Monday, June 9, 2014

A Look at Education Policy

This four minute excerpt is the final part of a talk by Joshua Katz. Watch the full length original, TheToxic Culture of Education, at

Text for above from Opt Out Orlando (not an exact transcript).
How do we address this on a large scale? I believe in Horace Mann’s 1850′s vision of an education system that can improve mankind. In public education, we have an amazing opportunity to mold a better future. What we are currently doing is so toxic and I have two solutions that would be better. I’m not a fan of this idea, but it would be better than what is happening now: we could completely defund public education and put the 750 billion dollars back in our pockets. No more taxpayer money going to private companies in the name of public education and on the heads of our students. Because let me tell you, it isn’t reaching our classrooms and students and it’s certainly not reaching the teachers. The second plan, which I am in support of, is to double down on public education. Eliminate the toxic policies and the corruption in profit flow. Get the money more directly to the students. Allow them to be successful, focus on them, on their non-cognitive factors, on their abilities. Train and allow the teachers to work with their students and assess their students on what they truly need to know: thinking, reasoning, and learning. I believe in the potential greatness of a public education system DONE RIGHT. In fact, most of my colleagues do as well.

Speaking of my colleagues…what about all the talk about teachers? The public narrative, thanks to “education reformers” like Michelle Rhee and Bill Gates, paints a picture that our schools are teeming with horrible teachers. Most teachers are accomplishing amazing feats of human achievement and motivation with their students. What teachers are able to accomplish is being done in a “professional” environment of questioning, belittling, and self doubt due to “accountability” measures for ALL teachers because “teachers can’t be fired”. If you want to compare education to business, check out HR and employee relations. Companies empower employees, encourage employee growth, believe in employee morale, and reward employee success. Yet in our toxic culture, we call a teacher “successful” IF AND ONLY IF students can score well on a 4 hour computer based test. We evaluate teachers based on what is written on their boards or hung up on their walls, or spotted by an administrator with an iPad in a three minute observation. We blame teachers for students who are hungry, homeless, without guidance, or without character. I don’t even need to mention teacher pay. You cannot measure how successful a teacher truly is in the life of a student! How do you measure when a teacher acts as mental health counselor for a student that has suffered a family loss? How do you measure when a student is able to eat dinner only because a teacher is paying for it? How do you measure a student learning something new based on immediate feedback from an assignment because the teacher stayed up until midnight the night before grading papers? How do you measure when a teacher spends thousands of dollars of their own money to have supplies in their classrooms? And we blame the teachers for accountability policies they had no place in creating.

Why not develop a system that invests in the teachers’ relationship with the students? Why not invest directly in the students? Why not encourage teachers to create their own assessment systems to fit their students’ needs? Why not allow them to collaborate with one another or at least have a peer review system to better serve their students (like in other professions)? Why not involve them in the policy making decisions at the school level, the district level, the state level, the national level?

The truth about education policy is that it is written and enforced by people who have either spent little or no time in the classroom with the students that these very policies affect. Why not allow the individuals in direct contact with students to mold and shape the environment of the students? Education is the only industry that is developing a product without any valid market research from its users! Students aren’t asked what they want or need. Teachers aren’t asked what would work for their students. Teachers are not the enemy: it’s the private companies like Pearson and interest groups like ALEC, that write policies and laws that are passed over steak dinners with words like “accountability” and “rigor” to perpetuate their bottom lines on the heads of our students. Follow the money: of all the tax dollars that go into education, how much goes directly to students? How much goes directly to a teacher’s relationship with students (which by the way are another leading indicator of student success)? Compare that to how much goes to private companies for materials and resources, as well as bureaucracy? Just follow the money.

We must change the public narrative on education. We must fight our Toxic Culture! We must end high stakes testing for the sake of “accountability”. Let’s have education policy that builds up our students with sensible human standards instead of fitting them into robotic boxes for “college readiness”. Let’s focus on getting students out there in the evolving global economy. Let’s focus on teaching them the important things: how to read, how to think, how to research, how to reason, how to master basic skills, and how to be good citizens. Let’s talk about the Non-Cognitive factors that are the true measures of student achievement: persistence, integrity, character.

Let’s teach them how to learn and how to innovate, NOT how to take tests. We must change the focus of our Toxic Culture away from curriculum, teachers, and schools, and WE MUST focus on our students!

Let’s stop measuring fish by how well they climb trees.
Joshua Katz is a high school math teacher in Orange County, FL.


Monday, June 2, 2014

Time to Focus on the Students

This four minute excerpt is the third part of a talk by Joshua Katz. We'll post the last part next week. Watch the full length original, TheToxic Culture of Education, at

Text for above from Opt Out Orlando (not an exact transcript).
Our main focus is on the schools, on the teachers, on the curriculum. We need to start paying attention to our students. If a student fails Algebra 1 in the ninth grade, chances are it is not because they do not understand the material. Chances are it’s not because the teacher isn’t teaching. Chances are it’s not because of the school. Chances are it is because the student lacks some type of intangible characteristic (a “Non-Cognitive Behavior”) that enables them to succeed. Things like persistence, initiative, social skills, common sense, a full belly, or a good night’s sleep. However, none of these things are considered in our definition of “student achievement”. None of these things are considered in our policies.

All the talk about failing schools and failing teachers and how to improve teachers and improve schools NEEDS to be changed to failing students and how to improve students. How can we help them to be better students? How can we help them to be better people? How can we help them with these Non-Cognitive factors like integrity and work ethic? How can we feed them? Give them a place to sleep? It’s the public narrative that needs to be shifted. We have to discuss what is happening with our students, even the Honors students. Because right now we are simply creating a massive population of future citizens who are afraid to attempt anything challenging, unable to read or think critically, or unable to find ways to earn a meaningful income, and I’ll get to that in a minute.

Right now, our system pushes ALL students to study abstract classes in order to be “college ready”. We throw around buzzwords like “rigor” and “STEM”. It sounds good, right?

The reality is that the word “rigor” has completely replaced the word “relevant”. I met with our district and pitched an idea to bring back Home Economics, but this time as a math credit. First words in the response: “it’s not rigorous”. So, forget relevance. Forget teaching students about measurements, about taxes and discounts, about loans, about debt, event planning, or the reality of fractions. It’s not as rigorous as Factoring Trinomials and Graphing Logarithms, so it can’t fit. There’s no room for it in our Toxic Culture of Education. There’s also no room for the arts and for imagination, which are being systematically removed from schools. There is no profit in that, either.

We have felt the effects of our education policies. There are thousands of highly skilled jobs that are currently vacant. There is opportunity for small business development and innovation like never before. And we are relying on highly skilled immigrants. But where are our graduates?

There is an ENORMOUS opportunity in our economy for our students, but we just don’t enable it in our schools because we are focusing on “college ready” and “rigor”.

If we focus our attention on getting students the resources they need in order to find their place in the community, the economy, THOSE students would value education more highly, use their time more wisely, and make better decisions outside of school. Let’s keep the college bound students going to college. They need to continue their path, but we need them to be more successful and more innovative. But what about THOSE students?

I have students that want to be tattoo artists, mechanics, and barbers. They want work, some want to open their own businesses. But..they are THOSE students. They consistently fail classes and get themselves in trouble in school, and may not graduate. So I say: let’s scrap Algebra for them and teach them some tangible skills (like we did in the system before it was labeled as a “failure”). Let’s get them out there making a living for themselves, rather than spending another $10,000 in tax money to pay for another year of school for them to learn how to factor trinomials, which they won’t. Why Not get them into the economy?
Joshua Katz is a high school math teacher in Orange County, FL.