Tag Archives: Bill Gates

New Policy for the Khan Academy

Every time I am on a long hiatus from this blog, I come back to find a ton of comments under my past posts about the Khan Academy. (See: The Khan Academy and the Snake Oil of Education Deform, Finally, More Criticism About the Khan Academy, Putting It All On The Table About The Khan Academy, Khan Academy: If You Don’t Like It, You Don’t Get It and, my personal favorite, 60 Minutes Worships Salman Khan and So Do You.)

The vast majority of comments all have the same tone and tenor. For a while I have believed that something was rotten in Denmark. Take a look at some of the typical comments below and maybe you will see what I see. (Feel free to skim or completely ignore the comments quoted below. In fact, I encourage you to do so because they are mostly redundant wastes of time. Yes, redundant wastes of time.):

I would just like you to address what I’m going to say here to help you understand my belief on online learning in general I have read little of what you’ve had to say sense most of it’s nonsense and has no arguments backing it up. I would like to give a real world example of the benefits of Khan Academy. I have a good friend who struggled in Algebra II and after going in depth and learning online from Salman Khan’s Khan Academy, he ended up passing the class with an A-. So many teachers in the status quo are just trying to pass kids and not further their knowledge, they want the load of kids off their hands. I would say that about 70% of my own teachers are like this within my own school.

I, myself, have had the benefit of learning more about biology. I got a more in depth understanding of it, and learned the complete concept of meiosis in under an hour where in a class room I got lectured for 4 straight days of hour and a half periods and I still couldn’t grasp that during my Freshman Year of high school. Why should one have to send their kid off to a university (and pay 100,000 dollars when it’s all said and done) when knowledge can be spread so beneficially over the internet?


I am a public school teacher. Not in math, but in music, though I often end up in the topic of math and also teach it on the side and there are many similar situations.
I spend class time engaging my students in authentic experiences, but sometimes I know that not all of my students have the basics that are required for the activity and I struggle with the decision of whether to spend time drilling (wasting the time of students who already get it) or just move on (causing some students to fake it or fail). If I want all of my students to be able to identify piano keys by note name, or identify pitches on a staff, or tap out various rhythms of increasing difficulty, I have to put making actual music on hold while chucking in with each student. Some of these things I could do with worksheets, but I would not have the results of that assessment quickly enough to plan the rest of out class time based on it. I also hate the idea that I might “grade” those papers and hand them back to students, than decide whether to teach the lesson to everyone again and test again, or just move on. i wish I had some method of helping each student achieve mastery of these basic skills so we could all use them together in class. If I were a math teacher I would be very excited about Khan’s practice tools for this reason- a unit does not end with each student being judged. it ends when you actually have learned it (and then you continue to review it later.)

I am very wary of people who would say who is and is not an educator. Being a school teacher does not mean that you can or should control information- quite to opposite. Students should know that you are just one source, the textbook is just one source, their parents, television, youtube, just other sources, and they need their critical thinking skills to put it all together themselves and make their own decisions about it. You do not teach critical thinking by telling students that you are right.

If you say Khan is not an “educator” then no doubt you do not consider your students, their parents, or any other members of your community capable of being educators, or you think they at least don’t deserve the title just because they haven’t taken the certification test.


I am in total support of Khan Academy…

I know you will not like my viewpoint but here it goes,,,,

1. The school classroom model was originally designed by the Prussian military intended to create an obedient society by providing a platform for authority and for its children to recognize and submit to this authority. The rationale for this control model (classroom) was to mobilize its young citizens in times of war. The classroom model was eventually adopted by the west including North America. Today we have the industrial military complex to address national security yet this classroom or should I say military model still persists.

The mindset to control students is evidence by the grading system, devised and adopted in the 17th century and still used in 2012. And this is the crux of my argument. It is my opinion school marks are draconian, pschologically damaging, and counter productive for both the A student as well as for the C student. I will not even speak of the poor F student. Furthermore, school marks are often misused by the authority figures (teachers) and given for behavioral modification. Children who follow instruction, are non disruptive, and are obedient are often awarded with a good mark and children who are less inclined to follow or independently minded with less favorable marks. May I mention Enstein here?

It is in my opinion the grading system has created a society full of followers, who upon graduation from college, are all on the search for employment. There is only a recent awakening due to the sluggish economy that perhaps entrepreneurialship needs to be moved to the forefront in the classroom. How though is the teacher going to control independent thinkers, potential leaders using a militaristic method such as a grade marking system to produce our leaders for tomorrow? The output of graduates today struggling to find a job in a shrinking job market is just not working. You may argue that it is not educator’s job to provide employment, and while that was true decades past, today our society is counting on higher education to provide innovation for future employment.

It is my opinion Khan Academy has the potential to replace the marking grade system with its innovative approach usung statistical data to both validate student progress as well as identify challenges requiring additional time for mastery without placing a grade “label” on the student ‘s head. A label that can last a life time sometimes in a very, very negative way. So unjust. Furthermore, both Harvard and MIT, will be releasing in the fall of 2012, EdX, a free online access to their courses offered to the world. If you view the announcement, May 2, 2012 online, you will hear the rationale for this approach, namely they wish to use the statistical data gained by the servers offering the online course material to a worldwide audience whereby they may data collect from these students to better learn and understand the learning processes, something, Khan Academy has been doing since 2004!

2. My biggest excitement with Khan Academy is its revolutionary scalability. Instead of the teacher having to repeat his/her lectures over and over again, a one-time video can now be created in a more intimate, less talked-down approach and shared with the World. Imagine the scalability to view and witness to lectures being delivered by the very best teachers the world has to offer.

In closing, the true reason you have created this website is that you are scared for your job and I empathize. May I say in closing, your profession is not alone in this disruption due to technology. Perhaps the definition of employment needs to be addressed but that is a different topic for another time.

Thanks for allowing me my viewpoint on your website.

Khan Academy is here to stay !!

You get the idea. First, there are the testimonials. The “Khan Academy worked for me” type comments that remind me of an infomertial at 3 in the morning. Then there are “you’re just worried about your job” comments that are so laughable as to not warrant a response. And then there are the “public schools are failing” and the “wave of the future is having your eyes glued to a computer screen” comments from those that want to seem as if they are cutting edge and hip. They are all taken from the same playbook it seems. If I did not know any better, I would venture a guess that Khan or Gates offered people a free sandwich for spamming blogs, a la StudentsFirst. Alas, there is no evidence for this, so I assume that they have been truly brainwashed through the normal means of propaganda.

Now, when I come across a blog article from a blog I have never seen before, I do a little background check. I read the “About” section, I read some other articles and I come back to the article that drew me there in the first place so I can get a better idea of where the author is coming from. This is not because I run a blog myself, since I did this before I had a blog, but because I do not want to contribute points that have been addressed before. Because I am a new commenter on a website, I usually want to contribute something, you know, new. It is the courteous and thoughtful thing to do.

The Khan Academy sycophants, for the most part, not only refuse to read around this site to see what it is about, but they do not even address the points I make in the articles to which they respond. They literally talk at you, over you, through you. They do not engage you in discussion.

Instead, they repeat the same arguments and traverse the same ground over and over again. There is a word for that on the internet. It is called spam.

Therefore, from now on, before you step up to defend the Khan Academy, take stock of what I said above. Khan spammers will go in the spam filter where they belong. It is not worth my time, nor the time of the readers, to have to hear the same arguments again and again.

On the bright side, many recent and thoughtful comments were left under the Khan Academy articles listed above by one Michael Paul Goldenberg. Sorry it took so long for me to approve the comments. Here is an example (as opposed to the comments above, they are worth the read):

You can’t appease the fanatic defenders of Sal Khan and KA. It’s impossible. They refuse to accept any questioning of his work, his work ethic, his knowledge, his goals, his character, or his knowledge of mathematics (let alone other subjects). No one has proper standing to critique Sal Khan. NO ONE. If you teach, you’re jealous, weak, afraid, threatened, lazy, stupid, conservative (hah!!!), REACTIONARY (hahahahahaha!!!), racist (yes, I’ve seen that one, defender of the status quo, ad nauseam. If you’re a potential “competitor,” then obviously you’re trying to crush your “opponent.” If you’re a professor, well, see “teacher”; and worse, because professors are all commies, and some are fat (see the commentary on the MTT2K first video), well, we needn’t take their criticism seriously. And if you’re none of those (I’m an independent educational consultant who coaches high school math teachers on a per diem basis in Detroit. I have no long-term contracts, no union, and no one yet has suggested that using KA would make my work obsolete, nor do I have the slightest fear of him or his work. Were what he was doing of real quality, i would be recommending him unhesitatingly. I do recommend the free videos of others. Why not Sal’s? I think my many criticisms of him and his work make that crystal clear.

Here’s my strongest reason for critiquing Khan’s work: I care deeply about kids, about math, about democracy, and I think KA undermines kids’ thinking, disrespects mathematics, and ultimately will be seen to be anti-democratic and pro-elitist and plutocracy. Let’s see where this all is next month, next year, next decade. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to stay silent because a bunch of Khan-trolls need to make up a bunch of lies and insults to justify their bad taste and willingness to call McDonald’s hamburgers a healthy, nutritious, delicious meal.

Check out his other comments on the Khan Academy articles as well.

Happy reading Khan lackeys. Look forward to trashing your mindless drivel in the future.

Khan Academy: If You Don’t Like It, You Don’t Get It


This comment was left by someone in response to my post Putting It All On The Table About The Khan Academy. I was saving it because I think it’s a good discussion piece:

Peter Berger

You say “What innovation does Sal Khan offer in American education besides a pause button?” and, disturbingly, you say that as if it’s a small thing. This shows that you’re missing the point. A pause button is a huge leap in pedagogy. A pause button is world-changing.

First, a pause button is an enabler. It gives the student a degree of agency that they simply don’t have in a brick and mortar classroom. Yes, a student CAN interrupt a class and say “Excuse me, Mr. Smith, but I still don’t understand why x raised a negative exponent is the same as 1/x to some positive exponent.” He can do that once a class. Or twice a class. But at some point – and students learn this very quickly – their doing this interrupts the class, interrupts the lesson, and interferes with the other students. The teacher who, quite understandable, has to strike a balance, has to decide between this one student and the rest of the class.

I want a teacher who I can pause. Just for me. I want a teacher who I can rewind. Just for me. I want a teacher who I can ask to repeat a lesson SIXTY TIMES without feeling embarrassed or stupid. THAT is what Khan Academy is offering students. And THAT is all because of the pause button. The pause button is gigantic, humongous, and hugely important, and if you don’t see that it’s because you’re looking in the wrong direction.

The second thing is that the pause button is a user interface enhancement that makes the lesson itself more enjoyable. This leads directly to people wanting to take the lessons, instead of viewing them as annoying. Ask yourself how many times you would use your DVD player, after perhaps bring it once, if it had no pause button. The answer is self-evident: zero.

Lastly, you’re completely ignoring the exercise components of Khan Academy, so that you can focus on the videos. In my experience, young students find the following attributes of the exercise components extremely beguiling: immediate feedback as to whether they are right or wrong, non-judgmental feedback (as in, they don’t feel embarrassed to make mistakes, but rather are motivated to figure out how to do it better), and completely unbounded amounts of practice. KA is always willing to throw more problems at you, for as long as you want to do them.

Does all of this mean that we should throw away brick and mortar schools, or throw away teachers? Of course not. As someone interested in pedagogy, what I want is to improve all schools, and all teachers. You say it’s “difficult to find people willing to say one negative thing about Khan”. To the contrary, the internet is full of articles from defensive teachers who feel threatened by the publicity KA has received. Your criticisms are par for the course. Unfortunately, I think you will find that it is impossible to construct an accurate criticism of a topic until you understand it. You may understand pedagogy, but you clearly don’t understand what it is that KA has brought to the table. Instead of lashing out defensively, perhaps you ought to try harder to understand what it is that KA is doing right, rather than just assuming that it must be doing everything wrong.

Perhaps — just perhaps — you’d learn something. It’s never too late to learn.

I am not going to speak on the tone in which Mr. Berger writes. Instead, I’d rather let you draw your own conclusions about that.

The fact that people believe a pause button is an educational innovation says a lot about how they see teaching. Sure, you can pause and rewind a video however many times you want. What do you get? The same thing over and over, repeated in the same way.

I know that when students ask me to clarify something, I present the information in a different way than I did originally. That is part of thinking on your feet as a teacher. Every question and comment that a student shares is indirectly a commentary on the lesson. It shows me which information or skills are getting across and which are not, which then informs the manner in which I deliver the rest of the lesson.

There is a reflexive loop between teacher and student, each one guiding the other on what they require. There is no such thing in the Khan Academy. It is a process that requires two human beings.

I can understand students being afraid to ask questions. Teachers have to make students comfortable with asking questions. There are days when my lessons consist of nothing but students asking questions totally unsolicited by me. Through these questions, we are able to cover the content.

Guess what? A kid cannot ask the Khan Academy any questions.

And for students who really need the extra time, to the point where they need to ask a question sixty times in a row, maybe a video would be handy if the information was low-level. But if a student has to ask sixty different questions sixty different times, then they’re going to need individualized attention. I don’t know many teachers who wouldn’t be willing to provide this type of attention during an off-period or after school. I don’t know many schools that do not have tutoring programs for these types of students. In the most severe cases, I don’t know of any school besides charters that do not have special needs programs.

One thing is for certain: for students with these types of issues, the Khan Academy is pretty far down on the list of tools they might require.

I’ve never spoken on Khan Academy’s activities because I believe them to be so self-evidently flawed that I didn’t think I needed to waste the typing finger energy on them. First, they tell the student whether they are right or wrong. This might come as a surprise, but most answers students give in a real classroom are neither right nor wrong. If you as a teacher are giving assignments that elicit thought and provoke discussion, you are encouraging children to construct their own version of truth. On the other hand, if all you’re worried about is if children follow a predetermined script, then you are shutting the thought process down. This is one of the reasons why the Khan Academy has been criticized by its few detractors as promoting nothing more than simplistic, procedural factoids.

“If you know this, you can go on to this.” That is why there is such an obsession with getting kids to earn virtual badges. It reflects the obsession education reformers have with rote, the type of thing that lends itself nicely to bubble-in exams.

Learning is not about levels and factoids. It is a process that integrates factual and conceptual information and entails emotional and moral growth. Again, a good teacher knows how to integrate these things into a lesson. This type of learning is non-existent in Khan Academy world.

And when people claim that the Khan Academy does not aim to replace real teachers, they are ignoring the hype around Khan and falling in love with Salman’s assurances. The fact of the matter is Khan, as well as a slew of online learning programs, have already begun the process. Students who need credits are taking more and more online classes. Universities are offering more and more online degrees. Obama’s proposed plan to reform public universities called for slashing budgets for professors and offering more online courses.

Khan may not say he wants to replace teachers. The President, Bill Gates and those with power have clearly stated otherwise.

It is only in education where the opinions of professionals count for nothing. When someone comes with a billion dollar program to save schools, like the Khan Academy, and it rightly gets ravaged by teachers, the knee-jerk response is “you’re just afraid of losing your job.” This has become a justification to ignore the concerns of educators and go ahead with schemes conceived in the minds of businessmen, politicians and computer programmers.

Believe it or not, educators are motivated by more than self-interest. The Khan Academy deserves criticism because it is nothing new. It brings no new methods to the pedagogical table. Their videos consist of lectures, diagrams and activities that have the feel of games. While the people who push Khan’s videos usually come from outside of the education world, educators who have been teaching children for years recognize Khan for what it is: lectures on tape with a bunch of bells and whistles. None of those lectures or bells does anything any differently from a real teacher. In many cases, it does it worse than an average teacher.

So when educators ravage Khan, it comes from a place not just of self-interest, but the interests of our children. We don’t want our kids to be sat in front of a screen and told it is education. While Bill Gates and all the other reformers continue to send their children to elite private schools with old teachers and small classes, everyone else’s children gets Khan’s videos. Instead of an education that nourishes all parts of the mind and spirit, Khan offers low level knowledge.

And the final reason why educators might dislike Khan is that the people who push it show such disdain for educators and what they do. Khan himself does not have one educator on his team, preferring to use people from the computer programming world instead. The people who support Khan, like the post above shows, thinks teaching children is about drilling facts into heads. It is like they imagine Ben Stein from Ferris Bueller every time they think of teachers.

Just because someone is not impressed with the Khan Academy does not mean they do not understand it. The emperor simply has no clothes.

Bill Gates Is Not Smart (via Perdido Street School)

The mind of Bill Gates in a nutshell.

Reality-Based Educator over at the Perdido Street School blog shares a very important piece about Bill Gates’ support of genetically modified crops as a way to end hunger in Africa:

Bill Gates’ support of genetically modified (GM) crops as a solution for world hunger is of concern to those of us involved in promoting sustainable, equitable and effective agricultural policies in Africa.

There are two primary shortcomings to Gates’ approach.

First, his technocratic ideology runs counter to the best informed science. The World Bank and United Nations funded 900 scientists over three years in order to create an International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). Its conclusions were diametrically opposed, at both philosophical and practical levels, to those espoused by Gates and clearly state that the use of GM crops is not a meaningful solution to the complex situation of world hunger.

The IAASTD suggests that rather than pursuing industrial farming models, “agro-ecological” methods provide the most viable means to enhance global food security, especially in light of climate change. These include implementing practical scientific research based on traditional seed varieties and local farming practices adapted to the local ecology over millennia.

In short, he is pushing for agricultural methods that would destroy Africa in the long run while providing Monsato, with whom he has partnered, with even more profits.

He does this despite the scientific evidence that indigenous and time-tested ways of farming would be more sustainable.

There are many reasons why parts of Africa are stricken with famine. The legacy of European colonialism comes to mind. Not only have westerners ravaged Africa’s resources for hundreds of years, they drew the arbitrary borders that forced ethnic groups into fake, inorganic countries, resulting in competition between these groups for political power and control of resource-rich lands.

This is part of what the genocide in Darfur is all about.

Plus, the Sahara Desert is expanding. This forces people onto more desirable lands, leading to over-cultivation of those lands,  leading to even more desertification. It is a self-perpetuating cycle.

So Africa certainly is in need of more sustainable farming, among other things. The Bill Gates and Monsato way is not the answer.

I can’t help but notice the similarity between Gates pushing for this and his push for education reform in the United States. He takes a complex issue like education or famine and proffers simplistic solutions.

For an educational “achievement gap” caused by structural problems in the entire socioeconomic system, his solution is to open up charter schools that accept “no excuses” from students and subject them to an endless battery of standardized exams.

For a famine that has been caused by both historical and environmental factors, his solution is to shove Monsato seeds down everyone’s throats (almost literally).

This is not a smart man. Both of these things reflect a very one-dimensional way of thinking that fails to appreciate the complexity of the problem at hand. The article hit it on the head by referring to Gates as “technocratic”.

And this technocrat has all the money in the world to foist his schemes on the rest of us. He does this through his “philanthropic” Gates foundation.

It gets scarier when you consider the comment Michael Fiorillo left under under the post in question:

The common link here is privatization of a public resource or commons, whether its public education or the agricultural gene pool, with non-profit institutions as an opening front or wedge for the privateers who will follow.

Bill Gates is like a lumbering muscleman in a two-bit street gang. He has tons of brawn (money) but his utter stupidity makes him easy prey to the other members of the gang (Pearson, Monsato) who whisper in his ear to go beat up some unsuspecting victim (our education system, Africa’s food supply). Once the victim is beaten to a bloody pulp, the gang comes over to rifle through his pockets (privatization).

Gates is a tool, but he is not an unwitting one. Much like the muscleman mindlessly shares the values of criminality with the gang, Gates mindlessly shares the values of markets with the privatizers.

Schools stand to see whatever vestiges of free-thinking and enlightenment they have left crushed under the inexorable march of Gates’ corporate agenda.

Africa stands to have whatever resources and indigenous practices it has left crushed under the same.

The sad thing is that Bill Gates is celebrated as an innovator, a genius and a visionary. Kids learn fluffy stories about the rise of Microsoft and his crusade to put a computer on every desktop.

Bill Gates may have succeeded in business, but that does not make him smart or even moral. He is stupidly amoral.

There is a word for people like this: evil.


The Khan Academy and the Snake Oil of Education Deform


——- Original Post———

The Huffington Post ran their Best in TED Talks for 2011. Coming in at number two is Salman Khan, whose online Khan Academy they tout as educational manna from heaven. His videos have made him the favorite “educator” of Bill Gates. Khan is a bright young man, an ivy-league graduate and perhaps the single best representation of what is wrong with the education deform movement.

Khan has a great backstory. He started out by tutoring a relative online. His lessons were very clear, helped along by a computer drawing program that helped the student visualize math concepts. Khan realized that, if he could do this with math, he could do this with any subject. The idea for the Khan Academy was born. Since then, he has used his own resources and time to make thousands of videos on a wide range of subjects.

First, who has the time and the resources to make thousands of educational videos? That’s right, an ivy-league grad who comes from money who does not have to worry about things like holding down a job. But, he is an educational innovator, right? What educator has ever used visuals and pacing when teaching new concepts? How about, MOST EDUCATORS? The first thing that came to mind when looking at Khan’s videos was, “hey, that is what I do.” All of my lessons start out basic and work up the ladder of complexity. I am helped along by visuals that I have either photocopied for my students or drawn on the board. (Yes, there is plenty to draw when teaching history.)

But, in the eyes of the general public, public school teachers who do this every day are lazy union bums who are afraid of the Khan Academy’s awesome, cutting-edge pedagogy. The way I see it, there are only two differences between Khan and most teachers I know: 1) we are not wealthy and so Americans do not automatically worship everything we say and 2) we teach in the flesh and not on a screen. We do not have the time to make thousands of videos because we are too busy dealing with real life children with real life learning and behavior issues.

“Oh, but the student can go at their own pace with Khan Academy videos.” Yeah, that is a great argument. Apparently, the pause button on youtube will be the savior of the education system. A kid can stop a lesson whenever their cell phone rings or whenever they want to do some facebooking. There will be no teacher or parent there requiring their kids have even a modicum of an attention span. I wonder if this is the type of education Bill Gates or Michael Bloomberg or Arne Duncan would want their own kids to have. I forgot, the “Academies” they send their children to have real teachers with small class sizes. The rest of us get “virtual” academies like Khan’s. It is perfect training for all of the virtual jobs, homes and relationships our kids will have when they are grown.

The last refuge of the Khan cheerleader is “this is not the solution to our education problem, it is just one more tool educators can use.” I would believe that if Khan was not co-opted by the Gates Foundation. I would believe that if Khan had locked himself up in a dingy basement somewhere making these videos, then networked with educators across the country and said “here, you can use this for your students, it is a learning aide”. He would be a true philanthropist and educator in that case. Instead, he has allowed himself to become a deformer shill and believes in his own propaganda that his videos represent a paradigm shift in education.

No, Salman Khan represents what is wrong with the deform movement. He assumes that he is the first to use what amounts to a very basic teaching technique. The assumption is that teachers in public schools have not discovered this inspired, cutting edge pedagogical method of drawing pictures and building towards complexity. He has the one method that unlocks learning in any subject with any child and he is going to show all of us idiots how it is done. Because he is wealthy and educated we buy into the propaganda about him, while he has bought into it himself.

My response to Sal Khan and his adorers is this: nice videos. You have a knack for teaching. The only difference between me and you is that you are on a screen and I am in flesh. Kids can press pause on you and come back to you later. I, on the other hand, have to help my students resist their desire to press pause on me when they tire of my lesson. That is because my class has no pause button. If they press pause in my class, that means they have tuned me out and become alienated from me, the subject, the school and the learning process in general. No, I cannot afford to have my students press pause, Mr. Khan. I have to teach my kids to not press pause. I have to teach this because they live in a world where pausing and restarting is the way to handle problems. Not incidentally, pausing and restarting are two functions you can find on a Microsoft Xbox or PC. I suppose this is why you are Bill Gates’ favorite educator. You see, he wants a generation of people who internalize pausing and restarting. Just because Bill Gates and half the nation celebrates your genius does not mean you have found the keys to teaching. You’re a smart man, Mr. Khan, but I have been doing what you do for over a decade now, only better and in the flesh. While you have been celebrated, I have been vilified. Even this criticism will be interpreted by your supporters as another lazy teacher scared of losing his tenure and his job. Believe that prejudice if you want. I am more concerned with the fact that my students will grow up without attention spans or imaginations or the ability for critical thinking because we are obsessed with the ideas of well-spoken wealthy people who believe kids can be educated on computers and be taught that filling in bubbles on a test is “learning”.  I am concerned with creating a future of automatons instead of citizens. Worst of all, I am worried that they will grow up to be the type of automatons that drool over the hare-brained, ill-conceived words of wealthy people that think they occupy a higher moral plane because they have won in business. I want the next generation to be citizens with the ability to question power and wealth. This is what you fear, which explains why you hate teachers like me.

We Hold the Keys: A Reminder

Don't ever chalk and talk, ever.

We know that most new teachers will not remain in the profession for more than 5 years. The wonder to me is how any new teachers are able to stay on at all. I am in my 12th year of teaching in large part because I received something few other teachers ever get: a solid mentor. This does not mean a cooperating teacher with whom I worked while in college. It means a mentor who was there for me in the first years of my career, passing down tools of the trade gleaned over decades of experience in actual New York City public schools. Without a mentor in these crucial years, I probably would have went the way of most other young teachers and left the profession.

My college training had left me ill prepared to teach in the small, inner-city high school in which I began my career. Instead, I had to draw upon the memories of my best history teachers. Being a graduate of Brooklyn Technical High School, my best history teachers tended to be the traditional type, sitting their kids in rows using little more than chalk and a blackboard. The fact that my students in my first year did not totally rebel or eat me alive told me I was onto something. The only problem was we were regularly required to attend professional development where old fossils on F status or young hipsters who wanted out of the classroom ran sessions extolling the virtues of post-it notes, bulletin boards, “accountable talk” and word walls. They warned us against “chalk and talk” and “lecturing”. It was like going to a cult initiation where they told me everything I have ever done or believed in was wrong. Unfortunately, this is as much training as most teachers get. Why would people stay in a career that they are not prepared for? More importantly, why would people stay in a career that is made to look trivial and childish?

Fortunately for me, my principal at the time understood that these training sessions were unlikely to improve the quality of his teachers. That is when he hired Sue. Sue was a retired history teacher with 35 years’ experience in New York City. For the first year and a half of my career she passed down to me the most valuable tools of the trade I have ever learned. Twice a week she would come to one of my classes to take notes on my teaching. She would be writing pretty much every minute of the entire period. She would critique my every interaction with the students, every question I asked, every last piece of information I put on the board and the content I was teaching. After class she would replay the lesson, point out the things I did well and showed me where I could have improved. The lessons I learned from her were the nuts and bolts of the art of teaching.

First, she exuded a passion for the subject. She knew so many facts and was able to draw so many connections between time periods. It was the type of knowledge she did not get from merely having a degree. It came from a lifetime of reading, researching and immersing herself in history. I learned the joy of reading history, of being conversant with historical debates and constantly expanding my database of facts and interpretations. My lessons all come from this reserve of research, allowing me to cut out what is unimportant and weave the rest into some sort of whole called a curriculum.

But after one knows the subject they have to prepare to present it. Sue taught me the importance of planning units ahead of time and writing all the homework down on sheets that could be copied and handed out to the students. (In many schools, making copies is not possible and this would entail paying out of pocket for them.) It would give the students a sense of direction as well as show that I as a teacher was prepared. Each lesson within the unit had some sort of visual like a map or chart with questions of my own design. The questions climbed the ladder of difficulty so the students could extract as much information from the visual as possible. (They now call this “differentiation”.) After 12 years of compiling materials and questions I have now a treasure trove of activities and learning aides.

But the most important thing Sue taught me was how to deal with students. There are a million little things that I do now that are a result of Sue’s mentoring: calling on kids by name, praising good answers, walking around the room, writing clear aims and notes that align with them, asking follow-up questions to build discussion and just all around being humane. I found that when I was able to implement all of these into a single lesson the kids responded better to me and wanted to learn. Today these are things I do like breathing thanks to Sue. Many of them might seem obvious to the uninitiated. But when you consider that none of these things are exactly inborn human behaviors and that classes routinely have 30 or more students, it is easy to see why teachers do not necessarily remember to do all of these things all of the time.

Sue was teaching me the art of teaching. She knew that none of these things were necessarily easy or pleasant. I often would rebel against her suggestions because I considered it micromanagement. But Sue was very adamant about me doing every single thing. There was no room for laziness or refusing to do something because it was out of my comfort zone. Her job was to guard the keys to the teaching profession and she was not going to allow me to defile it. This was something for which I will forever be grateful. She raised my consciousness of what it takes to make a classroom run and my role in it. I was not a facilitator, I was a teacher. The buck stopped with me.

But the Sues of the world are the education dinosaurs. The deformers have stepped up their efforts to trivialize teaching, boiling it down to exam scores, buzz words and fads. They want to make new teachers think that there is nothing more to teaching than getting students through a standardized exam and using post-it notes and sparkles because they look pretty to kids. They want to trivialize teaching in order to make it easier. Do not think about the art behind teaching: the passion for content, the way you lay out that content and the millions of interactions big and small involved in the delivery of that content. Instead, sit the kids in circles and have them do “accountable talk”. Write comments on neon-colored post-it notes and make sure those comments never have a negative word. Use these methods because the “research” shows that it leads to “positive outcomes”. The message is clear: do not think for yourselves as teachers, we have done the thinking for you. And of course, how much should workers who have all the thinking done for them get paid? Sue showed me that I am not a fast food worker or a young idealist teaching in an inner-city school out of liberal guilt. I am a teacher and I hold the keys to the profession.

The worst nightmare of the deformers is an empowered teaching force with confidence in their ability to teach. Teachers who know how to share their passion for knowledge with students are able to see through the education fads. They see that things like charter schools are not the answer since they do not speak to the art of teaching and, in many cases, end up destroying teaching by working their staffs to exhaustion. This is why Bloomberg did nothing but declare all-out war on veteran teachers: they were the guardians of the teaching profession that the mayor held in such disdain. Those of us who are left have a duty to rebuild what Bloomberg tried to destroy. We need a new generation of gatekeepers more aggressive than ever before. We must declare firmly that we own the teaching profession, we know what is best for our students’ learning and that people who do not teach have no clue about how to do so. Just as a layman would not tell a doctor how to treat cancer, people like Bill Gates have no place in telling us how children should be educated.

Whether it is Bill Gates or the fly-by-night teacher training programs like Teach for America, the system is awash with people with at best a passing interest in a permanent system. Their interest in teaching will pass but the art of teaching will always remain. While many of our fellow teachers have fell victim to the erosion our profession has suffered at the hands of the deformers, the rest of us are holding the shore against the tide. Time is on our side. No matter how many schools they close or how many charters they open or how many fads they support, we will always hold the keys.





The Occupied Classroom

The New York Times ran an expose earlier this year showing that Bill Gates gave money to pretty much every educational reform organization out there, no matter their agenda. The goal was to get reformers of all stripes to push for parts of the Bill Gates vision for American education: the Common Core Standards, high stakes testing, charter schools, computerized learning and, of course, the destruction of the teachers’ unions. In fact, most of the reformers who push for this vision are hedge fund managers, CEOs and other assorted rabble of the 1% with far too much money and time on their hands. They are what Diane Ravitch calls the “Billionaire Boys Club” in her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System. The fact that Republicans and Democrats in Congress, not to mention Barack Obama and Rahm Emmanuel, support these things should be proof enough that the 1% is providing the marching orders on school reform. After all, Republicans and Democrats only seem to agree on things the 1% agrees on, like regressive taxes and deregulation.

Playing games with the education system is the 1%’s modern version of slumming. They have traded tinkering with neighborhoods in which they do not live for reforming schools their children will never use. When their facile reforms do not work they will simply go home, perhaps a little wealthier but none the wiser for the experience. They are driven by the same insipid sense of entitlement that drove Wall Street banksters to suck the wealth out of the economy. If one were to imagine asking Bill Gates what right he has to throw around gobs of money to enact school reforms he cooked up in his own brain (since it is patently obvious they are not backed by the preponderance of education research), one would probably be met by the same incredulous look that Lloyd Blankfein gave to Congress when asked why his company was selling products they were betting against.

Goldman-Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein looks quizzically at Senator Carl Levin after being asked if he thinks he should have told his customers that the products his company was selling them were crap.

“I’m rich and powerful and I do what I want. Why would you ask me such a silly question, peon?”

It is these bloodless suits who now want to determine how our children are educated. People who have no passion for the children of the 99%, and no responsibility to the communities in which those children are raised, now want to use the government’s compulsory child schooling laws to herd kids into a system of their design. It is yet another example of how we all get free markets while the 1% gets every benefit of the state. What is particularly despicable in the debate over school reform is how these 1% reformers talk about our children in terms of test scores. They boil education down to the same lifeless numbers found on their balance sheets. It is the only way the 1% can approach the children of the 99%. There is no way for them to relate to our children on a human level. They measure human growth by numbers we get on tests that we have never done well on to begin with. All the while they foist their barren ideals on us with an arrogance and obliviousness that rivals petty third world despots.

It is madness that we would even consider handing over our children to people with this outlook. Our public school system should be where the civic values of the next generation are instilled. We would be committing national suicide by sacrificing it to the same base value system that brought us things like obscene CEO bailouts, corporatist collusion with government and imperialist war. All of these things were brought about by a depraved sense of entitlement on the part of the super wealthy. The demonizing of the teachers’ unions in mainstream media is a subterfuge for the very real evil of the reformers themselves. It is not the teachers’ unions who are greedy, uncaring and entitled. It is the people who think they have a right to dictate how the rest of us get educated and who see our children as numbers and who throw around money to get their way who are destroying our future.

Occupy the Department of Education (Part I: Fascism as Policy)

It has been a long time by blogging standards since I have added a new post. In many ways, I was undergoing a crisis over the direction this blog should take. I resolved this crisis by deciding to start another serial, this time on the importance of Occupying the Board of Education. It was inspired by Occupy Wall Street’s commandeering of Dennis Walcott’s Panel for Educational Policy meeting this past Tuesday. Like everything else OWS does, it brought home the cruelty and indifference of the people we look to for leadership. As a teacher, I feel I have a duty to lay bare the importance of Occupying the Board of Education. Below is the start of that effort:

Fascism exalts the private over the public. For fascism to take hold, government and corporations must conspire to privatize public services. The United States military, the prison system and huge chunks of our infrastructure have already been privatized. Public schools are next. Public school teachers naturally support Occupy Wall Street, whose one clear demand continues to be to roll back this emerging fascism. Occupying the Department of Education involves exposing the ways in which the New York City school system is already fascistic.

In “The Origins of Totalitarianism” the great Jewish thinker, Hannah Arendt, explained that totalitarian regimes operate by constantly changing the rules. What was policy one day was completely illegal the next. Those that thought of themselves as loyal party players suddenly found themselves outside of the law. The regime constantly weeded out undesirables in this way. People would become mistrustful of each other. The goal was to make collective action on the part of the people impossible. A citizenry atomized into its component parts was easier to control. Atomizing the collective has been a goal of the DOE’s totalitarian ruler, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, from the start. In Year I of the Bloomberg Regime, he replaced the publicly elected Board of Education with a Department of Education whose officers were appointed by, and answerable to, him. The rationale for doing so is familiar enough to students of atomization schemes in other public institutions: the old system was an unresponsive bureaucracy; the new system embodied corporate efficiency. Of course, it is this corporate efficiency that allows the Mayor to constantly manipulate policy in an attempt to destroy any collective action at all, including those two great bastions of collectivism: large high schools and the United Federation of Teachers.

Mayor Bloomberg decreed that all schools get an annual letter grade. Those that consistently receive failing grades are “reorganized”. It is impossible for the schools to know what it takes to receive a passing grade, since the rubrics change every year. Schools that pass one year fail the next, despite no appreciable change in standardized test scores, attendance or violent incidents. It is clear that a school’s grade does not depend on its performance. Instead, the undesirables who are the targets of this ever-changing standard are the large schools. A large school has thousands of students, several dozens to hundreds of teachers and a small cadre of administrators to run it all. The large public school is probably the last rampart of collective community-building anywhere in the country. Large schools can successfully resist mandates for “reform” from outsiders. They can accommodate reform in a way that does not threaten their existence or radically change their culture. But Bloomberg’s DOE is not a reforming force. It is a radical force that seeks complete privatization and atomization of the school system.

“Reorganization” in the DOE means taking the large building in which the large school was housed and requiring 4 or 5 smaller schools to operate in different parts of that building. Chances are that at least one of those schools will be a charter school that has much greater freedom to choose who they will educate. The other schools are still subject to the arbitrary letter grades of the DOE, which largely determines which types of students each school attracts from the surrounding community. The radical “reformers” call this giving parents “choice”. This is the language of consumerism. This is the language of a radical movement to turn the collective action of citizens into the isolated choices of consumers. Instead of the community pooling their resources and sharing space, schools now atomize the members of the community into smaller portions that compete for space and jealously guard the resources they have. What used to be a civics exercise in community-building has become a soulless microcosm of the war of all against all that resembles a “free market”. It is incredible that such a blatant violation of “separate is not equal” has been allowed to develop, causing the NAACP to bring lawsuits against charter schools that exist alongside public schools.

None of these atomizing tactics would have been possible without the evisceration of that other bulwark of collective action: the United Federation of Teachers. If the public school system symbolizes the last great rampart of community-building in America, the teacher’ unions symbolize one of the last great ramparts of worker solidarity. But just because the UFT still exists does not mean it has withstood the same atomizing that is destroying public schools. The Teaching Fellows and Teach for America programs brought in hired mercenary teachers who promised to stay in the system no more than three to five years. Some have stayed on past their bids, most have not. Due to the closed-shop rule (one of the few scraps left to the UFT), all of these new teachers had to join the union. Their arrangements ensured that the union would not be able to count on future generations of dedicated teachers to keep up the fight for better working conditions. Most of the younger members would be off to their real careers on Wall Street, the bar or the theatre well before they could talk of retirement. In this way, the DOE scooped out the heart and soul of the UFT. The union began overly representing retirees and other entrenched interests disproportionately over their members on the front lines. This helps explain why the last contract negotiated under Randi Weingarten was so willing to bargain away working conditions while jealously guarding pensions.

When you place those unprotected teachers in smaller schools, you get the fascism we have now. Chopping down large schools greatly increases the need for principals, “middle management” as Mayor Bloomberg has called them and “commissars” as the Soviets used to call them. Greater principal-to-teacher ratios mean greater supervision of the teachers. Principals are required to have no more than three years of teaching experience, ensuring they will have very little empathy with teachers the longer they remain principals. Instead, their empathy lies with themselves and getting their schools to outdo other schools on the yearly report card. The small size of the schools combined with the most recent UFT contract gives principals greater control over teachers and what teachers should do to get better grades for the schools’ report cards. It is a system where principals are incentivized to abuse their powers. They are not encouraged to think of themselves as leaders accountable to the communities they serve. Instead, they are told they are managers implementing the policies of the hierarchy. The communities must serve them. Teachers must work longer hours and focus on test prep. Those that protest are disappeared by the principals’ powers to drum up fake charges and initiate frivolous hearings to terminate teacher licenses. Students must produce higher test grades. Those that do not produce face being creatively expelled in charter schools or sacrificed to the psychological/pharmaceutical complex by being labeled as “disabled” in public schools. Parents are not meant to play any role at all. Instead, they are directed to lodge their concerns with impotent parent coordinators or the somnambulant Panel for Educational Policy. It is a system designed to make the community irrelevant by privatizing and atomizing it.

All of the fascism in the DOE is tending towards the ultimate goal of privatization. Mayor Bloomberg and corporate reformers like Bill Gates form the fascistic nexus responsible for the destruction of our public schools. Theirs is a privatization more insidious than any that has come before. It is not simply a movement to destroy schools. It is a movement to destroy the classroom. As school buildings and teachers’ unions become more atomized, Bill Gates sees a future where the classroom itself will become atomized as well. 30 kids in a classroom will be replaced by individual students sitting in front of computers. Of course, all the computers will be made by Microsoft, as will all of the programs that “teach”. It will be the final frontier of privatization. It will be the ultimate atomizing of the population into individuals. This is what the Common Core Standards adopted by most states, including New York, represent. On top of being a giant government hand-out to Bill Gates, it will allow Bill Gates to remake the nation in his own image by giving him direct control over the rearing of every young brain in the country.

But that is a matter for the next installment…