blog.” And then they looked me up and down suspiciously as if they were thinking, “THIS is the guy who writes all that stuff!? THIS is the guy giving me such a hard time!?”

Of course, I am human, too. One can’t sting and bite every day. Sometimes the things I write are met with love and approbation. Some weeks even Lily and Randi like me. Sometimes.

Education historian Diane Ravitch has given me tremendous moral support. I can’t tell you how gratifying it is to have one of your heroes appreciate your work! Her book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” really woke me up as a new teacher. I’m also on the steering committee of the Badass Teachers Association, an organization that has changed my life for the better. The more than 56,000 people  there are my support. I would never have had the courage to start a blog or do half of the crazy things I do without their love and encouragement.

And there are so many more people I could thank: my fellow bloggers Jonathan Pelto, Peter Greene, Russ Walsh, Nancy Flanagan, Mitchell Robinson, and Yohuru Williams. Also the good people at the LA Progressive and Commondreams.org. The incredible and tireless radio host Rick Smith.

There are just too many to name. But no list of acknowledgment would be even close to completion without mentioning my most important supporter – you, my readers. Whether you’re one of the 9,190 people who get every new post delivered by email or if you otherwise contribute to the 486,000 hits my site has received so far, THANK YOU.

So in celebration of my first full year of blogging, I present to you an end of the year tradition – a Top 10 list. Out of the 90 posts I wrote in 2015, these are the ones that got the most attention. Often they incensed people into a fury. Sometimes they melted hearts. I just hope – whether you ended up agreeing with me or not – these posts made you think.

Feel free to share with family, friends, co-workers, etc. After all, I’m an equal opportunity gadfly. I always cherish the chance to buzz around a few new heads!


 

10) The Democrats May Have Just Aligned Themselves With Test and Punish – We Are Doomed

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Published: July 17, 2015
Views: 7,122

Description: It hit me like a slap in the face that almost all Senate Democrats voted to make the reauthorization of the federal law governing K-12 public schools a direct continuation of the same failing policies of the Bush and Obama years. Heroes like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren seemed to be turning their back on teachers, parents and school children. And they were stopped in their efforts by… Republicans!

Fun Fact: This story had some legs. It inspired a bunch of education advocates like myself who are also Bernie Sanders supporters to write the candidate an open letter asking him to explain his vote. His campaign eventually responded that it was about accountability!?


 

9) Punching Teachers in the Face – New Low in Presidential Politics

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Published: Aug. 3
Views: 14,735

Description: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie thought he’d run for the Republican nomination for President. He thought threatening to metaphorically punch teachers unions in the face would get him votes. It didn’t.

Fun Fact: This new low in Presidential politics came just after Donald Trump had announced he was running. Christie’s new low now seems almost quaint after Trump’s calls to tag all Muslims and monitor their Mosques. How innocent we were back in… August.


 

8) This Article May Be Illegal – Lifting the Veil of Silence on Standardized Testing

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Published: April 18
Views: 15,818

Description: Teachers and students may be legally restrained from telling you what’s on federally mandated standardized tests, but we’re not restrained from telling you THAT we’re restrained. Is this just protecting intellectual property or direct legal intimidation of educators and children?

Fun Fact: I have not yet been arrested for writing this piece.


 

7) Stories about Teachers Union Endorsements of Hillary Clinton

Did the AFT Rank and File REALLY Endorse Hillary Clinton for President? If So, Release the Raw Data

(July 12 – 4,448 hits)

 

The NEA May Be About to Endorse Hillary Clinton Without Input From Majority of Members

(Sept. 21 – 3,873 hits)

A Handful of NEA Leaders Have Taken Another Step Toward Endorsing Hillary Clinton Despite Member Outcry

(Oct. 2 – 739 hits)

Teachers Told They’re Endorsing Hillary Clinton by NEA Leadership, Member Opinions Unnecessary

(Oct. 4 – 7,074 hits)

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Published: July 12 – Oct. 4
Views: 16,134 TOTAL

Description: You expect your union to have your back. Unfortunately it seems our teachers unions were more interested in telling us who we’d be endorsing than asking us who the organizations representing us should endorse.

Fun Fact: I broke this story pretty much nationwide. News organizations like Politico were calling me to find out the scoop.


6) Why We Should Have ZERO Standardized Tests in Public Schools

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Published: Jan. 30
Views: 16,443

Description: Someone had to say it. We don’t need any standardized tests. We need teacher-created tests. And that’s not nearly as crazy as some people think.

Fun Fact: This was written back when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was being rewritten and naïve fools like me thought we might actually get a reduction in high stakes testing. Spoiler alert: we didn’t.


 

5) Atlanta Teacher RICO Conviction is Blood Sacrifice to the Testocracy

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Published: April 3
Views: 18,187

Description: There is something terribly wrong when we’re using laws created to stop organized crime as a means to convict  teachers cheating on standardized tests. I’m not saying cheating is right, but the mafia kills people. These were just teachers trying to keep their jobs in a system that rewards results and refuses to balance the scales, listen to research or the opinions of anyone not in the pockets of the testing and privatization industries.

Fun Fact: Watching all those seasons of “The Wire” finally came in handy.


4) Not My Daughter – One Dad’s Journey to Protect His Little Girl From Toxic Testing

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Published: March 20
Views: 26,420

Description: How I went to my daughter’s school and demanded she not be subjected to high stakes testing in Kindergarten.

Fun Fact: They were very nice and did everything I asked. If you haven’t already, you should try it!


 

3) I Am Racist and (If You’re White) You Probably Are, Too

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Published: June 2
Views: 28,906

Description: White folks often can’t see white privilege. This is my attempt to slap some sense into all of us. If you benefit from the system, you’re responsible to change it.

Fun Fact: Oh! The hate mail! I still get it almost every day! But I regret nothing! A black friend told me I was brave to write this. I disagreed. Anytime I want I can hide behind my complexion. She can’t.


2) I Am A Public School Teacher. Give Me All the Refugees You’ve Got

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Published: Nov. 19
Views: 45,196

Description: Our public schools are already places of refuge for our nation’s school children. Send me more. I’ll take them all. I’d rather they end up in my classroom than drowned by the side of a river.

Fun Fact: I got equal love and hate for this one. Some folks were afraid of terrorists. Others didn’t think we could afford it. But many told me my heart was in the right place. Lily and the folks at the NEA were especially supportive.


 

1) White People Need to Stop Snickering at Black Names

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Published: Sept. 6
Views: 96,351

Description: Maybe we should stop laughing at black people’s names. Maybe we should try to understand why they are sometimes different.

Fun Fact: You’d have thought I threatened some people’s lives with this one! How dare I suggest people should stop mocking other people’s names! If you want to know how strong white fragility is in our country, read some of the comments! But many people thanked me for bringing up something that had bothered them for years but that they had been too polite to talk about, themselves. This is easily my most popular piece yet.

 

I am a Public School Teacher. Give Me All the Refugees You’ve Got!

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Come into my classroom any day of the week and you’ll see refugees.

That little Iraqi boy slumped over a book written in Arabic while the rest of the class reads the same story in English. Those twin girls blinking back memories of the Bosnian War as they try to underline possessive nouns on an English worksheet. That brown-skinned boy compulsively rocking back-and-forth in his seat fighting back tears wondering when his dad is going to come home from prison.

Every day, every hour, every minute our public schools are places of refuge for children seeking asylum, fugitives, emigres, exiles, the lost, the displaced, dear hearts seeking a kind word and a caring glance.

Some may shudder or sneer at the prospect of giving shelter to people in need, but that is the reality in our public schools. In the lives of many, many children we provide the only stability, the only safety, the only love they get all day.

And, yes, I do mean love. I love my students. Each and every one of them. Sometimes they are far from lovable. Sometimes they look at me with distrust. They bristle at assignments. They jump when redirected. But those are the ones I try to love the most, because they are the ones most in need.

I told a friend once that I had a student who had escaped from Iraq. His parents had collaborated with the U.S. military and received death threats for their efforts. So he and his family fled to my hometown so far away from his humid desert heartland.

I told her how difficult it was trying to communicate with a student who spoke hardly any English. I complained about budget cuts that made it next to impossible to get an English Language Learner (ELL) instructor to help me more than once a week. And her response was, “Do you feel safe teaching this kid?”

Do I feel safe? The question had never occurred to me. Why wouldn’t I feel safe? I don’t expect ISIS to track him down across the Atlantic Ocean to my class. Nor do I expect this sweet little guy is going to do anything to me except practice his English.

In one of my first classrooms, I had a dozen refugees from Yugoslavia. They had escaped from Slobadan Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing. Yet you’d never know unless they told you. They were some of the most well-behaved, thoughtful, intelligent children I’ve had the pleasure to teach. They were always smiling, so happy to be here. They approached every assignment with a seriousness well beyond their years.

But sometimes you’d see a shadow cross their faces. Rarely you’d hear them whispering among themselves. I was so new I didn’t know any better but to come down on them. But later they told me what they had been talking about, what they had been thinking about – how Henry V’s military campaign brought back memories. They taught me that day. Every year I learn so much from my children.

My high poverty school doesn’t get a lot of refugees from overseas these days. But we’re overwhelmed with exiles from our own neighborhood. I can’t tell you how many children I’ve had in class who start off the year at one house and then move to another. I can’t tell you how many come to school bruised and beaten. I can’t tell you how many ask a moment of my time between classes, during my planning period or after school just to talk.

Last week one of my students walked up to me and said, “I’m having a nervous breakdown.”

Class had just been dismissed. I had a desk filled to the ceiling with ungraded essays. I still had to make copies for tomorrow’s parent-teacher conferences. I had gotten to none of it earlier because I had to cover another class during my planning period. But I pushed all of that aside and talked with my student for over an hour.

And I’m not alone. On those few days I get to leave close to on time, I see other teachers doing just like me conferencing and tutoring kids after school.

It was a hard conversation. I had to show him he was worth something. I had to make him feel that he was important to other people, that people cared about him. I hope I was successful. He left with a handshake and a smile.

He may not be from far away climes, but he’s a refugee, too. He’s seeking a safe place, a willing ear, a kind word.

So you’ll forgive me if I sigh impatiently when some in the media and in the government complain about the United States accepting more refugees. What a bunch of cowards!

They act as if it’s a burden. They couldn’t be farther from the truth. It’s a privilege.

When I see that iconic picture of three-year-old Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi drowned in Turkey as his family tried to escape the conflict, I find it impossible that anyone could actually refuse these people help. Just imagine! There are a host of others just like this family seeking asylum and we can give it! We have a chance to raise them up, to provide them a place to live, to shelter them from the storm. What an honor! What a privilege! What a chance to be a beacon of light on a day of dark skies!

I’m an American middle class white male. My life hasn’t been trouble free, but I know that I’ve won the lottery of circumstances. Through none of my own doing, I sit atop the social ladder. It is my responsibility to offer a helping hand in every way I can to those on the lower rungs. It is my joy to be able to do it.

It’s what I do everyday at school. When I trudge to my car in the evening dark, I’m exhausted to the marrow of my bones. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

It’s not uncommon for a student or two to see me on the way to my car, shout out my name with glee and give me an impromptu hug. At the end of the day, I know I’ve made a difference. I love being a teacher.

So if we’re considering letting in more refugees, don’t worry about me. Send them all my way. I’ll take all you’ve got. That’s what public schools do.


NOTE: This article also was published in Everyday Feminism, the LA Progressive and on the Badass Teachers Association blog. It was also quoted extensively in an interview the National Education Association did with the author.

 

Common Core Does Not Cure Student Mobility

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We have real problems.

We need real solutions.

But we get deceptions instead. And if anyone tries to complain, they get blamed for trying to avoid solving the problem!

Take Common Core.

Badly designed, unproven, flying in the face of human psychology. It is all that and more.

However, there’s a good reason for its existence – student mobility.

We have too many children attending our public schools that don’t stay put. They move from district-to-district and therefore miss valuable instruction.

And that’s no deception.

This is a real problem that we need to do something to fix. But before any experts in the field – psychologists, sociologists, or (God forbid!) educators – can speak, billionaire philanthropists chime in with Common Core.

If we just had national standards for each grade level in each core subject, they say, it would greatly reduce the amount of material transient students miss.

If an 8th grade student at School A moves to School B, for instance, Common Core would ensure that he misses virtually nothing. Both schools would be teaching the same thing.

Good try. But it doesn’t work.

Common Core only ensures that the same standards are taught in each school during a single year. If a transfer student’s old teacher hasn’t gotten to something yet and his new teacher has already covered it, he might miss the concept entirely – even with Common Core.

Take it from me.

I am a teacher in a state that has adopted Common Core-look-alike standards. I get many transfer students from Common Core states. There is a definite and often profound gap in their grasp of the material.

Pause for a moment and digest that.

Common Core – as it is now – does not solve the problem of student mobility.

However, if we reinterpret that concept, if we appeal to the spirit of the Core, we may find a “solution” to this problem. And in some places this has already begun.

Our billionaire philanthropist friend might look at this problem and say, we need to further homogenize the curriculum at both schools. Educators at both districts should teach the exact same things at the exact same times. On Sept 12, all 8th grade instructors should teach about figurative language. On Sept 13, there will be a lesson on text structures, and so on.

In fact, having the same curriculum at two schools is not enough. We need to coordinate the curriculum at ALL public schools.

But even if we do that at our public schools, there will be gaps for transient students. A student who left School A after Sept. 12 would have had a lesson on figurative language, but what form did the lesson take? It may have been ineffective. Perhaps the text used by the teacher was subpar. Perhaps the teacher didn’t explain the lesson sufficiently. There is just too much room for human error.

What we need, explains the philanthropist – who incidentally made his billions designing computer systems and is not known for mastery of the human psyche – what we need is uniformity. In short, we need scripted lessons.

Then-and-only-then will transient students miss the least possible curriculum moving from one school to another.

Of course this assumes the move from School A to School B is nearly instantaneous. Day 1 you’re at the old school. Day 2 you’re at the new school. But this rarely happens. Under the best circumstances it can take a week or two. Realistically, I’ve seen students who have been out of school months even a whole academic year between moves.

Yes, Mr. Gate…  – I mean the philanthropist – may admit reluctantly, transient students will still inevitably miss some school work. The transition from School A to School B may take a couple days, maybe months, but scripted lessons will reduce the gap to the absolute minimum.

And here, he may be correct.

Common Core taken to its logical and extreme conclusion – scripted lessons – may solve student mobility.

Or so it seems.

But is the cure worse than the disease?

If all public school students have scripted, uniform, standardized lessons, what will happen to the quality of those lessons?

As the holder of a masters degree in education, as a recipient of a National Board Certification in teaching, as a teacher with over a decade of experience in the classroom, I say this: the quality of education will plummet under these conditions.

Everyone will suffer – transient students, non-transient students, EVERYONE.

The best possible learning environment is NOT one in which teachers read from a script. It is NOT one where teachers stick to the lesson plan come Hell or high water. It is NOT one where the educator has little to no say in what she is teaching.

It is important to have academic standards, just as it’s important to have lesson plans. However, these MUST be created by the teachers, themselves. Otherwise they imprison instructors in straight jackets and make them less – not more – effective.

Anyone who has spent any time in front of a class knows that good instruction necessitates instant changes in the lesson to meet the needs of your students. You can plan – and you should plan – but you have to be free to move beyond it.

For instance, if you’re teaching students how to write a complete sentence and you have some children who do not understand what a subject and a verb are, you need to adapt. Immediately. On the spot. Otherwise, your lesson will fail.

If you’re asking your students to perform a close read of a science text and they cannot read, you must adapt. Immediately. That very second. Or else you’re just wasting everyone’s time.

Rigid academic standards cannot do this. Sacrosanct lesson plans cannot do this. Only teachers can.

This is one of the major areas where Common Core fails.

But what of our transient students? Won’t we fail them if we repeal Common Core?

No. There is a better way. But more on that in a moment.

Say Common Core is the only way. Say scripted curriculum is the only manner in which to meet their needs. It would still be better to get rid of Common Core to meet the needs of the non-transients. Moreover, even transient children will benefit, because the education they receive when they are in a given school will be of a higher quality than the minimally interrupted lessons they’d receive with national academic standards and scripted lessons.

However, let us return to the better solution. Because there is one, and it is easy to see when you aren’t blinded by billionaire’s pet projects.

Instead of homogenizing everyone’s schools to help transient students, reduce the instances of transience.

That’s right. Reduce student mobility.

Stop so many children from moving from school-to-school.

That’s impossible, whines our billionaire savior.

No. It’s not.

You may never be able to stop every student from moving between schools, but you can greatly reduce it.

All it takes is an examination of the root causes.

Why are so many students transient?

It turns out this is a symptom of a larger problem affecting the majority of our public school students. If you can help alleviate this problem – even slightly – you’d greatly increase students’ chances of success.

That problem? Child poverty.

Students don’t move around to see the world. They do it because their parents can’t get a job or can’t afford to live where they are.

If you undertook programs to create more jobs for their parents, you would decrease student mobility. If you provided cheap, safe, stable housing, you would decrease mobility. If you started social programs to bring transients into a community and stop them from being eternal outsiders, many more of them would put down roots.

And if you helped reduce child poverty, you would actually increase the quality of education most children are receiving – even the ones not constantly on the move.

We used to understand that poverty isn’t a defect of character – it’s a product of circumstance. We used to understand that most poor people aren’t to blame for their own poverty. We used to understand that a helping hand is better than a pointed finger.

Common Core is just another great lie told to obscure these simple truths.

Student mobility is just another excuse given to justify this lie.

The time for deceptions and half-truths has passed. Instead, we need to roll up our sleeves and actually do something about poverty.

It’s time to leave Common Core to the pages of history’s failed social engineering experiments.

Because we don’t need national academic standards.

We need a shared morality.


NOTE: Thank you to all my readers who responded to my article “Data Abuse – When Transient Kids Fall Through the Cracks of Crunched Numbers.” Today’s article is the result of your efforts to push me to revisit this subject. Being a blogger isn’t just about writing articles and putting them out there. It’s also about creating a community and entering into a dialogue. I am so grateful to the people who read what I write and engage with it. I can’t do this without you.

-This article also was published in the LA Progressive and on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

Data Abuse – When Transient Kids Fall Through the Cracks of Crunched Numbers

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I was teaching my classes.

I was grading assignments.

I was procrastinating.

I should have been working on my class rosters.

My principals wanted me to calculate percentages for every student I had taught that year and submit them to the state.

How long had each student been in my grade book? What percentage of the year was each learner in my class before they took their standardized tests?

If I didn’t accurately calculate this in the next few days, the class list generated by the computer would become final, and my evaluation would be affected.

But there I was standing before my students doing nothing of any real value – teaching.

I was instructing them in the mysteries of subject-verb agreement. We were designing posters about the Civil Rights movement. I was evaluating their work and making phone calls home.

You know – goofing off.

I must not have been the only one. Kids took a half-day and the district let us use in-service time to crunch our numbers.

Don’t get me wrong. We weren’t left to the wolves. Administrators were very helpful gathering data, researching exact dates for students entering the building and/or transferring schools. Just as required by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

But it was in the heat of all this numerological chaos that I saw something in the numbers no one else seemed to be looking for.

Many of my students are transients. An alarming number of my kids haven’t been in my class the entire year. They either transferred in from another school, transferred out, or moved into my class from another one.

A few had moved from my academic level course to the honors level Language Arts class. Many more had transferred in from special education courses.

In total, these students make up 44% of my roster.

“Isn’t that significant?” I wondered.

I poked my head in to another teacher’s room.

“How many transient students are on your roster?” I asked.

She told me. I went around from room-to-room asking the same question and comparing the answers.

A trend emerged.

Most teachers who presided over lower level classes (like me) had about the same percentage of transients – approximately 40%. Teachers who taught the advanced levels had a much lower amount – 10% or below.

Doesn’t that mean something?

Imagine if you were giving someone simple instructions. Let’s say you were trying to tell someone how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. But in the middle of your instruction, a student has to leave the room and go right next door where someone is already in the middle of trying to explain how to do the same thing.

Wouldn’t that affect how well a student learned?

If someone was trying to give me directions how to get somewhere under those circumstances, I’m willing to bet I’d get lost.

And this assumes the break between Teacher A and Teacher B is minimal, the instruction is disrupted at the same point and both teachers are even giving instruction on the exact same topics.

None of that is usually true.

I did some more digging. Across the entire building, 20% of our students left the district in the course of this school year. About 17% entered mid-year. So at least 37% of our students were transients. That’s 130 children.

The trend holds district wide. Some schools have more or less transients, but across the board 35% – 40% of our students pop in and out over the year.

Taking an even broader view, student mobility is a national problem. Certainly the percentage of student transience varies from district to district, but it is generally widespread.

Nationally, about 13 percent of students change schools four or more times between kindergarten and eighth grade, according to a 2010 Government Accountability Office analysis. One-third of fourth graders, 19 percent of eighth graders, and 10 percent of twelfth graders changed schools at least once over two years, according to the 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NEAP).

And it gets worse if we look at it over a student’s entire elementary or secondary career. In fact, more students moved than remained in a single school, according to a national longitudinal study of eighth graders.

This problem is even more widespread among poor and minority students. The type of school is also a factor. Large, predominantly minority, urban school districts attract the most student mobility. In Chicago public schools, for instance, only about 47 percent of students remained in the same school over a four-year period. Fifteen percent of the schools lost at least 30 percent of their students in only one year.

And this has adverse affects on children both academically and psychologically.

Several studies at both the elementary and secondary levels conclude student mobility decreases test scores and increases the drop out rate.

A 1990s Baltimore study found, “each additional move” was associated with a .11 standard deviation in reading achievement. A similar 1990s Chicago study concluded that students with four or more moves had a .39 standard deviation. Highly mobile students were as much as four months behind their peers academically in fourth grade and as much as a full year behind by sixth grade, according to a 1993 Chicago study by David Kerbow.

It just makes sense. These students have to cope with starting over – fitting in to a new environment. They have to adjust to new peers and social requirements.

Moreover, transients have an increased likelihood of misbehaving and participating in violence. After all, it’s easier to act out in front of strangers.

What causes this problem? Most often it is due to parental job insecurity.

Parents can’t keep employment or jobs dry up resulting in the need to move on to greener pastures.

In my own district, one municipality we serve is mostly made up of low-cost housing, apartments and slums. It is a beacon  for mobility. Few people who haven’t lived here their whole lives put down roots. We’re just another stop on a long and winding road.

“We should be doing something about this,” I thought.

Our legislators should help promote job security. We should make it easier to afford quality housing. We should try to encourage new-comers to become part of the community instead of remain eternal outsiders.

At our schools, we need resources to help this population make the necessary adjustments. We should encourage them to participate in extra-curricular activities, provide counseling and wraparound services.

But we don’t do any of that.

Instead, we gather mountains of data.

We sort and sift, enter it into a computer and press “submit.”

And off it goes to the Pennsylvania Value Added Assessment System (PVAAS).

We don’t use it to help kids.

We use it to blame school teachers for things beyond their control.

Data has value but that doesn’t mean all data is valuable.

We need to know what we’re looking for, what it means and how to use it to make our world a better place.

Otherwise it’s just a waste of precious class time.

And an excuse to continue ignoring all the children who fall through the cracks.


NOTE: This article also was published on the LA School Report and the Badass Teachers Association blog.