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“Rich Folks Hoax”

March 24, 2013

student widgetArtist: Robert Rendo

Even one of our strongest union teachers at my Los Angeles  high school has bought into the “rich folks hoax” i.e. the testing mania that is killing education for  urban students.  The title of my post is taken from a song by Rodriguez who was made famous by the movie Searching for Sugarman and whose music I have become addicted to.

As for my colleague, he seems to surrender more each day. “It’s the world we live in,” he declares, every time someone attempts to challenge the content of the  test prep/ intervention class we have during 4th period.  Michigan is also learning to live in this world as the Lansing, Michigan district and teacher’s union decided they could do without art, PE and music  in elementary school.  But hey, that’s the world they live in, right?  The union in Lansing, Michigan sold out the soul of education but then received a cruel reprieve.  PE, music and art won’t be cut after all, but the educators who teach the subjects will.  How you ask? Well, the academic classroom teachers will teach them!  I laugh when I imagine myself in their position trying to teach PE or art. This social studies teacher would be a fish out of water.   And the decline of education continues.   The one tiny bright spot is Seattle, whose superintendent announced no teachers would be punished for boycotting their version of the CST, the MAP. Apparently, Garfield High teachers in Seattle decided they didn’t have to live in a world where students are labeled by a test score.  And they won.

I decided that after viewing the soul- sucking, context- devoid readings I am supposed to “teach” for the three weeks leading up to the CST that will supposedly dramatically increase our scores that I can’t play along.  I can’t surrender.   You see all teachers are supposed to “teach” readings and standard multiple choice questions by using “context clues.” In fact every day the lesson objective on the outline is “Students use context clues…”  But I already know from looking at the readings that they will bore students to tears, even though they were created with the best of intentions.  “Our students,”   former  LAUSD local district official Sylvia Rousseau  told Fremont teachers in 2005 in a rare moment of candor, “have been basiced to death.”  So how would three weeks of more of the same change anything?

What made the situation even more alarming was when one teacher declared that students don’t even have to understand  1/2 of the reading to get the standardized test questions right- all students needed to do, he stated excitedly, was use “context clues.”  What does that say about the quality of the  questions that are being asked and the test itself for that matter?  Obviously any assessment of reading that does not require students to really understand the text is not valid.   But students must comprehend 90%  of words in  a text to truly understand it. That’s what I learned in my Reading Specialist program and also what I have observed among my own students.   So apparently understanding and analyzing text are no longer important.  Only “testing strategies” matter.

Sure, context clues are important.   And students should have some understanding of testing strategies. But am I to understand that the readings are only a means to higher test scores?  Apparently, reading for knowledge, enlightenment and self-fulfillment is no longer a reading goal.

In addition, we have a population of students who are frequently absent with many personal problems who often don’t realize their amazing talents.  Even when I tell them.  Even when I tell their parents.  So  much stress, so much drama permeates their lives that school seems for many to be an afterthought.  We have AP and college level students who simply aren’t dialed into school and test prepping them only makes it worse as well as insulting their individual talents that seem to get too often pushed into the background in the voracious, single-minded search for an increased API score.  There is Angel, who is  a beautiful writer and shows up to school about once every two weeks.  There is another student also college ready who announced she is pregnant.  She missed the last week and a half of school last quarter.  We have students who are wonderful singers,  and at least one student who has started her own business.  She is from Korea but is also half latina, very mature but rarely shows to school.  All of these kids could be on full four-year scholarships to college.  So why oh why are we focused on test prep and not on changing those behaviors that sabotage their future success? I’ll never understand it.  I had two absolutely brilliant male students who dropped out to work.  It happens all the time.

They don’t need test prep. They need a counselor to visit their homes and have a sit down with the folks.   Dr. Deasy, our school doesn’t need to be stressed over test scores. We need two full-time counselors and a psychiatric social worker who can visit homes.  Right now we only have two different counselors who are part time at our school. We need Driver’s Ed back in school so students might have  a practical reason to read- to pass the written part of the driver’s test and negotiate the DMV.  Not to mention my many male students with tickets galore for driving without a license.   Why did I get these benefits in school but today’s kids don’t?  We need to ditch the  “tablet for every student” idea and go for  the high-tech union apprenticeship jobs that are still plentiful in Los Angeles.  Why don’t we have these programs in our schools in the LAUSD? And whatever happened to those wonderful, talented industrial arts teachers?

So I am using my Easter break to put together my own “test prep.”  I like to call it “Reading is Revolutionary.”   I have gathered some readings and poetry that will help students in the long term- and I actually plan to provide them with context.  The first is from a column in a local weekly paper.  It’s an article called “Life after Life,” about a man sentenced to life in prison in the late 1970’s who was released shortly after Obama’s election.  Expecting a world he left in the late 70’s, he encounters cell phones, computers and much more. “Everything is different,” he declares.  But he is also determined not to go back to prison and has a good start on  a new life. Another lifer released early used his time in prison to get an AA degree and take graphic design classes.  And that’s when he thought he was really doing life.  Lots for students to ponder there.

The next is an excerpt from a book called Craig and Joan: Two Lives for Peace about two young people who committed suicide over their grief about the Vietnam War.  It left their friends anguished and their school completely silent about the shocking event. No teacher brought it up, even those who were  visibly upset.  It was obviously official school policy to pretend the tragedy never happened.  Another tragic part of this story is that the Vietnam War is over and Craig and Joan never lived to see that because of the decision they made.  What good did their choices do for their families and society? The writing prompt students will have to answer is the following: Is taking  your own life for a cause a noble, dramatic sign of protest or is it a selfish, futile and meaningless act?

Another is an article called Precious, about Downtown Dog Rescue in Los Angeles which deals with the tragic situation of pit bulls in Los Angeles in an honest way that does not patronize the working class residents of the area formerly known as “south central.”    The story begins with the sentence “Precious is such a bitch,”  and continues with “The compact young blonde struts the patio inside the iron gates just behind the Modernica furniture factory in downtown’s Industrial District. Precious is subtly clever, looking for vulnerability: She’ll push your buttons, then put you in check just to let you know who’s in charge. Everybody knows she’s the shot caller.”  Lots to chew on just in those three sentences. (Excuse the pun).  I plan of course to have students answer some basic questions that require understanding and analysis  but I also plan to have them write, write, write.  They will write an interior monologue as if they are Precious and tell her life story, imagining what her life  was like before Animal Services found her chained, weighing 19 pounds and covered with maggots on Normandie Ave in Los Angeles.  In a community where animal abandonment is routine, perhaps this will plant a positive seed.

The beauty of this is that I  can defend my actions with the same eduspeak tossed at teachers during the last 15 years: These lessons are culturally relevant, at an i + 1 level,  use students own background and communities as well as being high- interest materials.  Wow, I think I’m getting the hang of  this “eduspeak” thing.

Would going along with the “rich folks hoax” of test prep be easier? Sure, but I realized my students don’t deserve a teacher who “goes along” to get a paycheck.  They deserve so much more. Like what the “reformers” own kids get in their schools which is not test prep, but an enriching educational experience.  And I plan to give it to them.

To my esteemed colleagues who sincerely believe this test preparation leading to an artificial jump in test scores will keep the district off our backs, believe me, it won’t.  It didn’t work at Fremont, nor HPHS. The march of privatization is upon us. You want me to do a sales job on the kids. You want me to  tell them on Tuesday morning that this CST test is vitally important and they must  do well.  But I can’t do that because it’s a lie.  It’s a lie.   They’ve already been cheated out of the education middle class kids get.  Why would I just keep lying to students who are years behind in reading because they have less access to whole text?  Why would I lie to students who still don’t know how to create an email account or attach a file – two basic skills you must have in this information age that middle class kids learn in elementary school and believe me that all the reformers’ kids learn even  as they crack the whip for you to do more, more more test prep.

Whenever I feel personally pressured to move ahead to “cover” more material that might  be on the CST,  I stop and ask myself this question “What is education?” And I inevitably turn to Herb Niebergall’s eloquent essay he wrote when it was announced that Fremont would be reconstituted. (Herb has taught at Fremont since 1966)   I will repost it above.  I know what education isn’t.  It’s not teaching less about cultures and more about world wars because that’s “what is on the CST”  and  because wars are overrepresented in the 10th grade world history standards.  The genocide in the Congo is about to surpass the genocide of European Jews, Gypsies and others in the 1930’s and 1940’s.  So what, do I just ignore that because it’s “not in the standards?”    How does that serve my students –   the same students who don’t know who the Vice President is or how many states are in the union. But they’ve received the same test prep you’re touting now for years.

In yoga practice,  we are taught to let go of what no longer serves us.  It doesn’t serve me to fraudulently educate my students. And it most certainly doesn’t serve them.

Teachers, be not afraid to stand up and speak out no matter what the consequences.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. March 30, 2013 9:44 am

    I don’t think it’s “rich folks” as a class. Until I see any firm statistics to the contrary, I am willing to assume that the majority of “rich folks” are way too busy enjoying what pleasures wealth can bring to pay much attention to this arena. The problem arises from a special subclass of con artists who wish to get rich and richer off the resources that belong to the public at large.

    There was a time when “beyond the dreams of avarice” got its meaning by way of referring to the actual bounds of avarice. There are evidently no actual bounds anymore.

    • March 30, 2013 4:23 pm

      Jon, I believe the “rich folks” referred to here are the Gates, the Eli Broads, Waltons, and billionaire hedgefunders who know very little, if anything, about learning, teaching, early childhood development, developmentally optimal curricula. Stuff like that. The Koch brothers donate untold million to organizations which follow ALEC legislation schema and who influence state legislators to rubber stamp ALEC supported reform that privatizes public assets, like public schools. While the “rich folks” amble about in their jets and yachts, they’re also very involved in supporting efforts to extract every drop of anything close to pubic wealth and devour it and monetize it for their endless, relentless sick and demented greed.

      • Barbara permalink
        March 30, 2013 10:39 pm

        Hi Kuhio, How is life in Hawaii? Thanks for commenting on the blog post.

      • March 30, 2013 11:46 pm

        Things in Hawaii are as anywhere. The water’s warm. Same as it ever was. Mahalo.

      • March 31, 2013 3:50 pm

        Today in Hawaii, as in other places, globally no doubt, some of us are facing issues with Facebook. There are several of us on the education thread, where I found a link to your blog, who are being sanctioned for adding friends we don’t actually know. Also, for sending video info to friends. I understand the spamming and junk possibilities that FB might be attempting to protect the user from, yet,FB encourages adding friends…. c’mon, they know we don’t know everyone personally whom we ask to join in a thread…. like ours on education, public schools, and the great links that lead to blogs like yours.

        I was under the impression that Facebook was created to expedite the sharing of information in the “social network.” I’ve had personal websites. I WordPress, but not a lot as I haven’t upgraded to use it as a significant blog site. I have found the speed at which I can develop a large group of like-minded people to share ideas and links through FB of great value. While many blog and websites are put up on FB, as a post or through comments, put up too much and one gets sanctioned by FB.

        With more media outlets threatened with buyouts by the Murdochs and Kochs, and other large corporate owners, I’m sure Facebook is under close scrutiny. As it it, Facebook sells much of their data base, personal and public information posted on its site, to several other corporate marketeers, the government, and any other entity willing to pay up.

        In our increasingly duplicitous world under the controls of an oligarchic ownership class hell bent on privatizing every public asset available, it’s time an alternative to Facebook be created. Like Linux, Open Source, like Occupy, a new model of communication in an era of increasing predomination and restriction is a necessity. Not only do the rentier overclass work to ensure ignorance, they continue relentlessly to thwart the voices of people, of communication, and organization of a plebeian protest.

      • March 31, 2013 9:45 pm

        I totally agree Kuhio, we need an open source ad free type of social networking. I am wondering if a list serve will have to do. I think people will start to turn against facebook as they tried to charge me a dollar to send a message!!

      • April 1, 2013 7:01 pm

        Facebook asked me for that same dollar to send a message. Now, I’m blocked from sending messages. How long is anyone’s guess. Their “crikets” picked up on my messaging people to inquire regarding adding as friend and I mostly choose people with whom we both have at least fifty people in common, or mutual friends.

        Yes, a list serve, something. Someone suggested making a fan page to get around some of the issues,. But, my support for Facebook is flagging.

        Interesting side note: I polled one hundred teachers from K-12 asking them what major steps the state could take to a school designated as a SIG school. Only one…. one…. knew the three basic options. There is a tsunami of privatization through government power coming to Hawaii. And few are ready.

      • Barbara permalink
        April 1, 2013 7:06 pm

        Well this is another step on the road to 2nd world status since it will be impossible to maintain standards It will also lead to the fragmentation of Americans so that we know longer see each other as one people but instead will identify with social and racial class as privatization is intensifying this. What will unite us as Americans except war?

  2. Barbara permalink
    March 30, 2013 11:56 am

    Yes I believe it is because the rich want public education preserved for themselves but demonize it everywhere else. I have a relative who sends his own kids to public schools but publicly excoriated me and my “union” at a gathering. He wanted to know what I was doing about all the “bad” teachers. I told him the teachers at my school are essentially the same teachers at his kids schools, just hamstrung by absenteeism that makes it impossible to give consistent homework or even summer assignments. The teachers are the same, the conditions are far different. Yet try to “charterize” his school and he would never have it.

  3. April 1, 2013 9:24 pm

    As far as Facebook goes, it seems to work better to form group pages. I’ll post links to a few I know about, one at a time to get past the WordPress filters —

    Wear Red For Public Ed

  4. April 25, 2013 6:54 pm


    This was a very powerful and fortifying article. Thank you for your excellence in journalism.

    BTW, I am the artist who created the image you used, and PLEASE feel free to go to my site and LIFT ANYTHING at any time you want to incorporate into your wonderful, pro-public education site. I am proud to have my work on Fremont Watch. I grant you a free license and encourage you and any other advocate of public education to do the same! Imagery is one of the best ways to get our message across, I think.

    We must all fight this corporate takeover of schools and protect children from profiteers and privatizers. . . .

    Robert Rendo


  1. L.A. Teacher: Is Reform a “Rich Folks’ Hoax” | Diane Ravitch's blog

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