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?

National Education Association Seems to Endorse Replacing Teachers With Computers

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When all the teachers are gone, will America’s iPads pay union dues?

 

It’s a question educators across the country are beginning to ask after yet another move by our national unions that seems to undercut the profession they’re supposed to be supporting.

 

The National Education Association (NEA), the largest labor union in the U.S., published a shortsighted puff piece on its Website that seemingly applauds doing away with human beings working as teachers.

 

In their place would be computers, iPads, Web applications and a host of “devices” that at best would need human beings to serve as merely lightly trained facilitators while children are placed in front of endless screens.

 

The article is called, “As More Schools Look to Personalized Learning, Teaching May Be About to Change,” by Tim Walker.

 

Teacher-blogger Emily Talmage led the charge with a counter article on her site called “Anatomy of a Betrayal.” She outlined the NEA’s change from being critical of such initiatives to joining with the likes of Jeb Bush and various foundations, tech firms and school voucher advocates in celebrating it.

 

Make no mistake.

 

This is not merely an examination of changing teaching practices. It is a movement by tech giants to further standardize and privatize America’s public schools.

 

This isn’t to say that technology can’t enhance learning. But classroom teachers with any kind of experience know that simply plopping a child in front of a computer screen is a terrible way to do it. It’s the equivalent of having all your questions answered by an automated voice on the telephone versus being able to ask questions of a living, breathing person.

 

And they have the gall to call it “personalized learning” as if it were meeting all the needs of students one-on-one. It isn’t.

 

It’s one-on-one, but it isn’t meeting anyone’s needs except bankers, hedge fund managers, charter school operators and tech investors.

 

It’s a way to drastically reduce the cost of education for poor and minority students by removing the need for a teacher. It’s the educational equivalent of an automated cashier in the grocery store, but unlike at Giant Eagle, it doesn’t just tally your bill, it pretends to teach.

 

This is the definition of a McEducation. It’s the logical extension of policymakers who think that 5-week trained Teach for America recruits are equivalent to education graduates with four-five year degrees and years of classroom experience. They’re just replacing TFA recruits with Apps.

 

Don’t get me wrong. America’s public schools have a lot of problems. They’re segregated by both economics and race. The poor and minority schools are inadequately funded and inequitably resourced. They are forced to compete for what little money remains with charter school vampires who are allowed to spend it however they like with little to no accountability or transparency. More money disappears down the gullets of voucher schools to subsidize the rich and indoctrinate Christian fundamentalists. And to top it all off, our public schools are forced to give scientifically invalid standardized assessments that are incentivized to fail as many students as possible so the same corporations that make the tests can sell districts remediation materials. Meanwhile, a large portion of these profits earned off public schools are reinvested in lawmakers reelection campaigns so they’ll pass legislation that continues to treat our children as golden geese for business and industry.

 

The NEA should know that. We have more than enough enemies to fight. But instead of taking arms, our national unions have been racing toward the bottom to compromise and keep that proverbial seat at the table. They’ll fight for teacher tenure. They’ll fight right-to-work legislation. But policies that undermine the very fabric of the profession? NAH.

 

 

We saw the same thing with Common Core. Educators knew you can’t teach higher order thinking skills to children without first doing the groundwork of process. But the book publishers had new textbooks to market so the NEA backed a horse they knew was dead at the starting gate.

 

And now we have the tech giants – the Zuckerbergs and Gates – slobbering over the profits they can make by callously removing teachers from the equation.

 

I’ve seen this first hand.

 

My district has a one-to-one iPad initiative. For two years, each of my students has had a device in every class. It hasn’t dramatically improved learning. At best, it’s increased students’ computer literacy. At worst, it’s a toy that actually distracts from authentic learning.

 

They allow me, the teacher, to give all assignments digitally. But that requires the network to function perfectly, the devices to be fully charged, the assignments to be entered precisely, the students to engage with them correctly and creatively – when handing students a paper and having them hand it back is actually much more efficient.

 

They allow students to look up unfamiliar vocabulary quickly, but they rob students of the context skills necessary to know which definition is appropriate, and experience using prefixes, suffixes and roots.

 

They allow students to easily access infinite information but without the skills to critically read it. More kids read the summary on the Internet than read the book – and even then, they don’t understand it.

 

They allow students to make colorful Keynote presentations and iMovies, but do nothing to prepare them how to intelligently organize the materials.

 

And – worst of all – they convince number crunching administrators that assignments, tests and lessons can be given digitally with hours of screen time. As if that was equivalent to authentic learning.

 

That is the end goal.

 

Everyone knows it. Isaac Asimov wrote about it in 1954 with his classic science fiction story “The Fun They Had” about a future where computerized home schooling was the norm. But even in his story, kids felt like they were being cheated out of something important that their ancestors had experienced in a traditional public school setting.

 

Instead of heeding his warning, our unions are rushing to make that world a reality.

 

You don’t strengthen unions by undercutting the professionals they’re supposed to represent.

 

Somebody needs to tell our union leaders – preferably by replacing them.

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Always Be Testing – The Sales Pitch for Corporate Education Reform

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(After the “Brass Balls” speech in “Glengarry Glen Ross,” by David Mamet.)

 

(Rated PG-13 for language)

 

(Interior: a public school classroom during an after school staff meeting. Teachers are seated at student desks including Singer, Moss and Aaronow. Williamson, a middle school principal, stands in front of the room flanked by Blake, a motivational speaker brought in by the state. Singer is furiously grading papers. The other teachers are pleasantly chatting about trifles before Blake calls the gathering to attention.)

 

[Blake]
Let me have your attention for a moment! So you’re talking about what? You’re talking about that kid you failed, some son of a bitch who doesn’t want to pass, some snot-nosed brat you’re trying to remediate and so forth. Let’s talk about something important. Are they all here?

 

[Williamson]
All but one.

 

[Blake]
Well, I’m going anyway. Let’s talk about something important! (to Singer) Put that colored marker down!

 

[Singer]

But I’m grading papers…

 

(Blake)

I said Put that marker down! Markers are for testers only.

 

(Singer scoffs)

 

[Blake]

Do you think I’m fucking with you? I am not fucking with you. I’m here from downtown. I’m here from the Governor and the Legislature. And I’m here on a mission of mercy. Your name’s Singer?

 

[Singer]
Yeah. Mister Singer, actually.

 

[Blake]
You call yourself a teacher, you son of a bitch?

 

[Moss]

I don’t have to listen to this.

 
[Blake]
You certainly don’t, Madam. Cause the good news is – you’re fired. The bad news is you’ve got, all you got, just one week to regain your jobs, starting today. Starting with today’s meeting.

 

[Moss]

What!? The union contract doesn’t allow you to just fire us all without cause.

 

[Blake]

Union!? There ain’t no more union! This is a Right to Work state now, Bitch. And that means you have the right to work – for less – until I fire your sorry ass.

 

(Assorted grumbling)

 

[Blake]

Oh, have I got your attention now? Good. Cause we’re adding a little something to this month’s merit pay. As you all know, the teacher whose students get the highest test scores gets a bonus. First prize is a thousand bucks. Anyone want to see second prize? Second prize is a box of pencils. Third prize is you’re fired. You get the picture? You’re laughing now?

 

[Singer]

That’s ridiculous. Mrs. Moss teaches the advanced kids. All her students get high test scores.

 

[Blake]

What? And your kids are in the general track? They don’t get high test scores? Then step it up, Singer! You want to get a paycheck in this district, you’ve got to earn a paycheck. You got test prep manuals. The school board paid good money for them. Get those workbooks so your kids can pass the test!

 

[Singer]

Workbooks!? That’s not learning?

 

[Blake]

That’s where you’re wrong. Workbooks are the only learning that counts! Kids take the tests that show whether you’re doing your fucking jobs! You want to keep working here? You want to keep sucking at the public tit? You get those kids to pass the motherfucking tests. And those workbooks do that. They teach kids how to pass the motherfucking tests!

 

[Singer]

But my kids are all from poor homes. They’re malnourished. They don’t get the same medical care. There are no books in their homes. Many of them suffer from PTSD from abuse or exposure to violence….

 

[Blake]

And you think they deserve some kind of entitlement? A medal? Fuck them and fuck you! Let me make one thing perfectly clear – If you can’t get your students to pass shit, you ARE shit, hit the bricks, Pal, and beat it cause you are going out!

 

[Singer]

Are you kidding me right now? You want my students to pass these tests. The tests are unfair. They’re economically and culturally biased. The connection between the tests and learning is weak.

 

[Blake]
The fucking tests are weak? You’re weak. I’ve been in this business for fifteen weeks.

 

[Moss]
Fifteen weeks? Try thirty years.

 

[Blake]

Anyone who’s still a teacher after thirty years should be put to sleep. All you need is a year or two. That’s what I’m doing. Teach for America. Five weeks training, two year commitment, then move on to Washington where you can advise lawmakers on what schools need.

 

[Moss]

What’s your name?

 

[Blake]

Fuck you, that’s my name! You know why, Missy? Cause you drove a Hyundai to get to work. I drove an eighty thousand BMW. That’s my name.

 

[Singer]

I took the bus.

 

[Blake]

(To Singer) And your name is “you’re wanting.” You can’t play in a man’s game. You can’t teach them. (at a near whisper) And you go home and tell your wife your troubles.

(to everyone again) Because only one thing counts in this life! Get them to score above basic. Get them to demonstrate the minimum skills necessary!

 

[Singer]

What about what they think and feel?

 

[Blake]

No one gives a shit about what they think and feel. You hear me, you fucking faggots?

 

(Blake flips over a blackboard which has two sets of letters on it: ABT, and AITP.)

 

[Blake]

A-B-T. A- Always, B-be, T-testing. Always be testing! Always be testing!! A-I-T-P. Attention, interest, testing, passing. Attention — do I have your attention? Interest — are you interested? I know you are because it’s fuck or walk. Your kids pass or you hit the bricks! Testing – you will test those students by Christ!! And passing. A-I-T-P; get out there!! You got the students comin’ in; you think they came in to get out of the rain?

 

[Singer]

Actually, many of my students live in public housing down there by the railroad tracks. You know those slums? Roofs leak in half those units…

 

[Moss]

And for a lot of kids school is the only structure they get all day. Their parents are out working two to three jobs. They have to take care of themselves and often younger siblings.

 

[Singer]

And food. Don’t forget food. If it wasn’t for the free breakfast and lunch program, many of my kids wouldn’t eat…

 

[Blake]

Bullshit. A kid doesn’t walk into this school unless he wants to pass. That’s why they’re here! They want to learn! They’re sitting out there waiting to be told what to do. Are you gonna’ tell ‘em? Are you man enough to tell them?

 

[Moss]

I’m a woman. Most of us are women.

 

[Blake]

(to Moss) What’s the problem, Pal?

 

[Moss]

You think you’re such a hero, you’re so rich. Why are you coming down here and wasting your time on a bunch of bums?

 

(Blake sits and takes off his gold watch)

 

[Blake]
You see this watch? You see this watch?

 

[Moss]
Yeah.

 

[Blake]

That watch cost more than your SMART Board. (Takes off his shoe) You see this shoe? Italian. It costs more than your entire salary. (slicks back his hair) You see this haircut?

 

[Moss]

I get it.

 

[Blake]

Do you? Because I do. I made 26 million dollars last year. How much do you make? You see, Pal, that’s who I am. And you’re nothing. Nice person? I don’t give a shit. Good mother? Fuck you – go home and play with your kids!! (to everyone) You wanna work here? Test!! (to Aaronow) You think this is abuse? You think this is abuse, you cocksucker? You can’t take this — how can you take the abuse you get in a classroom?! You don’t like it — leave. I can go out there tomorrow with the materials you got, make myself a thousand dollars in merit pay! Tomorrow! In one class! Can you? Can you? Go and do likewise! A-I-T-P!! Get mad! You sons of bitches! Get mad!!

 

[Singer]

Oh, I’m mad. I’m mad that a shallow schmuck like you thinks he can come in here and tell us how to do our jobs. School is about so much more than test scores. You can’t reduce it all to a multiple choice assessment. These kids need a broad curriculum, not just reading and math. They need science, art, social studies, foreign language, recess – all the stuff the rich kids get at the $50,000 a year private schools. And all you want to give them are standardized tests!

 

[Blake]

You know what it takes to teach public school?

 

(He pulls something out of his briefcase. He’s holding up a hammer and a plastic model of a one-room schoolhouse. He puts the model down on Aaronow’s desk and then smashes it to pieces with the hammer.)



[Blake]
It takes school choice to teach in a public school. It takes charter and voucher schools, schools run like a business – not this mamby, pamby, commie, socialist shit!

 

[Moss]

Choice? Is that what you call letting private interests suck up public tax dollars without the same transparency and regulations as public schools? You mean schools not run by an elected school board, who meet in private and do almost whatever they please with our tax dollars? You mean schools that can turn away the hardest to teach children – unlike public schools that take everyone?

 

[Blake]
I’m talking about schools with balls!
(He puts the hammer over his crotch,– he puts it away after a pause)



[Blake]
You want a paycheck? Do like the choice schools do — Go and do likewise, folks. The money’s out there, you pick it up, it’s yours. You don’t–I have no sympathy for you. You wanna go into your classes tomorrow and test and get your kids to pass, it’s yours. If not you’re going to be shining my shoes. Bunch of losers sitting around in a bar. (in a mocking weak voice) “Oh yeah, I used to be a teacher, it’s a tough racket.” (he takes out a software package from his briefcase) This is the new Common Core aligned diagnostic system. It’s like the MAP, Study Island, iReady and iStation – only better.

 

[Singer]

Those programs suck.

 

[Blake]

This is better. With it, your students will sit behind a computer screen for several hours every day taking stealth assessments.

 

[Singer]

You mean mini-tests?

 

[Blake]

No. Not mini-tests. They’ll run through the program and get instruction on every Common Core standard and their answers will show how much they’ve learned.

 

[Singer]

They’re tests. Standardized tests. Every day.

 

[Blake]

This is the Pearson leads. And to you, it’s gold. And you don’t get it. Why? Because to give it to you is just throwing it away. (he hands the software to Williamson) It’s for testers. (sneeringly) Not teachers.

 

I’d wish you good luck but you wouldn’t know what to do with it if you got it. (to Moss as he puts on his watch again) And to answer your question, Pal: why am I here? I came here because the Governor and Legislature are paying me to be here. They’re paying me a lot more than you. But I don’t have to take their money. I can make that tying my shoes. They asked me for a favor. I said, the real favor, follow my advice and fire your fucking ass because a loser is a loser.

 

(He stares at Moss for a sec, and then picking up his briefcase, he leaves the room with Williamson)

 

[Singer]

What an asshole.

 

[Moss]

He may be an asshole but he’s got the state on his side.

 

[Aaronow]

This isn’t what I signed up for. This isn’t why I became a teacher.

 

[Moss]

What did you sign up for?

 

[Aaronow]

TO TEACH! Not to be some… some… glorified real estate agent!

 

[Singer]

It’s funny. We know how crazy all this testing, Common Core, and charter school crap is, but no one wants to hear us.

 

[Moss]

And now without collective bargaining, we can’t even speak up without fear of being fired.

 

[Aaronow]

Fear!? If we don’t push all this teaching to the test nonsense, they’re going to fire us. And if we do, they can replace us with computer programs. We’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t.

 

[Singer]

Not if people wake up. (Moss and Aaronow scoff) Not if the public takes a stand, if parents and teachers opt their kids out of the tests…

 

[Aaronow]

Didn’t you hear the man!? They’re putting the kids on computer programs to test them every day!

 

[Singer]

Then we fight every day. We protest every day. We get parents together and other concerned citizens and we go to the capital and we fight. Call your representative. Go to your Senator’s office. Stage a sit in. Hold a mock trial. Write a blog parodying a scene from a famous movie. Get public attention. Make some noise.

 

[Aaronow]

And you think people will care? You think people will know?

 

[Singer]

We’ll teach them. We’ll show them. That’s what we do.

 

[Moss]

We have no other choice.

 

[Aaronow]

Always be testing?

 

[Singer]

Always be teaching.

 

(Curtain)

 

The Original Scene from GlenGarry Glen Ross:

The Child Predator We Invite into Our Schools

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There is a good chance a predator is in the classroom with your child right now.

He is reading her homework assignments, quizzes and emails. He is timing how long it takes her to answer questions, noting her right and wrong answers. He’s even watching her body language to determine if she’s engaged in the lesson.

He has given her a full battery of psychological assessments, and she doesn’t even notice. He knows her academic strengths and weaknesses, when she’ll give up, when she’ll preserver, how she thinks.

And he’s not a teacher, counselor or even another student. In fact, your child can’t even see him – he’s on her computer or hand-held device.

It’s called data mining, and it’s one of the major revenue sources of ed-tech companies. These are for-profit business ventures that produce education software: programs to organize student information and help them learn. They make databases and classroom management tools as well as educational video games and test prep software.

As schools have relied more heavily on technology to enhance lessons, they’ve invited big business into a space that is supposed to be private.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) protects student privacy, but it also gives school districts the right to share students’ personal information with private companies for educational reasons.

Companies are supposed to keep test scores, disciplinary history and other official records confidential. They’re not supposed to use them for their own ends. But the law was written in 1974 before the Internet went mainstream or many of these technologies were even conceived.

It’s unclear exactly who owns this data or whether FERPA protects it.

For every child utilizing these programs, there’s a good chance their data has been put into a portfolio with their name on it. That portfolio could be sold to advertisers and other business interests so they can better market their products to young consumers. With this information, these companies are turning children into guinea pigs so they can improve the profitability of their products.

Let me be clear. It’s not that technology is essentially evil. There are many ways in which it can be used to enhance student learning when provided under the supervision of a trained educator. But the current laws offer little protection for children and parents from rampant abuse by the ed-tech industry.

In most cases no one explicitly gives permission for student data to be shared. No one knew it was even happening.

This is an area that is almost completely unregulated. Hardly anyone is investigating it. After all, why should they? It’s just harmless big business. It’s just corporations we invited to the party; we may even have paid them to be there.

Individual school districts could write privacy protections into their contracts with ed-tech corporations, but few do.

According to a nationwide study by the Center on Law and Information Policy at Fordham University, just 7 percent of the contracts between districts and ed-tech corporations barred the companies from selling student data for profit.

Few contracts require companies to delete sensitive data when they are done with it. And just a quarter of companies clearly explain why they need personal student information in the first place, according to the same study.

To make matters worse, the publicly stated privacy policies of these corporations can be extremely dense and full of provisos. You may need a lawyer specializing in this field to truly understand what they’re promising to keep private and what might fall under a loophole.

For instance, even if a company promises not to share student information for nonacademic reasons, it can farm out some of its services to third party companies that have no such compunction about student privacy. These third party vendors or even the primary ed-tech company can put cookies on your child’s computer or device that continue to gather data on her and report back on it indefinitely. Moreover, even if the ed-tech company is diligent about protecting student privacy, that policy can change without notice and without parents being notified. For instance, many of these ed-tech companies are rag tag start-ups that are just hoping to be purchased by a bigger organization. In that case the privacy policy will almost certainly alter, possibly without notice.

Data mining isn’t exclusive to education software applications. If you’ve ever passed up a product on-line and then immediately saw an advertisement for that product on a different Website – congratulations – You’ve been data mined. Many of the applications adults use every day in their virtual lives practice this to some extent – Facebook, Google, Netflix, etc. However, there’s a difference between an adult user who enters into virtual relationships with eyes wide open and a child just completing the classwork her teacher assigned in school.

But even beyond the philosophical difference is the extent to which our children are being data mined. No where is it more pervasive than in our schools.

A really efficient ed-tech firm can collect as much as 10 million unique data points on each child, every day. That’s exponentially more than Facebook, Google or Netflix collect on their users.

Moreover, the ed-tech industry hungers for even more data on our children.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded a $1.4 million research project to provide middle-school students with biometric sensors designed to detect how kids responded on a subconscious level to each minute of each lesson. Like Common Core State Standards – Gates’ attempt to force uniform academic standards on the nation’s public schools – data mining is all about turning real children into information. Intelligence and knowledge are reduced to numbers. Biological functions, heat indexes, even eye movements are tabulated as a function of a salable commodity – your child.

In the not too distant future, ed-tech companies could sell information about which prospective job applicants or college students have the proper aptitude to be successful. In some ways, this is just an extension of the ways standardized tests like the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) are used to unfairly label students worthy or not of a post-secondary education. However, those tests are taken by high school juniors and seniors. The coming data mining boom would judge children based on their performance all the way back to kindergarten or even pre-kindergarten.

As usual the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is already planning for this dystopian nightmare. The conservative lobbying organization has drafted a model bill to make this a reality.  If picked up and offered in any state legislature, the bill would set up a central database for student records and allow colleges or businesses to browse them in search of potential recruits.

In addition, these student portfolios could allow corporate vultures to prey on customers vulnerable to particular sales pitches. For instance, young adults who had struggled at math in high school would make dandy targets for high-priced payday loans.

In the meantime, hedge fund managers and other investors are pouring money into the ed-tech market. More than $650 million flowed into technology firms serving K-12 and higher education each year for the past three years. That’s nearly double the $331 million invested in these markets in 2009. The national market for education software and digital content is nearly $8 billion, according to the Software & Information Industry Association.

Yet there is little evidence these applications are truly helpful in educating children. Even the technology-loving Gates Foundation, found in a national survey that only 54 percent of teachers thought the digital tools used most frequently by their students were effective.

Let’s get something straight: the reason most of these firms exist is not education. It is spying on children. It is stealing their valuable data for corporations’ own ends.

The ed-tech market is intimately entwined with the latest fad in education policy – Competency Based Education (CBE).

This has come to mean teaching and assessment conducted online, where students’ learning is continuously monitored, measured, and analyzed.

However, the goal seems to be replacing big end of the year standardized tests with daily stealth assessments. In this way, it would be more difficult for parents to refuse testing for their children. It would hide the ways in which a standardized curriculum narrowed student learning to the very basics. It would hide how children’s every tiniest action is being used to judge and evaluate their schools and teachers. And this information of dubious validity could be used to close public schools and replace them with shoddy but more profitable charter schools.

Education historian Diane Ravitch talks about a meeting in August of 2015 with The State Commissioner of Education in New York, Mary Ellen Elia, and several board members of New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE), a highly successful state opt out organization.

She says:

 

“At one point, Commissioner Elia said that the annual tests would eventually be phased out and replaced by embedded assessment. When asked to explain, she said that students would do their school work online, and they would be continuously assessed. The computer could tell teachers what the students were able to do, minute by minute.”

The plan has been laid bare. Our students privacy has been compromised and is being used against them. If big business has its say, our children will be forever pawns in a system that reduces them to data and profit.

That’s not what public school should be about.

It should be a place centered on learning not earning.

It should be a place that values the student and not her data.

It should be a place of creativity, imagination and wonder.

But as long as we allow ed-tech companies to run unregulated in the shadows, it will always be susceptible to these dangers.

The only one who can stop these predators in your child’s classroom is you.

Co-opting the Language of Authentic Education: The Competency Based Education Cuckoo

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Cuckoo!

 

Cuckoo!

 

Such is the incessant cry of the hour from one of the most popular souvenirs of the black forest of Germany – the cuckoo clock.

 

Time is demarcated by the chirp of an 18th century animatronic bird jumping forward, moving a wing or even opening its beak before making its distinctive cry.

 

However, in nature the cuckoo has a more sinister reputation.

 

It’s one of the most common brood parasites.

 

Instead of investing all the time and energy necessary to raise its own young, many varieties of cuckoo sneak their eggs into the nests of other birds. When the baby cuckoos hatch, they demand an increasing amount of their clueless foster parents’ care often resulting in neglect of the birds’ own children.

 

Parental care is co-opted. The love and affection natural to raise parent birds’ own children are diverted to another source. And the more parent birds try to help the interloper’s child, the less they can help their own.

 

Corporate education reformers must be bird lovers. Or at very least they must enjoy antique cuckoo clocks.

 

In fact, one could describe the entire standardization and privatization movement as a Homo sapien version of brood parasitism.

 

Profiteers co-opt authentic education practices so that they no longer help students but instead serve to enrich private corporations.

 

When parents, teachers and administrators unwittingly engage in corporate school reform strategies to help students learn, they end up achieving the opposite while the testing industry and charter school operators rake in obscene profits.

 

But some of us have seen through the scam, and we think it’s cuckoo.

 

We’ve seen this kind of bait and switch for years in the language used by oligarchs to control education policy. For instance, the defunct federal No Child Left Behind legislation had nothing to do with making sure no kids got left behind. It was about focusing obsessively on test and punish even if that meant leaving poor kids in the rear view.

 

Likewise, the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program has nothing to do with quickening the pace to academic excellence. It’s about glorifying competition among students while providing them inequitable resources. Teach for America has very little to do with teaching or America. It’s about underpreparing poor children with unqualified instructors and giving cover to privatization operatives. School Choice has nothing to do with giving parents educational alternatives. It’s about letting privatized schools choose which students they want to admit so they can go through the motions of educating them as cheaply as possible and maximize profits for shareholders.

 

And on and on.

 

The latest such scheme to hoodwink communities out of authentic learning for their children is Competency Based Education (CBE) a term used interchangeably with Proficiency Based Education (PBE). Whatever you call it, this comes out to the same thing.

 

Like so many failed policy initiatives that came before it offered by the same group of think tank sycophants, its name belies the truth. CBE and PBE have nothing to do with making children competent or proficient in anything except taking computer-based tests.

 

That’s what the whole program consists of – forcing children to sit in front of computers all day at school to take unending high stakes mini-tests. And somehow this is being sold as a reduction in testing when it’s exactly the opposite.

 

This new initiative is seen by many corporate school reformers as the brave new world of education policy. The public has soundly rejected standardized tests and Common Core. So this is the corporate response, a scheme they privately call stealth assessments. Students will take high stakes tests without even knowing they are doing it. They’ll be asked the same kinds of multiple-choice nonsense you’d find on state mandated standardized assessments but programmers will make it look like a game. The results will still be used to label schools “failing” regardless of how under-resourced they are or how students are suffering the effects of poverty. Mountains of data will still be collected on your children and sold to commercial interests to better market their products.

 

The only difference is they hope to trick you, to hide that it’s even happening at all. And like a cuckoo pushing its egg into your nest, they hope you’ll support what’s in THEIR best interests while working against what would really help your own children.

 

And the method used to achieve this deception is co-opting language. They’d never enact what real classroom teachers want in school, but they will take our language and use it to clothe their own sinister initiatives in doublespeak.

 

So we must pay attention to their words and tease out what they really mean.

 

For instance, they describe CBE as being “student-centered.” And it is – in that their profit-making machine is centered on students as the means of sucking up our tax dollars.

 

They talk about “community partnerships,” but they don’t mean inviting parents and community members into the decision making process at your local school. They mean working together with your local neighborhood privatization firm to make big bucks off your child. Apple, Microsoft, Walmart – whatever huge corporation can sell computers and iPads to facilitate testing every day.

 

 

They talk about “personalized instruction,” but there’s nothing personal in it. This just means not allowing students to progress on their computer programs until they have achieved “mastery” of terrible Common Core standards. If standardized testing is a poor form of assessment, these edu-programs are worse. They don’t measure understanding. They measure zombie cognitive processes – the most basic surface type of spit-it-back to me answers.

 

And if that isn’t bad enough, such an approach subtly suggests to kids that learning is only valuable extrinsically. We don’t learn for intrinsic reasons like curiosity. We lean to get badges on the program, to progress forward in the game and compulsively collect things – like any good consumer should.

 

Today’s children already have problems socializing. They can more easily navigate cyber relationships than real flesh-and-blood interactions. And CBE will only make this worse. Not only will children continue to spend hours of after-school time on-line, the majority of their school day will be spent seated at computer terminals, isolated from each other, eyes focused on screens. And every second they’ll be monitored by that machine – their keystrokes, even the direction their eyes are looking!

 

I’m not making this up! It shows engagement, tenacity, rigor – all measurable, quantifiable and useful to justify punishing your school.

 

They call it “one-to-one computer technology.” Yes, each child will be hooked up to one device. But how does that alone help them learn? If every child had a book, would we call it one-to-one book access? They call it “blended learning” because it mixes instruction from a living, breathing person with sit-and-stare computer time. It sounds like a recipe. I’ll blend the sugar and milk until I have a nice whipped cream. But it conceals how much time is spent on each.

 

Don’t get me wrong. There are effective uses of technology in schools. But this is not one of them.

 

Students can make Keynote presentations, record movies, design graphics, write programs, etc. But taking endless testing disguised as a video game adds nothing but boredom to their day. A few years ago, I was forced by administrators to put my own students on iStation twice a week. (I’ve since convinced them to let us be.) In any case, when we used the program, it would have been more effective had we called it nap time. At least then my kids wouldn’t have felt guilty about sleeping through it.

 

The corporate education reformers are trying to sneak all of this under our noses. They don’t want us to notice. And they want to make it harder to actually oppose them by stealing our words.

 

When public school advocates demand individualized learning for their children, the testocracy offers us this sinister CBE project. When we decry annual testing, they offer us stealth assessment instead.

 

We must continue to advocate for learning practices that work. We can’t let them steal our language, because if we do, they’ll steal our ability to engage in authentic learning.

 

And to do that, we must understand the con. We have to deny the technocrats their secrecy, deny them access to our children as sources of profit.

 

We must guard our nests like watchful mama birds.

 

The cuckoos are out there.

 

They are chirping in the darkness all around us.

 

Don’t let them in.

How Far We Have Come Fighting Against the Testocracy: Network for Public Education Conference Ramblings

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Kelly Ann Braun said it best.

 

“Do you remember three years ago when I said this would all be over in 6 months?”

 

And we all laughed. Me the loudest, because back then I had thought the same darn thing.

 

Corporate education reform is on its last legs. Once we tell people about the terrible mistakes of standardized testing and Common Core, it will all be over in an election cycle or two.

 

Kelly, that incredibly dedicated member of the Badass Teachers Association (BATs) from Ohio, hadn’t been the only one.

 

It seemed so reasonable back then. Once it became common knowledge, our leaders couldn’t keep perpetuating policies that harm our children, we thought.

 

No one would actually continue to stomp on the futures of our little kids once we’d pointed out that that was what they were actually doing! Right?

 

Now the Network for Public Education is having its third annual conference – this one in troubled Raleigh, North Carolina. And far from being on its last legs, the testocracy is mightier than ever with a new federal education policy, the Every Student Succeeds Act, rebranding and refreshing its same horrific disdain for the young.

 

But that’s not really news, is it?

 

The powerful have always tried to find ways to keep the poor and minorities under heel. It’s a struggle as old as civilization, itself.

 

What’s new is us.

 

Yes, us – the ragtag band of rebels and revolutionaries who gather together every year to celebrate our victories, lament our losses and plan for the future.

 

This is a real community – stronger than anything I’ve ever experienced. During the year we all have our separate support systems, be they Badass Teachers, United Opt Out, our teachers unions, our communities or – for many of us – some unique combination.

 

But once a year we all come together from our separate corners of the country (and in some cases beyond) to commune, to gather strength from each other so we can carry on the fight.

 

I cannot express to you the power and the glory I got this morning listening to Chicago parent activist Rousemary Vega talking about the pain of losing her children’s community school. This is still a raw wound for her, gushing blood. One moment she was heartbreaking sorrow; the next she was frightening strength and determination.

 

She told us how to learn from her example, how to put up a fight, how to make it as difficult as possible for anyone to ever do this again. And when she was done and I had dried the tears that she had somehow cried with my eyes, I found that I had a tiny Rousemary inside my heart. I will never forget her story. I hope I can call on even a fraction of her strength.

 

Later I sat in on a conference about Competency Based Education. Two of the founders of United Opt Out, Denisha Jones and Morna Mcdermott, gave the best presentation on the topic I have yet heard.

 

This is the future of standardized testing. It goes something like this: you don’t want a big high stakes test at the end of the school year? Okay. How about we sit your kids in front of a computer all day, everyday, and they can take endless high stakes mini-tests?

 

Morna would keep apologizing that what she was saying sounded too far-fetched to be true, but then she’d prove its veracity. Subsequently, Denisha explained how proponents of this new educational scheme had slipped this all under our noses by redefining and co-opting language we all thought we knew. You want “individualized” education? Fine! Kids can sit by themselves as individuals and take these standardized test snippets – in perpetuity.

 

I left them with a much clearer understanding of how this was happening and exactly what kind of push back is necessary.

 

Perhaps most inspiring so far though was the keynote address by the Rev. William Barber, president of North Carolina’s NAACP and organizer of Moral Mondays. He put the whole fight in perspective.

 

History, philosophy, economics, religion all mixed together into a picture that would have been grim if he hadn’t made it so beautiful. Our children are being harmed by the standardization and privatization of public education. The ones hurt the most are those who are poor and minorities, but that doesn’t make them any less “our” children.

 

This fight can’t just be about your school and your child. We have to love and care about all children and all schools. Only then can we really have a public school system worthy of the next generation.

 

Finally, the moment came when I couldn’t just sit in the audience and passively take all this in. I was actually on the program – I was part of a bloggers panel!

 

It was called “Blogging and Other Tools to Educate, Persuade and Mobilize Targeted Audiences.” It featured the amazing talents of Julian Vasquez Heilig, Susan DeFresne, Dora Taylor, Anthony Cody, Jonathan Pelto and – somehow – me!

 

It was the first time I had presented anything at one of these conferences. Sure I’m in front of my students every day, but this was a room full of adults, many with PhDs or more, who really know what they are talking about.

 

I had agonized over what I was going to say, wrote out a few remarks and then was told by fellow BAT and activist Gus Morales that I shouldn’t read it. I should just go with the moment. That’s what he says he did during his TWO TED Talks!

 

I practiced. I tried it his way, but I just couldn’t make it work. So when my time came, I compromised. I talked off the cuff when I could and then returned to the script when I couldn’t.

 

It seemed to work. I got laughs. I got applause. It looks like no one noticed how utterly terrified I was. (Sh! Our secret.)

 

And so another year’s worth of inspiration has ended – all stuffed into that first day.

 

We’re a different group than we were last year. We’re more somber, perhaps. Maybe a bit more seasoned, more knowledgeable.

 

There’s a sadness that society hasn’t joined us to crush those who would harm our children. But there’s also a renewed commitment to the struggle. A feeling of our place in history.

 

We hear the marching feet of those who came before. We see their pale upturned faces, their sad smiles. And somewhere in the distance that may be the sound of our own children marching in our footsteps continuing this same fight.

 

We will have victories. We may end high stakes testing. We may abolish Common Core. But we may never see the promised land.

 

One day perhaps our children will get there. And the only thing we have to propel them to that place is our love and activism.

 

At the Network for Public Education, you begin to realize these are really the same thing.

 

 

 

United Opt Out Conference Highlights Dual Role of Technology in Education

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Technology is the most powerful weapon we have against corporate education reform.

 

It is also our greatest foe.

 

Such were the remarks of Dr. Stephen Krashen at the United Opt Out Conference on Friday.

 

The linguist, educational researcher and activist gave the opening keynote address to hundreds of people who traveled to Philadelphia for the conference.

 

Krashen, who is known for his work on second language acquisition and bilingual education, has been a strong critic of the test and punish policies of the Barack Obama administration.

 

He warned the assembly of parents, students, teachers, professors and activists about the dangers of Competency Based Education (CBE), the next big thing in the movement to dumb down public schools.

 

CBE is touted as a way to reduce high stakes standardized testing by allowing students to work at their own pace while on various computer programs. However, Krashen sees this is an increase in testing.

 

In effect, it’s testing everyday. The computer programs used in CBE are little more than the same kinds of questions you’d see on a standardized test. An emphasis on CBE would replace a robust school curriculum with never-ending test preparation and multiple-choice assessment.

 

In the hands of a classroom teacher, technology can be an excellent tool to help kids learn. However, top-down policies like CBE only take away educators’ autonomy and turn them into mere facilitators of prepackaged materials of dubious quality.

 

He noted that the National Governors Association – an organization promoting CBE and Common Core State Standards – admits that there is no research supporting this new policy. But they’re suggesting we do it anyway. In fact, provisions to increase CBE are embedded in the new federal education law – the Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA).

 

He sees this as a massive boondoggle to swipe the $600 billion we spend on technology in schools. After all, CBE will require increasingly newer computers at every school that will need to be constantly replaced as they become obsolete.

 

Krashen quoted Gerald Bracey: “There’s a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things we shouldn’t be doing at all.”

 

There is light at the end of the tunnel though.

 

The same technology that is being used to pervert the education system can be used to help save it.

 

Krashen advised activists to use the power of social media to spread the word about CBE and other Trojan Horse reforms – policies that look like they’re helping children while actually hurting them.

 

“The Internet is our underground,” he said, “Facebook and Twitter are our weapons.”

 

Though policymakers and journalists rarely listen to experts like classroom teachers, the Internet allows us to spread our message. We don’t need anyone’s permission to speak up. We are all free to do so and should do it more often.

 

I know many people are scared to speak up, he said, but we can all educate ourselves about what’s happening and then share it and retweet it. We need to do more of this. We need to reach a critical mass. We need to show the world the truth and that it can’t be ignored and buried under the dominant media and political narrative being sold to the public as if it were truth.

 

These policies, while dangerous in and of themselves, also overshadow the real needs of our school children – namely devastating, generational poverty.

 

When Congress passes No Child Left Unfed, No Child Without Healthcare, and No Child Left Homeless, then when can talk about No Child Left Behind and Every Child Succeeds, he said.

 

Dr. Martin Luther King spoke about this issue, claiming that solving poverty would in turn solve any problems with education.

 

Krashen’s keynote was an exciting beginning to a conference that promises to be eye-opening, exciting and energizing to the community of people fighting to take back our schools from the oligarchy.


 

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