If I Were Secretary of Education – A Classroom Teacher’s Fantasy

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I will never be Secretary of Education.

Frankly, I’m just not qualified.

I’m only a classroom teacher. The powers that be don’t trust someone like me with that kind of responsibility. It’s okay to give me a roomful of impressionable children everyday, but there’s no confidence I can make sound policy decisions. For that we need someone with experience in management – not schools, pedagogy, children or psychology.

The presiding incumbent in this prestigious position, John King, somehow overcame that handicap. He had taught for three whole years at a charter school, but the bulk of his experience is in administration – administrating a Boston charter school with high suspension and attrition rates. He also was New York State Education Commissioner, where he single-handedly dismantled the state system of education and sparked one of the largest parental revolts in the nation in the state’s opt out movement.

The previous Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, was much more qualified, having never taught a day in his life. Before getting Congressional approval, he was appointed to run a charter school and later was entrusted as CEO of Chicago City Schools where he likewise blundered his way to the top with policy decisions that devastated a great system of public education.

What do I have to offer compared to all that? I only have more than a decade’s worth of experience helping kids learn. I’m only one of 3% of teachers nationwide who are Nationally Board Certified. I’ve only earned a Masters degree in Education. I only help run a more than 56,000 member national education advocacy group, the Badass Teachers Association, and write a popular blog dedicated to education and civil rights.

 

I’ve never sunk a major metropolitan school. I’ve never been run out of a populous state chased by citizens armed with torches and pitchforks.

But let’s close our eyes and imagine that somehow through the magic of education bloggery I was whisked into office at the U.S. Department of Education.

What would a person like me do as Secretary?


1) Respect the Limits of the Job

Though George W. Bush and Barack Obama come from opposite ends of the political spectrum, these two Presidents did more to increase the powers of the Department of Education than any chief executives before them. They turned it into – as former Education Secretary Lamar Alexander puts it – a national school board with the Secretary was the national superintendent.

The department forced test and punishment policies on the states, cudgeled and bribed state officials to enact lousy Common Core Standards, and held federal grants hostage unless states accepted every corporate education reform scheme big business could think up.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a New Deal Franklin D. Roosevelt Democrat, but even I think these two administrations blatantly abused their power and overstepped their Constitutional authority.

So the first thing I would do is take a step back and follow the law. The recently enacted Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) sets explicit limits on federal power over education policy returning much of it to the states. As Education Secretary, I would respect the power of the states to control public education. It is the state’s job to set policy. It is the federal government’s job to provide support, encouragement and oversight.

Therefore, the role of the Department of Education is to ensure public schools are being properly funded, civil rights are not being violated and to be a repository for national data and research. I’d dedicate myself to that – not some corporate fueled power trip that both parties condemn except when they’re practicing it.


2) Push for More Federal Funding for Public Schools

Therefore, the first thing I would do is use the full power of the office to ensure the federal government is giving its utmost to help state public schools. I would use whatever grants were available to increase federal funding to the most impoverished schools. I would fully fund Title I. I would increase the federal share of Special Education – (Under Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) the federal government is supposed to fund 40% of the per pupil cost of all special education students but has never met this obligation. I would seek to rectify that if possible.) I would enact a national after school tutoring initiative. I would provide funding to hire additional teachers to reduce class size.  And as far as is possible, I would forgive college students loan debt so they can begin their lives with a clean slate.

This is something that those who seek to disband the U.S. Department of Education never seem to understand. The federal government has an important role to play in our school systems. It’s not the unfounded power grab of the last few decades, but we need another robust player on the field to help the states achieve their goals and also to keep the states honest.

If we disbanded the Department of Education, as some conservatives from Reagan to Paul to Cruz to Trump suggest, what would happen to Pell Grants, for instance? What would happen to the bundles of federal money that boost our public schools? Who would make sure states are doing their jobs? Where could we go to find accurate data about how our schools are doing nationally and not just state-by-state?

If we got rid of the department, at best these jobs would fall back on other government agencies that haven’t the funding, staff or ability to accomplish them. More likely, it would result in the elimination of billions of education dollars that the states simply couldn’t (or wouldn’t) replace. Abuses against students on the grounds of civil rights, gender, special education, etc. would skyrocket with little to no recourse. And we would be in the dark about how well we were educating our nation’s children.


3) Encourage States to Enact Accountability Measures that Don’t Include Standardized Testing

Accountability has become a dirty word in many education circles because of the way the Bush and Obama administrations have perverted it to mean test and punish. It has become a boondoggle for the standardized testing industry, an excuse to close poorly funded and often urban public schools to be replaced by unaccountable charter schools. While this is a terrible misuse of federal power, states must be responsible for the education they provide their children. And contrary to popular belief, this can be accomplished without resorting to the usual corporate reform measures.

As Secretary, I would put an immediate stop to the era of test and punish at the federal level. As it stands, the ESSA allows states to determine what they will use to demonstrate their educational progress for students. This is a state decision, but I would encourage states not to use standardized testing. I would offer to help any state interested to find new ways to show accountability. For instance, districts could submit to a simple audit showing student-teacher ratios, per pupil funding, discipline data broken out by race, degree of segregation, richness of the curriculum, etc.

Let me be clear: it is up to states to make these decisions. As Secretary, I would have no power to force legislatures or departments of education to do any of this. However, I’m willing to bet that many states would be excited by these possibilities and jump at the opportunity. Helping them achieve this would be my job.


4) Stop Federal Funding to Charter Schools, Teach for America and Common Core

Speaking of encouragement, I would stop all federal help for corporate education reform policies. That means turning off the money faucet for programs that enrich corporations and big business at the expense of school children.

This means not one more federal dollar to help private companies open new charter schools. Teach for America would have to rely on its corporate donors, not the taxpayers. And the Common Core gravy train would come to a screeching halt. No more money to help states enact the standards, no more bags of cash for book publishers and test manufacturers.

If states that had enacted the Core wanted to keep it, fine. If not, fine. But they would be on their own.

(In a sad aside, opposition to Common Core is most virulent from conservatives, yet there are an awful lot of state legislatures completely in GOP control that could get rid of Common Core tomorrow but which have done – and continue to do – nothing about it. No matter who the next Education Secretary is, the fate of Common Core is in the hands of state legislatures across the country – not the President, not Congress and not the Education Secretary. There’s far too much rhetoric and not nearly enough action.)


5) Do Everything I Can to Increase Teacher Autonomy, Respect, Pay and Training

Finally, I would use my position as Education Secretary to boost the greatest resource we have to help students learn – teachers. I would speak out on the need for educators to have autonomy in the classroom so they are empowered to meet student needs. I would work to increase public perception and respect for the profession. We simply can’t afford teacher bashing, because when you disrespect educators, you reduce their power to help kids. I would boost teachers pay through matching state grants. If you want the best possible teachers, you have to pay for them. If you want to attract the best people to the field, you need to ensure they will have a reliable middle class income and not have to work a second job or use their own money to buy school supplies. I would invest federal funds in training programs so the newest crop of teachers are up to date with the latest pedagogy and techniques. I would encourage more people of color to enter the field. And I would partner with teachers unions to strengthen protections for teachers while educating the public on the meaning of due process and the reality that strong unions mean fewer bad teachers in the classroom.


 

Are there more things we need to do to help improve our national system of public education? Certainly.

 

We need to start integrating schools again and stop the constant push to segregate through charter schools and white flight. We need to ensure every student receives adequate, equitable, sustainable funding. We need to change charter school laws so that they can’t cherry pick students and are as transparent and accountable as traditional public schools. We need to stop closing struggling schools and address root causes. We need to stop state takeovers except under the most dire of circumstances and set limits on how long states can stay in control. And we need to pass strong student privacy laws – even updating the Family Education Privacy Act (FERPA) to protect our children from predatory ed-tech companies that constantly data mine students and sell millions of data points on our children to the highest bidder.

There are a whole host of things needing done. However, most of these things go beyond the powers of the Department of Education and its cabinet level Secretary. They can only be addressed by the President, Congress, state legislatures and/or the court system. The Education Department can help steer that agenda, it can be an ally to real positive change, but it can’t go it alone.

Unfortunately, no matter who wins the Presidency in November – Clinton or Trump – neither seems likely to nominate an Education Secretary who would do any of the things I’ve outlined.

 

For all his talk of reducing the size of the government, Trump proposes increasing the federal footprint with school choice initiatives turning the Department of Education into a wheelbarrow marked “free money” for big business and parochial schools while forcing states to accept his school policies. Meanwhile, Clinton is likely to continue the course set by Bush and Obama of embracing every corporate school reform package from which Wall Street benefits.

It’s a crazy time full of crazy candidates and crazy solutions, but of this we can be sure – no one is crazy enough to let a teacher make decisions about public education policy.

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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.