My Students Are Addicted to Screens

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

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

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

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

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

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

So come with me as I redirect Michael.

“Hey, buddy,” I say.

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

“Are you reading?”

“Uh. Yeah.”

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

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

But I’m still skeptical.

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

BUT WHY!? I’M READING!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this practice seems common among parents in Silicon Valley.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is industry-driven, not pedagogically-driven.

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

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

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

It’s just another scam.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m an adult.

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

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

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

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

We’re letting business and industry take over.

It’s time to take a stand.

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

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

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

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“A lie told once remains a lie but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.”

-Joseph Goebbels

 

 

Neoliberals and right-wingers are very good at naming things.

 

Doing so allows them to frame the narrative, and control the debate.

 

Nowhere is this more obvious than with “school choice” – a term that has nothing to do with choice and everything to do with privatization.

 

It literally means taking public educational institutions and turning them over to private companies for management and profit.

 

 

A FAKE DIFFERENCE AND A BIG DIFFERENCE

 

 

There are two main types: charter and voucher schools.

 
Charter schools are run by private interests but paid for exclusively by tax dollars. Voucher schools are run by private businesses and paid for at least in part by tax dollars.

 

Certainly each state has different laws and different legal definitions of these terms so there is some variability of what these schools are in practice. However, the general description holds in most cases. Voucher schools are privately run at (at least partial) public expense. Charter schools are privately run but pretend to be public. In both cases, they’re private – no matter what their lobbyists or marketing campaigns say to the contrary.

 

For instance, some charter schools claim to be run by duly elected school boards just like public schools. Yet the elected body is a proxy that gives over all management decisions to an appointed private board of company officers and a CEO. That’s not really the same thing as what you get at public schools. It’s a way of claiming that you’re the same without actually being it.

 

Likewise, voucher schools are subject to almost no regulations on how they spend their money – even the portion made up by tax dollars – but charter schools are subject to more state and federal oversight. This is why voucher schools can violate the separation of church and state – teaching creationism as fact – while charter schools cannot.

 

Yet, in practice, state and federal laws often allow charters much more flexibility than public schools and the state and federal government rarely checks up on them to see if they’re following the regulations. In fact, in many states, auditors are not even allowed to check up on charter school compliance unless specific complaints have been filed or long intervals of leaving them to their own devices have passed. So charters can also teach things like creationism as fact only more clandestinely.

 

In short, the differences between public and privatized schools is significant. Yet the difference between the two types of privatized education is more political and rhetorical than practical.

 

Despite these facts, when we talk about privatized schools, we ignore the real distinctions and focus on the fake ones. We overlook the salient features and instead describe privatized schools as vehicles for choice.

 

They’re not.

 

 

 

FAKE CHOICE

 

 

 

School choice.

 

Got choice?

 

Parents should have the freedom to choose the school their children attend.

 

But using “choice” as the ultimate descriptor of what privatized schools are and what they offer is at best misleading and at worst an outright lie.

 

They are essentially private businesses existing for the sole purpose of making a profit.

 

Yes, parents choose if they want their children to enroll in these schools. But they also choose if their children enroll in the neighborhood public school.

 

Critics say the public school option is not a choice because there is only one public school district in a given neighborhood. Yet isn’t it the parents who decide the neighborhood where they live? In most cases, even the wealthiest district has rental properties where people can move to take advantage of an exceptional school system.

 

Certainly the quality of a school shouldn’t be determined by a zip code. But this is an argument for funding equity, for providing each district with the resources necessary to educate the children in their charge, not an argument for privatization.

 

In BOTH cases, public and privatized schools, parents exercise choice. But the propagandists choose to call only one of them by that name.

And it is a misnomer.

 

Privatized schools – both charters and voucher schools – are under no obligation to accept all students who seek enrollment. Public schools are.

 

If a student lives in a public school’s service area, the district must accept that student. It doesn’t matter if educating that child will cost more than the average per pupil expenditure. It doesn’t matter if she is easy or difficult to educate, if she has a record of behavior or discipline problems, if she has special needs, if she has low test scores. The public school must accept her and give her the best education possible.

 

Privatized schools are legally allowed to be selective. They can deny enrollment based on whatever reasons they choose. Charter schools may have to be more careful about their explicit reasoning than voucher schools, but that’s just a restriction on what they say, not on what they do. The results are the same. If they want to deny your child entry because of her race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, whatever – they can. They just have to put something more creative down as the reason why.

 

Vouchers schools don’t even have to give you a reason at all.

 

And charters have a multitude of ways to avoid accountability. They can simply pretend to have conducted a lottery. Or they can include an onerous series of demands for enrollment such as expensive uniforms, school supplies and parental volunteering at the school, to discourage difficult students from applying.

 

Moreover, even if they let your child enroll, they can kick her out at any time if she proves to be too expensive or it appears she’ll make the school look bad. This is why every year charter schools send a stream of struggling students back to the public schools just before standardized test time – they don’t want the students low test scores to reflect badly on the school – yet they’ll use the fact that they enrolled difficult students at the beginning of the school year to “prove” they aren’t selective!

 

That’s not choice. It’s marketing.

 

At best, it’s not choice for the parents or students. It’s choice for the operators of privatized schools.

 

WALMARTIZATION OF SCHOOLS

 

 

Critics will argue that these problems are a feature of the limited scope of so-called school choice programs. If there were more of them, the market would self-correct and many of these irresponsible practices would disappear.

 

Yet such a belief shows a complete ignorance of how business works in America.

 

The free market has not lead to more choice. It has led to consolidation.

 

When WalMart moves into an area, it doesn’t help boost the local mom and pop stores. It devours them. It’s a principle best described as the bigger fish eat the little ones.

 

Our system is designed to hide this fact by preserving separate companies with individual names and brands but that are all owned and operated by huge conglomerates. For instance, there are multiple newspapers and TV stations across the country all owned by a handful of huge corporations. The same with airlines, banks, pharmaceuticals, you name it.

 

That’s not choice. It’s the illusion of choice. And if privatization were given free reign over our public schools, we should expect nothing less.

 

If all or most of our public schools became privatized, after a short time we would have a handful of huge corporations dominating the field with near monopolies. Schools would be large charter and voucher chains, possibly with a variety of names and brands marketed differently, but providing pretty much the same generic services. It would be the WalMartiztion of education.

 

That goal is not the expansion of choice. It is the reduction of it.

 

 

MUSICAL CHAIRS

 

 

And what of those critics who claim school choice isn’t about privatization but about allowing students to attend even neighboring public districts?

 

First, this is rarely what so-called “school choice” programs do. And there is a very good reason for that.

 

It’s a terrible idea.

 

Let’s say you have three districts in your part of the state, one of which is exceptional and the other two struggle. If we allow students at the struggling districts to attend the exceptional one, what happens? You have a mass exodus to the exceptional district while the other two close due to lack of funding.

 

Now what? The one exceptional district has to somehow service more students than it can house and somehow create an instant infrastructure to meet their needs. Even under the best of circumstances, this is impossible. It would take years to do so, and in the meantime all students – even those who originally lived in the exceptional school’s immediate coverage area – will suffer.

 

Moreover, it ignores the realities on the ground. Why were there two struggling districts and one exceptional one? Almost always this is because of the wealth disparity between the three districts. The exceptional district probably serviced wealthier children. They have fewer needs than poor children. They have books in the home, less food uncertainty, less exposure to violence, racism and trauma.

 

Yet the rich district has an overabundance of resources to meet whatever needs its students have. It can levy higher taxes and thus spend more per pupil than the other struggling districts.

 

So when you combine the three districts, you end up being unable to continue spending the same amount per pupil. You probably have to decrease that spending and thus all students receive fewer services. However, at the same time, student needs for services increase because now you’re also trying to educate the more impoverished and racially diverse students from the two previously struggling districts.

 

No, even this kind of school choice doesn’t improve the quality of education. It degrades it.

 

The only solution is to provide each district with the funding necessary to meet students’ needs – whatever they are. That is the only way to increase the quality of education – not playing musical chairs with where students physically go to school.

 

 

SCHOOL CHOICE IS A LIE

 

 

At every level, so-called “school choice” is a lie.

 

It’s about preserving the status quo for the wealthy while providing substandard services for the poor and middle class.

 

It’s a power grab by the business community to profitize public funds set aside to educate children.

 

And perhaps the easiest way to combat it is the simplest: stop calling it school choice.

 

Call it what it is – school privatization.

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

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Do you feel it?

The future is coming.

There it is hovering just over the horizon.

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

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

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

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

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

So we’ll be ready.

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

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

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

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

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

But whatever.

This sales pitch about outmoded schools sounds really nice.

It resonates.

It makes us feel good.

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

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

PLEASE!

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

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

As if the thought never occurred to anyone else.

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

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

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

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

Seriously.

Let the experts have a say for once.

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

Meanwhile, all you have is a bank account.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That means your parent’s parent’s parents!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s get one thing straight.

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

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

You want real innovative reforms in our public schools?

Here’s what you do.

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

Here’s a short list:

-Stop privatizing and start supporting public schools.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Small Class Size – A Reform We’re Just Too Cheap To Try

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Taken as a whole, the American people are an awfully cheap bunch.

We’ll spend trillions of dollars on guns and tanks to fight an overseas war, but if someone suggest we build a bridge or conduct a social program or anything that would help people actually live longer, happier lives, well, F- ‘em.

Tax cuts for the rich – WONDERFUL!

Feed the hungry – NOT ON MY DIME!

And it’s true even of our attitude toward little children.

Don’t believe me? Just look at our public schools.

Pristine Taj Mahal-like buildings for rich kids with broad curriculums and plenty of teachers to instruct privileged progeny one-on-one, and then across town on the other side of the tracks you’ll find dilapidated shacks for the poor forced to put up with narrow curriculums focused on standardized test prep and as many underprivileged children as they can fit in the room with one beleaguered teacher.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

We’re one of the richest countries in the world, yet we treat our own children – especially if they’re poor and brown – as if they were refugees from the third world.

Well, perhaps marginally better. To my knowledge no one is suggesting we send the unwashed masses back to Africa, Europe or wherever else they originally came from – at least those who can prove they were born here.

But we certainly aren’t bothering ourselves too much about taking care of them.

What would that look like? Nothing all that radical.

Imagine a classroom where students have the space to be individuals and not nameless cogs in the system.

Imagine ensuring students get consistent, individual feedback from the teacher on a minute-by-minute basis.

Imagine increasing the ability for the teacher to focus on learning and not on policing behaviors.

Imagine allowing students to concentrate on education and not various adolescent social issues?

All of these things are accomplished through reducing class size.

In education circles, small class size is the one universal constant. There is some debate about exactly how small classes should be (at least less than 20, maybe even closer to 10 or 15 students) and for which student groups it is most important, but the consensus in favor of small class size is overwhelming.

Study after study concludes that small class size increases academic performance. When compared with peers in larger classes, those in small settings end up being months ahead. They cover more material, with greater depth and achieve better comprehension in less time.

This is partly due to increased student engagement. Children are more interested in what’s being taught when they have a more personal relationship to it. In smaller classes, students are able to express themselves and participate more. Even children who don’t normally engage in such activities find themselves forced to do so. They can no longer hide behind the greater numbers of their peers. Everyone is visible, seen and heard.

As a result, students have better relationships with their peers and teachers. These better social interactions and trust often results in academic gains. This also can lead to less disruptive behaviors – even for students who typically act out in larger classroom environments. Previously troubled students end up spending less time in detention or suspension and more time in class learning.

As such, teachers are better able to see students as individuals and determine how best to differentiate instruction to meet every child’s needs.

The benefits go far beyond the classroom. Numerous studies concluded that reducing class size has long lasting effects on students throughout their lives. It increases earning potential, and citizenship while decreasing the likelihood students will need welfare assistance as adults or enter the criminal justice system. In short, cutting class size puts a stop to the school-to-prison pipeline.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that those students who benefit the most from this reform are the young, the poor and minorities.

Small class sizes in the elementary grades have long lasting effects even if class sizes increase in middle and high school. However, minority and impoverished students (child groups often experiencing significant overlap) benefit regardless of age. Small class sizes help combat the trauma and deprivations of living below the poverty line. Moreover, while small class size has a varying effect on different disciplines, it invariably helps increase writing instruction – even up to the college level. Schools that put a premium on writing would do best to reduce class sizes in all language arts classes, for instance.

However, students aren’t the only ones positively affected by small class size.

This also has an impact on teachers. Reducing class size increases teacher job satisfaction and retention. This is pretty important in a profession bleeding away practitioners. Fewer college students are entering education programs every year. Salaries are falling even as responsibilities and paperwork are increasing. A reform that helps counteract that while also helping students would appear to be just what the doctor ordered.

Unfortunately, administrators don’t seem to be getting the message. Instead of reducing class size for the most effective teachers, they often increase it. The main reason – test scores. Number crunching administrators think giving the best teachers more students means helping the most students. However, they aren’t taking into account the law of diminishing returns.

The biggest obstacle to reducing class size is financial.

Cutting class size often means hiring more staff. In the absence of state and federal legislators offering to fund such initiatives, district school directors invariably think it’s beyond them. They don’t want to do anything that might result in a tax increase.

However, in today’s dog-eat-dog public school environment, you either pay a little now or a lot later. Right or wrong, competition is our overarching education policy. Public schools have to fight for education dollars with charter and voucher schools. And smaller class size is the number one selling point for so-called choice schools over their traditional public school counterparts.

Sure, it’s expensive to cut class size, but it’s also expensive to continue funding the district when students leave due to smaller classes at the local charter school. Though the media over-reports the value of high test scores, parents rarely decide where to send their children on that basis. Class size is often their number one consideration. They don’t want their children to be lost in the crowd. They want their children to be valued as individuals and their education to be properly personalized.

According to “More Than Scores: An Analysis of How and Why Parents Choose Schools,” two of the top five reasons parents who choose private schools over public institutions specifically reference class size – 48.9% cite class size out right and 39.3% cite “more individual attention for my child.” And the other three reasons – better student discipline, better learning environment, and improved student safety – are all dramatically influenced by class size.

If public schools want to continue to compete, school directors may have to commit to investing in class size reduction.

Yet the trend of the last decade has been in exactly the opposite direction.

Today public schools employ 250,000 fewer people than before the recession of 2008–09. Meanwhile enrollment has increased by 800,000 students. Unsurprisingly, class sizes in many schools are at record highs.

Is this something we could really change?

Of course! It really wouldn’t be that hard.

We’ve accomplished much more difficult tasks as a nation. We beat back Hitler, became a global superpower and even put people on the moon!

After all that, we can’t find the will to hire more teachers and properly educate all of our native sons and daughters?

Yes, there are plenty of competing ideas for how to improve our schools. And most of them come from corporate think tanks and big business lobbyists more interested in enriching themselves on the public dime than helping students.
Corporate education reformers want us to pay private companies to educate the poor. They want us to invest in privatized schools and standardized test conglomerates. They want us to subsidize publishers and tech corporations with new, untried, unnecessary academic standards that require us to buy boatloads of crap that don’t help and we don’t need.

But the answer isn’t to hand over boatloads of additional monies to private industry. In large part it’s to hire an increased workforce to actually get in there and do the job of educating.

And before you cry about the cost, imagine the savings of cutting all the corporate education reform garbage! If we weren’t committed to corporate handouts as education reform, we might be able to increase the quality of our public education system and still save some money!

You see the answer to improving education for the poor isn’t corporate welfare. It starts with equitably funding schools dedicated to the poor and minorities. It starts with providing them with the money required to meet student needs. And a large part of that includes cutting class size.

There is a significant consensus behind it. Moreover, it has parental, student and teacher support.

It’s a no brainer.

All it takes is a change in priorities and the will to actually get up off our collective asses and do something to help America’s children.

Let’s cut the crap. Cut class size.

Betsy DeVos Wants Fewer Rights for Rape Survivors & More for Alleged Attackers

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As a public school teacher, you see a lot of ugly things.

You see children with bruises under their sleeves. Kids who cringe when your voice gets too loud. Young people traumatized by sexual violence.

Even in middle school.

So when Betsy DeVos decided to take up for alleged rapists while making it harder for survivors of sexual assault to come forward, I took it kind of personally.

Last week, the Secretary of Education for the United States of America blithely announced her plan to no longer require colleges and universities that receive federal funds from prosecuting on-campus sexual assault with the same severity.

Yes. Seriously.

“The prior administration weaponized the Office for Civil Rights to work against schools and against students,” she said at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia.

“The notion that a school must diminish due process rights to better serve ‘victims’ only creates more victims… If everything is harassment, then nothing is.”

In other words, the billionaire heiress in charge of protecting students’ civil rights thinks there is a power imbalance between rapist and victim. And she’s right. Except that she thinks the alleged rapist is on the losing end of that imbalance.

This may be the most preposterous thing she has ever said. And she’s infamous for saying preposterous things.

In matters of sexual assault, all the power lies with the accuser!?

Has Ms.DeVos ever met a survivor of sexual assault?

I have. I’m sorry to say that I’ve met some while working in our public schools.

To put it bluntly – they were my students.

Little children afraid to go home. Kids with backpacks and cartoon animals on their shirts. Barely teens who kept to themselves, arms locked across their chests. Youngsters who just wanted to stay in class as long as I was staying, who would draw and hum and soak up the least bit of human kindness.

Some of them eventually would confide in me, their teacher. Not that I asked. I would have preferred letting the guidance counselor handle it. I really wasn’t trained for it. But there’s only one thing to do when someone wants to tell you their story – you listen.

And that’s exactly what DeVos is telling us NOT to do.

Don’t listen to accusations of sexual assault unless there is a preponderance of evidence. Start from a position of skepticism and unbelief even so far as making accusers confront their attackers.

After all, it’s the only way to protect from false allegations. As if that were at all common.

Only someone devoid of empathy or intelligence could say such a thing with a straight face – much less present it as a statement of public policy.

Yet DeVos isn’t the only high ranking member of the Education Department voicing it.

Two months ago, Candace Jackson, the official responsible for enforcing campus sexual assault laws for DeVos’ department, told reporters that “90 percent” of sexual assault accusations “fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk,’ ‘we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right.’”

Jackson, who heads the Department’s Office of Civil Rights, apologized for the statement after public backlash.

But now it’s federal policy!

Like much else from the Trump administration, it flies in the face of the facts.

False accusations do happen, but they are much less frequent than sexual violence. Only between two and ten percent of rape allegations are untrue, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

Moreover, the same report found that 63 percent of sexual assaults are never even reported to police. Survivors of this heinous crime rarely come forward because of shame, fear and embarrassment.

That’s something I saw first-hand from my students.

They weren’t bragging about an experience they’d lived through. They wanted more than anything to forget it, to ignore what had happened, to get on with their lives. But they just couldn’t. They felt so betrayed, so vulnerable, so guilty, so frightened.

 
DeVos’ new policy will do nothing to change that. If anything, it will only embolden would-be attackers to attempt more assault – a crime that already affects nearly a quarter of college women.

According to a National Institute of Justice report, 20 percent of young women will become the victim of a “completed or attempted sexual assault” while in college. And more than 6 percent of men will also be assaulted.

We shouldn’t be making it harder for people who have been brutalized to seek justice. The accused should have due process, but that’s what an investigation is. In the rare instance of false allegations, those unduly impugned should be exonerated.

Despite what she says, DeVos’ recent actions have nothing to do with that. Before passing down her decision, she met with “Men’s Rights” groups like the National Coalition for Men – organizations that I can honestly say, as a red blooded American male, certainly don’t speak for me.

This is politics, not any concern for justice. It’s no accident that DeVos serves at the pleasure of a President who was caught on a hot microphone bragging about engaging in sexual assault. It’s no accident that his base includes white supremacists. It’s no accident that his party continually stomps on women’s rights.

If we really wanted to help survivors of sexual assault, we’d take steps to make sure the crime they lived through never happens again. At very least, we could take steps to make it more rare.

Imagine if instead of abstinence only sexual education classes, our children were taught actual facts about human sexuality. Imagine if every child learned the meaning and necessity of consent. No means no. Period.

That could have a real impact on these crimes. Over time, we could create a culture of respect and understanding. That certainly seems a worthier goal for a Secretary of Education than removing support for victims of sexual assault.

As to the handful of students who turned to me for help, I really can’t tell you what happened to them afterwards. In most cases, I don’t know myself.

In each instance, I turned to the authorities to ensure my students received the help they needed.

I hope they got it.

Unlike Ms. DeVos, I put them first.

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

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Dear fellow teachers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, ANOTHER one!

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

But there is. And it is us.

You heard me right.

It’s us.

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

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

That’s right. US.

We do it. Often willingly.

We need to stop.

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

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

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

We’ve got to stop doing it.

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

Listen, there are several reasons why we should refuse.

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

I wouldn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Think about it.

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

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

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

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

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

Me, too.

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

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

But we never discussed why.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are our own worst enemy in this regard.

We are too submissive. Too meek.

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

And that doesn’t end in the classroom.

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

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

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

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

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

Because without us, there is no hope of success.

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

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

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

NO.

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

After Hurricane Harvey, Will Houston Public Schools be Charterized?

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It’s an all too familiar scene in America.

A natural disaster devastates a major metropolitan city.

And then the forces of profit and privatization use the chaos and uncertainty as cover to steal public services and turn them into mechanisms to increase their own bottom line.

That’s what happened to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. And, if Houston residents aren’t careful, it’s what could happen there in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, which struck this weekend.

Right now the immediate danger is the weather.

The storm has already affected about a quarter of the Texas population, or 6.8 million people in 18 counties. It’s been blamed for at least 8 deaths so far.

Thousands of people have evacuated to rooftops as rushing waters flooded streets and neighborhoods. Many roadways are only navigable by boat, and emergency services are so overtaxed that civilian volunteers have stepped up to help rescue stranded residents. By the time the weather system passes through, Houston could get as much as 50 inches of rain – the highest amount ever recorded in Texas.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was so overwhelmed by the news that she took to Twitter, saying, “Our prayers are with all those in the path of #HurricaneHarvey. @usedgov stands ready to assist impacted schools.”

 

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To which noted liberal commentator Keith Olbermann responded, “The hurricane is going to do less damage to schools than you are, Motherfucker.”
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And, if history is any guide, he may not be wrong.

In the aftermath of Katrina, New Orleans lost almost its entire public school system. About 90 percent of the city’s 126 schools were given to the Louisiana Recovery School District, which turned them all into charter schools.

For those uninitiated into the mysteries of corporate education reform, charter schools differ from traditional public schools because they are financed by tax dollars but privately operated. They often are controlled by appointed boards with little to no transparency, and are rife with opportunities for investors to profit through fraud and neglect – opportunities that just aren’t present at traditional districts.

So, in effect, Louisiana state officials elected by the white majority stole control from local school boards elected by the city’s black majority. More than 7,000 teachers most of whom were people of color and had been displaced by the hurricane found themselves replaced by mostly white teachers brought in from other parts of the country.

Now, more than 10 years later, the New Orleans experiment has been shown to be a failure. Scores on standardized tests have improved (kinda), but the curriculum has narrowed, teacher turnover has doubled, disadvantaged and special education students have even fewer resources while schools fight over high achieving children, students spend hours being bused to schools far from their homes, communities have been erased, and parents have less control over how their own tax dollars are spent.

This could be the future for the Houston Independent School District (HISD).

After all, Houston is where the infamous Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) charter school network got its start.

KIPP is known for two things: draconian discipline and high attrition rates. Even those kids who do well there often don’t go on to graduate from college. Two thirds of KIPP students who passed the 8th grade still haven’t achieved a bachelor’s degree 10 years later.

Moreover, its methods aren’t reproducible elsewhere. The one time KIPP tried to take over an existing public school district and apply its approach without skimming the best and brightest off the top, it failed miserably – so much so that KIPP isn’t in the school turnaround business anymore.

Yet, the charter network, one of the largest such chains with 209 schools nationwide, has one of the best propaganda departments in the industry. They pass off inhumanity to children as “rigor” and gloss over inability to teach difficult students as “high standards.”

 

Will Texas lawmakers be swayed by powerful charter operators to use the current catastrophe as a business opportunity to gobble up the existing school system?

 
Perhaps. But there are some significant differences between Houston and New Orleans.

 
For instance, the students served by the New Orleans system a dozen years ago were almost all living below the poverty line. By contrast, Houston has high and low poverty areas. In fact, many neighborhoods cater to upper middle class children.

 
It’s doubtful that parents from more affluent neighborhoods would put up with losing local control and all that goes with it. Their political and economic power would probably stop any wholesale charterization of the district. That’s why KIPP schools – and in fact most charter schools – are nearly nonexistent in wealthy neighborhoods.

 
However, there are plenty of community schools serving high poverty populations suffering from systemic disinvestment and neglect that could be in danger of just such “reforms.” In fact, many of those are exactly the ones that have been worst hit by flooding and weather damage. At least 10 consistently struggling schools could find themselves targeted for the New Orleans treatment. The state and federal government could withhold relief funding on the condition these schools give up their elected school boards and embrace the kind of Wild West, laissez-faire, free market deregulation that charter schools bring.

 
The Republican controlled state legislature already has a law on the books to swipe local control from struggling districts and turn them into charters. It’s a blatant threat to takeover entire districts like HISD if certain schools within the district don’t improve standardized test scores and other measures favored by corporate education reformers.

 

 

Hurricane damage could become a pretext to empowering state lawmakers to expedite this process. Perhaps they might even ask local school boards to give up control of their struggling schools in exchange for leaving alone the more affluent white schools.

I had the pleasure of visiting Houston a year ago for the United Opt Out Education and Civil Rights Summit. There I met with parents, students, concerned community members and representatives of the local teachers union – the Houston Federation of Teachers.

They helped me understand that Texas has a unique perspective on school choice.

For instance, they aren’t generally too fond of school vouchers.

This session a Tea Party favored voucher initiative was squashed by more moderate Republicans. In fact, in Texas even religious leaders don’t like vouchers. This is surprising because the program usually allows tax dollars to be used at private or parochial schools. An organization, Pastors for Texas Children, has been particularly vocal about supporting public education over BOTH vouchers and charters.

However, this is the land of former Gov. George W. Bush, one of the biggest charter cheerleaders in the country. His party broadly supports charter schools, yet the Texas legislature has struggled to increase them.

Last year, Gov. Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Gov. Dan Patrick made a big push to increase charter schools across the state. In an unusual move, state House Speaker Joe Straus refused to bring the bill to the floor for a vote. Straus held the issue hostage because he couldn’t get support for a new school funding formula.

It should be noted that all of these players are Republicans. Democrats are a minority with the ability to impact policy almost not at all.

DeVos and the Trump administration are unquestionably supportive of voucher and charter school expansion.

It’s still too early to tell if the state and/or federal government will take a page from the Shock Doctrine playbook and use Harvey as a distraction to embolden their agenda.

One can only hope that voters have learned the lessons from Katrina and Louisiana.

Otherwise, over time a manmade disaster could once again eclipse the damage done by a natural one.


Special Thanks to Zakary Rodriguez for help navigating the Texas education scene.