A Teachable Moment

Former local teacher union pesident Morty Rosenfeld periodically attempts to make sense of the increasingly senseless world of public education.

Opt-Out Thrives on Long Island

The opt-out movement is still strong here on Long Island. If fact, it seems to be clear that a majority of Long island parents are no longer anguishing about the decision to opt-out or not. Withholding their children from the tests has become routine. School districts where upwards of 80 percent of students opted out of this year’s English exam seems to have unceremoniously adjusted to this boycott. While opt-out numbers are yet to come in from New York City and upstate, Long Island results point to a little crow eating by Commissioner Elia who predicted an increase in the number of students taking the exams this year.

The opt-out movement has been one of the very few high points in the recent history of public education. The growth of the coalition of parents and educators who nurture it encourages us to believe that there is hope for the renewal of public education and that out schools can eventually be freed of the testing tyranny that has increasingly robbed a generation of children of an age appropriate, humanistic education, one that prepares them for life, not just employment

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Money for Schools Does Matter

Much of the rhetoric of the education reform movement has either stated directly or implied that more money is not the solution for the under-performance of poor children in our nation’s schools. Two new studies with two different methodologies now refute that counter-intuitive claim.

Where courts have interceded to challenge the underfunding of public schools in some communities, ordering those districts to spend more money, student scores on the NAEP test have significantly improved according to one study. The other research looked at time of school attendance in school and earnings after leaving school. Where greater financial resources were made available, students stayed in school longer and increased their earnings significantly.

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Trump Junior

While it may be for naught, I will continue to try to reason with those teacher union members considering voting for Donald Trump or the Libertarian or Green Party candidates. Thos e familiar with my political positions know that I’m not a great fan of Hillary’s, but if we are interested in public education, we have to put our energy into stopping Donald Trump from becoming President of the United States. That means voting for Hillary.

If you watched Donald Junior’s speech last night you hear enough to frighten you into the reality of what we must do. If you missed it, be sure you watch it here. After you do, think about the anti-intellectual theme running throughout – the suggestion that educated, credentialed people somehow know nothing about the world. Listen to the appeal to the uneducated. More importantly, at 16 minutes and 48 seconds into the speech, listen to the indictment of public education, its teachers and administrators and the due process protections of tenure. Although plagiarized in part, the speech echoes those who have wages a well-financed, coordinated campaign to discredit the public schools of our nation in order to privatize them.

Why would any public school employee vote for a candidate who obviously places no value on the work that we do and who poses an existential threat to the institution we cherish – public schools?

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Albany Fails Again

The New York State legislature has finished its yearly session without any significant progress on education issues. For most teachers, the failure to untie student performance on high stakes test from teacher evaluations is the bitterest pill left by the legislature for us to swallow. It’s more than time for parents, teachers and all citizens concerned with the corruption of New York’s schools by the corporate school reform movement to rise up and defeat those in the state senate who value heir political contributions from the reformers more than the children and educators of our state.

Unless and until we target and defeat at least a few supporters of the testing scourge, our public schools will continue to suffer. The same people who support the so-called reforms are by and large the supporters of the property tax cap, charter schools and using public money to support private and religious schools. They must pay a political penalty, or they will succeed in undermining a vital institution of our democracy. It’s time to vote to save public education.

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John King Strikes Again

Did anybody expect good things from John King, when on the verge of being run out of New York, the Obama administration selected him to replace Arne Duncan, himself a beleaguered education policy maker on the national level? So, it’s no surprise that Kings draft of the regulations implementing the recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) proposes that 95 percent of students in a public school district must participate in the state’s high stakes tests or the district may suffer a penalty in the form of a cut in Title I funding.

That these regulations violate the spirit of not the letter of the recent legislation is clear. The whole focus of the bi-partisan ESSA was to return authority to the states to determine issues of standards and testing. But that doesn’t seem to matter to John King. A tool of the corporate education reform movement, King looks at the country and sees a growing national opt out movement threatening that movement. He remembers the power and fury of the opt-out movement in New York and how it made his position there untenable. He appears determined to use his brief time in Washington to try to use the economic power of the federal government stifle the voices of parents and educators who with increasing militancy are demanding an end to corporate reform movement’s rape of our nation’s public schools.

Our national union leaders ought to be questioning Hillary very carefully about her thoughts on this move by King to defeat the opt-out movement. Here in New York we have a right to know what our would-be majority leader Chuck Schumer thinks about this issue. Wouldn’t it be hopeful if he had one of his almost daily media events to demand end to this threat to a parent’s right to determine whether her child will participate in the state’s regime of high stakes tests?

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Driven By a Fear of Failure

There is an insatiable demand in upper middleclass school districts like mine for extra help, remedial or tutoring or whatever term we use to demand that something be done to assuage our adult anxiety that our children may not know all that they need to gain acceptance to Harvard and earn six figure incomes. That demand while it always existed to some degree has spun out of control in response to the advent of the Common Core State Standards and the tests aligned to them.

Little kids who are being asked to do intellectual things that their brains are not yet ready to do are subjected to extra hours of school only to come home to excessive homework and sessions with private tutors. Weekends are not free from school related activities either. Even summer vacations are often spent attending “camps” that are organized around academic pursuits. Even the devil would be impressed with how little time today’s kids have for idleness.

The process of building a winning resume begins early and quickly develops into a race of each against all, more AP classes, more extra-curricular activities , more service to the community, more extra help sessions, more private tutors, more SAT and ACT prep, more grade grubbing, more cheating, less sleep, less social interaction, less relaxation, less appreciation of learning and ideas. Got to get ahead. Go to get ahead. Got to get to an elite college. Why they have to do all of this is never seriously questioned, either by students or most of their parents. They ironically don’t appear to be equipped to raise such existential questions.

I sometimes think that there never was a generation of parents less confident of the ability of their children to become competent, accomplished adults. This fear of failure drives a relentless pressure to do more, achieve more. Success is tied to just one more tutoring session, one more extra-curricular activity. No calculus? You’re a failure, and, by the way, what’s wrong with your parents for not insisting that you take it? Don’t they want you to be college and career ready?

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It’s Just Business

Those who doubt that the Common Core State Standards and the high stake tests aligned to them are part of a corporate business plan rather than thoughtful educational proposals aimed at improving student performance need to read Jonathan Pelto’s current article in The Progressive. Pelto chronicles PARCC’s legal efforts to stifle any serious criticism of their Common Core tests. If their tests are as good as they claim, why all the threats against critics?

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Students and Teachers As Numbers

Why do we appear to think that unless you give teachers a score for their effectiveness, we are not holding them accountable? A law passed last year has local unions negotiation yet another number based mumbo-jumbo system for evaluating teachers at providing each one with a so-called HEDI Score, an acronym for ratings of highly effective, effective, developing and ineffective. Two of my colleagues and I spent part of yesterday afternoon working with central office counterparts on this exercise in futility. Basing our discussion on guidance documents from the state, documents that could serve English teachers as examples of how not to write, it was obvious to all of us that what we were doing had little, if anything, to do with the evaluation of teachers but was rather an exercise in professional pretense.

Here has been very little improvement, if any, upon the narrative observations of teachers that constituted teacher evaluations prior to the test based accountability reforms of recent years. Imperfect though they were, as good as the skill of the observer for the most part, they told a skilled reader more about the performance of teachers than the reducing a teacher’s work to a score. Union leaders and central office administrators will spend untold hours over the next few months developing teacher evaluation plans that will mean nothing to a single student,will further demoralize teachers and will discredit the politicians who sold out to the corporate school reform movement and passed the laws creating these foolish schemes.

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Yet Another Education Commission

New York State like many others is concerned about what is like to be a looming teacher shortage. It created a Teach New York Advisory Council to make proposals to make teaching a “mature practice profession” that will attract the best and brightest to invest their futures in public school teaching. The Council has issues its report. It addresses almost none of the reasons fewer young people are seeking to become teachers. In fact, if we were to force every college age students remotely thinking of entering the teaching profession to read the report, the recommendations would depress the numbers opting for education careers below the current trend. While here and there the report contains the germ of a worthwhile idea, most of it is an agglomeration of clichéd educationist gibberish that is just the kind of pseudo-scientific nonsense that drives teachers insane.

I have news for the writers of the report. There is a looming teacher shortage because teaching is becoming increasingly less enjoyable to do. More and more, the work is becoming routinized, scrutinized rather than supervised and under paid. The work is overseen by people who too often have leadership positions but no leadership skills. Notions of the continuous improvement of instruction send the message to teachers that they can never do enough, never give enough hours to be trusted. Despite all of their hard work, they are victimized by school reformist propaganda that incites the public to believe their schools are failing, when the fact point more clearly to society failing almost half of its children, leaving them mired in poverty and suggesting that education is all that is need to extricate them. In fact, a subtext of this report suggests that our schools are failing.

I have been a very lucky teacher. I had thirty-five very good years teaching in an environment where I was quickly able to satisfy my bosses that I was a serious teacher who didn’t need to be scrutinized. Trusted to do right by the students assigned to me, I had the freedom to exercise professional discretion as to how best to teach my students. I don’t recall being seconded guessed at any time. In short, I and the work I did were respected. Too many teachers today work in a very different environment, one that the Teach New York Advisory Council report does little to address beyond paying lip service to teacher professionalism.

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A New Approach to Fleecing Public Schools

The titans of the high tech companies many of whom have fleeced our nation’s public schools, promising that each new digital product would revolutionize education, are apparently coming up with a new game plan. Correctly sensing that the public is rapidly turning away from the kind of school reforms sponsored by public school predators like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, the new gig to keep those taxpayer dollars rolling into their companies appears to be personalized learning, tailoring the education of individual students through the use of technology. Seemingly oblivious to the fact that education is a social process with goals much more encompassing than the acquisition of skills, business people are correctly reading a market trend. More and more the public seems to expect its schools to treat their children individually. School leaders have responded to this unreasonable demand by defining good teaching as individualizing instruction. Now comes an emerging business model that promises it can overcome the inability of teachers to provide a unique education for each of their students. Cheaper, better and, better yet, more profitable for the hardware and software companies.

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Fair Competition

Most of us don’t have any problem recognizing that some people are more intelligent than others. Neither do we find it difficult to grasp that some people have skills that try as they might other don’t have. You could give me art lessons from now until I don’t know when, and I still would have no artistic ability at all. Yet, it becomes increasingly difficult to explain to people, some who even work in the field of education, that not all students can be successful at the study of every subject at every level. The dismal facts are that not all students are equally intelligent, and, likewise, not all students have the same talents.

Implicit in all the stupid talk that we euphemistically call school reform is the notion that if our teachers were just up to snuff, if we could have a great teacher in front of every classroom, all of our students would succeed and achieve mastery in every subject, and go on to a top shelf college, and get a fantastic job upon graduation. Talk about political correctness.

I’m all about challenging kids to try to stretch themselves, but, as the adults in their lives, we have to place realistic limits on how far we attempt to stretch them. We do them no favor when we encourage them to try things that our professional judgment tells us they can’t do. Setting young people up for failure does nothing worthwhile. We do nothing helpful for them when we set them up to compete against others whom we know will win. If our schools are to continue to run on a principle of competition (And there are other ways of running them.), we have an obligation to see to it that the competition is fair – that some kids are not the perpetual losers.

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Need to Re-energize Opt-Out

I met with some union colleagues last evening. I was happy to learn that they are moving forward with getting their members to sign membership renewal cards for next year. Like me, they are hoping that the death of Justice Scalia ends the imminent threat posed by the Friedrichs case to agency fee, but they are determined to protect their locals lest their faith in the four liberals on the high court has been misplaced or one of the Republican Neanderthals running for the presidency wins and appoints an ideological successor to Scalia. I actually am starting to believe that this generation of union leaders is starting to learn the secrets of organizing.

Their interest in organizing was manifest in our discussion of the status of the opt-out movement. Most of us are concerned that some of the energy of the movement has been sapped by the propaganda success of the moratorium enacted last year on consequences from high stakes tests for either students or teachers. I share the fear expressed that some of the public, and perhaps even our own members, believe that the threat posed by high stakes testing has abated. Yet, students are still asked to take essentially useless tests, and, worst of all, the tests continue to drive instruction a direction toward the substitution of training instead of education. The simple fact is that the reasons the opt-out movement was formed remain, and those of us who passionately support it are looking for fresh ways to support and build it, as it continues to be the most potent weapon we have against the test and punish reformers.

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Ready for Kindergarten?

The corporate education reform movement is spawning every conceivable kind of exploitation of children and their anxious parents. This morning, a friend pointed me to a community Facebook page on which person shilling an outfit called the Homework Hub the anxiety provoking question, “Is your son or daughter ready for the demands of kindergarten?” It goes on, “The Kindergarten curriculum moves quickly and being prepared for the challenges ahead will give your child a running start from the get go.”

Once upon a better time, children who were toilet trained had all of the qualifications necessary for kindergarten. Parents could comfortable assume that they could send their kids to school without any academic preparation. Now, education hucksters lead parents to feel that unless they have reading readiness skills and other abilities that five year-olds often don’t as yet have, their educations may be permanently sidetracked, their futures dimmed, and their earning potential curtailed. The road to economic success begins in kindergarten.

There seems to be no end to what education con-merchants can sell to a public all too willing to pay any price to be relieved of the gnawing feeling that they may not be doing all they can for their children, that they may be found to be wanting as parents. Thus we see more and more children with calendars of activities ranging from tutoring, to sports, to volunteer work to lessons of all kinds, all assembled by parents seeking build their children’s resumes to get them into a prestigious college, not for the education offered there but for what it will mean for their future earning power. The race to nowhere starts earlier and earlier.

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You Thought You Knew About Pearson

Mention the name Pearson in the circles in which I travel, and it is as though you mentioned some sinister, criminal enterprise. No other company is so closely associated with high stakes testing and the corporate influence on public education. Yet, I suspect that most of the people I know in public education, like I, know very little of just how pervasive the influence of this company is on education – from K to graduate school. One needs to read Stephanie Simon’s piece on Politico to begin to understand the frightening extent to which Pearson saw the potential in the American school reform movement for them to make huge profits, cultivating a perception gullible by school administrators that only they had the materials, test and programs to bring the academic progress the reformers demanded. I certainly never understood that they have been repeatedly given huge, no-bid contract by major public universities to provide those schools with online college courses. If you have been angered at the business influence on our public schools, read this piece. It will enrage you. I hope some of the nation’s attorneys general read this piece and start to look into these no-bid contracts Pearson has gotten. There almost has to be something seriously wrong here.

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The Cost of Test Driven Schools

We used to laugh at students in many Asian school systems who attended their public schools during the day only to enroll in tutoring schools in the evening to cram for the high stakes tests the results on which in many countries determine a young person’s educational and economic future. American students were allowed to be children, with time for recreational activities, friends and families. There was a balance in their lives between school and home. Without challenging the endurance of our children, without tying their self-worth exclusively to their academic prowess but with a much more determined effort to develop their ties to their communities and nation and with a very conscious effort to provide they with opportunities to find out who they were, the United States managed to maintain the world’s premier economy with a highly productive workforce. We knew that “the child is father of the man” and acted accordingly, trying to cultivate the development good people, good citizens and a good society.

Now we don’t laugh at the drone children of our Asian competitors. We emulate them. More and more we teach to high stakes tests, increasingly blurring the distinction between education and training in the process. Our communities are awash in after-school tutoring services that promise higher grades on everything from basic reading comprehension to the Graduate Record Exams. There are three such places just in the office building in which our union office is located. Our public schools are increasingly urged by ever more anxious parents to provide before and after school extra help to our youngest elementary students to ensure that they have every competitive edge they can get in the race to nowhere. At a recent meeting of our board of education, parents implored the board to provide Saturday and or evening high school math classes in trigonometry for fear that their children might miss a question or two on the ACT examination.

The United States will be no safer if our children do are doing school work during most of their waking hours. Kids fighting with their parents over homework that parents only half understand will not ensure the economic supremacy of the nation. Suppressing what we have learned about the psycho-social development of children will surely not produce happier, better adjusted children with a strong sense of responsibility to others. We can’t test, tutor or academically bludgeon our way to a better, more equal, more wholesome society. We can educate ourselves to a better place, if we choose to.

More and more people are choosing to do so. The rapidly growing opt-out movement is effectively challenging the use of high stakes tests. In more and more communities parents are questioning why their children are doing homework to the exclusion of a real home-life. I meet more and more parents who tell their children, “That’s enough homework for one day.” We need to demand that teaching be done in such a way as to devote the time necessary to meet students’ needs rather that slavishly following test driven pacing charts. Kids shouldn’t need extra help because teachers are forced to move on even though they know that their students haven’t mastered their lesson. We need to remind ourselves that really good schools are about the education of human beings, not the training of economic units. We need to understand that the cost of what we are doing today will be far greater than the reformers would lead us to believe.

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Faith in Our Schools

Perhaps the most corrosive effect of the corporate school reform movement has been its frightening success at discrediting the institution of public education, often even in our nation’s best school districts. In Plainview-Old Bethpage, an upper middleclass community with schools that much of the nation would envy, I meet more and more citizens who are increasingly mistrustful that our schools have the best interests of their children in mind. Their mistrust includes the school administration and the teachers. On one hand they appear to believe the false reformer rhetoric that has their children locked in a dire economic competition with the rest of the world whose educationally advanced students are preparing to sink our children into penury, while on the other, they are coming to realize that we are driving our children to undertake a volume of academic work that leaves them little to no time or space required for their psycho-social development.

At our board of ed meeting last night, the issue was how to deal with Common Core Algebra 2, a revamped state course of study that appears to omit certain trigonometric functions necessary for the study of advanced mathematics and physics and which are tested on the ACT college entrance examination. A group of citizens came to petition the board to exercise its option under New York regulation to switch gears and return to the old curriculum that covered the trig topics in question, something which a number of districts in our area are doing in the name of giving their students a competitive advantage. Speaker after speaker spoke to how the current curriculum and the Regents examination it is geared to disadvantage their children who will compete with students from the districts who will be doing the easier and trig inclusive curriculum and exam. Seeking to assuage these patents’ concerns, the superintendent suggested that the district offer after-school and weekend classes on the missing trigonometry topics while changing the pre-calculus course next year to include trig. That proposal was met with an intense anger, with parents voicing how their children could not possibly fit one more thing into their already precisely scheduled, over stressed lives. With the board vote against the motion, the parents left talking about the injury the school district has inflicted on their children, their respect for and belief in the institution diminished – diminished ultimately by a school reform effort that our local leaders feel powerless to change.

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Our Unplanned Lessons

If we encourage high school students to take more coursework than they are able to complete the assignments for, and, if in so doing we encourage them to divide up the work with their classmates, what are the lessons we are teaching them about how to conduct their adult lives? Teachers, administrators and any parent who chooses to knows that our current push to fill the high school programs of children with as many Advanced Placement courses as possible has put many of them in the position of cheating to survive. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day to do all of the homework these courses require and have time for what have come to be understood as the obligatory cluster of extra-curricular activities which together create the cover of a well-educated, well- balanced student hiding a driven, over-worked, over-stressed young person who is being encouraged by the adults in his life to cut ethical corners in order to get an edge.

We cover our eyes to this corruption of education at our peril and the peril of our children. We are beginning to hear more and more about the psychological damage we are doing to children in the name of competitive grit and higher standards. We need to add to that discussion some sober thought on the ethical norms we are promoting by creating an environment where children feel themselves in an almost Darwinian struggle to get ahead. Doesn’t our self-interest and theirs demand something better?

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It’s Not Tutoring Children Need

Some parents of elementary students in my community have been lobbying our board of education for a tutorial or extra help program for their children. We’ve been hearing this call for some time, its advent paralleling the era of high stakes tests and the narrowing the curriculum to the tested subjects of math and English. Last year, labor and management agreed to the piloting of a before school program staffed by volunteer teachers to attempt to address the perceived need. Much of the demand for these services seems to come from parents’ perception of the frustration of their children with the changes to mathematics instruction brought about by the introduction of the Common Core State Standards.

The question that too few raise is not why we don’t have an across the grades tutorial program. The real question is what is it about our program that makes parents and students feel the need for instruction beyond the regular school day? The easiest part of an answer is that some of what the Common Core asks of young children is developmentally inappropriate. The more complicated answers centers around what happens when we allow the results of high stakes tests to drive instruction.

The testing era has brought with it the pacing chart. The rhythm of elementary instruction is no longer dictated by the judgment of the classroom teacher as to when a class is ready to move forward to the next topic but by a timetable designed to ensure that all the tested topics will be covered by the time of the state examination. Again and again, teachers have told me that they knowingly feel obliged to move ahead even though they know for certain that numbers of the children in the class are not ready for the move. So while our teachers are constantly and skillfully informally assessing student responses to instruction, they too often feel compelled to subordinate their professional judgment because to “not finish” the curriculum is to risk the perception that one’s teaching skills are lacking.

The testing era and the “rigor movement” associated with it have brought a very significant increase in the amount of homework young children are doing. We ought to be concerned about this trend, recognizing that six or seven hours of sitting and receiving instruction is a hard day’s work for a young child. We need to be constantly reminded of their need for recreation and play as vital activities in their development. We should also try to appreciate that the homework students receive should be able to be completed by them and not require parents to try to decipher and explain it to their children. The interaction of parents and their children should not be extensions of the teacher/student relationship. Ideally, the home should support the school, not be an extension of it.

Finally, we are encouraging young children to have an unhealthy concern for school grades. We seem to have forgotten how easy it is for little kids to come to associate their self-worth with their grades at school. One of the best parts of the opt-out movement is their slogan that kids are more than a score. I recall talking to a friend’s child who had become hyper-focused on his grades and who when pressed by me to say why he felt his grades so important said, “Without my grades I’m nobody.” That child’s school surely failed him.

Our focus as adults should not be on finding ways for little kids to accommodate inappropriate demands on the time and stage of development. By and large, it’s not tutoring they need, but an education aligned with their stage of development, not some arbitrary standard of what they should know.

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Aspirations of Adults vs. Welfare of Children

Most days, I check on the social media sites in my school district focused on our public schools. I try to correct misinformation that’s circulating as well as advancing the concerns of our union membership. I’m encourages by what appears to be a growing number of parents who understand that the quality of a school system is at best marginally related to how many college courses their high school students take. This morning, a parent on one of the social media sites I monitor asked why it is that our board of education seems headed in the direction of accelerating all of our students in 8th grade math in what has come to be called “algebra for all,” as though this were some kind of populist political movement. I responded to her post specifically with our school district in mind, but to varying degrees I believe most of our suburban school districts are similarly guilty of what I have come to see as the exploitation of children. Here’s my answer to why our leaders want algebra for all. See if it doesn’t fit your district as well.

We’ve become a district that is more interested in the building of student resumes than in their intellectual, social and emotional growth. Our programs are increasingly aimed at rising on the scorecards of the pop magazines that rate school districts on indices having almost nothing to do with real accomplishments. Our leaders believe that the more work we pile on children, the more we brainwash them to believe that if they just take another AP class their future will be ever so much better is the extent to which we are a quality school district. More and more, our programs are driven by the aspirations of adults rather than the welfare of children. We appear to aim for a meretricious facsimile of a real education. Sadly, that is what we are achieving. Algebra for all is but one symptom of what is increasingly wrong

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The Technology Scam

Rajen Sheth is the director of product development for the Chrome and Android divisions of Google. He is known as the father of Google Apps. Trained as an electrical engineer and computer science person, he has no recognized qualification in the field of k-12 education. He designs and sells Google products, products which are capturing more and more of the public school market.

The current wave of “education reform” is driven in part by technology hucksters like him whose meteoric economic success appears to suggest to Americans that their opinions on subjects outside their professional domain are somehow more worthy than the average Joe. So Bill Gates knows how to evaluate teachers, and because of his billions, policy makers take him seriously. Sheth’s job is to sell Chrome Books, a tablet device that has captured over half of a very lucrative public school market. So he gets to blither away at what education should become, belittling the extraordinary work of all of the hard-working teachers in America’s classrooms. He know that the model of one teacher for 20 to 30 students doesn’t work anymore, that through Chrome Books and various apps, we can individualize instruction, perhaps even avoiding the need for teachers at some point in the future.

People like Sheth have been such successful marketers that few in leadership positions in education ever challenge the assumption that the massive introduction of technology has significantly improved the quality of public education in the United States. Why aren’t Americans more suspicious of education ideas promoted by people who want to sell us expensive things? This year, companies like Google and Microsoft have sold 13.3 million devices to schools. Can we reasonably expect them to be honest about the usefulness of their products in the teaching of the nation’s children? Why do we continue to allow their voices to be amplified in proportion to their wealth?

After putting this posting up, I read Diane Ravitch, writing today about the corporate money behind “personalized learning.”

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