Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Classroom Teachers are the Real Scholastic Experts – Not Education Journalists by Steven Singer

Originally posted at:

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When you want an expert on health, you go to a doctor.

When you want an expert on law, you go to a lawyer.

So why is it that when the news media wants an expert on education they go to… themselves!?

You’ll find them writing policy briefs, editorials and news articles. You’ll find them being interviewed about topics like class size, funding and standardized tests.

But they aren’t primary sources. They are distinctly secondary.

So why don’t we go right to the source and ask those most in the know – classroom teachers!?

According to a Media Matters analysis of education coverage on weeknight cable news programs in 2014, only 9 percent of guests on MSNBC, CNN and Fox News were educators.

This data is a bit out of date, but I couldn’t find a more recent analysis. Moreover, it seems pretty much consistent with what I, myself, have seen in the media.

Take Wyatt Cenac’s “Problem Areas,” a comedy journalism program on HBO. The second season focuses entirely on education issues. Though Cynac interviews numerous people in the first episode (the only one I saw), he put together a panel of experts to talk about the issues that he would presumably return to throughout the season. Unfortunately, only two of these experts were classroom teachers.

There were more students (3), policy writers (3) and education journalists (3). There were just as many college professors (2), civil rights leaders (2), and politicians (2). Plus there was one historian (Diane Ravitch).

I’m not saying Cynac shouldn’t have talked to these other people. From what I’ve seen, his show is a pretty good faith attempt to talk about the issues, but in under representing classroom teachers, we’re left with a false consensus. It’s like having one climate denier debate one scientist. They aren’t equal and should not be equally represented.

And that’s as good as it gets!

Allowing journalists who cover education to rebrand themselves as “experts” is just not good enough.

Take it from me. Before I became a classroom teacher, I was a newspaperman, myself. Yet it’s only now that I know all that I didn’t know then.

If anyone values good, fact-based reporting, it’s me. But let’s not confuse an investigator with a practitioner. They both have important jobs. We just need to be clear about which job is being practiced when.

Reporters are not experts on the issues they cover. Certainly they know more than the average person or some political flunkey simply towing the party line. But someone who merely observes the work is not as knowledgeable as someone who does it and has done it for decades, someone with an advanced degree, dedication and a vocation in it.

Moreover, there is a chasm between education reporting and the schools, themselves, that is not present between journalists and most fields of endeavor. In the halls of academia, even the most fair-minded outsiders often are barred from direct observation of the very thing they’re trying to describe. We rarely let reporters in to our nation’s classrooms to see what’s happening for themselves. All they can do most of the time is uncritically report back what they’ve been told.

It’s almost as if sportswriters never got to see athletes play or political reporters never got to attended campaign rallies. How could their ideas about these subjects be of the same value as the practitioners in these fields!?

It couldn’t.

Think about it. Journalists 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 usually keeps the school doors closed to them.

In many districts, teachers aren’t even allowed to speak on the record to the mediaor doing so can make them a political target. So reporters often have great difficulty just disclosing the opinions of those most knowledgeable about what is going on.

At best, our nation’s education reporters are like aliens from another galaxy trying to write about human behavior without actually having seen it. It’s like a bad science fiction movie where some alien with plastic ears asks, “What is this thing you call love?”

Sorry. These are not experts. And if we pretend that they are, we are being incredibly dishonest.

Some of this obfuscation is by design.

Education reporting is incredibly biased in favor of market-based solutions to academic problems.

Why? The corporations that own the shrinking number of newspapers, news stations and media outlets are increasingly the same huge conglomerates making money off of these same policies. The line between news and advertising has faded into invisibility in too many places.

Huge corporations make hundreds of millions of dollars off of the failing schools narrative. They sell new standardized tests, new test prep materials, new Common Core books, trainings for teachers, materials, etc. If they can’t demonstrate that our schools are failing, their market shrinks.

Even when they don’t put editorial pressure on journalists to write what the company wants, they hire like-minded people from the get go.

Too many education journalists aren’t out for the truth. They’re out to promote the corporate line.

This is why it’s so important to center any education discussion on classroom teachers. They are the only people with the knowledge and experience to tell us what’s really going on.

And – surprise! – it’s not the same narrative you’re getting from corporate news.

Schools are being defunded and dismantled by the testing and privatization industry. Corporate special interests are allowed to feed off our schools like vultures off road kill. And all the while, it is our children who suffer the results.

But that’s a truth you can only find by talking to the real experts – classroom teachers.

Until we prize their voices above all others, we will never know the whole truth.

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 theBadass Teachers Association. Check it out!

I Want Teaching To Matter by Anca Stefan

For Teacher Appreciation Week I don't want candy and dollar-off coupons. I don't want apple-shaped lapel pins and cutesy symbolism about superheros. I don't want automated corporate emails that use my profession as a marketing scheme to sell me quick fixes in glossy covers.

I want a career that feels solid.

I want a daily schedule that feels sustainable -- that allows me to plan and teach and reflect and learn. I want the opportunity to offer meaningful, ongoing, prompt feedback to my students, and the ability to form meaningful mentorship connections with them. I want them considered and referred to as whole people, not as a series of digits in a neverending graph lookbook compiled by showy data management companies who don't even know their names. I want to know their parents, to attend their recitals, to know and help them reach their dreams. When we parent 3 children, achieving all this is immeasurably challenging. When we teach 50 students per day, doing this well is possible. When we're tasked with teaching 120 students every day, and are interrupted by drills of scantron bubbling and checkbox checking, it is impossible. I want class sizes that are reasonable, and I want a fitting fleet of competent, well-trained, well-cared-for professional colleagues to raise our kids into their infinite potential with the best possible care and tools.

I want a physical classroom and building that don't flood, or mold, or rust. 

I want a beautiful, clean space to work where architects and planners have invested their science and artistry into the daily learning experiences of students. I want shady trees and patches of grass to lay a blanket on in the spring and fall, and outdoor classrooms where we can study and observe and discuss ideas in peace and with leisure. I want natural light in every classroom, I want collaborative spaces, and large work tables, and well-resourced libraries and laboratories, and art performance spaces with lighting and ladders and sound equipment, and play spaces for games and team-building and fun too. I want the gardeners and groundskeepers and building maintenance staff to be treated, and trained, and paid as mentors, and experts -- as educators.

I want cafeteria halls with locally-sourced food, and accompanying classes where students can learn to grow, and prepare, and serve their peers healthy food with pride in themselves and in their culture, and community. I want us to teach and practice sound ecological practices. I want us to prepare a new generation to care for a convalescent planet that is too hurt to continue being neglected and abused. We know better, and we owe it to our students to prepare them to do better by teaching them what we've learned from our mistakes. I want farm and cafeteria staff to be treated, and trained, and paid as mentors, and experts -- as educators.
I want healthcare benefits that allow me to get preventive care, to access cures, to see a therapist in order to avoid getting to breakdown or crisis or flight. I want my child to be able to receive the care she needs if she gets physically injured while playing a sport, loses a baby tooth in 1st grade, or is going through a hard time sorting out the complicated social or emotional threads of her peer and personal development. I want my students to have access to quality, comprehensive healthcare so they can be free of worry and pain when they come to class to learn. I want nurses, and counselors, and social workers, and dentists, and sex educators to be a stable, accessible part of our everyday life in schools. I want them to be treated, and trained, and paid as mentors, and experts -- as educators.

I want a society that prioritizes education - that means governing/lawmaking/policy bodies that would never dare to make any decisions about schools without broad and deep input from its teachers; that means a general public who is vigilant about the mechanisms of democratic accountability and committed to working in solidarity with all of us; that means parents who invest not just their bakesale dollars, but their time and collaborative work through ongoing, open communication.

I want to retire a grateful member of my community - proud to have helped raise, guide, challenge and having loved generations of my neighbors: My city's judges, farmers, welders, doctors, and plumbers; My state's scientists, writers, senators, thinkers; My planet's engineers, artists, leaders, peacemakers, filmmakers, journalists. 

I want to feel grateful for the care I'm receiving for my service. I want to feel certain that no matter my health in my old age, my dignity will be recognized and guarded, my life and experience will be treasured, and my roots in the community I invested in will keep me from toppling over if a storm hits.

What I want isn’t radical any more than it’s life affirming and past due.

And I’m not the only one who wants these things. Ask teachers. Ask parents. Ask students.

I don't have any use for apple-shaped lapel pins, or dollar-off coupons, or scam emails with catchy subject lines. I want my work to matter. I want my students and colleagues to have a chance to flourish. I want to grow, and be treated with care and respect. I want to be thanked by name. I want to be looked in the eye. I want to be taken into account and asked my opinion. And I want that to matter. 

I want teaching to matter. 

I want teachers to matter. 

I want students to matter. 

I want public schools to matter. 

And I want evidence to prove that we do.

Monday, April 29, 2019

The Forgotten Disaster of America’s First Standardized Test by Steven Singer

Originally posted at:

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“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
George Santayana (1905)

The merry-go-round of history continues to spin because the riders forget they are free to get off at any time.

But we rarely do it. We keep to our seats and commit the same stupid mistakes over and over again.

It was a disaster the very first time it was attempted in America – in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1845.

Yet we continue to prescribe the same error to students in schools today.

Judging learners, schools and teachers based on standardized assessments has the same problems now as it did 174 years ago. Yet we act as if it’s the only accurate way to assess knowledge, the only fair and equitable way to assign resources and judge the professionalism of our schools and teachers.

If we simply remembered our history, we’d know that. But our collective amnesia allows this bad policy to reappear every generation despite any criticisms or protests.

So let me take you back to Boston in the middle of the 19th Century and show you exactly where things first went wrong and how they still go wrong in nearly the same way.


Even back then Boston had a history of excellent schools.

One of the country’s most prestigious institutions – the city Latin School – was founded in 1635 and had a list of alumni that reads like a who’s who of American history up through modern times. This includes Cotton Mather, Sam Adams, John Hancock, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Leonard Bernstein and even Santayana, himself!

But Boston wasn’t known just for educating the elite. The city’s school committee had opened the nation’s first public high school in 1821. This wasn’t a charity. The community funded its public schools relatively well and took pride in its students’ accomplishments.

At the local English Grammar Schools, most examinations were strictly oral. Students were questioned in person about the various subjects in which they had received instruction. Teachers tested students’ memory in a recitation to find out whether or not they were proficient in the subject at hand.

The purpose behind such an assessment wasn’t to assign a grade like children were eggs or melons. It was to give the teacher information about how much his students had learned and where the students’ teacher should begin instruction next year.

However, critics complained that such assessments weren’t impartial and that a written exam might be better. Unfortunately, having every student complete one was impractical before the pencil and steel pen came into common usage in the late 1800s. Besides, teachers – then called School Masters – were trusted to use their judgment measuring student achievement and ability based on empirical observation of students’ day-to-day work.

It should also be noted that many more teachers were men at this time. This changed by the 1920s, when the majority of educators were women while most men had fled to the administrative offices. As this transformation took place, it accompanied greater trust in administrators and decreasing confidence in classroom teachers. And if you don’t see the sexism in that, you aren’t paying attention.


To this day Mann remains a somewhat controversial figure. To some he was a reformer seeking to modernize education. To others he was a self-serving politician looking to increase his own power and that of his party no matter what the cost.

In 1837, Mann was appointed secretary of the newly created State Board of Education. As a member of the Whig Party, he wanted to centralize authority. To do that, he needed to discredit the history of excellence in Boston.

Mann had traveled abroad to see the innovations of European schools and concluded that Prussia’s schools, in particular, were far superior to America’s. His remarks were included in a highly publicized 1844 report that demanded action lest our country’s children be left behind. (Sound familiar?)

When other prominent Whigs including his friend Samuel Gridley Howe were elected to the School Committee and later the examining committee, Mann had everything he needed to make a change.

Howe dispensed with the oral exams in favor of written tests, what today we’d call short-answer exams. Without any warning to teachers or students, this new committee came to Boston’s grammar schools with preprinted questions. Teachers and administrators were furious. Students were terrified.

The examiners picked 530 out of the city’s approximately 7,000 students — allegedly the best below high school age – and made them take the new exams. This was about 20 or 30 children from each school. Students had an hour to write their responses on each subject to questions taken from assigned textbooks -geography, grammar, history, rhetoric, and philosophy.

Most failed.

contemporary report on the exams concluded that the results “show beyond all doubt, that a large proportion of the scholars in our first classes, boys and girls of 14 or 15 years of age, when called upon to write simple sentences, to express their thoughts on common subjects, without the aid of a dictionary or a master, cannot write, without such errors in grammar, in spelling, and in punctuation.”

Examiners explained in a subsequent report that they had been looking for “positive information, in black and white,” exactly what students had learned. Teachers took no offense at that goal, but complained that the test questions had not pertained to what students had been taught.

Howe and his examiners countered that they had ensured their new assessment was valid with field testing – a practice that modern day corporations like Pearson and Data Recognition Corp. still do today.

Howe’s committee gave the same test in towns outside of Boston, including Roxbury, then a prosperous suburb. In all, the committee tested 31,159 students the previous summer. The result – an average score of 30 percent correct.

However, the wealthy Roxbury students outscored all the other schools. Therefore, they were made the standard of excellence that all other schools were expected to reach.

So when Boston students – all of whom did not have the privileges of Roxbury students – didn’t achieve the same scores, they were deemed failing, inadequate, losers.

Thus Mann could justify criticizing the district, firing teachers and administrators and consolidating control over the city’s schools.


The result was pandemonium. Howe issued a scathing report lambasting the schools and even naming individual teachers who should be fired. Mann published the results in his influential Common School Journal and these kinds of tests started to appear at urban schools across the country.

However, Bostonians were not all convinced. Editorials were published both for and against the tests.

Every aspect of the exam was disputed – and in similar ways to the testing controversies we still see today.

To start, raising the stakes of the exams invited cheating. One teacher was caught leaking questions to his students before the testing session began.

The assessments also showed a racial achievement gap that far from helping diagnose structural inequalities was instead weaponized against the very people working hardest to help minority students learn. Examiners criticized the head teacher of the segregated Smith School because his African American students had scored particularly low. He was accused of not seeing the potential in black children. Never mind that these students were the most different from the Roxbury standard in terms of culture and privilege.

The tests also began the endless failing schools narrative that has been used by ambitious policymakers and disaster capitalists to get support for risky and unproven policies. Rivalries began between city and suburban schools with Bostonians wondering why their schools had been allowed to get so much worse.

Much of the criticism came back on Mann and Howe who reacted by throwing it back on the teachers for doing such a bad job.

In the end, a few educators were let go, but the voters had had enough of Mann.

Parents accused him of deliberately embarrassing students and in 1848 he was not re-elected to office.

The experiment deeply disturbed many people. No one could explain why there was a discrepancy between scores of rich vs. poor students. The original justification of these exams was that they would eliminate partiality and treat students fairly and equally. Yet the results showed a racial and economic bias that didn’t escape contemporaries. In 1850 as the tests were being discontinued, the chairman of the examination committee wrote:
“Comparison of schools cannot be just while the subjects of instruction are so differently situated as to fire-side influence, and subjected to the draw-backs inseparable from place of birth, of age, of residence, and many other adverse circumstances.”

And that’s how standardized testing began.

It was a political power play justified by so-called universal testing.

Numbers, charts and graphs were used to mesmerize people into going along with policies that were never meant to help children learn, but instead to gain power for certain policymakers while taking it away from others.


In the years that followed, standardized testing became much more efficient. In 1915, the first test was given with multiple-choice questions – Frederick J. Kelly’s Kansas Silent Reading Test. It was roundly criticized and eventually disowned by Kelly for focusing almost exclusively on lower order thinking skills.

Then in the 1920s eugenicists like Robert Yerkes and Carl Brigham went a step further with similar IQ tests to justify privileging upper class whites from lower class immigrants, blacks and Hispanics. Their work was even used to justify the forced sterilization of 60,000 to 70,000 people from groups with low test scores, thus preventing them from “polluting” the gene pool. Ultimately this lead Brigham to create the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) to keep such undesirables out of higher education. It is still in wide use today.

It wasn’t until 1938 that Kaplan Inc. was founded to tutor students in these same tests. Stanley Kaplan, son of Jewish immigrants, showed that far from assessing learning, these tests merely assessed students’ ability to take the tests. Thus he was able to provide a gateway to higher education for many Jews and other minoritieswho had been unfairly excluded because of testing.

In the 1960s black plaintiffs began winning innumerable lawsuits against the testing industry. Perhaps the most famous case is Hobson v. Hansen in 1967, which was filed on behalf of a group of Black students in Washington, DC. The court ruled that the policy of using tests to assign students to tracks was racially biased because the tests were standardized to a White, middle class group.

And then in 2001, President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation revved the whole thing up into overdrive. With bipartisan support, he tied federal funding of schools to standardized test performance and annual academic progress – a policy that was only intensified under President Barack Obama who added competitive grants for additional funding based on test performance under Race to the Top.

Since then, standardized testing has grown from a $423 million industry before 2001 to a multi-billion dollar one decades later. If we add in test prep, new text books, software, and consultancy, that figure easily tops the trillion dollar mark.

Yet the problems today are almost the same as those in Boston nearly two centuries ago.


These tests are political smokescreens used to stop policymakers from having to enact real reforms like equitable funding, wraparound services and addressing the trauma our most impoverished students deal with everyday. Instead, we push a school privatization and testing industry that makes trillions of dollars for corporations at the expense of our children.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Here’s hoping that one day we remember and get the heck off this runaway merry-go-round.

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 theBadass Teachers Association. Check it out!