There Are Very Few Bad Students, Bad Parents and Bad Teachers

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Maybe the problem with public schools is that people just aren’t trying hard enough.

 

There are too many bad students, bad parents, and bad teachers out there.

 

At least, that’s what the rich folks say.

 

They sit behind their mahogany desks, light a Cuban cigar with a thousand dollar bill and lament the kind of gumption that got them where they are today just isn’t present in the unwashed masses.

 

Never mind that they probably inherited their wealth. Never mind that the people they’re passing judgment on are most often poor and black. And never mind that struggling schools are almost always underfunded compared to those in wealthier neighborhoods and thus receive fewer resources and have larger class sizes.

 

Tax cuts feed the rich and starve the poor, but somehow the wealthy deserve all the breaks while OUR cries are always the fault of our own grumbling stomachs.

 

As a 15-year veteran teacher in the public school classroom, I can tell you I’ve seen very few people who aren’t trying.

 

I’ve seen plenty of struggling students but hardly any I’d simply write off as, “bad.” That’s a term I usually reserve for wilted fruit – not human beings.

 

I’ve seen plenty of parents or guardians striving to do the best with what they have, but few I’d honestly give up on. And I’ve seen lots of teachers endeavoring to do better every day, but hardly any that deserve that negative label.

 

In fact, if anything, I often see people trying their absolute hardest yet convinced that no matter what they do it won’t be enough.

 

“It’s not very good.”

 

That’s what I hear everyday.

 

Ask most students to share their writing and you’ll get that as preamble.

 

“I didn’t do a very good job.”

 

“This sucks.”

 

“It’s butt.”

 

“I can’t do this.”

 

“It’s grimy.”

 

“It’s trifling.”

 

Something to let you know that you should lower your expectations.

 

This piece of writing here is not worth your time as teacher, they imply. Why don’t you just ignore it? Ignore me.

 

But after all this time, I’ve learned a thing or two about student psychology.

 

I know that they’re really just afraid of being judged.

 

School probably always contained some level of labeling and sorting, distinguishing the excellent from the excreble. But that used to be a temporary state. You might not have done well today, but it was a step on the journey toward getting better.

 

However, these days when we allow students to be defined by their standardized test scores, the labels of Advanced, Proficient, Basic or Below are semi-permanent.

 

Students don’t often progress much one way or another. They’re stuck in place with a scarlet letter pinned to their chests, and we’re not even allowed to question what it really means or why we’re forced to assess them this way.

 

So I hear the cries of learned helplessness more often with each passing year.

 

And it’s my job to dispel it.

 

More than teaching new skills, I unteach the million lashes of an uncaring society first.

 

Then, sometimes, we get to grammar, reading comprehension, spelling and all that academic boogaloo.

 

“Mr. Singer, I don’t want you to read it. It’s not my best work.”

 

“Let me ask you something?” I say.

 

“What?”

 

“Did you write it?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Then I’m sure it’s excellent.”

 

And sometimes that’s enough. Sometimes not.

 

It’s all about trust, having an honest and respectful relationship. If you can’t do that, you can’t teach.

 

That’s why all this computer-based learning software crap will never adequately replace real live teachers. An avatar – a simulated person in a learning game package – can pretend to be enthusiastic or caring or a multitude of human emotions. But kids are very good at spotting lies, and that’s exactly what this is.

 

It’s a computer graphic pretending to care.

 

I actually do.

 

Which would you rather learn from?

 

When a student reads a piece of their own writing aloud, I always make sure to find something to praise.

 

Sometimes this is rather challenging. But often it’s not.

 

Most of my kids come to me because they’ve failed the government-mandated test, their grades didn’t set the world on fire, and/or they have special needs.

 

But I’ve been privileged to see and hear some of the most marvelous writing to come out of a middle school. Colorful adventures riding insects through a rainbow world, house parties with personal play-lists and famous friends, political discourses on the relative worth of the Roman Empire vs. African culture, and more real life crime dramas than every episode of every variation of Law and Order.

 

It’s just a matter of showing kids what makes them so special. And giving them the space to discover the exceptional in themselves and each other.

 

There’s a danger in my profession, though, of becoming bitter.

 

We’re under so much pressure to fix everything society has done to our children, and document every course of action, all while being shackled to a test-and-punish education policy handed down from lawmakers who don’t know a thing about education. We’re constantly threatened with being fired if test scores don’t improve – even for courses of study we don’t teach, even for kids we don’t have in our classes!

 

It can make the whole student-teacher relationship adversarial.

 

You didn’t turn in your homework!? Again! Why are you doing this to me!?

 

But it’s the wrong attitude. It’s understandable, but it’s wrong.

 

Every year I have a handful of students who don’t do their work. Or they do very little of it.

 

Sometimes it’s because they only attend school every third or fourth day. Sometimes it’s because when they are here, they’re high. Sometimes they’re too exhausted to stay awake, they can’t focus on anything for more than 30 seconds, they’re traumatized by violence, sickness or malnutrition. And sometimes they just don’t care.

 

But I don’t believe any of them are bad students.

 

Let me define that. They are bad at being students. But they aren’t bad students.

 

They aren’t doing what I’ve set up for them to demonstrate they’re learning.

 

They might do so if they altered behavior A, B or C. However, this isn’t happening.

 

Why?

 

It’s tempting to just blame the student.

 

They aren’t working hard enough. They lack rigor. They don’t care. They’re an active threat to this year’s teaching evaluation. They’re going to make me look bad.

 

But I rarely blame the student. Not in my heart.

 

Let me be clear. I firmly deny the pernicious postulation that teachers are ultimately responsible for their students’ learning.

 

I believe that the most responsible person for any individual student’s education is that student.

 

However, that isn’t to say the student is solely responsible. Their actions are necessary for success, but they aren’t always sufficient.

 

They’re just children, and most of them are dealing with things that would crush weaker people.

 

When I was young, I had a fairly stable household. I lived in a good neighborhood. I never suffered from food insecurity. I never experienced gun violence or drug abuse. And my parents were actively involved.

 

Not to mention the fact that I’m white and didn’t have to deal with all the societal bull crap that gets heaped on students of color. Security never followed my friends and I through the shopping mall. Police never hassled us because of the color of our skin. Moreover, I’m a csis male. Young boys love calling each other gay, but it never really bothered me because I wasn’t. And, as a man, I didn’t really have to worry about someone of an opposite gender twice my size trying to pressure me into sex, double standard gender roles or misogyny – you know, every day life for teenage girls.

 

So, no. I don’t believe in bad students. I believe in students who are struggling to fulfill their role as students. And I think it’s my job to try to help them out.

 

I pride myself in frequent success, but you never really know the result of your efforts because you only have these kids in your charge for about a year or two. And even then I will admit to some obvious failures.

 

If I know I’ve given it my best shot, that’s all I can do.

 

Which brings me to parents.

 

You often hear people criticizing parents for the difficulties their children experience.

 

That kid would do better if her parents cared more about her. She’d have better grades if her parents made sure she did her homework. She’d have less social anxiety if her folks just did A, B or C.

 

It’s one of those difficult things that’s both absolutely true and complete and total bullshit.

 

Yes, when you see a struggling student, it’s usually accompanied by some major disruption at home. In my experience, this is true 90% of the time.

 

However, there are cases where you have stable, committed parents and children who are an absolute mess. But it’s rare.

 

Children are a reflection of their home lives. When things aren’t going well there, it shows.

 

Does that mean parents are completely responsible for their children?

 

Yes and no.

 

They should do everything they can to help their young ones. And I think most do.

 

But who am I to sit in judgment over other human beings whose lives I really know nothing about?

 

Everyone is going through a struggle that no one else is privy to. Often I find my students parents aren’t able to be home as much as they’d like. They’re working two or more minimum wage jobs just to make ends meet. Or they work the night shift. Or they’re grandparents struggling to pick up the slack left by absentee moms and dads. Or they’re foster parents giving all they can to raise a bunch of abused and struggling children. Or they’re dealing with a plethora of their own problems – incarcerations, drugs, crime.

 

They’re trying. I know they are.

 

If you believe that most parents truly love their children – and I do believe that – it means they’re trying their best.

 

That may not be good enough. But it’s not my place to criticize them for that. Nor is it society’s.

 

Instead we should be offering help. We should have more social programs to help parents meet their responsibilities.

 

It may feel good to call parents names, but it does no good for the children.

 

So I don’t believe in bad parents, either. I just believe in parents who are struggling to do their jobs as parents.

 

And what about people like me – the teachers?

 

Are we any different?

 

To a degree – yes.

 

Students can’t help but be students. They have no choice in the matter. We require them to go to school and (hopefully) learn.

 

Parents have more choice. No one forced adults to procreate – but given our condemnation of birth control and abortion, we’ve kind of got our fingers on the scale. It’s hard to deny the siren song of sex and – without precautions or alternatives – that often means children.

 

But becoming a teacher? That’s no accident. It’s purposeful.

 

You have to go out and choose it.

 

And I think that’s significant, because no one freely chooses to do something they don’t want to do.

 

After the first five years, teachers know whether they’re any good at it or not. That’s why so many young teachers leave the profession in that time.

 

What you’re left with is an overwhelming majority of teachers who really want to teach. And if they’ve stayed that long, they’re probably at least halfway decent at it.

 

So, no, I don’t really believe in bad teachers either.

 

Certainly some are better than others. And when it comes to those just entering the profession, all bets are off. But in my experience, anyone who’s lasted is usually pretty okay.

 

All teachers can use improvement. We can benefit from more training, resources, encouragement, and help. Cutting class size would be particularly useful letting us fully engage all of or students on a more one-on-one basis. Wrap around services would be marvelous, too. More school psychologists, special education teachers, counselors, tutors, mentors, aides, after school programs, etc.

 

But bad teachers? No.

 

Most of the time, it’s a fiction, a fantasy.

 

The myths of the bad student, the bad parent and the bad teacher are connected.

 

They’re the stories we tell to level the blame. They’re the propaganda spread by the wealthy to stop us from demanding they pay their fair share.

 

We know something’s wrong with our public school system just as we know something’s wrong with our society.

 

But instead of criticizing our policies and our leaders, we criticize ourselves.

 

We’ve been told for so long to pick ourselves up by our own bootstraps, that when we can’t do it, we blame the boots, the straps and the hands that grab them.

 

We should be blaming the idiots who think you can raise someone up without offering any help.

 

We should be blaming the plutocrats waging class warfare and presenting us with the bill.

 

There may be few bad students, parents and teachers out there, but you don’t have to go far to find plenty of the privileged elite who are miserable failures at sharing the burdens of civil society.

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Top 10 Reasons Public Schools are the BEST Choice for Children, Parents & Communities

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Everywhere you look today you’ll find profits prophets of doom bemoaning the quality of our public school system.

 

We’ve got too many failing schools, they say. The only thing to do is to invest in private and privatized institutions vouchers, charters, ANYTHING but public.

 

But as education professors Christopher and Sarah Lubienski wrote in their landmark book “The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schoolsthere’s little evidence behind the hype. Public schools are far from perfect, but even given their deficiencies, they have benefits that far outweigh those of privatized schools. Indeed, market-based educational reform, wrote the Lubienskis, is “increasingly a belief system rather than a policy theory.”

 

Privatized schools are sometimes great at boosting standardized test scores, but when it comes to authentic indicators of student learning, they often fall well behind their traditional public school counterparts.

 

And when you stop to consider things like finances, accountability, self-governance, social justice and life-long learning, then public schools prove themselves to be a much better choice than any privatized system.

 

Clearly we’re speaking in generalities here. Every school – public or privatized – is different. But there is enough commonality to identify certain trends between each type of school to make general conclusions about each category. In short, despite any media or political propaganda to the contrary, public schools come out on top.

 

Here are the top 10 reasons public schools are the best choice for children, families and communities

 

1) Public Schools Attract the Best Teachers

 

When choosing a school for your children, you want them to have the best teachers possible. You want life-long, committed educators – people who entered the profession as a calling, who dedicate their lives to young people.

 

This is not the case at many charter or private schools. Their teachers often don’t have the same high level of education, experience, or commitment. In many states, they aren’t required to earn a 4-year degree from an accredited college, they routinely have less experience and higher turnover.

 

Compare that with public schools. With rare exceptions, teachers must have at least one bachelors degree in a specialized education field, and many have masters degrees or more. In addition, teacher turnover is much lower. This is partly because public school teachers usually earn a higher salary than those at privatized schools. (It’s still not comparable with professionals in other fields with similar levels of education, but it’s better than they get at privatized schools.) In addition they have higher job satisfaction because of increased union membership, which enables greater stability and helps create a safer workplace for teachers and their students.

 

Think about it. If you were one of the best teachers in the country, wouldn’t you want to work where you get the highest salary and benefits? Of course!

 

2) Public Schools Have a Greater Sense of Community

 

Most public schools have been around for a long time. They are the heart of the communities they serve. They do so much more than just teach children. They host continuing education courses for adults, extracurricular activities, sporting events, academic clubs, public swimming pools, open libraries, and invite the community for local events, concerts, seminars, etc.

 

This is rarely the case at privatized schools. Charters and private institutions are often fledgling startups. They’re located in rented office spaces, renovated store fronts and other locations chosen more for their cost benefits to investors and not for their efficacy as places of education or community outreach.

 

Public schools have histories that go back generations. Everyone in the community knows the teachers who work there. Parents often send their kids to the same educators who taught them when they were young. Sometimes this goes back to grandparents and even great grandparents. Older brothers can advise younger sisters what it was like to have this teacher or that principal. The kinds of relationships you get at public school just aren’t there at institutions that model themselves on big box stores like WalMart and Target.

 

3) Public Schools Increase Educational Choice

 

Privatizers often talk about charters and voucher schools as if they are the only places that offer parents and students choice. It’s simply untrue. Many public school districts offer a tremendous amount of alternatives for students living in their neighborhoods. Larger urban districts often have magnet or theme schools. But even beyond that, most schools offer a wide variety of classes and curriculum. Students can take foreign languages, vo-tech, arts and humanities, independent studies, and advanced placement or college credit courses. Students can take advantage of a plethora of services designed to personalize their academic experience to meet their individual needs with special and gifted education, even choosing which teachers are the best fit for their learning styles.

Obviously, these options increase with the degree of wealth in a community, but they prove that increasing choice doesn’t have to mean privatization. It means equitable funding.

 

 

4) Public Schools Have Greater Diversity

 

Students learn a lot more than reading, writing and arithmetic in school. They also learn how to deal with different kinds of people – they learn to share this world with other humans from various racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual backgrounds. The more diverse an environment they grow up in, the more well-adjusted they will be for the adult world, and the less racist, sexist and prejudiced they’ll probably become.

 

Public schools are often a sea of diversity. They are the best place to meet the entire spectrum of humanity. On the other hand, charter and voucher schools are routinely segregated and homogenous. Sometimes privatized schools make efforts to fight against this, but you can’t make much headway when your entire system is based on sorting out the underprivileged in favor of white, affluent children whose parents can afford tuition (private schools) or poor black but high achieving children (charter schools).

 

5) Public Schools Are More Fiscally Responsible

 

Public schools spend their money more wisely than privatized schools. They have to! Their records are an open book. All the spending decisions happen in public view. And the law requires that all expenses must relate to educating children.

 

Privatized schools rarely do this, and if they do, it’s by choice not necessity. They could close their books any day, make whatever decisions they like behind closed doors and layout bundles of cash for their CEOs or investors. Privatized schools are for-profit. Even when they aren’t explicitly labeled as such, they usually operate in the same way – cut student services to increase the bottom line. Their explicit goal is to make money off your child – not simply earn a middle class income like public schools. No, they want to get rich off of your dime.

 

Privatizers buy mansions and yachts with your money. Public school teachers pay off their mortgages. And in the rare instances where public school employees break the law and try to embezzle funds, they are much more likely to be caught because the books are right there for all to see.

 

6) Public Schools Are More Reliable

 

When you send your child to most privatized schools, you never really know if it’s going to be there tomorrow. Charter schools often close without a moments notice. Private schools declare bankruptcy.

 

If there’s one thing you can be reasonably sure of, it’s that your neighborhood public school will still be there. It’s been there for decades, sometimes hundreds of years. Charter and voucher schools are often fly-by-night affairs. Public schools are solid bedrock. If public schools close, it’s only after considerable public comment and a protracted political process. No one ever shows up to find the local public school chained shut. Not the same at charters or private schools.

 

 

7) Public Schools Have Greater Commitment to Students

 

Charter and vouchers schools don’t have to accept your child. Public schools do.

 

When you enroll in a privatized school, the choice is all up to administrators. Is your child a safe bet? Can they let your little one in without breaking the bank? Will he or she make the school look good with better test scores? Will he or she be easy to educate?

 

Public schools, on the other hand, have a commitment to educating every child who lives in the district. They even take homeless children. Only under the most extreme circumstances would they expel a young person. No matter who your offspring is, no matter how good or bad a student, public school operators have faith they can help the youngster succeed.

 

8) You Have Ownership of Public Schools

 

With privatized schools, you’re paying for a business to provide services. Public schools belong to you. In fact, you’re the boss.

 

Public schools are run by your friends, neighbors and co-workers. Privatized schools are most often run by appointed boards of directors who are not beholden to you but to the investors. As education blogger Peter Greene puts it, “The charter is a business, run by people who don’t ever have to let you into their board room.”

 

In addition, many public schools go beyond even this level of parental involvement. They more often have PTAs or PTOs. They have advisory councils where elected parents, teachers and community members can work together to advise the school board on important maters like hiring superintendents. If parents and the community want a voice, the public school system is overflowing with options. Ironically, the community rarely has any say over privatized schools and parents can only vote with their feet.

 

9) Public Schools Provide More Amenities

 

Public schools routinely offer so much more than privatized schools. At many charter and voucher schools, parents are required to buy supplies for the whole institution. Public schools accept donations and sometimes teachers ask for help, but if parents can’t (or won’t) send in pencils or tissues, the school provides it gratis. And even when the district is cheap in this regard, teachers often make up the difference from their own pockets. It’s not right that they have to do so, but they constantly step up for your children.

Moreover, public schools offer a much expanded range of services for your children than privatized schools. Special education and gifted programs are first rate at public schools while often intermittent or nonexistent at privatized schools. And the requirements put on parents at public schools are much lower – less restrictive dress codes, fewer demands on parents’ time and they take a greater responsibility for your children.

Heck, private schools rarely even pay for transportation. Public schools offer a free ride via the school bus from home and back again.

 

10) Public Schools Match or Outperform Privatized Schools

 

When it comes to academic performance, comparisons all come down to what data you think is indicative of student learning and which factors you exclude. You can find plenty of studies funded by privatizers that unsurprisingly conclude their backers business model is the best. However, when you look at peer reviewed and nonpartisan studies, the story changes.

The Lubienskis, in particular, paint an extremely compelling picture of public school superiority based on numerous complex statistical models including hierarchical linear modeling and multivariate regression. In short, the authors conclude that after accounting for the demographic differences among various school sector populations, traditional public school students outperform those at private schools over time. Students typically enter public schools with much greater degrees of poverty than those entering private schools. As such, public school students start with greater academic deficiencies. Even so, public schools are able to make up for these deficiencies over time more easily than privatized schools. And by fourth grade, public school students actually have greater academic success than their demographically similar peers at private or charter schools. The Lubienskis call it “The Public School Effect.”

 

With all these benefits, you’d think we’d be cheering on our public school system, not denigrating it. However, the failing schools narrative sells a lot of people on privatized alternatives. But it’s not fact. It’s marketing.

 

It’s time someone explicitly outlined the benefits of our public schools. We could be doing a lot more to help make them even better. But the first step is recognizing what an asset these schools already are.

 

Public schools, they’re what happens when we value children over profit.

A Teacher’s Dilemma: Take a Stand Against Testing or Keep Abusing Children

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What am I?

 

Seriously. What is it I do for a living?

 

When I wake up to go to work in the morning, am I preparing to be a teacher or a test proctor?

 

Am I engaged in the practice of nurturing young minds or am I a tool of the establishment?

 

Should I be held accountable to the dozens of students in my classroom, their parents and the community – or to my administrators, the bureaucrats and moneyed interests ordering us around?

 

I ask these questions not as a rhetorical device. I really don’t know the answers. Because the solution begins with me.

 

Today was not a banner day in my classroom, and I can honestly say it was not my fault.

 

I had to give my 7th grade students the Classroom Diagnostic Tools assessment in Reading/Lit for grades 6-high school.

 

If you’re not familiar with the CDT, this is an optional test offered by Data Recognition Corporation for students in Pennsylvania’s public schools. It’s a way to assess student learning to predict whether they’ll pass there annual federally mandated standardized tests (also created by Data Recognition Corp. in the Keystone State). In addition, it offers example questions of the type that students struggled to answer correctly on the diagnostic.

 

It’s very helpful if you want to print out a buttload of test prep, give it to students and then read the paper quietly at your desk – something I never do.

 

For the second straight year, I’ve been forced to give it to my students three times annually – twice before the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests and once after.

 

I am not a fan.

 

Students hate it. It does not return valuable data. And it takes precious time that I could be using to actually teach something.

 

When I told my kids they were going to have to take the assessment this morning, one girl said, “I hate the CDTs. It stands for I Can’t Do This.”

 

Another girl had a more visceral reaction. When she saw the letters “CDT” on the board, she literally began rolling around on the floor and groaning.

 

These are the kinds of students I have – victims of generational poverty, malnutrition, childhood trauma, violence, drug abuse and systemic racism and prejudice. Strong-arming them into another standardized test isn’t doing them any favors.

 

Compare their reaction this morning to yesterday’s lesson.

 

We had just finished a unit on plot using Dr. Seuss stories and cartoons to illustrate complex concepts like exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, resolution, theme, etc.

 

I made a competitive review game through a program called Kahoot, and kids were out of their seats, jumping around, squealing with delight as they demonstrated their knowledge of what they’d learned. It got so loud one of the principals came running over from the office to make sure things weren’t getting out of hand. But what he found were students so engaged by the work they could barely contain themselves.

 

Heck! I even gave them a test of my own creation right afterward. There were no groans. There were no protests.

 

They sat at their seats like grown adults, concentrated and answered the questions to the best of their abilities.

 

Compare that with today’s assessment.

 

Behaviors off the hook. Sullen looks. Demands to use the restroom, go to their lockers, visit the nurse – ANYTHING but be here in class and do this test.

 

Why the difference?

 

Because they knew what was expected on MY test, and they knew they could meet my expectations. I was there for the lesson. I made the test. I would grade it. I have a relationship with these kids and they know I will assess them fairly.

 

But not on this standardized CDT nonsense!

 

Data Recognition Corp isn’t there for the lesson. It has no rapport with students. Kids don’t know what the expectations are and don’t think they can meet them. And they have no sense that this multi-billion dollar corporation will grade them fairly for their efforts.

 

So they act out.

 

They throw wads of paper or airdrop pictures to each others’ iPads.

 

And here I am in front of this room of unruly children forced to have to defend the bullcrap garbage that I’m being coerced to do to them.

 

I want to apologize. I want to tell them this is not my idea. And after a while, I even DID that. But it’s no use.

 

It matters little whether the executioner does his job with reluctance or not. He’s still here to end your life. And I was still cast in the role of ending their education for the day and replacing it with “proof” that they aren’t good enough.

 

When the test was over, so many children showed me their scores with hurt faces.

 

“Mr. Singer, I really tried!” one boy said.

 

“This is rigged!” another said.

 

And what am I supposed to say to that? Should I explain how they’re right – how standardized tests have always been culturally and economically biased? Why would they care!? What kind of teacher would that make me!?

 

I know this is wrong, but I still do it!?

 

What use am I?

 

What purpose do I serve enforcing policies I know to be detrimental?

 

I went through five years of college to become a teacher – not a prison guard. But on days like today that’s what I am. I’ve devoted over a decade of my life to nourishing children, not ordering them all to march in line single file.

 

But here I am, a paid thug who browbeats and coerces innocents into doing things they don’t want to do for purposes that won’t benefit them and will in fact be used against them.

 

I wonder what the school board would say if I had the guts to stand in front of them at a public meeting and tell them.

 

I guess I’ll just have to keep wondering because the last time I tried to address that august body without an explicit invitation, I was told I wasn’t allowed to do so since I don’t live in the district where I teach.

 

But sometimes I question whether the elected representatives of my district even understand what I’m being bulldozed into doing in their name.

 

Do you know I am abusing your children? I am crushing their creativity, their self-respect, their curiosity. Is that really what you want of me? Is that what you hired me for?

 

Don’t get me wrong.

 

It’s not really anything new. I’ve been doing this for almost 15 years. It’s just harder every year.

 

I heap on justifications – you have to do the bad stuff so you can do the good stuff. You have to enforce the testing so you can do authentic teaching.

 

And every year the mandates get more restrictive, the teaching gets a little less and the testing a bit more.

 

Meanwhile, politicians pretend like they’re doing something to fix it. Gov. Tom Wolf (whom I generally like) cuts off a few days from the PSSA tests this year. But he keeps the recommendation that we take the CDTs. He keeps the entire test-and-punish framework in place. Like most Democrats, he’s willing to twiddle around the edges but has no guts to do away with what’s wrong and replace it with what’s right.

 

Meanwhile, parents in my state are generally clueless.

 

You have some strong advocates here and there. Some moms and dads who understand what’s going on. But most are either oblivious, too busy putting food on the table, in jail or dead.

 

I used to send home a letter to parents reminding them of their right to opt out of standardized tests. It almost got me fired.

 

And for my efforts, I think maybe one or two parents over five years actually took me up on it.

 

I go to my local union and tell them my concerns. They nod and ask for more information and then quietly forget it.

 

Meanwhile, the national unions are behind the testocracy 100%. They’ll wag their fingers and complain about testing, but they’re too busy making sure the teaching profession even exists tomorrow to stop for small potatoes like bad practices.

 

I feel so alone here.

 

I’m pulling my hair out and the only response I get is from the choir (Hallelujah!) and the corporate education reformers (How dare you!?).

 

The majority stays silent. And complicit.

 

I’m just not sure I can do it anymore.

 

I’ve thought about calling in sick whenever I have to give a standardized test. It would be a lot of days, but I could do it.

 

That might be safe, but it would be cowardly.

 

I’d just be saving myself the pain and humiliation of giving the tests. My students would still be forced to take them.

 

So what do I do?

 

I write.

 

I write blogs like this one.

 

I pound out my cares and reservations, put them in a virtual bottle and set it adrift on the seas of the Internet.

 

It’s a constant gamble.

 

Someday someone may read them who can end my career.

 

Or maybe someone with the power to make a difference will read them.

 

Maybe that’s you.

 

Maybe it’s all of us.

 

I don’t know.

 

I have no solutions today. Just shame and regrets.

 

A dilemma that I cannot solve.

Why I Teach

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Every year it’s the same nightmare.

I’m in front of a class of middle school students who aren’t paying any attention to me.

I point to the board, stamp my foot, even scream in vain.

But the children keep acting up – throwing pencils, swearing, hurting each other’s feelings.

It’s like I’m invisible.

And then I wake up.

Every teacher probably has a similar dream the night before their first day with students.

It’s a dream of impotence and redundancy.

Kind of like the businessmen and their political puppets claim we, teachers, are every day.

But the reality is much different.

Kids come bouncing in to my room, bristling with energy, half concealed hopes and fears.

Before they come in, I’m full of doubt: Can I still do this for another year? Will I be able to keep up with the work load? Will I be able to accommodate all the extra services for every special education student in my mainstreamed classroom? Do I have enough desks, pencils, paper? Have I planned enough for the first week? Will I be able to keep students interested, entertained, disciplined, engaged, working, inspired?

But the second the kids enter the classroom – literally the exact second – all my doubts disappear.

There’s no time.

I have more than two dozen children to see to at any given moment – and their needs outweigh any of mine.

It wasn’t until about halfway through the day that I even had an instant to myself to stop, breathe and reflect.

After my first bathroom break in more than 3 hours, then grabbing my lunch and collapsing into a seat- the first time I’m off my feet with no anxious little faces looking up to me – I think back on my day and realize – I absolutely love this!

No, really.

My feet hurt, my temples throb from making a hundred tiny decisions every 40 minutes, my body feels like it’s already been through a war… But there is no place in the world I would rather be.

Look what I’ve already accomplished today!

I took about 50 anxious human beings and made them feel like it was going to be okay.

I made 50 faces smile, sigh and relax.

I worked for hours on a new syllabus last week with manga graphics and punchy repartee, and when the kids got it today, they knew this class wasn’t going to be boring. I planned some ice breaker games to get them focused on our budding community of learners. I modeled how we can interact and still respect each other.

And in return I heard: “This is the best class!” “Mr. Singer is my favorite teacher!” “I don’t like to read or write but I’m really looking forward to doing your homework!”

How can you hear such things and not come away energized and new? How can you see such things and not feel a warm glow in your heart?

One of my first assignments is to have students write a letter about themselves. It’s now day 3 and I’m sitting at my desk reading through them.

It’s heartbreak city. Dead or absent parents, lost friends and pets, moving from place-to-place, older brothers and sisters serving as caregivers, pledges to work hard this year and make some missing adult proud. I find myself tearing up and writing supportive comments: “That’s so sad.” “I hope you like it here.” “You’ve already made me proud.”

I go through my Individual Education Plans and see a catalogue of hurt and trauma. Babies, they’re just babies, and they’ve gone through more than I have in my whole life. And I’m more than three times their age!

How can I not come to school every day and give my very best?

A public school is more than a building to me. It’s a temple to humanity. It’s where we go to offer ourselves to other people.

Every action, every thought spent on these children is holy. The tiniest gesture is magnified through infinite time and space. When I help a child gain confidence in her reading, I help not just her. I help everyone she will ever come into contact with –her co-workers, her friends, family, even her own children if she someday has some.

It’s humbling. Amazing. Staggering.

Where else can you see the accumulated hurt of the world and actually make a dent in it? Where else can you reach out not just to a cause or an idea but to a living person?

I’m lucky. I am so lucky. My circumstances allowed me to do whatever I wanted with my life.

I could have become a doctor or a lawyer. I could have gone into business and made a whole mess of money. But I never wanted any of that. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to help people.

I remember the pitying looks peers would give me in my 20s. What a waste, they seemed to say. But I’ve never regretted it.

This is what I was meant to do. It’s the only thing I ever could and still respect myself.

Some folks will tell you teaching is about numbers and data. Increase these test scores. Cut costs by this much. Boost profits, escalate the graph, maximize effectiveness.

These people are fools.

Teaching has nothing to do with any of that. It’s about the children. Being there for them. Being an active part of eternity.

Thankful eyes, delighted smiles, joyous laughter. Ameliorating hurt. Igniting a tiny candle whose light will grow to encompass sights I will never see.

That’s why I teach.

Study: Closing Schools Doesn’t Increase Test Scores

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You might be tempted to file this under ‘No Shit, Sherlock.’

But a new study found that closing schools where students achieve low test scores doesn’t end up helping them learn. Moreover, such closures disproportionately affect students of color.

What’s surprising, however, is who conducted the study – corporate education reform cheerleaders, the Center for Research on EDucation Outcomes (CREDO).

Like their 2013 study that found little evidence charter schools outperform traditional public schools, this year’s research found little evidence for another key plank in the school privatization platform.

These are the same folks who have suggested for at least a decade that THE solution to low test scores was to simply close struggling public schools, replace them with charter schools and voilà.

But now their own research says “no voilà.” Not to the charter part. Not to the school closing part. Not to any single part of their own backward agenda.

Stanford-based CREDO is funded by the Hoover Institution, the Walton Foundation and testing giant Pearson, among others. They have close ties to the KIPP charter school network and privatization propaganda organizations like the Center for Education Reform.

If THEY can’t find evidence to support these policies, no one can!

After funding one of the largest studies of school closures ever conducted, looking at data from 26 states from 2003 to 2013, they could find zero support that closing struggling schools increases student test scores.

The best they could do was find no evidence that it hurt.

But this is because they defined student achievement solely by raw standardized scores. No other measure – not student grades, not graduation rates, attendance, support networks, community involvement, not even improvement on those same assessments – nothing else was even considered.

Perhaps this is due to the plethora of studies showing that school closures negatively impact students in these ways. Closing schools crushes the entire community economically and socially. It affects students well beyond academic achievement.

The CREDO study did, however, find that where displaced students enrolled after their original school was closed made a difference.

If Sally moves to School B after School A is closed, her success is significantly affected by the quality of her new educational institution. Students who moved to schools that suffered from the same structural deficiencies and chronic underfunding as did their original alma mater, did not improve. But students who moved to schools that were overflowing with resources, smaller class sizes, etc. did better. However, the latter rarely happened. Displaced students almost always ended up at schools that were just about as neglected as their original institution.

Even in the fleeting instances where students traded up, researchers noted that the difference between School A and B had to be massive for students to experience positive results.

Does that mean school closures can be a constructive  reform strategy?

No. It only supports the obvious fact that increasing resources and providing equitable funding can help improve student achievement. It doesn’t justify killing struggling schools. It justifies saving them.

Another finding of the CREDO study was the racial component of school closings.

Schools with higher populations of blacks and Hispanics were more likely to be shuttered than institutions serving mostly white students. In addition, schools with higher poverty populations were also more likely to be closed than those serving middle class or rich children.

Yet you really don’t need an academic study to know that. All you have to do is read the news. Read about the closings in Chicago, New Orleans, Detroit – really any major metropolitan area.

The fact that CREDO admits it, only adds credence to arguments by critics like myself.

It is no accident that poor black schools get closed more than rich white ones. Poor students of color are targeted for this exact treatment.

Corporate education reform is not just bad policy; it is racist and classist as well.

Greg Richmond, President of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, was shocked by these findings.

“We are especially troubled by the report’s observation of different school closure patterns based on race, ethnicity, and poverty,” he said in a statement. “These differences were present among both charter schools and traditional public schools and serve as a wake-up call to examine our practices to ensure all schools and students are being treated equitably.”

But his industry benefits from these practices. Just as CREDO’s backers do.

Never has our country been less prepared to deal with the real problems besieging it. But if the time ever comes when sanity returns, we cannot simply go back to familiar habits.

School closures and charter school proliferation are bad no matter who proposes it – Republicans or Democrats.

Regardless of who sits in the Oval Office, regardless of who represents us in federal, state and local government, we have to make sure they do the right things for our children.

That means learning from our mistakes. Beyond partisanship. Beyond economics.

It’s the only way to build a better world.

CREDO’s study just adds fuel to the fire surrounding the regressive education policies of the last decade.

If we’re ever in the position to hold a match, will we have the courage to strike it?

Who is Responsible for Student Achievement?

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Billy is an average middle school student.

 

He sits down and takes a test.

 

The grade comes back.

 

Who is responsible for that grade?

 

This should be the dumbest question you can ask in the field of education.

 

The answer should be obvious.

 

Billy is responsible.

 

Billy did the work, he took the test, he earned the grade.

 

But all across this great country of ours we’re giving the wrong answer.

 

We’re saying teachers are responsible for that grade.

 

This is ridiculous. Teachers could not do the work for the student. Teachers could not take the test for the student. How can you possibly assume the teacher is responsible for the grade?

 

In fact, if the teacher really were responsible – if she did all the work and took the test – how could you rationally say this grade belonged to the student? No, it wouldn’t be Billy’s, it would be his teacher’s.

 

The truth goes something like this: You are responsible only for things within your control. The greater your degree of control, the greater your degree of responsibility.

 

This is not complicated.

 

It is simple logic. Cause and effect.

 

But ignoring it is perhaps the most virulent, incorrigible, fact-resistant mistake in the entire field of public education.

 

Lawmakers are getting it wrong. The media is getting it wrong. Superintendents, principals – even teachers are getting it wrong.

 

And the reason is somewhat pernicious.

 

We’ve been sold a lie.

 

We’ve been told for so long that educators are responsible for their students’ work that we’ve begun to accept it without question.

 

Just today at a training in my district, I was shown a spreadsheet of student test scores and told in no uncertain terms that this was something I have control over.

 

I DON’T.

 

I don’t have control over the raw scores. I don’t even have control over how much a student improves from one year to another.

 

The student does.

 

HE controls how hard he works on assignments. HE exhibits the most control over the results of his assessments.

 

This doesn’t mean I’m completely helpless.

 

I do have control over certain aspects of students’ academic experience.

 

I control what work is assigned, when it is assigned and to whom.

 

I control whether there is extra credit, what counts as homework, who gets extra help, etc.

 

In many cases, I even get to decide whether students have completed their work and if assessments have been completed successfully.

 

As long as I am exhibiting best practices, giving age-appropriate work and evaluating it fairly, I’m doing my part.

 

It is not then justified to assume I am solely responsible for the end result.

 

I raise the hurdles, but the student actually goes through the obstacle course.

 

The teacher is a factor, but not the largest one. That is the student, Billy.

 

Yet he is not alone here. Besides, me, his teacher, there is also the principal, the student’s parents, his friends and even society as a whole.

 

All of these and more contribute to student success.

 

The principal controls school policy. He determines what discipline the student receives, the clarity of school rules, etc.

 

Likewise, students’ friends are part of their social network. They can help with homework, form a study group, or distract from school work, denigrate work ethic, etc.

 

Society also plays a role. If a student is part of a community that values education and work ethic, that student will more likely put forth more effort. If the student lives in a community where school is seen as unimportant and teachers are not respected, that will have a negative impact, etc.

 

And the number one factor other than the student, himself, that contributes to his success is parents. They control home life, emotional support, tutoring, nutrition, etc.

 

All of these complex factors combine to add up to an individual student’s success. However, at the end of the day, it is the student, himself, that bears the brunt of the responsibility for what he does.

 

That’s why we call it HIS grade and not someone else’s.

 

This is the most obvious thing in the world, but it has certain consequences for education policy.

 

For instance, it immediately invalidates the majority of teacher evaluations given throughout the country. The reason? Most evaluations are based at least in part on student test scores.

 

As we’ve seen, this misrepresents the student-teacher relationship. It blames the teacher for things well beyond his or her control.

 

It turns students into passive objects acted on by magical super teachers who can somehow make them learn simply by – what – endless repetition of test prep materials?

 

Why would students put forth their best in this scenario? If they’re failing, it’s somehow not their fault. It’s their teachers!

 

But even worse than this misrepresentation, it completely ignores a plethora of vital factors in the education process.

 

Parents, for instance, are crucially important, but we’re leaving them completely out of the loop.

 

When parents struggle to fulfill their responsibilities, why is there little to no help? The answer: because we’ve hidden the fact that such responsibilities even exist. We’ve thrown it all on the teacher and the school.

 

All these out-of-school factors are obscured, yet taken together they are almost determinate. After all, this is why poor and minority students disproportionately struggle academically.

 

You can demand every student jump six feet straight up, but those with the best resources will meet this goal much more frequently than those without.

 

And who is in control of those resources? Who decides which children get the smallest class sizes, the best home environments, the most conducive social networks, etc.?

 

The myth of teacher accountability is what stops such resources from being sent.

 

We’re told all you need is a good teacher.

 

But this is not true.

 

You need much more.

 

The ultimate responsibility may rest with the student, but until we all realize and acknowledge our collective responsibilities to all students, success will always be out of reach for far too many of them.

 

Billy may take the test, but it is society that is failing to meet its responsibilities.

Pennsylvania Proposes Smaller Tests, Same High Stakes

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It’s not the size of the tests, it’s how you use them.

 

And that’s kind of the problem with Gov. Tom Wolf’s new proposal for Pennsylvania public schools.

 

Wolf wants to reduce the amount of time students are taking standardized tests, but he seems to have little problem using those tests to hold schools accountable for all kinds of things that are beyond their control.

 

The proposal released today applies only to the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests – those taken by students in grades 3-8. Keystone Exams taken by high school students are unaffected.

 

It would cut one of three reading sections and one of three math sections – two total. Wolf also wants to cut some questions from one of the science sections.

 

Such a move is estimated to eliminate 48 minutes from the math test, 45 minutes from the reading test and 22 minutes from the science test. However, judging from my own students, these times vary considerably depending on the individual taking the tests. I’ve had 8th grade students finish a PSSA section in as little as 5 minutes or as much as two hours.

 

Most schools give either a section a day or two in one day. Therefore, this proposal probably translates to 1 to 2 fewer days testing in most districts.

 

Um. Thanks?

 

Look I don’t want to seem ungrateful here, but these suggested modifications are little more than fiddling around the edges of a massive problem.

 

Yes, it will be helpful to reduce testing times, but this does very little to address the fundamental problems with test-based accountability in the Commonwealth.

 

At best, this proposal will allow students to spend two more days a year learning. Assuming most districts don’t use that extra time for test prep, that IS a good thing.

 

But tacitly committing students throughout the state to taking these tests almost guarantees that test prep is exactly how these additional days will be used.

 

The problem with standardized testing isn’t just the number of raw days it takes students to complete the tests. It is how the tests deform the entire year-long curriculum. Students don’t just learn anymore. They learn what’s on the test – and anything else is purely optional.

 

Regardless of the size of the assessments, they are still being used to sort and judge students, teachers and schools. Shortening their length does nothing to address the fundamental unfairness of the evaluations. Rich white kids still tend to have high scores and poor minority kids still tend to have low ones.

 

At best, they reveal structural funding disparities between poor and wealthy districts. At worst, the cultural bias inherent in the questions favor those from dominant, privileged ethnicities while punishing those who don’t fit the standard.

 

That’s what “standardized test” means after all – defining normal and punishing those who don’t fit the definition. Most questions don’t assess universals like the value of 2 and 2. They evaluate cultural and social norms required to understand the questions and easily find an answer that another “normal” student would choose. (Don’t believe me? Watch “Black Jeopardy” on Saturday Night Live.)

 

This is true whether the test takes one day or 100 days.

 

We should not be using standardized testing to meet federal accountability standards. Period.

 

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) contains provisions to circumvent them. States are supposed to be given leeway about testing. They may even be able to replace them with projects or other non-standardized assessments. THAT’S what Wolf and the Pennsylvania Department of Education should be exploring – not half measures.

 

To be fair, the state Department of Education is attempting reform based on the ESSA. This year, the department introduced Future Ready PA, a new way of using test scores and other measures to assess school success. To its credit, The Index does place additional emphasis on academic growth, evaluation of school climate, attendance, graduation rates, etc. However, for my money it still gives far too much importance to standardized testing and test prep.

 

Like reducing the size of the PSSAs, it’s a positive step but won’t do much to get us to our destination.

 

Neither measure will have much impact on the day-to-day operations of our public schools. Districts will still be pressured to emphasize test prep, test taking strategies, approaches to answering multiple choice questions, etc. Meanwhile, critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity will still be pushed to the side.

 

Moreover, since schools and teachers will be assessed as successful or not based largely on these test scores, districts will be under tremendous pressure to give countless practice tests throughout the year to gauge how well students are prepared for the PSSAs. The state will still be providing and encouraging the optional Classroom Diagnostics Tools (CDT) tests be taken several times in reading and math throughout the year. Trimming off two days from the PSSA will affect that not at all.

 

In addition, today’s proposal only applies to the PSSA. While that assessment is important, the Keystone Exams given to high school students are even more so. According to existing state law, passing the Keystones in Algebra I, Literature and Biology are required in order to qualify for a diploma. However, that condition has yet to go live. So far the legislature has continuously pushed back the date when passing scores become graduation requirements. The Governor and Department of Education should be proposing the elimination of this prerequisite before anything else. Other than education funding and perhaps charter school accountability, it is the most important education issue before Commonwealth lawmakers today.

 

Don’t get me wrong. The Democratic Governor is somewhat hamstrung by the Republican-controlled legislature. Partisan politics has stopped lawmakers from accepting Wolf’s more progressive education measures.

 

Though Wolf has gotten Republicans to increase education funding by hundreds of millions of dollars during his term, K-12 schools still receive less than they did before the previous GOP governor’s administration. Moreover, there have been absolutely zero inflationary increases to keep up with the rising cost of doing business. Pennsylvania schools receive less funding – whether you adjust for inflation or not – than they should, and that has a real world impact on our public schools. Moreover, how that money has been allocated by the legislature still – even with our new better funding formula in place – benefits wealthy districts more than poor ones.

 

If you want to talk about accountability, that’s where the majority of the issue belongs.

 

And primarily it’s out of Wolf’s hands. One can understand why he is proposing changes where he can and trying to do whatever good is possible given the political climate.

 

Shortening the PSSA tests would benefit our students. It is a step in a positive direction.

 

However, it is far from solving our many education problems.

 

The biggest roadblock to authentic school reform is a legislature that refuses to do anything but the absolute minimum for our neediest students.