How They Silence Us: An ABC Primer

As the latest reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act begins to take effect nationwide, the proverbial you-know-what is beginning to hit the fan.

Parents and teachers are discovering that all the talk about “returning decision making to states” was a bunch of hooey,  and that even though their state may have ditched Common Core, or replaced PARCC or SBAC with another brand-name test, profit-driven education reforms are moving forward at lightning speed.

Consultants, electronic devices, personalized learning plans, and standards-based grading software are closing in on districts everywhere, leaving many parents and teachers up in arms and eager to speak up.

Unfortunately, they are ready with an arsenal of tricks to keep us quiet.

Here are a few ways they may try to silence you as you try to take a stand, and a few ideas to help break through the barriers

1. A is for Asking for “Input”

Sure, there are some who actually want to hear what you have to say – but they are rarely those in the driver’s seat.

In order to keep you from quibbling too much with their plans, reformers (consultants, politicians, etc), will often elicit your “feedback” or “input” on their plans (which are already set in stone).

For teachers, this often means being asked to write things down on chart paper or sticky notes during meetings.


For parents, this may mean spaghetti dinners or emails from the state commissioner asking you to fill out a survey.


The idea is for them to take this information back to the boardroom and decide how best to communicate to you the plans they’ve already drawn up.

My advice: Bypass the sticky notes and surveys and contact power players directly.  Get a big group together to attend the board meeting and speak up together. Video tape it with your phone and post it online.  Repeat.

2. B is for Blaming

Don’t like the new learning management system?  Concerned about the new grading policy?  Frustrated by the new curriculum?

This is because you haven’t been implementing these things properly.

My advice: Ask to visit a district where all of the new reforms are being “fully” implemented with fidelity.  Keep asking until they have to admit that there is nowhere, actually, that is successfully implementing all of the reforms they want to see.

3. C is For Calling Names

Have you been called stupid, mean, crazy, nasty, immature, foolish, etc… all because you’ve done some research on what’s happening to public schools and are worried about what is happening to your district?

Have you researched education reform for hours upon hours, and then, when you finally got the nerve to share what you’ve learned with others, got called a “conspiracy theorist”?



Yeah, me too.

My advice: Shrug it off, hug your kids or your pets, and think of it as a win.  People call names when they can’t think of a way to refute what you are telling them, so you’ve either struck a nerve or proven your point.  Well done.

4. S is for Shaming

How dare you try to tear apart our community!  How dare you question what is meant only for the good of the children!  How dare you question distinguished politicians or intellectuals! That’s not just wrong – it’s stupid and selfish.

Who do you think you are, anyway?

In my mind, there isn’t a lower blow someone can commit than trying to make another feel ashamed of themselves for speaking their mind.

My advice: Keep speaking your mind.  We need more people who do.

Clearly, this is only the tip of iceberg.  Please comment with other letters as you think of them.

And remember: the revolution won’t be televised.






Calling Foul: Ravitch is Wrong About MacArthur

This is a bit ironic.

This morning, Diane Ravitch reblogged a post I’d written about an exceptionally good piece on the influence of billionaires in public schools.

Ravitch included the following commentary:

“Blow the whistle. Call foul.  Speak up.  Now.”

Well, now I have to call foul on one of Diane’s posts.


Yesterday, Ravitch disclosed that she was one of the judges for the MacArthur Foundation’s “100&Change” grant competition.

“This is what real philanthropy looks like,” she said of the competition.

But it isn’t.

The MacArthur Foundation, which is up to its ears in next-gen education reform – promoting and investing in concepts like “personalized learning,” digital badging, and digital, behaviorist-based interventions – is among many foundations planting seeds to sprout the Social Impact Bond (SIB’s, also known as Pay for Success) market.

In a nutshell, SIB’s are a way for private investors to profit from public programs. They provide upfront capital to start a program, and if the program meets a set of agreed-upon success metrics, investors get repaid with interest.

It’s an “innovative financial model” still in its infancy, but foundations like MacArthur are busy laying the groundwork for it to take off.

MacArthur is a member and financier of the Global Impact Investing Network, which is building a massive catalogue of “performance metrics” that can be used to determine the risk of social investments.

It’s one of the major reasons that social institutions like public schools and public health programs are now being pillaged for data at every turn – and why everything we do must be “measurable.”

MacArthur is also a prime driver of the datafication and digitalization of public education, supporting – along with the Gates Foundation – organizations likes IMS Global and Mozilla, as they work to develop standardized, digital credentialing systems.

At least one of MacArthur’s 100&Change finalists is exactly the type of behaviorist-based intervention that allows for the quick and easy data collection that investors are looking for: a collaborative between Sesame Street Workshop and the U.K.’s “Behavioural Insights Team” (better known as the “Nudge Unit” ) that plans to bring “cost-effective strategies, including digital platforms” to help Syrian refugee children develop “social-emotional” skills.

And if that alone doesn’t cause you to raise an eyebrow, I don’t know what will.

Now, I won’t speculate on Diane’s motivation for linking up with MacArthur.

Maybe she will explain?

But, a foul is a foul, and I’m blowing the whistle.



Be Like Lisa.

Sixteen years ago, Mark Zuckerberg and I sat across from each other in Latin class at Phillips Exeter Academy.

A few years after Exeter, I began teaching public school.

Mark, meanwhile, invented Facebook and became a billionaire.

Now, the one who never worked a day in his life in a public school (Mark) is crusading nationwide to “remake” public schools.

Without bothering to hear from those who actually work in those schools (I wrote Mark an open letter a couple of years ago that was picked up by a number of popular media outlets, but never heard back), Mark and his wife are striving to build a public school system that in no way resembles the intimate, discussion-based, mostly tech-free education (with no more than twelve students per class) that we got at Exeter.

Chan and Zuckerberg – along with a long list of other billionaires like Reed Hastings, Laurene Powell Jobs, Eli Broad, and the Waltons – are currently pushing an education agenda that puts an electronic device at the hands of each student, tracking their every move with “personalized learning plans” that will warn you in big red letters if at any time you fall off-track and aren’t meeting the standards as you should be.


There’s a giant profit motive behind this frighteningly technocratic vision, and anyone who cares about public schools should be fighting tooth and nail against it.

Unfortunately, based on the speed at which schools are adopting Mark’s “Summit Personalized Learning” program and the amount of money his LLC is throwing at public policy initiatives, Mark and his billionaire buddies are currently winning this war.

The good news is that nationwide, people are starting to take notice (with TV specials like the XQ Super School event, it’s getting harder to overlook) and, more importantly, to speak up.

This weekend a retired teacher in Philadelphia wrote a brilliant op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer, pinpointing exactly what’s wrong with the kind of meddling these billionaires are doing in our schools.

Here’s just the tip of the iceberg:

Over the past 20 years, education policy has increasingly been enacted not to satisfy the needs of the students and their families, but the wants of the wealthy and powerful who are converting public education from a civic enterprise to a marketplace for edu-vendors: the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation has paid to expand charters and lobby for the use of Common Core standards in all 50 states; real estate and insurance mogul Eli Broad now leads a group of corporate funders pushing a plan to move half of all K-12 students in Los Angeles into charter schools; the Walton family has initiated a new $1 billion campaign to promote charters nationwide; Trump financier Carl Icahn has established a chain of charters in New York City.

No one elected these billionaires, and they are accountable to no one.

Please read it, share it, and be like Lisa Haver. 

Speak up, before it’s too late. 




And You Thought Standardized Tests Were Bad.

Yesterday afternoon, in eighty degree heat, my fourth graders took the first of the six “NWEA MAP” assessments that they will sit for this year.

The MAP test (which stands for “Measure of Academic Progress”) is often considered to be the lesser of evils when it comes to standardized testing: scores show up immediately after a student finishes testing, and it purports to measure “growth” rather than how a child stacks up against grade-level standards.

Results often make zero sense (how does a student who worked their tail off in the classroom all year actually lose learning points, while another miraculously makes three years worth of “growth”?), but because the results have a sort of science-y feel, the test is used to place students in intervention groups, gifted and talented programs, and even to award merit pay bonuses to teachers.

Yesterday, in our steamy-hot classroom, I had to gently prod kids along – reminding them to turn their eyes back to the test when they drifted toward the window or the doorway, to put the rainbow erasers away, to pick their heads up off their desk.

The test, however, wanted me to intervene with one little girl sitting in the front of the room.

There was no question she was reading the passages in front of her, and no question that she was doing her best to do her best.

But, according to the test’s new warning feature, she was “disengaged.”

NWEA recently received an award from the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional learning for this feature, which not only claims to know who is disengaged based on how quickly they are clicking through the test, but all sorts of other things about the child’s psyche.

If a student doesn’t take the test seriously enough, NWEA believes this is a sign that a child is struggling to self-regulate or self-manage in school, and could benefit from behavioral intervention.

Now, this may not seem so bad, until you realize that this “what’s wrong with kids who won’t take our test seriously and what can we do about them?” feature is actually part of a “broader research agenda” spurred by the recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, to “measure” social-emotional learning using standardized tests.

Which isn’t actually about helping the kids at all.

Instead, its a data-siphoning strategy designed to fuel not only the multi-billion dollar assessment industry, but the budding “Pay For Success” investment opportunities that Wall Street is hoping will create a cash cow in a few years time.

And if what happened in my class is any sign of what’s to come, we’re in really big trouble.

The girl that the test flagged as “disengaged” actually scored the highest in the class (and she’s probably one of the sweetest, calmest kids I’ve ever worked with) meaning that the click-speed feature didn’t actually have a damn clue about what was going on in my students’ psyches as they took the test.

Just as they do with standardized tests, however, you can bet they’re going to try charging forward with these blunt, inept social-emotional assessments, wreaking whatever havoc they please.

If only they had a warning system letting them know how disengaged we are becoming with these assessments…











Robots Replacing Teachers? Laugh at Your Own Risk.

*Disclaimer: the mother in this article requested to keep her identity anonymous for the time being. Additional details are forthcoming.

This fall, parents in a California school district discovered at a sixth grade open house that their child would no longer have a teacher.

Instead, the district had invested in an “exciting new way of learning” – a “personalized learning program” called Summit, designed by Facebook.

After listening to a presentation about the system that parents had received no prior information about (including no information about the programs data-sharing agreement, which gives Summit full authority to sell student information to third parties), they were ushered into a classroom where they told to log onto the software program.

When it became clear that no teacher was to be found, one mom went searching for an explanation.

“I went out into the  hallway and found a really young looking woman. She called herself the classroom facilitator, and told us that ‘teacher’ was just an old term.”

The mom’s jaw hit the floor.

Recently, an article has been circulating the web claiming that “inspirational robots” will begin replacing teachers in the next ten years.

Some have laughed it off, others have called it fear mongering.

One woman went so far as to call it “catastrophizing conspiracy horseshit.”

To these people I say: dismiss this at your own risk.

Those following education policy closely know that the only outrageous part of the headline is the use of the word “inspirational.”

While they may not look like this:


robots – in the form of data-mining software programs that operate under the Orwellian term “personalized learning” – are already invading our classrooms at lightning speed.

And if you think that what happened in California isn’t about to happen nationwide, check out this document from the high-profile, well-funded Knowledgeworks Foundation, which offers a menu of career opportunities for displaced teachers.

Proponents (who stand to make a boatload off the new system) claim that machine learning is an “inevitable” wave of the future; that it will “free up” teachers to do more “projects” with kids.

But that’s hogwash.

Read their own documents, and you’ll see that they are planning to turn live, face-to-face teaching into a “premium service.”

A premium service.  

Meaning that they know face-to-face instruction is a better way to learn, and they have no intention of having their own children learn from machines.

In that sense, maybe the idea of robots teaching children is “catastrophizing conspiracy horseshit,” if – and only if – you’re among the lucky few.







Moms Not Welcome.

I remember, vividly, the first time I learned that my presence wasn’t welcome in official public policy debates.

I had spent hours researching proficiency-based education, and for the first time in my life, I’d gathered enough courage to head to our state house to testify before the education committee.

My plan was to tell them what was plainly obvious: that this method of learning was devoid of evidence showing it was best for kids; that it was designed by investors and ed-tech developers rather than educators; and that by mandating we award proficiency-based diplomas, we were effectively using the children in our state as guinea pigs in a grand, unethical experiment.

I thought for certain that when I told the committee my credentials – a public school teacher with masters degrees in both special education and developmental psychology (one from Columbia, even) – that they would listen in earnest.

I thought for certain that my testimony would be met with questions from the committee members.

Perhaps I would even get some follow-up emails – maybe even a request to sit down with some legislators and share more of what I knew?

Instead, I got cut off.

Speakers before me – those wearing suits and fancy shoes, who told the committee they were from this partnership or that – were given time well beyond their allotted three minutes to speak.  Our education commissioner at that time (he only lasted a few months) spoke, incoherently, for a full fifteen minutes.

But I was told to stop speaking.

One legislator rolled his eyes at me.

And I got but one question from the committee: had I considered that maybe it wasn’t all such a conspiracy after all?

I’m not much of a crier, but I left the meeting in tears.

On Friday, a friend and fellow activist tried to attend a meeting on the “reinvention” of public education at the Union League in Philadelphia.  She’s a mom with daughter in public high school, and she – like me – has spent hours studying the current state of education reform.  She’s probably one of the most knowledgeable people in the country on education policy.

But she wasn’t allowed in, because she was wearing jeans.

Do you remember when Arne Duncan criticized “white suburban moms” for disliking Common Core because we thought it might show our kids weren’t as “brilliant” as we thought they were?

Do you remember how completely and utterly offensive, sexist, and wrong that was?

That type of attitude is endemic among education reformers.

And that’s because they have a plan that they don’t want anyone getting in the way of.

It goes like this: they set performance standards for our schools, loan us money to meet the standards, pillage us for data, and then demand money back with interest when we “meet” the standards they’ve set for us.

It’s a plan that they stand to get very, very rich of off.

When my friend was told she wasn’t allowed into the meeting because she was wearing jeans, she did something radical.

She just sat down.

Just right down.

Right in the middle of the Union League entry way.

People had to step over her on the way into the meeting.

I keep wondering what public education policy would be like today if more people had her courage. Maybe it’s time we all get up the same kind of nerve?

It’s clear that they don’t want to hear from us.

But maybe if enough of us just sat right now like she did, they wouldn’t be able to get around us?




Why Aren’t We Talking About This?

When I was twenty-five, I interviewed at a charter school in Brooklyn.

Before I sat down to talk to the dean, I observed a kindergarten class that looked nothing like any kindergarten class I had ever seen: just shy of thirty children sitting in rows on a carpet, each with legs crossed and hands folded, all completely and utterly silent.

In my interview, the dean asked me what I noticed about the class.

“They were very well behaved,” I said.

“Yes, they were. But they sure don’t come in like that,” he answered.  With icy pride in his voice, he said: “It’s only because of the hard work of our staff that they act like that.”

I took the job – foolishly – and soon found out what this “hard work” meant: scholars, as we called them, were expected to be 100% compliant at all times. Every part of the nine-hour school day was structured to prevent any opportunity for deviance; even recess, ten-minutes long and only indoors, consisted of one game chosen for the week on Monday.

We were overseers, really.  Our lessons were scripted according to the needs of the upcoming state test, and so we spent our days “catching” scholars when they misbehaved, marking their misdeeds (talking, laughing, wiggling) on charts, and sending them to the dean when they acted their age too many times in one day.

There weren’t any white children at the school, but there I was – a white teacher, snapping at a room full of black children to get them to respond, in unison, to my demands.

Everyone in the nation is talking about our racist history, but do people know what type of racism is happening today, beneath our noses, under the banner of education reform?

With useless, commercial junk-tests as justification, we have been told, for years now, that we must serve up our low-income schools – those schools filled mostly with children of color – to profiteers, who are then free to experiment on children in whatever ways they see fit.

Have you ever seen this video?  Watch as the parents – parents who love and value their school – are told that they need a charter network to rescue them:


“Why come here and discombobulate our home?” one parent asks.

They are discombobulating homes everywhere, of course, but communities of color are almost always hit first – and hardest.

But who, aside from a few bloggers and academics, are talking about this?

Why aren’t more people demanding that these racist institutions and policies be taken down?

Things are about to get much worse, as profiteers are now turning their attention to the measurement and manipulation of the non-academic parts of schooling – how much “grit” a child has, or how compliant he or she is – with computers taking the place of teachers to conduct remediation.



It’s modern eugenics: the molding of children’s personalities, starting from preschool, to suit the needs of our Wall Street masters.

If you aren’t sure what I mean, it’s because it isn’t happening yet in your community. Maybe, if you’re lucky, it never will.

You can be sure, however, that it is happening to other people’s children.

When will we demand that this stops too?