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Paul Lauter is an emeritus professor of literature at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He is general editor of the Heath Anthology of American Literature. He has a long history in peace and justice education. This review is especially important because it speaks directly to the importance of teaching students to take responsibility for their lives and their futures. Students–and their parents–are crucial ingredients in the struggle to reclaim education and transform it. No one can fire them; they cannot be intimidated by threats. They have a freedom that teachers do not enjoy and a power that they are not aware of.

“No Education, No Life,” a Review of Jay Gillen’s

Educating for Insurgency: The Roles of Young People in Schools of Poverty

By Paul Lauter

“I did not enjoy high school much because my work in the Algebra Project taught me that I was not receiving the quality education I deserved. So each day I waited for the bell so I could leave and work in the program, where I learned so much more. I began organizing in high school and was nearly expelled for organizing a student strike. . . . most of my focus in high school was on organizing students to speak out, to demonstrate and demand quality education.” –Chris Goodman. (“No Justice No Life: Brian Jones Kicks it with Chris Goodman of the Baltimore Algebra Project,” Posted in Article Link, August 3, 2009.)

(This review was written before the events that have made “Baltimore” a symbol of racial tyranny and political malfeasance. It is not, therefore, focused on police violence nor responses to the killing of Freddie Gray and so many other black men. It presents, rather, a project designed to help empower students in schools of poverty–not on the specious theory that educational institutions can by themselves overcome discrimination, marginalization, and poverty, but because schools can, and must, be part of the solution rather than continuing to be part of the problem.)

Much of the debate going on in educational circles today concerns differing ideas about how to accomplish certain agreed-upon goals. Mainly these consist of the 3 R’s—reading, riting and rithmatic—with a touch perhaps of American history, whether seen through the lens of Selma or of Mountain View. Some wish to provide teachers with greater scope, better resources, and fewer students in the classroom. Others, the multimillion dollar “reformers,” promote a regime of ceaseless testing, managerial authority, privatization, and “teacher-proof” curricula. But suppose you conclude, based on observing the thousands of segregated Ferguson, Missouris, and Baltimore, Marylands throughout the USA, that the huge number of students in schools of poverty are ill-served by these very goals, that poor, often black and Latino, students, even if they pass every test and climb in to community colleges, will never—a few tokens aside—get an even break in 21st-century America. What then? Can the goals of schooling themselves be transformed? Can schools become sites not of failure and exclusion, but of insurgency and transformation? Can the young people now marginalized, enraged, and trapped in disastrous institutions become agents of creativity and growth—and real learning?

Such questions lie at the core of Jay Gillen’s essential book, Educating for Insurgency: The Roles of Young People in Schools of Poverty. I use the full title of Gillen’s book because, unlike most of what is being written today, it shifts focus from the adults fighting about schooling to the students themselves as the key actors in their own education. The question Gillen addresses is how might we think about the ways students can, indeed must, organize themselves, those close to them, and the many others with whom they must contend for a future. His approach is not to address the question always on a teacher’s mind—what do I do Monday?—but to propose a theory about how change and education could and already do take place even in, or perhaps especially in, schools of poverty. This book is not a manual for classroom management but a treatise on education, democracy, and hope.

At the center of Gillen’s treatise is his and his students’ experience with one of the three r’s, rithmatic, in the form of the Algebra Project. The Algebra Project was first devised by Bob Moses, a key figure in the efforts of the young organizers of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to challenge and eliminate racial segregation in its most intransigent bastion, Mississippi, in the 1950s and 1960s. The Baltimore version of the Project has been highly successful, even in this society’s financial terms: students working in it have earned $2 million dollars over the last ten years “sharing math knowledge” (p. 140). It has also provided what Gillen calls a “crawl space” wherein students begin to learn how to mobilize the organizational resources necessary to confront the school boards, politicians, courts that stand in the way of their educational development. Educational and political authorities who see math as vital to 21st-century schooling are willing to provide money, some, to those who succeed in teaching it, and they interfere less with the process. As Gillen puts it, “Math hides the student insurgency as it learns how to walk.” In this way it differs from the admirable Mexican-American Studies program in Tucson, which was banned by Arizona lawmakers despite–or perhaps because of–its success in motivating and educating students to confront injustice.

A project seriously devoted to teaching math is insulated against the charge sometimes registered against radical education projects that they are indifferent to students of poverty learning the basics. Mathematical knowledge is, of course, a goal of the Algebra Project, just as the vote was the goal of SNCC organizing in Mississippi. The brilliant analogy between voter registration and learning algebra in school, which Gillen has derived from Bob Moses’ work, is apt, first, because young people are key to implementation. But for two other reasons as well: one, both are directed to changing oppressive institutions, the segregated political system in the 1960s, and the segregated school system today. And, two, both the vote and mathematical literacy are necessary to full citizenship in the technologically-driven 21st century. To vote in Mississippi of 1964 and to be able to deploy math knowledge today are important goals in themselves, to be sure. But their importance derives as much from the sense of empowerment their achievement provides, especially to those who must press through the institutional barriers to such accomplishments. Empowerment—not test-taking—is what Gillen’s book, the Algebra Project, and real education are about. To put it a bit differently, “As with voting rights, the point is to encourage students to begin to demand—of themselves and of the system—what society claims they don’t want” [Jessica T. Wahman, “’Fleshing Out Consensus’: Radical Pragmatism, Civil Rights, and the Algebra Project,” Education and Culture 25 (1) (2009), 11.]

Reading the dialogues among Gillen’s students we get a sense of their mathematical literacy, as well as a challenge to older folks who likely do not have it. Mathematical literacy has to do not with the capacity to fill in bubbles on high stakes tests, but with the ability to solve ever-new problems on one’s own and, most important, to teach your knowledge to younger students, as Algebra Project instructors do. But underlying the Project is a more fundamental goal:

What we seek to encourage, however, is the methodical rehearsal of roles that emphasize the collective purposes of the troupe, acts that self-consciously grow through demands on self and peers toward demands on a larger society. The educational system does not serve the students’ purposes now. They must learn to use the crawl spaces we make available to them to prepare for organized acts that will render that system unworkable, and compel change. (p. 132)

This passage highlights two important elements of Gillen’s book. First, it is couched in the language of theater: “rehearsal,” “roles,” “troupe,” “acts,” and the like. Indeed, Gillen develops an extended analogy between the classroom and the theater. He contrasts the kind of education he is encouraging, which he describes as a “dramatistic approach to education,” to the “technocratic approach” (p. 121) which characterizes most of today’s schooling, with its emphasis on grading, indeed monetizing, students, teachers, and even schools. This is not simply a clever metaphor. Gillen points, first, to the importance to the development of young people of trying out roles for themselves and in relation to peers and adults. “For adolescents, nothing is more important than trying on personas and rehearsing roles. They do this whether they are permitted to do it or not” (p. 132). When it isn’t permitted, their actions are generally construed as “acting out,” which is seen by authorities as a, perhaps the, major problem of students in schools of poverty—indeed in the streets of America’s towns and cities. It is met in both venues by repression, arrest, and, all too often, violence. In such dramas, hierarchies and the roles they demand are already defined, too often by the uniform, on the one hand, and skin color, on the other. Gillen’s work is to read students’ acts differently, not merely as insurrectionary, or childish, disruptions needing to be controlled, but as expressions of discontent with an authoritarian and unresponsive system, efforts to enter into more vital interactions with peers, teachers, and authorities. That involves, in practice, a more welcoming and interactive pedagogical style, which Gillen illustrates, and underlying it, a theory of classroom communications, which he develops at some length.

Classroom events, he theorizes, are usefully understood in dramatic rather than legalistic terms. As in a play, classrooms are domains in which people interact, change in relationship one to another. Legalistic terms trap and define people into particular, inflexible roles: e.g., there is the perpetrator, the policeman, the teacher, the witness, the principal, the judge, and so forth. People are able to act only within the definitions these roles impose. In dramatic terms, as in life, roles can shift, dissolve, open into new definitions: the perp becomes a baffled and enraged child reaching out for hope or at least solace; the cop becomes a slightly older, no less angry youngster acting out if not for solace or hope at least for strength. Legalistically, each has a set of predetermined lines that lead to a much-too-well-rehearsed denouement, often gunfire. Dramatically, the subtexts can be heard and responded to and the action creatively recast. The student learns to be the teacher; the teacher emerges as an accomplice; the judge is judged, or becomes a witness to actions for transformation.

In working out this theory of classroom action, Gillen draws creatively on the work of Kenneth Burke, especially his books A Grammar of Motives (1945) and A Rhetoric of Motives (1950). I was myself startled to see the work of Burke, until the last few years long out of fashion—and also of William Empson on pastoral and W.K. Wimsatt on the “counterlogical”—evoked in a book at some level about teaching mathematics. In fact, some of the most persuasive sections of Gillen’s book are his readings of scenes and characters from King Lear and As You Like It. Through those readings, using concepts derived from pastoral and courtship, he recasts the drama of the classroom.

Built into the long quotation I cited above is also another kind of theory, one having to do with the process of organizing for change: “acts that self-consciously grow through demands on self and peers toward demands on a larger society.” Those familiar with instances of radical change will recognize the sequence, if not precisely the language. What is being proposed is analogous to Gandhian Satyagraha, or the non-violent direct action associated with M.L. King and, differently, A.J. Muste. Gillen formulates the process with some care: “Demand on yourself. Demand on your peers. Demand on the larger society. This is an ordered series: the first is prerequisite to the second, the second is prerequisite to the third. . . . attempts to change the unjust arrangements of a society will be crushed unless the insurgents have developed a discipline that can withstand the oppressor’s attempts to fracture their unity and weaken their organization” (p. 125). One begins with self-discipline, with the willingness to undertake tasks, like registering to vote in McComb, Mississippi, or participating seriously in inner-city Baltimore schools, that are necessary and potentially dangerous. But one cannot move to the next stage without undertaking the first oneself: one cannot propose to others that they register to vote or come to school regularly and put time and effort into learning, without attempting it oneself.

Such change requires forcefully addressing the larger society, but as Gillen is quick to point out, “it is not the demand on the larger society, but the demand on peers that is the beginning of political action. The language ‘demand on peers’ is unfamiliar. But it is another way of saying ‘self-government’ or ‘democracy’” (p. 127). Gillen is not arguing, of course, that schools or, indeed, American politics are in this or most other senses “democratic.” As he quotes Vincent Harding, “we are practitioners in an educational system that does not yet exist.” The problem is developing an understanding of how the “educational system does not serve the students’ purpose now” and a practice (to return to our original quotation)—“that will render the system unworkable, and compel change” (p. 132).

What you want to “render . . . unworkable” is, among other matters, the systematic starvation of public education, particularly in schools that serve poor and working class students. Courts order the State to provide adequate funding to the Baltimore schools, for example, but when that funding is not forthcoming, Baltimore Algebra Project activists demonstrate, march on Annapolis, engage in a hunger strike, carry out “die-ins” at meetings of school authorities. They stage direct actions to extend student bus tickets to 8 p.m. so that all can participate in the math tutoring central to the Project’s work. They organize against police violence—no small matter as we know in Baltimore and elsewhere—and put forward alternative narratives to those offered by the powers that be. They teach algebra successfully to younger students but also develop sessions on public speaking, civil disobedience, organizing tactics and the other skills necessary for pursuing their goals in the public arena. Their goals are not only teaching mathematics but demanding quality education as a “Constitutional Right,” no less important than the ballot.

I have quoted extensively from Gillen’s text partly to provide a sense to readers of the clarity of his prose. But partly, too, because—as the last sentence in the paragraph I have cited indicates—Gillen’s goals need to be seen for what they are: not the tinkering around the edges that might elevate a few students’ math test scores by some fraction, but as a radical (to the root) transformation of the system now in place to “educate” students of poverty. Gillen does not argue that public schools are somehow failing. To the contrary, he insists that “Schools for young people in poverty are marvelously successful at teaching about the scarcity of resources, arbitrariness of authority, and shunting of joy to the peripheries that characterize the society they are actually growing up into” (p. 134). The purposes of such schools is not especially learning, or rather the learning has to do with accepting particular forms of authority and power, accepting (even with rage) particular and limited stations in life, most of all accepting that it is your own limitations and not a system of hierarchy and privilege that defines your life chances (p. 89). We might wish to evoke here some of the conversation between Augustine and Alfred St. Clare in Uncle Tom’s Cabin: says Alfred: “’the lower class must not be educated.’ ‘That is past praying for,’ said Augustine; ‘educated they will be, and we have only to say how. Our system is educating them in barbarism and brutality.’” What Augustine does not see, of course, is the contravening education provided within the society of slaves, and he expresses the fear of white liberal society at what slavery was teaching its victims. But his point is nevertheless useful: however they may be failing in terms of orthodox educational yields, schools of poverty certainly do teach, and the students do learn those social meanings. That is surely one of the implications of Ferguson.

But students are not merely the victims of a perverse system that places them in a school to prison pipeline. They are, in fact, crucial players in the dramas of the classroom and any discussion that omits them—and most do–will miss the point. But can or even should students—and particularly students in schools of poverty—be thought about as change agents? Gillen’s answer begins, as does his book, with the reflection that, historically, it was often young people of color who carried through abolitionist activities against slavery, as well as the heroic efforts to disrupt segregation in the American South during the 1950s and 1960s. The young people who sat in at lunch counters in Greensboro, who marched in and to Montgomery, who went from house to house in rural Mississippi may provide answers to the question.

But are such historical models relevant? One might point as well to the disappeared students from the Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers’ College of Ayotzinapa. Or the American draft and GI resisters of the Vietnam era. Or the women and girls of Redstockings or the earlier Bread and Roses strike. The question is sometimes posed as “how old should a child be to participate in activities for change?” That’s a reasonable question, particularly in an era in which children’s futures are being reshaped, some would say distorted, by a variety of political efforts to control schools and privatize their budgets. But perhaps the real question might better be formulated thus: what can young people, even very young people, learn by undertaking the kind of program Gillen proposes? As my epigraph suggests, his three-part sequence—place demands on yourself, on your peers, and on the larger society—entails a considerable learning process. One learns not only algebra but about the society and its politics, and not just from books and classroom curricula but from engaging in actions to change things. One learns, too, about one’s own power within a society, about the uses of language, about the critical tensions in American culture between individual advancement and shared progress. One learns, perhaps most of all, about the schools themselves, their crucial role in the implementation of the ideas of democracy, and the differences between organizing schools to train a docile workforce and organizing them to develop an informed citizenship, organizing them to enrich the few and organizing them to unshackle the many.

The importance of Gillen’s book can perhaps be seen most usefully by placing it in the context of the opt out movement. The movement to opt students out of high stakes tests is not, from one point of view, a “radical” crusade: most of those who have been active in it would probably not see it as a challenge to American capitalism, though it has the potential, I think, to undermine the authority of the “reformers.” It is, first and foremost, a brilliantly conceived act of civil disobedience. A comment on Diane Ravitch’s blog suggests its possibilities: “The students have the power and the means to squash the test.” Were that to happen in any significant measure, the impact on the effort to impose a capitalist model on schools in America, which have heretofore been governed in quite another way, would be profound. That is true because the “reformers” have hung their hopes on testing as the pivotal instrument of change. To be sure, they have tried to privatize public schools into money-making charters; they have tried to break teachers’ unions; they have promoted the authority of managers over that of the people who do the actual work of teaching; above all, they have depended on the unspoken ability of capitalism to overturn all settled relations of labor and control. That effort has been almost entirely negative: it argues that schooling in America is broken and must be replaced, one way or another. Only then will . . . well, test scores go up. That then becomes the be-all and end-all. In the final analysis only significantly improved test scores can make a case premised on . . . improved test scores. “To squash the test” is thus to cut the legs from under the effort to change the schools from above. Those who live by the test will die by the test.

Gillen’s strategy, like that of the opt out movement, is to “render the system unworkable.” But what he offers in the place of disruption and test scores is learning rooted in the empowerment of students. The idea is not to train students to fill in bubbles but to teach them algebra and geometry, as well as how power operates, how poetry means, and how schools and communities can be changed. But most of all, it is to teach them democracy. It is not that schools in America or elsewhere have ever been democratic; they are, after all, organized around the hierarchy of one or more adults and younger children. But as students learn by placing demands on self, then on others, and ultimately on the society, they are learning, too, the practice of democracy, which is finally a system in which the critical decisions about a community’s institutions are made by all the members of the community and not by absentee governors, self-appointed philanthropists, or affluent testing agencies.

To say this another way, the conflict over the schools is really a conflict about the future of America. Are our schools and communities to be ruled by the 1% and the politicians and bureaucrats they buy? Or by the 99%, who may not know algebra but who know what the “reforms” imposed on them and their children really add up to.

In displaying readiness for college, grade point average matters more than a score on a college admissions test like SAT or ACT. Even the testing companies acknowledge that this is the case. But they are businesses, and they compete with one another for numbers and dollars. So they are always on the lookout for new avenues by which to serve their customers (the colleges, not the students).

 

The ACT, Mercedes Schneider reports, will offer a new service to colleges (not to students). It will not only test the student, but it will give the college confidential advice about his or her readiness, based on subtest scores. This information will go to the college, but not to the student.

 

Schneider writes:

 

Thus, ACT is intentionally shifting its role from reporting test scores to advising postsecondary institutions regarding admissions decisions.

There’s more:

Students will not be privy to the advice ACT is offering regarding ACT’s predictions of student success. None of this info will be part of the student score report. Such info will be between ACT and postsecondary institutions.

And not only does ACT believe it has a right to both form and communicate its opinions of student success to colleges and universities; ACT is fine with forming some of its judgments based upon unverified, volunteered student self-report information.

 

So, get this. The students pay to be tested; ACT reports the results to the students and to colleges. But then ACT gives the colleges information about the students and recommends whether or not they should be accepted. This advice is not shared with the students who paid to be tested.

 

Does this strike you as outrageous? ACT is not your guidance counselor. What nerve!

Joanne Yatvin has been a teacher, principal, superintendent, and literacy expert. In this post, she gives her views on teacher evaluation.

 

She writes:

 

“New York Times columnist Joe Nocera recently wrote about a new teacher evaluation system proposed by the Michigan Council for Educator Effectiveness. The system had two central pieces: trained classroom observers who would visit often and give helpful feedback to teachers and student achievement measured by a student’s yearly growth rather than grade level expectations. Unfortunately, the Michigan legislature rejected the proposal, but Nocera hopes that something like it may be picked up by other states or school districts.

 

“I agree that the proposed system would be an improvement over the systems now used in most states. But it also looks complicated, time consuming and expensive. I believe there is a simpler, more meaningful way to determine teacher effectiveness that could be used everywhere: Ask the students. After all they’ve been with their teachers every day for a whole year and directly felt the effects of their teaching.

 

“Here’s how this system would work. At the end of the school year, outside their classrooms, students would be given a printed form for rating their teachers. Young children would have questions with three or four answers to choose from. Older students would be expected to write in their own answers. The completed forms would go to principal, who would supplement them with her own classroom observations in order to produce a teacher rating. Later, teachers could read what their students said about them, but with no names attached.

 

“Below I suggest some questions that I think should be asked, though with different wording for different age levels.

 

What were the best things you learned at school this year?

 

How easy was it to understand your teacher’s explanations and questions?

 

How often did your teacher give you personal attention?

 

How often did you feel bored or frustrated in class?

 

Was the amount and type of homework reasonable?

 

Was the discipline reasonable?

 

Do you feel prepared for the next grade?

 

“I think there should probably be a few more questions for older students, but not so many that they stop caring about their responses.”

This is the story of a young man, Paul Serrato, who graduated first in his class at Apalachee High School in Barrett County in Georgia. His parents emigrated from Mexico, where they had hard lives. He too had to work hard. Nothing came easily. Paul understands and acknowledges the sacrifices that others made on his behalf.

 

He was accepted at Stanford University.

 

Here is the video of his speech at graduation.

 

Public education gave him opportunity, and he made the most of it.

 

My favorite line from his speech: “We may be self-directed, but we were not self-made.” His family, his teachers, his classmates helped him succeed.

 

This is public education at its finest. Doors open to all, without a lottery.

 

This community can be proud of its schools.

 

 

Newsday, the major newspaper for Long Island, New York, had the ingenious idea to ask high school valedictorians what they thought of the Common Core standards. Understand that Long Island has some of the best high schools in the state and in the nation. These students have their pick of elite colleges and universities; they are super-smart and super-accomplished. Here are their reactions.

 

 

 

“Simply, I think the Common Core is absolutely terrible,” Harshil Garg, Bethpage High School’s 2015 valedictorian, said. “It suppresses freedom and boxes children into a systematic way of thinking.”

 

Garg said he was concerned that the standards actually stifle innovation and discourage exploration.

 

“Kids are special, because they color outside the lines, and think outside the box, no matter how preposterous their ideas may seem,” he said. “To restrain that inventiveness at such an early age destroys the spark to explore.”

 

Some of the valedictorians drew from their experiences with younger students who have been more directly impacted by the implementation of Common Core.

 

“I tutor a few elementary and middle school aged students and the transition has been pretty hard on them,” said Emily Linko, valedictorian of Hauppauge High School’s Class of 2015. “All the effects I’ve seen have been negative.”

 

Another tutor, Rebecca Cheng, Smithtown High School West’s valedictorian, said she does see the purpose and potential benefit of Common Core, but is still against it.

 

“It closes your mind and forces kids to think in one particular way,” said Cheng, who tutors third and fifth graders. “There isn’t just one way to solve a problem, and it almost hinders the ability to solve a problem on your own.”

 

Kacie Candela, a private math tutor and valedictorian of H. Frank Carey High School, said the curriculum itself is good, but the roll out was botched.

 

“You can’t build a building without a solid foundation, and students just don’t have the knowledge base to do well,” Candela said. “Schools should have adopted it gradually.”

 

Watching his 6-year-old brother embrace the new standards, Vincent Coghill, Massapequa High School’s valedictorian, said he, too, can see a positive side to the Common Core’s approach to learning.

 

“I’ve seen him solve math problems in so many different ways, but it seems as though he has a better understanding of what is being taught,” he said.

 

Still, Coghill said he opposes the initiative, because he feels “uncomfortable” with federal government intervention into education, which he said should remain a “state priority.”

 

Hailey Wagner, Bellport High School’s valedictorian, agreed with Coghill, saying the federal government has no business dealing with a state matter like education.

 

And Alex Boss, valedictorian of Rockville Centre’s South Side High School, said politicians should stay out of the process altogether, stating: “Education should be left to teachers and parents, not legislators.”

 

Central Islip High School valedictorian Radiyyah Hussein finds herself somewhere in the middle of the debate.

 

“I like the fact that it is challenging and forces children in school to do more critical thinking,” she said. ” … However, I don’t like how much agonizing work has to go into solving simple problems or questions.”

 

She added, “If we want a more progressive world, we need ways for kids to figure things out in an easier and quicker fashion.”

 

Tyler Fenton, valedictorian of Plainview-Old Bethpage John F. Kennedy High School, had smiliar thoughts, acknowledging that students learn in their owns ways and also at their own pace.

 

Fenton said it’s “unrealistic” and “unfair” to hold everyone accountable to the same standards, and trying to causes “unnecessary stress and anxiety among kids.”

 

And Natalie Korba, valedictorian of Walter G. O’ Connell Copiague High School’s graduating class, said Common Core just puts too much emphasis on exams.

 

“Teachers are being unfairly judged on student performance and students are suffering as they are crushed under the pressure of standardized testing,” she said.

 

Korda added, “School should be about learning life skills and gaining knowledge, not about learning how to take a test.”

This is a list of the Regents of the State of New York. The majority want to maintain high-stakes testing to evaluate teachers.

 

Six of the 17 Regents voted to oppose high-stakes testing and to change the state’s way of evaluating teachers. These six want more attention to student performance, not defined as bubble tests, but student work in the school.

If your Regent voted to support high-stakes testing, please contact him or her to express your views.

 

The Regents who opposed Governor Cuomo’s high-stakes testing are:

 

Kathleen Cashin

 

Betty Rosa

 

Judith Chin

 

Judith Johnson

 

Catherine Collins

 

Beverly L. Ouderkirk

 

These Regents are profiles in courage. They based their decision on research and on their own experience as educators.

 

If you live in the district of one of the other Regents, you should contact them and let them know that their vote for high-stakes testing hurts students and teachers by placing too much emphasis on standardized tests. Urge them to pay attention to pedagogically sound practices, as the other six Regents did.

Paul Karrer teaches fifth grade in a high-needs school in Castroville, California. He writes for California newspapers, trying to bring a realistic perspective to education debates.

In this article, he calls out “reformers” for believing in magic and silver bullets.

He writes:

“Education reform (education deform) is doing kids, the profession, and the country short-term and long-term harm. Ed Reform Inc. “believes” in short fixes, silver bullets, the power of personal cult persuasion, mantras, and now the twin goddesses of all – technology and data.

“More than half of all children in United States now live in poverty (Washington Post/UNICEF). As someone who has taught in a financially-socially challenged district for many years I can attest to the overwhelming negative influences of poverty. They are both direct and indirect. What is now normal in many communities was not the norm too long ago. The influences are single parent families, multiple families living under one roof, incarcerated family members, under-employment, no employment, no history of employment, poor language skills, the culture of poverty, early birthing, poor neonatal care, high percentages of children with unbelievable disabilities, addictions, and GANGS, globalization, and the death of low-level jobs due to technology.

“These variables cannot be pooh-poohed. Absurd belief in words like GRIT and EVIDENCE and TESTING – currently trending by Ed Reform — simply cannot overcome the long list of negatives. But Ed Reform claims they do….

“I believe a needs formula is required in schools of poverty. We need to save those desperate kids. If a classroom has X amount of special ed kids, X amount of incarcerated relatives, scores X on reading or math, has more than X amount of people residing in one house (or room), more than X amount of kids on Section 8 housing, more than X amount of kids in Title 1 programs — it should trigger an automatic cut in class size. There should be no more than 15 kids in such a class. Free pre-school needs to be mandatory. Wrap-around social services (nurses, shrinks, dentists, COUNSELORS, librarians, parent training, parental language classes) have to kick in. And kids need the classic, realistic school philosophy of teach THE WHOLE STUDENT….

“Ed Reform’s solution is curriculum. Common Core will change it all, they declare. The curriculum is not the problem. But that is where the financial feed trough is these days. And even the biggest promoter of Common Core, Bill Gates himself, said, “It will take 10 – 15 years to see if this is successful.”

“How nice,” I say.

“And in the meantime Ed Reform gets to close public schools (Chicago, Louisiana) defraud the public with for-profit institutions (Corinthian/Heald), pay their owners huge obscene salaries, and they destroy public education with a thousand strokes.

“Funny thing about the Ed Reform group – they espouse so much in favor of big business, profits, monetizing, reducing costs. Except for their very own rock core belief in supply and demand.

“Supply and demand doesn’t pertain to teachers? Teachers apparently are supposed to work for a pittance. But if they are to be the solution, they need to be paid much better so as to attract more candidates to the field. But Ed Reform chokes there.

“Smaller class size is the beginning of a real solution. Put the money where it will do KIDS the most good.

“Oh yes, and have your kids opt out of testing — especially next year when it counts.”

You can download this e-book today. It is free today only. It was written by a Florida teacher using a pseudonym.

“This book is a way for me to come to some sense of understanding with the testing culture. I think parents, teachers, and students will relate to the experience of the characters in the book. It fully depicts the scenario of an opt out student and I wrote it geared to young adults (6th to 12th grade).

“Synopsis: In the story, a favorite teacher, Ms. Sandy, gets fed up during a state test and walks out of her classroom and career forever. The readers follow along with the students and fellow teachers as they try to make sense of Ms. Sandy’s actions, and as they discover her secret: she is a badass teacher with a ton of important information about testing. In the end, the community comes together to stand up against testing.”

I received this email from a parent leader in Seattle:

 

 

Hello all,

 

We are in need of advice in Seattle.

 

This spring the SBA was rolled out in grades 3-8, 10 and 11. We were delighted to learn that there were many opt outs across the Seattle School District, as well as in every corner of the State. We formed the Seattle Opt Out Group in Dec. 2014 and have worked tirelessly in the first half of 2015 to inform parents about opting out and the problems that high stakes standardized tests bring with them. We plan to continue our efforts in earnest over the summer and into the next school year.

 

Yesterday, however, we learned of an event that has us quite alarmed, and we want to proceed in as informed a manner as possible.

 

Apparently at a Seattle middle school the principal forbade students who opted out of the SBA to attend a year-end school carnival last Friday.

 

A parent reached out to us and sent us this note:

 

Here is my daughter’s experience with being excluded from the Denny Carnival last Friday.

 

During the last period of the day, my daughter was summoned to the vice principal’s office. She waited for about twenty minutes and was then invited into the office. The vice principal informed my daughter that two of her teachers had emailed her earlier in the day to inquire why she was not on the approved list for the carnival because she had outstanding effort grades(all A’s in effort as well as academics). The vice principal then informed my daughter that she may be able to write a letter of appeal, but she would let her know if that was possible by the end of the period. She explained that she had to follow the rules which were that only students excused from the SBAC for medical reasons would be allowed to attend the carnival. Students who opted out would not be allowed to go because they did not follow the rules.

 

My daughter then returned to her classroom to wait. Her teacher read a list of students who were allowed to go to the carnival and she was not on the list. She was then sent to a another teacher’s room to do homework with the other students who weren’t eligible, mostly due to behavior infractions. After 30 minutes, she was informed that she could write a letter of appeal.

 

My daughter was very upset and disappointed, but she knew that her teachers supported her and that this was just an unfair rule.

 

We would appreciate any guidance as to how we should proceed. It has been suggested that this is a case of the principal violating student discipline policy. Have you heard of a punitive measure such as this occurring elsewhere in the country and, if so, can you describe to us the route of action that was taken? Any advice is welcomed by us!

Todd Farley wrote a terrific book about his 15 years inside the standardized testing industry. It is called “Making the Grades.” It is an exposé of serial, institutionalized malpractice.

 

Here he responds to an opinion piece that appeared in the Néw York Times defending standardized testing.

 

Farley writes:

 

Aholistic Education

 

“​In what may be the most ridiculous thing ever uttered about the benefits of standardized testing (and the competition is fierce), the author of a February op-ed in The New York Times wrote that a reason to continue with annual yearly testing in grades 3-8 was because those tests “allow for a much more nuanced look at student performance.” Of course the guy did work for an organization funded by the Gates Foundation (surprise!), but you still had to admire his chutzpah: He didn’t just say standardized testing allowed for a “nuanced” looked at student performance (ha!), the op-ed’s writer went all-in and argued that large-scale, mass-produced educational assessments written and scored by a completely-unregulated multi-billion dollar industry with a staggering history of errors allows a “much more nuanced” look at student performance than did, you know, a human teacher sitting in a class with human students.

 

“​As someone who spent fifteen years in the testing industry—working for the biggest players (Pearson, ETS, Riverside Publishing) on the biggest tests (NAEP, CAHSEE, FCAT, TAKS, WASL, etc.)—“nuanced” is decidedly not a word I would use to describe our work. In fact, at the end of my 2009 book I went another direction, describing testing as “less a precise tool to assess students’ exact abilities than just a lucrative means to make indefinite and indistinct generalizations about them.”

 

“​The myriad reasons I came to that conclusion are extensively explained in my book, but in a nutshell it came down to this: It didn’t seem to me that the testing industry saw its test-takers (read “children”) as whole human beings, simply a compilation of words on a page. Consider just one thing: If a student test-taker answers, say, ten open-ended questions about “Charlotte’s Web,” those ten student answers are scanned into a computer and sent in ten different directions—they are scored in no particular order, by as many as ten different temporary employees, often on different days or in different states. In other words, instead of one person reviewing all ten answers and thus perhaps gleaning some real knowledge about a student’s understanding of “Charlotte’s Web,” in the name of expediency and profit the testing industry chops up the student’s test booklet and feeds it into its assembly-line scoring process, “nuance” be damned.

 

“If a holistic education means caring about the whole child (including his or her physical, social, and emotional well-being as well as academic achievement), it seems to me the testing industry offers pretty much the opposite of that: a fixation only on numbers, and numbers that in my view both fail to understand individual children and fail to see any test-taker as an actual, living breathing human being. In fact, based on my experiences I’d say the best way to describe the work the testing industry does is not holistic education but “aholistic.”

 

“A-holistic education, you ask? Yeah, I think it was named for the a-holes who came up with the idea of judging America’s students, teachers, and schools via large-scale standardized tests.”

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