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Killing us softly: the movement to hide education disparities

Black communities have not reached a time where we can trust public institutions without proof


Let me share with you what is possibly the dumbest, and most dangerous thing I’ve heard this year.

While participating on a panel about educational activism another panelist from a nationally known campaign said that “high-stakes standardized testing is forcing teachers to teach to the test,” which is causing students to be bored and misbehave; and, then, “teachers have no choice but to use zero tolerance policies to push students out of school,” which results in the school to prison pipeline.

It was a taut message that this young man has likely used many times. His organization is deeply aligned with national teachers’ unions who have a transparent mission to fabricate in communities of color an idea that links school testing and prison. We are to believe that the “school to prison pipeline” is caused by educational assessments, not by poor school design, culturally incompetent workforces, outdated models of education, and ineffective classroom instruction. That idea requires a level of misdirection that would confound David Blaine.

Unfortunately, this message about the perils of testing is growing. National campaigns with ties to the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association are producing endless streams of anti-testing marketing pieces that ask us to believe that the tests are at best inaccurate and promulgated by corporations with a profit motive.

At worst, educational testing is said to be a racist, stress-inducing effort that narrows what can be taught in schools, and destroys education by labeling otherwise fantastic schools as “failures.”

Here’s the bottom-line: educational testing, like dentistry and motor vehicle insurance, is no one’s favorite past-time, but it saves lives.

While teachers’ unions and their many paid ancillary groups assail the supposed “high stakes” nature of educational testing, we are better served by considering what testing reveals, why it is important for us to have that information, and what would be lost if teacher unionist win their war against public accountability.

First, educational testing, like other forms of auditing our public institutions, is a way for the public to examine the actual data underlying an unequal society. If No Child Left Behind did any good it was in disaggregating student data and laying bare the racialized educational outcomes that had previously been minimized.

As a black parent, and a black community member who observes history and demands liberation, I need objective data about how my government and my people are doing to address the old struggle for racial justice and social parity. We are a long-suffering people who have learned by experience what double standards can do to create social strife. We know that we have gaps in employment, wealth, law, and health. What we should be clear about is that most of those gaps are born out of the gaps in educational attainment.

And, how do we know about all of those gaps? We know because we have data that comes from audits, assessments, and, yes, testing.

Consider how health disparities hurt us, how they grow, and how we address them. For years the black community held a false assumption about HIV/AIDS. Many believed it was a problem solely in the white community. During that time the black community was suffering from accelerated rates of infection while also having very low rates of testing and diagnosis.

Now, consider this fact from the Center for Disease Control:

African Americans accounted for an estimated 44% of all new HIV infections among adults and adolescents (aged 13 years or older) in 2010, despite representing only 12% to 14% of the US population.

That is not a sentence with statistics. That is a human tragedy marred by lost lives. It shows that ignorance is ultimately the most cruel affliction.

Today we have better data on the problem. We know the size and scope of it and we can intervene appropriately.

So what would happen if someone came to the black community – or any community for that matter -to suggest that we would be healthier if we would stop HIV testing? What if they made the argument that HIV testing was causing doctors to medicate to the test, or narrow their practice of medicine, or spurring doctors to leave the medical profession because they prefer practicing holistic methods of medicine?

Even worse, consider what would happen if we actually took that advice? The result should be easy to predict. Even more black people would die, earlier, and we wouldn’t have much usable data on why.

As absurd as it sounds we are in fact getting that advice about educational testing. We are being told that “the test” itself, not the disparities it reveals, is the problem.

I admit it is tempting to summarily dismiss all of the pushback against testing. But, as fair people we have to at least consider the anti-testing arguments and the concerns about turning schools into psychometric testing mills. Industrialized education is always capable of making the most exciting things boring, and students in an ever quickening, digitized, entertainment addicted world are not great candidates for mundane schooling. It’s true that far too many students are disengaging from school, dropping out, and failing to see the relevance it has in the big picture. Surely we don’t want an education system that aggravates the situation by allowing testing to make schooling a joyless fear factory that marches students in a somber line from one bubble sheet to another.

At the same time, our goals for increasing the percentage of literate and numerate black citizens who are tooled enough to earn a place in the American mainstream economy requires us to hold ourselves and our institutions to account. This is best done with objective and shared information that keeps us aware of disparities, gaps, and indicators of success (or lack of it).

Educational testing done right tells us how our students are situated among all students, how they are progressing (or not progressing); where there are needs for intervention; and how our schools are doing from one building to the next. The tests also predict major troubles in life, including dropping out of high school, need for remediation in college, and persistence on welfare or recidivism in prison. This knowledge is a source of power that illustrates early the educational disparities that show us where to intervene with life-saving care.

What parent would want to be ignorant to the exact nature of their child’s academic health?

Trust us, we’re the experts

In truth, it really isn’t parents who are driving the anti-testing campaign. It’s teacher unionist and the community organizations they pay to blackwash, brownwash, and social justice-wash their agenda so that it looks authentic to the very communities that have the most to lose by “opting out” of educational testing.

Teachers nationally applauded the Seattle teachers when they boldly refused to conduct testing. It was a big, ballsy, and cathartic moment for many teachers who feel student performance on tests and teacher performance in the classroom are unrelated. Twitter feeds and Facebook timelines blazoned with congratulations for the little rebellion. And, of course, Diane Ravitch , Valerie Strauss, and other proponents of dislodging student learning from the vocation of teaching got an online literary case of the giggly piss shivers.

In their less public messages teachers say it’s unfair to judge them on student test scores because those scores are a reflection of the home life, motivation level, race, parenting, and the culture of students. The implication is that students of color who are in poverty score lower on tests because those students are deficient in one way or another. High test scores correlate with white two-parent professional families, and the best way to improve test scores is to outlaw capitalism and poor non-whiteness.

Here in Minnesota the daffy anti-accountability battle has landed too, and teachers’ unions in Minneapolis and St. Paul are attempting to get their districts to opt out of state educational testing. They’re doing so with white middle-class parent allies who are raising their voices to “save” education for their students. Their arguments are so much about the test themselves, but more about teacher professionalism. In their minds teachers are the real experts on student learning and they should be responsible for the assessments used to judge student learning (apparently they’re psychometricians too).

That’s a slippery argument to make. Teacher grading is subjective and biased from the first day boys and girls enter kindergarden, and from that day forward teachers grade students with white girls as the role model for all. I’ll make no apologies for pointing out the trouble of entrusting the black intellectual development of children to a middle-class workforce of white women and schools that are designed to be pre-feminist gardens for middle-class reproduction. Of the many ways to continue our enslavement that one seems the most needless.

Our reality is one of persistant, discouraging, and vexing disparities in everything from sleep apnea to crappy home mortgage products. Black babies are one and a half to three times more likely to die than white babies.  Blacks overall are more likely to live in unsafe housing in highly polluted areas known to contribute to asthma.

Heart disease, stroke, diabetes – we’re number one.

To the extent that we are addressing our problems and improving the numbers of healthy community members, it’s being done with information, education, and advocacy supported by the data and information needed to enforce corrective action.

So beware of the agenda-washers who come appropriately clothed for urban dialogue and carrying a message decrying the supposed inanity of testing. As they attempt to whip up a form of refeer madness on the issue, we must be astute about the play they’re making. Just listen for the insulting subtext in their efforts to “reclaim the promise” of education by removing all accountability and parental choice from it, while demanding we pay more for the boondoggle.

Listen, then run.

The idea that we can close the achievement gap by erasing the evidence that it exists is deceitful and it threatens lives. Disparities do not close themselves and there is never a time when we are better off with less information about where they live.

For the lives of our children and our people, we need to demand our kids pass the tests – not hide from them.


Pursuing the power of self-sovereignty and personalized learning to create secure citizens and abundant communities. #TheOppositeOfSchool #AllPowerToThePupil

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Short note about Network of Public Education’s (NOPE) focus on education fraud

My friends at NOPE need to broaden their scope of fraud reveals.

My friends at the Network of Public Education (NOPE) have an ongoing series under the hashtag #AnotherDayAnotherCharterSchool that aims to keep your eyes trained on the supposed never-ending abuses and fraud case in charter schools.

I applaud their commitment to public integrity and I share their vigilance in rooting out grift in public systems. Yet, their myopic focus on a small subset of public schools, in this case charters, is suspicious.

Why not expose all fraud, especially in the bigger system?

Well, you’ll have to ask them. They’ve mostly blocked me on twitter for asking such questions.

I guess their unionist funders and the privileged parents they cater to in America’s suburban hoarding schools want a clean message. Traditional schools with union teachers that work with privileged parents to rig the system in favor of white, middle-class, pampered children, well, that’s good.

Schools built for, by, or in favor of children so unfortunate as not to have suburban, white, progressive, college-educated families capable of obtaining mortgages for houses near the best hoarding schools, well, you know the drill, they must be stopped.

Thus, the campaign to turn public opinion against the most popular competitor to sputtering state-run schools that employ more people than they educate, and drown in so much pension debt that they can ill-afford parents choosing anything other than district failure farms.

In the interest of truth I should tell you that fraud in public education is indeed every bit the problem that NOPE says it is, but it’s much broader than they admit.

I’ve offered examples before, but here’s another from today’s reading list. In this article on lax oversight of millions of dollars of expenditures in Pittsburgh Public Schools:

a KDKA investigation has found that the Pittsburgh Public Schools have issued no less than 650 of these cards to teachers and staff, who are racking up millions of dollars of purchases every year.

And while the cards are not supposed to be used for personal purchases, Controller Michael Lamb says it’s a system of loose oversight and controls that IS based mainly on trust.

“When you have that many cards, you lose control,” Lamb said. “And when the proper procedures aren’t in place, you create the opportunity for fraud. And that’s what you have in the school district right now.”
KDKA filed a right-to-know request for purchases made over the last three years and the results were eye-popping.

Last year alone, teachers and staff rang up a total of $3,254,000 in p-card purchases, with some putting upwards of $20,000 or $30,000 on their individual cards.

The summaries obtained by KDKA show purchases from Amazon, Sam’s Club, Staples and Giant Eagle.

And while employees are supposed to submit receipts and the stated reason for each purchase, controller office audits have found that it is hard to tell if all or most of those purchases are legitimate.

But at Faison School, for example, the controller’s office found no p-card reports for half of the 12 months audited and missing documentation for dozens of the purchases that were listed.

And KDKA’s review found questionable expenditures, as well.
Records show that teachers and staff at Oliver Academy used cards on a weekly and bi-weekly basis at both Wiseguys Pizza and Kuhn’s supermarket — raising the question of whether they were using the cards for their own lunches and groceries.

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Fuller to charter advocates: You’re in a fight, don’t run home to Mama!

Dr. Howard Fuller has been on the vanguard of the fight for educational options, and today he has a message for education advocates: fight for your lives!

Charter schools came to the education game as a bipartisan plan to force a “bold departure” from the failure trap that caught too many students in traditional public schools.

Creating alternatives to assigned district schools for families that wanted them was picking a fight with the educational establishment that lives or dies on the student headcount that drives per pupil revenue. Now, after years of losing market share, the empire is striking back with organized moves to establish moratoriums on charter growth, forge attacks on the the integrity of charter supporters, and calcifying public narratives about the supposed negative impacts of charters on public education.

So what do reform advocates do when the opponent finally hits back (hard) and our cherished reforms take a public whooping like they stole something?

According to lifelong freedom fighter Dr. Howard Fuller we firm our spines and fight like we mean it. That’s what he told attendees at a recent conference for the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools.

“You can’t go running home to your mama,” he says. “There are people out there who don’t care that you all have created good schools. They don’t care that you are going to teach computer science. They don’t care.”

His message comes at a time when weary charter school supporters are feeling drained from constant attacks, and many are vacillating between wanting to stand their ground and wanting to accommodate anti-charter organizers by finding fleeting common ground.

“They want you to not exist,” Fuller said of the organized opponents of charter schools.

See his powerful speech below.

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It’s time to admit Diane Ravitch’s troubled crusade derails honest debate about public education

The longstanding arguments for charters could still be had in clean exchanges between judicious people – sans Ravitch – if we seek understanding and progress.

I should start adding a qualifier when I say the former scholar and historian Diane Ravitch is the Ann Coulter of education commentary.

In fairness, Coulter has better manners and makes more attempts to employ logic as she “owns” the libs with verbal Jujitsu.

Ravitch, by contrast, has fallen irreparably into polemics so much that her daily blogs put her in league with Alex Jones’ made-for-YouTube Info Wars.

Along those lines, her blog-fart today ties “the charter industry” to the “infamous pedophile and “super-rich” Jeffrey Epstein.

“In 2013, his foundation issued a press release announcing that he looked forward to the dominance of charter schools in Washington, D.C. and predicted that they would succeed because they were unregulated,” she crows.

Then she offers crude analysis of why people like Epstein would want to privatize schools in D.C.:

People often ask me, “Why do the super-rich cluster to the cause of privatization?” The Answer is not simple because many different motives are at work. Some see giving to charters as a charitable endeavor, and their friends assure them that they are “giving back,” helping poor children escape poverty. Others want to impress their friends in their social strata, their colleagues in the world of high finance. Being a supporter of charter schools is like belonging to the right clubs, going to the right parties, sharing a cause with other very rich people.

If you are reading this you probably know that Ravitch was once a charter school supporter, and that makes it fair to ask which camp of nincompoops she fell into?

Did she see charters as a “charitable endeavor,” or was charter support her attempt to “impress [her] friends in [her] social strata, [and her] colleagues in the world of high finance.”

Only she can say, but as an established scholar of education history (and a player in policy) it’s doubtful her support was so in want of a factual basis.

During testimony to Congress conservative William Bennett gave decades ago he invoked Ravitch as a bipartisan voice for school choice.

Regarding the school reforms that were advancing in Chicago under Mayor Daley and Paul Vallas Bennett declared “[t]he empirical evidence, now widely available, is irrefutable: Not only are many of our public-schools not getting better, they are getting worse. American students finish in the bottom half, and often near the bottom, in comparison to students from other industrialized nations.”

Then, after promoting the benefits of charter schools, he asked lawmakers to “follow my friend Diane Ravitch’s prescript” to:

…make Title I into a “portable entitlement” that would aid all poor kids regardless of what school they attend. This is the one way to assure that every single Title I child will receive Title I services at the school they currently attend. This is also the best way to assure accountability. If a parent is not satisfied with the Title I services they are getting, they can take their Title I dollars with them to the school or provider of choice; power to the parents, and not bureaucrats, in other words.

Was Ravitch’s support for school choice back then the result of suspicious philanthropy, or glossy marketing to mindless parents, or, more logically,  the result of her considerable scholarship by that point in her life?

Again, only she can say.

In the spring of 1997 she praised then-New York Pataki’s proposed charter school policies that allowed groups other than local boards to grant charters, allowed for an un-capped number of charters to open, and allowed these schools to hire teachers who weren’t state certified.


In supporting Pataki’s push she said:

It’s impossible to know whether a law permitting charter schools will emerge from this session of the Legislature; the opposition of the teachers’ union, which is the most powerful voice in Albany on education issues, is certainly not encouraging. This is unfortunate, for a large and vital network of charter schools in New York would offer hope to educators, parents, and students in troubled school districts and would promote higher academic standards for all the state’s public schools.

Why would she support such craven policies of such anti-democratic that today she maligns as wealthy pedophiles and privatizers? Projection much?

Forget that teachers’ unions – the ones Ravitch herself once admitted were the “most powerful voices in education” – today block legislation making it a crime for teachers to sexualize students, defeat resolutions that called for them to re-dedicate their profession to student achievement, and pay retail civil rights organizations to defeat the voices of their grassroots members.

Here’s the real kick to the taco, when Lamar Alexander pitched the idea that every D.C. school should be converted to a charter (in 1997, six years before Epstein arrived at the same conclusion) he ascribed this definition of charter schools to his friend Diane Ravitch:

Think of a charter school as a public school district with only one school. It receives public funds, agrees to meet clear academic standards and accepts all students who apply. Unlike existing public schools, it has a contract that can be revoked if the school fails to make good on its commitments.

If she were at all generous she would at very least admit the decency of long-term charter backers who hold valid theories for why charters improve the educational landscape. The longstanding arguments for charters could still be had in clean exchanges between judicious people – sans Ravitch – if we seek understanding and progress. The tensions between autonomy and regulation, local control and federal oversight, and public education as an institution or as a service to American learners could still be exercised by smart people truly seeking solutions to the inarguable problems of public schooling.

But not if we follow the zero-sum and divisive lead of Ravitch whose enemy-imaging toward those who differ on policy has escalated so far she no longer sees them as human. We’ll predictably end up in her abyss of false binaries, intellectual excursions, and forlorn paralysis.

Given Ms. Ravitch’s clever wits and stockpile of information I can’t imagine she leads us to that confused, somber place by accident. There is no better way to ensure the education establishment’s special interests – those who are among Ravitch’s most ardent disciples – are never brought to account than to ignore the brisk but level Ravitch of yesteryear and listen to the caustic and battled one before us now.


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