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.

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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.

Why Won’t Republicans Repeal Common Core?

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It was a constant refrain from Donald Trump on the stump.

 

 

He was going to repeal Common Core. How did we know? He kept repeating it over-and-over.

 

 

“We’re cutting Common Core. We’re getting rid of Common Core,” he said during a debate in Detroit.

 

 

“Common Core is a total disaster. We can’t let it continue,” he said in a campaign ad.

 

 

But then, he did a complete 180:

 

 

“We are going to do some things special. Okay. Are you ready? Common Core we’re going to keep.”

 

 

What!?

 

 

It didn’t go down so well with his supporters. He was literally booed. So he took to Twitter with the following:

 

 

“I was referring to the fact that Jeb Bush wants to keep common core.”

 

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Uh, okay?

 

 

So what’s his position now? Someone asked him about it in New Hampshire. His response:

 

 

“I didn’t know Common Core was so complicated. Isn’t this ridiculous?”

 

 

On that we can agree.

 

 

But it really doesn’t matter.

 

 

POWER TO THE STATES

 

 

Whether Trump supports Common Core or not, he’s actually kind of powerless to do anything about it.

 

 

Republicans have been arguing for years that the federal government can’t tell the states what they should be teaching. That’s the crux of opposition, and the newly reauthorized federal law governing K-12 schools, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), underlines it.

 

 

The power is unequivocally in the hands of governors and state legislatures.

 

 

The states control which academic standards their public schools are supposed to subscribe to or not. And since the beginning of 2017, the states are overwhelmingly in Republican control.

 

There are 98 partisan state legislative chambers in the United States. Republicans dominate 67 of them. In fact, the GOP controls both legislative chambers in 32 states – the most it has in the party’s history! And in 24 of those states, Republicans also run the show in the Governor’s mansion – the trifecta!

 

In short, despite any limits on Presidential power, the GOP has never been in a better position to get rid of Common Core.

 

If Republicans truly wanted to repeal it, they could do so tomorrow, and there’s zero Democrats could do about it in almost half of the country.

 

Yet, Republicans don’t.

 

They haven’t.

 

And they don’t seem in any rush to put it on their agenda in the future.

 

Which brings me to a serious question any critic of Common Core has to answer: WHY!?

 

Republicans say they hate Common Core.

 

They have the power to get rid of it.

 

Why don’t they do it?

 

 

THE STATE OF COMMON CORE

 

 

Despite any comments to the contrary, any blathering talking head nonsense from media pundits, the facts remain the same.

 

Common Core is still the law of the land in 36 states and the District of Columbia.

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Sure, some legislatures have changed the name and made nominal revisions (Hello, Pennsylvania!) but they’re still essentially the same standards applied in the same way. The Common Core’s own Website doesn’t distinguish between states that have the standards outright and those where they have been slightly revised or renamed.

 

Specifically, nine states have announced plans to rewrite or replace the standards, but in the majority of these cases, they have resulted merely in slight revisions. Only Missouri, Oklahoma, and Tennessee appear to have created significantly different standards, according to Education Week.

 

So what’s the hold up?

 

 

MAIN OBJECTIONS TO THE CORE

 

 

Full disclosure: I am not a Republican. I am the farthest thing you could find to a Republican. But on this one issue we agree.

 

No, I don’t think Common Core will make your child gay or indoctrinate kids into a far left worldview or any of a number of bizarre, crackpot criticisms you might hear from mentally ill pundits being exploited by far right media conglomerates. Nor am I opposed simply to undo any signature legislative achievements of our first black President.

 

But I do think there are several rational reasons to be against Common Core. The standards were written almost exclusively by representatives of the standardized testing industry with input from very few practicing classroom teachers and zero child psychologists. They have never been tested and proven effective. In many cases, they are developmentally inappropriate. They were adopted non-democratically. And – perhaps worst of all – they commit schools to the failed educational management technique of test-and-punish.

 

THAT’S why I’m against Common Core.

 

But it really doesn’t matter.

 

Even if people like Glenn Beck and I disagree on the reasons why, we both agree on the course of action – repeal Common Core.

 

Yet the incumbent batch of GOP lawmakers across the country are letting us both down.

 

If one has to be beaten by Republicans, at least let them accomplish the things that have bipartisan support. That includes repealing Common Core.

 

Though the media likes to characterize this as a conservative issue, it’s not just Republicans who want to get rid of the Core. Regardless of politics, most people dislike the standards. They aren’t popular with adults. They aren’t popular with children. And most tellingly, they aren’t popular with classroom teachers.

 

According to the most recent Education Next poll, less than half of all Americans, 49%, favor the policy. In partisan terms, that’s 37% of Republicans and 57% of Democrats. And that support has been steadily dropping every year – by 20 points for Republicans and seven for Democrats since 2013.

 

And among teachers, the drop is even more dramatic. Only 40% now favor the Core. That’s a drop of 36 points among those who know the standards best!

 

 

POLITICAL PARALLELS

 

 

So let’s get rid of them.

 

For once I’m with Trump.

 

But the legislatures just won’t do it.

 

In some ways, this shares parallels with the healthcare debate.

 

Before going forward, let me just say that I am NOT in favor of repealing Obamacare and going back to the previous system. Nor am I in favor of repealing without a replacement or any of the so-called “skinny” plans put forth by the GOP.

 

I think we need single payer healthcare. Medicare for all.

 

But be that as it may. The debate offers us a similar example from the federal level.

 

Republicans say they hate Obamacare yet despite the fact that Democrats can do nothing to stop them, they refuse to repeal it.

 

In this case, the reason is obvious – they have nothing with which to replace it.

 

After all these years, they can’t come up with a plan that will improve upon the one already in place.

 

But this isn’t the case at the state level when it comes to Common Core.

 

Each and every state had a set of academic standards before Common Core. In most cases, these standards were actually far superior.

 

All the legislatures would have to do is reinstate them.

 

Pennsylvania’s standards were particularly reasonable, flexible yet grade appropriate and comprehensive.

 

We could go back to them tomorrow.

 

But we don’t.

 

Why?

 

It’s that same question again.

 

What is holding us back?

 

 

STANDARDIZED TESTING

 

 

Here’s my theory: it’s the testing.

 

One of the most frustrating things for Common Core critics is when apologists say they hate standardized testing but love Common Core.

 

The two are inextricably interlinked. You can’t have Common Core without the testing. That is the whole point of the standards – to tell districts what to focus on because those things will be on the federally mandated high stakes standardized tests.

 

If states repeal Common Core, what happens to these tests?

 

Before adopting the Core, each state had a test aligned to its own specific standards. Even where some states had the same tests, their standards were significantly similar to allow this. In any case, most states that have adopted the Core have had to buy new, more difficult tests.

 

Sure, we could all go back to the tests we used to give, but this would present certain problems.

 

First, many states were taking tests that were already being aligned with Common Core before they officially adopted it. If they got rid of the standards, they couldn’t go back to the old tests because they’re already Common Core specific.

 

In theory, they could ask to reinstate older versions of the test that aren’t Common Core aligned. However, in practice for some states, this might necessitate the creation of yet another batch of new tests.

 

However, in many states like Pennsylvania, this wouldn’t be an issue. Before the Core, they had their own tests based on state specific standards. There’s really no reason why they couldn’t dust off these old tests and put them back into circulation.

 

The problem is that this would require politicians to justify the millions of dollars (at least $7 billion nationally) they wasted on the new tests, new workbooks, new textbooks, etc.

 

Lawmakers would have to own their mistakes.

 

They’d have to say, “My bad!”

 

And most of them aren’t about to do that.

 

Of course, there is a third option: they could undo the high stakes testing altogether. They could characterize this not as a misstep but a reform.

 

According to the ESSA, all states have to give federally mandated standardized tests from grades 3-8 and once in high school.

 

But what exactly those tests look like is debatable.

 

The federal government is supposed to give them leeway in this matter. What better way for the Trump administration and Betsy DeVos to demonstrate their commitment to local control than by approving accountability plans that don’t include standardized testing?

 

States could substitute student projects, classroom grades, internships, even community service for this mandate.

 

I’m sure if lawmakers were really serious about getting rid of Common Core, they could figure out a way to make this work. It would just require a commitment to patching up the massive hole in our school funding system where the standardized testing industry has been sucking away tax dollars that could be better used elsewhere – like in the actual act of teaching students!

 

 

THE CYNICAL INTERPRETATION

 

 

Which brings me to perhaps the most cynical interpretation of the data.

 

Republicans may be avoiding the Common Core issue because their opposition up to now was simply disingenuous partisan infighting. They could be craven servants to the testing industry. Or – and this is the worst case scenario – they could have another endgame in mind entirely.

 

Whenever the issue is brought up these days – whenever ANY educational issue is brought up – the Trump administration almost always pivots to school choice.

 

For instance, here’s Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway during an interview with Jake Tapper on CNN.

 

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos “will get on with the business of executing on the president’s vision for education,” Conway said. “He’s made very clear all throughout the campaign and as president he wants to repeal Common Core, he doesn’t think that federal standards are better than local and parental control…And that children should not be restricted in terms of education opportunities just by their ZIP code, just by where they live. We’ve got to look at homeschooling, and charter schools, and school choice and other alternatives for certain students.”

 

It’s possible that today’s Republicans at both the state and federal level aren’t concerned with repealing Common Core because it’s irrelevant to their ultimate goal – repealing the very notion of public education.

 

If every school or almost every school was a charter, voucher or homeschool, Common Core would be a moot point.

 

After all, choice schools don’t have to follow most regulations. That could include using the Core.

 

This is especially true at voucher schools and homeschools. They can do pretty much whatever they please in most states. If they don’t want to use Common Core, the states have little power (as yet) to force them to do so. Of course accepting tax-payer funding does open them up to being regulated in the future if the political winds change.

 

On the other hand, charter schools often allegedly do use Common Core, but regulations are so lax with so few measures to hold them accountable for anything in most states that whether they’re actually using the standards and to what extent is anyone’s guess. Unscrupulous charter operators could conceivably forgo the standards regardless of state mandates with little fear of being found out or contradicted.

 

This may be the ultimate selling point for school choice. Almost anything goes. It could certainly allow schools to circumvent Common Core, just as it allows them to circumvent civil rights protections, fiscal responsibility, democratic local control – really any kind of protections to ensure taxpayer money is being spent responsibly and kids are actually being educated.

 

In short, it hammers a nail with a bazooka. Yet conservative lawmakers may only be concerned with who’s selling the bazooka and not who gets hit by the shrapnel.

 

For a long time now, education policy has been about where the money is, and that is unequivocally behind school choice. What these policies lack in public support they make up for in sugar daddies. Billionaires on both sides of the aisle have been pouring cash into these efforts for years.

 

Just imagine! Anyone with the backing can start a school and pocket as much of the tax dollars originally meant to educate kids but now transformed into sweet, sweet profit!

 

In fact, the point behind high stakes testing was primarily to undercut support for public schools. It was to “prove” our schools were failing and needed to be replaced with charter and voucher schools. But once we’ve gotten rid of public schools, the testing won’t be as necessary.

 

It will become just another revenue stream in a multitudinous school system where education only has meaning in how much it can profitize students and enrich investors.

 

That may be the true endgame for policymakers.

 

Common Core is just one of a number of schemes they’re pushing to take advantage of the country’s fastest growing revenue stream: our children.

 

 

CONCLUSIONS

 

 

THIS is why lawmakers – both Republican and Democrat – won’t get rid of Common Core.

 

They are bought and sold employees of Wall Street and Corporate America.

 

Too many people are making a fortune off the backs of our children – charter and voucher school investors, book publishers, software companies, test manufacturers, private prison corporations! They aren’t about to let their profits take a nosedive by allowing their paid agents in the legislature to turn off the gravy train.

 

THAT’S why Republicans haven’t ended Common Core.

 

That’s why they never will.

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.

The One Reform We Never Try: Increase Teacher Salary

 

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There are many suggestions for improving America’s public schools:

 

More standardized tests.

 

New academic standards.

 

Increase charter schools and/or allow kids to attend private schools with public money.

 

But one reform you hardly ever hear about is this: pay teachers more.

 

Isn’t that funny?

 

We’re willing to try almost everything else but that.

 

Sure, some folks want to tie teachers’ salaries to test scores, but that’s not increasing pay. That’s just doubling down on standardized testing.

 

Isn’t it shocking that no one is willing to invest more money into the actual act of educating children?

 

Consider this: full-time employees making minimum wage earn between $15,000-$20,000 a year. (Some states have voluntarily raised the minimum wage above the federally mandated $7.25 to as much as $10 an hour.)

 

Compare that to a teacher’s starting salary.

 

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), the low end for teachers entering the field is around $30,000. That’s a mere $10,000 above the most generous minimum wage.

 

There are places in this country where going into debt earning a four year degree in education, serving an (often unpaid) internship in the classroom and agreeing to teach the next generation gets you a few notches above fry chefs and WalMart greeters.

 

This isn’t to disparage burger cooks or grocery clerks. I, too, love a crispy French fried potato and a sincere greeting. But which profession is more important to our future as a nation? The quality of our service industries or the education of every single child in the country – all our future doctors, lawyers, politicians and… well… EVERYTHING!

 

Average starting salary for teachers nationwide is only $37,000, according to NACE.

 

Compare that to other professions.

 

Computer programmers start at $65,000. Engineers start at $61,000. Accountants (mathematics and statistics majors) start at $54,000. Even philosophers and priests (philosophy and religious studies majors) start at $45,000.

 

Are they more important than teachers? Do they provide more value for society?

 

I humbly suggest that they do not.

 

Who taught the programmers how to program? Who taught the engineers and accountants how to add and subtract? Who taught the philosophers how to think logically? Who taught the priests how to write their sermons?

 

TEACHERS. That’s who.

 

Yet if we judge purely by starting salary, we certainly don’t value their services much.

 

To be specific, they make 14 percent less than those from professions that require similar levels of education, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

 

Sadly, it only gets worse as time goes on.

 

Teacher salary starts low, and grows even more slowly.

 

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According to a report by the Center for American Progress, the average base salary for a teacher with 10 years of experience and a bachelor’s degree is $45,000. That’s a mere $800 annual raise. No wonder more than 16 percent of teachers have a second or third job outside of the school system. They simply can’t survive on the salary.

 

They can’t buy a home or even rent an apartment in most metropolitan areas. They can’t afford to marry, raise children, or eke out a middle class existence.

 

What effect does this have on students?

 

Well, for one, it often leaves them with inexperienced or exhausted teachers.

 

Nationwide, 46 percent of educators quit before reaching the five year mark. And it’s worse in urban districts, where 20 percent quit every single year!

 

That translates to more students learning from educators who are, themselves, just learning how to teach. If we took pains to keep them in the profession, think of what a positive impact that would have on the quality of education the nation’s students  receive – Teachers learning from experience and improving their practice every year instead of a continual flux of novices just trying to figure out the basics and survive!

 

But it’s not all intangibles. It costs bookoo bucks to constantly find and train new teachers – roughly $7.34 billion a year, to be exact. Imagine if we could invest that money into salaries instead.

 

This is exactly what they do in many other countries.

 

We’re always comparing ourselves with nations in Europe and Asia where students average higher standardized test scores. Yet we rarely enact the policies that got them these results.

 

Many of these countries recruit the top graduates to become teachers. How? By offering sweeteners and incentives to become a life-long educator.

 

In Singapore and Finland, for example, they actually cover the cost of the college coursework needed to become a teacher. And when it comes to salary, they leave us in the dust. In South Korea, they pay educators an average of 250 percent more than we do!

 

For many people, education is a calling. You feel drawn toward the job because it holds meaning to you. But how many people ignore that calling because of simple economics? There are plenty of things you can do with your life; If you can’t earn a living doing one thing, you may opt for something else.

 

How many more excellent teachers would we have in this country if we prized and rewarded those practitioners we already have?

 

It doesn’t take a deep dive into the news to see how teachers are treated in American society far beyond the low pay.

 

Everything that goes wrong in our public schools is laid at their feet whether they have any control over it or not. Child poverty, inequitable and inadequate resources, regressive and nepotistic policy, backward education legislation – it’s all somehow the teacher’s fault.

 

Imagine if we saw teachers as part of the solution! What effect would that have on teacher turnover?

 

Look no further than our foreign counterparts. In South Korea, turnover is only 1 percent per year. In Finland, it’s 2 percent. In Singapore, it’s 3 percent.

 

It’s certainly worth a try.

 

As reforms go, this is one with more evidence behind it than 90 percent of the garbage that comes floating out of partisan think tanks.

 

Pay teachers more.

 

Starting salary should be at least $65,000. End pay after 30 years should be at least $150,000.

 

THAT would boost educational outcomes.

 

And, please, don’t give me any nonsense about summer break, teacher tenure, the power of unions or whatever else you heard on talk radio or the corporate news media. Teachers average 53 hours a week August through June – making up for any downtime in the summer, tenure doesn’t mean a job for life – it means due process, and unions aren’t evil – they just ensure workers more rights than the bosses would like.

 

Moreover, don’t tell me we can’t afford it. We spend more on the military than the next 8 nations combined.

 

Imagine if we put a priority on raising our own children instead of guns and missiles. Imagine if we spent more on life than death.

 

Imagine if we tried the one reform left in the box – increase teacher pay.

 

More Truth in Teacher-Written Education Blogs Than Corporate Media

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Let’s get one thing straight right from the get go: I am biased.

 

But so are you.

 

So are the parents, students, principals and school directors. So are the policymakers, the corporate donors and professional journalists.

 

Everyone involved in education policy is interested in one side or another of the debate. It’s just that some pretend to practice a kind of objectivity while others are open about their partiality.

 

It’s unavoidable. I’m a public school teacher. Not merely someone who’s taught in a public school for a few years – I’m an educator with more than 15 years experience in the classroom. And I’m still there.

 

I’m not a Teach for America recruit who committed myself to three years in front of children after a few weeks crash course. Where I am now was my goal in the first place. I’m not doing this to get the credentials for my real dream job, being an education policy advisor for a Congressperson or Senator. Nor do I plan to become a Superintendent, Principal or school administrator someday.

 

All along, my goal was to have a classroom of my own where I could help children learn.

 

Moreover, I’m a public school parent. My daughter goes to the same public school my wife and I both attended as children. We could have sent her to a charter or private school. But we made the conscious choice not to, and we’ve never regretted it.

 

Our local district serves a mostly high poverty population. More than half of the students are minorities. The facilities aren’t as up to date as you’ll find in richer neighborhoods. Class sizes are too large. But we decided that being a part of the community school was important, and much of what my child has learned there simply isn’t taught at schools where everyone is the same.

 

So when you read one of my blogs (even this one), it comes from a certain point of view. And I’m okay with that. You should be, too.

 

However, when you read an article in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times or Pittsburgh Tribune Review, there is a presumption of detachment and neutrality. But it’s bogus.

 

Those articles are written by human beings, too, and thus they are likewise biased.

 

The only difference is what exactly that bias is.

 

My preference is plain and on the surface. I am in favor of public schools over privatized ones. I support teachers over corporations making decisions about how to educate. I’m an advocate for children and families.

 

When you read an article in the mainstream media, you frankly have no idea which direction their inclinations swerve.

 

However, you do know that money often plays a major role in their editorial spin.

 

Journalism is a business. Perhaps it should be a public good. We used to look at it that way. We used to try to keep it separate from advertising. It didn’t have to make a profit.

 

But that’s all changed. Now it’s expected to bring in money. It’s expected to generate “value” for the corporation that owns it. However, we rarely stop to think how corrupting an influence that is.

 

For some people, my position as an educator discredits my knowledge of schools. Yet getting paid by huge testing corporations doesn’t discredit journalists!?

 

I speak here from experience, too. I used to be a professional journalist.

 

Before becoming a teacher, I worked full-time at various daily and weekly newspapers in Western Pennsylvania. I can tell you first hand that sometimes editors encouraged or physically rewrote articles to spin the story the way they wanted.

 

I remember writing a story about a local tax collector seeking re-election. I didn’t know him, personally, but I had heard several rumors about unsavory practices he had allegedly engaged in while employed in a different capacity as a public servant. So I did research and found that they were true. I had proof. I even confronted him, personally, with what I had found to give him a chance to explain.

 

However, when I submitted the article, my editor had a conniption. Apparently, the tax collector had called the paper threatening to cause trouble. So the article was completely rewritten to downplay what I had discovered.

 

None of it mattered that much. It was just a local tax collector’s race. Frankly, I can’t even remember if he won re-election. But it was demonstrative of what happens in editorial departments.

 

I’ve seen businesses complain about news articles and threaten to withdraw advertising. I’ve seen colorful, glossy info-packets sent to reporters seeking articles about subjects enticing them with the ease of approaching it from their point of view. I’ve had editors assign me stories that I thought were non-issues and then they tweaked my finished product so it had the implications they intended from the get-go.

 

If that happens at the local level, imagine what happens at the biggest corporate offices.

 

Now don’t get me wrong.

 

I’m not saying that mainstream media is nothing but lies. I’ll leave that claim for the President. But it IS biased. And as smart consumers of media, we need to be aware of it.

 

We need to be aware that corporate media is often going to take the side of big corporations. They’re going to be in favor of standardized testing, Common Core, charter and voucher schools. They’re going to talk up computer-based depersonalized learning. They’re going to uncritically criticize those standing in the way of corporate profits – i.e. teachers.

 

This doesn’t mean readers shouldn’t trust education reporting from professional journalists. There are writers out there who are trying to present both sides of the issue without editorial meddling. There are reporters who understand the big picture and are trying to expose the truth. Moreover, they have resources that bloggers often don’t – copy editors, fact checkers, knowledgeable and experienced colleagues in media, etc.

 

However, they are frankly working with significant limitations that teacher bloggers don’t have.

 

When I want to know how public schools work, I can simply appeal to my first hand experience. When a reporter want to do that, she is often stymied by rules and regulations that keep people like them out.

 

They are rarely permitted inside our schools to see the day-to-day classroom experience. Legal issues about which students may be photographed, filmed or interviewed, the difficulty of getting parental permissions and the possibility of embarrassment to principals and administrators often keeps the doors closed. In many districts, teachers aren’t even allowed to speak on the record to the media or doing so can make them a political target. So reporters are often in the position of being unable to directly experience the very thing they’re reporting on.

 

If I read a book about baseball, I might know a lot of facts about the players. But that can’t compare with someone who’s actually been to the games, been on the field, even played in the World Series!

 

 

At the same time, education blogs aren’t perfect either. For one, you have to be cognizant of who is writing them.

 

You’re currently reading The Gadfly on the Wall Blog. But that’s worlds different than reading the Education Gadfly. The latter site is owned and operated by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. This organization actually runs charter schools in Ohio. They spend millions of dollars spreading propaganda on charter authorization, school choice, standardized curriculum, digital learning, standards, testing, etc.

 

I, on the other hand, am just a school teacher with a laptop. Education Gadfly has a paid staff. No one pays me a dime nor do I even sell advertisements.

 

To be fair, I operate on a free WordPress site and sometimes WordPress puts ads on my page. But I don’t see any of that money. It’s just the cost of having a free site. If I wanted to pay for it, I could get an ad-free site.

 

Also, once in a blue moon a Website that reposts my blog pays me a couple of bucks for the privilege. So maybe I’ve ordered a pizza or two with money from the blog, but I certainly couldn’t survive off the revenue from it. I would literally make more money working one week at WalMart than I’ve ever pulled in from three years of education bloggery.

 

 

These are the reasons why teacher-written education blogs are superior to the competition.

 

They aren’t beholden to corporate money or influence. They have first-hand experience of the subject.

 

Journalists have a hard job and they deserve our respect. But they can’t compare to the expertise of practicing educators.

 

If editors included our voices more, perhaps the mainstream media wouldn’t be so skewed towards corporate interests.

 

But that’s really the goal, in the first place.

Teachers Don’t Want All This Useless Data

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One of the most frustrating things I’ve ever been forced to do as a teacher is to ignore my students and concentrate instead on the data.

 

I teach 8th grade Language Arts at a high poverty, mostly minority school in Western Pennsylvania. During my double period classes, I’m with these children for at least 80 minutes a day, five days a week.

 

During that time, we read together. We write together. We discuss important issues together. They take tests. They compose poems, stories and essays. They put on short skits, give presentations, draw pictures and even create iMovies.

 

I don’t need a spreadsheet to tell me whether these children can read, write or think. I know.

 

Anyone who had been in the room and had been paying attention would know.

 

But a week doesn’t go by without an administrator ambushing me at a staff meeting with a computer print out and a smile.

 

Look at this data set. See how your students are doing on this module. Look at the projected growth for this student during the first semester.

 

It’s enough to make you heave.

 

I always thought the purpose behind student data was to help the teacher teach. But it has become an end to itself.

 

It is the educational equivalent of navel gazing, of turning all your students into prospective students and trying to teach them from that remove – not as living, breathing beings, but as computer models.

 

It reminds me of this quote from Michael Lewis’ famous book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game:

 

“Intelligence about baseball statistics had become equated in the public mind with the ability to recite arcane baseball stats. What [Bill] James’s wider audience had failed to understand was that the statistics were beside the point. The point was understanding; the point was to make life on earth just a bit more intelligible; and that point, somehow, had been lost. ‘I wonder,’ James wrote, ‘if we haven’t become so numbed by all these numbers that we are no longer capable of truly assimilating any knowledge which might result from them.'”

 

The point is not the data. It is what the data reveals. However, some people have become so seduced by the cult of data that they’re blind to what’s right in front of their eyes.

 

You don’t need to give a child a standardized test to assess if he or she can read. You can just have them read. Nor does a child need to fill in multiple choice bubbles to indicate if he or she understands what’s been read. They can simply tell you. In fact, these would be better assessments. Doing otherwise, is like testing someone’s driving ability not by putting them behind the wheel but by making them play Mariocart.

 

The skill is no longer important. It is the assessment of the skill.

 

THAT’S what we use to measure success. It’s become the be-all, end-all. It’s the ultimate indicator of both student and teacher success. But it perverts authentic teaching. When the assessment is all that’s important, we lose sight of the actual skills we were supposed to be teaching in the first place.

 

The result is a never ending emphasis on test prep and poring over infinite pages of useless data and analytics.

 

As Scottish writer Andrew Lang put it, “He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp posts – for support rather than for illumination.”

 

Teachers like me have been pointing this out for years, but the only response we get from most lawmakers and administrators is to hysterically increase the sheer volume of data and use more sophisticated algorithms with which to interpret it.

 

Take the Pennsylvania Value Added Assessment System (PVAAS). This is the Commonwealth’s method of statistical analysis of students test scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) and Keystone Exams, which students take in grades 3-8 and in high school, respectively.

 

It allows me to see:

  • Student scores on each test
  • Student scores broken down by subgroups (how many hit each 20 point marker)
  • Which subgroup is above, below or at the target for growth

 

But perhaps the most interesting piece of information is a prediction of where each student is expected to score next time they take the test.

 

How does it calculate this prediction? I have no idea.

 

That’s the kind of metric they don’t give to teachers. Or taxpayers, by the way. Pennsylvania has paid more than $1 billion for its standardized testing system in the last 8 years. You’d think lawmakers would have to justify that outlay of cash, especially when they’re cutting funding for just about everything else in our schools. But no. We’re supposed to just take that one on faith.

 

So much for empirical data.

 

Then we have the Classroom Diagnostic Tools (CDT). This is an optional computer-based test given three times a year in various core subjects.

 

If you’re lucky enough to have to give this to your students (and I am), you get a whole pile of data that’s supposed to be even more detailed than the PVAAS.

 

But it doesn’t really give you much more than the same information based on more data points.

 

I don’t gain much from looking at colorful graphs depicting where each of my students scored in various modules. Nor do I gain much by seeing this same material displayed for my entire class.

 

The biggest difference between the PVAAS and the CDT, though, is that it allows me to see examples of the kinds of questions individual students got wrong. So, in theory, I could print out a stack of look-a-like questions and have them practice endless skill and drills until they get them right.

 

And THAT’S education!

 

Imagine if a toddler stumbled walking down the hall, so you had her practice raising and lowering her left foot over-and-over again! I’m sure that would make her an expert walker in no time!

 

It’s ridiculous. This overreliance on data pretends that we’re engaged in programming robots and not teaching human beings.

 

Abstracted repetition is not generally the best tool to learning complex skills. If you’re teaching the times table, fine. But most concepts require us to engage students’ interests, to make something real, vital and important to them.

 

Otherwise, they’ll just go through the motions.

 

“If you torture the data long enough, it will confess,” wrote Economist Ronald Coase. That’s what we’re doing in our public schools. We’re prioritizing the data and making it say whatever we want.

 

The data justifies the use of data. And anyone who points out that circular logic is called a Luddite, a roadblock on the information superhighway.

 

Never mind that all this time I’m forced to pour over the scores and statistics is less time I have to actually teach the children.

 

Teachers don’t need more paperwork and schematics. We need those in power to actually listen to us. We need the respect and autonomy to be allowed to actually do our jobs.

 

Albert Einstein famously said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

 

Can we please put away the superfluous data and get back to teaching?