Teacher Seniority – the Seat Belts of the Education Profession

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You wouldn’t travel a long distance in your car without strapping on a seatbelt.

So why do you think teachers should spend 30 plus years in the classroom without seniority?

Everywhere you look, billionaires are paying millionaires in government to pass laws to cut taxes, slash funding and find cheaper ways to run public schools for pleb kids like yours and mine. And that often means finding ways to weaken protections for teachers, fire those with the most experience and replace them with glorified WalMart greeters.

“Hello. Welcome to SchoolMart. Please plug into your iPad and begin today’s lesson.”

This is class warfare cloaked as a coupon. It’s sabotage described as savings.

And the only way they get away with it is because reasonable people buy the steaming load of manure they’re selling.

MYTH: Seniority with Tenure means a Job for Life

Tell that to the hundreds of thousands of teachers out of work.

Tell that to all the optimistic go getters who prance out of college ready to change the world as teachers and fizzle out during the first five years.

Tell it to the handful of truly terrible teachers who for reasons only they can explain stay in a job they hate through countless interventions and retrainings until the principal has no choice but to give them their walking papers.

Oh, yes. Teachers DO get fired. I’ve seen it with my own eyes numerous times. And in each case, they truly deserved it.

(Any “bad teachers” still on the job mean there’s a worse administrator somewhere neglecting to do his or her duty.)

So what does “Seniority” and “Tenure” even mean for teachers?

Basically, it means two things:

(1) If you want to fire a teacher, you have to prove he or she deserves it. That’s Tenure.

(2) When public school districts downsize, they can’t just lay off people based on their salaries. That’s Seniority.

If you think about it, both of these are good things.

It is not a good work environment for teachers or students when educators can be fired without cause at the whim of incoming administration or radical, newly-elected school board members. Teaching is one of the most political professions we have. Tenure shields educators from the winds of partisanship. It allows them to grade children fairly whose parents have connections on the school board, it allows them to speak honestly and openly about school policy, and it empowers them to act in the best interests of their students – all things that otherwise could jeopardize their jobs.

Likewise, seniority stops the budget butchers from making experience and stability a liability.

It stops number crunchers from saying:

Hey, Mrs. Wilson has been here for 25 years. She’s got a shelf full of teaching awards. Parents and students love her. But she’s at the top of the salary scale so she’s gotta’ go.

I know what you’re going to say: Aren’t there younger teachers who are also outstanding?

Yes. There are.

However, if you put all the best teachers in one group, most of them will be more experienced.

It just makes sense. You get better at something – anything – the more you do it. This could be baking pies, building houses or teaching children how to read and write.

So why don’t we keep the best teachers and get rid of those who aren’t up to their level?

Because determining who’s the best is subjective. And if you let the moneymen decide – POOF! – suddenly the teachers who make the most money will disappear and only the cheapest ones will be left.

Couldn’t you base it on something more universal like student test scores?

Yes, you could, but student test scores are a terrible way to evaluate teachers. If you wanted to get rid of the highest paid employees, all you’d have to do is give them the most struggling students. Suddenly, their students have the worst test scores, and they’re packing up their stuff in little cardboard boxes.

Almost any stat can be gamed.

The only one that is solidly unbiased? Seniority.

You’ve either been here 15 years or you haven’t. There’s not much anyone can do to change that fact.

That’s why it prevents the kind of creative accounting you see from penny pinching number crunchers.

Along with Tenure, Seniority is a safety net. Pure and simple. It helps keep the most qualified teachers in the room with kids. Period.

But look. It’s not perfect.

Neither are seat belts.

If you’re in a car crash on a bridge where it’s necessary to get out of your vehicle quickly before it plunges into the water below, it’s possible your seat belt may make it more difficult to reach safety. This is rather rare, and it doesn’t stop most people from buckling up.

I’ve known excellent teachers who were furloughed while less creative ones were kept on. It does happen.

But if we got rid of seniority, it would happen way more often.

That’s the bottom line.

Instead of finding more leeway to fire more teachers, we should be finding ways to increase school funding – especially at the most under-resourced schools – which, by the way, are the ones where lawmakers most want to eliminate seniority. We should be looking for ways to make downsizing unnecessary. We should be investing in our children and our future.

We’ll never improve the quality of the public school system by firing our way to the bottom. That’s like trying to lose weight by hacking at yourself with a straight razor. It just won’t work.

We need to commit to public schools. We need to commit to public school students. And the best way to do that is to support the teachers who devote their lives showing up every day to help them learn.

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My Students Are Addicted to Screens

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Michael sat at his desk with ear buds inserted, an iPad balanced in front of his eyes and an old fashioned paper book open on his desk.

His head was bopping and weaving. His eyes were transfixed on a YouTube video of an animated soldier blasting away bad guys. And his book was laid out in front of him, largely ignored.

This was during our class’ sustained silent reading time – a period of 15-20 minutes where my 7th grade students were supposed to read self-selected books. Eventually, they’d have to complete a project, but today all they had to do was read.

Still, many used the time the same way as Michael did – lost in cyberspace, merely pretending their eyes gloss over the page.

“And what did the teacher do?” I hear some readers say indignantly.

“If you allow this type of behavior, you’re worse than the child doing it.”

So come with me as I redirect Michael.

“Hey, buddy,” I say.

“Huh?” he responds as if awakened from a dream.

“Are you reading?”

“Uh. Yeah.”

“You’re not just watching that video and ignoring your book?”

“Nope,” he says now fully awake. And he proceeds to give me a canned summary of the text that he memorized from the Internet.

But I’m still skeptical.

“I’m going to take your iPad away just for SSR time,” I say.

BUT WHY!? I’M READING!”

“I just want you to be able to concentrate on what you’re reading.”

And as I gently pry the iPad from his curled fists, he stands up and gives me a look of pure hatred.

This is a look from a 7th grade boy who’s considering violence.

It’s the same look you’d get trying to take away a dog’s bone, or an addict’s crack pipe.

It truly depends on the child what happens next. Some will regain control, slam down into their seats and sulk. Others will whine and cause a scene. And some will lose all control and lash out.

This is what teachers deal with every day when it comes to technology in the classroom.

In point of fact, many of our children are addicted to their devices.
iPads, laptops, Smartphones – we might as well be giving them pills, joints and syringes.

According to Merriam Webster, addiction is defined as, “compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance… [characterized] by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal.”

For most students, their devices have become just that – a compulsion, the cause of a nearly irresistible impulse to check them, access them, use them to keep themselves entertained and plugged in.

With repeated use, it becomes habit forming, and separation from the device can lead to a kind of withdrawal.

From a neuro-psychological point of view, one wonders if repeated use is clinically damaging – especially to adolescent brains that have not yet fully formed.

From an educational point of view, one wonders if relying on such devices in class is pedagogically sound.

I’m not qualified to answer the first question (though it deserves much more study than it is receiving). But from my 15 plus years of experience in the classroom, I feel qualified to answer the second – and that answer is often a resounding “NO.”

In my kids’ everyday lives, this type of constant technology reliance doesn’t make them better students. It doesn’t give them access to more information. It makes them dependent on instant gratification and sensory overload.

Their minds are submerged in a soup of constant noise and conflicting demands for their attention. Stringing together thoughts and coming to reasoned opinions becomes increasingly difficult.

This isn’t to say that technology has no place in the classroom.

There are ways to use it that can enhance learning. However, in my experience these are NOT the ways it is being used most of the time. That takes, thought, planning, intention. Instead, many well-meaning administrators or school directors prescribe technology as an end in itself regardless of the goals of an individual lesson. They want to prove their buildings, schools or districts are cutting edge, and that only takes the constant use of technology – not surgical, intentional use.

It’s not that teachers don’t know how to apply it or don’t care. It’s that technology – especially the presence of a one-to-one device in the hands of every child at all (or most) times – creates more problems than it solves.

This is why the same people who invented these technologies strictly regulate them for their own children.

Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, two of the biggest tech titans in the business, famously limited screen time for theirs sons and daughters.

Gates, a Microsoft co-founder, refused to let his children have personal technological devices until they were developmentally ready for them.

“We don’t have cellphones at the table when we are having a meal,” he told the Mirror. “We didn’t give our kids cellphones until they were 14 and they complained other kids got them earlier.”

Today, most children get their own cellphones at age 10. And if their schools have one-to-one initiatives like mine, they have their own iPad as early as 5th grade with less but still substantial hours of usage as early as kindergarten.

Jobs, an Apple co-founder, also limited screen time for his children.

When asked if his children liked the original iPad shortly after it was launched, Jobs said, “They haven’t used it. We limit how much technology our kids use at home.”

In fact, according to Walter Isaacson, who wrote a near-definitive Jobs’ biography, technological devices were only allowed at prescribed times.

“Every evening Steve made a point of having dinner at the big long table in their kitchen, discussing books and history and a variety of things,” he said.

“No one ever pulled out an iPad or a computer. The kids did not seem addicted at all to devices.”

And this practice seems common among parents in Silicon Valley.

According to educators Joe Clement and Matt Miles, authors of “Screen Schooled: Two Veteran Teachers Expose How Technology Overuse is Making Our Kids Dumber,” those in the tech industry know the dangers of their own products on children.

A number of specialty Silicon Valley schools, say Clement and Miles, such as the Waldorf School, rely almost exclusively on low-tech tools to teach. This often means chalkboards and pencils. The emphasis is on learning interpersonal skills such as cooperation and respect – not the ins and outs of computer coding.

At Brightworks School, even the physical environment of the class is a tool to learning. Students attend class in treehouses and kids learn creativity by building things with their hands.

This is a far cry from the technological wonderland our kids are being sold by these kids’ parents.

No one really knows what effect it’s having on growing minds. However, psychologists are beginning to see alarming trends.

For instance, frequent use of social media makes an eighth-grader’s risk for depression 27% higher. Moreover, use of smart phones for at least three hours a day increases children’s risk of becoming suicidal. Some experts believe that increased use of technology has contributed to the teen suicide rate which for the first time eclipses the homicide rate.

We are jumping head first into an educational model that puts technological devices like a tablet at the center of learning.

Teachers assign lessons on the device. Students complete assignments on it. Projects are virtual as is research. Even conversations are conducted through a chat page, emails or messaging.

Why? Not necessarily because of any proven link to increased academic results. It’s because tech companies are marketing their devices to schools and students.

This is industry-driven, not pedagogically-driven.

There is an unquestioned bias that doing things with technology is somehow better simply because we’re using technology. However, an article written on a computer will not necessarily be better than one written with pen and ink. There are other factors involved.

Now Gates and company are pushing personalized learning objectives. Sometimes called competency based education, these continue to place the device in the center of what should be the student-teacher relationship.

Student learning becomes a video game and the teacher becomes a virtual avatar. Kids spend their time doing infinite standardized testing as if it were authentic education, yet it’s all on-line so it appears to be cutting edge. It isn’t.

It’s just another scam.

In my own classes, I’ve put the brakes on unquestioned technology. I only use devices, programs or applications that are (1) reliable and (2) when I know why I’m using them.

Even then, I find myself unable to even talk to students without beginning every lesson telling them to at least temporarily put their devices away so they can hear the directions.

Sure, I could give them a QR code to scan and get a written copy of the directions. I could upload a video for them to watch. But that limits direct feedback. It makes it more difficult for them to ask questions. And it makes it almost impossible for me to tell if 20-30 kids are actually doing the assignment before they turn it in for grading.

These are just kids, and like kids in any age they’ll take the path of least resistance. Often they’ll try to get through the assignment as quickly as possible so they can listen to music, or watch a video, or play a video game or chat on-line.

Lessons can be engaging or thought-provoking or spark the creative impulse. But you have to get students’ attention first.

That’s hard to do when they always have the option to crack their brains open over a virtual frying pan and watch it sizzle away.

To be fair, living in the modern world, we’re probably all somewhat addicted to technology. This blog isn’t written on papyrus and it isn’t being accessed in a hefty library volume.

I use social media – Facebook and Twitter mainly – to disperse it.

But there’s a difference between me and my students.

I’m an adult.

I know the concessions I’m making. I enter into this with eyes open. I have a lifetime of experience and knowledge with which to make such a decision.

Children don’t have that. They look to us to protect them.

We are their guardians. We’re only supposed to subject them to things that will help them learn, keep them healthy and happy.

But in our rush to be trendy and hip, we’re failing them miserably.

We’re letting business and industry take over.

It’s time to take a stand.

Our kids may be addicted, but we don’t have to be their pushers.

We need to get them clean and show them how to use this brave new tool with moderation and restraint.

‘Schools of the Future’ And Other Scams to Monetize Your Child

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Do you feel it?

The future is coming.

There it is hovering just over the horizon.

You squint your eyes trying to get a quick peak before it arrives. But that rarely works. By the time it’s here, it’s never quite in the shape you expected.

Yet we always stop and listen to the prophets and prognosticators. Those google eyed figures, wearing trench coats and sandwich boards standing proudly on milk crates and cracking open their mouths to vociferously voice their “visions.”

They smell like B.O. There are insects in their hair. And their mouths spray halitosis as much as haloes.

Under normal circumstances, we wouldn’t trust them to park our cars, to give us directions, to do just about anything. But when it comes to “The Future” somehow we swallow their swill with conviction.

Through sheer force of charisma they convince us that their predictions will come to pass and if we’re smart we’ll invest in their brand of patented polished snake oil.

So we’ll be ready.

Just once I wish people would heed the skepticisms of the doubting Cassandras. But so it goes.

This week it’s “Schools of the Future.”

Everywhere you look it seems you’ll find some slickly produced inducement to “Rethink schools.” Some admonition to completely change public schools. Some empty promise in naked technology to save us all.

They’ll tell you that our public schools haven’t changed in a century. They’re set up for the agricultural past. Or schools are great for creating assembly line workers for the industrial revolution, but times have changed. And education needs to change with them.

Never mind that schools were never designed to supply any workforce. Their goal was – and is – to help the next generation become citizens capable of free thought.

But whatever.

This sales pitch about outmoded schools sounds really nice.

It resonates.

It makes us feel good.

Yes, I KNEW there was something wrong with my public school. That explains my own failures. I mean, I went through 12 plus years of public schooling and look at me! I’m not one of the handful of billionaires who own the world. It MUST have been the school’s fault!

Forget economic inequality, money in politics or any of that progressive crap! I could be sitting on top of the world with my boot firmly planted on the neck of everyone else – if only the public school had taught me right.

PLEASE!

But this is the comforting lie many folks tell themselves and one of the major reasons corporate school reformers get away with raiding public education. Their lies flatter white people’s vanity.

So billionaire Laurene Powell Jobs’ bought a four-network propaganda hour telling us to “rethink” high school while Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ began her “Rethink Schools” publicity tour days later.

As if the thought never occurred to anyone else.

Rethink schools? What do you think classroom teachers do? We rethink every lesson every day!

It’s standard practice. We call it reflection. Some of us even keep reflection journals where we jot down things that worked and things that didn’t.

Haven’t these privileged fools ever logged on to the blogosphere? The Internet is fit to bursting with teacher blogs overflowing with ideas about how to change things up. This very blog has been pushing authentic reform after authentic reform – but the powers that be – people like DeVos and her billionaire philanthrocapitalist peers – aren’t listening.

You want to rethink schools? How about sitting down and shutting up?

Seriously.

Let the experts have a say for once.

Classroom teachers have much more experience than you do. We’re there every single day engaged in the actual practice of teaching children. You learn something about it by doing it for at least 180 days a year, for decades. And that’s not even counting the years of college preparation before even entering the classroom, the pedagogy, debate, and hard won wisdom of generations of teachers before us.

Meanwhile, all you have is a bank account.

You’ve hardly stepped foot in a public school to do more than spit on it. Nor did you likely experience it as a student or parent of students who go there.

You know nothing. And that’s no sin in itself.

Many people are ignorant of a great many things. I, for one, am completely ignorant of how to fly an airplane. That’s why I’d never dream of busting open the cockpit and preceding to tell the captain how to land the plane!

But you are not humble enough to admit your own ignorance. You think your money gives you the ability to do anything. After all, you DESERVE all those billions. It’s not an accident of birth or circumstances. You’re just that good, that special, that much better than the rest of us.

And what kind of brilliance do we get from these pampered prophets?

Here’s DeVos remarks to faculty and students at Woods Learning Center in Casper, Wyoming, from Sept. 12:

“…I’m issuing a bold challenge this week: it’s time to rethink school.

For far too many kids, this year’s first day back to school looks and feels a lot like last year’s first day back to school. And the year before that. And the generation before that. And the generation before that!

That means your parent’s parent’s parents!

Most students are starting a new school year that is all too familiar. Desks lined up in rows. Their teacher standing in front of the room, framed by a blackboard. They dive into a curriculum written for the “average” student. They follow the same schedule, the same routine—just waiting to be saved by the bell.”

All that money and the best you can come up with are that we should rearrange the desks!?

It just goes to show that you don’t know what goes on in real public schools.

My middle school classroom doesn’t have desks. We have tables that seat four.

Yes, those seats typically begin the day with students facing the teacher and the board. But you could say the same of seats at any auditorium since Plato’s day. I don’t hear anyone talking about rethinking that!

In any case, seats are mobile. I direct my students to move their seats all around the room. Just yesterday we had them in a circle. The day before, they were in small groups. And many days my students aren’t even in their seats – they’re wandering around the room doing some sort of task or project.

None of this is that revolutionary. Most middle school teachers do the same thing. You have to. Kids that age don’t have the attention span to sit in their seats in the same position for 40 plus minutes at a time.

Seats are often more stationary at the high school level, and they’re probably even less fixed at the elementary.

You would know this if you ever talked to a public school teacher. But, no. You know best because of your net worth.

Let me tell you something. Public schools today are much different than they were in the past.

For example, the way we teach special needs children is light years away from what it was just a few decades ago. We used to send these children to specialized facilities or classrooms in the basement well away from other students. Now, they’re mainstreamed and their educations are dramatically tailored to meet each student’s individual needs.

Schools used to just be about the three R’s – reading, writing and ‘rtithmetic. Today at wealthier districts, students have a wide range of courses to choose from. They have arts, music, foreign languages, vo-tech, extra-curriculars, computer science, robotics, drama, almost anything you can think of! I wish this were true at all schools, but that’s a funding issue, not a lack of innovation.

Many schools are less segregated today than they were before Brown v. Board. The courts have let us down in supporting this Supreme Court decision, instead permitting an awful lot of regression in some districts. But even at the most resegregated schools, they are rarely100% one race or another. We should do something to increase integration, but don’t tell me we haven’t made progress.

Let’s get one thing straight.

People like DeVos and Jobs only care about “rethinking” schools because they have a product to sell.

They’re promoting a problem so they can sell us the solution. They want us to buy more charter and voucher schools, more edutech competency based education B.S., more testing, more publisher and computer boondoggles.

You want real innovative reforms in our public schools?

Here’s what you do.

First step, give the reigns to public school teachers. We’ll tell you what needs to be done.

Here’s a short list:

-Stop privatizing and start supporting public schools.

-Give us equitable funding so that poor and minority students have the funding they need to learn.

Integrate schools again – both racially and economically – no more schools for rich white kids and schools for poor black kids.

Get rid of high stakes testing use funding allocation, spending decisions, principal classroom observations and student projects for accountability purposes, not scores on a limited and biased multiple choice test.

Repeal Common Core and let teachers write their own academic standards instead of being beholden to goals written by corporations to sell their own products and tests.

-Make a national commitment to reducing class size across the board, hire more teachers, increase their autonomy and salary.

Examine very closely every use of technology in the classroom to make sure student data isn’t being stolen by corporations, devices aren’t used for test prep or babysitting, and beware Trojan horse edutech applications like so-called personalized learning and competency based education.

Those are the kinds of reforms that would actually help improve our public schools.

But you can only learn that if you have the humility to listen to the experts – classroom teachers.

And people like DeVos and Jobs have proven they don’t have an ounce of humility.

Perhaps we don’t need to rethink schools. We just need to rethink our standards of expertise.

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

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What am I?

 

Seriously. What is it I do for a living?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

I am not a fan.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Compare their reaction this morning to yesterday’s lesson.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Compare that with today’s assessment.

 

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

 

Why the difference?

 

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

 

But not on this standardized CDT nonsense!

 

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

 

So they act out.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“This is rigged!” another said.

 

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

 

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

 

What use am I?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Don’t get me wrong.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Meanwhile, parents in my state are generally clueless.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

I feel so alone here.

 

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

 

The majority stays silent. And complicit.

 

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

 

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

 

That might be safe, but it would be cowardly.

 

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

 

So what do I do?

 

I write.

 

I write blogs like this one.

 

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

 

It’s a constant gamble.

 

Someday someone may read them who can end my career.

 

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

 

Maybe that’s you.

 

Maybe it’s all of us.

 

I don’t know.

 

I have no solutions today. Just shame and regrets.

 

A dilemma that I cannot solve.

Dear Teachers, Don’t Be Good Soldiers for the EdTech Industry

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Dear fellow teachers,

Thank you for coming to this meeting on such short notice.

I know you have plenty more important matters to attend to this morning. I, myself, left a pile of ungraded papers on my desk so I could get here. Not to mention I urgently need to fix my seating charts now that I’ve finally met my students and know who can sit with whom. And I’ve got to track down phone numbers for my kids’ parents and go through a  mountain of Individual Education Plans, and… Well, I just want you to know that I get it.

There are a lot of seemingly more pressing concerns than listening to a teacher-blogger jabber about the intersection of politics and our profession.

Is that all of us? Okay, would someone please close the door?

Good. No administrators in here, right? Just classroom teachers? Excellent.

Let’s speak openly. There’s something very important we need to talk about.

There is a force out there that’s working to destroy our profession.

Yes, ANOTHER one!

We’ve got lawmakers beholden to the corporate education reform industry on the right and media pundits spewing Wall Street propaganda on the left. The last thing we need is yet another group dedicated to tearing down our public schools.

But there is. And it is us.

You heard me right.

It’s us.

There is an entire parasitic industry making billions of dollars selling us things we don’t need – standardized tests, Common Core workbook drivel, software test prep THIS, and computer test crap THAT.

We didn’t decide to use it. We didn’t buy it. But who is it who actually introduces most of this garbage in the classroom?

That’s right. US.

We do it. Often willingly.

We need to stop.

And before someone calls me a luddite, let me explain. I’m not saying technology is bad. It’s a tool like anything else. There are plenty of ways to use it to advance student learning. But the things we’re being asked to do… You know in your heart that they aren’t in the best interests of children.

I know. Some of you have no choice. You live in a state or district where teacher autonomy is a pathetic joke. There are ways to fight that, but they’re probably not in the classroom.

It’s not you who I’m talking to. I’m addressing everyone else. I’m talking to all the teachers out there who DO have some modicum of control over their own classrooms and who are told by their administrators to do things that they honestly disagree with – but they do it anyway.

We’ve got to stop doing it.

Corporations want to replace us with software packages. They want to create a world where kids sit in front of computers or iPads or some other devices for hours at a time doing endless test prep. You know it’s true because your administrator probably is telling you to proctor such rubbish in your own classroom so many hours a week. I know MINE is.

Listen, there are several reasons why we should refuse.

First, there’s simple job security. If your principal brought in a Teach for America temp and told you this lightly trained fresh from college kid was going to take over your classes, would you really sit down and instruct her how to do your job!?

I wouldn’t.

That’s the entire point behind this tech industry garbage. You are piloting a program that means your own redundancy.

You are engaged in an effort to prove that they don’t need a fully trained, experienced, 4-year degree professional to do this job. They just need a glorified WalMart greeter to watch the kids as they push buttons and stare at a screen. They just need a minimum wage drone to take up space while the children bask in the warm glow of the program, while it maps their eye movements, catalogues how long it takes them to answer, records their commercial preferences and sells all this data to other companies so they can better market products – educational and otherwise – back to these kids, their school and their parents.

This isn’t about improving educational outcomes. It’s about bringing the cost down and pocketing the savings as profit.

It’s about replacing the end-of-the-year standardized test with daily mini stealth assessments that are just as high stakes and just as effective at providing an excuse for the state or the feds to swoop in and steal control, disband the school board and give the whole shebang to the charter school operator who gives them the most generous campaign donations.

Do NOT be a good soldier here. Do not just follow orders. Doing so is weakening our entire profession. It is putting our jobs in jeopardy. And it’s about time our national teachers unions figured this out instead of conceding the point so their leaders can keep a seat at the table. Someone needs to tell them they shouldn’t be sitting inside the building. They should be with us, outside surrounding it with signs and pitchforks.

The EdTech shell game is not about improving student learning. It’s a commercial coup, not a progressive renaissance.

Think about it.

They call this trash “personalized learning.” How can it really be personalized if kids do the same exercises just at different rates? How is it personalized if it’s standardized? How is it personalized if it omits the presence of actual people in the education process?

It’s teach-by-numbers, correspondence school guano with graphics and a high speed Internet connection.

But we give in. We don’t want to rock the boat. We’re rule followers, most of us. We do what we’re told.

Most teachers were good students, and obedience is too often a defining quality of those who succeed in our education system.

I get it. You don’t want to be a fly in the ointment. You don’t want to make yourself a target.

Me, too.

How dearly I would love to be able to just comply. But I can’t simply go along with something I know in my heart to be wrong. And this is wrong on so many levels.

I sat through a meeting much like this one earlier this year where I was told exactly which programs to force on my students. All the while good teachers whom I respect went through the motions as if nothing was wrong. They talked about how to organize our classes in the system, how to assign test prep and how often, and how to access the data.

But we never discussed why.

We never discussed if doing so was a good idea. That was all taken for granted. It was a decision reserved for someone else, someone from a higher pay grade.

Yet classroom experience is rarely commensurate with salary scale especially once you cross the line into management. Nor is the experience of a handful of administrators equal to that of a plentitude of staff!

No. I’m sorry. At very least that is a discussion WE should be having.

It is the TEACHER’S job to determine what is educationally appropriate. Not the administrators. At most, the building principal should be part of that discussion in her role as lead teacher. But the resolution to go ahead or not should be made together as a staff.

And if an individual teacher thinks based on their own experience with their own students that they should go in a different direction, they should be respected enough as a professional to have the autonomy to do so.

Teachers have to abide by best practices, but test prep in any form is NOT a best practice.

It’s time we stood up en masse and made that clear.

We are our own worst enemy in this regard.

We are too submissive. Too meek.

This world requires teachers to be revolutionaries, to be radicals.

And that doesn’t end in the classroom.

We need to educate parents and the community about what’s happening. The classroom doors are too often closed to the public. The only information they get is from anemic administrators and a mass media that invariably just reports whatever propaganda the corporation puts on the press releases.

We are responsible for our students. We must protect them from the vultures out there trying to water down their educations and reduce the quality of their learning.

We are not the only ones who can take a stand. In fact, IF we are the only ones who do it, we will certainly fail.

But, along with parents, students and concerned citizens, we MUST be part of that resistance.

We MUST take a stand for our children and our profession.

Because without us, there is no hope of success.

So we can no longer afford to be good soldiers in someone else’s army.

It’s time to have the courage of our convictions.

It’s time to rise up, walk hand-in-hand to the front of the staff meeting and tell our administrators:

NO.

Because if we don’t, no one else will.

Teachers Don’t Want All This Useless Data

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

It’s enough to make you heave.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

It allows me to see:

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

So much for empirical data.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

And THAT’S education!

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Otherwise, they’ll just go through the motions.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Why is Common Core Still Here?

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Common Core has become a national joke.

 

In fact, the set of academic standards has inspired a new genre of grade school humor – Common Core comedy.

 

For instance:

 

One student turns to another and says, “Common Core is about making us college and career ready.”

 

The other student replies, “It’s working. It’s making me drink more everyday.”

 

Here’s another one:

 

Question: Why can’t mommy help you with your Common Core math homework?

 

Answer: She only has a four-year degree.

 

And finally:

 

Question: How many whiteboards does it take to show you how to screw in a light bulb?

 

Answer: One, but it takes dozens to explain 1+4 in Common Core.

 

Parents nationwide know the pain of Common Core by the looks on their children’s faces.

 

They see bright, curious youngsters go to school and come back hating education and thinking they’re stupid.

 

Parents get the same feeling trying to decipher their children’s homework.

 

Meanwhile the majority of teachers hate the standards – and as they become more familiar with it, that number grows every year.

 

So why do we keep using Common Core? Why haven’t our schools thrown this bad idea on the trash heap of failed education policies?

 

In short – because industry is making a lot of money off it.

 

Common Core was created by private industry.

 

It was not made by the states, nor was it written by the federal government.

 

It was created to sell a new generation of standardized tests and textbooks.

 

It’s raison d’etre is profit not education.

 

School children didn’t need a unified set of academic standards. Big business needed them to sell more books and tests.

 

 

The standards were written by Achieve, Inc., a Washington, D.C., organization formed in 1996 by corporate leaders and six state governors. The endeavor was funded by Bill Gates and other corporate interests. It was reviewed by individuals and organizations also funded by Gates.

 

 

Then the federal government stepped in to strongly encourage states to adopt the standards. Not because anyone actually thought they were necessary. They did it because that was what wealthy donors wanted.

 

Eventually the standards were adopted in 42 states, but not because legislatures voted on them. The standards were quietly approved by state boards of education, unelected state education chiefs and boards of education. Many lawmakers didn’t even know what Common Core was or that their state had implemented it until voters started calling and asking questions.

 

Moreover, at the time of their adoption, the standards weren’t even completed. They were enacted in many cases sight unseen.

 

How did the federal government get state officials to do this? Money and threats.

 

Public schools were strapped because of the great recession. So the Obama administration swooped in to help – on the condition that states enact a series of reforms including Common Core.

 

The Obama administration did not write Common Core, but it did everything it could to make sure states enacted these standards. In the 2009 stimulus package, there was $4.35 billion in discretionary funds given to the U.S. Department of Education to hand out as state grants. But in order to qualify for these grants, states had to adopt the Common Core. With education funding at a premium, bureaucrats were only too willing to bend over backwards to keep their state’s schools running.

 

And when the carrot wasn’t enough, the federal government used the stick.

 

Many states were applying to the federal government for waivers to the disastrous No Child Left Behind legislation. Adopting Common Core and several other corporate education reforms was made a pre-condition. If states didn’t adopt these standards, their schools would be labeled “failing” and lose even more federal funding.

 

Despite all this, the media still often misrepresents the facts.

 

It is an objective fact that the Core was written by private industry. So the media never asks that question. It asks if the Core was “state led.” That way there is room for spin.

 

Who led the effort to enact these standards? Since a handful of governors and other government officials were involved in their creation, media patsies are able to pretend the initiative started with the states. But don’t believe it. It started with private interests – people like David Coleman and Bill Gates – trying to influence government to do what they wanted for their own ends. As President of the College Board, Coleman stood to profit off new books and tests. As co-founder of Microsoft, Gates stood to profit from the new technology needed to run many of these new tests and materials. They led the initiative, not the states.

 

No government official was ever given a mandate by the voters or their empowered representatives to create or enact Common Core. Those that did so acted in their private capacities. Bribing a handful of governors doesn’t make something a state initiative.

 

Just because a government official does something doesn’t make it policy. When Chris Christie orders a footlong hoagie for lunch, it isn’t the start of a government program to feed people at Subway. He’s just ordering lunch.

 

Moreover, when government officials are coerced into adopting a policy because otherwise they won’t be able to fulfill their obligation to voters, that isn’t an endorsement of those policies. You can’t offer a starving child a sandwich on the condition that he shouts a swear word and then pretend it was all his idea. You can’t offer a glass of water to a man dying of thirst on the condition that he shave his head and then pretend that he likes being bald.

 

Common Core was not adopted by states because they liked it. It was adopted to keep schools running.

 

Special interests used the federal government’s power over the states to circumvent the legislative process.

 

The result is a set of poor quality standards that are developmentally inappropriate and don’t help students learn. This should be no surprise since they were written with minimal input from classroom teachers or child psychologists. Instead they were created by standardized test authors. But even if the standards had been good, the process of their adoption was highly undemocratic.

 

Sadly, this is how government works now.

 

Charter schools, Teach for America, standardized testing – Public education has been high jacked by business interests.

 

 

Once upon a time, the goal was to help students learn. Now the main objective is to help big business profit off students.

 

If you can make a buck off something – even if it doesn’t help or actually hurts school kids – do it.

 

 

Nowhere is this clearer than with the Common Core.

 

 

Unfortunately, our 2016 Presidential candidates don’t seem to get it.

 

 

Neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump seems to understand the problems with Common Core.

 

 

Clinton thinks the only issue is the way the Core was implemented in schools – not federal coercion, not poor quality standards, etc. Schools didn’t implement them too quickly. The standards are badly written, unproven to help and increasingly shown to hurt.

 

 

Trump, on the other hand, thinks it’s all wrong, but he has no idea why or what he can do about it. Like too many Republicans, he acts as if the only problem with the standards is Obama’s participation. He ignores or omits the one-time advocacy of prominent members of his own party for the Core like Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, and Mike Huckabee.

 

Neither candidate seems to understand that the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) bans the federal government from doing anything to promote Common Core, or any other set of education standards. This does not, unfortunately, repeal the standards. It emphasizes the states’ power to choose their own academic standards.

 

Each state legislature can keep, revise, or repeal Common Core. And in some cases, this has already begun. In Oklahoma, for example, Common Core was repealed entirely. In other states, like New Jersey, Common Core has been revised but largely left in place. In other states, the standards remain untouched.

 

Why hasn’t Common Core gone away? State legislatures haven’t acted.

 

No matter who wins the presidential race, whether it’s a candidate in favor or against Common Core, he or she has zero power to do anything about it. Hopefully, no one tries to exceed that authority by coercing states one way or another.

 

Meanwhile, state legislatures need to pay attention to the wishes of voters. If Common Core is repealed – and that’s what the majority of taxpayers want – we can only hope it’s done so in a more democratic fashion than it was approved. We can only hope it isn’t replaced with something worse.

 

Whatever happens it should be to benefit students, not corporations.

 

Or to put it another way:

 

Question: What if Common Core was created just to drive parents crazy?

 

Answer: Somebody must be making a fortune on crazy meds!!