Let’s Hear It For Black Girls!

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“Sisters are more than the sum of their relative disadvantages: they are active agents who craft meaning out of their circumstances and do so in complicated and diverse ways.”

-Melissa Harris-Perry, Sister Citizen (2011)

 

 

Let’s hear it for black girls!

 

They are beautiful, bold, irrepressible and – above all – so incredibly strong.

 

Black girls will outlast any struggle, face down any adversary, and – more often than not – triumph in the face of adversity.

 

I know. I’m a public school teacher, and many of my best students are black and female.

 

That doesn’t necessarily mean they get the best grades. Some earn A’s and some don’t. But when it comes to pure willpower and the courage to stand up for themselves, no one beats a black girl.

 

Those are rare qualities nowadays. Sometimes it doesn’t make these girls easy to have in class. But think about how important they are.

 

As a teacher, it sure makes your life easier when students do whatever they’re told. But in life, we don’t want citizens who simply follow orders. We want people who think for themselves, people who question directives and do only what they think is right.

 

In short, we need people who act more like black girls.

 

As a white male, it’s taken me some time to come to an appreciation of black womanhood. But after about 15 years teaching in public schools serving mostly poor, minority students, appreciate them I do.

 

Think of the challenges they face and often overcome. Not only are they subject to the same racism as black males, they also have to function under the burden of male patriarchy and the quiet sexism that pervades American society.

 

According to a study entitled Unlocking Opportunity for African American Girls by the NAACP and the National Women’s Law Center, African-American girls suffer from higher rates of sexual violence and intimate partner violence than white women, high rates of sexual harassment in school, and they are more vulnerable to sex trafficking than any other group.

 

In addition, more than one-third of black female students did not graduate on time in 2010, compared to 19 percent of white female students. However, there has been progress. Despite a lingering graduation gap, black girls have actually increased their graduation rate by 63% in the past 50 years, according to the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation. Unfortunately, this hasn’t meant they’ve built up more wealth. In 2010, single black women’s median wealth was just $100 compared to single white women’s wealth, which was $41, 500.

 

And it only gets worse the closer we look at it. Black women are the only group whose unemployment rate remained stagnant at 10.6%, while the overall rate for workers in the United States dropped from 7.2% to 6.1% between August 2013 and August 2014, according to a National Women’s Law Center report on jobs data. More than a quarter of black women live in poverty, according to the Center for American Progress, despite making up a larger portion of the workforce than white and Latina women.

 

Despite such problems, black women start businesses at six times the national average, according to the Center for American Progress. And this is even more startling when you realize they are also more likely to be denied small business loans and federal contracts.

 

It’s one of the reasons black girls are so special. Those who somehow survive the incredible pressures society puts them under often become super achievers. They can do almost anything.

 

Perhaps it’s an internalization of the advice black women often get from their mothers. They’re frequently told they have to work harder and do more just to be noticed, and they often do. In my classes, I’ve had more black girls achieve grades over the 100% mark than any other group. And that’s not easy to do. But it’s typical black girl power – they try to be more than perfect.

 

However, it takes a toll.

 

They are more likely to die of breast cancer than any other racial group, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The reasons are complex, but include the fact that black women experience delays in diagnosis and treatment. Like many oppressed people, they often internalize that oppression – they don’t take care of themselves and the stress can be a killer.

 

And for those who can’t overcome the unfair pressures we place them under, the results are even worse. In school, I’ve seen precious and valuable girls thrown into a sometimes cruel and uncaring disciplinary system – a system from which it can be hard to extract yourself.

 

Some teachers and schools when faced with the independence and forthrightness of black girls don’t know how to handle them. In such cases, these girls are often disciplined out of all proportion to their population size in school districts. For example, in New York City, black girls made up only 28% of the student body during the 2011-2012 school year, but were 90% of all girls expelled that year from the city’s schools, according to the “Black Girls Matter” report by the African American Policy Forum. Similarly, black girls made up only 35% of the Boston public school population that same year, but accounted for 63% of all girls expelled.

 

In short, we’ve got a lot of work to do to dismantle a national system of racism and white privilege. But even beyond that, as a society we need to recognize and appreciate black girls. A little bit would go a long way.

 

We need to acknowledge the unique talents and skills of these amazing young women. And so much of it starts with a matter of conceptualization in the white adult mind.

 

Instead of seeing them as defiant, we need to recognize their independence. Instead of seeing them as challenging your authority, you need to see them as asserting themselves and standing up for their beliefs.

 

Those are all such positive qualities. How many times do adults complain that kids today don’t care enough about things – their apathy, their entitlement, their indifference. As a group, black girls are nothing like that! They are exactly the opposite! But instead of praising them for it, instead of valuing them, white adults often feel threatened and respond by trying to crush what they perceive as a rebellious and disruptive element in their classrooms or in society.

 

That’s why I love the Black Girl Magic movement.

 

It was created by CaShawn Thompson to celebrate the beauty, power and resilience of black women. It started as a simple social media hashtag – #BlackGirlMagic.

 

It embodies a theme I’ve already touched on – the irrepressible spirit of black women, how they are faced with an overwhelming mountain of challenges but somehow manage to overcome them and become tremendous overachievers! It’s a celebration of everything good and positive about the black female experience.

 

I think it’s just wonderful.

 

How can you not look at someone like Misty Copeland and not appreciate her success? She’s the first ever black principal at the American Ballet Theatre. She has shot to the top of one of the whitest, wealthiest and most elitist arts you can pursue.

 

Or how about Gabby Douglas? You can’t watch videos of the amazing Olympic gymnast, who at only 17, absolutely wowed the world with gold medals despite internet trolls hating on her hair.

 

And if we’re talking undue hate and criticism, no woman in recent memory has suffered as much as Michelle Obama. Whatever you think of her husband’s Presidency, you have to admit Michelle was a model of grace under pressure. How many times did haters pick apart her appearance while she just got on with the business of making school lunches healthier and being a tremendous role model for children of color and women of all races and creeds.

 

Or Ava DuVernay, the amazing director snubbed at the Oscars for her film “Selma.” What did she do? She made another amazing film “13th” about how the 13th Amendment ended slavery but opened the door to the prison industrial complex.

 

That’s Black Girl Magic. And it’s actually pretty common.

 

So come on, fellow white people. Let’s celebrate black girls.

 

Stop trying to touch their hair or compare them with Eurocentric standards of beauty. Stop, pause and actually see them. See them for who and what they are.

 

Black girls are amazing and make the world a better place.

 

Here’s to all the incredible and irreplaceable black girls in my classes and in my life!

 

You go, girls!

Dept of Ed Hires Anti-Civil Rights Crusader to Protect Student’s Nonexistent Civil Rights

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Candice Jackson is a victim of oppression.

When she was attending Stanford University in the mid-1990s, a minority calculus tutoring group refused to help her because she was white.

Sure she could probably afford to pay for private tutoring, but it was the point of the  thing.

She came from a family where both parents ran medical practices. Her dad, Dr. Rick Jackson, even unsuccessfully ran for Congress. You know – just like black families redlined into the ghetto and struggling to find work because of their African-sounding names.

Why shouldn’t the limited amount of tutoring spaces serve her as well as people from traditionally less privileged backgrounds? White lives matter, ya’ll.

“I am especially disappointed that the University encourages these and other discriminatory programs,” she wrote in the Stanford Review. “We need to allow each person to define his or her own achievements instead of assuming competence or incompetence based on race.”

With that kind of empathy and innate understanding of social justice, I – for one – am overjoyed that U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has hired Jackson to run the department’s Office for Civil Rights.

Well, she’s acting assistant secretary for the office. Technically she was hired as deputy assistant secretary, because that doesn’t require a confirmation hearing. A permanent assistant secretary will have to be approved by Congress – if DeVos ever gets around to nominating one.

I’m sure she’ll do that soon. There’s no way she’d sneak in someone who doesn’t believe in civil rights whose main job is to protect civil rights! That would be like hiring a Secretary of Education who doesn’t believe in the mission of public education tasked with protecting public schools!

That’s unpossible!

And Jackson is all about civil rights. The 39-year-old attorney is anti-women’s rights, anti-distributive justice and possibly even anti-compulsory education and anti-Civil Rights Act of 1964!

Just perfect!

I mean what does the Department of Education have to do with civil rights anyway?

According to the department’s own statistics, black students are at least six times more likely than white students to attend poor schools. These schools have smaller budgets, fewer resources, a crumbling infrastructure, larger classes and higher student needs based on the trauma of living in poverty – worse nutrition, lack of books in the home, exposure to violence and abuse, etc. Meanwhile, white students are three times more likely than blacks to attend rich schools overflowing with resources, pristine infrastructures, small class sizes, and fewer needs.

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Is that fair? Should the government do anything about ensuring all students receive the same opportunities?

Heck no!

That’s up to… I don’t know… somebody else. And what about all those poor white kids trapped in poor schools with a majority of students of color!? Who’s going to help the six percent of white kids in mostly black schools escape?

Betsy DeVos – that’s who! Donald Trump – who is really indistinguishable from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and her are proposing a school voucher program so that these white kids can go to a charter, private or religious school.

The black kids? Maybe the choice schools will accept some of them, I mean if the appointed boards and CEOs who run them want to take these kids, it’s really all up to them. We aren’t going to force them to do anything. We’re all libertarians here in Washington now. You wouldn’t want us to trample on the civil rights of charter and private school operators, would you?

Of course not!

And we’re certainly not going to do anything to help these impoverished public schools succeed. No additional funding. No preferential treatment! The free market will sort things out – it always does.

And people wonder why DeVos needs to be protected by U.S. Marshals at a cost of $1 million a month.

Her department is doing away with services the public has come to rely on: protecting special needs students, protecting college students from predatory loans, and now prosecuting civil rights violations.

The liberal snowflakes! Pull yourselves up by your bootstraps! Why are you demanding the government provide you with actual services in return for your tax dollars? You should be demanding tax cuts. That way you can just buy everything you need, yourselves, like the billionaire DeVos family and even the well to do Jacksons.

It’s a wonder why DeVos doesn’t pay for her own security detail – or why President Trump demands we pay for the extra security for all his trips to Mar-a-Lago.

But in any case, the extra security is clearly necessary for DeVos. Every other Education Secretary in history has been able to make due with protection from the Secret Service – from agents already on the payroll and in fact still on the payroll now. But when you’re striping the public of services and enacting programs like school vouchers that Americans angrily don’t want, you need the extra protections.

It’s like Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Un. They didn’t and don’t have Royal Guards just because they love/loved pageantry. They need/needed protection from the people. That’s how you know you’re best serving the people. You need protected from them.

This is the conservative dream – federal employees appointed by bureaucrats instead of voted on by representatives, public servants who don’t believe in public service, and a military machine protecting them from the taxpayers.

This is the kind of administration that will finally ensure that never again will any white person ever be inconvenienced by people of color and all their needs! Never will the poor or minorities ever receive any federal help that could be perceived by white people as extra help – if we forget about all that we have helping us.

Finally we’ll all be equal. And some of us will be even more equal than others!

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The Joy of Opting Out of Standardized Testing

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Testing season is a gray period in my classroom.

 

But it’s a joy in my house.

 

As a classroom teacher with a daughter in the public school system, I’m always struck by the difference.

 

In school I have to proctor the federally mandated standardized tests. But I’ve opted my own daughter out. She doesn’t take them.

 

So at home, I get to see all the imaginative projects she’s created in her class while the other kids had to trudge away at the exam.

 

“Daddy, daddy, look!” she squeals.

 

And I’m bombarded by an entire Picasso blue period.

 

Or “Daddy, will you staple these?”

 

And I’m besieged by a series of her creative writing.

 

My daughter is only in second grade and she loves standardized test time.

 

It’s when she gets to engage in whatever self-directed study strikes her fancy.

 

Back in kindergarten I missed the boat.

 

Even as an educator, myself, I had no idea the district would be subjecting her to standardized tests at an age when she should be doing nothing more strenuous than learning how to share and stack blocks.

 

But when I found out she had taken the GRADE Test, a Pearson assessment not mandated by the state but required by my home district in order the receive state grant funding, I hit the roof.

 

I know the GRADE test. I’m forced to give a version of it to my own 8th grade students at a nearby district where I work. It stinks.

 

Ask any classroom teacher and they’ll tell you how useless it is. Giving it is at best a waste of class time. At worst it demoralizes children and teaches them that the right answer is arbitrary – like trying to guess what the teacher is thinking.

 

Then I found out my daughter was also taking the DIBELS, a test where she reads a passage aloud and is given a score based on how quickly she reads without regard to its meaning. In fact, some of the passages test takers are forced to read are pure nonsense. It’s all about how readers pronounce words and whether they persevere through the passage. It’s not so much about reading. It’s about grit.

 

No. My precious little one won’t be doing that.

 

I talked candidly to her kindergarten teacher about it. I trust her judgment, so I wanted to know what she thought. And she agreed that these tests were far from necessary. So I set up a meeting with the principal.

 

The meeting lasted about an hour. Sure, it was a little scary. No one wants to rock the boat. But even he agreed with most of what I had to say. He didn’t feel as strongly about it as I did, but he respected my wishes and that was that.

 

Ever since, my daughter hasn’t taken a single standardized test.

 

For me, it was a political statement as well as a parental one. I wanted to do my part to chip away at the corporate school reform movement. I know how much they rely on these test scores to justify closing poor schools like mine. I don’t want to give them a chance.

 

But little did I know what bliss I would be providing for my little one.

 

Beyond politics, I thought I was just protecting her from a prolonged period of boredom, unfair assessments and cognitively invalid measurements.

 

I wanted to shield her from adult woes. What I didn’t realize was I was opening a door for her creativity.

 

It’s amazing. All the other poor children sit there dutifully filling in bubbles while she pours her heart out onto the page.

 

She loves creating these illustrated books telling the wildest narratives: Colorful superheroes blast bad guys into oblivion. Game show hosts get lost in other dimensions. Even her Mommy and Daddy get in on the action riding Yoshi through Super Mario land.

 

Often she adds text to these adventures. Her spelling could use some work, but I’m impressed that an 8-year-old even attempts some of these words. Sometimes she writes more in her adventure books than my 8th graders do on their assigned homework.

 

I’ve even noticed a marked improvement in her abilities during this time. Her handwriting, sentence construction, word choice and spelling have taken a leap to the next level. While her classmates are wasting time on the assessments, she’s actually learning something!

 

I wish I could provide the same opportunities for my students that I have for my daughter.

 

It’s strange.

 

As a parent, I have the power to make educational decisions on behalf of my child. But as a trained education professional, I’m not allowed the same privilege.

 

Don’t teachers stand in loco parentis? Well this is loco, so let me parent this. Let me at least talk to their parents about it – but if I do that on school time, in my professional capacity, I’m liable to be reprimanded.

 

I have studied standardized testing. It was part of my training to become a teacher. And the evidence is in. The academic world knows all this stuff is bunk, but the huge corporations that profit off of these tests and the associated test-prep material have silenced them.

 

I have a masters in my field. I’m a nationally board certified teacher. I have more than a decade of successful experience in the classroom. But I am not trusted enough to decide whether my students should take these tests.

 

It’s not like we’re even asking the parents. We start from the assumption that children will take the tests, but if the parents complain about it, we’ll give in to their wishes.

 

It’s insanity.

 

We should start from the assumption the kids won’t take the test. If parents want their kids to be cogs in the corporate machine, they should have to opt IN.

 

As a teacher, I can try to inform my students’ parents about all this, but at my own peril. If the administration found me talking about this with parents, I could be subject to a reprimand. Giving my honest educational opinion could result in me losing my job.

 

As you can see, it hasn’t stopped me. But I teach in a high poverty, mostly minority district. My kids’ parents often don’t have the time to come up to the school or even return phone calls. They’re working two or three jobs. They’re struggling just to put food on the table. They don’t have time for standardized tests!

 

So every test season I sadly watch my students trudge away at their federally mandated bubbles. I see their anxiety, their frustration, their sad, sad faces.

 

And it breaks my heart.

 

But then I come home to my daughter’s exuberant creations!

 

You would not believe the joy of opting out!

I’m a Public School teacher. Hands Off My Trans Students!

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I’m a public school teacher.

I have a lot of different girls and boys in my classes.

In fact, some of them are neither girls nor boys.

Does that mean they should be discriminated against? Does it mean we should judge them, tell them they’re somehow less valuable than the other kids? Tell them who they are by telling them where to pee?

Heck, No!

Some kids don’t feel comfortable with a traditional gender identity. And it’s more common than you’d think.

It’s certainly more widespread than I ever would have thought until a little girl taught me a lesson… well, not a little girl, really.

A few months ago, I would have said she’s the cutest little girl in the lunch line.

Bright, vivacious, always a friendly smile and a kind word.

But she’s not a little girl.

And I didn’t know until she told me.

As a teacher given the unenviable role of line monitor, I have to find the bright spots where I can.

Letting only two hungry 5th graders in to get their lunch at a time and making the rest wait does not make you popular.

“Aaaargh! Why you always stopping me!?” They often say.

“Because you were third,” I reply.

“But why?” They often insist.

“It’s not personal. It’s numerical.”

And I let them through to continue the game tomorrow.

It goes on like that for about a half hour with little variation – until she gets to the front of the line.

“Hey, Mr. Singer!” Big smile and a wave.

And we’d be off on a conversation. She’d ask me how my day was, what I was teaching my students, how my daughter was. I’d ask how her day was so far, about pets, homework.

She’s actually not in my class. I only see her at lunch, but she always brightens my day.

For months, it went like clockwork. Until a few weeks ago when she appeared at the front of the line with her long hair chopped off into a bob.

“Nice haircut,” I said encouragingly.

“Thanks,” she replied. “You want to know why I got it?”

“Sure. Why?”

“I’m agender.”

“Oh,” I responded cluelessly. “What’s that?”

And she proceeded to explain that she didn’t feel comfortable identifying as male or female.

I nodded and then it was time to let her get her lunch.

I’ll admit it was unsettling. Here was this cute little thing and I didn’t even know what to call her now.

But the next day things progressed as usual. Ze came through the line with the same big smile. We had the same innocuous conversation and ze went to eat.

It made me think.

I’ve been teaching for more than a decade. Ze was probably not the first transgender student I’ve met. And when I thought back to all the children who’ve come through my classes over the years, faces started to pop up and hit me.

Gender is not black and white. (Come to think of it, neither is race.) No one is 100% male or female. I mean, sure people have a fixed range of sexual parts, but gender identity is more than that.

We each feel comfortable acting and identifying certain ways, and if you think about it, some of those ways don’t always line up with our cultural gender designation.

For instance, I cry my eyes out at certain movies. My daughter – who’s 8 – heard the song “Boys Don’t Cry,” the other day and said, “Well that isn’t true. Daddy cries all the time.”

Moreover, my wife loves football, basketball and hockey. Me? I could take them or leave them. If she wants me to watch the game with her, she’s got to beg or promise or put out the right snacks.

Wouldn’t it just make sense that some people are much further to one side or other of the gender spectrum than others? Wouldn’t it just make sense that sometimes your identity and your physical parts don’t match? Or maybe you’re so in the middle that it makes no sense to take a side?

I say again, I teach in a public school. We don’t push any kids away. We take everyone. And that means taking those kids who aren’t so easy to label.

I teach middle school. Transgenderism doesn’t come up too often.

Last year when bathroom bills were all the rage, some of my 8th graders brought it up during our Socratic Seminar discussion groups. And I let them talk about it.

We talked about why some people might think this is a good idea, why some might oppose it, etc. There were some boys who were hysterically against trans students using the bathroom with them, but most of my kids had zero problem with it. In fact, they knew that it had already happened.

Trans students are everywhere. You just rarely hear about them.

I don’t know which bathroom my lunchline buddy uses. I wouldn’t presume to ask. But it hurts me that there are people out there who want to limit hir.

These children have rights. They are little sweethearts. They’re full of life and joy. We should respect their humanity.

And to those who say letting them use a bathroom that corresponds with their identity will lead to kids being molested, let me ask – has that ever really happened?

The way I see it, the problem is people – any people – molesting others, no matter what room they do it in, no matter if they’re transgender or not.

Frankly, it doesn’t happen a lot at school, nor is it more pronounced with trans kids.

This has nothing to do with children. It has to do with old men and women who refuse to broaden their views about the world. It’s about the ancient making the young do as they say regardless of how doing so may trample on their right to be themselves.

Well, I won’t be a part of it.

You want to attack my trans students? You’ll have to do it through me.

I’m a guardian of kid’s rights. I’m a defender of children from whoever wants to do them harm.

I’m a public school teacher. That’s just what we do.

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

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Everyone knows U.S. public schools are failing.

Just like everyone knows you should never wake sleepwalkers, bulls hate red and Napoleon was short.

Wrong on all counts. Waking sleepwalkers will cause them no harm – in fact, they’re more likely to harm themselves while sleepwalking. Bulls are colorblind; they’re attracted to movement. And Napoleon was 5’7”, which was above average height for Frenchman during his lifetime.

So why do we believe that American public schools are doing such a terrible job?

Because far right policymakers have convinced us all that it’s true.

It’s not.

Let me repeat that in no uncertain terms – America’s public schools are NOT failing. They are among the best in the world. Really!

Here’s why: the United States educates everyone. Most other countries do not.

We have made a commitment to every single child regardless of what their parents can afford to pay, regardless of their access to transportation, regardless of whether they can afford uniforms, lunch or even if they have a home. Heck! We even provide education to children who are here illegally.

That can’t be said of many countries with which we’re often compared – especially countries comparable to the U.S. in size or diversity. So from the get-go, we have an advantage over most of the world.

We define education differently. Though our laws are woefully backward, in practice we look at it as a right, not a privilege. And for a full 13 years (counting kindergarten) it’s a right for every child, not just some.

But that’s not all! We also provide some of the highest quality education you can get in the world! We teach more, help more, achieve more and yet we are criticized more than any system in any country in the world.

TEST SCORES

Critics argue that our scores on international tests don’t justify such a claim. But they’re wrong before you even look at the numbers. They’re comparing apples to pears. You simply can’t compare the United States to countries that leave hundreds of thousands of rural and poor children without any education whatsoever. The Bates Motel may have the softest pillows in town, but it’s immediately disqualified because of the high chance of being murdered in the shower.

No school system of this size anywhere in the world exceeds the United States in providing free access to education for everyone. And that, alone, makes us one of the best.

It doesn’t mean our system is problem free. There are plenty of ways we could improve. We’re still incredibly segregated by race and class. Our funding formulas are often regressive and inadequate. Schools serving mostly poor students don’t have nearly the resources of those serving rich students. But at least at the very outset what we’re trying to do is better than what most of the world takes on. You can’t achieve equity if it isn’t even on the menu.

However, for some people, this will not be enough. They’ll say that despite our high ideals, the quality of what we actually provide our students is low. After all, those international test scores are so low.

First point: it depends on the scores you’re looking at. American elementary and middle school students have improved on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study every four years since the tests began in 1995. They are above the international average in all categories and within a few percentage points of the global leaders (something rarely mentioned on the nightly news).

Even on the PISA test administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to 15-year-olds in about 60 countries, US children are far from the bottom of the scale. We’re somewhere in the middle. We’ve always been in the middle for all the decades since they’ve been making these comparisons. Our schools have not gotten worse. They have stayed the same.

IDEALS AND POVERTY

To some this just demonstrates that our schools have always been mediocre. But again you’re overlooking the consequences of our ideals.

The broader the spectrum of children who take a test, the lower the average score will be. In other words, if only your top students take the test, your average score will be very high. If only your top and middle students take the test, your average score will still be quite high. But if ALL of your students take the test, your average score will be lower.

Now add in poverty. Living in poverty reduces your access to health care, books, early childhood education and many other factors that increase learning throughout your life. Children from poor families are already more than a year behind those of rich parents on the first day of kindergarten. If you only test the wealthiest students, the average test score will probably be quite high. The average score will drop dramatically if you test all of your students.

That’s why many of these countries where the poorest children do not have access to education have higher test scores than the United States. You’re not comparing equals. The United States has the highest child poverty rate in the Western World. And we don’t hide them away. We include them on our tests. That has a major impact on our scores. But talking heads on TV almost always ignore it. They pretend it doesn’t exist. It’s the only way they can use these test scores to “prove” to a gullible audience that America’s schools are failing.

But if you fairly compare education systems and factor in the equal access we provide for all children to an education, our system comes out way on top. We have one of the best systems in the world.

But wait! There’s more!

SPECIAL EDUCATION

Not only does the United States serve all children regardless of academic achievement or poverty. We also serve far more students with disabilities.

Why are there so many special education children in the USA? Because we have a higher standard of living.

A standard pregnancy lasts about 280 days or 40 weeks. However, some mothers give birth to children after only 28 weeks. Two decades ago, these babies would not have survived. Today, they often do. Five years later that child will enter kindergarten and our school system will be responsible for teaching that student to read, write and learn math. In other countries, premature babies have a much lower chance of survival. They don’t survive to become the special education population. So things as diverse as the live-birth rate actually affect average test scores.

Another counterintuitive factor is the suicide rate. In many countries where pressure to perform at the highest levels on standardized tests is extreme, many children are actually driven to suicide. This is especially true in numerous Asian countries with a record of high scores on these international tests. So a higher suicide rate actually increases test scores.

Would you say this makes other countries superior to the United States? Heck no! In fact, just the opposite. I certainly wouldn’t wish more underperforming U.S. students were ending their lives so we could do better on international tests. Nor would I wish that more premature babies died to improve our international standing.

We have developed a special education system to help children at the edges that many other countries just can’t touch. In some countries these students are simply excluded. In others they are institutionalized. In some countries it’s up to parents to find ways to pay for special services. The United States is one of the only countries where these children are not only included and offered full and free access, but the schools go above and beyond to teach these children well beyond their 12th academic year.

In every public school in the United States these students are included. In math, reading, science and social studies, they are there benefiting from instruction with the rest of the class. And this, in turn, benefits even our non-special education students who gain lessons in empathy and experience the full range of human abilities.

Of course, most of our special education students are also included in our test scores. Yes, other countries that ignore these children and exclude them from testing get higher scores. But so what? Do you mean to tell me this makes them better? No, it makes them worse.

In many ways, we are the gold standard, not them. They should be emulating us, not the other way around. They should be jealous of the way we prize each other’s humanity. We shouldn’t be salivating at test scores achieved through shunning certain students in favor of others.

CURRICULUM AND STRATIFICATION

But it’s not just who we teach, it’s also what we teach.

Compared to many other countries, U.S. school curriculum is often much wider and varied. Countries that focus only on testing often leave out sciences, arts, literature and humanities.

Unfortunately, the push from policymakers even in the U.S. has been to narrow curriculum to imitate some of the worst practices of our competitors. But in many districts we still strive to create well-rounded graduates and not just good test-takers.

The bottom line: the curriculum at most American schools is more inclusive than that found internationally. We even include societal issues like alcohol and drug abuse prevention, stress reduction and relaxation, and physical fitness programs.

In addition we don’t stratify our children based on academic ability to nearly the same degree as many international schools. We don’t weed out our worst students through middle and high school until only our most capable are left in 12th grade. Nor is college only open to our best and brightest. We make a much greater effort than many other countries to keep this option open to as many students as possible regardless of whether they can afford it or not. The number of Americans with at least some college education has soared over the past 70 years, from 10 percent in 1940 to 56 percent today, even as the population has tripled and the nation has grown vastly more diverse. Meanwhile, Graduation rates are at an all-time high of 83.2 percent, and for the first time minority students are catching up with their white counterparts.

It’s not easy. But it’s something we’re committed to as a nation. And that’s not true around the world.

SIZE MATTERS

Finally, there’s the issue of size. The United States is a big country – the third most populous in the world. We have 324,450,000 people and growing. That’s about 50 million students in public schools.

It’s much easier to educate fewer children. Even excellent education systems would struggle with our sheer numbers. Small systems often outshine bigger ones. For instance, I might be able to make dinner for my immediate family, but I’d find it much more challenging to prepare a meal for a banquet hall of hundreds. Similarly, it remains to be seen whether smaller nations could handle educating a population as big and diverse as ours without collapsing.

By any fair measure, America’s public education system is simply stunning. But the media perpetuates the myth that we’re failing.

PUBLIC PERCEPTION AND THE MEDIA

After decades of hearing these falsehoods, the American public is strikingly divided. On a 2011 Gallup poll, parents were asked their opinion of their local school and the public was asked its opinion of schools in general. The results are enlightening. Parents who gave their local school an A grade were at the highest percentage ever (37%) whereas only 1% of respondents rated the nations schools that way. Why the difference? Respondents said it was mostly because people knew about their local schools through direct experience. They only learned about the state of education nationally through the news media.

Why is education reporting so biased? Part of it is monetary. Huge corporations make hundreds of millions of dollars off of the failing schools narrative. They sell new standardized tests, new test prep materials, new Common Core books, trainings for teachers, materials, etc. If they can’t demonstrate that our schools are failing, their market shrinks. And who do you think owns the shrinking media conglomerates? That’s right, many of these same corporations.

But even when journalists want to be fair, it’s difficult for them to get the inside story of how our public schools work. They are rarely permitted inside our schools to see the day-to-day classroom experience. Legal issues about which students may be photographed, filmed or interviewed, the difficulty of getting parental permissions and the possibility of embarrassment to principals and administrators often keeps the doors closed. In many districts, teachers aren’t even allowed to speak on the record to the media or doing so can make them a political target. So reporters are often in the position of being unable to directly experience the very thing they’re reporting on. Imagine if sportswriters never got to see athletes play or political reporters never attended a campaign rally. Of course there would be a disconnect!

So we’re left with a public education system that should be the envy of the world being portrayed as a loser.

THE BOTTOM LINE

As ever, far right politicians on both sides of the aisle, whether they be Democratic Neoliberals or Republican Tea Partiers, are using falsehoods about our public schools to sell an alternative. They say our public schools are beyond saving and that we need to privatize. They call it school choice but it’s really just an attempt to destroy the system that has so much going for it.

We should strengthen public education not undermine it. We should roll up our sleeves and fix the real problems we have, not invent fake ones.

People act as if “alternative facts” were invented by the Trump administration. Our policymakers have been using them for decades in a libelous and dishonest campaign against our public schools.

They are some of the best in the world – if only people knew it.

The Essential Selfishness of School Choice

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Say your friend Sheila invites you over to her house.

Sheila has just made a fresh pumpkin pie.

She offers you a slice.

You politely refuse, but she insists. She hands you the knife so you can take as big a piece as you like.

You start to cut and then ask, “Does it matter where I cut from?”

Sheila says, “No. Take whatever you want.”

You don’t like crust, so you cut a perfect triangle piece from the middle of the pie.

Sheila’s face reddens.

This wasn’t exactly what she meant, but what is she going to do? You took your slice, and now the rest of the pie is ruined. No one else can take a whole piece. Your choice has limited everyone else’s.

That’s what school choice does to public education.

It privileges the choice of some and limits the choices of others.

Advocates say parents should be able to choose the school their children attend.

And parents today do have many choices. About 90% send their kids to traditional public schools. Others home school, pay for private schools or opt for charter or voucher schools.

The problem comes with these last two options. In both cases, tax money meant to help all children is siphoned off for just one child. In the case of vouchers, tax money goes to pay part of the tuition at a private or parochial school. In the case of charters, we’re diverting tax money to a school that’s public in name but privately run.

That means less money for traditional public schools and more money for privately run institutions. That’s really what school choice is – a way to further privatize public schools.

Why is that bad?

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First, it increases the cost and reduces the services for everyone.

 

Public schools pool all the funding for a given community in one place. By doing so, they can reduce the cost and maximize the services provided. One building costs less than two. The same goes for one staff, one electric bill, one infrastructure, etc.

When you start adding additional layers of parallel schools, you increase the costs even if you somehow divided the children evenly between the two systems (which hardly ever happens). You buy less with the same money. That translates to fewer services for the same kids, larger class sizes, narrowed curriculum, etc. Why? So that parents could choose School A or School B. So that privatizers get a bigger slice of the pie – right from the middle.

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Second, each type of school has different goals.

 

Public schools are designed to educate. Corporate schools are designed to profit. Those are their very reasons for existing. It’s built into their DNA and is reflected in the way they’re administrated.

By law, public schools are not for-profit. They pay for goods and services, but at the end of the day, they aren’t beholden to shareholders or investors. They don’t need to bring in more money than they spend. All they have to do is educate children, and if they somehow end up with extra money at the end of that process, that money is bound by law to be reinvested as savings for next year.

Charter and voucher schools are not so constrained. Their reason for being is not education – it is profit. Where they can, they will cut services for children and reduce quality so that they can increase the bottom line. Even a casual glance at the news will show you a plethora of charter and voucher school scandals where privateers have stolen millions of dollars of taxpayer money instead of educating. To return to the dessert metaphor, they don’t care what their slice does to everyone else – they only care about the size of the slice.

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Third, charter and voucher schools aren’t as accountable as traditional public schools.

 

Each type of school is supported by tax money. Therefore, each school should be held accountable for spending that money wisely. But the rules are radically different for public schools vs. choice schools.

Public schools have elected school boards made up of taxpayers from the community. Choice schools often do not. They are run by appointed boards who are only accountable to investors. Public schools are required to be transparent. Their documentation, budgets and meetings must be available to the media and community for review. This is not true of privatized choice schools.

If taxpayers are unhappy with the way a traditional public school is being run, they have multiple options for changing it. With choice schools, their only option is to withdraw their child. And in the case of taxpayers who do not have children in the system at all, they have no recourse at all. This is fiscally irresponsible and amounts to taxation without representation. This alone should be enough to make any true conservative withdraw support – however ideology has trumped logic and reason. Not only do they ruin the pie, they get to do so in secret.

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Fourth, school vouchers rarely cover the entire cost of attending private schools.

 

They end up subsidizing costs for rich and upper middle class students while keeping away the poor. As such they create a system of cultural and racial education segregation. They create tiers of schools – the public schools being only for the poor, cheaper private schools for the middle class and expensive private schools for the rich.

This is not the best way to educate children. It is not the best way to organize a society. It entrenches social and class differences and builds in entitlements and racism for the wealthy. Surely our public schools have become more segregated even without vouchers, but that is no reason to make the situation exponentially worse. The size and placement of one’s slice shouldn’t depend on the color of your skin or the size of your bank account.

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Fifth, all schools are not equally successful.

 

Though the media would have you believe otherwise, traditional public schools do a much better job of educating children than charter or voucher schools. Some choice schools have better outcomes, but the majority do no better and often much worse than traditional public schools. Moreover, children who continually move from school-to-school regardless of its type almost always suffer academically.

So when parents engage in these choice schemes, they often end up hurting their own children. The chances of children benefiting from charter or voucher schools is minimal. You can cut a slice from the center of the pie, but it’s likely to fall apart before you get it on a plate.

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So in summary, school choice is essentially selfish. Even in cases where kids do benefit from choice, they have weakened the chances of everyone else in the public school system. They have increased the expense and lowered the services of children at both types of school. They have allowed unscrupulous profiteers to make away with taxpayer money while taxpayers and fiscal watchdogs are blindfolded. And when students return to their traditional public school after having lost years of academic progress at a substandard privatized institution, it is up to the taxpayers to pay for remediation to get these kids back up to speed.

Choice advocates talk about children being trapped in failing schools, but they never examine what it is about them that is failing.

Almost all public schools that are struggling serve impoverished students. That’s not a coincidence. It’s the cause. Schools have difficulty educating the poorest children. Impoverished children have greater needs. We should be adding tutoring, counseling and mentor programs. We should be helping their parents find jobs, providing daycare, healthcare and giving these struggling people a helping hand to get them back on their feet.

But instead we’re abandoning them. Most impoverished schools serving poor children receive less funding than those serving middle class or wealthy populations. In other western countries, it’s just the opposite. They provide more funding and resources for poor students to meet their greater needs.

School choice ignores all of this. If I may momentarily switch metaphors, instead of fixing the leak in our public school system, advocates prescribe running for the lifeboats. We could all be sailing on a strong central cruise-liner able to meet the demands of a sometimes harsh and uncaring ocean together. Instead we’re told to get into often leaky escape craft that even under the best of circumstances aren’t as strong as the system we’re abandoning.

And the reason is profits.

Have you ever noticed that the overwhelming majority of school choice proponents are rich white people?

Many of them own charter school companies or otherwise invest in the field. They aren’t advocating a policy to help children learn. They’re enriching themselves at public expense. Sure they point their fingers at union teachers making a middle class wage. Meanwhile these choice advocates rake in public money to buy yachts, condos and jewelry.

Make no mistake – school choice is essentially about selfishness. At every level it’s about securing something for yourself at the expense of others. Advocates call that competition, but it’s really just grift.

Public education is essentially the opposite. It’s about ensuring that every child gets the best education possible. Yes, it’s not perfect, and there are things we could be doing to improve it. But it is inherently an altruistic endeavor coming from the best of what it means to be an American.

We’ve all got choices in life. The question is what kind of person do you want to be? A person who takes only for his or herself? Or someone who tries to find an option that helps everyone?

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You Can’t Be Anti-Opt Out and Pro-Democracy

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Our lawmakers have a problem.

This summer they doubled down on one of the most anti-democratic mandates in the federal repertoire yet they claim they did so to protect states rights.

Here’s the problem.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of public school parents across the country opt their children out of standardized testing.

But Congress voted to keep mandating that 95% of students take the tests.

It all happened with the much celebrated bipartisan passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the federal law that governs K-12 schools.

While lawmakers made changes here and there to let the states decide various education issues, they kept the mandate that students participate in annual testing.

They didn’t leave that to the states. Whether they were Republican or Democrat, almost all lawmakers thought it was just fine for the federal government to force our children to take standardized tests at least every year in 3-8th grades and once in high school.

If any school district, has more than 5% of students that don’t take the tests – for whatever reason – the federal government can deny that district funding.

Think about that for a moment.

Our lawmakers are supposedly acting in our interests. They’re our representatives. We’re their constituents. They get their power to pass laws because of our consent as the governed. Yet in this instance they chose to put their own judgement ahead of ours.

They could have made an exception for parents refusing the tests on behalf of their children. They just didn’t see the need to do so.

Why? Because they were worried about minority students.

It’s a laughable claim in so many ways.

It goes something like this – without standardized testing, we’ll have no way of knowing if public schools are educating students of color.

Let’s say for a moment that this were true. In that case, we can expect no parent of color would ever refuse standardized testing for his/her child.

First, this is demonstrably untrue. Black and brown parents may not be the most numerous in the opt out movement, but they do take part in it.

Second, in the majority of cases where white parents refuse testing, that would have no bearing on whether testing helps or hurts students of color. If the point is the data testing gives us on black kids, what white kids do on the test is irrelevant.

Third, even if opting out hurt students of color, one would assume that it is the parents prerogative whether they want to take part. If a black parent doesn’t want her black son to take a multiple choice exam, she should have the right to waive that exam and the responsibility would be on her head.

So there is absolutely no reason why lawmakers should have overstepped their bounds in this way and blocked all parents rights about what the schools do to their children.

It is a clear case of governmental overreach. And there are plenty of parents just waiting to bring it to the U.S. Supreme Court for the ultimate Constitutional test.

However, that probably won’t happen for the same reason it never happened through the 15 years of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) which also contained the annual testing rule.

The federal government has never withheld tax dollars based on students not taking standardized tests. officials at the U.S. Department of Education have made threats, but they have never devolved into action.

The bottom line is this: they know how Unconstitutional this mandate is, and they aren’t itching to have it tested in the highest court in the land.

It would open a whole can of worms about standardized testing. What is the federal government allowed to do and not allowed to do about education policy?

The ESSA is an attempt to reduce the federal role, but keeping the annual testing mandate was either a grievous mistake or the last vestiges of federal hubris.

But let’s return to the reasoning behind it – so-called civil rights fears.

Various groups including the NAACP asked for it to be included to protect minority students. Annual testing is the only way, they claimed, to make sure schools are teaching students of color.

It’s nonsense.

There are plenty of ways to determine if schools are meeting the needs of minority students – especially since most students of color go to segregated schools.

Even after Brown v. Board, we have schools that cater to black kids and schools that cater to white kids. We have schools for poor kids and rich kids.

It is obvious which schools get the most resources. Why isn’t that part of this “accountability” scheme? We can audit districts to see how much is spent per pupil on poor black kids vs rich white kids. We can determine which groups go to schools with larger class sizes, which groups have more access to tutoring and social services, which groups have expanded or narrowed curriculums, which groups have access to robust extra-curricular activities, which groups have the most highly trained and experienced teachers, etc.

In fact, THAT would tell us much more about how these two groups are being served by our public schools than standardized test scores. We’ve known for almost a century that these test scores are more highly correlated with parental income than academic knowledge. They’re culturally biased, subjectively scored and poorly put together. But they support a multibillion dollar industry. If we allow a back door for all that money to dry up, it will hurt lawmakers REAL constituents – big business.

So why were civil rights groups asking the testing mandate be kept in the bill? Because the testing industry is comprised of big donors.

Only a few months before passage of the ESSA, many of these same civil rights groups had signed declarations against standardized testing. Then suddenly they saw the light as their biggest donors threatened to drop out.

Make no mistake. Standardized testing doesn’t help poor minority children. It does them real harm. But the testing industry wrapped themselves up in this convenient excuse to give lawmakers a reason to stomp all over parental rights.

The conflict wasn’t between civil rights and parental rights. It was between parental rights and corporate rights. And our lawmakers sided with the corporations.

Let me be clear: legislators cannot be against opt out and in favor of individual rights.

The two are intimately connected.

Our schools have no business telling parents how to raise their kids. But our parents DO have a right to do the opposite. In fact, that’s how the system is supposed to work.

We, parents and citizens, control our schools – not you, our representatives. The principal can’t say you haven’t a right to opt out your kid. He’s just your representative. So is the teacher.

Everyone who works in the school is there to do what you want them to do for your child. Yes, they are well trained and have a world of knowledge and experience that we should draw on. And in most cases, they’re being forced to confront us by lawmakers who are tying their hands and directing them to do the dirty work.

We have common cause. We need to stand with our teachers and principals, our school boards and education professors. We need to stand together against lawmakers who think they know better.

In short, we don’t need lawmakers consent to opt out. They need our consent to stop us.

They get their power from us. They work for us.

And it’s time they get to work and rescind the annual testing mandate.