Test-Based Accountability – Smokescreen for Cowardly Politicians and Unscrupulous Corporations

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There is no single education policy more harmful than test-based accountability.

 

The idea goes like this: We need to make sure public schools actually teach children, and the best way to do that is with high stakes standardized testing.

 

It starts from the assumption that the problems with our school system are all service-based. Individual schools or districts are not providing quality services. Teachers and administrators are either screwing up or don’t care enough to do the job.

 

But this is untrue. In reality, most of our problems are resource-based. From the get-go, schools and districts get inequitable resources with which to work.

 

This is not a guess. This is not a theory. It is demonstrable. It has been demonstrated. It is a fact.

 

No one even disputes it.

 

What is in question is its importance.

 

However, any lack of intention or ability on the part of schools to actually teach is, in fact, pure conjecture. It is a presumption, an excuse by those responsible for allocating resources (i.e. lawmakers) from doing their jobs.

 

Any time you hear senators or representatives at the state or federal level talking about test-based accountability, they are ignoring their own duties to properly provide for our public school children and pushing everything onto the schools, themselves.

 

That is the foundation of the concept. It’s hard to imagine more unstable ground from which to base national education policy.

 

But it gets worse.

 

With our eyes closed and this assumption swallowed like a poison pill, we are asked to accept further toxic premises.

 

Next comes the concept of trustworthiness.

 

We are being asked to question the trustworthiness of teachers. Instead, we are pushed to trust corporations – corporations that manufacture standardized tests.

 

I have no idea why anyone would think that big business is inherently moral or ethical. The history of the world demonstrates this lie. Nor do I understand why anyone would start from the proposition that teachers are inherently untrustworthy. Like any other group of human beings, educators include individuals that are more or less honest, but the profession is not motivated by a creed that specifically prescribes lying if it maximizes profit.

 

Business is.

 

Test manufacturers are motivated by profit. They will do that which maximizes the corporate bottom line. And student failure does just that.

 

Most of these companies don’t just manufacturer tests. They also provide the books, workbooks, software and other materials schools use to get students ready to take the tests. They produce the remediation materials for students who fail the tests. And they provide and grade the tests in the first place.

 

When students fail their tests, it means more money for the corporation. More money to give and grade the retests. More money to provide additional remediation materials. And it justifies the need for tests to begin with.

 

Is it any wonder then that so many kids fail? That’s what’s profitable.

 

There was a time when classroom teachers were not so motivated.

 

They were not paid based on how many of their students passed the test. Their evaluations were not based on student test scores. Their effectiveness used to be judged based on what they actually did in the classroom. If they could demonstrate to their administrators that they were actually making good faith efforts to teach kids, they were considered effective. If not, they were ineffective. It was a system that was both empirical and fair – and one to which we should return.

 

In fact, it was so fair that it demonstrated the partisanship of the corporations. Laws were changed to bring teacher motivation more in line with those of big business. Their evaluations became based on student test scores. Their salaries were increasingly tied to student success on these tests. And when some teachers inevitably felt the pressure to cheat on the tests, they were scapegoated and fired. There is no mechanism available to even determine if testing corporations cheat less than penalties for it.

 

After all, what is cheating for a testing corporation when they determine the cut score for passing and failing?

 

Yet this is a major premise behind test-based accountability – the untrustworthiness of teachers compared to the dependable, credibility of corporations.

 

Next, come the scores, themselves.

 

Time-after-time, standardized test scores show a striking correspondence: poor and minority students often do badly while middle class and wealthy white students do well.

 

Why is that?

 

Well, it could mean, as we’ve already mentioned, that poor and minority students aren’t receiving the proper resources. Or it could mean that teachers are neglecting these children.

 

There is a mountain of evidenceundisputed evidence – to support the former. There is nothing to support the later.

 

I’m not saying that there aren’t individual teachers out there who may be doing a bad job educating poor and minority children. There certainly are some. But there is no evidence of a systemic conspiracy by teachers to educate the rich white kids and ignore all others. However, there IS an unquestionable, proven system of disinvestment in these exact same kids by lawmakers.

 

If we used standardized tests to shine a light on the funding inequalities of the system, perhaps they would be doing some good. But this is not how we interpret the data.

 

Finally comes the evidence of history.

 

Standardized testing is not new. It is a practice with a past that is entirely uncomplimentary.

 

These kinds of assessments are poor indicators of understanding complex processes. Answering multiple choice questions is not the best way to determine comprehension.

 

Moreover, this process is tainted by the eugenicist movement from which it originates. Standardized testing is a product of the belief that some races are better than others. It is a product of white supremacy. It was designed by racist psychologists who used it to justify the social structure of past generations and roundly praised and emulated by literal Nazis.

 

It is therefore not surprising that test scores show privileged white kids as superior to underprivileged students of color. That is how the system was designed.

 

Why any educated person would unquestionably accept these scores as valid assessments of student learning is beyond me.

 

Yet these are the assumptions and premises upon which the house of test-based accountability is built.

 

It is a smokescreen to protect politicians from having to provide adequate, equitable, sustainable resources for all children. It likewise protects unscrupulous business people so they can continue to cash in on the school system without providing any real value for students.

 

We must no longer allow policymakers to hide behind this blatant and immoral lie.

 

Not only should voters refrain from re-electing any lawmakers whose constituents children are receiving inequitable school resources, they should not be eligible for re-election.

 

Not only should corporations not be trusted more than teachers, they should be barred from determining success or failure while also profiting off of that same failure.

 

In short, we need to stop worshipping at the altar of test-based accountability.

 

Schools can and should be held accountable. But it cannot be done with standardized tests.

 

Moreover, we must stop ignoring the role of policymakers and business in this system. They must also be responsible. We are allowing them to get away with murder.

 

It’s time to wake up and make them answer for what they’ve done to our nation’s children.

Bring Your Gun to School – Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Senate

 

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Next school year, I may be able to bring my gun to class.

 

The Pennsylvania state Senate voted 28-22 today to allow school employees like me to start packing heat.

 

Hooray!

 

My class sizes will be larger because of almost $1 billion in budget cuts the legislature couldn’t be bothered to heal over the last seven years. I’ll have to teach more sections because my district is bleeding money from charter school vampires that the legislature couldn’t be bothered to regulate.

 

But now I can be fully armed.

 

Priorities.

 

Bullets over books, I guess.

 

As a more than 15 year veteran of the public school system, I can’t wait to get back in the classroom wondering which of my fellow teachers, principals, custodians or rent-a-cop security guards is fully locked and loaded. I can’t wait until my elementary school daughter is finally protected by being in an adult’s daily line of fire.

 

This is going to make us much safer.

 

At my school, we fired a security guard for slamming a student’s head into the table. I’m sure having these folks armed will have no negative effects at all.

 

And the extra stress from added responsibilities being piled on my back will just make me more vigilant in case I need to take out my piece in class and chase away Black Bart with my Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model… uh… rifle.

 

Maybe I can get one with a compass in the stock and a thingie that really tells time, too!

 

Seriously, it’s hard to believe that grown adults actually voted on this ridiculous farce of a law. The only positive thing is that it still needs to be passed by the House and signed by the Governor.

 

Bad news: state Representatives just might be as stupid as their Senate colleagues. Good news: the Governor isn’t. There is less than a snowball’s chance in Hell that Gov. Tom Wolf is going to sign this piece of crap.

 

This is what happens when you have a Republican-controlled legislature and a Democratic Governor. The kids say they want nothing but candy for dinner and Dad says “No.”

 

Now, with a reality TV star con man in our highest national office, GOP-controlled state legislatures like mine all over the country have become emboldened to pass even worse excrement knowing full well that it has zero chance of ever becoming law. But at least they’ll prove to their gerrymandered Republican voting districts not to primary them with even further right leaning Tea Party mental defectives.

 

It’s a game of chicken with our most vulnerable residents held hostage in the middle.

 

You know, if lawmakers think that guns are such a great idea in schools, why don’t they make them legal at the state capital?

 

You can’t go in that building without passing through a metal detector. If you try to bring a gun in there, the best thing you can hope for is to be refused entry.

 

The same thing at Commonwealth courts, military bases, mental hospitals, prisons and even the security checkpoint at the airport.

 

And it’s pretty similar in most states. Certainly at federal institutions. You can’t take a firearm with you to visit your Congressperson – or on a tour of the White House.

 

Heck! Guns aren’t even welcome at Donald Trump’s political rallies, or most of his hotels, golf courses or other properties. Same at conventions held by the National Rifle Association and the Conservative Political Action Conference.

 

Gee. Why are so-called conservatives so darn concerned with making sure teachers are armed, but they don’t want to offer the same “protection” to themselves in government, at their businesses, rallies and places of leisure?

 

Why? Because it’s bullshit.

 

That’s why.

 

Most of them don’t really want guns in schools. They know it’s a terrible idea. They just want to look like they support it. Their propaganda networks spew out all this nonsense that they have to pretend to believe.

 

When they let protesters enter the capital building open carrying automatic weapons, THEN I won’t doubt their sincerity.

 

When they let Black Lives Matter activists strapping rifles across their shoulders into their rallies among the angry and confused hillbillies, THEN I’ll know how serious they are.

 

And when the upper crust private and parochial schools where they send their own children start arming their teachers, THEN I’ll believe them.

 

Until that day, I call bullshit on this whole ridiculous endeavor.

Pennsylvania: No School Property Tax for the Rich, Poor Still Pay

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Eliminating property tax to fund public schools sounds like a great idea!

Until you read the fine print.

Because what Pennsylvania legislators are proposing won’t actually eliminate property taxes – unless you’re rich.

And it won’t ensure students get the funding they need.

And it will limit school boards’ local control.

But it will benefit the rich and big corporations, which is really the only reason we’re talking about it – AGAIN.

Let me break it down for you.

First, the bill being shopped around is called the Property Tax Independence Act or SB 76. It would get rid of all property taxes used to fund public schools and replace them with increases in sales and income taxes.

Somehow these increases would need to generate an additional $12 billion a year in revenue so that we can keep funding our schools at the present level. That’s some tax increase – and guess who’s going to pay the bulk of it – YOU.

Guess who’s not going to pay much of it – the huge corporations who used to pay property taxes on all those commercial, industrial, oil and gas properties.

This is a huge giveaway to big business, and it’s a substantial hike for regular Commonwealth citizens like you and me.

But that’s not all!

If you live in a poor school district, you’ll still have to pay property taxes. That’s right – if your district is in debt, you’ll still get a property tax bill to pay it off.

Considering that the state cut almost $1 billion a year in school funding for the past 6 years and that most districts have had to go into debt, increase taxes or both, you’re probably not going to see your property taxes go away anytime soon.

They might go down up to 40%. Or they might not go down at all. AND you still have to pay higher sales and income taxes.

But here’s the best part.

Pennsylvania has the dubious distinction of being the national leader in unfair school funding.

We spend 33% more money on our rich students than on our poor ones. That’s the greatest disparity in the entire country!

And that’s saying something in a nation where spending more on wealthy kids is the norm.

However, this new bill won’t do anything to change that. In fact, it will lock-in that disparity.

Rich districts that today spend $23,000 per student will still spend $23,000, and poor districts that today spend $8,000 per student will still spend $8,000. But instead of your tax dollars going to the kids in your community, they’ll go to the state to be distributed everywhere. This means folks living in poor neighborhoods will probably be paying higher taxes so that they can fund the wealthiest kids. Likewise, rich parents will probably pay less while the difference is made up from taxes collected from the poor.

Call me crazy, but that just isn’t fair.
Finally, it takes away a lot of the local control from your local school board.

At present, if your local district has needs, your board can meet them by raising taxes. But under this bill, the only entity that can do that is the legislature.

I know, I know – your taxes are already too high. But the issue is who is more suited to making that decision – Harrisburg or your own community?

This bill is nothing new. Legislators have been trying to sneak it through for years.

Back in 2015 it passed the House but was defeated in the Senate when the Lt. Governor cast the deciding ballot against it. In 2013, it almost passed as an amendment to another bill, but the nonpartisan Pennsylvania Independent Fiscal Office ruined it by projecting a $1 billion shortfall within four years if it were passed.

However, the makeup of the Senate has changed. Now we have two new members who campaigned promising to pass this legislation, so it might actually squeak through.

The bill is being shopped around by state Sen. David Argall (R-Schuylkill/Berks) who authored it along with the Pennsylvania Coalition of Taxpayer Associations.

This group claims to be a simple citizens organization made up of 87 nonpartisan tax-conscious advocacy groups. But a quick look at the names of these organizations includes multiple uses of terms like “patriot,” and “freedom,” and “liberty,” and “conservative,” and “tea party.”

Nonpartisan, my butt!

Moreover, the stated goal of the group is just to pass this legislation.

That’s not a group of concerned citizens. It’s almost a PAC!

The organization has even endorsed candidates – some of them noted progressive Democrats like state Sen. Andy Dinniman (D-West Chester) and James Brewster (D-McKeesport), who both voted for the legislation in 2015.

To make it even more complex, the authors of the bill have a point. Property taxes are a terrible way to fund schools. They ensure that some districts will be better funded than others based on the local wealth of the community.

However, this bill does nothing to fix the inherent problems for children or poor and middle class communities. It compounds them.

Ironically, Gov. Wolf proposed a compromise solution two years ago with his first budget. He suggested reducing residential property taxes by $3.8 billion, targeting the biggest cuts for the neediest taxpayers and neediest schools. Moreover, he proposed increasing funding to the most impoverished districts so they could catch up to the well-funded ones.

But Republicans, who control both houses, refused to even consider it.

So here we go again. We have another Trojan Horse proposal. A good idea has been twisted and bastardized so that it serves the wealthy and private enterprise while doing irreparable harm to children and the poor. And even though it is an example of far right ideology, it has received bipartisan support.

Gov. Wolf is set to propose his new budget sometime this month. Sen. Argall is expected to reintroduce SB 76 during the subsequent budget negotiations.

It is a piece of zombie legislation that no matter how fetid and rotten just refuses to die. But this time, it just might bite us.

The Measure of Citizenship isn’t an Exit Exam – It’s Participating in Our Democracy

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Pennsylvania legislators just flunked civics – big time.

Once again, instead of offering real solutions to eradicate the ignorance of the coming generation, they clothed themselves in their own.

A bi-partisan group of 47 state lawmakers is proposing forcing all public school students to pass a test on citizenship in order to qualify for a diploma.

House Bill 1858 would require all K-12 schools receiving tax dollars — including charters schools and cybercharters — to give their students the same 100-question test that immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship will have to pass starting in 2020. Any student who doesn’t get a sufficient score will not receive a diploma or GED equivalency.

While it is admirable that legislators are concerned that high school students don’t know enough about civics, it’s unfortunate that they think the solution is another standardized test.

After all, what does being a good citizen have to do with a multiple choice exam?

Citizenship is about political independence. It’s about exercising your rights, not memorizing them. It’s about engaging in the political process, not spitting back facts about what kind of tree George Washington chopped down. It’s about using the principals of self-determination to rise up to the level of personal and community involvement, of individual sovereignty and home rule.

This involves actually teaching civics, a subject that has been cut to the quick in our schools to make room for an increasing amount of test-prep in math and reading. It used to be common for American high schools to offer three civics and government courses. Two of them – “Civics” and “Problems of Democracy” – defined the role of a citizen in relation to current events and issues. However, in most districts now these have been condensed into one “American Government” course that spends hardly any time on how students can and should participate in their government. Moreover, this course isn’t even offered until junior or senior year – far too late to make much of a difference.

Maybe instead of  putting a metaphorical gun to kids heads and demanding they care about civics, you could actually provide some resources so teachers could… I don’t know… teach it!

How about actually funding our public schools? You well-meaning dunderheads slashed school budgets by almost $1 billion a year for the last six years, and your only solution to helping kids learn has been to put more hurdles in their way without offering anything to help them achieve.

That is a losing strategy. If you want to have a winning race horse, at some point you have to feed the freakin’ horse!

If lawmakers really want kids in the Keystone state to know something about civics, why not start by making it easier for schools to broaden the curriculum to include robust civics courses?

This means REDUCING the number of standardized tests, not increasing them. Inject some money into the system so schools can hire back some of the 25,000 teachers who have been furloughed. You want kids to learn how to be citizens? Provide them with excellent teachers who actually get to experience some meaningful professional development, teachers not overburdened with meaningless paperwork to justify their jobs at every turn, teachers encouraged with rewards for seeking National Board Certification, etc. And let’s reduce class size so kids actually have the chance to be heard by their teachers and might actually learn something.

Moreover, if you really want to assess if these lessons have been learned, assess whether students are actually participating in their Democracy.

That’s the thing about citizenship. It looks like a noun, but it’s really a verb. It only has meaning if you do it.

Have high school kids registered to vote? Have they volunteered to take part in the political process, to canvass or phone bank for a candidate they believe in? Have they attended a session of the state House or Senate? (Have you provided the funding for appropriate field trips?) Have they attended a rally or protest for a cause close to their hearts?

THESE are the measures of true citizenship. And there are things you can do to make it easier for students to take part.

But no one really wants that. Come on. This is still essentially the same legislature that passed a Voter ID bill a few years back to make it harder for people to participate in our Democracy. And it would still be on the books if the state Supreme Court hadn’t struck it down as Unconstitutional.

Citizenship!? This is the same legislature that redrew state districts to be so incredibly gerrymandered that the most radical factions of both parties are unchallenged each election cycle!

You know why children don’t know more about civics? Because they’re so disgusted and demoralized by the example you’ve shown them. When politics is nothing but a show, when hardly anything ever changes or actually gets accomplished in Harrisburg, you expect kids to get excited by citizenship!? HA!

All you know how to do is pretend. That’s what this is. Just throw another standardized test on the fire of our children’s education and you can act like you’ve done something.

May I remind you we’re still dealing with the last smoldering exit exam disaster you fostered on us – the Keystone Exams?

You spent $1.1 billion on these tests since 2008, and they’re a statewide joke! You required all students to pass these assessments in Literature, Algebra and Biology, but they’re so poorly constructed and confusing that only half of our students can pass all three. So you put them on hold for two years until you could decide what to do.

And before you even fix that mess, you actually have the gall to say, “Hey! Let’s make kids take ANOTHER test!?”

I know some of you mean well, but this suggestion is a disgrace.

It’s style over substance.

This isn’t a measure to reduce ignorance. It’s a measure conceived in ignorance that’s guaranteed to proliferate it.

Racism Never Ended – It Just Keeps Evolving

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“One of our founding principles as a nation [is] that Black lives and Black bodies don’t matter; you see that in all our headlines today. This original sin lingers on, that’s why we got to call it sin… Slavery never ended, it just evolved. Mass incarceration is the current evolution of slavery.”
Jim Wallis  
 
 
“Even the most casual student of our country’s legal system should know that racism hasn’t existed since 1964 when we passed the Civil Rights Act. So obviously there’s no possible way for my statement to be considered racist if racism hasn’t existed for fifty years! I mean come on, racism? It’s 2015 people, racism is over.”

Antonin Scalia
 

When does brutality end – when it stops being practiced or when its effects stop being felt?

Neither condition has been met in the United States today. Black people still suffer under state-sanctioned barbarism just as the echoes of cruelty from years past continue to ring in our ears.

People of color – whether they be black, Latino, Hispanic, etc. – experience a much different reality than whites. They live under the constant threat of violence without justice. Their rights are continually being re-evaluated. They are subject to systems that wait for them to step out of line in even the most innocuous ways and then pounce.

And the white majority goes around blind to these perceptions while repeating the fairy tale that all wrongdoings were only in the past.

But it’s not in the past. Our history, written in blood, has never been allowed to dry on our forgotten chronicles of yesterday. When white eyes examine the facts, they often see a series of unrelated dots which they cannot – or will not – logically connect.

The Civil War is over, they say.

No. It’s not.

Slavery is over, they say.

No. It’s not.

Racism is over, they say.

No. It’s not.

We still are engaged in the struggle for basic human dignity. And the only way to even begin on that path is to recognize the truth staring us in the face.

Nothing has ended. It has only evolved.

 

THE CIVIL WAR

 

When did the American Civil War end?

This may seem a strange question to ask.

But when a country goes to war with itself, it may be difficult to discern when that conflict actually comes to completion.

History gives us many important dates to consider.

On April 9, 1865, commander of the Confederate armies General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Virginia. But there were still sizable Confederate troops left standing.

In fact, the bloodshed was far from over. President Abraham Lincoln was murdered a mere 5 days later by John Wilkes Booth, a Southern sympathizer. Andrew Johnson was sworn in as President on April 15, the next morning.

It wasn’t until April 26, that General Joseph E. Johnson surrendered nearly 90,000 Tennessee soldiers – the largest of a series of subsequent capitulations.

President Johnson declared the insurrection to be over on May 9. However, the last Confederate general didn’t surrender until June 23.

Which date shall we choose? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. The point is that the conflict clearly came to an end.

Clearly the Confederacy was defeated by the Union.

Wasn’t it?

The problem is how to tell.

The Southern states were brought back into the union. But the overwhelming reason behind their secession has not been settled.

Today partisans and talking heads will argue that slavery was but one of many reasons behind the split. But during the 1860s, there was no such confusion.

Four of the Southern states explicitly gave slavery as the impetus for the break.

But Alexander H. Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederacy, removed all doubt when he said:

“The new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions–African slavery as it exists among us–the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization.

[…] The general opinion of the men of that day
[Revolutionary Period] was, that, somehow or other, in the order of Providence, the institution [slavery] would be evanescent and pass away.

[…] Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”

So if the war was fought over the issue of slavery and the subjugation of black people, its end can be traced to the date at which slavery ended and black people were treated as equals with whites.

That day has not yet come.

Outright slavery came to an eventual end, but – as we shall see – it was replaced with another institution. Moreover, in the aftermath of Reconstruction, we were left with Jim Crow laws cementing white supremacy. Most newly “freed” blacks lived in squalid conditions with few rights, little pay and education. Their situation was only slightly different in fact from their state under slavery. These laws had to be struck down by the collective actions of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s.

Only then were black people truly permitted to vote en mass. Only then were they permitted in the same public spaces and offered some actionable protections under the law. But social and economic change still lags behind.

Today, more than 150 years since the end of the war’s military conflicts, we’re left to ponder: have things really changed so much?

Certainly there are cosmetic differences. There are no open air slave markets, no rolling cotton plantations staffed by bare backed, lash marked, kidnapped Africans. But have black people really been put on an equal footing with whites? Do they enjoy the same freedoms and privileges? Are they truly free from bondage and oppression?

If we look with open eyes, the answer is no.

 

SLAVERY

 

Today no one is legally allowed to own another person. You can’t purchase human beings. You can’t deprive them of their liberty and rights. You can’t use them as a source of revenue for your own benefit.

At least, that’s what the law says. But it happens every day.

What is the modern prison industry if not a new form of slavery? No matter how you look at it, we lock up a higher percentage of our population than any other country in the world. The US represents 5% of the world’s population but has 25% of the world’s prisoners. And the majority of those inmates have brown skin.

Whether federal, state, or privately run, the result is a massive increase in incarceration for people of color. In fact, more black people are in prison today than were in bondage in 1865. That’s a higher percentage of the black population than South Africa locked up at the height of apartheid. Today one in three black males is likely to spend some time incarcerated. That’s not insignificant.

Technically no one owns these people, but they are deprived of their freedom. They are kept in prison and unable to leave. In lockup, they are forced to work and the profit from that cheap labor goes to the prison industry. Moreover, state and federal governments often farm out these prison services to private industry which then profits off that incarceration. In many cases, the government has a contract with these corporations to fill X number of beds or else be penalized with Y dollars. So the incentive is to provide a continual stream of persons bound to labor.

This looks a lot like slavery. It is a kind of plantation where big business is paid to keep people in chains.

However, one can anticipate the following objection: Slaves were born into their servitude. Prisoners are not. They are thrown behind bars because they freely broke the law.

This does represent a difference. But is it more than cosmetic?

People of color – especially black males – commit crimes at about the same rate as white people but are imprisoned nearly six times the rate of whites. They also get much harsher sentences than whites for the same crimes. They are often imprisoned for nonviolent drug violations. And once in the system, it’s hard to get out. To survive in prison, it is often necessary to become a criminal even if you weren’t much of one when you entered.

Even if you manage to get out, you now are a second-class citizen deprived of many of the rights and privileges of your neighbors. Spend any time in the system and you’ll increasingly be deprived of your right to vote and may find it difficult to achieve gainful employment. The chances of going back inside for someone who has already been there are huge.

That is not slavery. But it’s not far from it.

As Michelle Alexander writes in her landmark book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness:

“The genius of the current caste system, and what most distinguishes it from its predecessors, is that it appears voluntary. People choose to commit crimes, and that’s why they are locked up or locked out, we are told. This feature makes the politics of responsibility particularly tempting, as it appears the system can be avoided with good behavior. But herein lies the trap. All people make mistakes. All of us are sinners. All of us are criminals. All of us violate the law at some point in our lives. In fact, if the worst thing you have ever done is speed ten miles over the speed limit on the freeway, you have put yourself and others at more risk of harm than someone smoking marijuana in the privacy of his or her living room. Yet there are people in the United States serving life sentences for first-time drug offenses, something virtually unheard of anywhere else in the world.”

 

THE EVOLUTION OF RACISM

 

Even for those people of color who have never been incarcerated, there is the constant burden of living in a racist society.

It’s not so much that white individuals consciously practice bigotry and hate in their daily lives. It’s the systematic abuse that’s built into the very fabric of our governments and communities. No one has to decide to be racist. They just go along with the status quo without seeing how that status quo puts black people at risk.

And it doesn’t take much imagination to recognize how the realities of today grew from the prejudices of the past.

 

LYNCHING

 

Before the 1960s, it was common for black people – especially men – to be brutalized and murdered with little to no provocation. A look, a word, even the suspicion of violating unspoken social codes could earn a death sentence. Nor was the accused even given a chance to defend himself or explain. That generally doesn’t happen today. Southern trees no longer bare such ‘strange fruit.’

But the same cannot be said for our inner city streets, playgrounds and churches.

It doesn’t take much beyond suspicion of wrongdoing, a suspicion that only requires the sight of black skin to justify deadly force. People of color still are publicly executed with little to no provocation. Black people have been slaughtered in the last few years for the following offenses: buying Skittles and iced tea, driving with a broken tail light, being suspected of selling loose cigarettes, selling CDs in a parking lot, being scared and running the other way or even just attending a house of worship.

Instead of a white robe, a disturbing number of their executioners wear a badge and police blues. Many of these hits were conducted by the very law enforcement officers that are charged with the duty to protect and serve. And when these incidents come before a grand jury, they rarely go on to criminal court. In the eyes of the law, an unarmed black person killed by police rarely inspires any suspicion of wrongdoing on the officer’s part. To the courts, it’s not even conceivable that a crime may have been committed.

As Slate’s Chief Political Correspondent Jamelle Bouie put it:

“Our courts and juries aren’t impartial arbiters — they exist inside society, not outside of it — and they can only provide as much justice as society is willing to give.”

This phenomenon isn’t the same as the lynchings of old – but it’s awfully similar. In both cases, there is little provocation, no quarter given and no justice afterwards. In fact, the modern variety may be worse. US Police killed more black citizens in 2015 than were lynched at the height of segregation.

 

SEGREGATION

 

At first glance, one might assume segregation to be a thing of the past. There are no more separate lunch counters, separate bathrooms, separate schools, etc.

Brown vs. Board of Education made it illegal for public schools to be “separate but equal” because if they were separate, they were rarely equal.

Certainly progress was made in this regard during the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. But as time has gone on, integrated schools just haven’t been a priority – even for the Obama Administration.

When you look at public schools today what you see is increasing segregation. Many districts are as segregated or worse than they were before the 1950s. So-called school choice initiatives have only made it worse with charter and voucher schools springing up that cater to one race at the expense of another. Cadillac charters open in otherwise economically diverse neighborhoods swooping in to provide white flight. Big corporations start cut-rate charters with empty promises for black kids while bleaching the student body at the neighborhood’s traditional public school.

But school choice isn’t the only problem. Economics plays a factor, too. Public schools often are funded based on local property taxes, so poor kids get much fewer resources for their schools than rich kids. And since most black students are poor, this provides a stealthy way to funnel more money and resources to the white kids than the black ones.

We don’t call it segregation because it doesn’t just affect minority children. It affects poor whites, too. Everyone agrees there’s a problem, but policymakers only propose measures that make it worse. Instead of fixing underlying inequalities, we punish under-resourced schools for the very academic problems they don’t have the resources to successfully eliminate. Instead of providing more and better equipped teachers, we hire lightly trained temps through Teach for America thereby reducing both the quality of education and the cost. Meanwhile private corporations line-up to start testing corporations, test prep publishers and for-profit charter schools at the expense of black and brown kids.

None of it would be possible without segregation. Our schools today are at least as separate and unequal as they’ve ever been. And no one in power cares.

 

VOTING RIGHTS

 

Perhaps the only progress we’ve made is in black people’s suffrage. At the time of the Civil War even in the North, blacks couldn’t cast a ballot or their vote was worth significantly less than that of white people. At least today people of color get the same say in the political arena as anyone else.

Or do they?

Since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, a plethora of states in both the North and the South have passed laws to make it harder for people of color to vote.

Voter ID laws have sprung up across the country requiring citizens to present photo identification at the polls. However, just any picture ID won’t do. These laws require exactly the types of identification black people are least likely to have. In addition, states pass restrictions on early voting making it difficult for black churches to help the majority of their congregations who don’t own cars to physically get to a ballot box. Likewise, polling places in black areas of town are closed forcing minorities to endure long lines to vote while people from white areas of town just waltz right in.

It’s not an outright ban on black voting. But it represents continued hurdles just as the Jim Crow laws of old required literacy tests, poll taxes and other forms of intimidation.

 

CONCLUSIONS

 

When we look closely at our society and how it treats blacks vs. whites, it becomes clear that something is terribly wrong.

There is deep inequality, deep inequity, deep assumptions about the relative worth of various peoples. In fact, our society creates and perpetuated these injustices. It’s baked into the system, taught to us in our unspoken assumptions, our prescriptions of right and wrong, propriety and norms.

If we step back and look at it from the long view, we can see exactly where this came from. It’s not new. It didn’t fall from the sky like a mysterious alien artifact.

The racism of today is merely the continuation of the racism of yesterday. We pride ourselves that we’re better than our forbears, but it’s only a slight matter of degree.

Black people still are subject to a form of slavery in our system of mass incarceration. They are lynched – often by law enforcement – with little to no consequences for their killers. They go to increasingly segregated schools. And they often endure severe obstacles in order to vote.

Therefore, the battles of the 1860s and 1960s have never fully been decided. The Civil War is not yet over. Slavery continues in a new form. And racism is entrenched in our nation, communities and people.

But if we recognize that, we’ve taken the first step to building a new and better world.

Former NFL Quarterback Supports Public Schools. That’s Right. PUBLIC Schools!

dictionary

So I’m in my classroom today, teaching, when I see something that stops me cold.

The door opens and in comes former Steelers backup quarterback Charlie Batch.

My mouth falls open. I don’t know what I was talking about. Vocabulary words or something.

The class of 8th graders falls silent, too. All eyes are on the two of us.

Batch looks me right in face with a big smile.

“Here you go,” he says and hands me a shopping bag full to bursting with school supplies and an extra-large tub of hand sanitizer.

By this time I’m probably blushing and grinning like my teeth are about to escape my face.

I hope I was able to mouth a “Thank you,” before he left, but I’m not really sure.

It all kind of happened in a daze.

He came. He gave me supplies. He left.

I guess I shouldn’t have been so taken by surprise.

Batch is a frequent face in my district. After all, he graduated from here, himself, before moving on to college and professional sports.

At the beginning of every year, Batch brings school supplies to every teacher in every building in the district. This was just the first time I was actually in the classroom when he dropped them off. Usually he sneaks in when I’m at lunch duty or in the computer lab. I find them in a neat pile on my desk with a note of thanks – to me!

It’s almost like he doesn’t want to draw attention to it. Almost like he doesn’t want to make us feel like we need to thank him.

It’s his quiet way of giving back to the community that made him.

In some ways it’s the most natural thing in the world. In others it’s truly amazing.

Lots of celebrities make charitable contributions to their communities. Many even put that money into their hometown. But how many invest in the public school system?

Most only seem to have eyes for charter schools. You know – those often cut rate, fly-by-night institutions that are privately managed and publicly funded. Schools that pop up in store fronts or in the mall with a celebrity name on the door and little else.

Rapper Pitbull has opened three of these dubious institutions. Pro-Football Hall-of-Famer Deion Sanders opened two – and closed them both last year. Tennis star Andre Agassi has founded a few and co-founded an organization that rents out properties to other charter schools at a profit. Former NBA players Jalen Rose and Kevin Johnson opened some, too, though Johnson is being investigated for misusing federal funds at his institutions. He likes the industry so much, he even married one of its chief advocates, former D.C. Schools chief Michelle Rhee.

But Charlie Batch? He hasn’t opened a single charter school.

There is no shiny building with his name on it. He hasn’t hired a corporate management team to increase his brand. He isn’t bragging in the newspaper about how he’s “Mr. Education” as Pitbull tried to rename himself.

No. He gives his money to the same public school from which he graduated. And then some!

He did start a charity called the Best of the Batch Foundation, which engages in several initiatives to help underprivileged children in the Pittsburgh region. The organization gives out free backpacks – or Batch Packs – to children in need. More than 7,500 have been distributed to date. About two thirds of my students have them. I can’t imagine what they’d do without them.

Batch also participates in Read Across America Day every March 2. The two-time Superbowl champ visits several western Pennsylvania schools to celebrate Dr. Seuss’ birthday while reading to children his favorite works by the author.

The project is sponsored by the National Education Association (NEA). That’s right. The largest teachers union in the nation. Batch isn’t throwing stones at teachers. He’s out there on the front lines helping us reach children.

In addition, every year Batch partners with the local Rotary Club to help promote literacy. He goes into the schools to read to third graders and give each one a free dictionary. Children also receive lessons how to use them and become word conscious. For some students, this is the only dictionary in their house, and it becomes a tool for all their brothers and sisters up through high school.

Batch also works with local business partners to provide 13 college scholarships to help defer the cost of higher education for needy children. Scholarships range from $1,000 to $8,000 per recipient.

Batch also knows the importance of pre-school. He works with local businesses to provide pre-kindergarten scholarships through the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) programs.

And those bundles of school supplies that he hands out every year – each one contains more than $250 worth of pencils, paper, tissues, etc.

That’s not just a donation. It’s a pencil in the hand of a student who doesn’t have one. It’s notebook paper for a child whose parents are working three jobs just to make ends meet. It’s tissues and hand sanitizer so kids won’t get sick and miss class.

I can’t tell you how much it means to my students and me that Batch is there for us.

He knows what challenges we face because he’s there with us. He isn’t criticizing. He’s taking action.

If only more celebrities would value deeds more than words. If only more people would put themselves out there for our public schools.

If only more people were like Charlie Batch.


NOTE: Charlie Batch also donates school supplies to teachers at our local Propel Charter School. It’s a fact noted nowhere on the Batch Foundation Website. In fact, nowhere does he boast of all the schools he visits. In an age of philanthrocapitalists more concerned about controlling the fields where they donate, Batch is an anomaly. He is apolitical and pro-child.

Instead of Nixing the Keystone Exams, PDE Recommends a Cornucopia of Tests

frustrated-student-300x199

The answer is in.

After a summer of intense study, the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) has a solution to our exit exam problem.

Last year we almost failed half of our high school seniors state wide because they couldn’t pass all three of our poorly constructed Keystone Exams. So we decided not to count the scores for two years in order to find a way to fix the problem.

And now PDE has a recommendation for the legislature.

Drop the Keystone Exams? Base graduation on the completion of high school classwork?

NOPE.

PDE still loves standardized testing. It just wants to give kids more choice about which standardized tests they can take.

Instead of having to pass the Keystone Exams in Algebra I, Literature and Biology, state policy-makers suggest a veritable Whitman’s Sampler of test-heavy paths to graduation.

Four choices.

Four paths to a diploma.

And they all involve lots and lots of multiple choice, sharpen-your-number-two-pencil, standardized tests.

PDE suggests that students can:

1)         Achieve scores on all three Keystone Exams that when averaged out produce a passing score. So maybe you fail the Biology test but your Algebra I and Literature scores are high enough to even out to a passing score.

2)         Achieve a passing score on some other standardized test approved by the state – SAT, ACT, etc. So maybe you take the Keystone Biology exam and the SAT for English and Math.

3)         For vocational students only – get passing grades in your high school classes, and pass a standardized assessment made for vocational students or otherwise provide evidence of success in that field of study.

4)         Get passing grades in your high school courses and provide at least three pieces of evidence of postsecondary success. More on what counts as evidence later.

PDE estimates these new alternative graduation requirements will be much more effective than the old ones.

The first option of allowing an average score on all three Keystone Exams, for instance, would mean that 72% of Pennsylvania students would thus be eligible for graduation vs. 51% under the old requirement.

The remaining 28% of high schoolers could then meet the graduation requirement by following one of the other three paths.

In most cases, this means more standardized testing – you just get to choose which test to take.

Under the fourth option, students only need to pass their courses and provide three pieces of evidence that they deserve to graduate. But what counts as evidence?
Please pick three from the following menu:

1)         Earn a passing grade in a dual enrollment course. In other words, pass a class in high school that will count as a college credit – maybe an advanced foreign language or math.

2)         Pass the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) – the entrance exam to qualify for military service. I don’t think you have to actually enlist, but you have to take and pass the test.

3)         Get a letter from an employer guaranteeing you have full-time employment after high school.

4)         Attain a high value industry credential.

5)         Get a certificate that you successfully  completed an internship related to your career goals.

6)         Pass a standardized test such as the PA Career Academic Work Standards assessment and/or SAT.

One notable absence from these choices is a Project Based Assessment (PBA).

Previous legislation allowed students who failed the Keystones to complete PBAs in place of one or more tests. Students would research a specific topic with a trained tutor who would evaluate students’ work and provide feedback. It was designed for students unable or unwilling to pass specific Keystone Exams.

However, this was extremely expensive.

Over the past year, approximately 6,700 students throughout the state completed 15,700 PBAs. In many cases, it took them more than 30 hours to finish each assessment. This put a tremendous burden on local school districts to hire additional staff and remediate students from missed coursework. It also cost the state more money to hire additional people to score the PBAs.

According to the report, an unnamed suburban southeastern district told PDE it had to hire nine specialists at a cost of $900,000. A large unnamed urban district estimated PBAs would cost it an additional $4.1 million. PDE, itself, would need an additional $7 million to grade these assessments.

There were also concerns of whether the PBAs could be completed in a secure fashion to make sure students weren’t cheating. However, the majority of concerns were financial.

As a result, PDE recommended doing away with PBAs.

This leaves the question of what to do with students whose parents opt them out of standardized testing. Under previous legislation, these kids could take PBAs. It is unclear what they could do now to achieve the graduation requirement since so many of the options suggested by PDE involve taking some form of standardized test.

It remains to be seen if lawmakers decide to trample on parents rights in this way.

So that’s it. Four paths to graduation.

There are many ways in which these alternatives are an improvement to the old pass-the-Keystones-or-else requirement.

First, the new plan acknowledges that students don’t need to be equally strong in all academic areas. Someone going into technical school has less reason to demonstrate skill in Biology than someone entering the medical field, for instance.

Also, this provides different options to qualify for a diploma instead of different kinds of diplomas. It had been suggested that students who don’t pass all tests might get a second tier diploma, perhaps even one of several tiers of diploma. So a blue diploma might mean you did pretty good, but not as good as a gold diploma, etc. We can be thankful PDE nixed that terrible idea.

Another positive is that PDE acknowledges standardized tests are not the only possible measure of success. Moreover, some measures of that success can be fairly determined at the district level.

Personally, I wish they went further with this. The authors of the report admit that colleges and employers rarely look at standardized test scores. Report card grades are a much better predictor of future success at both the college and career level. PDE cites three different peer-reviewed academic studies that come to this conclusion, but state education officials don’t have the bravery to likewise conclude that standardized assessments are unnecessary. Instead they play around at the edges, allow choice among standardized assessments and a complicated metric relying heavily on these assessments.

Moreover, as refreshing as it is to have state government admit that we can trust our local school districts to make some decisions about their students, why can’t we go one step further and say local districts can determine who deserves a diploma, in the first place? For centuries this is exactly what our schools did. In fact, the majority of people currently holding down jobs were determined to be ready for those jobs or their college experiences by just those same local school districts. Is America so incompetent that it needs standardized test corporations to bless everyone before being allowed to graduate? Would we be a better nation if everyone had to pass a standardized test to qualify for the workforce?

In short, the report from PDE certainly represents an improvement on the current Keystone Exam graduation requirement. However, it shows a real lack of courage and conviction by state functionaries.

There is no academic reason to have a graduation requirement beyond traditional coursework. It will only suppress the graduation rate as it has in other states in which it has been enacted. If we really wanted to increase the quality of high school graduates, we’d invest in them. We’d lower class size. We’d provide a wide curriculum. We’d provide equitable funding for children at different points on the socioeconomic scale. We’d provide services and tutoring for our most disadvantaged students.

Instead, we’re still just putting up more hurdles and demanding kids pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

Something clearly must be done.

If the legislature doesn’t make changes, the requirement to pass all three Keystone Exams will apply to current high school freshman and sophomores.

There’s never been an exit exam like this in Pennsylvania before – in fact, almost the entire workforce, business community and state leadership somehow managed to get by without one. But whatever; these children today need to prove themselves.

Kids, passing your courses isn’t enough anymore. You’ve got to pass a test. Several of them in fact.

Never mind that you have to pass tests to succeed in your courses. THOSE tests are designed by teachers. You have to pass a real test – something designed by a corporation.

As big business continues to floods our lawmakers with campaign cash, somewhere along the way our representatives decided to spend a truckload of our tax dollars on big business – to make tests. Can’t imagine why.

In 2014, the legislature decided you’d have to pass a series of 10 Keystone Exams in core subjects. Fail even one of them and you’d get nothing but a certificate of attendance. So 12-13 years of schooling and you get this:

“Hey! Remember Paulie?”
 
 
“Yeah?”
 
 
“He was here.”

However, creating 10 brand new tests costs an awful lot of money. Pennsylvania shelled out more than $200 million before lawmakers said, “Okay, that’s enough,” and stopped with just the three we have. But before even these could be made permanent prerequisites of graduation, the scores came in.

It wasn’t good. About half of all students in both traditional public schools and charter schools couldn’t pass them all.

Why?

Well, the Common Core aligned tests were of dubious quality and zero validity based on actual educational research. Also, we cut off educational supports by slashing school budgets by almost $1 billion a year. Oh, and we spent way more money on rich students than poor students earning us the dubious distinction of having the most inequitable school funding in the nation.

Not exactly a recipe for success.

So what was the state to do – move forward and withhold diplomas for half of all students? Or Toss out the tests and move on?

Instead, lawmakers came up with a unanimous compromise – more time. The legislature decided to pause the Keystone requirement for two years in order to better study what could be done.

And now PDE has it’s test heavy solution to move forward.

People of conscience need to stand up and oppose any kind of additional exit exam in Pennsylvania. Parents, teachers and students need to band together. School board directors need to pass resolutions. Thoughtful lawmakers need to put forward progressive legislation.
The resistance has already begun.