PA: Want to Get Rid of Keystone Exams? Then Let Us Evaluate Teachers More Unfairly

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It’s the classic Harrisburg switch.

 

Want something good passed by the legislature? Then let us pass something terrible – something you would never even consider unless something you cared about was on the table.

 

That appears to be the game being played by the Pennsylvania Senate Education Committee today as they consider SB 756.

 

On the one hand, the proposed bill would eliminate the state’s terrible Keystone Exams. On the other, it would force a new teacher evaluation system that is tremendously unfair.

 

Which one is more important?

 

The answer: both.

 

If lawmakers had any moral courage – and most don’t because they’re lawmakers after all – they would consider each of these measures one at a time on their own merits.

 

But if they did that, conservatives wouldn’t vote to help students by getting rid of unfair tests, and progressives wouldn’t vote to help corporations by installing unfair teacher evaluations. So they’ve apparently decided to compromise behind closed doors by putting both together in a huge omnibus bill.

 

Who knows what other treasures lurk in its pages!? Well if you have a limitless amount of time and energy, go ahead and read it!

 

THE GOOD

 

The bill would put an end to our costly, cruel and dishonest Keystone Exams. Not only would we no longer threaten to require these tests in Literature, Algebra and Biology as graduation requirements, but we would stop giving them altogether.

 

In their place to meet federal accountability regulations, the state would substitute the Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SAT), Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT), armed forces exam, competency assessment or certificate for technical students, or Pennsylvania Alternative Assessment for students with special needs.

 

But perhaps the best part is that the bill makes explicit and generous provisions for parents to opt their children out of high school standardized tests altogether. In this case, students would NOT be required to take a substitute assessment.

 

Here is the exact language from the bill:

 

“A school entity’s governing board shall adopt a policy that provides that the parent or guardian of a student may request that the student be exempt from taking an assessment that is required for the purpose of Federal accountability as permitted under ESSA [Every Student Succeeds Act]. The policy shall provide that parents and guardians of students receive written notice of the option for a student to be exempt from taking the assessment and that the exemption shall be permitted upon the school entity’s receipt of a written request from the parent or guardian of the student. A substitute assessment or an alternative assessment, course or program may not be required of a student exempted under this section. Grounds for exemption in the school entity’s policy shall include, but not be limited to:
(1) Religious grounds.
(2) The basis of a strong moral or ethical conviction
similar to a religious belief.
(3) Philosophical grounds.
(4) Privacy concerns.
(5) Health concerns for the child, which may include stress and anxiety in preparation for the assessment.”

 

This is a huge improvement over our current opt out policy. At present, parents can opt out their children from the Keystone Exams but students must take an alternate assessment. This could include a project based assessment and not merely a standardized test. Also, it only allows these exemptions based on religious convictions. Parents needn’t explain these convictions in any detail, but this is the only option they are given with which to opt out.

 

The proposed legislation would go into effect during the 2018-19 school year, when the Keystone Exams would otherwise become a graduation requirement. Students would take the SAT or other assessment in 10th grade.

 

However, students in 3-8th grade would still be subjected to the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments (PSSA) tests. I assume parents could still opt out their children from these exams, but the wording is a bit murky there.

 

In addition, the law would require the state to establish a task force to reevaluate whether the Commonwealth should use the PSSA in the future and how to reduce the time it takes to give the assessment. If the task force concludes the PSSA is inappropriate, they must look for an alternative exam. They are required to issue a report in 6 months from passage of the bill.

 

This is particularly important since the PSSA has been rewritten to be closer to the Keystone Exam. It is Keystone Exam-lite. If the legislature is against the high school test, one would imagine they should be against a very similar test being given in elementary and middle school.

 

THE BAD

 

Despite all the good this proposed bill would do for our school children, it would drastically worsen the situation for our classroom teachers.

 

Half of a teacher’s current evaluation is based on classroom observations by district administrators. That just makes sense. The best way to tell if an educator is doing a good job is to observe what he/she is actually doing in the classroom.

 

This new system would reduce classroom observations to only 30% of a teacher’s annual score.

 

This would allow 10% to come from a “parental” score and 10% to come from “peer evaluation.” In a non-high stakes environment, input from both of these stakeholders is vital to a teacher’s success. But when you add that high stakes component, you pervert both relationships.

 

Having parents evaluate teachers puts them in kind of a touchy place. Teachers are required to push students to do their best. This requires them to often make calls home and ask for help from parents. If parents control a portion of a teacher’s evaluation, it incentivizes educators not to bother them with student misbehavior or failing grades. Instead teachers could be pressured to unfairly increase students grades or ignore misbehavior so as to better parental evaluations.

 

Moreover, peer observations can be extremely subjective when tied to teacher assessment. Administrators are discouraged from giving out distinguished evaluations to more than a handful of teachers. This incentivizes peers who are forced to compete for these few plum scores to unfairly suppress positive evaluations from their fellows.

 

But the worst is still to come.

The new evaluations require 50% of teachers’ evaluations to come from student growth and achievement measures. For math and English teachers, this largely means using standardized test scores to assess educators.

 

It’s a terrible practice that has been shown to be ineffective and downright damaging to student learning time and again. But it does help testing corporations by discouraging opt outs. Just imagine. If you have students who you think will score well on the tests but who may opt out, you are incentivized to discourage them from doing so. Otherwise, your teacher evaluation will drop.

 

This makes teachers the testing policemen. Learning doesn’t matter, only how well your students do on the tests. It dramatically tips the scale away from things the teacher has any control over. As such, it would cause serious harm to the quality of education students receive across the state.

 

CONCLUSION

We cannot support this bill in its present form. It should not go on to consideration by the full House and/or Senate. And if it somehow is passed by these Republican-controlled bodies, our Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf should not sign it.

 

This is unfortunate because there is much to like about it. However, you can’t save students from unfair assessments by forcing teachers to be evaluated by – drum roll please – unfair assessments.

 

This sets up an unsustainable and unfair relationship between students and teachers. It puts educators in the position of having to look out for their own interests and not those of their students. The interests of both should be interlinked, not separated. Teachers get into the profession to help kids learn – not to have to look out for an arbitrary score from their administrators that may require them to act against their students needs.

 

If legislators had any ethical fortitude, they would propose both of these measures in separate bills where they could be examined on merit. But I long ago gave up expecting such qualities from our politicians.

 

In my book, they almost all deserve a failing grade.

Always Be Testing – The Sales Pitch for Corporate Education Reform

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(After the “Brass Balls” speech in “Glengarry Glen Ross,” by David Mamet.)

 

(Rated PG-13 for language)

 

(Interior: a public school classroom during an after school staff meeting. Teachers are seated at student desks including Singer, Moss and Aaronow. Williamson, a middle school principal, stands in front of the room flanked by Blake, a motivational speaker brought in by the state. Singer is furiously grading papers. The other teachers are pleasantly chatting about trifles before Blake calls the gathering to attention.)

 

[Blake]
Let me have your attention for a moment! So you’re talking about what? You’re talking about that kid you failed, some son of a bitch who doesn’t want to pass, some snot-nosed brat you’re trying to remediate and so forth. Let’s talk about something important. Are they all here?

 

[Williamson]
All but one.

 

[Blake]
Well, I’m going anyway. Let’s talk about something important! (to Singer) Put that colored marker down!

 

[Singer]

But I’m grading papers…

 

(Blake)

I said Put that marker down! Markers are for testers only.

 

(Singer scoffs)

 

[Blake]

Do you think I’m fucking with you? I am not fucking with you. I’m here from downtown. I’m here from the Governor and the Legislature. And I’m here on a mission of mercy. Your name’s Singer?

 

[Singer]
Yeah. Mister Singer, actually.

 

[Blake]
You call yourself a teacher, you son of a bitch?

 

[Moss]

I don’t have to listen to this.

 
[Blake]
You certainly don’t, Madam. Cause the good news is – you’re fired. The bad news is you’ve got, all you got, just one week to regain your jobs, starting today. Starting with today’s meeting.

 

[Moss]

What!? The union contract doesn’t allow you to just fire us all without cause.

 

[Blake]

Union!? There ain’t no more union! This is a Right to Work state now, Bitch. And that means you have the right to work – for less – until I fire your sorry ass.

 

(Assorted grumbling)

 

[Blake]

Oh, have I got your attention now? Good. Cause we’re adding a little something to this month’s merit pay. As you all know, the teacher whose students get the highest test scores gets a bonus. First prize is a thousand bucks. Anyone want to see second prize? Second prize is a box of pencils. Third prize is you’re fired. You get the picture? You’re laughing now?

 

[Singer]

That’s ridiculous. Mrs. Moss teaches the advanced kids. All her students get high test scores.

 

[Blake]

What? And your kids are in the general track? They don’t get high test scores? Then step it up, Singer! You want to get a paycheck in this district, you’ve got to earn a paycheck. You got test prep manuals. The school board paid good money for them. Get those workbooks so your kids can pass the test!

 

[Singer]

Workbooks!? That’s not learning?

 

[Blake]

That’s where you’re wrong. Workbooks are the only learning that counts! Kids take the tests that show whether you’re doing your fucking jobs! You want to keep working here? You want to keep sucking at the public tit? You get those kids to pass the motherfucking tests. And those workbooks do that. They teach kids how to pass the motherfucking tests!

 

[Singer]

But my kids are all from poor homes. They’re malnourished. They don’t get the same medical care. There are no books in their homes. Many of them suffer from PTSD from abuse or exposure to violence….

 

[Blake]

And you think they deserve some kind of entitlement? A medal? Fuck them and fuck you! Let me make one thing perfectly clear – If you can’t get your students to pass shit, you ARE shit, hit the bricks, Pal, and beat it cause you are going out!

 

[Singer]

Are you kidding me right now? You want my students to pass these tests. The tests are unfair. They’re economically and culturally biased. The connection between the tests and learning is weak.

 

[Blake]
The fucking tests are weak? You’re weak. I’ve been in this business for fifteen weeks.

 

[Moss]
Fifteen weeks? Try thirty years.

 

[Blake]

Anyone who’s still a teacher after thirty years should be put to sleep. All you need is a year or two. That’s what I’m doing. Teach for America. Five weeks training, two year commitment, then move on to Washington where you can advise lawmakers on what schools need.

 

[Moss]

What’s your name?

 

[Blake]

Fuck you, that’s my name! You know why, Missy? Cause you drove a Hyundai to get to work. I drove an eighty thousand BMW. That’s my name.

 

[Singer]

I took the bus.

 

[Blake]

(To Singer) And your name is “you’re wanting.” You can’t play in a man’s game. You can’t teach them. (at a near whisper) And you go home and tell your wife your troubles.

(to everyone again) Because only one thing counts in this life! Get them to score above basic. Get them to demonstrate the minimum skills necessary!

 

[Singer]

What about what they think and feel?

 

[Blake]

No one gives a shit about what they think and feel. You hear me, you fucking faggots?

 

(Blake flips over a blackboard which has two sets of letters on it: ABT, and AITP.)

 

[Blake]

A-B-T. A- Always, B-be, T-testing. Always be testing! Always be testing!! A-I-T-P. Attention, interest, testing, passing. Attention — do I have your attention? Interest — are you interested? I know you are because it’s fuck or walk. Your kids pass or you hit the bricks! Testing – you will test those students by Christ!! And passing. A-I-T-P; get out there!! You got the students comin’ in; you think they came in to get out of the rain?

 

[Singer]

Actually, many of my students live in public housing down there by the railroad tracks. You know those slums? Roofs leak in half those units…

 

[Moss]

And for a lot of kids school is the only structure they get all day. Their parents are out working two to three jobs. They have to take care of themselves and often younger siblings.

 

[Singer]

And food. Don’t forget food. If it wasn’t for the free breakfast and lunch program, many of my kids wouldn’t eat…

 

[Blake]

Bullshit. A kid doesn’t walk into this school unless he wants to pass. That’s why they’re here! They want to learn! They’re sitting out there waiting to be told what to do. Are you gonna’ tell ‘em? Are you man enough to tell them?

 

[Moss]

I’m a woman. Most of us are women.

 

[Blake]

(to Moss) What’s the problem, Pal?

 

[Moss]

You think you’re such a hero, you’re so rich. Why are you coming down here and wasting your time on a bunch of bums?

 

(Blake sits and takes off his gold watch)

 

[Blake]
You see this watch? You see this watch?

 

[Moss]
Yeah.

 

[Blake]

That watch cost more than your SMART Board. (Takes off his shoe) You see this shoe? Italian. It costs more than your entire salary. (slicks back his hair) You see this haircut?

 

[Moss]

I get it.

 

[Blake]

Do you? Because I do. I made 26 million dollars last year. How much do you make? You see, Pal, that’s who I am. And you’re nothing. Nice person? I don’t give a shit. Good mother? Fuck you – go home and play with your kids!! (to everyone) You wanna work here? Test!! (to Aaronow) You think this is abuse? You think this is abuse, you cocksucker? You can’t take this — how can you take the abuse you get in a classroom?! You don’t like it — leave. I can go out there tomorrow with the materials you got, make myself a thousand dollars in merit pay! Tomorrow! In one class! Can you? Can you? Go and do likewise! A-I-T-P!! Get mad! You sons of bitches! Get mad!!

 

[Singer]

Oh, I’m mad. I’m mad that a shallow schmuck like you thinks he can come in here and tell us how to do our jobs. School is about so much more than test scores. You can’t reduce it all to a multiple choice assessment. These kids need a broad curriculum, not just reading and math. They need science, art, social studies, foreign language, recess – all the stuff the rich kids get at the $50,000 a year private schools. And all you want to give them are standardized tests!

 

[Blake]

You know what it takes to teach public school?

 

(He pulls something out of his briefcase. He’s holding up a hammer and a plastic model of a one-room schoolhouse. He puts the model down on Aaronow’s desk and then smashes it to pieces with the hammer.)



[Blake]
It takes school choice to teach in a public school. It takes charter and voucher schools, schools run like a business – not this mamby, pamby, commie, socialist shit!

 

[Moss]

Choice? Is that what you call letting private interests suck up public tax dollars without the same transparency and regulations as public schools? You mean schools not run by an elected school board, who meet in private and do almost whatever they please with our tax dollars? You mean schools that can turn away the hardest to teach children – unlike public schools that take everyone?

 

[Blake]
I’m talking about schools with balls!
(He puts the hammer over his crotch,– he puts it away after a pause)



[Blake]
You want a paycheck? Do like the choice schools do — Go and do likewise, folks. The money’s out there, you pick it up, it’s yours. You don’t–I have no sympathy for you. You wanna go into your classes tomorrow and test and get your kids to pass, it’s yours. If not you’re going to be shining my shoes. Bunch of losers sitting around in a bar. (in a mocking weak voice) “Oh yeah, I used to be a teacher, it’s a tough racket.” (he takes out a software package from his briefcase) This is the new Common Core aligned diagnostic system. It’s like the MAP, Study Island, iReady and iStation – only better.

 

[Singer]

Those programs suck.

 

[Blake]

This is better. With it, your students will sit behind a computer screen for several hours every day taking stealth assessments.

 

[Singer]

You mean mini-tests?

 

[Blake]

No. Not mini-tests. They’ll run through the program and get instruction on every Common Core standard and their answers will show how much they’ve learned.

 

[Singer]

They’re tests. Standardized tests. Every day.

 

[Blake]

This is the Pearson leads. And to you, it’s gold. And you don’t get it. Why? Because to give it to you is just throwing it away. (he hands the software to Williamson) It’s for testers. (sneeringly) Not teachers.

 

I’d wish you good luck but you wouldn’t know what to do with it if you got it. (to Moss as he puts on his watch again) And to answer your question, Pal: why am I here? I came here because the Governor and Legislature are paying me to be here. They’re paying me a lot more than you. But I don’t have to take their money. I can make that tying my shoes. They asked me for a favor. I said, the real favor, follow my advice and fire your fucking ass because a loser is a loser.

 

(He stares at Moss for a sec, and then picking up his briefcase, he leaves the room with Williamson)

 

[Singer]

What an asshole.

 

[Moss]

He may be an asshole but he’s got the state on his side.

 

[Aaronow]

This isn’t what I signed up for. This isn’t why I became a teacher.

 

[Moss]

What did you sign up for?

 

[Aaronow]

TO TEACH! Not to be some… some… glorified real estate agent!

 

[Singer]

It’s funny. We know how crazy all this testing, Common Core, and charter school crap is, but no one wants to hear us.

 

[Moss]

And now without collective bargaining, we can’t even speak up without fear of being fired.

 

[Aaronow]

Fear!? If we don’t push all this teaching to the test nonsense, they’re going to fire us. And if we do, they can replace us with computer programs. We’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t.

 

[Singer]

Not if people wake up. (Moss and Aaronow scoff) Not if the public takes a stand, if parents and teachers opt their kids out of the tests…

 

[Aaronow]

Didn’t you hear the man!? They’re putting the kids on computer programs to test them every day!

 

[Singer]

Then we fight every day. We protest every day. We get parents together and other concerned citizens and we go to the capital and we fight. Call your representative. Go to your Senator’s office. Stage a sit in. Hold a mock trial. Write a blog parodying a scene from a famous movie. Get public attention. Make some noise.

 

[Aaronow]

And you think people will care? You think people will know?

 

[Singer]

We’ll teach them. We’ll show them. That’s what we do.

 

[Moss]

We have no other choice.

 

[Aaronow]

Always be testing?

 

[Singer]

Always be teaching.

 

(Curtain)

 

The Original Scene from GlenGarry Glen Ross:

Unwilling to Help Schools, PA Legislature Attacks Teachers

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If you live in Pennsylvania, as I do, you must be shaking your head at the shenanigans of our state legislature.

Faced with a school funding crisis of their own making, lawmakers voted this week to make it easier to fire school teachers.

Monday the state Senate passed their version of an anti-seniority bill that was given the thumbs up by the House last summer.

Thankfully, Gov. Tom Wolf is expected to veto it.

As usual, lawmakers (or more accurately their surrogates at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) who actually wrote the bill) spent more time on branding the legislation than appealing to logic, sense or reason. The bill called HB 805 was given the euphemistic title “The Protecting Excellent Teachers Act.”

Yes, this is exactly how you protect excellent teachers – by making it easier to fire them.

Currently, if teachers are furloughed, those with least seniority go first. Under this new law, teachers would be let go based on their academic rating. Teachers can have one of four ratings: Distinguished, Proficient, Needs Improvement and Failing. Under the new legislation, teachers rated Failing would be furloughed first, followed by those under Needs Improvement, etc. Within those categories decisions would be made based on seniority.

It sounds great – if you know absolutely nothing about Pennsylvania public schools.

First off, in 2015 our rating system found 98.2% of state teachers to be in the highest two rating categories. So at best this bill is next to meaningless.

Second, like virtually all value added rating systems across the country, our rating system is pure bull crap. It’s a complicated measure of meaningless statistics, student test scores and mumbo jumbo that can be twisted one way or another depending on the whims of administrators, dumb luck and the phases of the moon.

A New York Supreme Court judge just ruled this week that the Empire state’s similar teacher rating system is “arbitrary” and “capricious.” But in Pennsylvania our legislators want to make it the axe that slices away teachers from the profession.

Third, the bill isn’t really about seniority at all. It’s about making it easier to fire teachers no matter how good they are at their jobs. Currently, state school districts are not allowed to furlough teachers based on lack of funds. This new legislation aims to remove that impediment.

It makes sense in a way. Pennsylvania lawmakers refuse to properly fund public schools so they have to make it easier to downsize. You’re welcome, taxpayers!

If this bill becomes law, school directors could fire whomever administrators want for whatever reason.

Admin: Mr. Smith, you’re fired.

Smith: Why?

Admin: Um. Financial reasons.

Smith: But I’m rated as Distinguished.

Admin: Not after we adjust the formula, mess with your class rosters and all around juke the stats to show you’re Failing.

Seniority is not perfect, but it avoids all these high jinks. It leaves no questions, nothing that can be easily altered. Either you have seniority or not. And if administrators have been doing their jobs by making sure good teachers stay and bad teachers are trained or let go, seniority correlates with good teaching. If you’ve been in the classroom for a long while, you’re probably a pretty descent teacher. Like anything else, practice makes perfect.

The public has to realize something about teaching at a public school. It is a deeply political job. You are subject to the whims of school directors, administrators, parents or anyone in the community with an axe to grind. You simply can’t do the job without some protections. How else can you fairly grade the school director’s child? How else can you exercise academic freedom to do what you think best if every decision is subject to committee?

This doesn’t mean teachers can’t be fired. They are fired every day. But administrators have to be able to make a valid case. They have to gather evidence to prove you deserve to be fired first.

It is highly ironic that Pennsylvania lawmakers are pursuing this legislation when they have done everything in their power to protect their own jobs first.

You want to talk seniority? Look to the legislature.

Incumbents are almost always re-elected. Why? Not because they do such a great job. They’ve made sure to gerrymander the state. Republicans reside in overwhelmingly Republican districts, Democrats in overwhelmingly Democratic ones.

This is no accident. A few years back, legislators redrew district borders to make sure they’d keep their jobs no matter how crappy they were at governance. It is deeply unfair and undemocratic. The majority of voters do not get a say. Instead, we cater to special interests and protect terrible legislators so they can pass crap like this bill without fear of repercussions during election season.

Do you think lawmakers would have refused to pass a state budget this year until 9 months after the deadline if they thought voters could actually hold them accountable? No way!

Do you think they’d withhold fair funding to the majority of public schools in the state if they thought the majority of voters had a say whether these knuckleheads stayed in power? Absolutely not!

And worst of all, even with Gov. Wolf’s promised veto, the crisis is far from over. When next year’s budget comes up for a vote in June and the Governor again asks for equitable funding for schools, legislators are bound to use HB 805 as a bargaining chip.

“You want some money for our kids’ schools? Then you’d better make it easier to fire teachers,” they’ll say.

Protect excellent teachers? Ha! They’re protecting terrible legislators.

We’ll never have good governance in this state again unless we find a way to redraw our gerrymandered districts. We need a voter referendum, a nonpartisan committee or – here’s a long shot – we need for extremist residents of these gerrymandered districts to revolt against the politicians hiding behind them.

Until then, we will be forever cursed with terrible lawmakers, execrable laws, under-resourced schools and a crumbling state.


Click HERE to find out how your representatives voted on HB 805.

Don’t Blame My Students For Society’s Ills

poverty LOCAL POVERTY GEE

 

As a public school teacher, I see many things – a multiplicity of the untold and obscure.

On a daily basis, I see the effects of rampant poverty, ignorance and child abuse. I see prejudice, racism and classism. I see sexism, homophobia and religious intolerance.

And hardly any of it comes from my students.

Despite what some people might say in the media, on Facebook or at the local watering hole, the kids are all right. It’s what we, the adults, are doing to them that’s messed up.

It’s always been in fashion for grown-ups to trash the next generation. At least since Hesiod bemoaned the loss of the Golden Age, we’ve been looking at the current crop of youngsters waiting in the wings to replace us and found them lacking. They just don’t have our drive and motivation. In my day, we had to work harder than they do. If only they’d apply themselves more.

It’s all untrue. In fact, today’s children have it harder than children of the ‘70s and ‘80s did when we were their age! Much harder!

For one thing, we didn’t have high stakes standardized tests hanging over our heads like the Sword of Damocles to the degree these youngsters do. Sure we took standardized assessments but not nearly as many nor did any of them mean as much. In Pennsylvania, the legislature is threatening to withhold my students’ diplomas if they don’t pass all of their Keystone Exams. No one blackmailed me with anything like that when I was a middle schooler. All I had to do was pass my classes. I worried about getting a high score on the SAT to get into college, but it didn’t affect whether I got to graduate. Nowadays, kids could ace every course for all 13-years of grade school (counting Kindergarten) and still conceivably only earn a certificate of attendance! Try using that for anything!

Moreover, my teachers back in the day didn’t rely on me so they could  continue being gainfully employed. The principal would evaluate them based on classroom observations from time-to-time to assess their effectiveness based on what he or she saw them doing. But if I was having a bad day during the assessment or if I just couldn’t grasp fractions or if I was feeling too depressed to concentrate – none of that would affect my teacher’s job rating. None of it would contribute to whether my teacher still had an income.

Think of how that changes the student-teacher relationship. Now kids as early as elementary school who love their teachers feel guilty on test day if they don’t understand how to answer some of the questions. Not only might their score and future academic success suffer, but their teacher might be hurt. That’s a lot of pressure for people who’ve just learned how to tie their shoes. They’re just kids! In many cases, the educator might be one of the only people they see all day who gives them a reassuring smile and listens to them. And now being unready to grasp high-level concepts that are being hurled at kids at increasingly younger ages may make them feel responsible for hurting the very people who have been there for them. It’s like putting a gun to a beloved adult’s head and saying, “Score well or your teacher gets it!” THAT’S not a good learning environment.

Finally, child poverty and segregation weren’t nearly as problematic as they are today. Sure when I went to school there were poor kids, but not nearly as many. Today more than half of all public school children live below the poverty line. Likewise, in my day public policy was to do away with segregation. Lawmakers were doing everything they could to make sure all my classes had increasing diversity. I met so many different kinds of people in my community school who I never would have known if I’d only talked with the kids on my street. But today our schools have reverted to the kind of separate but equal mentality that was supposed to be eradicated by Brown vs. Board of Education. Today we have schools for the rich and schools for the poor. We have schools for whites and schools for blacks. And the current obsession with charter schools and privatization has only exacerbated this situation. Efforts to increase school choice have merely resulted in more opportunities for white flight and fractured communities.

These are problems I didn’t face as a teenager. Yet so many adults describe this current generation as “entitled.” Entitled to what!? Less opportunity!? Entitled to paying more for college at higher interest for jobs that don’t exist!?

And don’t get me started on police shootings of young people. How anyone can blame an unarmed black kid for being shot or killed by law enforcement is beyond me.

Children today are different. Every few years their collective character changes.  Today’s kids love digital devices. They love things fast-paced, multi-tasked and self-referential. But they don’t expect anything they haven’t earned. They aren’t violent criminals. As a whole they aren’t spoiled or unfeeling or bratty. They’re just kids.

In fact, if I look around at my classes of 8th graders, I see a great many bright, creative and hard-working young people. I’m not kidding.

I teach the regular academic track Language Arts classes. I don’t teach the advanced students. My courses are filled with kids in the special education program, kids from various racial, cultural and religious backgrounds. Most of them come from impoverished families. Some live in foster homes. Some have probation officers, councilors or psychologists.

They don’t always turn in their homework. Sometimes they’re too sleepy to make it through class. Some don’t attend regularly. But I can honestly say that most of them are trying their best. How can I ask for more?

The same goes for their parents. It can be quite a challenge to get mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, brother, sister or other guardians on the phone. Parent-teacher conferences are very lonely in my room while the advanced teacher is mobbed. But I don’t generally blame the parents. In my experience, most moms and dads are doing the best they can for their kids. Many of my student’s have fathers and mothers working multiple jobs and are out of the home for the majority of the day. Many of my kids watch over their younger brothers and sisters after school, cooking meals, cleaning house and even putting themselves to bed.

I wish it wasn’t like that, but these are the fruits of our economy. When the recession hit, it took most of the well-paying jobs. What we got back was predominantly minimum wage work. Moreover, people of color have always had difficulty getting meaningful employment because of our government sanctioned racial caste system. Getting a home loan, getting an education, getting a job – all of these are harder to achieve if your skin is black or brown – the same hue as most of my students and their families.

So, yes, I wish things were different, but, no, I don’t blame my students. They’re trying their best. It’s not their fault our society doesn’t care about them. It’s not their fault that our nation’s laws – including its education policy – create a system where the odds are stacked against them.

As their teacher, it’s not my job to denigrate them. I’m here to lift them up. I offer a helping hand, not a pejorative finger.

And since many of the factors that most deeply affect education come from outside the school, I think my duty goes beyond the confines of the classroom. If I am to really help my students, I must be more than just an educator – I must be a class warrior.

So I will fight to my last breath. I will speak out at every opportunity. Because my students are not to blame for society’s ills. They are the victims of it.


NOTE: This article also was published in Wait What?, and the Badass Teachers Association Blog.

 

Puerto Rico Teachers Plan One-Day Strike to Protest Corporate Education Reform

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Welcome to sunny Puerto Rico.

The ocean is a gorgeous cerulean blue. Palm trees wave gently in the salty breeze. And in the distance you can hear percussion, horns and singing.

The protest has begun.

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Residents of this United States territory have been fighting freshman Governor Alejandro García Padilla’s efforts to close public schools, privatize those left and shackle teachers to the same corporate education reform schemes that are crippling schools on the mainland.

This Tuesday island educators are asking parents not to send their children to school. Teachers plan to conduct a one-day strike to protest legislation that could be passed the same day to further cripple the Commonwealth’s public education system.

“On November 17th we’ll be giving our lesson’s outside our classrooms,” says Mercedes Martinez, president of the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, the teachers union.

“We’ll be in front of our schools early in the morning and at 10:00 a.m. will march from Congress to the Governor’s Mansion in San Juan. This is one of many activities that we’ll perform in defense of public education. We will not accept these precarious impositions and will fight back.”

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The protest is in response to Project 1456 which would close more than 380 public schools. The government has already closed 150 schools in the past 5 years.

This would force many students into even more overcrowded classrooms. Thousands of children would have to be relocated to schools far from their homes.

But that’s not all.

The proposed legislation would also privatize 15% of those schools left standing. Unlike the mainland, Puerto Rico has no charter schools. Teachers went on a 10-day strike in 2008 which only ended after the island Secretary of Education Rafael Aragunde signed an agreement promising not to open any charters.

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If privatized schools opened on the island, parents might have to pay an additional fee for services they now enjoy for free. Amenities like lunches and even tuition may have to be subsidized by parents out of pocket.

Moreover, it would collapse the teachers retirement system, Martinez says. Charter schools would not deduct employees payments to the pension system so it might not be able to remain solvent.

Project 1456 would harm teachers in another way, too. It would enact a punitive evaluation system where 20% of educators value would be based on students standardized test scores. Any teacher with a 79% or less would have two years to improve or be fired.

“Teachers will have no rights,” Martinez says.

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The proposed legislation has already been approved by the Commonwealth Senate. It’s main author Sen. Eduardo Bhatia is pushing for the House to fast track it for approval.

Discussions began in the House last week.

Protesters were there on Wednesday. They stood up in the government chamber and walked out en mass when it was brought up for discussion. Eighteen of them wore white T-shirts spelling out the message “Our Schools Are Not For Sale.”

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Inside the House, presidents of private universities testified in favor of the measure.

“Obviously they want to become administrators of charter schools on our island,” Martinez says.

Outside the building, protesters held their own emblematic hearing on the matter. Community members, teachers and parents testified in the open air about how this legislation would hurt children. They ended with a symbolic vote against it.

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Puerto Ricans are not alone in this fight.

Jitu Brown, a community organizer from Chicago and Director of Journey for Justice Alliance traveled there to stand in solidarity with those fighting for their schools. Brown participated in a 34-day hunger strike in his hometown a month ago to protest Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to close the last open enrollment school in his neighborhood.

“This beautiful, breathtaking place is marred by ugly U.S colonialism and privatization of public services on steroids!” says Brown of Puerto Rico.

“I was blessed to spend time with powerful people fighting for a better world. Big ups to your warrior spirit, discipline and hospitality! Where we struggle, we can win! If we don’t struggle, we are guaranteed to lose.”

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The plight of Puerto Rican communities also inspired support from the Badass Teachers Association, a group of more than 56,000 educators, parents, students and activists.

“The Badass Teachers Association stands in strong solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico who are fighting for the very foundation of their democracy – the survival of their public school system which is under assault by the 1% who seek to close it up and deny Puerto Rican children a right to an education,” says Executive Director Marla Kilfoyle.

Protesters are getting the word out. They’ve already handed out thousands of fliers. Today they plan to drive in a large caravan across the island.

“We’ve got a bunch of cars with sound equipment,” Martinez says.

“We will go to all the communities near our schools in different regions asking parents to support the strike on the 17th.”

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Much of the the island’s financial woes are imported from the mainland. Puerto Rico is besieged by vulture capitalists encouraging damaging rewrites to the tax code while buying and selling the territory’s debt.

Hundreds of American private equity moguls and entrepreneurs are using the Commonwealth as a tax haven.

As a result, tax revenues to fund public goods like education are drying up while the super rich rake in profits.

Officials warn the government may be out of money to pay its bills by as early as 2016. Over the next five years, it may have to close nearly 600 more schools – almost half of the remaining facilities!

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“That’s why the Teacher’s Federation and other teacher unions allied together to fight back against the attack on our education system,” Martinez says.

“As you can see, we’ve been busy.”

If Project 1456 is passed by the House, the union is considering a general strike.

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Of the 135 schools closed in just the last two years, Commonwealth Secretary of Education Rafael Román had originally proposed shuttering 200. The remaining 65 were only kept alive because communities occupied the buildings and refused to let the government step in.

Protesters stormed the Senate in October when Bhatia first introduced Project 1456.

“Senators decided to approve it without discussion because they did not want to listen to teachers chants and indignation,” says Martinez.

“Senator Bhatia has become the symbol for privatization under this administration. He has never been in a public School. He has no bond with it. He’s a demagogue.”


NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

 

Department of Education SorryNotSorry About High Stakes Testing

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The Obama Administration must think the nation’s parents, teachers and students are pretty darn dumb.

President Barack Obama and his hand-picked Department of Education are solely responsible for the knuckle dragging academic policies strangling our public schools day in, day out. Yet instead of doing anything to reverse course to proven methods that might actually help kids learn, the department trudges out its annual apology.

It goes something like this:

Hey, Everybody! So sorry about all those high stakes tests, Common Core Standards and Value-Added teaching evaluations. We know they’re bad and we’re going to stop.

Then whatever functionary drew the shortest straw toddles back into the building and for the rest of the year things continue on exactly the same as they always have.

Let’s just pause for a moment and imagine how incredibly stupid they must think we are. I’m surprised they don’t issue public service announcements reminding us to exhale, multi-colored pamphlets on the benefits of blinking, and puppet shows instructing us how to use the potty.

The Obama Administration has had 7 years to fix this mess, and the only things they’ve done are to make it worse. Most of us voted for this so-called progressive because we thought he’d improve upon George W. Bush’s astoundingly wrongheaded school policies. But instead he doubled down on them! We hired a competent janitor but he was successful only in creating greater disorder.

We thought someone with the intelligence and grace of Barack Obama would be able to understand more than the eternal C-student Bush that you can’t ensure equity by standardized testing. That’s like trying to ensure a bathtub was filling with hot water by using nothing but Tarot Cards. The cards don’t give you an accurate reading and even if they did, you’d need to adjust the faucet at some point!

We thought a Constitutional scholar would understand that a national school curriculum violates federal law – even if you get a faux state commission to propose it and slap a new name on the thing! The federal government is allowed to do some things and state governments are allowed to do others. It’s not that hard. Moreover, armchair generals who have zero understanding of educational pedagogy, psychology, sociology and no classroom experience have no business telling teachers what they should be teaching!

We thought a political party that claims to be on educators’ side wouldn’t then turn around and initiate a witch hunt against us using poor student test scores instead of pitch forks and torches. Every independent, peer-reviewed study shows that poor kids do badly on standardized assessments and rich kids do well. Every statistician says you can’t use a test created to measure one thing (students) to measure another (teachers). Yet this is exactly what this so-called intellectual president mandates, and then he and the Democrats expect us to be there for them at the polls!?

In short, we expected a liberal Democrat, but got instead a Conservative Democrat in Name Only (DINO). He took far right ideas that Bush could barely officiate and made them much more efficient and thus much more damaging.

And every year like an alcoholic stumbling off a bar stool, the administration swears they’re not going to take another drink. Then they hire the head of Anheuser-Busch (John King) as a nutritionist. And some of us still believe them!

Just look at the crumbs they’re throwing out to us, peons!

Hey, Girl. We’re going to cut testing down to 2% of the school year.

That’s 23 hours! Almost 3 full days! Imagine if the dungeon master told you he was only going to put you on the rack for 2% of the time! Would you thank him? Maybe, but it would be a pretty half-hearted thank you.

Can the administration prove any positive value for standardized testing? I’m not asking them to trot out the tired party line about equity. I mean can they prove that testing actually helps children learn in any appreciable way? If the answer is no (and Spoiler Alert: it is!) then we shouldn’t be wasting any more time with it. Not 2%. Not 1%. ZERO PERCENT!

Moreover, Obama has been talking about reducing testing since he ran for office in 2008. America’s schools are still waiting for him to come through on that one. Maybe on his last day in office we’ll have a testing moratorium. Fingers crossed!

The department says, “The assessments must be worth taking.” No shit. That’s exactly the problem! They aren’t! And they’re shrouded in secrecy under the guise of test corporations intellectual property. How will we be able to determine they’re “worth taking”? Will you just tell us? THAT sure puts my mind at ease!

You know what assessments have been proven worth taking? The ones created by teachers. Yet these are exactly the kinds of tests that schools have been forced to cut back on. Perhaps this is what the administration has in mind. No more teacher-created tests. Let’s just have tests made by the professional test creators who have no idea what the heck they’re doing!

And speaking teachers, this one’s for you: “No standardized test should ever be given solely for educator evaluation.” It sounds like a condemnation of Value-Added Measures (VAM), of evaluating teachers on student test scores. However, it’s just the opposite. Notice the word “Solely.” We’re not going to give kids tests if we ONLY use them to evaluate their teachers. Well woop-de-do! Professional flunkies will talk to you for hours (if you pay them enough) about how great the tests we give now are at doing both! So no change in policy, just some purple prose to light on fire and blow the smoke up educators hind ends.

Perhaps worst of all is the use of English Language Learners (ELL), students with disabilities and minorities as props. We’re doing it all for them, they say. Bull! Shit!

The administration has nothing to say about fully funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). There’s nothing about sanctions on districts that don’t provide proper services for ELLs. There’s nothing about ensuring adequate, equitable and sustainable funding for all students – especially the poor and minorities. Instead the Department of Education pretends like high stakes tests are candy bars and what poor disadvantaged minority ELL disabled kid doesn’t love the soft velvety chocolate taste of a multiple choice test!?

This announcement is not reason to celebrate. It’s more of the same fake apologies soaking wet in crocodile tears and bad candor.

If Hillary Clinton wants to get elected President, she’d better do more than that. If Bernie Sanders wants a shot, he’d better do more than spout socialism about Wall Street and silence about K-12 schools.

You can only lie to our faces for so long. Despite your best attempts to trash public education in the name of saving it, we’re not so dumb as to believe any more of your evasions, deceit and dishonesty.


NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

 

Did AFT Rank and File REALLY Endorse Hillary Clinton for President? If So, Release the Raw Data

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I have nothing against Hillary Clinton.

Heck! I might even vote for her in the coming Presidential race. Maybe…

But the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) endorsement of the former First Lady is strange in many ways.

First, it’s awfully early. The initial Democratic primaries aren’t scheduled for half a year yet – February of 2016 to be exact. And the general election isn’t until Nov. 8, 2016 – more than a year away.

Second, the manner in which this endorsement was reached is somewhat mysterious.

This much seems certain:

1) The AFT executive board invited all of the candidates to meet with them and submit to an interview. No Republican candidates responded.

2) Democrats including Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley and Clinton were interviewed in private.

3) The executive committee voted to endorse Clinton.

4) NOW the interviews are scheduled to be released to the public.

This is a perplexing timetable. Why would the AFT endorse BEFORE releasing the interviews? Ostensibly, the executive council used these interviews to help make its decision. Shouldn’t that same information have been available to rank and file members of the union before an endorsement was made?

Which brings up another question: were AFT members asked AT ALL about who to endorse before the executive council made the final decision?

According to the AFT press release, they were:

The AFT has conducted a long, deliberative process to assess which candidate would best champion the issues of importance to our members, their families and communities. Members have been engaged online, through the “You Decide” website, through several telephone town halls, and through multiple surveys—reaching more than 1 million members.

Additionally, over the past few weeks, the AFT has conducted a scientific poll of our membership on the candidates and key issues. The top issues members raised were jobs and the economy and public education. Seventy-nine percent of our members who vote in Democratic primaries said we should endorse a candidate. And by more than a 3-to-1 margin, these members said the AFT should endorse Clinton.

So the AFT claims union members said to endorse Clinton on-line, on telephone town halls, surveys and a scientific poll of membership.

But did they really?

Clinton may be the Democratic frontrunner, but she isn’t a favorite for a lot of teachers. Chiefly this is because her education positions are not that great. Sure, she’s better than every Republican running so far. But she has stiff competition in the Democratic field – especially from Sanders.

If Clinton had come out against Common Core, standardized testing and using student test scores to evaluate teachers effectiveness, I wouldn’t question the AFT’s endorsement at all. But she has been rather supportive of these issues – just like our current President, Barack Obama.

Teachers are fed up with Obama’s education policies. Why would they overwhelmingly endorse someone for President who seems bound and determined to continue them?

So I hope I’ll be excused if I ask for a bit more proof than a press release.

Where exactly are the polls, surveys, etc. that show the Clinton support AFT leadership claims?

For instance, which polls produced which results? The press release says AFT members prefer Clinton 3-1. But even if Clinton came out on top consistently, surely the results weren’t identical on every poll. Maybe she got 75% on one and 65% on another.

The AFT hasn’t released everything, but the organization’s website gives us a memo about ONE of these phone surveys. This national survey of membership planning to vote in Democratic primaries found 67% picked Clinton. However, only 1,150 members participated! That’s a far cry from the more than 1 million cited in the press release.

Moreover, there is no mention of what questions were asked. For instance, there is a world of difference between “Who would make the best President?” and “Who is most electable?” Is it possible there was selection bias present in the questions used to make this determination?

But that’s only one survey. Where is the rest of the data? Where is the raw information from this survey? Where is the data from all these other outreach attempts and on-line activities? How many took phone surveys? How many took on-line surveys? And what were the results in each case?

If union members really did endorse Clinton, that’s fine. But many of us would like to see the proof.

I’m not a member of the AFT, but I’m on the mailing list. I never received any survey.

A lot of my friends are AFT members, but none of them recall any survey.

As a member of numerous education and teaching groups, I know of no one else who admits to being polled either. In fact, I haven’t been able to find ANYONE who was polled on this issue!

I admit that’s not exactly scientific. But that’s why I want to see the data! Blind me with science, AFT!

I believe in teachers. I believe in Unions. I believe in Democracy.

Please release the raw data, AFT, so I can believe in this endorsement, too.


NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.