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

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Do you feel it?

The future is coming.

There it is hovering just over the horizon.

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

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

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

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

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

So we’ll be ready.

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

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

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

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

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

But whatever.

This sales pitch about outmoded schools sounds really nice.

It resonates.

It makes us feel good.

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

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

PLEASE!

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

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

As if the thought never occurred to anyone else.

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

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

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

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

Seriously.

Let the experts have a say for once.

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

Meanwhile, all you have is a bank account.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That means your parent’s parent’s parents!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s get one thing straight.

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

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

You want real innovative reforms in our public schools?

Here’s what you do.

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

Here’s a short list:

-Stop privatizing and start supporting public schools.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tax cuts for the rich – WONDERFUL!

Feed the hungry – NOT ON MY DIME!

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

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

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

It doesn’t have to be this way.

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

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

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

What would that look like? Nothing all that radical.

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

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

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

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

All of these things are accomplished through reducing class size.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The biggest obstacle to reducing class size is financial.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is this something we could really change?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a no brainer.

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

Let’s cut the crap. Cut class size.

After Hurricane Harvey, Will Houston Public Schools be Charterized?

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It’s an all too familiar scene in America.

A natural disaster devastates a major metropolitan city.

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

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

Right now the immediate danger is the weather.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Florida Looks to Hide Minority Students with Accountability Waiver

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What do you do with minority students?

 

The state of Florida is looking to hide them under the rug.

 

The state is seeking a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education for certain provisions of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) – a move that has some civil rights groups alarmed.

 

The request goes something like this:

 

Federal Government: How are your English Language Learners doing?

 

Florida: Dunno. We lumped them in with everyone else.

 

Fed: Are there any big discrepancies between white students and poor, black or Latino students?

 

Florida: Dunno. We don’t look at that.

 

Fed: Do you at least allow English Language Learners to take tests in their native language?

 

Florida: Nope. They need to speak English or fail.

 

Aaaaand scene.

 

The waiver hasn’t even been fully drafted yet and submitted to the federal Department of Education.

 

However, civil rights groups such as The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), and several local activists are asking that the state reconsider sending it and/or the federal government categorically deny it.

 

These organizations are worried that such measures, if approved, would allow Florida to ignore the needs of minority students.

 

In fact, lumping minority students’ test scores in with the majority white population would obscure whether they were struggling at all. So would explicitly ignoring any achievement gaps between the majority and minority populations.

 

And forcing students to take tests in a language with which they aren’t even proficient yet is just plain cruel.

 

But it highlights several conflicts at the forefront of the public education debate.

 

First, there’s the question of who controls our schools – the state, local or federal government.

 

Second, there’s the question of what is the best way to ensure every child is getting a quality education.

 

The first question is at the heart of a disagreement between many on the political left and right. Democrats generally favor more federal intervention, while Republicans favor more state control.

 

Which side will end up victorious is hard to say. In situations like this, it’s even hard to say who SHOULD be victorious.

 

In general, local control is better than administration from a far. But it’s kind of hard to stand up for a state legislature that has no problem segregating minorities, under funding their schools and then trying to hush it all up.

 

It’s kind of like parenting. It’s better that children stay with their parents, but if their mom and dad are abusive jerks, perhaps all bets are off.

 

Secondly, we have the question of accountability. What is the best measure of whether a school is providing a quality education?

 

Like the No Child Left Behind legislation before it, the ESSA specifically uses standardized test scores for this purpose.

 

However, test scores are terrible at determining accountability. They’re economically and culturally biased. Rich kids tend to pass and poor kids tend to fail. At best, they show which students have been the most economically privileged and which have not.

 

But we don’t need test scores to see that. We can simply look at students’ socio-economic status. We can look at whether they’re living below the poverty line or not. We can look at their nutrition and health. We can look at whether they belong to a group that has historically been selected against in this country or not.

 

And once we find that out, we shouldn’t punish the school for having the audacity to teach poor and minority children. We should give them extra funding and resources to meet those students’ needs. But the current test-based accountability system doesn’t do that. Instead it cuts off funding to schools that need it most while pushing public schools to be closed and replaced with charter and voucher institutions that have a worse record of success.

 

In short, accountability is vital in our public schools, but the way we determine who needs help and what we consider help are drastically out of step with student needs.

 

These are two issues that desperately need resolution, and we’re putting them on the desk of the one Education Secretary in our nation’s history least equipped to deal with them – Betsy DeVos.

 

Fed vs. states? She’s for whichever pushes school privatization.

 

Test scores? She loves them!

 

Civil rights? Her administration is infamous for expressing doubts that such things even exist.

 

But at the same time, some on the corporate left may use her dunderheaded opposition to justify test-based accountability.

 

“See?” They’ll say. “We need standardized tests to protect minority children!”

 

Um. No. You don’t.

 

Likewise, some on the right might try to characterize Florida’s attempted waiver as an act of defiance against test-based accountability.

 

It’s not. Officials in the Sunshine State aren’t concerned with undoing the testocracy. They’re perfectly fine with high stakes testing – so long as they don’t have to do anything special to help black and brown kids.

 

It’s a situation where blatant self-interest can easily be hidden under a fake concern for children.

 

On balance, civil rights groups’ concerns are justified in relation to Florida’s drafted ESSA waiver. But they’re wrong if they think test-based accountability is in the best interests of the minorities they serve.

 

If you’re going to use standardized tests to hold schools accountable for providing a quality education – and that’s a Big IF – it’s unfair to obscure data about minority students and possible achievement gaps. Moreover, it’s reprehensible that you wouldn’t even bother to test them fairly by letting them take these assessments in their native languages.

 

However, it would be even better to dispense with test-based accountability in the first place. It would be better to see student needs directly and not as a reflection of test scores. That would more easily allow help to reach the students and not the vulture industries circling above our public schools waiting to pick them apart in the name of accountability.

I Am Not A Hero Teacher

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I’m sorry.

 

I am not a hero teacher.

 

I am not stronger than a locomotive.

 

I cannot jump tall ignorance in a single bound.

 

I am not faster than a tax-cutting zealot.

 

Up in the air – it’s a bird, it’s a plane, but it’s certainly not a teacher because we can’t fly.

 

I am not bullet proof.

 

If a gunman storms the building and shoots me, I will be wounded and may die.

 

Giving me a gun doesn’t help, either, because I am not a marksman.

 

I am just a man.

 

I cannot stand in front of a class of thirty and give them each my undivided attention. Not all at once.

 

When students ask a question, I need time to answer it.

 

When students hand in a paper, I need time to grade it.

 

During the workday, I need time to plan my lessons. I need time to call parents. I need time to read all the individual education plans, fill out all the weekly monitoring forms, finish all the administrative paperwork.

 

At the end of a long day, I get tired and need rest.

 

At the end of a long week, I need time to spend with my family.

 

At the end of a long year, I need time to myself – to get a summer job, to take continuing education courses, to plan for next year, to heal.

 

I need a middle class income – not because I’m trying to get rich, but because I’m human. I need food and shelter. I have a family for whom I need to provide. If you can’t give me that, I’ll need to move on.

 

Sorry, but it’s true.

 

I’ll tell you one thing I don’t need. I don’t need the state, federal or local government telling me how to do my job. When I plan my lessons, I need the freedom to teach children in the way that seems most effective to me – the professional in the room.

 

I also don’t need some bureaucrat telling me how to assess my students. I don’t need some standardized test to tell me what kids have learned, if they can read or write. I’ve spent an average of 80 minutes a day with these children for five days a week. If I can’t tell, I don’t deserve to be in the classroom.

 

And I don’t need my principal or superintendent setting my colleagues and me against each other. We’re not competing to see who can do a better job. We should be collaborating to make sure everyone succeeds.

 

What do I need? My union, for one.

 

I need my right to collective bargaining. I need the power to gather with my colleagues and co-workers so we can create the best possible work environment for myself and my students. I need due process, tenure, so I can’t be fired at the whim of the school board or administrators without having them prove my inequities.

 

I need my work to be evaluated fairly. Judge me on what I do – not on what my students do with what I’ve given them.

 

And when it comes to the racial proficiency gap, don’t look to me to exert some kind of supernatural teacher magic. I am not a white savior who can make school segregation, racism and prejudice disappear. I try to treat every student fairly, but my actions can’t undo a system that’s set up to privilege some and disadvantage others.

 

I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you’re expecting a superhero, I’m bound to disappoint.

 

And that DOES seem to be what many of you expect us to be.

 

Seven years ago, Davis Guggenheim characterized the public schools as if we were Waiting for Superman.

 

Things are so screwed up, he alleged back then, that we need someone with superpowers to swoop in and fix it all.

 

But there is no superman. There’s just Clark Kent.

 

That’s me – a bespectacled shlub who shows up everyday in the naive hope that he can make a difference.

 

According to landmark research by Dan Goldhaber and James Coleman, only about 9 percent of student achievement is attributable to teachers.

 

That’s right – 9 percent.

 

If you add in everything in the entire school environment – class size, curriculum, instructional time, availability of specialists and tutors, and resources for learning (books, computers, science labs, etc.), all that only accounts for 20 percent.

 

There’s another 20 percent they can’t explain. But the largest variable by far is out of school factors. This means parents, home life, health, poverty, nutrition, geographic location, stress, etc. Researchers estimate those count for 60 percent of student success.

 

Yet we somehow expect teachers (9%) to do it all.

 

I’m sorry, America. I can’t.

 

More than half of all public school students live in poverty. No matter how hard I try, I cannot solve that all by myself.

 

I try to teach children how to read though many are hungry and traumatized by their home lives.

 

I try to teach children how to write though many haven’t slept the night before, haven’t taken their ADD medication and – to be honest – many haven’t even shown up to school yet.

 

I most certainly try to get them to pass culturally biased, developmentally inappropriate standardized tests without sucking away every bit of creativity from the classroom.

 

But much of this is beyond my control.

 

I can’t help that the federal, state and local government are cutting school funding. I can’t help that my impoverished district has few school supplies, the students enter the building without them because their parents are too poor to buy them. But I can – and do – spend out of my own pocket to make sure all of my students have pencil, paper, whatever they need.

 

I can’t help that officials at every step of the way want me to narrow my teaching to only things that will appear on the yearly standardized test, that they want me to present it as a multiple choice look-a-like item, that they want me to teach by pointing at a Common Core standard as if that held any meaning in a child’s life. But I can make the lesson as creative as possible and offer kids a chance to engage with the material in a way that connects to their real lives, desires and interests.

 

I can’t help that kids don’t read like they used to and instead experience the bulk of text on the Internet, Facebook or Twitter. I can’t help that most of their real world writing experience is limited to thumbing social media updates, comments on YouTube videos or communicating through a string of colorful emojis. But I can try to offer them meaningful journal topics that make them think and offer them the chance to share their thoughts in a public forum with their peers.

 

There’s nothing super about any of it.

 

But it’s the kind of things teachers do everyday without anyone noticing. It’s the kind of thing that rarely gets noted on an evaluation, rarely earns you a Thank You card or even an apple to put on your desk.

 

However, when the day is done, students often are reluctant to leave. They cluster about in the hall or linger in the classroom asking questions, voicing concerns, just relieved that there’s someone there they can talk to.

 

And that’s reason enough for me to stay.

 

The odds are stacked against me. Help isn’t coming from any corner of our society. But sometimes despite all of that, I’m actually able to get things done.

 

Everyday it seems I help students understand something they never knew before. I’ve become accustomed to that look of wonder, the aha moment. And I helped it happen!

 

I get to see students grow. I get to nurture that growth. I get to be there for young ones who have nobody else.

 

It’s a wonderful feeling.

 

I know I’m making a difference.

 

So, yes, I’m no superman.

 

I have no special powers, no superhuman abilities. I can’t fix all of our social problems all by myself.

 

But I help to make the future.

 

That’s why I do what I do.

 

Thank you for letting me do it.

School Voucher Industry Strikes Back: We’re Segregated!? No, You’re Segregated!

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In what must count as another new low in American discourse, the school voucher industry is striking back against claims that their products lead to greater segregation of students.

 

Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), had the audacity to voice the truth:

 

“Make no mistake: This use of privatization, coupled with disinvestment are only slightly more polite cousins of segregation,” she said a week ago during a speech at the AFT’s yearly convention.

 

To which school privatization mouthpieces quickly countered with the truth:

 

“If vouchers are the polite cousins of segregation, then most urban school districts are segregation’s direct descendants. The vast majority of our urban public school districts are segregated because of white flight and neighborhood neglect.”

 

This was from a statement by Kevin Chavous, founding board member of the American Federation for Children, the school privatization advocacy group that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos used to lead.

 

So there you have it.

 

A nation of more than 325 million people, with a more than 241-year history reduced to – I Know You Are But What Am I?

 

The sad fact is that they’re both right.

 

School vouchers do lead to increased segregation (and so do charter schools, by the way, the method preferred by corporate Democrats). But many traditional public schools are, in fact, deeply segregated both racially and economically.

 

Does that mean that both systems – privatized and public – are equally at fault? Does it mean that both somehow get a pass for reprehensible behavior?

 

No and no.

 

First, we must explain why segregation is bad.

 

Peter Cunningham, former assistant secretary for communications and outreach at the Education Department under Obama, wagged his finger at Weingarten on the privatization propaganda Website, the 74.

 

He called out Weingarten’s hypocrisy, which takes some cojones for a man who only last year pondered aloud and in public whether segregation was really such a bad thing.

 

He had this to say last September:

 

“Maybe the fight’s not worth it. It’s a good thing; we all think integration is good. But it’s been a long fight, we’ve had middling success. At the same time, we have lots and lots of schools filled with kids of one race, one background, that are doing great. It’s a good question.”

 

Funny, isn’t it?

 

He calls out Weingarten because of public school segregation but defends charter schools because their segregation is somehow just swell.

 

Keep in mind. Cunningham is the executive director of the Education Post, a well-funded charter school public relations firm that packages its advertisements, propaganda and apologias as journalism. And he’s not about to poop where he eats.

 

So, yes, Mr. Cunningham, segregation is worth fighting.

 

When you have schools made up mostly of minority and/or economically disadvantaged students, it makes it easier to provide fewer resources and less funding to those children while sending the lion’s share to the white and wealthy.

 

That’s why in Brown v. Board the U.S. Supreme Court struck down “Separate but Equal” – because when races are kept separate, their schools are rarely equal.

 

This game of excusing one system based on the deficiencies of the other is pure sophistry.

 

You can’t defend voucher and charter schools from being segregated by reference to public school segregation. Nor can you ignore public school segregation by reference to the same at privatized schools.

 

They’re both bad, and they both need fixing.

 

To be fair, Weingarten seems to tacitly admit this about public schools.

 

She acknowledges the disinvestment in public education, how public schools have been systemically undermined by politicians and lobbyists, many of them advocating for privatized schools, so that they could use this disinvestment as an excuse for their own for-profit education schemes.

 

“…no amount of facts or evidence will sway voucher proponents from their agenda to starve public schools to the breaking point, then criticize their deficiencies and let the market handle the rest, all in the name of choice,” she said in a statement.

 

The fact of the matter is this: public schools have become more segregated not because teachers or administrators want it, but because of local, state and federal law; a series of subsequent Supreme Court decisions allowing it within district boundaries; the continuation of racist redlining in the loan and insurance industry; and the xenophobia of wealthy and middle class whites who prefer their kids be educated separately from those they consider undesirable.

 

These policies could be changed. The system could be fixed. All it would take is the will to do it.

 

Charter and vouchers schools, on the other hand, will never solve the problem of segregation, because they have turned that problem into a “solution.”

 

Schools serving poor and minority students aren’t getting the proper resources. So they propose further segregating them.

 

That’s a terrible idea. It’s like escaping from a leaky cruise ship by jumping into a leaky lifeboat. You’ll sink in both, but the lifeboat will sink quicker.

 

Yes, our public schools are segregated by race and class and therefore poor and minority students receive inequitable funding and resources. Charters and vouchers cannot possibly remedy that. They will always make it worse. Only a robust and integrated public school system can be truly equitable. A system that deifies choice cannot combat racism if it is freely chosen.

 

What Weingarten is getting at is this: if we want to help the nation’s children – all of the nation’s children – we must support and reform public schools.

 

We must also acknowledge that many of the problems of systemic disinvestment are caused by those who want to privatize in the first place.

 

We have let the wolf write our education policy. It should be no shock that his solution isn’t to build more houses of bricks but to process our little piggies into bacon.

 

Full disclosure: I am no fan of Weingarten.

 

I recently called for both her and National Education Association (NEA) President Lily Eskelsen Garcia to voluntarily step down because of undemocratic practices and mismanagement in both teachers unions.

 

However, I’ll stand up for her when she’s right, and in this instance, she is.

 

If anything, maybe she should have included charter schools in her criticism. I laid into her in June for writing an op-ed with Jonah Edelman, an anti-union activist, specifically praising charter schools over vouchers.

 

But I get it. Now that some charter school teachers have unionized and joined the AFT, she’s stuck between a rock and a hard place.

 

Frankly, it makes her ineffective in speaking out on this matter. I have nothing against charter school teachers. I know, personally, several very good educators who work at charter schools. In this job market, sometimes you have to take what you can get. However, the sad fact of the matter is that by their very structure, charter schools are inferior to public schools. They are less democratic, less transparent, less accountable and more easily subject to fraud and abuse of children. That’s not to say all charters are guilty of this, but just by being a charter school and being subject to the deregulated rules governing them, they are more susceptible to these errors than their traditional public school brethren.

 

But, of course, the same can be said of voucher schools. It’s just that you can’t criticize one privatization scheme without also criticizing the other.

 

Perhaps the biggest mistake Weingarten made was in glossing over the worst abuses of public schools. If she was going to call out the segregation at voucher schools, she also should have explicitly called it out at public schools.

 

But that’s something even our first black President Barack Obama refused to do. You’d think he’d make that a priority for his administration, but instead he favored the same school privatization schemes that just made it worse.

 

Currently, you’ll find no political party that actively champions integration. Democrats will give it more lip service than Republicans, but both parties either ignore it in practice or actively work against it.

 

The only use they have for it is as a club with which to hit the other side when issues like this come up.

 

You’re segregated!

 

No, YOU’RE segregated!

 

And so we are all lead over the cliff by partisans and fools.

Middle School Suicides Double As Common Core Testing Intensifies

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Here’s a high stakes testing statistic you won’t hear bandied about on the news.

 

The suicide rate among 10- to 14-year-olds doubled between 2007 and 2014 – the same period in which states have increasingly adopted Common Core standards and new, more rigorous high stakes tests.

 

For the first time, suicide surpassed car crashes as a leading cause of death for middle school children.

In 2014, the last year for which data was available, 425 middle schoolers nationwide took their own lives.

 

To be fair, researchers, educators and psychologists say several factors are responsible for the spike, however, pressure from standardized testing is high on the list.

 

In fact, it is a hallmark of other nations where children perform better on these tests than our own.

 

In our efforts to emulate these countries, we’ve inadvertently imported their child suicide problem.

 

In South Korea, one of the highest performing nations on international tests, youth suicide is a national epidemic.

 

According to the National Youth Policy Institute in Korea, one in four students considers committing suicide. In fact, Korea has the second highest youth suicide rate among contemporary nations.

 

For several years, the Korean school system has topped the roughly 70 member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) educational league, which measures 15-year-old students’ knowledge through the PISA test, an international student assessment exam within OECD member states.

 

However, the system is roundly criticized for its emphasis on memorization and test prep with little real-life application. In fact, 75 percent of South Korean children attend “cram schools” where they do little else than prepare for standardized assessments.

 

 

Likewise, Chinese students suffer similar curriculum and rates of child suicide. Though Shanghai students have some of the highest scores in OECD, abuse runs rampant.

 

According to the China Daily, teachers at Hubei Xiaogan No 1 High School in central Hubei province actually rigged their students up to IV drips in the classroom so they could continue studying after being physically exhausted.

 

Brook Larmer of the New York Times reports visiting student dormitories in Maotanchang, a secluded town in Anhui province, where the windows were covered in wire mesh to prevent students from jumping to their deaths.

 

In the United States, education “reform” hasn’t reached these depths, but we’re getting closer every year.

 

Efforts to increase test scores have changed U.S. schools to closer resemble those of Asia. Curriculum is being narrowed to only the tested subjects and instruction is being limited to testing scenarios, workbooks, computer simulations, practice and diagnostic tests.

 

A classroom where students aren’t allowed to pursue their natural curiosities and are instead directed to boring and abstract drills is not a place of joy and discovery. A school that does not allow children to express themselves but forces constant test prep is a lifeless environment devoid of hope.

 

But that’s not the worst of it.

 

American students are increasingly being sorted and evaluated by reference to their test score rather than their classroom grade or other academic indicators. Students are no longer 6th, 7th or 8th graders. They’re Below Basics, Basics, Proficents and Advanced. The classes they’re placed in, the style of teaching, even personal rewards and punishments are determined by a single score.

 

In some states, like Florida, performance on federally mandated tests actually determine if students can advance to the next grade. Some children pass their classes but don’t move on purely because of test scores well within the margin or error.

 

The results are devastating.

 

Marion Brady tells a gut-wrenching story on Alternet about a 9-year-old Florida boy who tried to hang himself after failing the state’s FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test) by one point.

 

His mother explains that he had to take a summer remediation course and a retest, but still failed by one point. She couldn’t bear to tell him, but he insisted that he had failed and was utterly crushed.

 

After a brief period where he was silent, alone in his room, she became apprehensive:

 

“I … ran down the hall to [his] room, banged on the door and called his name. No response. I threw the door open. There was my perfect, nine- year-old freckled son with a belt around his neck hanging from a post on his bunk bed. His eyes were blank, his lips blue, his face emotionless. I don’t know how I had the strength to hoist him up and get the belt off but I did, then collapsed on the floor and held [him] as close to my heart as possible. There were no words. He didn’t speak and for the life of me I couldn’t either. I was physically unable to form words. I shook as I held him and felt his heart racing.

 

“I’d saved [him]! No, not really…I saved him physically, but mentally he was gone…The next 18 months were terrible. It took him six months to make eye contact with me. He secluded himself from friends and family. He didn’t laugh for almost a year…”

 

The boy had to repeat the third grade but is haunted by what had happened as is his mother.

 

And this is by no means an isolated incident.

 

According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, the suicide rate for 5- to 14- year-olds jumped by 39.5 percent from 2000 to 2013. The rate for 15- to 24-year-olds, which was already 818% higher than for younger children, also increased during the same time period by 18.9 percent.

 

That’s more than 5,000 children and rising each year taking their own lives.

 

Again, high stakes testing isn’t responsible for all of it. But the dramatic increase along with a subsequent increase in high stakes testing is not unrelated.

 

The Alliance for Childhood, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that advises on early education, compiled a report from parents, teachers, school nurses, psychologists, and child psychiatrists noting that the stress of high-stakes testing was literally making children sick.

 

On testing days, school nurses report that their offices are filled with students complaining of headaches and stomachaches. There have even been reports of uncontrollable sobbing.

 

In 2013, eight prominent New York principals were so alarmed by this increasing student behavior that they wrote a letter to parents expressing their concerns:

 

“We know that many children cried during or after testing, and others vomited or lost control of their bowels or bladders. Others simply gave up. One teacher reported that a student kept banging his head on the desk, and wrote, ‘This is too hard,’ and ‘I can’t do this,’ throughout his test booklet.”

 

And they’re not alone.

 

In fact, student anxiety is so common on test day that most federally mandated tests include official guidelines specifically outlining how to deal with kids vomiting on their test booklets.

 

School counselors note increasing student anxiety levels, sleep problems, drug use, avoidance behaviors, attendance problems, acting out, etc. that increase around testing time and during test prep lessons. This is a major contributor, they say, to the unprecedented increase in the number of young children being labeled and treated for psychiatric illnesses ranging from learning disabilities and attention disorders to anxiety and depression.

 

And the psychological trauma isn’t limited to the students, alone. The adults also suffer from it.

 

In 2015, Jeanene Worrell-Breeden, a West Harlem elementary school principal, took her own life by jumping in front of a subway train to escape a standardized testing scandal. Under intense pressure from the federal and state government to improve academic achievement, she had allegedly instructed her staff to change students’ answers on a new Common Core aligned high stakes test.

 

But the trauma isn’t always so dramatic. Teachers and principals often suffer in silence. And when it affects the adults in the room, imagine what it does to the children.

 

It isn’t that teachers aren’t trying to teach or that students aren’t trying to learn. It’s that the expectations and testing are developmentally inappropriate.

 

Middle school children’s brains are still growing. They are only physically able to learn certain concepts and skills, but we’re forcing them to deal with increasingly advanced and complex concepts at younger ages.

 

And when expectations and high stakes consequences come crashing down on children, they can feel there is no way out.

 

This is why thousands of parents have refused to allow their children to take high stakes standardized testing.

 

This is why there is a growing grass roots movement against these sorts of assessments and other corporate school reforms.

 

It’s time the media connect the dots and report these sorts of stories in context.

 

Don’t just shrug when reporting on child suicide rates, if you report it at all. Give the microphone to experts who can point the finger where it belongs.

 

And the rest of us need to make sure our representatives at the state, local and federal level know where we stand.

 

High stakes testing is child abuse. We should not emulate other nations’ scores especially when they come at such a cost.

 

The fact that we don’t engage in the worst abuses of Asian schools should be a point of pride, not jealousy.

 

We should cherish and nurture our children even if other nations sacrifice theirs on the altar of competition and statistics.