What’s the Buzz? A Crown of Gadflies! Top 10 Articles (by Me) in 2017

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We made it, Readers.

 

Somehow we survived 2017 – the first year of the Trump Presidency.

 

What a monstrosity that has been so far!

 

Republicans have stolen more than $1 trillion from our pockets to give to their mega-wealthy donors in the form of tax cuts. A 3-2 GOP majority on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) repealed Net Neutrality. And the party of Lincoln endorsed and funded a child molester for US Senate – though he thankfully lost.

 

 

We’re in new territory. Politics has always appealed to the best and worst of our natures: Good people who really want to make a difference and sniveling cowards willing to do whatever their sugar daddies tell them. But unfortunately our world has increasingly rewarded the latter and almost extinguished the former.

 

However, don’t lose heart. The cockroaches are all out in the open. They’ve become so emboldened by the words “President” and “Trump” voiced together that they no longer feel the need to hug a wall.

 

All it would take is a good boot and a series of stomps to crush them forever.

 

Someone get me my shoes.

 

In the meantime, I sit here at my kitchen table recovering from a turkey coma preparing for a nostalgic look back at everything that’s happened here at Gadfly on the Wall in the past year.

 

It was quite a 365 days! Most amazing was the publication of my book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform” from Garn Press. It’s a thorough reworking and “Best Of” this blog over the last three years.

 

Sales have been strong and reviews are starting to come in. I am absolutely floored when I get messages from people I admire telling me they got the book and appreciate this or that. It’s been my lifelong dream to publish a book, and now I’ve done it. The New Year will involve lots of promotion – hopefully I can get decision makers to read it!

 

Other than that, it’s been a busy year blogging. I wrote 118 articles! That’s about one every three days!

 

And people have been reading them.

 

I’ve had more than 364,000 hits – about the same as in 2016. This puts the total views over the 1 million mark at more than 1,216,000! That’s quite a landmark for a blog that’s only been around since July, 2014. And it doesn’t count all the readers I get from articles reposted on the Badass Teachers Association Blog, Huffington Post, Commondreams.org, the LA Progressive, Alternet, BillMoyers.com or other sites.

 

I’ve also gotten 1,510 more people to follow me for a total of 12,845.

 

I’m so honored that readers still like coming to this site for news and commentary. As long as you care to enter those virtual doors, I’ll be here, hunched over my computer, pounding away at the keys.

 

So without further ado, let’s take a look back at the top 10 articles from this blog that got the Inter-webs humming:


10) Teacher Appreciation Week is a Pathetic Joke!

Published: May 10, 2017 Screen Shot 2017-05-10 at 3.38.28 PM

 

 

Views: 4,320

 

 

Description: At the end of every school year we get Teacher Appreciation Week. It’s nice. Educators get free donuts and cookies, a pat on the head and then the rest of the year we get all the blame for society’s problems without any additional funding, repealing terrible policies or even acknowledgement of what the real issues are in our schools. It’s a sham. Someone had to say it, so I did. Thanks for the snack, but it takes a village, folks! Get off your butts and take some responsibility!

 

 

Fun Fact: Some people, even teachers, were really upset by this article. They thought it was ungrateful. Don’t get me wrong, I am truly appreciative for any crumb the public wants to give us, teachers, but I’m not going to let it pass as if that counts as true support. Salving your conscience isn’t enough. We need true allies to get down in the mud and fight with us. Otherwise, it’s just an empty gesture.

 

 

 


9) White Privilege, Public Schools and Ugly Christmas Sweaters

 

Published: Dec 22 Screen Shot 2017-12-22 at 1.02.56 PM

 

 

Views: 4,324

 

 

Description: This one’s hot off the press! It describes a situation at one of the schools were I’ve taught over the years and how dress code policies can support white privilege. They’re the broken windows policing of academia, and we need to put much more thought into them before laying down blanket restrictions.

 

 

Fun Fact: Some readers took exception to this piece because they thought I didn’t do enough to stop a wayward administrator despite the fact that I never said what I did or didn’t do. Some even complained that it was dumb to simply acknowledge racism and racist policies and actions. I don’t know what world they’re living in. White folks voted for Donald J. Trump to be President. We’ve got a long way to go, and acknowledging everyday prejudice seems a worthy goal to me.

 

 

 


8) America’s Founding Fathers Were Against School Choice

Published: Feb 16 3551131_f520

 

 

Views: 4,483

 

 

Description: The entire premise of school privatization goes against the founding principles of our nation. We were born out of the Enlightenment, not the profit motive. Our founders would look on in horror at charter and voucher schools. Though they aren’t perfect, only truly public schools embody the ideals of the Revolution. True conservatives and true patriots would support that system, not strive to blow it up for personal financial gain.

 

 

Fun Fact: Some people took issue with an appeal to the founders who were not exactly perfect. It’s true. In practice many of them did not live up to their own high ideals. However, who does? It is the ideal that matters, not the clay feet of our forebears.

 

 

 


7) Middle School Suicides Double As Common Core Testing Intensifies

 

Published: July 24 Screen Shot 2017-07-24 at 10.35.30 AM

 

 

Views: 5,800

 

 

Description: Teen suicides are up – especially among middle school age children. At the same time, we’ve been testing these kids into the ground. More standardized assessments – and these are unnecessarily more difficult to pass Common Core assessments. This is exactly what happens in countries that put such emphasis on testing – they have a higher suicide rate. It’s no wonder that this is happening here, too. Policymakers want us to be more like Asian countries? Be careful what you wish for!

 

 

Fun Fact: This article infuriated the good folks at the Education Post. Peter Cunningham had his flunkies attack me on Twitter complaining that I was an angry white dude making undue correlations. Yet every other explanation for the fact of increased middle school suicides was merely a correlation, too. Proving causation is almost impossible. It is just as reasonable – even more so – to conclude that testing is having an impact on the suicide rate as to intuit the cause being increased reliance on social media. The big money folks don’t want us making the connection I made here. All the more reason to believe there is truth behind it.

 

 

 


6) School Choice is a Lie. It Does Not Mean More Options. It Means Less.

 

Published: Oct. 6 fake1

 

 

Views: 7,880

 

 

 

Description: School choice is a misnomer. It’s school privatization. It has very little to do with providing more options for parents or students. It’s about allowing big corporations to avoid public school regulations and profit off your child swiping your tax dollars. School choice is merely a marketing term.

 

 

Fun Fact: I must have really pissed someone off when I wrote this one because it caused Facebook to block me for a week. No matter. Readers liked this one so much they shared it for me all over. Why was I targeted? It could be personal since charter school cheerleader Campbell Brown is literally the arbiter of truth at Facebook. Or it could be the social media site’s attempt to bully me into spending money on advertising. Either way, their attempted censorship didn’t work.

 

 


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

 

Published: Sept 3 FullSizeRender

 

 

Views: 8,358

 

 

Description: As teachers, we’re often expected to use new technology in our classrooms. However, we’re rarely involved in the decision making process. We’re rarely allowed to decide which technology to use and sometimes even how to use it. Software packages are just handed down from administration or school board. However, the EdTech Industry is not our friend. More often than not it is unscrupulous in the ways it is willing to profit off of our students through data mining, competency based learning and a variety of privacy threatening schemes. It’s up to us to be brave enough to say, “No.”

 

 

Fun Fact: I was surprised by how much the piece resonated with readers. So many other educators said they felt they were being bullied into using apps or programs that they thought were of low quality or downright harmful. Sure, there were some who called me a luddite, but the fact remains: we shouldn’t be using technology for technology’s sake. We should be doing so only to help students learn. That requires us to use our best judgment, not follow orders like good soldiers.

 

 

 


 

4) Teachers Don’t Want All This Useless Data

 

Published: June 23 26948475_l-too-much-data

 

 

Views: 12,459

 

 

Description: Administrators love to gift teachers with tons and tons of data. They bury us under reams of standardized test results and expect us to somehow use that nonsense to inform our teaching. It’s crazy. We already collect authentic data on our students for 180 days a year in the classroom in the course of our teaching. Yet they think these mass produced corporate evaluated snap shots are going to somehow change everything? That’s not how you help educators. It’s how you abdicate any responsibility yourself.

 

 

Fun Fact: This one really took off especially on the Huffington Post. Many readers seemed to be truly surprised that teachers felt this way. No authentic educator gives in to being data driven. We’re data informed but student driven. And if you want us to do something else, you don’t have the best interests of the kids at heart.

 

 


 

3) PA Legislature Plans Taking Away Teachers’ Sick Days

 

Published: Feb 2 thumbnail_teachers-sick-719435

 

 

Views: 17,702

 

 

Description: This was another tone deaf proclamation from the Republican majority in Harrisburg. It was pure meat for the regressive base in gerrymandered districts that if passed they knew would never be signed by our Democratic Governor Tom Wolf. It turns out the backlash was such that they didn’t even have the courage to put it to a vote.

 

 

Fun Fact: I never expected this one to be nearly as popular as it was. Usually articles about Pennsylvania get a few hundred local readers and that’s it. But this one infuriated everyone. How dare lawmakers propose this! Don’t they know how many bacteria teachers are exposed to!? Do they want us to come to school sick and spread the disease to our students!? I’d like to think that the article had something to do with this terrible piece of legislation disappearing, but I have no evidence to support it. However, I can say that it will probably be back when they think no one is looking, and it will still make me sick.

 

 

 


 

2) U.S. Public Schools Are NOT Failing. They’re Among the Best in the World

 

 

Published: Jan 29 surprised-kid-investor-050213

 

 

Views: 23,841

 

 

Description: Everyone says public schools are failing. I call bullshit. It depends on how you’re evaluating them, and – frankly – we’re not being fair to our American education system. Sure. There are plenty of ways we can improve, but there’s a lot we’re doing right, too. In fact, many of the things we get right, few other systems do around the world. We excel in our ideals. If we just had the courage of our convictions, our system would be beyond the moon! Even as it is, we have much to celebrate. And other nations would do well to emulate us in these ways.

 

 

Fun Fact: I’m quite proud of this one. It’s the only article in the Top 10 here that was included in my book. For the definitive version, you’ll have to go there. Some sections received major rewrites and clarifications. I think the published version is much better. But no matter which version you choose, I’m proud to have an answer for all those out there spreading the myth that our education system is an irredeemable mess. They want us to get rid of the good and replace it with more bad. I say we keep the good and build on it.

 

 


 

1) Ignorance and Arrogance – the Defining Characteristics of the Betsy DeVos Hearing

 

Published: Jan 18 betsydevos-png-crop-cq5dam_web_1280_1280_png

 

 

Views: 28,670

 

 

Description: Betsy DeVos’ confirmation hearing was an absolute horror show. It’s even worse when you consider she was confirmed by the Republican majority in a tie vote that was broken by Vice President Mike Pence (that still sends shivers down my spine). Here was someone who knows next to nothing about public education except that she wants to destroy it. She wouldn’t commit to protecting students rights even those under the umbrella of special education. There’s more I could say but I just threw up in my mouth a little bit. Excuse me.

 

 

Fun Fact: I’m honored that so many readers turned to my blog for commentary about this. It was a moment of shared horror that hasn’t weakened much in the subsequent months. We’re all just waiting for sanity to return but at least we can do so together. We’re all in this side-by-side and hand-in-hand. We can defeat the Betsy DeVos’ and the Donald Trump’s of the world if we stay strong. It could happen any day now.

 

 


 

Gadfly’s Other Year End Round Ups

This wasn’t the first year I’ve done a countdown of the year’s greatest hits. I usually write one counting down my most popular articles (like the one you just read from 2017) and one listing articles that I thought deserved a second look. Here are all my end of the year articles since I began this crazy journey in 2014:

 

2016

Worse Than Fake News – Ignored News. Top 5 Education Stories You May Have Missed in 2016

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Goodbye, 2016, and Good Riddance – Top 10 Blog Post by Me From a Crappy Year

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 2015

Gadfly’s Choice – Top 5 Blogs (By Me) You May Have Missed from 2015

 

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

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2014

Off the Beaten Gadfly – the Best Education Blog Pieces You Never Read in 2014

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Top 10 Education Blog Posts (By Me) You Should Be Reading Right Now!

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Still can’t get enough Gadfly? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Will the U.S. Follow New Zealand’s Lead and Repeal National Academic Standards?

 

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Kiwis don’t like corporations telling them what to do.

 

 

Especially when it comes to educating their children.

 

 

That’s why this week, New Zealand’s Education Minister Chris Hipkins announced that schools in the pacific island nation would no longer need to use the national academic standards mandated by the government for the last decade.

 

 

“I don’t think anyone will be surprised that we are ditching a failed experiment,” he said.

 

“We want teachers focused on less testing and more teaching because that’s the way we’re going to improve students’ progress.”

 

I pause at this point for American readers to catch their breath.

 

Yes, a national government just reversed course on standardized, canned, one-size-fits-all academic standards for all students in its public schools.

 

Yes, they had spent millions of dollars to create, roll out and enforce the standards.

 

But now they see the results have been less than expected and they’re changing their collective minds.

 

Shocking, I know.

 

If only we still did things like that in THIS country.

 

But wait, there’s more.

 

Why exactly did New Zealand turn against its national standards?

 

Did parents hate them?

 

Yes.

 

Did kids hate them?

 

Yes.

 

Did teachers hate them?

 

Yes.

 

All things that could be said of our own Common Core. But was there more to it?

 

Yes.

 

In short, New Zealand’s national standards weren’t helping kids learn. In fact, they appeared to have the exact opposite effect.

 

New Zealand children’s performance on international tests dropped significantly since the standards were introduced in 2010.

 

And publication of these results showing 10-year-old’s reading achievement taking a nosedive since the standards adoption ignited an already smoldering public outcry.

 

New Zealand’s average score on the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) had been steady for 15 years, but fell dramatically at the end of 2015. In short, New Zealand went from 23rd to 33rd out of 50 countries.

 

Funny.

 

The US has had a strikingly similar result on the same test with the same age children since the mandate to use the Common Core.

 

The PIRLS is an assessment given to fourth-graders in schools around the world every five years. In 2016, the average score for US students dropped from fifth in the world in 2011 to 13th. And the drop wasn’t merely perfunctory. It was “statistically significant” according to test organizers.

 

The biggest drop was for the lowest-performing students, what the organizers considered a sign that we’re providing much greater support for economically advantaged children than for underprivileged ones.

 

Why is this important?

 

Because Common Core was introduced across the nation in 2010-11. These fourth grade students were the first to be educated using the Core since Kindergarten, and far from creating a boost in achievement, it opened a chasm.

 

Reading scores went down just as they consistently have done time-and-time-again since we started using the standards.

 

Scores go down on state tests. National tests. International tests.

 

Meanwhile the test makers and their proxies keep telling us the problem is that the standards are simply more rigorous and it just will take time for our children to get up to speed. Meanwhile their publishing and software subsidiaries sell us hundreds of millions of dollars worth of new text books, new computer programs, new devices, new apps, new “specialists” and consultants offering professional developments, etc.

 

Choo! Choo! The gravy train is rolling. We can’t let something like international test scores derail the money train!

 

Keep in mind, this is the same international test and the same age group of children that caused a revolution in New Zealand.

 

Will our response be the same?

 

Probably not.

 

New Zealand’s authentic reform resulted from a political change. The National Party was replaced by the Labour Party, and repealing national academic standards was part of their platform.

 

It marked a sharp divide between the philosophies of both groups.

 

The National Party wanted more testing, more data, more standardization, more holding funding hostage to test scores – just like both Republicans and Democrats in the US.

 

However, the New Zealand Labour Party ran on significant reductions to standardized education, substantial cuts to standardized testing, repealing national standards and considerable investment in students, schools and teachers.

 

We in the US simply have no political equivalent.

 

There is no political party – right, left or centrist – that puts the needs of children, parents, teachers and working people at the center of its platform.

 

Both the left and right take billions of dollars in campaign contributions from the testing and privatization industries and thus support policies that serve the interest of their donors over their constituents.

 

There is a tremendous political opportunity here for one party to change course and support a winning strategy.

 

Republicans tried it in 2016 by lambasting Common Core and then quietly forgetting they could do a thing about it at the state level every day since.

 

Including today.

 

Admittedly their education policy is incoherent since they support every standardization and privatization initiative on record so long as a black President didn’t touch it. And even then their opposition melts away when they have the power to do something about it but no one’s looking because the President is too busy playing nuclear chicken with North Korea on Twitter.

 

Imagine if politicians promised to fix something and then had the courage to actually do it!

 

It worked in New Zealand.

 

It’s worked in many places all over the world.

 

Why can’t it work here?

 

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.

Florida Looks to Hide Minority Students with Accountability Waiver

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What do you do with minority students?

 

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

 

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

 

The request goes something like this:

 

Federal Government: How are your English Language Learners doing?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Aaaaand scene.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Test scores? She loves them!

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Um. No. You don’t.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Middle School Suicides Double As Common Core Testing Intensifies

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Here’s a high stakes testing statistic you won’t hear bandied about on the news.

 

The suicide rate among 10- to 14-year-olds doubled between 2007 and 2014 – the same period in which states have increasingly adopted Common Core standards and new, more rigorous high stakes tests.

 

For the first time, suicide surpassed car crashes as a leading cause of death for middle school children.

In 2014, the last year for which data was available, 425 middle schoolers nationwide took their own lives.

 

To be fair, researchers, educators and psychologists say several factors are responsible for the spike, however, pressure from standardized testing is high on the list.

 

In fact, it is a hallmark of other nations where children perform better on these tests than our own.

 

In our efforts to emulate these countries, we’ve inadvertently imported their child suicide problem.

 

In South Korea, one of the highest performing nations on international tests, youth suicide is a national epidemic.

 

According to the National Youth Policy Institute in Korea, one in four students considers committing suicide. In fact, Korea has the second highest youth suicide rate among contemporary nations.

 

For several years, the Korean school system has topped the roughly 70 member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) educational league, which measures 15-year-old students’ knowledge through the PISA test, an international student assessment exam within OECD member states.

 

However, the system is roundly criticized for its emphasis on memorization and test prep with little real-life application. In fact, 75 percent of South Korean children attend “cram schools” where they do little else than prepare for standardized assessments.

 

 

Likewise, Chinese students suffer similar curriculum and rates of child suicide. Though Shanghai students have some of the highest scores in OECD, abuse runs rampant.

 

According to the China Daily, teachers at Hubei Xiaogan No 1 High School in central Hubei province actually rigged their students up to IV drips in the classroom so they could continue studying after being physically exhausted.

 

Brook Larmer of the New York Times reports visiting student dormitories in Maotanchang, a secluded town in Anhui province, where the windows were covered in wire mesh to prevent students from jumping to their deaths.

 

In the United States, education “reform” hasn’t reached these depths, but we’re getting closer every year.

 

Efforts to increase test scores have changed U.S. schools to closer resemble those of Asia. Curriculum is being narrowed to only the tested subjects and instruction is being limited to testing scenarios, workbooks, computer simulations, practice and diagnostic tests.

 

A classroom where students aren’t allowed to pursue their natural curiosities and are instead directed to boring and abstract drills is not a place of joy and discovery. A school that does not allow children to express themselves but forces constant test prep is a lifeless environment devoid of hope.

 

But that’s not the worst of it.

 

American students are increasingly being sorted and evaluated by reference to their test score rather than their classroom grade or other academic indicators. Students are no longer 6th, 7th or 8th graders. They’re Below Basics, Basics, Proficents and Advanced. The classes they’re placed in, the style of teaching, even personal rewards and punishments are determined by a single score.

 

In some states, like Florida, performance on federally mandated tests actually determine if students can advance to the next grade. Some children pass their classes but don’t move on purely because of test scores well within the margin or error.

 

The results are devastating.

 

Marion Brady tells a gut-wrenching story on Alternet about a 9-year-old Florida boy who tried to hang himself after failing the state’s FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test) by one point.

 

His mother explains that he had to take a summer remediation course and a retest, but still failed by one point. She couldn’t bear to tell him, but he insisted that he had failed and was utterly crushed.

 

After a brief period where he was silent, alone in his room, she became apprehensive:

 

“I … ran down the hall to [his] room, banged on the door and called his name. No response. I threw the door open. There was my perfect, nine- year-old freckled son with a belt around his neck hanging from a post on his bunk bed. His eyes were blank, his lips blue, his face emotionless. I don’t know how I had the strength to hoist him up and get the belt off but I did, then collapsed on the floor and held [him] as close to my heart as possible. There were no words. He didn’t speak and for the life of me I couldn’t either. I was physically unable to form words. I shook as I held him and felt his heart racing.

 

“I’d saved [him]! No, not really…I saved him physically, but mentally he was gone…The next 18 months were terrible. It took him six months to make eye contact with me. He secluded himself from friends and family. He didn’t laugh for almost a year…”

 

The boy had to repeat the third grade but is haunted by what had happened as is his mother.

 

And this is by no means an isolated incident.

 

According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, the suicide rate for 5- to 14- year-olds jumped by 39.5 percent from 2000 to 2013. The rate for 15- to 24-year-olds, which was already 818% higher than for younger children, also increased during the same time period by 18.9 percent.

 

That’s more than 5,000 children and rising each year taking their own lives.

 

Again, high stakes testing isn’t responsible for all of it. But the dramatic increase along with a subsequent increase in high stakes testing is not unrelated.

 

The Alliance for Childhood, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that advises on early education, compiled a report from parents, teachers, school nurses, psychologists, and child psychiatrists noting that the stress of high-stakes testing was literally making children sick.

 

On testing days, school nurses report that their offices are filled with students complaining of headaches and stomachaches. There have even been reports of uncontrollable sobbing.

 

In 2013, eight prominent New York principals were so alarmed by this increasing student behavior that they wrote a letter to parents expressing their concerns:

 

“We know that many children cried during or after testing, and others vomited or lost control of their bowels or bladders. Others simply gave up. One teacher reported that a student kept banging his head on the desk, and wrote, ‘This is too hard,’ and ‘I can’t do this,’ throughout his test booklet.”

 

And they’re not alone.

 

In fact, student anxiety is so common on test day that most federally mandated tests include official guidelines specifically outlining how to deal with kids vomiting on their test booklets.

 

School counselors note increasing student anxiety levels, sleep problems, drug use, avoidance behaviors, attendance problems, acting out, etc. that increase around testing time and during test prep lessons. This is a major contributor, they say, to the unprecedented increase in the number of young children being labeled and treated for psychiatric illnesses ranging from learning disabilities and attention disorders to anxiety and depression.

 

And the psychological trauma isn’t limited to the students, alone. The adults also suffer from it.

 

In 2015, Jeanene Worrell-Breeden, a West Harlem elementary school principal, took her own life by jumping in front of a subway train to escape a standardized testing scandal. Under intense pressure from the federal and state government to improve academic achievement, she had allegedly instructed her staff to change students’ answers on a new Common Core aligned high stakes test.

 

But the trauma isn’t always so dramatic. Teachers and principals often suffer in silence. And when it affects the adults in the room, imagine what it does to the children.

 

It isn’t that teachers aren’t trying to teach or that students aren’t trying to learn. It’s that the expectations and testing are developmentally inappropriate.

 

Middle school children’s brains are still growing. They are only physically able to learn certain concepts and skills, but we’re forcing them to deal with increasingly advanced and complex concepts at younger ages.

 

And when expectations and high stakes consequences come crashing down on children, they can feel there is no way out.

 

This is why thousands of parents have refused to allow their children to take high stakes standardized testing.

 

This is why there is a growing grass roots movement against these sorts of assessments and other corporate school reforms.

 

It’s time the media connect the dots and report these sorts of stories in context.

 

Don’t just shrug when reporting on child suicide rates, if you report it at all. Give the microphone to experts who can point the finger where it belongs.

 

And the rest of us need to make sure our representatives at the state, local and federal level know where we stand.

 

High stakes testing is child abuse. We should not emulate other nations’ scores especially when they come at such a cost.

 

The fact that we don’t engage in the worst abuses of Asian schools should be a point of pride, not jealousy.

 

We should cherish and nurture our children even if other nations sacrifice theirs on the altar of competition and statistics.

Test-Based Accountability – Smokescreen for Cowardly Politicians and Unscrupulous Corporations

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There is no single education policy more harmful than test-based accountability.

 

The idea goes like this: We need to make sure public schools actually teach children, and the best way to do that is with high stakes standardized testing.

 

It starts from the assumption that the problems with our school system are all service-based. Individual schools or districts are not providing quality services. Teachers and administrators are either screwing up or don’t care enough to do the job.

 

But this is untrue. In reality, most of our problems are resource-based. From the get-go, schools and districts get inequitable resources with which to work.

 

This is not a guess. This is not a theory. It is demonstrable. It has been demonstrated. It is a fact.

 

No one even disputes it.

 

What is in question is its importance.

 

However, any lack of intention or ability on the part of schools to actually teach is, in fact, pure conjecture. It is a presumption, an excuse by those responsible for allocating resources (i.e. lawmakers) from doing their jobs.

 

Any time you hear senators or representatives at the state or federal level talking about test-based accountability, they are ignoring their own duties to properly provide for our public school children and pushing everything onto the schools, themselves.

 

That is the foundation of the concept. It’s hard to imagine more unstable ground from which to base national education policy.

 

But it gets worse.

 

With our eyes closed and this assumption swallowed like a poison pill, we are asked to accept further toxic premises.

 

Next comes the concept of trustworthiness.

 

We are being asked to question the trustworthiness of teachers. Instead, we are pushed to trust corporations – corporations that manufacture standardized tests.

 

I have no idea why anyone would think that big business is inherently moral or ethical. The history of the world demonstrates this lie. Nor do I understand why anyone would start from the proposition that teachers are inherently untrustworthy. Like any other group of human beings, educators include individuals that are more or less honest, but the profession is not motivated by a creed that specifically prescribes lying if it maximizes profit.

 

Business is.

 

Test manufacturers are motivated by profit. They will do that which maximizes the corporate bottom line. And student failure does just that.

 

Most of these companies don’t just manufacturer tests. They also provide the books, workbooks, software and other materials schools use to get students ready to take the tests. They produce the remediation materials for students who fail the tests. And they provide and grade the tests in the first place.

 

When students fail their tests, it means more money for the corporation. More money to give and grade the retests. More money to provide additional remediation materials. And it justifies the need for tests to begin with.

 

Is it any wonder then that so many kids fail? That’s what’s profitable.

 

There was a time when classroom teachers were not so motivated.

 

They were not paid based on how many of their students passed the test. Their evaluations were not based on student test scores. Their effectiveness used to be judged based on what they actually did in the classroom. If they could demonstrate to their administrators that they were actually making good faith efforts to teach kids, they were considered effective. If not, they were ineffective. It was a system that was both empirical and fair – and one to which we should return.

 

In fact, it was so fair that it demonstrated the partisanship of the corporations. Laws were changed to bring teacher motivation more in line with those of big business. Their evaluations became based on student test scores. Their salaries were increasingly tied to student success on these tests. And when some teachers inevitably felt the pressure to cheat on the tests, they were scapegoated and fired. There is no mechanism available to even determine if testing corporations cheat less than penalties for it.

 

After all, what is cheating for a testing corporation when they determine the cut score for passing and failing?

 

Yet this is a major premise behind test-based accountability – the untrustworthiness of teachers compared to the dependable, credibility of corporations.

 

Next, come the scores, themselves.

 

Time-after-time, standardized test scores show a striking correspondence: poor and minority students often do badly while middle class and wealthy white students do well.

 

Why is that?

 

Well, it could mean, as we’ve already mentioned, that poor and minority students aren’t receiving the proper resources. Or it could mean that teachers are neglecting these children.

 

There is a mountain of evidenceundisputed evidence – to support the former. There is nothing to support the later.

 

I’m not saying that there aren’t individual teachers out there who may be doing a bad job educating poor and minority children. There certainly are some. But there is no evidence of a systemic conspiracy by teachers to educate the rich white kids and ignore all others. However, there IS an unquestionable, proven system of disinvestment in these exact same kids by lawmakers.

 

If we used standardized tests to shine a light on the funding inequalities of the system, perhaps they would be doing some good. But this is not how we interpret the data.

 

Finally comes the evidence of history.

 

Standardized testing is not new. It is a practice with a past that is entirely uncomplimentary.

 

These kinds of assessments are poor indicators of understanding complex processes. Answering multiple choice questions is not the best way to determine comprehension.

 

Moreover, this process is tainted by the eugenicist movement from which it originates. Standardized testing is a product of the belief that some races are better than others. It is a product of white supremacy. It was designed by racist psychologists who used it to justify the social structure of past generations and roundly praised and emulated by literal Nazis.

 

It is therefore not surprising that test scores show privileged white kids as superior to underprivileged students of color. That is how the system was designed.

 

Why any educated person would unquestionably accept these scores as valid assessments of student learning is beyond me.

 

Yet these are the assumptions and premises upon which the house of test-based accountability is built.

 

It is a smokescreen to protect politicians from having to provide adequate, equitable, sustainable resources for all children. It likewise protects unscrupulous business people so they can continue to cash in on the school system without providing any real value for students.

 

We must no longer allow policymakers to hide behind this blatant and immoral lie.

 

Not only should voters refrain from re-electing any lawmakers whose constituents children are receiving inequitable school resources, they should not be eligible for re-election.

 

Not only should corporations not be trusted more than teachers, they should be barred from determining success or failure while also profiting off of that same failure.

 

In short, we need to stop worshipping at the altar of test-based accountability.

 

Schools can and should be held accountable. But it cannot be done with standardized tests.

 

Moreover, we must stop ignoring the role of policymakers and business in this system. They must also be responsible. We are allowing them to get away with murder.

 

It’s time to wake up and make them answer for what they’ve done to our nation’s children.

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?