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.

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Common Core’s New New Math has the Same Problem as the Old New Math

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Bad ideas are like unlucky pennies – they keep coming back again.

Take the New Math. Or maybe I should say the New New Math.

Common Core State Standards suggests we teach children a new way to do arithmetic. We should focus on multiple ways to reach an answer with an emphasis on understanding the concept behind the problem rather than just manipulating numbers.

It sounds fine in theory – until you think about it for five minutes.

When learning a new skill, it’s best to master a single, simple approach before being exposed to other more complex methods. Otherwise, you run the risk of confusion, frustration and ultimately not learning how to solve the problem.

Take directions.

If you’re lost and you ask for directions, you don’t want someone to tell you five ways to reach your destination. You want one, relatively simple way to get there – preferably with the least amount of turns and the highest number of landmarks.

Maybe later if you’re going to be traveling to this place frequently, you may want to learn alternate routes. But the first time, you’re more concerned about finding the destination (i.e. getting the answer) than understanding how the landscape would appear on a map.

This is the problem with Common Core math. It doesn’t merely ALLOW students to pursue alternate methods of solving problems. It REQUIRES them to know all the ways the problem can be solved and to be able to explain each method. Otherwise, it presumes to evaluate the student’s understanding as insufficient.

This is highly unfair to students. No wonder so many are failing.

Sadly there’s some history here that should have warned us about the perils of this approach.

Common Core isn’t the first new math approach to come along. In the 1960s we had a method actually called “The New Math.” And like Common Core, it was a dismal failure.

Like the Core, it proposed to focus more on conceptual understanding, but to do so it needlessly complicated matters at the grade school level.

It introduced set theory, forcing students to think of numbers as groups of objects rather than abstractions to be manipulated. In an advanced undergraduate mathematics course, this makes perfect sense. In first grade, it muddles the learning tremendously.

To make matters even more perplexing, it mandates students look at numbers with bases other than 10. This is incredibly confounding for elementary students who often resort to their fingers to help them understand early math.

Tom Lehrer wrote a very funny song about the new math which shows how confusing it can be. The methods used to solve the problem can be helpful but an emphasis on the conceptual underpinning at early ages perplexes more than it helps:

Popular culture is full of sly references to this old New Math. Charles Schultz wrote about it in several Peanuts comic strips in 1965. In one such strip, kindergartener Sally gets so frustrated trying to solve a New Math problem she cries, “All I want to know is, how much is two and two?” New Math even made an appearance in the 1973 movie “There’s No Time for Love, Charlie Brown,” in which the titular Brown asks “How do you do New Math problems with an old Math mind?”

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In the 1992 episode of the Simpsons, “Dog of Death,” Principal Skinner is elated that an influx of school funding will allow him to purchase school improvements. In particular he wants to buy history books that reveal how the Korean War ended and “math books that don’t have that base six crap in them!”

So where did this idea for New Math come from?

In 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik sending Americans into a panic that they were being left behind by these Communist supermen. As a result in 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower passed the National Defense Education Act which dramatically increased school budgets and sent academics racing for ways to reform old practices. One product of this burst of activity was the New Math.
A decade later, it was mostly gone from our public schools. Parents complained they couldn’t help their children with homework. Teachers complained they didn’t understand it and that it needlessly confused their students.

Fast forward to 1983 and President Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education. The organization released a report called “A Nation at Risk” that purported to show that public schools were failing. As a result, numerous reforms were recommended such as increased standardization, privatization and competition.

It is hard to overemphasize how influential this report was in education circles. Even today after its claims have systematically and thoroughly been debunked by statisticians like those at Sandia National Laboratories, politicians, pundits and the media persist with this myth of failing public schools.

“A Nation at Risk” birthed our modern era of high stakes testing and, in 2009, Common Core.

In theory, each state would adopt the same set of academic standards thereby improving education nationally. However, they were written by the standardized testing corporations – not working educators and experts in childhood development. So they ignore key factors about how children learn – just like the New Math of old.

In short, we repeated the same mistake – or a very similar one.

Children are not computers. You can’t program their minds like you would a MacBook or iPhone. In many ways, including math instruction, Common Core ignores these facts.

And so we have the same result as the old New Math. Parents all over the country are complaining that they can’t help their children with their homework. Teachers are complaining that the Core unnecessarily confuses students.

In some ways, the Core is worse than the old New Math because of its close connection with high stakes testing. In the ‘60s if a child didn’t understand how to add, he failed math. Today, if a child does that, he fails the standardized test and if that happens to enough students, his school loses funding, his teacher may be fired and his school may be closed. As such, the pressure today’s children undergo is tremendous. They aren’t just responsible for their own learning. They’re responsible for the entire school community.

Those are unfair burdens for school children – especially when the decisions that make it easy or hard for him to learn are not made by the student but by politicians, pundits and policymakers.

But perhaps most telling is this: it doesn’t help children learn.

Isn’t that what this was all supposed to be about in the first place?

Perhaps we don’t need a new math. Perhaps we simply need policymakers willing to listen to education and childhood experts instead of business interests poised to profit off new reforms regardless of whether they actually work.

Irony Alert: The Founder of Trump University Is Selling School Choice

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Donald Trump is in favor of school choice.

Well of course he is! After all, he made a lot of money scamming poor suckers out of their hard-earned cash with Trump University.

He knows how privatized education benefits the corporations who run the school and not the poor schmucks who want to learn.

If he gets his way, our national education motto will be caveat emptor.

He is betting the American public is so stupid they’ll give a man caught in a scandal for cheating people out of an education the power to set all education policy for our nation’s children.

And it’s all right there before the public.

In fact, the parallels between Trump University and school choice policies are apparent to anyone who looks. Here are just a few of the similarities:


1) False advertising

First of all, Trump University was never an actual university!

The New York State Education Department warned administrators when the institution was founded in 2005 that it was operating without a license. So what did the “school” do? It changed its legal name to The Trump Entrepreneur Initiative.

See? We’re not saying it’s a university anymore. I mean we still call it Trump University colloquially and in advertising brochures and so on. But on legal documents we never make that claim.

It’s a classic bait and switch scheme.

But the same could be said of many charter schools.

They don’t claim to be private schools. They claim to be public schools. However, they aren’t subjected to nearly the same transparency and accountability standards.

Public schools are run by an elected school board. Most charters are run by appointed boards.

Public school board meetings are held in public. Any taxpayer can attend, comment on the proceedings and demand access to public records such as its budget. Many charter school meetings are held behind closed doors. Taxpayers have no access or input in the decision-making process nor access to records that should by all accounts be public record.

Charter schools are public schools just like Trump University was a university.


2) Choosing Students

So who could attend Trump University?

Not just anyone. According to the “Private and confidential” playbook obtained by The Atlantic, the one essential qualification listed all in caps was “ALL PAYMENTS MUST BE RECEIVED IN FULL.” In other words, Trump’s school would accept anyone who could pay the entrance fee.

That same playbook, by the way, admonished staffers not to talk with reporters and “If a district attorney arrives on the scene, contact the appropriate media spokesperson immediately.”

Similarly, charter and voucher schools get to choose their students, too.

Advocates pretend school choice means parents get to choose where their kids go to school. Wrong! It means school administrators get to choose who they’ll accept.

At private schools that accept vouchers, the amount of taxpayer money spent at a traditional public school and given to the private school in the form of the voucher is rarely enough to pay for the full tuition. So voucher programs often make it impossible for poor kids to attend private schools. They just reduce the cost for rich kids whose parents can afford to pay the difference.

At charter schools, administrators are infamous for picking students based on the ease with which they can be taught. Sometimes they don’t accept students having academic difficulties or who are in special education programs. Other times they kick them out before state-mandated standardized tests. That way they can falsely inflate their own test scores and pretend like they’re doing a great job teaching all students when they’re not.


3) Quality of Services:

Former Trump University students are suing the reality TV star and Presidential candidate because they claim they paid tens of thousands of dollars for nothing.

You got a free 90-minute seminar that promised enrolling in the school would teach you everything you need to know about real estate investment. Then you were told to enroll in a $1,495 three-day seminar where you were told to enroll in increasingly more expensive additional seminars even up to an Elite Gold package costing $35,000.

However, very little attention was spent to actually teaching students much of anything. Each seminar was basically an advertisement for the next seminar.

Prospective students were told they would be “mentored” by “handpicked” real estate experts showing them Trump’s own real estate strategies.

But no one has yet been able to produce a single instructor handpicked by Trump. Moreover, many of these instructors didn’t even have any knowledge of real estate, They came from other academic fields.

Trump never reviewed the school’s curricula. It was developed by a third party for motivational speakers and timeshare rental companies.

Moreover, Trump never attended any of these seminars personally. Attendees were often told that he was in the building or on his way, but he never showed up. At one seminar, attendees were told they’d get to take their pictures with Trump but ended up getting pictures with his cardboard cutout!

Similarly, many of our nations charter schools provide a substandard education.

When compared with traditional public schools, no evidence has been found that they do a better job. In fact, the evidence says charter do no better and often much worse than traditional public schools.

One reason is that many charters don’t require their teachers to be of the same quality as traditional public schools. Charter often skimp by hiring uncertified teachers or Teach for America trainees who have no degree in education and have only passed a six weeks course.

Also, cyber charter schools, in particular, often use third party companies to create their entire curriculum. This is usually just taking a text book in a given subject, digitizing it and having students answer the questions that used to be in the back of the book.


The parallels are clear. Perhaps that’s why Trump feels comfortable championing choice in education.

He is, after all, an expert on how it works and how it cheats the public.

Creating one excellent education system for everyone is both cheaper and more efficient than dividing children up so they can be monetized. But such a system doesn’t allow corporations and investors to turn a profit. Let’s be real – that’s why Trump is advocating for it.

Several lawsuits have been filed about the Trump University scam and will continue haunting Trump well past the November election.

However, he still maintains it was “a terrific school that did a fantastic job”.

His son, Donald J. Trump, Jr., even gave a speech touching upon school choice at the Republican National Convention this week.

Young Trump never attended public school, but he knows his dad’s business model.

His comments came under fire largely because he repeated several passages written by conservative writer and law professor F. H. Buckley. However, the campaign defended the move saying Buckley helped write Junior’s speech.

It may not be outright plagiarism, but it shows the thinking of the Trump campaign. Rehash old ideas that have failed in the past and hope the voting public buys it.

And maybe they’ve got a point. As H. L. Menken wrote -“Nobody every went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

That’s what the Trumps are doing. And if their education policy becomes a reality at our nations schools, they’re going to do everything they can to ensure that stupidity continues for generations to come.

For them education isn’t about making America great again. It’s about providing an endless stream of suckers to be taken advantage of by the predators of big business.

Corporate School Reform for Rich Kids: A Modest Proposal

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America’s wealthy children are in a crisis.

Every year they score better than most of their foreign counterparts on international tests.

They’re better in math. They’re better in reading. They’re better in science. Heck! American students just won the International Math Olympiad for the second year in a row! They beat heavy hitters like Korea, China, Singapore, Taiwan, North Korea, Russia, the UK, Hong Kong, Japan and 90 other countries!

Yet our media still refuses to acknowledge their accomplishments by lumping our wealthiest students in with the middle class and poor. They say American students are failing when it’s just the poor kids. And even when you add them all together, we’re in the middle, and we’ve always been in the middle since these international tests began.

It’s just not fair that our wealthy students don’t get recognized for their accomplishments. The media takes their exceptional scores and mixes them in with those of children living in broken homes going to under-funded schools in high crime neighborhoods. Obviously those kids are struggling. It’s not fair to make the wealthy look bad by mixing their scores in with these “ghetto” kids.

But that’s not the worst part. All this negative publicity is actually starting to force lawmakers to do something about it. There is a policy movement in our country that’s been around for nearly 20 years made to combat this exact problem. It’s called corporate education reform, and the rich kids are being left out!

Just look at all the programs being aimed at improving education for poor kids. I mean, sure, more than half of public school children live in poverty these days. But why should they get all these innovations?

If things keep up this way, the rich kids will get totally left behind. In the interests of fairness, we must make some of these same reforms available for the wealthy.

For instance, why is it only the poor kids who get the benefit of being taught by Teach for America recruits? These are idealistic youngsters who have a college degree – but not a degree in teaching – who get to come into an underprivileged environment and educate the masses. What about those from privileged upbringings? Shouldn’t they get the benefit of this program, too?

Think about it! These are young adults with lots of knowledge about the world and a real desire to help kids learn! Sure they don’t have enough desire to go out there and learn how to actually teach, but that’s just liberal indoctrination. You don’t need a degree to do that. A six weeks training program is fine!

Their enthusiasm makes up for any shortcomings in pedagogy. It’s like someone who loves medical dramas volunteering to do your surgery. Or maybe someone who watched every season of Law and Order volunteering to defend you in court. The attention to detail of a Trekkie at a Star Trek convention tops the knowledge of an astrophysicist any day!

Why is it only the poor kids that get that!? Rich children are being robbed of this opportunity. It’s time we furlough all their fancy teachers with their PhDs and Masters degrees and replace them with Teach for America.

But of course that won’t be enough.

The poor kids also have a huge leg up when it comes to academic standards.

Many wealthy families send their children to private schools with the best of everything. They have a wide curriculum, extracurricular activities, arts and music – everything impoverished public schools lack. But what they don’t have are universal standards.

That’s right. In most states, only our public schools have been forced to enact Common Core State Standards. These are a set of academic standards for all school children to ensure every student will be ready for college and/or a career by graduation.

Where are these standards for our rich kids? They’re being left behind! We let their private school teachers make up their own standards! How can we trust them with that? Despite their manners and good breeding, these are just teachers we’re talking about! What do they know about education?

Common Core standards were created with hardly any input from classroom teachers or child psychologists. Instead we relied upon self-appointed experts from the standardized testing industry. They decided what should be taught so it will line up exactly with their state-mandated tests.

Just imagine! Rich kids don’t get that benefit! No one teaches them to the test! Their teachers just guess and – still they get good grades – but imagine how well they’d do if they had the same benefits of the poor kids! If impoverished children fail, these same test corporations provide the remedial material! What better way to improve?

And that’s another thing! Why are the wealthiest kids who go to exclusive private schools exempt from taking state-mandated tests? How do we know they’re getting the best education possible if they haven’t demonstrated it on a multiple choice exam? These private schools could be totally faking it! We don’t know they’re providing a world class education without the proof standardized testing affords. Rich parents need to demand their kids be tested just like the poor kids.

One way they could do that while still reaping all the benefits of private schools is by enrolling in charter schools.

Rich parents rarely take advantage of that if they can afford the prestigious preparatory academies. But why? Choice is great and even more choice is greater!

Charter schools are really just private schools paid for with taxpayer money. They’re often run by private companies or unelected boards and in many cases expected to turn a profit. This also means they don’t have to do the same things as traditional public schools though for the most part they are subject to giving state-mandated tests.

In fact, they have very loose transparency requirements. We don’t really know much of what they do. But everywhere they’re touted as a massive improvement to the public school system.

They’re so good we don’t even demand that they prove how good they are. It’s just that obvious! (Pay no attention to peer reviewed studies that show them to be no better and often much worse than traditional pubic schools. That’s just scientific method mysticism.)

So why can’t there be more charter schools just for rich kids? Administrators get to pick which kids attend these schools anyway. Why not select just the upper crust, the crème de la crème, a better class of students? In fact, in many cases they already do. They select the students who already do the best academically and boot those with sub par skills or who are in need of special education. That’s how they inflate their test scores. But they also could select for economic factors instead of just academic ones.

Now you have to be careful. There have been a couple charter schools (actually quite a lot of them) that have been found to be scamming the public. Think Trump University for K-12. These schools steal taxpayer money, cut services, increase profits, disband and sneak away in the night. But there are many… well… a few high quality ones out there. And since choice is always good, shouldn’t rich families roll the dice on these institutions just like poor families?

Yes, there’s a chance rich kids educations will be ruined at charters – a big chance – but shouldn’t the wealthy have the same opportunity to gamble on their children’s futures that the poor do?

The point is this: there are plenty of shiny corporate education reforms out there aimed almost exclusively at the poor. If these reforms are so great, shouldn’t the rich get them, too?

Otherwise, these reforms are just opportunities for private industry to get rich quick off the backs of impoverished children! That can’t be right, can it?

The fact that the rich almost never take advantage of these reforms has to be a coincidence, right? Maybe they just don’t know how great these corporate school reforms are. I just can’t understand why no one is telling them, selling it to them.

After all, many of the people who create and propose these reforms have children who go to educational institutions that don’t use them. Arne Duncan was U.S. Secretary of Education, and his kids don’t experience the very policies he imposed on impoverished youngsters. Neither do Bill Gates’ and President Barack Obama’s kids. It’s just so unfair to them.

So I’m asking, please, let the children of the rich and powerful experience these same corporate educate reforms. Every child deserves the right to be taught by an untrained instructor. Every child should have an education devised by non-experts making huge profits off the results. Every child’s success should be determined through mass marketed, standardized, A,B,C exams. Every child should get to go to a school where the administration can reduce services and maximize profit.

Only then can we finally compare test scores between rich and poor. Only then will be one America!

Only then will no rich child be left behind.

(Or we could just give the poor kids all the benefits of the rich ones and throw away this corporate education crap, but no. That’s too radical. This is only a modest proposal.)

Big Money Fails to Oust In-Coming Pittsburgh Schools Superintendent

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Democracy 1, Oligarchy 0.

That might be the score in the latest contest between corporate education reformers and the Pittsburgh Public School Board.

Special interest groups and the media had stirred up controversy for months over one line in newly hired superintendent Anthony Hamlet’s resume.

Last night the board voted to let the 46-year-old African American start his job as planned Friday morning.

The board voted 7-2 not to cancel his contract. He will be sworn in tomorrow to start a 5-year commitment in the city.

He had been unanimously hired May 18 from the Palm Beach County district in Florida where he had distinguished himself with an excellent record of leadership and enacting authentic reforms.

Though critics cited one line in his resume as too similar to a statement in a Washington Post article, the real reasons for the dispute are ideological.

Put simply, Hamlet favors reforms that have nothing to do with teaching to the test, charter school expansion, closing schools and other market driven policies.

This put him at odds with the usual gang of corporate sycophants:

1) The Campaign for Quality Schools Pittsburgh – a PAC recently formed to Make City Schools Great Again by promoting charter schools and other failed neoliberal reforms.

2) A+ Schools, an advocacy organization that used to champion the same kinds of authentic reforms school directors are trying to enact with Dr. Hamlet’s help. However, after getting a fat check from the Gates Foundation, the group has became a cheerleader for privatization and disaster capitalism.

3) Various foundations who immediately offered to pay for a new superintendent search if the district dismissed Dr. Hamlet – a measure that probably would have meant paying him at least a year’s salary to sit at home.

Why?

In short, they want a superintendent who thinks like them who they can control. They want to undermine our elected school board and community input process. They want to further THEIR agenda – not the education of our children.

Pittsburgh school directors are to be congratulated for not giving in to the monied interests.

Even the two directors who voted to remove Hamlet did so for good reasons. Though I thoroughly disagree with them, I think Terry Kennedy and Lynda Wrenn truly have the best interests of students at heart. They have always voted that way before.

It’s easy to write a blog about a district where you don’t live, as I do. They, however, are accountable to their constituents. I’m just a doofus with a WordPress account. They had a lot of information to process and made a tough decision. Thankfully, the other seven board members didn’t see it their way.

But that’s the beauty of it. This was democracy at work! At so many other urban districts throughout the country – even in similarly troubled Philadelphia – decision making “by and for the people” has become disbarred.

Many schools like Pittsburgh’s with a shrinking tax base, large pockets of crippling poverty and a history of state disinvestment are taken over by the state. Bureaucrats and flunkies make these decisions not members of a duly elected school board held accountable by the voters.

In fact, many calling for Hamlet’s dismissal were surely cheerleading just such a move in Pittsburgh. They were hoping to show that democracy doesn’t work in the Three Rivers community and must be replaced with … THEMSELVES.

The defeat of that position is the biggest victory here.

Now Hamlet and the board will get a chance to enact authentic reforms to help the children of Pittsburgh get the best possible education.

Now Hamlet will get to strengthen the restorative justice project already under way at 20 city schools. Instead of simply assigning detention or suspension for student misbehavior, administrators are encouraged to make students set things right after doing wrong.

In Florida Hamlet made a name for himself partnering with the criminology department at Florida Atlantic University on this same project.

It’s widely acknowledged in education circles that suspensions can have lasting impacts especially on black students making them more likely to enter the school-to-prison pipeline. Finding an approach to increase discipline without adversely affecting students’ prospects is imperative. This is especially true since Pittsburgh Public Schools have been known to suspend black students at a rate four times higher than white students.

Hamlet also will get to enact measures to transform Pittsburgh’s schools into a central part of the community and not apart from it. Like many on the board, he is an advocate for community schools. That means pushing for social services to help students and the community to make the schools the center of the neighborhood.

Hamlet has received support from all over the city including from the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers.

However, in an unexpected move, some educators came out individually in favor of Dr. Hamlet even though doing so might mean putting targets of their backs from corporate forces.

High School teacher Jon Parker even wrote a blog about the issue where he pulled no punches:

“While the [Pittsburgh] Post-Gazette is complicit in this scheme to defame and destroy Dr. Hamlet, the real enemy here, as always, is A+ Schools. They simply cannot pursue their Gatesian agenda with a superintendent who believes in community schools. They need one who believes in firing teachers. They can’t pursue their agenda if the superintendent believes in collaboration rather than stacked ranking. And they can’t pursue their agenda of closing schools and turning them into charter profit factories if the narrative in our schools shifts away from “achievement” being measured by high stakes tests. Simply put, Anthony Hamlet is not their style, and they can’t stand that Pittsburgh’s community, through real grassroots activism and real community empowerment, elected a school board which genuinely engaged its community in a selection process that produced a once-in-a-lifetime superintendent selection.”

 

Erin P. Breault, a district teacher with three children who graduated from Pittsburgh Public, wrote to the Post Gazette to praise Dr. Hamlet:

“First, he will be a fine superintendent who will work to foster community schools, increase student learning outcomes and graduation rates. He will be an especially welcome breath of fresh air, not beholden to corporate “reformers” agenda. Second, I am especially alarmed about growing calls for his contract to be dissolved and if it is not, that our democratically elected school board be replaced by an appointed system.

This is outrageous. These attacks on Mr. Hamlet and on the process of the search need to be viewed in context. There are powerful interests including the Pittsburgh foundations, A+ Schools and Students First who are upset that their vision of privatization of our public schools has been challenged by our school district.

They have leapt into action, using their money, and political clout to engage into what amounts to character assassination.”

 

Kathy M. Newman, an associate professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University, wrote to the Post Gazette to school them on the definition of plagiarism:

“Mr. Hamlet’s resume is not a copyrighted work of art or nonfiction, such as a novel or a work of history. Nor is it a work of journalism. He was not trying to “pass off” (a legal term) the work of another artist or historian or journalist as his own.

…the outrage over Mr. Hamlet’s resume doesn’t acknowledge why it is that we demand citations from students and historians, or why artists might sue those who have appropriated their work. As the scholar Steven Dutch has argued, in an article called “Sense and Nonsense about Plagiarism,” citations “allow readers to check the accuracy of facts, gauge the credibility of the ideas being presented, know whether an idea is solidly established, controversial or hypothetical, and find further information.” When Mr. Hamlet borrowed a sentence from a Washington Post editorial to express his educational philosophy he did not, to use another phrase from Mr. Dutch, diminish the “credibility of the ideas being presented.”

Finally, the furor over Mr. Hamlet’s resume has had a tone of moral outrage so hysterical that I have been concerned about the toxic mixture of sanctimony and glee expressed by many people I otherwise like and respect. Again, according to Mr. Dutch, “the institutional hysteria over plagiarism [can become] a ‘witch-hunt.’ … Charges of plagiarism are fast becoming the blood sport of choice among academic bottom-feeders.”

Ouch. But perhaps the most incendiary remarks came from Churchill resident Lorraine Turner. In the Post Gazette, she accused the paper of outright racism in its criticism of Dr. Hamlet:

“As an African-American, we are taught this particular lesson many moons ago (along with the talk about police) growing up in, “Pittsburgh, Mississippi.” That lesson is: Black people must run twice as fast and jump twice as high as their white competitors. Black people must be exceptional with every “i” dotted and every “t” crossed. The comparison of President Barack Obama and Donald Trump will highlight this lesson…

…The editorial goes on using language to highlight nearly every antiquated, racist stereotype referencing black men: Mr. Hamlet made a “perfunctory apology” (he didn’t bow his head and say, “I’se so sorry), Mr. Hamlet “sounded like a nervous student” (just call him boy), then “a bad superintendent” (black is bad), “a good superintendent” (one approved by someone white), Mr. Hamlet “prefers recalcitrance to transparency’ (recalcitrance is when one is stubbornly resistant to authority or guidance — he thinks he’s actually going to have the power of the superintendent!)…

… I hope the board quotes a line from “The Wizard of Oz,” and tells your good ol’ boy editorial staff what the Good Witch of the East told the Bad Witch of West: “Go away, you have no power here!”

In the end, the power of the monied elites evaporated against the power of good ol’ fashioned democracy.

Because the fight against corporate education reform is a fight for representative government.

And the winners of today’s battle are as always our children, our grandchildren, our posterity.

Summer Break – the Least Understood and Most Maligned Aspect of a Teacher’s Life

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It’s inevitable.

Once the weather gets warm and school lets out, it’s no longer safe for teachers to be out in public.

You’ve got to stay indoors, get off the Internet, hide the cell phone – do whatever you can to stay away from non-educators.

Because if, like me, you happen to be out and about – let’s say standing in line at your favorite neighborhood burger joint waiting for a juicy slab of ground beef to stop sizzling on the grill – you’re bound to hear the kind of willful ignorance that sets a teacher’s nerves permanently on edge.

Imagine just two normal people – they seem nice enough – standing in line having a friendly conversation. It’s hot outside, so you might hear the usual topics discussed: the weather, the best place to buy ice cream, which public pool has the best prices – that an oh I don’t know, how easy teachers have it with their summers off.

Son of a…!

Normal folks, I know you often get the urge to talk about this. You think it’s just another topic of polite conversation. It’s nothing serious. You think it’s just like complaining about the heat or how the price of admission at the local theme park always seems to be on the rise.

But you’re wrong.

Here’s why: first, you aren’t alone in the comfort of your own home. You’re out in public. And I guarantee there’s probably a teacher somewhere within earshot. Second, you have no idea what the heck you’re talking about. You are completely talking out of your ass.

Oh, you think you know. Everyone thinks they know what it’s like to be a teacher. Everyone thinks they can do that job no matter what qualifications they have.

It’s funny. I never presume to assume I could do other people’s jobs without some kind of training or skill. I’d never say, “Police officers have it so easy. I could do that!”

I’d never say that about any public servants. Not firefighters, sanitation workers, social workers, lawyers, doctors – even politicians.

I think most people feel the same way – except when it comes to teaching. That’s the one job where everyone has an opinion and it’s based on next to nothing.

Here’s how it goes: I’ve been a student, therefore I can be a teacher.

Imagine if we applied that logic elsewhere. I’ve been sick, therefore I can be a doctor. I’ve been to court, therefore I can be my own lawyer. I can turn on a light, therefore I can run the electric company.

No one would be so ignorant. Except when it comes to teaching.

But that’s not all.

Not only are most folks comfortable opining about a topic of which they are so ignorant, but they feel themselves to be particular experts about one aspect of the job more than any others – summer break!

Those teachers sure have it easy, they say. They get their summers off! That’s one sweet deal!

Don’t get me wrong. As a public school teacher, I’m grateful for summer break. But it’s not what non-teachers think it is.

First off, summer break is not a vacation.

When you work a regular job you get a vacation day here and there. You get a week or two of paid time off. Teachers don’t get that.

During the summer teachers don’t get salaried like that. Some of us don’t even get a paycheck, and those of us that do aren’t earning money for those days off. We’re getting money that we already earned from August through June. This is money that was withheld from our pay during the fall and winter, money given to us now in the summer.

Wait a minute. Money withheld from our salaries? When someone pays you later for services rendered, don’t they owe you interest? Usually, they do. But not for teachers.

We work for the government. We get paid with tax dollars from the community at large. If the community had to give us our salaries up front – like almost every other job in existence – it would be harder on the taxpayers. So we let the community pay us later – interest free.

Like I said, summer break isn’t a vacation. It’s more like an annual couple months of being laid off.

When I say this to non-educators, though, they often smirk. “It must be pretty sweet getting so much money that you can afford to have it paid out like that.”

Let me just say this – You don’t know me. You don’t know what the heck I can and cannot afford. Teachers aren’t millionaires. We’re barely thousandaires. Many of us CAN’T afford it. We work a second job in the summer – often at little more than minimum wage.

Moreover, during the school year, teaching is not a 9-5 job. We don’t punch a clock working 8 hours with an hour lunch and then punch out.

If I’m not at least working 10 hours a day, I’m not even trying. Those 8 hours on the books barely cover my time in front of a class of students. I get a 30-40 minute lunch, various duties throughout the day and about 40 minutes to plan what I’m going to teach. That’s time to make any materials for my classes, design programs for the students, grade papers and fill out the never-ending and ever-expanding piles of paperwork.

As a language arts teacher, I routinely have my students write essays. You think they grade themselves? I’ve got to read those things, son, each and everyone. I’ve got homework to grade. I’ve got scores to input into the computer. I’ve got parents to call, students to tutor and a stream of detentions to oversee. And that’s just the minimum, not counting any extra-curriculars, clubs, PTA meetings, meet the principal nights, etc.

So the way I see it, I’m owed a little bit of down time during the summer. I need it just to recharge my batteries. During the school year, I’m going at a pace like lightning every day. If I didn’t have some time in the summer to unwind, I wouldn’t be able to keep up that pace for the majority of the year.

Heck. If I’m sick one day, when I come back to school it takes a few days to get back up to speed.

But non-teachers don’t know any of that, because students don’t know. Students just see the teacher in class and they assume that’s all we do. And that’s a forgivable assumption for students. You know why? Because they’re children! But you? You’re an adult human being. You don’t have the right to make such assumptions without any pretext at even trying to find out.

However, this is exactly what most people do. They think there’s nothing wrong with complaining about teachers, especially during the summer.

And here’s the worst part.

When you complain like that, you make my job so much harder.

You’re going to go home with that negativity, you’re going to keep voicing it, you’re going to say it in front of your own impressionable children who might not seem like it, but they listen to every word you say. Not just that, but they listen to HOW you say it. Even more than the words, they hear the disdain.

So when school is back in session, they bring that false impression of how easy their teachers have it, and that becomes disrespect, just another thing I have to overcome in order to help your child succeed.

You hear a lot in the news about foreign countries having better education systems than ours. It’s mostly B.S. propaganda, playing with statistics for political ends, but there is one area where there’s a grain of truth to it – respect.

In many foreign countries especially in Asia, teachers are held in the highest esteem. It wouldn’t even cross parents’ minds to scorn educators, and if their kids did it, the adults would be mortally ashamed!

But not in the U.S.A. We take the one profession most dedicated to helping our children have better lives and we crap all over it.

You know that’s why I’m there in the classroom – to help your child succeed. Sure I get a paycheck, but there are lots of jobs I could do to support my family, many of them paying a whole lot more while requiring less hours a week and providing actual paid vacation days.

Like most educators, I’ve got a masters degree. Every year I take continuing education courses. Heck! I’m even nationally board certified – a distinction of which only about 34% of teachers throughout the country can boast. I’ve been nominated for teachers excellence awards. I travel across the country multiple times a year at my own expense to enrich my field. I write letters, I protest, I lobby my congresspeople to support our national system of public education. I’ve devoted my life to making a difference in young people’s lives.

Isn’t that something worth a little bit of respect? Don’t you want someone like me to be there for your child in the classroom?

It’s funny. When it comes to most public services, you wouldn’t dream of denigrating a helping hand.

You’d never hear anyone say something like this:

Those damn firemen! There would be fewer fires if it weren’t for them! Have you ever seen a building burning without it being surrounded by firemen? If they’d just work a little bit harder, there’d be fewer burning buildings!

Or:

Those damn doctors! All they do is make people sick! You never see a sick person unless he’s surrounded by doctors prescribing him medicines, doing surgeries. If we had fewer doctors, fewer people would get sick! Let’s close more hospitals!

But this is how people talk about teachers. Regular folks have been convinced that far from helping children escape ignorance, teachers actually cause it. They don’t work hard enough. They don’t care enough. They have too many union protections.

I’ve never heard anyone complain that firemen would fight fires better if they didn’t have helmets and fireproof clothing. I’ve never heard anyone say police would work harder to fight crime if they didn’t have Kevlar and service pistols.

But somehow when it comes to teachers, the situation is different.

Normal people, you’ve got to understand something. We live in a world where rich folks want to take away teachers for the poor and middle class. They want your kids to learn from computer programs and YouTube while their kids get… teachers!

For your kids it’s always narrow the curriculum, more standardized tests, more unproven academic standards, more corporate profits, less parental control, fewer regulations, fewer student services.

And do you know who has volunteered to fight against all this craziness to make sure your kids actually get some kind of quality education?

THE TEACHERS!

That’s right – the same people you feel empowered to deride while standing in line waiting for your burgers and fries. The same people who you have no problem denigrating with just as much certainty as ignorance.

So please, think about that next time.

Don’t bitch and moan about your community’s teachers. How about giving them some support?

At very least add teaching to the list of impolite topics to address in public. That’s right – religion, politics AND TEACHING.

Because every time a non-educator vents their spleen about those lazy, no-good teachers, they make it that much easier for the powers that be to continue eroding your child’s educational experience.

Witch Hunt Against Incoming Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Escalates

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To be or not to be.

That is the question for incoming Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Hamlet.

He is set to takeover the district on July 1, but a well financed public smear campaign is trying to stop him before he even begins.

Big money interests oppose him. The public supports him.

Meanwhile the media helps fuel corporate attacks on the 47-year-old African American because of criticisms leveled by a Political Action Committee (PAC) formed to disband the duly-elected school board.

It’s ironic.

Corporate school reformers criticize Hamlet for allegedly plagiarizing a single statement in his resume. Meanwhile they have plagiarized their entire educational platform!

Mayoral or state takeover of the district? Check!

Close struggling schools? Check!

Open new charter schools to gobble up public tax dollars as profit? Check!

Hamlet represents a new direction away from corporate education reforms. The new school board who hired him has soundly rejected these policies of the old guard. Many of the same members are still on the board who first changed course in 2013 by tearing up a contract with Teach for America.

But the Empire strikes back with allegations of plagiarism and resume padding.

Yes, Hamlet used some of the same words from a Washington Post editorial in his resume. He wrote:

“A successful superintendent has to satisfy many constituencies, keeping high achievers in the system while devoting resources to those who need them most.”

The Post wrote:

“A successful superintendent has to satisfy many constituencies, keeping high achievers in the system even while devoting resources to those who need them most.” (Emphasis added)

These aren’t exactly the same words used by the Post. They don’t rise to the level of plagiarism, but he certainly should have attributed them or reworded the ideas.
On the other hand, his critics want to use the same policies that have failed again-and-again in Philadelphia, Newark, Little Rock, Memphis and elsewhere. They want to steal control of the district and give it to bureaucrats who will do what THEY say. They want to take money set aside to help all students and use it to enrich their friends and associates.

Sure, Hamlet used someone else’s words to describe a good idea of leadership. But his critics are using their own words to describe someone else’s terrible, failing educational platform.

Hamlet made a small forgivable error. His critics are seizing upon it to turn the tide in their favor and take away the community’s right to representative democracy.

Make no mistake. This is a witch hunt.

Critics are splitting hairs, disputing statistics and calling it fact.

Hamlet has a proven record as a principal in Palm Beach, Fl.

He says the schools he administered improved academically for various reasons. Critics point to Florida state records that show those improvements to be less dramatic.

So both sides agree those schools did well under Hamlet. What’s in dispute is the degree.

Hamlet counters that state data is inaccurate. He was there on the ground. He lists several factors not accounted for by the state that fully justify his statements.

For example, when he talks about school improvements, he counts the total number of student suspensions – if a student is suspended twice, he counts that as two suspensions. The state, however, ignores multiple suspensions. In this and other ways, Hamlet shows his data is more accurate than the state’s.

National data backs up Hamlet. Florida is infamous for being backward, regressive and untrustworthy in education circles, often spearheading some of the worst abuses of policy in recent history.

“This has been a hoopla,” said Valerie Allman, a Troy Hill parent and activist interviewed in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. “And it’s taken the focus off what’s important: these kids. … We’re expecting him to climb this huge mountain at the same time we cut his legs out from under him.”

One of the reasons the board originally hired Hamlet is his background in “restorative justice.

Instead of simply punishing or suspending students who misbehave, the program calls for making students set things right.

At Palm Beach County Schools, Hamlet implemented this approach with help from Mara Schiff, a criminology professor from Florida Atlantic University. It’s “far tougher than sitting in detention,” Schiff said in the Post Gazette.

“You have to acknowledge what you’ve done … and take responsibility for the harm you’ve caused. It’s not a kumbaya approach.”

It’s widely acknowledged in education circles that suspensions can have lasting impacts especially on black students making them more likely to enter the school-to-prison pipeline. Finding an approach to increase discipline without adversely affecting students’ prospects is imperative. This is especially true since Pittsburgh Public Schools have been known to suspend black students at a rate four times higher than white students.

In fact, the district has already launched a restorative justice program at 20 schools.

“I have nothing but good things to say about Dr. Hamlet,” said Schiff. “He had a [restorative-justice] coordinator who was fabulous, and who Dr. Hamlet completely empowered.”

Another reason for Hamlet’s hire is his advocacy for community schools. Like many on the school board and in the district, he has pushed for social services to help students and the community to make the schools the center of the neighborhood.

“You can have the best teachers, the best curriculum, the best classrooms,” said Rev. Rodney Lyde, a Homewood pastor and president of the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network. “But we need a place on-site that can comprehensively address the other impediments — like kids coming hungry, or from abusive situations.”

Despite community support, several well-financed organizations oppose Hamlet and the board’s authentic reforms.

Foremost among them is Campaign for Quality Schools Pittsburgh, a new PAC formed recently to make city schools great again – by doing the same failed crap that didn’t work before.

Also on the side of corporate education reform are the Pittsburgh Foundation and the Heinz Endowments. Representatives for both organizations have offered to pay for a new superintendent search if the district gives Hamlet his walking papers – a measure that probably would mean paying him at least a years salary without having him on the job.

This would also result in weakening the district’s ability to hire a new superintendent and increasing public mistrust of the electoral process. Such a move would pave the way for disbanding local control.

How generous of these philanthropies! I remember a time when giving meant providing the resources for organizations like public schools to fix themselves – not having the right to set public policy as a precondition for the donation. But in the age of Bill Gates and the philanthro-capitalists, this is what we’ve come to expect.

Even the editorial board of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette has drunk the Kool-aid. In a June 10 editorial, the paper published the following statement:

“The (school) board’s failure at this essential task calls its leadership into question, and will renew calls for legislation to dissolve the elected school board and move to an appointed system.”

Finally, we have A+ Schools – an advocacy organization that at one time championed the same kinds of reforms school directors are trying to enact. However, after a $1 million grant from the Gates Foundation, the group has become a cheerleader for weakening teachers unions, privatization and standardized testing.

Against these special interests stands a public school board and a community at the crossroads. Will they give in to public pressure and big money? Or will they allow Hamlet to do the job he was hired for and attempt to improve an urban district suffering from crippling poverty and state disinvestment?

This particularly tragedy has yet to find an ending.

To be or not to be?