Philanthropy and Control: Bill Gates And Our Public Schools

Bill_Gates_2013
The Self-Appointed Most Powerful Man in Education

In 2008, Bill Gates took an online class about the history of the universe (called “Big History”) while he was on the treadmill and he thought it was great. Most people in the same situation might share the news on social media, or perhaps tell their spouse about it, or even bring it up at work the following day. Bill Gates, who at the time was the richest man on Planet Earth, decided something else.

“It was very clarifying for me. I thought, God, everyone should watch this thing!” [1]

So, he pumped $10 million into the class in order for it to be adapted to the high school level, at first piloted by a few thousand students and eventually scaled up to many more.

This is a tiny example of Bill Gates’ reach, but it is clear that he has been the main player picking the winners and losers in the education world in recent years. From urban school experiments, to the proliferation of charter schools, to the controversial Common Core standards, Gates seems to always be the man behind the curtain…

For the last decade, Bill Gates, the CEO of Microsoft-turned-philanthropist, has operated as the unelected superintendent of the American school system. In 2014, Washington Post Reporter Lyndsey Layton asked him about it.

Layton: “How about the simple notion that because you are funding so much of the Common Core, charter schools, and teacher evaluations, and you are advocating for it, that you have become a very powerful figure in K-12 education. But you’re unelected- some people say that’s undemocratic.”

Gates: “It’s important to separate out two things: there’s how much resources and energy is going into new ideas and then there’s the question of what gets chosen to be adopted…”

Bill Gates then launched into a non-answer about the necessity of his foundation to empower “teachers’ ideas” and the lack of research and development funding in education. But Lyndsey Layton kept pressing.

Layton:”The running joke (in education) is, sooner or later, everybody works for Gates, because, when you look at how the breadth of your funding, and in terms of the advocacy work for the Common Core, you’ve funded on the left of the spectrum, on the right of the spectrum, think tanks, unions, business groups…the suggestion is that because of that pervasive presence, that you set the agenda. It’s harder to get contrasting views and to get real honest debate because you are funding such a wide variety of actors in the field.

Gates: “Boy, I guess we’re not gonna get to any substance, I’m sorry…at the end of the day, I don’t think wanting education to be better is a left wing thing or a right wing thing…We fund people to look into things…”

But Gates’ avoidant answers don’t tell the full story- his body language was dismissive of Layton’s questions, and throughout the interview he frequently questioned her questions rather than addressing them. To Bill Gates, the idea that one man pumping billions of dollars along with a strongly-held set of ideas into our public education system is something not to question but to accept as normal.

However, the opposite is true. We as Americans need to question the role that Bill Gates and his foundation have played in establishing themselves as a quasi-governmental decision maker in the field of education. Despite the expertise of Bill Gates in creating computer products, he has established himself as not just a funder in education but a decision maker. Billionaire philanthropists question and micromanage our schools, but it is time to question the philanthropists themselves. They apparently have every right to enter the public school fight without any question of experience, expertise, or ideas; they buy their way to power in the education world with their money and false expertise just because they got wealthy. It is anti-democratic and it is patronizing to the millions of trained professionals who work every day to fight for better schools and outcomes for kids.

As Bill Gates is in the process of dishing out another $1.7 billion towards public education, it is critical that he be evaluated just as he says schools and teachers need to be evaluated. A recent study by the RAND Corporation found that one of the Gates Foundation’s main initiatives on Teacher Effectiveness “did not achieve its goals of increasing teaching effectiveness overall, improving access to effective teaching for low-income minority students, or boosting student outcomes.” The Gates Foundation decided to move away from funding teacher evaluation methods, but the total cost of the failed program was an astounding $575 million. Even with abject failures such as this, Gates continues to fund his ideas about education with zero accountability. Perhaps it is time to question the very premises that guide the Gates Foundation’s education initiatives and to think about how to redirect the effort and funds in a manner that is truly beneficial to our society.

A History of “Help”

In February 2012, the Gates Foundation gathered 250 teachers at a hotel in Arizona to share their vision. The Gates Foundation’s Irvin Scott said, “We’re trying to start a movement. A movement started by you. A movement you’re leading”[2].

Scott’s words wring hollow because…well…this organic, grassroots “movement” just happens to be started and led by one of the wealthiest men in human history. It is clear that the cognitive dissonance is deep in the billionaire philanthropist world, where wealthy men convince themselves that their exertion of control is actually somehow led by the people.

Bill Gates left Microsoft to work for his foundation full-time in 2008, and since then, Gates has spent his time and money trying to make the world a better place. I have nothing wrong with that idea in theory, but he began to exert more control in the education sector almost immediately.

In 2009 alone, Gates spent $373 million on education, and he increasingly attached an anti-public school ideology to that funding. He funded advertising campaigns to promote the Common Core Standards (which are pretty unpopular with teachers if my experience counts for anything), he gave money to anti-union groups like Teach Plus and Educators for Excellence, and he handed $500,000 to the right wing American Enterprise Institute in order to “influence the national education debates.” The Gates Foundation has also funded anti-public school movies such as Waiting for Superman and Won’t Back Down as well as the media organization Media Bullpen, which issues “grades” to the media based on their support of market-based reforms [3]. Like Washington Post Reporter Lyndsey Layton pointed out, Gates has funded advocacy groups on both sides of the political aisle in order to set the agenda for ideas. The overall theme of the funding is that our public schools are failing and in need of fixing; this idea is rooted in the false premise that somehow our education system is in a vacuum and that micromanaging this system will make it succeed. Gates has focused very intently on improving the teaching profession and hiring great teachers without critically thinking about the structures that surround the education system.

I have learned from my teaching experiences all of the horrors that students walk in the door with- the effects of technology addiction, poverty, segregation, and trauma are visceral to anyone who has stepped in the doors of an underserved school any time recently. The toxic environment that millions of American children grow up in is far more pressing than the inability of teachers to conquer the toxicity.

To adequately fight for an equitable education system, education must be seen in conjunction with systems of government, healthcare, the economy, technology, and the environment. That means that we should have a conversation about the very system of capitalism which puts so much wealth in the hands of so few people (like Bill Gates) and leaves 21% of American children growing up in poverty.

A Failed Evaluation

As Anthony Cody points out in his book “The Educator and the Oligarch,” some of the Gates-funded ideas that have proliferated in recent years include:

1. “teacher pay and evaluation systems that must give significant weight to test scores and VAM formulas.”

2. “Unlimited expansion and deregulation of charter schools.”

3. “Creation of Common Core standards and aligned tests and curriculum” [4].

Each of these are flawed ideas in their own right, but the summation of them is that they seek to take a public good and apply privatized market forces to fix it (Whatup, Betsy DeVos!). These ideas seek to standardize K-12 education so as to make it easier for technologists (Like Gates!) to collect data on our students and thus push out personalized learning technologies to ‘better teach’ our students than humans would do. In this vision, teachers would just be overseers of the technology-to-student relationship. Oh, and these ideas seek to punish those teachers who do not get with the program and deviate from the standardized way to teach.

A Better World

The technocratic approach to education reform is a bleak one, one where computer software knows and understands our children’s needs better than humans do. This approach distrusts democracy and instead rams down authoritarian micromanaging onto the professionals who are entrusted with our children.

Famed education scholar John Dewey stated, “Education is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.”

Well, I want a world that creates personalized learning with small class sizes and independent teachers rather than through Orwellian AI products. Rather than fixating on testing basic math and reading skills of impoverished students, I think a focus on other skills will make better lifelong learners and happier students.

Some of the most important skills such as creativity, critical thinking, resilience, curiosity, empathy, self-awareness, compassion, sense of wonder, and integrity cannot be effectively tested. As a teacher, these are the skills that I truly care about my students coming away with. In my experience, the learning comes with unique lessons and good relationships with students anyways.

I admire Bill Gates for attempting to use his wealth and power to do good in the world. But he has unduly influenced the public education system in an undemocratic way, and he needs to humbly accept the fact that he has made some big mistakes in education over the last decade.

If he wants to remedy the failures of the Gates Foundation in public education, he should start by listening to stakeholders who are not paid off with his Foundation’s money nor agree with his technocratic ideology.

Rather than charter schools, standardized tests, and teacher effectiveness measures, I can rattle off a few initiatives that would be more effective. Small class sizes, more time for teachers to lesson plan, and higher teacher salaries would strengthen the profession and lead to better outcomes for students. To make the impact Gates wants to make, he could make education a more attractive career and empower the professionals who are already in the trenches. But most importantly, he needs to understand that his non-credentialed role in making education decisions needs to end.

Meanwhile back in reality, the doublespeak continues from the Gates Foundation about their recent $1.7 billion commitment to education initiatives. They say they are going to focus on “partnering with middle and high schools” through “evidence-based interventions that best fit their needs, and data-driven continuous learning”[5]. Sadly, it seems like Gates has not learned his lesson about paternalistic philanthropy. If Bill Gates really wanted to help change the future, he would support an initiative that supports students questioning why one man has so much power in a supposedly free and democratic society.


1. [1] Cody, Anthony. The Educator and the Oligarch. Garn Press, 2014. Pp. 37.

2. [2] Ibid, pp 108-109.

3. [3] https://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/07/magazine/so-bill-gates-has-this-idea-for-a-history-class.html.

4. [4] Cody, Anthony. The Educator and the Oligarch. Garn Press, 2014. Pp. 161.

5. [5] http://k12education.gatesfoundation.org/our-work-going-forward/.

Republicans Are Trying to Politicize Michigan’s Social Studies Standards: Do Not Let Them Alter History

One of my favorite things about being a Social Studies Teacher is getting to talk about the controversial topics. Some of my favorite teaching moments have been lively classroom debates about President Trump’s wall, NFL players kneeling for the national anthem, and Malcolm X vs. Martin Luther King. I pride myself on facilitating open and honest dialogue, getting students to think critically about the issues of our society, and pushing students to listen to other points of view. this encourages students to have empathy for others who do not look or think like them. Rather than avoidance and suppression, thinking and honest dialogue are essential attributes in a free society.

In order for this dialogue to occur, students need to learn about our history, even if that history makes us uncomfortable.

First reported by an article from Bridge Magazine, the review committee to revise Michigan’s Social Studies state standards eliminated or downplayed concepts including core democratic values, the KKK, Roe vs. Wade, climate change, gay rights, and the NAACP.

Outrageously, the committee had clear partisan connections to conservative causes and the Republican party, particularly with the inclusion of 5 well-known conservative activists/politicians on the committee of 21 people, to go along with 0 liberal politicians or activists.

patrick_colbeck
State Senator Patrick Colbeck (R)

The inclusion of State Senator Patrick Colbeck is the most unforgivable, as he has downplayed the KKK’s racist roots and promulgated conspiracy theories about Islam. Colbeck is running for governor and is an overall intolerable politician. He has worked tirelessly to roll back teachers’ union protections and to proliferate terrible cyber schools, and he is a former charter school board member who believes wholeheartedly in the school choice policies that have further decimated Michigan’s public schools. With his connections to charter schools, cyber schools, and the fact that he attended catholic schools while growing up, it is interesting that State Senator Colbeck suddenly wants to interfere so voraciously in the content selection of public schools.

In response to this egregious right-wing intervention on our classrooms, I attended a public comment session for the standards revisions along with dozens of other teachers, students, and community members. As a group, there was huge dissatisfaction with the downplaying of the word “democracy” just because it is close to “democrats.”

Here’s a video of the public reacting to this justification (hissing done by yours truly):

 

The panel of MDE board members who took the public’s questions made sure to give very “political” answers that alleviated themselves of any responsibility, and Colbeck and the rest of the conservative activists were not on the panel to answer questions. However, the panel did note the need to revise the standards. Video:

 

Many thoughtful and intelligent people in the crowd asked questions of the panel or made profound comments about the narrow-mindedness of the standards or of the biased editing process. One very passionate speaker for more inclusion and diversity was Kaitlin Popielarz, a Wayne State ph.D student:

 

What I loved to see was a student ask a hard-hitting question about why there is no Michigan Social Studies Standard for teaching students how to vote. (Gee, it’s almost like Colbeck and the other conservative activists don’t want the people to vote! ) I agree with this student! Video:

 

Then, I took the mic and asked a question to the panel: “why were 5 well-known conservative activists and politicians allowed on the committee to revise our Social Studies standards and will they be allowed to revise them in the future?”

The panel did not give me a firm answer, and in fact confirmed that some members of the previous review committee (and LORD KNOWS State Senator Colbeck will make sure he is one of them) will get to review and edit the standards again in the future. Despite the cathartic process of democracy playing out, teachers and citizens will need to stay vigilant about additional standards edits and who is on future committees.

Here was a speech I wrote that I was prepared to share at the meeting (due to time constraints, I was unable to share the full speech):

“I read these proposed Social Studies standards last week and a single idea came to mind, “ignorance is strength.”

This quotation is from the famous dystopian book 1984 by George Orwell, and I could not help to think that this committee is trying to strengthen our state by disappearing or downplaying such concepts as the KKK, Roe vs. Wade, gay rights, climate change, the NAACP, and core democratic values.

Just because you are uncomfortable with how history went, this does not mean that you should alter it. Instead, you should encourage teachers and students to ask questions, to debate, to critically think, to engage in the process of inquiry and to thus care about the world.

To care, to know, and to think are ever-important in our world today, as our society has many problems worth solving and questions worth debating. But we are currently failing at our jobs. Did you know that 11% of Americans (22% of millennials) have never heard of the Holocaust, and 31% of Americans (41% of millennials) think that less than 2 million people died in the Holocaust.

And this is where the downplaying of the word “democracy” by this committee becomes more obscene. Yes, we also have a republic and that should be highlighted, but to delete phrases like “core democratic values” loses our American connection to the famous Greek system of “rule by the people” which differentiates from autocracy “rule by one”, and oligarchy “rule by a small number of people.”

These connections are ever-more necessary in a time where the median wealth of white families is $171,000 while median wealth of Black families is $17,600 and median wealth of Hispanic families is $20,700. In a time where the richest 1 percent of American families owns 40% of the country’s wealth. In a time where just 61.4% of voting aged Americans vote in elections. Students should critically think about how we can better strive for democracy in America, not turn away from the word just because it’s too close to “democrats.”

Freedom, government, war, racism, police brutality, potholes in the roads, wealth inequality, capitalism, guns, gun control, abortion, immigration, privilege, global warming, taxation, welfare. The issues of our time should be debated and discussed in Social Studies classes, not ignored and obfuscated with politically interfering standards.

In a time where students see the realities of our world in front of them every day, ignoring those realities in favor of pre-packaged political goop means creating uninformed citizens who don’t care.

With standards like these, written by a committee that includes 5 well-known conservative activists, including a politician running for governor (without political voices from the other side), students are being blinded from a part of history and debate that goes against the world view of the committee.

We need to have truly politically neutral standards that also shy towards controversial topics in our world today and in our past history, not away from them. We are not strengthening ourselves by being ignorant to the KKK, core democratic values, the NAACP, gay rights, or Roe vs Wade.

Instead, with these proposed standards, we are moving towards George Orwell’s completed warning in the book 1984, “War is peace, Freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.””

If you would like to take action, here are a few easy steps you can do:

1) Fill out this online survey for public comments: https://fs28.formsite.com/pf98Hd/form7/index.html

2)  Attend one of the remaining public comment sessions on the proposed Social Studies standards:

June 26- Eastern Upper Peninsula, Sault Ste. Marie

June 27- Michigan Library & Historical Center, Lansing

June 28- Kent ISD, Grand Rapids

3) Read more about the proposed standards changes here:

Awesome Bridge Magazine Article that unearthed this whole mess: https://www.bridgemi.com/talent-education/history-gets-conservative-twist-michigan-social-studies-standards

The Proposed Standards themselves: https://www.michigan.gov/documents/mde/SS_May_2018_Cut_Cap_Final_622356_7.pdf

 

 

 

Teachers Should March in Every State: Michigan, Let’s Go Next!

Laurentius_de_Voltolina_001-1
Lecture at the University of Bologna, Italy, 1400s.

Remember when New Jersey Governor Chris Christie loved yelling at teachers? Long before he orchestrated traffic jams on bridges and became Donald Trump’s lapdog, Chris Christie was a darling of the conservative movement because he loved talking down public school (and largely female) teachers. One clip in particular always stuck out to me.

Rita Wilson (Teacher): You’re not compensating me for my education and you’re not compensating me for my experience.

Chris Christie: Well you know what? Then you don’t have to do it.

In the clip, Christie offered no defense for abysmal teacher salaries- instead, he actually blamed the teachers themselves for signing up for the poor pay and inadequate benefits. In Christie’s world, if you want to complain, step away and someone else will take your job.

In fact, this is the Republican process on destroying government services.

  1. Decimate funding for a public service
  2. Watch the crumbling of that public service
  3. Blame workers of that public service for that failing public service
  4. Work with corporations/special interests to privatize or eliminate that public service.

With his unceremonious fall from public life (now, he’s reduced to confronting fans at sports games), Christie’s posturing looks ridiculous in hindsight. Yet, it reveals something deep about America’s view about teachers. There is this myth of the virtuous and self-sacrificing teacher who cares nothing of personal gain nor money; this is reinforced by films that show teachers experiencing school-related traumagetting divorced and getting fired in pursuit of their love for teaching. However, when we teachers ask questions about our own livelihood and needs, suddenly society does not love us so much.

Teachers in 2018 say that enough is enough. We see an upward economy that has record corporate profits and sky-high stock market gains, yet the wages of teachers seem stuck in 1980. Teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, and North Carolina have yelled “Enough is enough” with marches, protests, and social media campaigns. These protests have worked because they have stripped away the romantic notion of the self-sacrificing teacher and replaced it with a professional vision for what teachers are worth. If this strategy can work in “red-state America,” it can work anywhere.

There are a few statistics that explain what is going on with teachers in America:

  1. In 2015, American public school teachers were paid 17 percent lower than similarly educated workers. In 1994, this gap was just 1.8 percent[1].
  2. Most industrialized countries pay public school teachers more than the United States . As of 2013, 26 of those countries pay teachers more (when compared to similarly educated workers); just 5 pay less[2].
  3. In 35 of 50 states, teacher salaries have dropped over the last 15 years (when adjusted for inflation) [3].

It is clear that teachers have a raw deal. As a young public school teacher myself, this is obvious to me. There is, however, a question that I cannot seem to answer: why are teachers in America paid so poorly?

Teachers are Paid like S*** Because of Sexism

In the excellent book “The Teacher Wars,” Dana Goldstein recounts the history of the teaching profession in America. In the mid-19th century, just 10 percent of American women worked jobs outside their homes [4]. When Catherine Beecher first pitched the idea of women teaching in American schools, she argued that schools could save money by paying female teachers less, saying,

“A woman needs support only for herself” while a man “requires support for himself and a family” [5].

This idea played into the assumption that women deserve less money for equal labor, and set forth a path for teachers to be underpaid.

Horace Mann, the father of the American public school system, noted that replacing male teachers with female teachers saved the state of Massachusetts $11,000 in one year alone [6]. In 1842, a manual for creating local schools said female teachers were an essential part of a “cheap system” of education and that women would be willing to work for half of what men of the “poorest capacity” would require [7].

In New York, by 1850, 4/5 of teachers were women, and by 1873, a majority of teachers in nearly all northern states were women [8]. As America increasingly turned to women to teach its children, it simultaneously ‘saved money’ by lowering the pay of teachers. The foundation for horrendous teacher salaries was set.

Goldstein admits in her book that during this era of American history, “teaching became understood less as a career than as a philanthropic vocation or romantic calling” [9].

This is why Chris Christie told Rita Wilson that she could either accept abysmal teacher pay or give up her job to someone else. Chris Christie did not show Rita Wilson the respect of a worker who was trying to get by on a meager salary in a time of increased cost of living. He treated her as someone who should unflinchingly accept awful conditions because that’s what teachers should do.

We teachers are sacred and romanticized until we ask for reasonable livelihoods and job security. Financial prosperity is not part of the romanticized notion of the selfless teacher. In 2018, teachers must fight together against this notion.

A Nation at Risk…of Having Inadequate Educators

The famous “A Nation at Risk” report released in the 1980s told America that it needed to get its act together on education or else trouble was ahead. Some of the recommendations for getting more professional teachers included “higher base salaries, merit pay to reward effective teachers, and stricter teacher evaluation systems that made it more difficult to earn and keep tenure” [10].

The “higher base salaries” part was conveniently ignored as evidenced by the fact that average teacher salaries have barely budged since the 1980s. What has proliferated instead has been intensive evaluation systems that tie student test scores to teacher evaluations as well as foolish merit pay experiments. Without higher base salaries, however, the other solutions fall apart.

Things have largely gotten worse for teachers since the 1980s.

Teach for America and other “quick-to-certify” programs de-professionalize the teaching profession and treat teaching as a stop in life towards more important work (Wall Street/law school/corporate ed reform). Many schools and corporations have dedicated themselves to “blended learning” schemes and overuse of technology that intentionally seek to lower the importance of teachers. Flipped lessons occur where students learn on their own at home and do self-guided homework in class…teachers in many American classroom are sadly no more than babysitters/disciplinarians. With decreasing pay and benefits as well as decreasing prestige, is it any wonder that America has a teacher shortage?

And yet, there is so much hope right now because of courageous teachers in Arizona, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Arizona, North Carolina, and Kentucky. Finally, educators are clinging together and fighting back against years of mistreatment and disrespect. There are Facebook groups and Unions and teacher friend groups that are talking. Now is the time for us to unite together- 50 states- and assert ourselves as a force that will not sit back as corporate reformers, big-tech peddlers, and government stooges further de-legitimize our noble profession into a charitable calling stripped of all humanity and dignity.

We must rise up in Michigan, where we teachers sacrificed when times were hard in the mid-2000s. But now that the economy is humming along again and Governor Rick Snyder has made sure to keep taxes on the rich nice and low, it is time to fight for our livelihood so that we can do what we love: teach kids (and cut down on our side-hustles). We will use this time as an opportunity to have an honest conversation about the sexism and disrespect that has led to the de-professionalization of teaching, we will use this time to reclaim our 12.1% pay cut over 15 years, and we will fight the idea that worthless test scores be tied to 40% of teacher evaluations starting in 2018-2019. It is our time in Michigan to take to the streets, to tell our stories and of our hardships, and to march on Lansing and tell Rick Snyder and the legislature to hear our cries for school funding and personal livelihood. As much as Donald Trump, Chris Christie, or believers of the sexist ‘charitable calling’ conception of teachers would disagree, we have earned our right to be respected professionals. Now, we must band together to claim that right.


[1] https://www.epi.org/publication/the-teacher-pay-gap-is-wider-than-ever-teachers-pay-continues-to-fall-further-behind-pay-of-comparable-workers/

[2] https://www.brookings.edu/blog/brown-center-chalkboard/2016/06/20/teacher-pay-around-the-world/

[3] https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/3/9/17100404/teacher-pay-salary-underpaid-database

[4] Goldstein, Dana. The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2014. Pp. 20.

[5] Ibid, pp 21.

[6] Ibid, pp 26.

[7] Ibid, pp 27.

[8] Ibid, pp 36-40.

[9] Ibid, pp 31.

[10] Ibid, pp 170.

 

The “Woke” Teacher’s Dilemma

France_in_XXI_Century._School
School in the year 2000 as imagined by a French artist in 1901.

“These are innocent children, after all. They have done nothing wrong. They have committed no crime. They are too young to have offended us in any way at all. One searches for some way to understand why a society as rich and, frequently, as generous as ours would leave these children in their penury and squalor for so long- and with so little public indignation.”[1].

In his  book “Savage Inequalities,” famed education writer Jonathan Kozol used the words above to reflect on the absurdity of America’s inequality in education. That quote is specifically about children in East St. Louis, Illinois in 1991, but they may as well be talking about modern day Detroit, Washington, D.C., rural Ohio, or a myriad of other American communities. As I have worked in education for over half a decade now, there is something cruelly familiar in Kozol’s observation.

Children from underserved backgrounds are some of the kindest, funniest, most interesting students a teacher will ever work with. Despite odds being stacked against them, there is often a spirit of hope in children that does not seem to match the horrific conditions that may physically surround them in and out of school.

As a teacher, I have relished in academic successes, inside jokes, and laughter with these students, even as the challenges seem insurmountable at times.

However, the more I learn about the systemic conditions that have created and continue to sustain rampant poverty and racism in America, the more it seems absurd to expect my students to bring their best everyday with NO EXCUSES and then solely blame them if they do not always succeed. Books such as “American Apartheid” by Douglas Massey, “The Color of Law” by Richard Rothstein, “New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander, and “Origins of the Urban Crisis” by Tom Sugrue told me about how Blacks and Whites were deliberately separated from one another in America in the post-Civil War era, with a set of laws and public institutions that intentionally made it more difficult for Black people and poor White people to succeed in America. Regardless of any recent progress achieved, the bitter truth is that 21% of all children in America grow up in poverty today. We know that the effects of poverty on children are absolutely crippling.

And then I get out of my own head and actually talk to my students about their lives. I am routinely flattened by the traumas that students put up with. Some of the most common things I have heard are about abusive or inattentive parents. In the state of Michigan (where I teach), roughly 18% of third grade students have been subject to at least one formal investigation for child maltreatment. At schools with more underserved students, this statistic is far higher. Then there are the many traumas that occur from students having parents in prison, having parents who are addicted to drugs, having friends or family killed by guns or by suicide, and students going through mental health crises. This is not even to touch on immigrant students who fear ICE taking away their families or the general fear felt by having a president who does not respect women, diversity, young people, or immigrants (or teachers!).

Furthermore, it often feels like the odds are stacked against us teachers. In the last 15 years, if adjusted for inflation, teachers in Michigan have had our pay cut by 12.1%. As American corporations received record profits  in 2017, teachers in 35 states have seen their (inflation-adjusted) salaries drop over the last 15 years.  High-stakes testing, decreasing power of unions, and edtech fixations have only increased teacher work burdens. Is it any wonder that America has a teacher shortage crisis  and an annual teacher attrition rate of 8% (double than that of countries like Finland and Singapore)?

By becoming a teacher in America, I made financial sacrifices for myself and essentially ensured a life in the lower-middle-class. The reality for young teachers today is spending their early careers paying off exorbitant college loans, budgeting for rising home and rent prices, and paying hundreds of out-of-pocket dollars to buy school supplies- all just to play a game that feels rigged from the start by out-of-touch politicians and corporate reformers who have never stepped foot in a classroom.

Of course, as a teacher, I must put aside the problems of the world each day in order to bring out the best in young people and create an effective learning environment in my reality, no matter what that reality gives me.

But as the words of Jonathan Kozol invite us to ask, why should that reality for teachers and students in Detroit and America be so bleak?

Yet, as a teacher, I cannot help but be inspired by the outliers, the success stories, the majority of students who make my life whole with their kindness, humor, and hard work. I work tirelessly to improve the outcomes of my students, no matter what their backgrounds and circumstances are. In the classroom, I am no cynic- I inspire and I encourage students to achieve as best I know how. Still, as a “woke” teacher, I will always have the dilemma of how to reconcile the cruel world with my warm classroom.

What I have settled on is:

1) Listen to the stories of my students and always have empathy for them.

2)  Show students where they can have control in their lives that can lead to positive changes and successes.

3) Resist oppressive teaching practices that perpetuate the school-to-prison-pipeline.

4) Actively participate in the political change that I seek; ally with other teachers to fight for what we deserve (see Oklahoma and West Virginia).

5) Model self-care for my students; intentionally take time for myself and be kind to myself despite having a job that requires so much. 

Kozol finishes his book by remarking that “(American children) are all quite wonderful and innocent when they are small. We soil them needlessly.” [2]

Sadly, his words ring true nearly 30 years later. In order to create meaningful change, we in education must look boldly in new inward and outward directions.


[1] Kozol, Jonathan. Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools. Crown Publishers, Inc., 1991. Pp. 40.

[2] Ibid, pp 233.

 

A Call to End Online Charter Schools

A second-semester senior named Brianna (name changed for privacy reasons) asked me if she could take her online class in my room after school. She needed to take one semester of American History to graduate, and the school had set her up with an online course…I said, “Ok!”

Over the ensuing weeks, she sat in silence while staring at her screen, looking very much like she would rather be anywhere else. Over the weeks, I observed her method of “learning”: mindlessly speeding through the slideshows, taking the quizzes, searching for the answers directly on Google, and plugging them in.  She failed the quizzes repeatedly because authentic learning was not happening, and she continually tried fruitlessly to scour the internet for a community of others that could help her.

Quickly, the teacher in me knew I had to intervene in order to help her. I was horrified by the online course: it lacked the very basics in engagement and interest; there was no opportunity for interaction with teacher nor other students in the class. Worse, this class was not written for students like Brianna, a hard-working yet struggling student from the Eastside of Detroit. There was no opportunity for help on the website.

The digital class stripped learning of the urban teaching best practices I had learned (engagement, support, relationships, opportunity for student collaboration and autonomy) and created a “check-box” product. Brianna constantly remarked on what percentage of the class she had completed. Despite her (and my) best efforts, she had no chance of passing the class (happy ending: she ended up finding alternate means to get the course credit and graduated!).

Regardless, it was clear that online education failed Brianna. The sad reality that I have since learned is that hundreds of thousands of children nationwide are going to school full-time in online charter schools. These students are also being failed.

Cyber Scam

Online education in the K-12 sphere is a growing trend- as of 2015, there were some 275,000 students enrolled in online charter schools. In my home state of Michigan, from 2010 to 2014, the number of students in Online Charter Schools increased from 718 students to 7,934 students (over 1000% increase).

Private, for-profit companies (using public funds) are cashing in- the two largest online charter companies, K12 and Connections Academy, are raking in an estimated $1 billion per year (as of 2014). The motive is profit over substance: less operating costs, less teachers, and less building maintenance.

The results have been damning: according a study from the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CREDO), students in online charters lost an average of about 72 days of learning in reading and 180 days of learning in math IN THE COURSE OF AN 180-DAY SCHOOL YEAR.  They could have had equal math progress if they had spent the entire year asleep.

In Philadelphia, a system composed of mainly poverty-stricken Black and Latinx students, online schools educated more than one-third of students as of 2014 [1]. The kicker is that, between 2011 and 2014, 100% of those students failed their state achievement tests. 100%!!!  [2].

Students in online charter schools are losing out on their education. Period.

But it goes deeper than just test scores in math and reading: what else are students who spend their educational experience alone behind a screen missing out on?

Public school is meant to provide positive socialization to peers, mentorship from responsible adults, an opportunity to thrive in extracurricular passions, and an acclimation to our society. Online charters do not give students these enriching opportunities. What about tactile and interactive learning that goes on during gym, recess, music, art, video production, journalism, and engineering? What about group interaction or public speaking opportunities? Online learning focuses on simply checking the boxes: low-level tasks, rote memorization, and testing…alone…without the aid of professional teachers nor peer interaction.

Few educators would endorse this obviously terrible idea- horrible in theory, inefficient in practice. My mind instantly said that this is the work of politicians that were jumping for joy over the possibility of cutting school funding costs while screwing over the teachers’ unions. Sure enough, the more I dug into where the idea for K-12 students to go to online schools, the more it led back to a list of Wall Street profiteers and right-wing politicians: Jeb Bush, Betsy DeVos, Scott Walker, Rick Snyder, Michael “Gordon Gekko” Milken, and John Kasich among them.

Republicans Love Bad Online Schools

Noliwe Rooks’ book “Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and the End of Public Education” chronicles the root of the online schools epidemic: for-profit corporations with the help of some familiar names in American politics.

Betsy_DeVos_(32288212144)

Our current Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, a billionaire with no experience going to or working in public schools, is a huge fan of virtual schools. In an interview with Philanthropy Magazine, DeVos said that virtual schools allow “all parents, regardless of their zip code, to have the opportunity to choose the best educational setting for their children” [3]. Obviously, common sense and the data disagree with her. Groups that she has created and funded include the American Federation for Children and the Great Lakes Education Project, and these groups have successfully lobbied politicians for the expansion of online schools as “vital educational options” [4]. Betsy DeVos has proven repeatedly that she does not have an ideology that is good for our children- the underperforming and dehumanizing online charter schools reinforce that.

Jeb_Bush_by_Gage_Skidmore_5

Former Republican Governor Jeb Bush is another parent of the online school industry. After leaving the governorship, Bush created initiatives and organizations including Digital Learning Now, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, and the Digital Learning Council, which have all encouraged and incentivized the proliferation of the online school industry [5]. Bush’s ‘Digital Learning Council,’ made up of elected officials and online school executives, lobbied hard and wrote pro-virtual school legislation for the state of Maine; this led to other states such as Utah, Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin to open up public funds for online schools [6]. When Republican governor John Kasich signed a bill to allow cyber schools to utilize public funds, Jeb Bush is quoted as saying, “more students in the Buckeye State will have the opportunity to achieve their God-given potential [7]. Only if you ignore statistics and common sense, Jeb.

Another forefather of garbage online charter schools is Michael Milken, better known as the inspiration for the character ‘Gordon Gekko’ from the 1987 movie, Wall Street. If this does not make it obvious that online charter schools are more concerned with money than kids, I do not know what will. After being released from prison in the 1990s for securities fraud, Milken co-created the for-profit online school company ‘K12 Inc.’ K12 is one of the largest distributors of online education, and they have spent $10 million buying off politicians through lobbying and campaign contributions in 26 states over the last decade. In 2012, K12 Inc. settled a federal lawsuit for $6.8 million for inflating stock prices by misleading investors with false student-performance data, and in 2016, they paid $168.5 million to the state of California for false claims and false advertising [8]. However, Milken has enriched himself from online schools to the tune of $2.5 billion, almost all money from his contracts with public schools [9]. We need to keep Gordon Gekko and the greed of Wall Street away from our children.

Unpopular Republican governor Rick Snyder of Michigan once read the book “Memoirs of a Goldfish” to young children online through the Michigan Virtual Charter Academy. He decided to lift the cap for virtual schools, and this proved to be a terrible idea because online charter schools received just as much money for each student as a brick-and-mortar school despite not having nearly as many operating costs…this gave a ripe opportunity for profiteers to gain money off of the backs of students while providing subpar a education to them. He has since sang a different tune, as he recently proposed to cut funding of online schools by 25%. How about a 100% cut for these trash schools, Rick?

A Call for Something Greater

Famed education scholar John Dewey once said, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself [10].

If that is the case, then what is life for a student in an online charter school? Life is solitary and quiet- there is no laughter. There are no professional teachers or mentors to physically check in- furthermore, there is constant distraction on the technology that the student is already spending too much time on.

School for the online charter school student exists just a click away from the dangerous bowels of the internet and the flashy allure of mindless games, distracting videos, and addicting social media. How can we seriously ask young kids to control their impulses around such ubiquitous distraction?

Perhaps many working adults have accepted the placid ‘9-5’ lifestyle of being on a computer all day alone. Despite what corporate America calls for in its quest to maximize profits with little thought of de-humanizing workers, we in education should still strive for higher.

Learning, and thus school, should be fun- it should be interactive- it should sometimes allow you to go out of your comfort zone- and you should experience it with others. Learning should be active- it should not be boxed within a screen nor even a room. Learning should be complicated and nuanced, and it should deal with real world problems that cannot be simulated by a software program. True learning involves failure, and it also involves unbreakable relationships. Learning is inspired by professional teachers and mentors, and it is reinforced by activities such as sports or theatre. Learning should involve the best that technology can give us, but learning can not occur if technology is the be-all and end-all of a childhood.

Furthermore, the data are clear: social interactions matter. Studies consistently show that individuals with low levels of social interactions have a litany of health problems (physical and mental) and increased chances of early mortality [11]. But did we need data to tell us this? In the most caveman-visceral human sense, it simply feels good to have healthy relationships and people to lean on. Why are online charter schools gearing increasing amounts of young people for solitude and a severe lack of socialization? (while not even helping raise test scores) It is time to walk back the awful decisions of Republicans such as Betsy DeVos, Jeb Bush, and Rick Snyder to hand public funds to ‘Gordon Gekko’ and his Wall Street friends. The time has come to end public funding for online charter schools once and for all- our collective future depends on it.


[1] Rooks, Noliwe M. Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and the End of Public Education. The New Press, 2017. Pp. 146.

[2] Ibid, pp 146.

[3] Ibid, pp 139.

[4] Ibid, pp 140.

[5] Ibid, pp 154-157.

[6] Ibid, pp 155-156.

[7] Ibid, pp 156.

[8] Ibid, pp 149.

[9] Ibid, pp 150.

[10] https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/My_Pedagogic_Creed#ARTICLE_TWO._WHAT_THE_SCHOOL_IS.

[11] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3150158/.

America Can’t ‘Grit’ Its Way Out of Poverty and Racism

Why are my students poor?

When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist“- Dom Helder Camara [1]

Here are two hard facts about growing up in America:

  • 15 million (21%) of children grow up beneath the poverty line. [2]
  • The median White household wealth is $134,000 while the median Black household wealth is $11,000. [3]

As someone who has taught many impoverished and Black students, these two facts stay with me. On the one hand, as a teacher, I know it is right to push kids to persevere and be resilient no matter what life throws at them. On the other hand, I oftentimes feel like the game is already rigged.

I circle back to one question: why are millions of students subjected to poverty and racism everyday? I have already reflected on these issues in previous  posts. but I am still searching for answers.

Especially from White Republican acquaintances, the pushback I get is that underprivileged students need to work harder. “Yeah, it sucks what life has given them, but when will they stop making excuses?”

Urban charter school zealots take the “no excuses” mindset one step further; they immerse themselves in a magic world of pop psychology aphorisms and relentless positivity, seeming to focus solely on micromanaging every aspect of broken kids’ lives in order to cure them of their plight while somehow ignoring the ills of the world around them.

I am conflicted. I want to believe in the magic of the individual rising above abject poverty. But I am now a veteran witness to many kids getting expelled from school, I have found various former ‘good’ students becoming fathers and mothers soon after they leave my classroom, and I have gone to a funeral of one of the good kids- who did everything right and still found himself dead by a bullet at 18 years old on the East side of Detroit- wrong place, wrong time, they said. It is just so clear to me in my head that there is much more to student results and achievements than the individual merits or skills of the students themselves.

Thus, it was with cynicism and doubt that I entered Angela Duckworth’s book, “Grit” in order to grapple with my own wonder about how to inspire others to succeed. I wanted to read this book to see if I was missing something. Maybe there’s a part of me that wants to put aside inconvenient facts about society and believe in the cult of personal responsibility and meritocracy. Her book has been a staple of the corporate education reform package, utilized by magic factories such as KIPP and Teach for America.

What I like in “Grit”

The teacher in me loves Angela Duckworth’s “Grit.”

“Our potential is one thing. What we do with it is quite another[4]
– Angela Duckworth

How can you not agree with that statement? I would encourage any parent, teacher, friend, or individual to approach their life or their inspiration on others’ lives with the mindset of unlocking potential through hard work and grit.

Duckworth defines grit as a mixture of passion and perseverance, essentially valuing hard work and dedication over raw intelligence. [5] “Grit” as she defines it involves a person working relentlessly to achieve a “unifying goal,” a life’s passion worthy of tremendous practice and dedication. [6]

What are worthwhile “unifying goals” for peoples’ lives? Duckworth peppers her book with stories of ‘gritty’ people such as Pete Carroll (coach of the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks), Jamie Dimon (CEO of Chase Bank), Bill McNabb (Vanguard Investment Group), Judd Apatow (director of movies such as The 40 Year Old Virgin), and Wendy Kopp (CEO and founder of Teach for America…I’ll return to her shortly). Duckworth uses a plethora of name dropping and examples to allow the reader to imagine grit as an attribute that can justify pursuing anything you want to pursue.

So how does one become a ‘gritty’ person and join the ranks of Dimon, Carroll, and the others?

Simple: interest, practice, purpose, and hope. [7]

This formula seems easy, but the way Angela Duckworth describes it, practice in particular requires a lot of sacrifice and overcoming hurdles. To be a gritty person, you have to not give up, you have to stick with your pursuits, and you have to set specific benchmarks in order to achieve those goals.

Hard work, perseverance, resilience, hope, grit. These are all values I try to instill in my students on a daily basis. I totally agree with Duckworth that hard work and perseverance lead to better individual outcomes than just being naturally ‘smart.’

Duckworth ends her book by saying that genius should be defined as “working toward excellence, ceaselessly, with every element of your being.” [8] I so want that to be true- I want to believe that everyone’s actions represent their own identity, but I have seen too much to believe this. From my experience, the only way to force-feed grit to broken populations is through severe oppression.

Why should we accept poverty as a given?

As I was reading the book, so many questions popped into my head about factors that impact student achievement and peoples’ life outcomes. Where is the mention of systems of oppression? Poverty, racial segregation, War on Drugs? What about the impact of history on today? What about luck? What about ethics? What about the fact that some peoples’ individual ambitions and hard work may spawn morally reprehensible corporations or achievements? What about shared goals? What about sharing things? What about happiness?

My mind pans to the faces of students I have known through the years in Detroit. In particular, I think about some of the kids I’ve come across who have gone through so much and stood so tough from their experiences. Yet, they don’t qualify as ‘gritty’ by Angela Duckworth’s definition. They may take two public buses to get to school every day, but they forget to turn in assignments and regularly fall asleep in class. They babysit their siblings or work to feed their families, but they don’t stick with the same hobby nor practice for years. Worse, they give up easily, and they feel uninspired by their academic work due to crumbling school environments. They don’t have parents who support such ‘gritty’ habits because their parents are busy working multiple jobs to feed their families or were imprisoned in the War on Drugs. They eat unhealthy foods (in and out of school), they attend schools with inexperienced and ineffective teachers, and they go home to chaotic home environments (all of this caused by and reinforced by poverty). This is not to even mention the asthma , the lead poisoning from the walls , and the highest violence rate in an American city , or the White flight from the inner cities. No, my students are not hopeful for the world. Taking one look around Detroit and Donald Trump’s America, would you blame them?

Perhaps Angela Duckworth’s “Grit” has merit to a parent with stable financial resources and access to great schools, but is this really an instructive manual for a country where 21% of students grow up in poverty? Or the city of Detroit where 87%  of children know someone who has been killed or wounded by gun violence? Those problems are far more impairing of student success and achievement than a lack of hard work. To me, Angela Duckworth needed to address the systemic forces that intersect with personal ambition and achievement, and it’s very telling that she did not choose to do so (instead, she lionized bankster Jamie Dimon, the same Jamie Dimon who led Chase Bank to mislead investors in the buildup to the 2008 financial crisis).

Angela Duckworth’s ‘Gritty’ Educators: Teach for America and KIPP

Then, there’s Angela Duckworth’s fascination with the corporate education reformers. She highlights Teach for America Founder and CEO Wendy Kopp, calling her a “paragon of grit,” explaining how Duckworth actually studied TFA and found that optimistic teachers had more ‘grit,’ and in turn got their students to achieve more. [9] Furthermore, Duckworth highlights the KIPP charter school network, the nation’s largest charter network, which she highlights for praising effort and learning over natural talent [10].

In turn, corporate ed reformers have made grit a central part of their gospel. In fact, KIPP worked with Angela Duckworth to create a character development framework that they utilize in their schools.

Teach for America and KIPP are basically fighting for the same things I am fighting for in my public school classroom: so what is my problem with them?

Regarding Teach for America, I am just going to drop this Onion Article here.

Volunteer Teacher: My year volunteering as a teacher helped educate a new generation of of underprivileged kids!

Elementary School Student: Can we please, just once, have a real teacher?

Bleeding heart college kids dropping in for two years to become teachers only de-professionalizes the profession while leaving behind underwhelming results. Any true teacher knows that experience is an essential ingredient to effective pedagogy- by the time Teach for America teachers start to gain that expertise, they move on to law school or the corporate world.

As for KIPP, they have positive academic results…but…

“I’ve seen about four teachers have complete nervous breakdowns…After two years, you become physically ill. Your body breaks down- you can’t take it anymore.”[11]

“Students are managed largely through bullying, screaming, and personal insults. At my previous (traditional public) school teachers did not raise their voice ONCE during the course of the year. At (the KIPP school where this teacher worked) it was ubiquitous. “

“If you don’t tuck in your shirt, if you space out for a minute and don’t track your teacher with your eyes, if your binder is messy, you lose points. If you lose enough points, you are not allowed to go on field trips or be a part of the graduation ceremony.” [12]

This is oppression on the level of the Indian boarding schools of the early 1900s that sought to assimilate Native Americans into White cultural life, but ended up causing harm. I believe these stories of KIPP: I have also participated in charter schools (not KIPP) and seen the oppressive cultures that they instill on students. I wrote this article about my experiences.

Furthermore, according to a study by Professor Gary Miron at Western Michigan, some 40% of Black males from KIPP Schools leave between grades 6-8.

Miron found that about 15% of all students leave each year from KIPP , compared with 3% in the local traditional public schools; oh yeah, and KIPP students receive about $5,000 a year per pupil through private donations IN ADDITION to regular public funding. [13] This is not only oppressive, but it is an unscalable model for education turnaround.

Would Angela Duckworth be proud of that attrition? Do teachers and students who cannot and do not want to survive in such oppressive environments just not have enough grit?

We Owe it To The Future To Fight Poverty and Racism

My mind races back to the students I have seen fail. The students of mine I have seen expelled after letting their rage boil over into violence, the various students I have seen on the local news in handcuffs, and the previously mentioned former student who had his life taken from him on the streets of Detroit.

If you put those same individuals with parents who had stable incomes, schools with nurturing and encouraging environments, and all the trappings of the suburban bubble, they would have a far greater chance to succeed.

We owe it to these students to not only instill passion and perseverance, but to create a society where grit is possible- where the American Dream is within reach. White, Black, Brown- we all deserve quality public schools. We owe it to our young people to abandon the myth that people have complete control over their lives; it is oppressive to victim-blame people into believing that they have full responsibility over their outcomes, and this mentality ultimately advantages the wealthy ruling class. It is good for individuals to gain responsibility, but that needs to be balanced with a hard look at systemic issues that prevent the poor and disenfranchised from being able to have the gritty success that Angela Duckworth idealizes.

Angela Duckworth dropped a James Baldwin quote in her book, so I will end this post with one of my own:

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”- James Baldwin

For an individual looking to achieve something great, Grit is an extremely useful diagram of what to do, far more useful than the usual trope, “you’re so smart.”

But for our greater American society, this is no blueprint. And as Baldwin inspires us, we must face our own monsters (poverty and racism) in order to change them.


[1] https://cac.org/dom-helder-camara-2015-10-20/

[2]http://www.nccp.org/topics/childpoverty.html

[3]Rothstein, Richard. The Color of Law. Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017. Pp. 184-185

[4]Duckworth, Angela. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Scribner, 2016. Pp. 14

[5]Ibid. Pp. 56

[6]Ibid. Pp. 62

[7]Ibid. Pp. 91

[8]Ibid. Pp. 277

[9]Ibid. Pp. 176-177

[10]Ibid. Pp. 181

[11]https://cloakinginequity.com/2015/11/03/review-of-journeys-are-kipp-charter-schools-pathological/?utm_content=buffer2e8c7&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

[12]https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/03/charter-schools-suspend-more-black-students-disabilities-test-scores/

[13]https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2011/04/06/27kipp_ep-2.h30.html

The Screen Wars

“What phone?”

In one of my early teaching experiences, a middle school girl (let’s call her Danielle) was looking down during a lesson, a slight blue hue reflecting up at her face. I cringed…this has become an all-too-familiar interruption in the 21st century school. I was faced with a decision, “Do I let this go for the sake of trudging on with the lesson?” or “Do I crack down on this student and make an example of this behavior?” For better or worse, I chose the latter. I gave Danielle the option of handing me the phone for the rest of the school day or getting a detention. She took the detention.

I called home and told Danielle’s mom that she had detention after school that day because she used her phone during class.

Silence.

“What phone?”- her mom responded to me.

It turns out that the girl bought a friend’s old phone in order to talk to guys online…without her parents even knowing. I accidentally peered into the world of teenage smart phone usage, a space that is filled with lots of connection, entertainment, distraction, and more critically, lack of supervision.

Sure, this particular example is a little extreme, but I have a bevy of other student smart phone cautionary tales, mainly accrued from several years teaching in urban schools. Some of these include: Snapchat and Instagram fight threats, anonymous Twitter accounts set up by star students to ethnically intimidate others, porn accidentally played in front of a guest speaker, and the student who put inappropriate videos of another student on Facebook .

More banal are the everyday examples of student screen addiction: the students desperately checking their phones at every spare moment during class or during class breaks, the obsession with using smart phones for academic tasks rather than thinking for themselves, the bathroom breaks to check their phones, hours spent on mindless iPad games, and the lack of sleep due to being up half the night watching YouTube videos.

Yes, technology is a powerful and useful tool. You don’t have to argue with me that the internet, phones, and computers are powerful tools in education…but only if they are balanced with other quality and proven pedagogical methods.

That’s the key: balance.

However, I and millions of teachers like me fight students all day for attention and for compliance away from their hidden-in-plain-sight addiction. This causes stress and tension between teacher and student, especially in schools that do not seriously address the problem at hand. The blunt reality is that, for an increasing amount of kids, time away from their devices is physically painful. This is a particularly frightening phenomenon in schools where parents have less guidance in their kids lives: our most vulnerable urban and underserved schools.

For students, teachers, and schools, the screen wars have taken their toll. Many schools have no idea how to meet this problem head-on. Many teachers simply give up on the fight.

Harms of Technology Addiction

In a high school that had a particular problem with cell phone distraction, I conducted an informal survey of my students about their habits.

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Screen Shot 2018-01-23 at 2.08.03 PM

Despite being conducted on a very small scale in one school setting, these findings were troubling to me.

4 or more hours PER DAY on social media…kids get home around 3-4 pm. Does this mean that my students spend a large majority of their free time perusing social media? The fact that a majority of my students felt that they spent too much time on their phone made me think: who is helping them to deal with that problem? Who even acknowledges that this is a problem?

So, is the data of my own personal teaching experience generalizable to the public at large? Common Sense Media released a comprehensive, nationwide study in which they studied the tech habits of 2,600 young people (the full report can be found here). What did they find?

The results are extreme: American tweens (ages 8-12) average 5 hours and 55 minutes of entertainment media per day. American teenagers average 8 hours and 56 minutes. A key point: this entertainment media usage EXCLUDES time spent in school and for homework.

The averages don’t tell the full story: while just 6% of tweens don’t use screen media at all in their free time, 27% spend between 4 and 8 hours of time on screen media, and 11% use it for more than 8 hours per day. As for teens, 6% don’t use screen media at all in their free time, 31% spend between 4 and 8 hours of time on screen media, and a full 26% of teens spend more than 8 hours per day on screen media.

The findings are clear: there are approximately 11% of tweens and 26% of teens who use almost every waking moment of their free time on screen technology.

It is not just my students: young people nationwide are susceptible to the constant allure of the blue screen.

Digital Natives

So what?

I can hear the shouts from the army of (well-funded) tech consultants and ed tech corporations reading the first half of my post. They would respond with some jabs about all the tech jobs that are opening up in the 21st century, and that young kids are wired today to learn differently than you and I did. We adults just don’t understand- “adapt or die.”

The problem with this mentality is that the reality does not match the tech utopia: Common Sense Media found that just 3% of tweens’ and teens’ time on entertainment media involves content creation. Tweens and teens are largely using screen technology to rot on social media or mindlessly watch shows.

Sure, school should push students to have power over their technology by learning to code, create videos, and create digital art. The problem, however, is that many schools choose to use screen technology as a direct (and more costly) substitute for already effective pedagogical methods, and they intend to reduce teacher-to-student contact.

Take Carpe Diem Schools in Arizona. According to their own website, Carpe Diem employs a model of schools where students sit in cubicles all day and complete school work on computers (with the occasional rotation of real teaching to supplement the online masters). I can see the corporate education reform leaders licking their chops, just thinking about eliminating teaching jobs (and thus labor costs).

Take a look for yourself. Is this a school you want your child going to?

Although most schools do not go to the hardcore lengths of Carpe Diem, many schools are pumping millions and millions of dollars into flashy new devices and software that they have no effective plan to implement. Just look at Los Angeles Public Schools’ failed $1.3 billion iPad initiative. Even more isolated away from human interaction, more and more young students go to online school at home. As of 2013, some 315,000 k-12 students enrolled full-time in online public schools. Furthermore, as of 2013, 275,000 k-12 students enrolled full-time in cyber charter schools.

On the other hand, some Silicon Valley executives send their children to technology-free Waldorf Schools . These are private schools, of course; they emphasize human interaction, engaging lessons, and teacher-student connection at the early levels of education. These same tech executives who sell tech products to kids make sure their own kids grow up without screen dependence.

What is this doing to our kids?

For one thing, there is a significant mental health crisis among teens in the United States, and it is clear that smart phones and social media play a large role.

After decades of decline, a record number of teenagers died by suicide from 2010-2015. What changed in teenagers lives from that time? Researchers led by Dr. Jean Twenge, relying on data from the CDC and many other findings, found that 48% of teenagers who spent more than five hours on their phones per day have depression, think about suicide, or die by suicide. This was a far higher number than students that had under two hours per day on their phones.

This alone merits intervention by parents, schools, and the government.

Kids who spend way too much time on their devices lose out on in-person social interaction, exercise, family time, hobbies, and being outside in nature. In addition, from talking to my students, I often find that the sleepy students in class were on their phone and “lost track of time” and suddenly it was 3 a.m. Young people, with their raging hormones and instant gratification mindset, are ripe for late-night binges of YouTube, Netflix, and far more inappropriate content.

It’s not just me being a hater- two major Apple investors who own $2 billion in Apple stock released a letter saying that iPhones were a public health crisis for young frequent users and that this warrants significant action from Apple.

The kids who are most vulnerable to screen addiction are our society’s most vulnerable; African American teens average almost three hours more of digital media time per day when compared to White teens [1]. Children of the wealthy have seventeen times the amount of adult interaction when using technology as poor kids do, so poorer youths spend their time on technology unsupervised and unregulated [2]. It is clear that there is a “tech addiction” gap among children, and disadvantaged students require society’s intervention most.

What to Do About All This

If you are reading this blog and think I hate technology, then I have missed my mark. I love technology. Heck, I am spending way too much of my free time writing on this blog! I often use some level of technology in my lessons, and students have created some really awesome projects on iPads and computers in the past. However, it is clear that there needs to be action taken in order to help balance students’ usage of technology. 9 hours a day at home plus 7 hours a day at school on a screen is not going to cut it.

Here are a few of my “solutions”:

1. Teachers: use technology when it helps, don’t use it when it doesn’t

This may sound simple, but I can’t tell you how many times I have personally used technology in a lesson that has ultimately hindered my lesson or distracted from the learning objectives. Selectively use technology in order to help students learn valuable lessons, but shy away from using technology as a lazy crutch or a shiny attention-getter. The reality is that widely-used technology products are made to be intuitive. You would be far better served by focusing on critical thinking skills and problem solving, with or without technology. Examples of great technology in the classroom include teaching coding, media production, and teaching media literacy (fake news from real news). These should be balanced with activities that push students to communicate with one another and engage with learning in a hands-on way. Oh, and do not be soft on your “no cell phones” policy. Continue fighting the screen wars when you need to lay down the law.

2. Parents: monitor your kids’ technology

In a survey to my high school students, just over half said their parents would be horrified if they knew what they were doing online. Yeah…parents, you probably want to know what that means. If your kids are young, restrict their technology usage to a minimum. If they are teens, monitor what they are doing closely and make sure that your kids aren’t always replacing activities and social experiences with mindless screen time. If they are spending hours and hours per day on their phones, this could also correlate with depression-related symptoms. Also, maybe keep the phone out of the hands of the student when they go to bed.

3. Government: study the problem and take necessary action

The CDC should directly study social media and smartphone usage among young people and take any necessary precautions to help decrease screen dependence. How young is too young for smart phones or social media? What lengths need to be taken to keep tech companies accountable for their products? We need a government to protect our kids, in particular low-income and minority youths.

4. Schools: Be skeptical of the flashy, shiny new gimmick 

Schools should focus on doing what is best for kids, and that includes providing for students’ mental health well-being and academic focus. Schools should take a hard look at banning cell phones from classes, and elementary teachers should be very careful of how much screen-time they are allowing for their students. In grades 6-12, schools should be careful of not over-loading tweens and teens with screen-time because that’s exactly what they will do when they get home.While we’re at it, bring back recess, music, real world excursions, and art. Finally, Mental health services should not just be a reactionary after-thought for students in direct crisis; schools should provide direct help for students and promote positive mental health through programs such as this one through the University of Michigan Depression Center. This mental health prevention should acknowledge the link between mental health crises and screen addiction. Thus, schools need to engage students, but they also need to mitigate against digital extremes.


 

[1] Clement, Joe and Miles, Matt. Screen Schooled. Chicago Review Press Incorporated, 2018. Pp. 173.

[2] Ibid, pp 173.