Tuesday, January 24, 2023

LAUSD Up -- Periodic Reporting on the Los Angeles Unified School District - Episode Four

deja vu all over again

Hello and welcome to our periodic report on the conditions inside the LAUSD. These days you might be forgiven for feeling like you've seen this before. 

A couple of updates from previous posts:

  • Apparently last year's data breach started long before the district admits. Shocking, I know. Potential victims should receive a "Notice of Data Breach." Still, according to the district, even though dates of birth and addresses of some students and staff were affected, the breach "does not appear to extend to the payroll records and Social Security numbers for the tens of thousands of district employees." Take that for what it's worth. District contractors were not as lucky. They were significantly impacted and lost payroll records. I guess they probably should contact the district and check their mail.
  • Did somebody say acceleration days? The acceleration days seem to have come and gone with nary a ripple. The Daily News reports that although some 70,000 students signed up, "only about 40,000 attended one or both days in person" according to Chief of School Operations Andres Chait."
         "One or both" is a nice dodge. In other words, of the 140,000 student days signed up for, perhaps as few as              20,000 actually occurred. That's slightly less than the 60,000 (120,000 student days) originally reported by           the district. That the district and superintendent overestimated themselves and puffed up the numbers                  should come as a surprise to exactly no one.

Now for the news:

First, congratulations to Jackie Goldberg for her election as president of the LAUSD school board. After teaching in Compton Unified for sixteen years, Goldberg was first elected to the LAUSD Board of Education in 1983, serving two terms before also serving on the Los Angeles City Council and in the California State Assembly.

Goldberg was once again elected to the school board in 2019, shortly after the strike, and her election marked a shift in what had been a period of antagonistic, pro-charter dynamics on the board. Her elevation to president, the election of Scott Schmerelson as vice president to replace pro-charter Nick Melvoin, and the November election of Rocio Rivas to replace Monica Garcia may spark progress on a new contract for UTLA. 

In the meantime, the stonewalling over a new contract continues as we enter 2023. Much of the stuff the union is proposing this time sounds a lot like the stuff from 2019 as teachers continue to fight for their students in spite of opposition from what is often referred to as a "school" district but what might be better called the "boss" district.

Met mostly with sneers and silence from the district, LAUSD teachers have been working without a contract since June of 2022 and the district's bargaining position seems to be "no." Over a series of more than a dozen "bargaining" sessions, the district has barely budged, offering two 5% salary raises over the next two years and some one-time bonuses meant to be the shiny object suckering teachers into taking their eyes off the ball. 

The bonuses do not count for base rate nor pensions, and will not incentivize new candidates to dedicate themselves to careers that won't start for years, well after the bonuses have evaporated into the mist. And a one-time bump that disappears just as you're trying to buy a house, or your own kid heads off to college, and that doesn't benefit your retirement doesn't look great for veterans either. 

Now, for those of you who think teachers are already paid well, you either don't know or don't want to know the truth. I've written about it several times such as here, and here. Teacher pay nationally has not kept up with inflation much less made anybody rich, and in Los Angeles the cost of living makes recruiting and retaining teachers even more difficult. 

For those of you screeching on social media about paid vacations and test scores and--gasp!--teachers unions, and especially those of you accusing the union of corruption and teachers of not caring about their students or even being "groomers," I say this as a dues-paid lifetime member of UTLA and former union rep and organizer for my school: you are full of shit and go fuck yourselves. I may be out of the classroom, but I'm not out of the fight.

Not only was LAUSD's latest money offer inadequate, but the district proposal rolls back a crucial element of the 2019 settlement: class size caps.  In 2019 we fought for and won the elimination of squishy "may not be achieved due to circumstances" class size language, and although class size maximums are still too high, the district now proposes that they be allowed to place an indeterminate number of students in a class. That is not a typo. 

If you're a teacher and your class is at the limit, and your school decides to program a couple more students into it, CONGRATULATIONS! You get a fixed payment of an extra $500 per semester. If they put in two more? Five hundred. Ten additional students? Still just five hundred bucks. Twenty? You do the math. 

It's almost like LAUSD is not bargaining in good faith. So what happens next?

It's hard to know if the changes in the school board will have any impact on negotiations, especially as salaries and class size are only two facets of UTLA's Beyond Recovery platform of proposals. It is noteworthy that the vote to hire Alberto Carvalho as superintendent was unanimous (I first wrote about the guy here and here). Baffling in light of what we knew then, which is very much the same as what we know now. 

Times education reporter Howard Blume writes--accurately--that "[t]he school board, including Goldberg, has so far stood publicly united behind Supt. Alberto Carvalho in negotiations and policies." Four years ago, according to the Times, Goldberg "supported the teachers union’s claim that the district could use its reserves to meet teachers’ demands." Whether a similar argument has traction in present negotiations remains to be seen.

At any rate, education autocrat and world-class suit-wearer Alberto Carvalho, in one of his first official acts apart from photo ops from his never-ending public relations carnival and publicity tour, suffered a stinging defeat over the acceleration days, and is likely eager to demonstrate his authority.

Regardless of how the money shakes out, Carvalho is certain to target any power-sharing elements of any prospective contract. We've seen Big Shots before, both at the district level and on school sites around town. They come in ready to kick some ass and they hide behind their professed concern for kids as they unironically bash teachers to prove it. Thing is, teachers can actually do their jobs without a superintendent. Superintendents without teachers are just clerks.

Nevertheless, this has all the makings of a drive to break the union as a partner in LAUSD schools and schooling, and the stalling and stonewalling is clearly a tactic designed to frustrate and enervate. It would be self-defeating if UTLA were to, out of frustration or fatigue, take the bait and settle for cash. It would be tragic if that became their only option to keep their membership together because they failed to cultivate support.

I urge UTLA to begin preparations for a strike. That means a strategic information battleplan to mobilize community support and bolster teacher awareness and solidarity. 

Don't look for help from the press. The L.A. Times is already printing alarmist scolding from Chapman University's Joel Kotkin and "tech-entrepreneur" Marshall Toplansky, reliable "naysayers" whose podcast, "The Feudal Future Podcast," claims to "explore what we can do to liberate the global middle class." 

Their Times piece, in which they argue that "California’s regulatory and tax regimes discourage new investment" and accuse Governor Newsom of "hand[ing] out thousands of dollars of goodies to struggling households," and "creat[ing] massive direct subsidy programs for housing and healthcare," characterizing it as "largesse," leans heavily into entrepreneurship and venture capitalism. It is titled "California’s budget surplus has vanished and its economy is in danger. It can go one of two ways." It's not hard to figure out which way they recommend. 

It's not that the authors don't have a point--or at least a point of view--it's that the Times is forever promoting tax relief and deregulation on its way to "schools cost too much." This is no exception. 

More annoying and perhaps more dangerous if allowed to stand unchallenged, is the Times' propensity for characterizing teachers and our union as self-serving, as if we care only for personal advantage rather than for the needs of our students. In his latest, education reporter Howard Blume, who has been better recently, defaults to describing Goldberg's election as "signal[ing] a potential school board majority shift to priorities of the teachers union" without acknowledging how thoroughly those priorities align with and support the needs of students.

No, the press is unlikely to be helpful. It is up to UTLA to communicate a clear, coherent message and unite teachers and cultivate broad support. What's needed is a strategic information battleplan. People--and especially members and potential members--need to know in concrete terms what the fight is about. Some of it sounds... aspirational. "Support for anti-poverty programs in Los Angeles"? I'm all for big ideas, but I want to know how we get them done. 

However, most of the program is ambitious and extraordinary, and detailed. But I'm not going to lie. When I read it, it's a little overwhelming. 

This is better.

Still, I think members need to have a clear-cut answer that we can all remember. Something that's unassailable and unambiguous. Something we can deliver to friends and family, to our students and their parents. An answer to "What do you guys want?" that receives an "Oh, I get it."

I think we did a pretty good job of this in 2019. The UTLA team and then-president Alex Caputo-Pearl crafted a cogent message out of "69 pages of demands to the school district," and they made the rounds talking to members at school after school in order to deliver it. A lot of people have taken shots at Caputo-Pearl, particularly for the settlement, but the overwhelming support for the strike (and the strikers) speaks to the advance preparation. 

I was able to walk out of those meetings and into the rooms of my colleagues and talk about the issues in ways that spoke directly to the immediate concerns of members. I was even able to speak to nonmembers about the importance of unity, focusing on the fact that our demands were crucial for making every teacher's workspace and every student's learning space better. 

"Think about your class sizes," I'd say. "Think about the size they need to be for you to do a better job." "Now think about how big they would be if you had no union fighting to make them smaller." I'd ask them if they thought their paychecks would get bigger or their classes smaller without a union. I'd ask them if their days were too long, and how long they thought those days would be if the district had their way. Tenure. Pensions. Grievance protections against bad bosses.

However, over the last six months when I've asked my friends about updates, they tell me they haven't heard anything. I know it has been better lately, and I know a news blackout around negotiations is not unusual, but members need to know if talks are continuing (or not) and what next steps might look like and what they should be doing to prepare. I have seen no evidence that timidity in the face of tyranny mollifies the tyrant. Power concedes nothing without a demand. 

Prior to 2019, I can remember being frustrated that the union wasn't more forthcoming with respect to contract negotiations, and I know my friends still in the business are now. It doesn't have to be this way.

In a really good article in The New YorkerJennifer Gonnerman explores the long relationship between UPS and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and there's a lot to pay attention to in the context of UTLA's present battle.

With respect to messaging and preparation, the Teamsters have been working for a year to prepare the membership for what's to come and for what will be necessary in order to be successful. Through designated organizers they have been running rallies, meetings, informal discussions, as they prepare for battle. UTLA doesn't have a year, so it needs to gear up existing efforts. You can't grow a job action unless you cultivate the membership. 

The message needs to be clear and constant. Sean M. O’Brien, General President of the Teamsters’ told Gonnerman that the two-tiered compensation and protections of UPS workers was going to be a "strike issue" in the upcoming negotiations. 

What are UTLA's strike issues? The elaborate and extensive Beyond Recovery platform is admirable, and I understand the drive to connect local concerns to broader global struggles, but can the union really ask members to strike over green spaces? 

If the answer is yes, then how do we justify that to our members face to face in their classrooms? How do we explain to parents and our students? To the public? I'm not saying back away from the big ideas in the package, but rather find the five or ten things that you message on. Over and over. The answer to the question "What do you guys want?"

The UPS Teamsters also face many of the same obstacles faced by UTLA and teachers around the nation. There are non-union private contractors (Amazon). 

"The drivers of those vehicles are not Amazon employees; they work for delivery services that have contracts with Amazon." 
 "These convoluted arrangements make it much more difficult for Amazon to be held legally responsible for the drivers’ treatment. It also makes unionizing them nearly impossible; if drivers at a delivery company try to unionize, Amazon can simply cancel that company’s contract."

O'Brien relates how "the government has allowed this independent-contractor model to basically exploit obligations of employers." Any private school teacher and most charter school teachers can relate. He goes on to say that this fragmented model has "made it difficult for UPS, with its full-time drivers and regular start times, to keep up." He then "imagined what might be going through the minds of UPS executives: “How can we compete with this nonsense?” 

I used to say the same thing, about private and charter schools.

Even with a union, UPS workers face micromanagement and surveillance, coerced labor (driver Antoine Andrews says of new workers, "'They do know better...But they are scared.'”) and a driver's workday that does not end until their last package is delivered, birthdays and anniversaries be damned. Sound familiar? Now imagine work life without the Teamsters, without UTLA.

Vinnie Perrone, president of Teamsters local 804, knows one very important thing:

To succeed in their contract battle this year, the Teamsters will need to keep a united front—between inside workers and drivers, between veteran drivers and 22.4s, between “feeder” drivers (who drive tractor-trailers) and everyone else—and Perrone has been insisting on total solidarity.

The divide between "inside workers" and drivers, between veterans and newer workers reminds me of the way our veteran and less experienced teachers, our classified and credentialed personnel are often strangers when we ought to be allies. We need to be fighting side by side to strengthen each other's positions. Seeing contracts among different working constituencies as a zero-sum game only benefits the bosses. 

It's our job. It's everybody's job, a sentiment expressed slightly differently at a meeting in the union hall, by a member and former driver who was shot on the job and shuffled to another position:

Looking out over the crowd, he exhorted his fellow union members to stick together in the coming months, to not let their managers divide them. “My question to us is: How are we going to help them”—the union leaders at the front—“get us the best contract for 2023?” he said. “That’s the question we should all go home, talk to our families, meditate on, and, Monday morning, come in and fight. Because we need better language for everyone, from driver to preloader. We got to help each other out, brothers and sisters. We will not survive if we don’t.” 

Teachers are in a battle, and if we don't fight--against the "independent-contractor" model of schooling, for better pay and working conditions, for smaller classes, for more support for students, for more humane and just schools--the district is not about to just hand them over. 

The battle is not just for ourselves, but if teachers don't defend themselves and their co-workers, and their students and their schools against the autocrats with their blunders and bad ideas, who will? It must be teachers first, or who will step forward?

We need to get our story straight and buckle up. It's going to be a bumpy year.

Good Luck. See you next time.

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

The War On Teachers Part Two: Working Conditions - Instruments of Torture

To review: The project to destroy authentic public schooling is a war fought on many battlefronts. Essential to the project is the war on teachers.

The Enemies of Public Schooling have lots of strategies for make the teaching work space unworkable. Suppressing teacher pay and attacking pensions, pretending class size doesn't matter (or pretending you've already addressed it),  endless testing.

The aim is to degrade teachers' work environment--and students' learning environment--in a multi-dimensional campaign to grind teachers up and run them out of the classroom. No teachers, no schools.

I wish I could say that attacks on teacher pay and pensions were the only issues driving teachers out or discouraging aspirants from becoming teachers in the first place. Or that huge classes and ceaseless testing were the only working conditions weaponized in the war on teachers. I wish that these were the only features in our work environment grinding teachers down and driving them out of the business, but in fact there are many, many days when other elements are even more destructive.

Some of this stuff doesn't fit perfectly into the category of deliberate attack. Much of it is the result of neglect and lack of imagination combined with an administrative structure obsessed with authoritarian hierarchies. Whether as a result of action or inaction, direct attack or simply neglect, much of the war on teachers is waged through the de-professionalization, even infantilization of teaching. 

From scripted lessons to stupid rules, teachers who are experts in their fields are demeaned and ignored, setting them on a course toward burnout and early departure. Destroy the teachers, destroy the schools. 


I'm sure every teacher has their own list of things that drive them crazy about their job (feel free to add your own in the comments!). 

However, in every case it's the awareness that "things don't have to be this way" that makes them a part of the war on teachers. These working conditions are not inevitable nor are they acts of nature. They are choices made by bosses carrying out the choices of bigger bosses. And it's the deliberate, aggressive disregard for teachers' experience and expertise that makes these instruments of torture so effective.

Nevertheless, the results--degraded working conditions and a shortage of teachers qualified and willing to endure them--are the same.

First let's take a ride on the reform-a-go-round, that carousel of "Hey! I've got an idea!" snake oil that consultants sell ceaselessly and education bureaucrats buy, swallow, and then throw up all over teachers in some dumbass new PD that interrupts the string of old PD reruns. 

The only thing worse than sitting through the same stupid blood-borne pathogen PD you've sat through every September since 1998 is sitting through a brand new stupid PD where "experts" who don't know a roll book from a jelly roll hand out all the answers--brand new! answers to replace last year's answers--often recited from scripts memorized during retreats and delivered with a sickening excess of zippiness.

The whole exercise saps the strength of even the bubbliest newbies and eventually coats everyone in cynicism. You're sitting there thinking about the thousand problems with which you could really use some help, and you can only experience the same cycle of ill-conceived ideas presented as solutions so many times before ceasing to take the whole charade seriously. Especially as, year after year, you watch the initial administrative enthusiasm disappear as the latest miracle cure is poorly implemented, terminated prematurely, and fades into oblivion. Pretty soon it becomes clear: that's the game plan.

I've been through whole language, phonics, and reciprocal teaching PDs. I've been through Open Court, READ 180, sustained silent reading, reading circles, independent book study, context clues, journaling, and I'm sure lots of approaches I can't even remember. Every one of them was delivered as if the "method" was a brand new discovery, and as though each one wasn't connected to all the others and all the others not named. It was ridiculous and everybody knew it and everyone had to pretend it wasn't. 

And I've left out Lucy Calkins because I just watched that battle from afar. I've also left off "science of reading" because I don't know what it is and I don't understand how it's different or why it has to replace anything. Such is the nature of the reading wars.

Note: Just for kicks, I googled "methods of teaching reading" and was introduced to "the" 4, "the" 6, "the" 7, 8, 10, 11 and 12 methods of teaching reading. That's enough for a whole semester of PDs!

So that's just the bouncing ball of teaching reading. Maybe some of you have had PDs on Carol Dweck and growth mindset. Maybe you've been subjected to Kagan cooperative learning structures. 

Maybe you've sat through (probably one) training on restorative justice. Maybe it was trauma-informed teaching, special needs students, differentiation of instruction, classroom management, student engagement, culturally responsive teaching. 

Every teacher I've ever known could benefit from an in-depth training in any one of these areas--I know I would have--but do we get that? I sure didn't. It was invariably a one-off check-the-box presentation by a district consultant or out-of-classroom coach who found out that morning that they were conducting the professional development. And virtually every one of the presentations ended with the question of what to do next and a promise to follow up. Needless to say, there wasn't any. 

The reform-a-go-round is a circle, built of one miracle cure replacing another until you get right back to where you started. There is never any follow-up, no consummation, no progress. It is debilitating, and it is a powerful weapon in the war on teachers.

Wow, that was a lot. Must be twenty-five years of wasted Tuesdays coming out. Restraint, beginning... NOW.

SecondDis    ru  p    t  ions.  

It's hard enough to get kids to focus.

It's hard to get anyone to focus in this 2023 world.

It's hard to string thoughts together in a logical sequence.

It's hard to do a lesson that starts where you left off yesterday and ends up where you need to stop for today.

Now add in announcements, late students, bathroom breaks, visits from "the office," trips to "the office,"--phone calls about attendance? For the love of god, email me!--tech glitches, fire drills, shake drills, fire false alarms, and you have dis    ru  p     t ions. Now it's harder than hard. 

These are the institutional disruptions. This doesn't even count the hungry kid or bored kid or crying kid or fighting kid or kid just having a bad day. The kids are easy. Well, not easy, but they're the reason you're there in the first place. Having kids called out of your class for pictures one at a time is not.

I was significantly more tired at the end of each day, each week just owing to the constant Dis    ru  p    t  ions. The pummeling may not have been intentional, but it took its toll. And again, operating in this careless way is a choice. It's a choice to make somebody's job easier while letting teachers and their students pay the price. 

Third, Active Shooter Drills. This one is in the "neglect and lack of imagination" category, but the failure to address gun violence in schools is another part of the war on teachers--and on students, staff and schools themselves. It's the shooting part of the war. 

Active Shooter Drills send students and teachers huddling in corners--away from the windows!--and remind everybody that they could die at any moment. Now back to complete sentences!

Where I taught, students were sadly familiar with gunfire and they knew the futility of putting a desk between yourself and a gun. The drills were a reminder that school was nothing special. They were also a reminder that the people in charge had no good ideas and didn't care enough to come up with any. So we did the drills--over and over until they were no longer taken seriously. 

And what's worse than active shooter drills? Active shooters. We had a couple where I worked. But think of Oakland. Uvalde. I think of the teacher in Virginia shot by her six-year-old student. I think of students having guns because practically everybody has guns. Answer? More drills. Wonder if parents and their kids and teachers and their kids think that's an adequate response. 

Fourth, Stupid rules

I was lucky to be inoculated against some of the dumb rules  simply because of seniority, and maybe union representation, and probably National Boards. I like to think my bosses were just too embarrassed or incompetent to make them stick. In any event, I was able to get away with ignoring a lot of them. That's not the case for everyone. And it isn't so easy in today's world of test scores and constant monitoring and micromanagement. Too bad.

A lot of the dumbest rules come from from the top, from the boss's bosses or from some stupid principaling program that teaches as its first lesson that teachers are all troublemakers and slackers and the only way to handle them is to show them who's boss. Make them do whatever you want the way you want, and you establish your authority, so the pitch goes. "How many fingers am I holding up, Winston?"

I always smelled the fear of a pretender worried about being found out. Lots of administrators are in charge of people who know much more about the job than they do, and the only way to counteract that is to be boss, when important stuff is happening but especially when the activity is meaningless. 

That's how we get to dress codes for teachers with rules for shoes and tattoos and jeans and even hair, rules that dictate no gum, and print out all your grades and I even heard about no sitting. Do not talk to any student in the hallway and Only speak directly with a student privately in the hallway. You even have stupid rules to make your students follow stupid rules: Backpacks must be stored on the backs of desk chairs, brain breaks every fifteen minutes

After I retired, the new principal where I had taught decided that everyone would come to campus for PDs in advance of the beginning of the school year. The school was just preparing to open after COVID closings, and they had a few days of prep scheduled. When everybody got there, they got a schedule and were sent to their rooms for professional developments--via zoom! I kid you not. "We could have zoomed from home!" my unlucky pals complained. Ah, but then he wouldn't have had the pleasure of making you do something stupid. 

I taught in what's called a span school and we had k-5 on one campus and 6-12 on an adjacent campus. Each campus had its own sign-in and life went on. We got a new boss one year and he decided he would have all the sign-ins at the elementary campus. It only took an extra ten minutes, and it seems like a small thing, but that's the point. He got to show us who was boss. Stupid rule.

And don't even get me started on scripted lessons synchronized among rooms so that they're portable--a student can leave my class and walk into Ms. Moran's and be on the same page! 

Has anyone ever been directed to "touch the poster"? We had posters of standards and objectives and--no kidding--we were supposed to walk up and actually touch them periodically throughout the period. If we happened to have an administrator observing, it was one of the things they knew to look for because it was one of the boxes they had to check. A kid could be on fire and they might miss it. But the poster...

Stupid rules are make-work for bureaucrats, signifiers of authority for administrators, and instruments of torture for teachers. 

Fifth, Idiot Evaluators.

The same people charged with enforcing stupid rules are the people who get to tell you whether you're doing a good job. what a racket.

I used to have a post-it on my desk just for myself. It read, "The answer to 90% of life's questions is 'because they're idiots.'" When it comes to education bosses--especially those tasked with evaluating you on something they've never done in a subject they've long forgotten, the number is closer to 100%.

As a tenured teacher with a fairly strong union, I had the advantage of performing the dog and pony show once or twice every couple of years, taking my eval and going back to teaching. Others, probationary teachers for example, and especially those in pilot schools with elect-to-work agreements that allow for nonrenewal and release, do not have that advantage. 

For everybody, however, the prospect of having someone who doesn't understand your job judge you according to a set of criteria that sometimes are at best peripheral to serving the kids, is maddening.

Sixth, Cameras in classrooms.

If there's a better expression of the contempt with which school bosses regard their students and staffs than cameras in classrooms, I don't know what it would be. The mistrust, the assumption of incompetence, the notion that teachers must be coerced into doing their jobs, all are revealed in this latest shiny object.

For students, even though their privacy has for years been sold by school officials, the enterprise is now juiced up with science fantasy as districts are investigating facial recognition software to augment to their systems. What could possibly go wrong? "I'm afraid I can't do that, Dave."

To conclude, the war on teachers is a multi-dimensional campaign to grind teachers up and run them out of the classroom. It is deliberate, the result of specific choices. It is waged through neglect, lack of imagination, and direct attack and bolstered by a hierarchical power structure based on mistrust and that results in leaders who resist collaboration and shared decision making. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Working conditions like those discussed here--along with a variety of others that have impacted thousands of teachers--may seem less consequential than overriding concerns like teacher pay and pensions, or workload attached to excessive class sizes, but in the day-to-day these working conditions compound the destructive effects on teachers' work lives and careers and remind us that we are not valued. In fact we are degraded and disregarded as teaching is de-professionalized. This leads many to leave the profession as soon as possible, and discourages others from entering the classroom altogether. And one more time...

Thanks for hanging in with me these past few weeks. Again, I'd love to hear about your own experiences in the war on teachers. There's lots left, like poor ventilation, no heat or air conditioning, 20 minute lunches, bathroom breaks, covering classes, etcetera etcetera etcetera. And I didn't even get COVID re-openings and phantom safety measures. Feel free to comment anonymously if that's better for you. 

Next time we'll broaden the focus to include attacks on the institution of public schooling itself--you know: charters, vouchers, funding, school board takeovers, those crazy CRT book banners--that type of thing. Until then...

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

The War On Teachers Part Two: Working Conditions - Testing. Obviously.

I've written several times about the savage testing regime that has gripped U.S. education the last twenty-plus years and about the bogus data it generates. This post looks specifically at how testing and its diabolical siblings, standards (generally some iteration of the Common Core Standards) and accountability (h/t Steve Nelson via @nancyflanagan), function as weapons in the War On Teachers. 

Testing stands at the center of the evil trinity--standards, testing, and accountability--and acts as a transformer taking the energy stored as potential in the standards and delivering it as kinetic in the sorting system of accountability, a system whereby certain students, teachers, and schools are glorified and the rest labeled as "failing" and punished.

It's a crazy circular shell game where each part of the trinity only exists because of the other two, and underneath it all is the assumption that teachers are not doing their jobs. 

We need standards because teachers are not teaching.

We need tests because we have standards.

We need scores because we have tests.

We need rankings because we have scores.

We need consequences because the scores "prove" teachers are not teaching.

Rinse. Repeat.

  • We want to look like we're serious about education so we need to ensure teachers are teaching. 
  • Therefore we create standards so we can hold students, teachers, and schools accountable. 
  • Then we test to see if students are meeting the standards. 
  • We use the scores to punish teachers and schools for not meeting the standards we created. 
  • See? We are serious about education!

How does this cerberus of testing function as a weapon in the War On Teachers?

1. It narrows the curriculum.

The devotion to Big Standardized Testing (h/t Peter Greene @palan57) strangles the curriculum leaving only certain kinds of knowledge, expressed only in prescribed ways, as legitimate--and measured. 

As Alfie Kohn described it in 2001: "From high-quality high school electives to focused discussions of current events (such as last November’s historic election), some of the richest learning opportunities are being squeezed out."

To defend standardized testing, you are likely to hear some version of business management guru Peter Drucker’s assertion that “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” I once heard “We measure what we value,” which I thought was ridiculous because my students and I valued respect, collaboration, flexibility, curiosity, creativity, humor, persistence, and lots of other things depending on the day. 

None of these ever showed up on the standardized exams--not that I’m discussing what did show up because, of course, that would be breaking the oath they make us all sign to protect the market share and business model of testing companies.

We value what we test because we can easily measure it. Over the last two decades, schools have come to value only what they measure, and we've mostly only measured English and math. Not art. Not theater. Not music. Not dance. Not even history. In California we dabble with science (though not in the Big Smarter Balanced "SBAC" Summatives), but only because, when reminded that the testing is flawed because we only test English and math, their answer was "Then let's find a way to test more."

All this testing results in an impoverished curriculum, not simply in the subjects emphasized but also in the broader, more potent sense of "curriculum" which considers "all aspects and dimensions of the educational experiences which pupils have during any period of formal education, and of their underlying principles and rationale" (A.V. Kelley, The Curriculum: Theory and Practice).

The Standards that dictate curriculum are bad enough in and of themselves, but once they are run through the test compactor things only get worse. From Peter Greene in 2019:

In Florida, as in all states, it is not the standards that drive curriculum--it is the Big Standardized Test. For example, the Common Core language standards include standards that address speaking and listening, but nobody worries about aligning to those standards because they won't be on the test. The standards about reading literature could be met by doing deep dives into complete works, but that's not how most schools are teaching those standards, because that's not how they're assessed on the Big Standardized Test.

I would argue--and have--that the Standards are like air cover for the BS Test blitz. The Enemies of Public Schooling and their collaborators invented a rationale--Common Core--then they use it to justify the entire testing-industrial complex.

An important 2007 report written by JenniferMcMurrer for the Center on Education Policy and based on CEP's "nationally representative survey of 349 responding school districts"  found that "about 62% of districts reported that they have increased time for English language arts (ELA) and/or math in elementary schools since school year 2001-02 (the year NCLB was enacted), and more than 20% reported increasing time for these subjects in middle school since then." 

In order "[t]o  accommodate this increased time in ELA and math," the report found that "44% of districts reported cutting time from one or more other subjects or activities (social studies, science, art and music, physical education, lunch and/or recess) at the elementary level." 

Corresponding data from middle and high school was not included, likely because of the lack of schedule flexibility and graduation requirements.

However, the study did take note of important changes taking place beyond elementary school. Describing a table titled "Changed Their Curriculum to Put More Emphasis on Content and Skills Covered on State Tests Used for NCLB," researchers found that "[a]t the middle school level, about 43% of districts reported that they have changed the English language arts curriculum to a great extent, and 42% said they have changed the math curriculum to a great extent to put greater emphasis on tested content and skills." And "[t]he responses were very similar in these subjects at the high school level."

Just a note: The percentage of districts reporting some level of curriculum shift was 90%.

Additional notes: The shift toward time spent on tested subjects was significantly greater in "districts with at least one school identified for NCLB improvement." Furthermore, "Districts with at least one school in improvement also reported in greater proportions than districts without schools in improvement that they have decreased time in social studies, science, and art and music." (emphasis mine)

And the curriculum has not just gotten narrower, but thinner as well as schools have devoted more time to test prep "and skills covered on the state tests used for NCLB."

In his study titled “High-Stakes Testing and Curricular Control: A Qualitative Metasynthesis” published in Educational Researcher in 2007, author Dr. Wayne Au has this to say:

"The primary effect of high-stakes testing is that curricular content is narrowed to tested subjects, subject area knowledge is fragmented into test-related pieces, and teachers increase the use of teacher-centered pedagogies." 

Of course, you know this. It was true in the mid-2000s and it's true today. Whatever Common Core may have meant in the imaginations of hopeful teachers and some of its architects ("designed to help students grow as thinkers"), when standards are fed into the Big Standardized Testing Pulverizer, teachers are often left "bereft of joy in their profession."

There is no dimension of the curriculum--not the formal curriculum, not the informal, not the hidden curriculum, not the planned curriculum and not the received curriculum, that is not negatively impacted by our testing obsession. And because of the incessant focus on two specific areas, English and mathematics, all other dimensions of schooling, from social studies to chess club, suffer from atrophy until they shrivel up and die.

All this is to say that no, it's not a dream. The testing monster really has eaten a lot of what we used to call school and a lot of what students used to love about it. For the best teachers, those who don't believe that the things on the Big Standardized Test are the only things worth learning, who believe that we are being stripped of something valuable beyond words, it's nearly impossible to endure. 

2. Testing is a huge time suck.

Not only has testing narrowed the curriculum by shifting instructional time to tested subjects, the tests themselves and the attendant preparation for them devours whole weeks of class time. 

Teachers are profoundly aware that simply getting to know 30+ human beings (times five, at least) and getting them pointed in a meaningful direction and figuring out what each of them needs in order to make progress in that direction--takes every minute of every day. 

Now ask teachers to spend a large chunk of that time going in an entirely different direction and you know what they have? A lot less time.

For example, a 2015 study from the Council of the Great City Schools, which describes itself as a coalition that "brings together 78 of [the] nation’s largest urban public school systems," found that "In the 2014-15 school year, 401 unique tests were administered across subjects in the [then] 66 Great City School systems" and that "Students in the 66 districts were required to take an average of 112.3 tests between pre-K and grade 12." This number did not include "optional tests" or other teacher- or school-developed tests.

An average eighth grader spent over four days taking these mandated tests, and that "does not include [extra] time to administer or prepare for testing, nor does it include sample, optional, and special-population testing," which anyone can tell you is where the majority of time is spent. The actual number of days testing is bad, especially since many of the tests have no time limits, and running into weeks of make-up testing compelled by the pressure to be sure schools aren't playing games and every single student is tested. 

LAUSD is one of the "Great City Schools" that participated in the survey. 

I've shared this before, but a picture is worth a thousand...

Or, to put it another way:

For California's user-friendlier version redesigned to cloak the endless testing in endless jargon, you can go here. And once again Florida shows us that it can always get worse.

But that's just the actual testing, the most visible part of the iceberg. Ninety percent is underneath the surface, sucking the life and time out of every week in the semester. Here's a brief look at the submerged portion of the iceberg in my last couple of years in the classroom.

In ninth grade we were not required to give the mandated Common Core exam, or "SBAC" (they save that for eleventh grade), but we did give--in addition to the practice PSAT (that's right, a practice test for the practice test)--an additional five periodic assessments, "encouraged" by the district and therefore mandated by our school, assessments designed to raise their scores on the SBAC, a test they'd be taking two years later

Five mandated tests. And after each one our school would devote an entire PD day to analyzing the scores, and each teacher would need to prepare a presentation explaining their performance. I'd like to say their students' performance, but it's never really framed that way. So that's two weeks before the assessment prepping and sweating, one day for the test (plus make-ups), a week of preparing your explanation, and a half-day of humiliation. More on that later.

Four weeks of teaching, two weeks of test prep, a week of analysis. A day of humiliation. Rinse. Repeat. Where does all the time go?

3. The tests are invalid and misleading.

Nothing drove me crazier than being forced to hack up our curriculum and cut out great units that students loved. Each year new ninth graders would come in with questions based on what they had heard from older sisters or brothers or friends. "Are we going to do the debate? Are we going to do poetry?" 

Because of the need to accommodate growing testing expectations, more and more often the answer was "No. I'm sorry." And for what? As I've written many times (here and here, for example), the score data produced by these Big Standardized Tests is bullshit. 

In other words, the test scores do not mean what they say they mean. Why? As UCLA professor W. James Popham wrote all the way back in 1999, "Employing standardized achievement tests to ascertain educational quality is like measuring temperature with a tablespoon."

In their "Standardized Tests Do Not Effectively Measure Student Achievement" (rpt from Ch. 3 of The Myths of Standardized Tests), Phillip Harris, Joan Harris, and Bruce M. Smith write that 

Contrary to popular assumptions about standardized testing, the tests do a poor job of measuring student achievement. They fail to measure such important attributes as creativity and critical thinking skills. Studies indicate that standardized tests reward superficial thinking and may discourage more analytical thinking. Additionally, because of the small sample of knowledge that is tested, standardized tests provide a very incomplete picture of student achievement.

Testing is a sorting technique that tracks poverty and propels a "failing schools" narrative. The data are both invalid and unreliable and, at best, measure the degree to which a student reproduces a set of favored knowledge within prescribed terms of expression, in a single-session time period.

As any teacher (and anyone else who cares to know) can tell you, a test only represents a sample of what a teacher wants the student to know and be able to do. Give a student a test on the same information on Monday and again on Friday and the scores might go up or they might go down depending on any number of variables: sleep, hunger, the temperature, who's been fighting at home, and whether the student studied the selected information. 

To focus so intensely on the Big Standardized Test is distracting and dishonest. The time and attention we devote to testing signifies that testing is the most important thing we do in school and that students' scores are meaningful measures of their achievement. It's worse than worthless. It's destructive.

4. The testing and the scores it produces are weaponized against teachers, schools, and the students themselves.


Test scores are fed into the sorting bin and then published without context, magnifying their importance and giving observers the impression that the scores are reliable indicators of the quality of their schools. Schools are ranked and subject to public shaming as the media beat the "failing schools" drum. Malinformed, lucky parents gloat over the misimpression that the scores make their school the best. Malinformed sometimes angry parents shake their heads and spring into action looking for a new situation for their kids. 

Until the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, the law of the land was No Child Left Behind which allowed for schools that failed to meet their "adequate yearly progress" to be sanctioned. Edweek broke it down this way:

1. A school that misses AYP two years in a row has to allow students to transfer to a better-performing public school in the same district.

2. If a school misses AYP for three years in a row, it must offer free tutoring.

3. Schools that continue to miss achievement targets could face state intervention. States can choose to shut these schools down, turn them into charter schools, take them over, or use another, significant turnaround strategy.

Number one is a corker. It theoretically lets students jump to another school, but in L.A. a lot of those seats were all booked up. Never fear, there's a charter opening just across the street. 

Number two is interesting, because every school I ever worked in offered tutoring, and I can't even fathom what the alternative to "free" would be.

That last one we used to call the death penalty. Reconstitution is firing everybody and replacing the entire staff--occasionally permitting some to re-apply for their jobs. That's one of those other "significant turnaround strategies."

(For more fun reading, here's a requirements and sanctions comparison of NCLB and RTTT.)

Now ESSA is the latest wrinkle and it looks like it broadens the standard definition of "high-quality education" and pays more attention to equity and fairness. It also looks to shift a lot of the headaches--including the punitive stuff--to states. More than likely they'll oblige. Stay tuned.


We are talking about The War On Teachers, after all. Test scores have been used extensively in teacher evaluations and as an incentive (merit pay). Beyond that, testing and test scores can result in everything from private "talks" in the principal's office to public PD humiliation. 

Humiliation, you say? Remember those five periodic practice tests from earlier? The ones that carved fifteen weeks (plus) out of every school year? The ones that were supposed to raise actual test scores two years later? This is about that, from March 2022:

And so, after each test we would look at how dismal our scores were and compare them to the previous test to see if they went up or down. In a PD about *data* we would assemble in the elementary cafeteria and show each other our dismal scores (our students’ scores) and make up a story about why our scores might have gone down or up, and we’d make posters and cut out student names and put up the posters around the cafeteria and go one-by-one around the room and tell our stories and answer for our sins. That is, those of us in the math and English departments. All others adjourn to your rooms to work on teaching stuff.

The tests were all different and tested different standards and skills. We were told we could not test the same things twice to see if we had made progress. We compared scores from different kinds of tests and had to pretend that the improvement or decline from one test to the next meant something. “Wow, those kids really got it this time.” “Oh (downward inflection), that’s disappointing. What did you do differently?” “I taught different stuff!” And we did this for years.

I tried several times during the early days of this catastrophe to point out that we were not actually measuring progress or the lack of it. “It’s apples to orangutans!” “Five answers to five questions is not a valid measure of proficiency!” “Who chose four correct answers as the benchmark for proficient? And why?” “Skills? Standards? I looked at the data and my student scores precisely tracked their reading levels. Aren’t we really just assessing their reading?” I was... unheard.

Our analysis didn't mean anything because the scores didn't mean anything. Nevertheless, every five to eight weeks we engaged in this round-robin flagellation and excuse-fest, and we nodded and made posters, all the while knowing it was nonsense and getting sicker and sicker because there was so much more we could have been doing for our students. Humiliating.

The public shaming over test scores is disgraceful. The use of evaluation methods based on test scores, such as "value-added measurement," is, in the words of Dr. Au, "Neither Fair Nor Accurate.

Douglas F. Warring, in his 2015 article "Teacher Evaluations: Use or Misuse?" in the Universal Journal of Educational Research sketches out the requirements for a more accurate system, offering that "to be fair and to provide trustworthy estimates of teacher effectiveness, value-added measures require complicated formulas that take into account as many influences on student achievement as possible."

One of the things worse than VAM evaluations that aren't honest is merit pay that is. Or may be. Here Lam D. Pham, Tuan D. Nguyen, and Matthew G. Springer from Vanderbilt University show that bribing teachers for higher test scores that, again, are not meaningful ... works. Sometimes. "In some contexts." 

Evaluating teachers based on test scores doesn't improve teaching. It doesn't produce achievement. It doesn't raise test scores unless that's all you want, and you're okay with the curriculum getting further squashed, and you've got a bunch of extra cash. 

ItDoesn'tWork. And everybody knows it. More humiliation.


Students are punished in ways gross and subtle. A study by David Figlio published in 2006 in the Journal of Public Economics found that from 1996 to 2000, Florida schools found an "incentive to re-shape the testing pool through selective discipline in response to accountability pressures." In an article published in the University of Florida News, Figlio described it this way: 

Introduction of high-stakes testing to improve school accountability has apparently led these schools to disproportionately punish low-performing students during the testing period to try to ‘game the system.’

Although Florida has changed "accountability rules" to prevent this abuse, other penalties remain. Florida uses test scores for retention/promotion decisions, which can be discriminatory and closely associated with dropout rates.

For students who fail to excel on practice exams there's extra homework focused solely on the tests.

Dr. Peter Gray writes in Psychology Today from earlier this year ("Standardized Testing and the Destruction of Education") that testing suppresses creativity and that "the more we test, the more we reduce students' interests." 

In her 2016 paper for the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Christina Simpson underscores the stress, either from direct threat of retention or implied consequences to their teachers and schools, that students are under. 

Citing Dutro, E., & Selland, M. (2012), “I like to read, but I know I'm not good at it” published in Curriculum Inquiry, Simpson writes, "how students perform on high-stakes testing can affect their beliefs about their own competence and potential as learners." 

Professor David C. Berliner, educational psychologist and Regents' Professor Emeritus of Education at Arizona State University, has this 2003 research report reviewing the negative impacts of the testing regime on student motivation, graduation rates, and learning. It makes so much sense that it's no wonder education bosses ignore it.

What we are doing to students is incredibly destructive. There was a moment, sometime during the pandemic, when it looked like we might break the cycle. We would sober up and realize what shits we had been. Alas, no. Our "industry demands" Education Secretary decided that somebody--perhaps (the testing) industry?--needed data during a worldwide health crisis. Turns out that glimmer of hope was nothing but a mirage. We have returned to our regularly scheduled programming and we can get back to torturing kids.

Just imagine being one of those students--one of the ones you know quite well because, you know, you teach them every day. And imagine that you have been taking tests for what seems like your entire school life and that these tests are calibrated to yield a certain number of “not proficient”s every year, and that for as long as you can remember you have been one of them.

If you are reading this right now and you’re thinking “well that’s one kid” or “a few kids--intervention!” you have not done your homework. We’re talking about fifty to seventy percent of our kids in California.

And even though you are “not proficient,” you have been going through school and learning stuff and passing your classes and doing pretty well, but every time you think you know something the test gets harder and you are once again one of the “not proficient”s. And imagine you don’t even find that out until the next year when there’s nothing you can do about it.

It must really suck, right? And so after having been battered and beaten with a number two pencil for long enough, a lot of those kids get discouraged and give up. Not all of them, but certainly enough for us to ask, “What significant and actionable information are we collecting by putting kids and parents and teachers and schools and districts through all this every year and sometimes every month? Why are we even doing this?

And this, for many of us, is the breaking point. It was for me. It was terrible being shamed for something that had been years in the making when I had only known these kids for a few months. It was scary being threatened and punished for something over which I had little control. It was frustrating and miserable losing whole regions of learning and instead devoting so much time to something that did not reflect the most important things we were doing together in the classroom.

But all that was nothing compared to what it does to kids.

As I watched my students struggle each year, or give up, or do well and think that meant something, I got more and more discouraged. No amount of evidence or activism could steer the ship away from the iceberg. We seem perpetually unable to examine the data and change course accordingly. 

I couldn't in good conscience--and mine is only fair--be a part of it any longer. I felt it was abusive and damaging, perhaps deliberately so. I was not alone

I know it is all part of the plan. I know that testing is another battlefield in the War On Teachers and on public schooling, and that if the Enemies of Public Schooling can degrade the teaching profession enough that nobody wants to do it, then the entire institution collapses.

On the off chance somebody is out there listening and actually wants teachers to stay, here are some ideas.

In the project to destroy public schools and replace them with a "free" marketplace of schools, no strategy has been more important, more effective, and more broadly supported--even by people who should have known better--than testing.

Here it is through the eyes of a student: 

Standardized tests are ineffective and overly stressful for the students. Students may perform worse because of tests that are supposed to measure how well they are doing. Testing doesn’t even serve the purpose it is intended to. In the crusade to record student performance, standardized tests are driving grades and student morale into the ground.  Schools need to focus more on mental health and less on testing!

If Charlie West understands it, we all should.