Monday, June 18, 2018

Public Schools Are Not ‘Government Schools,’ Not Yet by Aaron Michael Baker

A favorite talking point of school privatizers and education reformers is to refer to public schools as “government schools.” When free market ideologues and politicians do this, they are primarily appealing to the libertarian tendencies of middle and upper class white evangelicals and Catholics. Right wing politicians rarely use the word “government” positively as an adjective; government spending, government waste, government overreach. To the ears of Generation X white America, “government schools” sounds an awful lot like “government cheese.” In the 1980s, the term “government cheese” stood for poor quality, generic packaging, uniformity, and the stigma that went along with being a recipient of food stamps. This is the image that devotees of economist Milton Friedman want to conjure. They want us to believe that public schools are bland, monolithic, and a means to publicly identify and ridicule poor people.

Imagine nationwide standardized school uniforms, 100% scripted instruction, closed-circuit television cameras in every classroom, and absolutely no extra-curricular activities. That is perhaps what “government schools” would look like in the United States today. The truth is that every public school in America has its own unique characteristics, continues to operate with a surprisingly high level of autonomy, and is distinctly connected to its local community. If this country had “government schools” there would be no such thing as school pride, school mascots, or class reunions. There certainly would be no need for elected school boards. There would be no Parent Teacher Association and no parent teacher conferences. Students would be nothing more than products. Public schools are not factories that push out generations of identical young adults. Public schools are localized communities that incubate our society’s progress toward justice and tolerance.
The truth is that every public school in America has its own unique characteristics, continues to operate with a surprisingly high level of autonomy, and is distinctly connected to its local community.
It comes as no surprise that the desire to dismantle public schools falls near on the political spectrum to the bigotry, xenophobia, and intolerance coming out of the Trump white house. The irony of public schools promoting a progressive society is that progressives do not control our national government. And in deeply red states like Oklahoma, they do not control state government either. So when the political right calls public schools “government schools,” they are referring to the government that, for the most part, they control.
The irony is that some of the same politicians that cry “school choice” year after year are the same politicians who sponsor legislation that results in more government control of public schools. One of the favorite pastimes of Republican lawmakers is to mandate patriotism in public schools. The presence of compulsory pledges and posted national mottos reading “In God We Trust” inside public school classrooms is a decisive step toward rightfully earning the title “government schools.” After the failed policies of “No Child Left Behind,” it is clear that standardized testing is not a way to lift student performance but to homogenize our education system in order make it more susceptible to criticism.
The irony is that some of the same politicians that cry “school choice” year after year are the same politicians who sponsor legislation that results in more government control of public schools.
The motivations behind legislators playing it both ways in regard to education policy vary. At best, some policymakers are simply ignorant of the contradiction between labeling a neighborhood school a “government school” and promoting heavy-handed regulation that they like to call “accountability.” At worst, the “government school” mantra is a well calculated self-fulfilling prophecy. Here is how it works.
Step 1: Refer to public schools as “government schools.” Repeat often.
Step 2: Heavily regulate public schools at both the state and national level. Standardize everything.
Step 3: Keep calling public schools “government schools” until it becomes true.
Step 4: Defund and privatize public education.

Step 5: Leave a few highly scrutinized “government schools” open in urban centers for poor students of color to attend.

This Fathers Day Let’s Be Worthy of Our Children by Steven Singer

My daughter wrote me a card for Father’s Day.

It had a heart on the front and the following message on the back:

“Happy Fathers Day! Dad, you are my superstar. You help me when I’m sad. And I love everything you do for me. That is why I wish you a Happy Fathers Day.”

It was a sweet token of affection from a 9-year-old to her sleepy daddy sitting at the kitchen table.

But it got me thinking.

All over this country fathers are probably receiving something similar from their children.

Hawaiian shirts, blotchy neckties and more finger paintings than you could fit in the Louvre.

But the sentiment is probably the same.

Thank you for being there for me.

But are we there for America’s children?

We may be there for our own kids, but where genetics end, are we there for others?

Our government has separated approximately 2,000 children from their parents at the border, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Two thousand children forcibly separated from their parents in our name and we dare to celebrate Father’s Day?

From April through May, the policy has separated 1,995 minors from 1,940 adults traveling with them who said they were the children’s guardians.

A country that doesn’t respect the rights of parents – even if those parents aren’t documented US citizens – has no right to pretend it values fatherhood or motherhood.

At best, we value WHITE parenthood, and that, my friends, is not good enough.

Look at what we subject our own children to in the public school system.

We segregate our schools by race and class so we can horde resources for wealthy and middle class white kids while providing the bare minimum to the poor and children of color.

In the name of accountability we bestow upon them high stakes standardized tests to “prove” even those meager funds are wasted – yet we ignore the financial disparity, the social problems, the health issues and a host of other obstacles the underprivileged face.

The only help we’re willing to offer is privatized schools that can pocket a portion of their funding and reduce resources for these kids. We demand local control and democratically elected school boards for rich white kids, but expect the poor brown ones at charter and voucher schools to get along with appointed boards where their parents have no choice except to take it or leave it.

Does a society that routinely treats its children this way deserve a thank you card? I think not.

Last month, the CDC released a report indicating that the U.S. birth rate ― the number of babies born nationwide ― is the lowest it’s been in 30 years and is below the “replacement” rate needed to sustain the population.

Various media sources were quick to blame women nationwide. Women put off having kids because they want to focus on careers. They aren’t sexy or submissive enough.

Yet few look at the responsibilities of men in this equation.

Who is it behind the salary gap between men and women? Who conflates women’s healthcare with abortion and communism? Who makes it easier to get a gun in this country than proper maternity leave, childcare or any adequate resources to make having a family sustainable?

Answer: men.

We don’t even support men who want to have families. Men make more money than women, but salaries are down for them as well. If there’s little support for pregnant women, there’s little support for the fathers who impregnated them.

We pretend family values are the bedrock of our society but we don’t do much to support families.

And when we look to the future, it doesn’t appear to be getting any better.

Big business and huge corporations are salivating all over the prospect of further monetizing our children.

Not only are they asking kids whether they feel excited or bored by canned test prep lessons provided on-line, they’re focusing cameras on children’s faces, monitoring their breathing and heart rate. They’re collecting mountains of data with little accountability, privacy or even the promise of these things.

Investment bankers and hedge fund managers are funding these programs and more to create a priceless database on each individual child that can be used for lifelong marketing, job placement, even profiling by law enforcement.

These are not practices that are done in the best interest of children. They are in the best interest of investors and free market privateers.

No wonder fewer people are having children! They don’t want their kids to become helpless victims to a society that cares less and less about our humanity and more and more about our marketability.

It is us vs. them – where the us is significantly limited by race, economics and class.

So this Fathers Day, we need to do more than accept a congratulatory pat on the back.

We need to accept our responsibility for the status quo.

If we don’t like the way things are, we need to commit ourselves to doing something about it.

Call and/or write your Senators and Representatives about the policy of separating undocumented parents and children. Visit your lawmakers’ offices and demand fair funding and an end to school segregation, high stakes testing and school privatization. Get active in your local school district going to meetings and making your voice heard. Do everything you can to educate the powers that be on the coming Ed Tech scandal and remove or block it from your district.

We’re not just fathers on Fathers Day.

We’re fathers all year long.

Let’s do something more to deserve it.

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

Don’t Worry About Grade Inflation. Worry About Grading Fairly by Steven Singer

Hard work should be rewarded.

If you earn an A in a given class, you should get an A on your report card.

And this is true no matter how many of your classmates work just as hard as you do.

Those who demand otherwise are under the spell of one of the oldest myths in academia – grade inflation.

It goes like this: You can’t give all your students excellent marks! That would devalue what it means to get an A!

To which I reply: Bullshit.

Almost every plane that leaves an airport lands safely. Does that devalue what it means to travel? When you arrive at your destination, are you upset that everyone else has arrived safely or would you feel better if some of the planes crashed?

According to the American Journal of Public Health, 93% of New York City restaurants earn an “A” from the health department. Does that shake your faith in the food service industry? Would you feel better if more restaurants were unsanitary? Would your food digest more efficiently if there were more people going home with stomach pain and food poisoning?

Of course not! In fact, these stats actually reassure us about both industries. We’re glad air travel and eating out is so safe. Why would we feel any different about academia?

The idea of grade inflation is a simple imposition of the concept of economic value onto learning. It has no meaning in the field of academics, psychology or ethics. It is just some fools who worship money imaging that the whole world works the same way – and if it doesn’t, it should.

It’s nothing new.

Conservatives have been whining about grade inflation for at least a century. It’s not that the quality of teachers has declined and they’re letting all their students pass without doing the work. It’s that certain types of curmudgeons want to justify their own intelligence by denying others the same privilege.

It’s the “I’ve Got Mine” philosophy.

We see the same thing with Baby Boomers who grew up in the counter culture and pushed for progressive values in their youth. Once they got everything they wanted for themselves, they became conservatives in their old age and worked to deny the same things for subsequent generations.

It’s the very definition of Age scoffing at Youth – a pathology that goes back at least to Hesiod if not further. (Golden age of man, my foot!)

Moreover, there is no authentic way to prove grade inflation is actually happening. Grades are a subjective measure of student learning. They are human beings’ attempt to gauge an invisible mental process. At best they are frail approximations of a complex neural process that is not even bounded temporally or causally. If a student doesn’t know something now, they may come to know it later even without further academic stimulus. Moreover, isolating the stimulus that produced the learning is also nearly impossible.

The important thing is not grade inflation. It is ensuring that grades are given fairly.

If students work hard, they should be rewarded.

I am very upfront with my students about this. And doing so seems to have a positive and motivating effect on them.

This year, I had students who told me they had never read a book from cover-to-cover before my class. I’ve had students look at their report cards in shock saying they’ve never received such high marks in Language Arts before. And doing so makes them want to try all the harder next year to repeat the results.

They leave me excited about learning. They feel empowered and ready to give academics their all. Because the greatest lesson a teacher can instill is that the student is capable of learning.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t just hand out these grades. Students have to earn them. They have to demonstrate that they have actually learned something.

Everyone rarely measures up to the challenge. But that’s not the point. Everyone COULD. There is nothing in my design that prohibits that outcome. I don’t start with the assumption that I’ll only have 3 A’s, 4 B’s, 10 C’s, etc.

In fact, it is THAT scarcity model that dumbs down academics. If I grade on a curve like that, I have to give out a certain number of high marks regardless of achievement. I’m committed to giving out those 3 A’s regardless of whether that trio of students deserve it or not. However, in my abundance model, I give exactly the number of A’s that are deserved. If that’s zero, no one gets an A. If that’s everyone, then everyone gets an A. It all depends on what students actually deserve, not some preconceived notion about how the world works.

To do this, I give very few tests. I just don’t find them to be very helpful assessments.

A test is a snapshot of student learning. It has its place, but the information it gives you is very limited.

Most of my grades are based on projects, homework, essays, class discussion, creative writing, journaling, poetry, etc. Give me a string of data points from which I can extrapolate a fair grade – not just one high stakes data point.

This may work to some degree because of the subject I teach. Language arts is an exceptionally subjective subject, after all. It may be more challenging to do this in math or science. However, it is certainly attainable because it is not really that hard to determine whether students have given you their best work.

Good teaching practices lend themselves to good assessment.

You get to know your students. You watch them work. You help them when they struggle. By the time they hand in their final product, you barely need to read it. You know exactly what it says because you were there for its construction.

For me, this doesn’t mean I have no students who fail. Almost every year I have a few who don’t achieve. This is usually because of attendance issues, lack of sleep, lack of nutrition, home issues or simple laziness.

I only have control over what happens in the classroom, after all. I can call home and try to work with parents, but if those parents are – themselves – absent, unavailable or unwilling to work with me, there’s little I can do.

And before you start on about standardized testing and the utopia of “objectivity” it can bring, let me tell you about one such student I had who was not even trying in my class.

He never turned in homework, never tried his best on assignments, rarely attended and sleepwalked through the year. However, he knew his only chance was the state mandated reading test – so for three days he was present and awake. The resulting test score was the only reason he moved on to the next grade.

Was he smart? Yes. Did he deserve to go on to the next grade not having learned the important lessons of his classmates? No. But your so-called “objective” measure valued three days of effort over 180.

The problem is that we are in love with certain academic myths.

MYTH 1: Grading must be objective.

WRONG! Grading will never be objective because it is done by subjective humans. These standardized tests you’re so in love with are deeply biased on economic and racial lines. Whether you pass or fail is determined by a cut score and a grading curve that changes from year-to-year making them essentially useless for comparisons and as valid assessments. They’re just a tool for big business to make money off the academic process.

MYTH 2: Learning is Economics.

WRONG! Grades are not money. They don’t function in any way like currency or capital. They aren’t something to be bought and sold. They are an approximate indication of academic success. Treating them as a commodity only degrades their value and the value of students and learning, itself.

Treating grades economically actually represses the desire to learn, dispels curiosity and eliminates the intrinsic value of education.

So go ahead – inflate the “value” of your grades.

Give A’s to every student who deserves it.

That’s how you promote learning and fairly assess it.

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Dear Betsy DeVos, I Will NEVER Report My Students to ICE by Steven Singer

Teachers fill a lot of roles in our public schools.

We’re mentors to kids in need.

We’re homework-givers, pencil-providers, idea-encouragers, lunch-buyers, scrape-bandagers, hand-holders, hug-givers, good listeners, counselors, caregivers and – yes – sometimes even butt-kickers.

It’s no wonder that we occasionally get mistaken for mothers and fathers.

But one thing we will never be is a snitch.

She’s not going to say what we should do one way or another. She’s just saying that this is something we COULD do if we wanted.

If that results in those kids and their families being deported, well we are a nation of laws, after all.

It’s a remark that sounds so reasonable to some folks.

Luckily, I speak dog whistle.

So did the U.S. Supreme Court back in 1982 when justices ruled in Plyler v. Doe that schools cannot deny children their right to a free education based on immigration status.

When kids are afraid to learn because they or their parents or extended family may be undocumented, that has a smothering affect on the classroom.

When ICE raids a local business, we see a sudden drop in class attendance.

So if students thought their teachers or principals were scrutinizing them to determine their citizenship status, we’d be discouraging many with brown skin or extra-national credentials from ever coming back.

By suggesting that educators have a choice whether to obey established law or to become self-appointed border patrol officers, DeVos actually is prescribing how we should act.

Well, not this teacher, Betsy.

Not now. Not EVER.

Teachers are not the enforcers of our broken, bent and biased immigration policy. It is not our job to oblige xenophobia and bigotry.

It is our job to teach, to protect and inspire.

Sure, I’ve made my fair share of calls to parents, healthcare professionals and Child Protective Services.

But I did that to protect my kids. And I do think of them as my kids.

When these little people come toddling into my class, I take a kind of ownership of them.

For the time they’re here, we’re family. I take interest in their lives and they take interest in mine.

They know all about my wife and daughter, my parents and grandparents. And I know about theirs.

We don’t just learn grammar, reading and writing. We share our lives with each other.

We share a mutual trust and respect.

If I reported even a single student for a suspected immigration violation, I would lose that forever.

Hispanic names have become Anglicized. Angelo has becomes Angel. Julio has become Jules. Jorge is now George.

The dulcet melody of Spanish has been silenced. You’ll only hear it in muffled voices if you wander by a few lockers, but never in class.

My kids aren’t even 13 yet, but many of them have already learned to hide.

Don’t appear different. Don’t let anyone know your roots extend beyond national borders.

Be “normal.” Be homogenized, bland American.

That’s the world we’ve built and it’s the one that DeVos is encouraging with her tin pot nationalism.

Some things don’t change when you cross municipal lines – human decency is one of them.

So I won’t be reporting any of my students to ICE.

I won’t help the Gestapo separate parents and children based on citizenship status.

White supremacy was bad enough before Trump was elected. I won’t help the unfortunately named Department of Homeland Security become the protector of a new white trash Fatherland.

I will defend my students. I will stand up for their safety and their rights.

That’s just what we do in public school. We look after our own.

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!