California Proposition Recommendations

Below are my recommendations on the 17 California Propositions

(links to other explanations and recommendations)

(summary of recommendations)

There is a part of me that wants to just vote no on every proposition as the initiative process is in my opinion a severely flawed process for making law. The reason we elect representatives is to make and pass laws—it is their full time job. To expect every citizen to become an expert on 17 issues this year, many of which have complex provisions in them, is ludicrous and ends up meaning people often vote based on knee jerk reactions to the initiative’s title. Legislative bills go through the give and take of compromise and debate to amend them, which I think is a good process. Propositions are voted up and down as is, with no opportunity to fine tune them. And the outcome is actually more, not less, influenced by big money as people tend to get their info from TV ads or just going by who supports or opposes it, if not simply the title. Not a good way to makes laws and amend our State Constitution.


Proposition 51, School Facility Bonds: No

While more money for schools is always good, there are a couple of hidden poison pills here. One is that it exempts developers from paying fees to go to schools when they create new developments until all the bond money is used up (such developments often creates the need for new schools, and so traditionally developers pay fees to offset such costs). It therefore transfers the burden from developers to increased general state debt.

Also it gives a disproportionate share of the money to charter schools, which actually undermines traditional public neighborhood schools.

Proposition 52, Medical for Private Hospital fees: Abstaining

While the proposition makes sense, this was originally done by the legislature and no reason they cannot extend it as a bill. We should not be voting as propositions what our legislatures can easily do themselves. We elect and pay them to be the experts and understand the details and repercussions of such bills. Additionally this is a Constitutional amendment. Constitutional amendments are extremely difficult to change or amend if need be, like if there is a need to change these fees in one direction or the other. I am not voting no as I do not want to send the message that I am against these fees.

Proposition 53: Public vote of Revenue Bonds: No

Revenue bonds are paid off by users of the service the bond pays for (e.g. tolls if used to a bridge). This bill was put up by one individual who does not like one particular project. We elect our representatives to make these decisions. And no reason everyone in the state should be voting on every project—and need to be an expert on all the pros, cons and details of them that is needed to make an informed decision — especially projects that do not affect those voters in terms of paying for them or serving them.

Proposition 54: Changes in Legislation Process: No

This bill would require 72-hour notice before any bill could be voted on, among other things. On its face, this proposition does seem to offer more transparency in government, but in reality would make passing any bill extremely difficult. As bills are normally passed, they go through a process of adjustments and amendments to both make compromises and fix problems with them. If every amendment or minor change meant a 72-hour wait, it would take forever to get anything done. This is why Republicans, who are in the minority in California want it, as they want to be able to obstruct bills.

Proposition 55: Tax on High Incomes: Yes

This extends the 1%-3% additional tax on individuals making over $250K and couples over $500K per year. The money mostly goes to schools. Since our infrastructure is falling apart and the rich have been getting richer at the expense of the rest of us over the last decade or so, it only makes sense to get the additional money our society needs from those who both most can afford it and have benefited the most from our economy.

Proposition 56: Tobacco Tax: Undecided

I am mixed on this. Cigarette and “sin” taxes tend to hit the poor much more than the well to do. But it is in society’s interest to discourage smoking as higher prices do, and smoking has societal costs that these taxes help offset.

Proposition 57: Parole, and Sentencing: Yes

We have several times the percentage of our population in jail as any other civilized country, and when you look at the percentage of our oppressed minority groups, the numbers are staggering. The evidence is that the longer people spend in jail the less fit they are to reintegrate themselves back into society. Reducing sentences for those that are not a clear and present danger only makes humane sense (and economic sense, as keeping people in prison is extremely expensive).

Proposition 58: English Language Education: English Language Education: Yes

This overturns the anti-bilingual proposition passed 17 years ago. It does not require bilingual education, but allows schools to once again use it if they wish. All research has shown bilingual education to be at least, if not more, effective than the English Only instruction required under the previous Unz initiative. Arguments that it has raised test scores are wholly false. For one thing, state testing only became high stakes after Unz, as well as the fact that all sorts of other instructional changes have taken place, so the number of factors that might affect test scores are too numerous to count. Furthermore, the tests have changed more than once, so any comparison is meaningless.

Proposition 59: Citizens United Advisory: Yes

While in some ways meaningless, any message that we object to the Supreme Court ruling that Corporations have the right to spend unlimited amounts influencing political elections since they are “people” is worth it.

Proposition 60, Condoms: No

While wearing condoms is a good idea this bill is horrible. There actually are laws already on the books requiring the use of condoms. This would allow individuals to sue anyone involved in the porn film as individuals and the person filing the suit would personally get some of the proceeds from the fines involved as well as court fees, giving enormous incentive for any anti-porn people to file frivolous law suits in the hope of financial gain. It also requires the actors to divulge their home address. It also has the potential of making the writer of the bill the Porn Czar if any one challenges the amendment. It also likely applies to individuals who shoot their own private porn movies, not just commercial movies.

Proposition 61: Prescription Drug Costs: No

Many good organizations and people seem to be supporting this, and the intent is good—bring down prescription drug costs. But the devil is in the details. It only applies to a small number of residents (Medical patients who are not under managed care systems). It also is impossible to really do what it says. The negotiated prices are not public, so how would we know if we are getting lower price? It mandates the government to get the lower prices but not the drug companies to agree to those prices. It could encourage the drug companies to raise prices to the Vets so that then the price the government has to match is actually higher not lower. This is the wrong solution to a real problem. Whether it will actually reduce drug prices is dubious, and even possibly could create higher prices.

Proposition 62: Abolish Death Penalty: Yes

Killing people is just wrong, even (or especially?) if done by the state. It does not bring justice, only revenge. It is not a deterrent—people committing crimes that lead to death penalty do not think—“oh, I might get the death penalty if I do this!”  It does not make up for anything the perpetrator has done. It is expensive to carry out. The death sentence is disproportionately given to minority and poor people. And sometimes innocent people are executed. We are one of the few countries with a death penalty. Those that do have it tend to be religious extremists and totalitarian (e.g. some Muslim states and Russia and China).

Proposition 63: Gun and Ammunition sales: Yes

This would make it more difficult for those who have committed violent crimes and with certain types of mental illnesses to get ammunition. If it makes it a little more inconvenient for others to also get ammunition, I do not see that as a bad thing. I do not see why we make it easier to buy guns and ammo than we do to check out a library book!

Proposition 64: Making Recreational Marijuana Legal: Yes

There are some problems with the details of this bill, and there will be problems with its implementation, as we have seen in other states. Also, I would rather see this done by the legislature than as an initiative. Waiting might have some advantages, in that we could learn more about what is working and not working in other states that have legalized marijuana.

However, I plan to vote yes anyway. The societal costs of criminalizing marijuana use are just not worth it, both in terms of costs of prosecution and jail, and ruining the lives of those who are prosecuted. Legalizing marijuana take it out of the hands of the criminal market to where it is easier to regulate the industry. If it gets voted down would send a message to the legislature that the public does not want to legalize it (an example of why I do not like the initiative process as I cannot send a nuanced message, as I might be able to do when a bill is working its way through the process).

Proposition 65: Carry out bag fees: No

Paid for by plastic bag industry to confuse the issue of Prop 67, the ban on bags, and to punish the supermarkets for their support of the ban. It claims to support the environment, giving the money for bags to a conservation organization, but the only supporters of the bill are the plastic bag industry. Environmental groups are NOT supporting this bill.

Proposition 66: Death Penalty procedures: No

Makes it easier to carry out the Death penalty, and makes appeals harder.

Proposition 67: Plastic Bag Ban: Yes

Plastic bags are extremely bad for the environment, and these bans have been very effective in getting people to use reusable bags instead of paper or plastic ones. The only real opposition is the Plastic Bag industry–who put it up in the first place hoping to override the bill the legislature already passed with a no vote on this. This is a straight forward example of big private money trying to hijack the legislative process.

Summaries and explanations:

Official voter guide

BallotPedia: Gives extensive information on each Initiative, with pros and cons and who is for it and against, and money contributed, and all sorts of analysis. Non-partisan

Cal Matters: Gives quick summaries of each. Non partisan


Friends Committee on Legislation of California: Gives their recommendations with detailed explanations.

DailyKos blogger analysis and recommendations: Mostly agrees with my analysis

California league of Women Voters recommendations:

California Democratic Party:

Summary Recommendations:

Proposition Me Friends Committee League of Women Voters DailyKos-Mainstreet Democratic Party
51 No Yes Yes Yes Yes
52 * No * Yes Yes
53 No No * No No
54 No Yes Yes No No
55 Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
56 * * * No Yes
57 Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
58 Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
59 Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
60 No No * No No
61 No No * No *
62 Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
63 Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
64 Yes Yes * Yes Yes
65 No No * No *
66 No No No No No
67 Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes

* No Position or Undecided


What is intelligence? Can we measure it? Do some have more of it than others?

I have just started to reread Stephen Gould’s “The Mismeasure of Man” If you have not read it—it is a must read, especially for anyone who calls themselves an educator.

intelligence test

He starts with two main points—or fallacies. One is the fallacy that intelligence is a thing at all. Rather, it is a construct, an idea. Intelligence is actually no more or less than we define it as.  The other fallacy he points out is ranking—as though there is some linear range, like height or weight on which to line up intelligence.

Our ideas of intelligence are socially and culturally created as well as historically situated, as Vyogtsky pointed out almost a century ago. Intelligence is only what we define it as. Our ideas of what it is are firmly entrenched in our belief systems, in our cultural paradigms. And also due to this any test of intelligence is to some degree a tautology. How do we prove someone is intelligent? Their score on the IQ test. How do we know that the IQ test is valid? We designed it so that those we “knew” were most intelligent got the highest scores and those we “knew” were less intelligence got the low scores. This is as true today of IQ tests as it was of the previous methods of measuring intelligence (craniology for instance). New versions of intelligence tests and even other forms of standardized testing are assessed on whether the same group that did well on the previous version do well on the new versions, and the same for those who did poorly—the curve needs to stay the same. If a different group does better on new test items (which are beta-tested first) those items are discarded as invalid (unless of course the test designers decide they want a different group to do better or worse).

The uni-dimensiality of intelligence has currently fallen into controversy, but it is as unprovable as intelligence itself—it is nether true nor untrue—since “intelligence” is what we define it as, we can choose to define it either way, and to categorize the different dimensions as we find useful.

The same is true of another assumption of intelligence—that it falls along a “normal curve.” This is a logical assumption based on other natural traits, such as height and weight. But we should not lose fact that it is another unprovable assumption, not a fact (and actually presupposes there is a thing called intelligence to measure and put on such a curve).

Because intelligence is a cultural construct, any test of it will be therefore biased toward those who share the knowledge, assumptions, world views and paradigms of the dominant culture. This again is unavoidable. A test has to have content, and any content exists in some context.

Because of these attributes of intelligence, I find the use of any measurement of intelligence highly suspect. When used to sort people in any official way, it is dangerous to a democratic society.

Gifted and Talented

In a previous post I discussed one aspect of the Special Education population. But another end of it are those we call “gifted.” I often hear from teachers I work with that the gifted students are shortchanged in our educational system, though like other “special needs” students Federal law states that schools are required to attend to the special needs of these students as well.

According to the Federal definition “The term ‘gifted and talented,” when used with respect to students, children, or youth, means students, children, or youth who give evidence of high achievement capability in such areas as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who need services or activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those capabilities.”[1]


The National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC), the main advocacy group for gifted education, makes very explicit their belief in the genetic nature of giftedness and their belief it the accuracy of Intelligence Tests. They are also clear that they see this population as underserved by schools, stating, “America [is unable] to properly meet the needs of its most able students.”

My problems with the gifted education label are several fold. One is that it assumes a “fixed” belief in intelligence. These students are, by this term “gifted” in the sense that they are born superior intellectually in some ways—these gifts and talents are in some way innate. I find this problematic from both a scientific standpoint and from a moral standpoint. The idea that some people are born smarter is not an established fact, despite the claims of the NAGC, though it is a very popular concept and one that most of us intuitively believe. The fact is that whether some are born with more or less potential, we do know as a fact that our experiences –our education—has a huge impact on our intelligence, and that it can change at any age. In other words, I believe virtually all students can be gifted and talented if given the opportunity, and more importantly, there is no way to sort ahead of time those who can be and those who cannot. We can only measure what someone can do and has learned so far, and so we have no accurate way test for potential However, our assumptions that we do can become self-fulfilling prophesies in both directions.

Just as with learning disabilities, the label is highly subjective. As can be seen, the definition is quite vague. The “objective” part comes from scores on standardized achievement tests and IQ tests, both of which I find highly suspect.[2] Intelligence tests, and standardized tests cannot and do not measure some real object, but a construct, and idea. They are designed by people who had and have a predetermined notion of who should do well and who should not. If the results do not give the expected results it is the test that ends up being changed. The definition is also highly subjective in terms of how one decides a particular student “gives evidence of high ability” in the non “academic”  areas—who gets to decide if one is artistically gifted, etc.

While we find students from low-income backgrounds and minorities overrepresented in the learning disabled category, we find them underrepresented in the gifted and talented category. This is likely due to two factors—one is the high correlation with scholastic and testing success and socio-economic status. The other is the ability of higher SES families to advocate for getting their children the advantages of the gifted and talented label.

Another major problem I have with the label is similar to my issue of the label learning disabled—labeling students and the message it sends. Do I really want to send the message that some students are “better” and more valuable than others? Separating out kids as smarter and dumber I think is not good for a democratic mentality. This elitist mentality is very clear if you read any of the literature put out by organization supporting the idea of giftedness.

Just as importantly, I also dispute that “gifted” children need a different kind of education than other students. Virtually every suggestion I hear for “gifted” children I think is good for all children, and in fact maybe even more so for those who are having schooling difficulties.

The argument for gifted students is that they are not challenged in regular classrooms, and do not have opportunities to pursue their gifts and talents. Given the current state of most public schools—especially one’s serving low-income schools, I could argue that almost all students need services not provided by the schools to develop their “intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity.” The idea that only certain, gifted, children should have their leadership abilities fostered sounds dangerous to a society that is trying to be democratic. And in a civilized society, development of creativity and the arts should be for all.

The types of strategies generally supported for gifted students are more open-ended tasks, projects, problem solving, etc. These are all strategies supported by progressive educators for all students. Gifted advocates argue that the general curriculum holds back and bores their students. Well, teacher-centered, textbook, rote learning approaches bore most kids.

Rather than create special opportunities for some students to receive enriched educational opportunities, I would extend such opportunities to all students. Many successful progressive schools, often working with very disadvantaged students, work from that premise with outstanding results. (See my list of innovative schools for examples. Central Park East was also one of the first schools to implement full inclusion for students with disabilities back in the early 1970s.)

[1] No Child Left Behind Act, P.L. 107-110 (Title IX, Part A, Definition 22) (2002); 20 USC 7801(22) (2004)

[2] Read Kohn, Alfie. The Case against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2000 and on IQ tests, Gould, Stephen Jay. The Mismeasure of Man. New York: Norton, 1981.

Learning Disabilities

The topic of learning disabilities is highly controversial. What are they? How do we know? Are such labels useful? How to “treat” them?

On the down side of the learning disability label is just that—that it is a label. The problem with labeling is that it creates an identity. When students are given the label of learning disabled it can mean they then think of themselves as disabled, and create a self-fulfilling prophesy of helplessness. It also shapes how others see them—as damaged.

diability cartoon

On the other hand, I know many adults that tell me that having been identified as having a specific learning disability helped them understand that maybe they were not “stupid” for having so much trouble in school, and that in some cases it allowed them to get help to manage that difficulty. One suggestion in the literature on disabilities is to name the behavior or issue rather than the person, as in a student with a learning disability, rather than a learning disabled student, having dyslexia rather than dyslexic. This may mitigate the harmful aspects of labeling.

One of my problems specifically with the term learning disabilities is the lack of a good measure and lack of strong evidence that it is actually a physical problem. To test for blindness we have a eye test, and there is no controversy over the basic validity and reliability of such tests. However, there is a strong lack of consistency about who gets labeled with learning disabilities versus who is just considered a “slow learner.” To get the label of learning disabled one criterion is a discrepancy between achievement and potential. However, since I find tests for either highly problematic in terms of validity and reliability, I do not trust the results of either. (I am unsure how one measures “potential”). Another criterion is whether a person seems to learn fine in one area, but not in another. But we all have different strengths and weaknesses. And in fact, it has been shown that students who in one school system get labeled one way, would be labeled differently in another school. In research I did a while back, the chance of low achieving students being labeled as learning disabled was almost completely arbitrary—in other words if they were assessed by different people, they were just as likely to be labeled learning disabled as not, with almost no consistency among assessors.

Some researchers point to differences in brain scans of those considered “normal” learners in the specific area of the brain that is related to ability as demonstrating the validity of such labels. However correlation does not mean causation. An alternate hypothesis is that the brain difference and the learning problem are both caused by poor teaching/learning. In other words, if you learned it the wrong way, it might end up looking different in your brain when no prior difference may have existed. I was recently reading how the brain of someone called “dyslexic” looks similar to someone who just has not learned how to read, rather than as damaged in some way.

Some have talked about a sign of a learning disability as when students have trouble hanging on to or retrieving information or facts even after multiple exposures. However, another hypothesis is lack of conceptual understanding. If you do not understand a subject well conceptually, than retrieving information is harder. I find that a more plausible explanation than a theorized brain abnormality.

The sheer number of children we now label as disabled is troubling in itself. Most sources put estimates of the number of students with learning disabilities at about 10% (and given the disagreement about who should be labeled as such, there is a wide range in estimates of how many “really” have learning disabilities). If that many children are seen as not “normal” learners, then maybe there is something wrong with our definition of “normal.”

Another issue is that much (though not all) of what we call learning disabilities only show up as problems in school contexts—so maybe the problem is with the school context or expectations. We are all different, but schools favor some learning styles and behaviors and ignore or even discourage others. In part, I am arguing that learning disabilities are at least in part culturally constructed.

Rather than label some children as learning disabled and others as normal, I would rather see schools where teachers (and everyone really) pays attention to individual differences and creates an environment that makes room for all of these differences then provides the supports needed for all to flourish. These are called full inclusion schools or classrooms, and there are many successful examples of them out there. The teacher as lecturer and textbook based model will not work well for that to happen, and probably more training and supports are needed than we currently provide to most schools. However, since the schools that I know that have full inclusion, do it on basically the same budgets as other schools, it is less a question of total resources than how they are allocated.

A difficulty of my approach is how do you allocate resources fairly. The labels help us legally justify giving expensive equipment or more one on one time to certain students, and these can be expensive. Of course, even with the laws and labels, what I have seen and heard is that those who are more advantaged are better able to use the system and laws to get whatever resources they think their child should have, and those who are less savvy and from more disadvantaged groups, are less able to successfully advocate for those same things, or just unaware of what their child might be entitled to.

My approach is based on trust—trust that those in charge will allocate the resources fairly. Without such labels and laws some argue that schools will be reluctant (or unable) to give expensive resources to students with those needs. Or that others will argue, why should that kid get all that extra stuff, without the weight of law behind it. These are valid points without easy answers. And even full inclusion schools use the labels to provide the resources.

Teacher Tenure

There was a recent lower court ruling against so-called “Teacher Tenure” here in California. I am really not sure about the extent of the ruling, but the general verdict was that “tenure” was unfair to providing an equal education for all students as called for by the State Constitution.

I believe the reading was faulty for a broad range of reasons. First of all, teachers in California do not actually have tenure, at least not in the sense that professors get tenure.

When a professor has tenure they can be fired only for some gross negligence or breaking of the law. Poor teaching, doing a shoddy job, or poor research cannot lead to loss of position under most university tenure rules. Of course, it takes much longer (typically 7 years) and a much more difficult process for professors to get that protection than for k-12 teachers to get their “tenure.”

americas-corporate-headquarters-comicAs for k-12 teachers in California, my understanding is that what we received was “Permanent Status.” In a teacher’s first two years (or more if they do not have a permanent position contract) there is no due process—we can be rehired or not for the following year completely at the will and whim of the district. No reason need be given, and typically no reason is given. After the probationary period, we receive “Permanent Status” within that district. If you move to a new district the process starts all over. But, by law, all teachers are evaluated by their principal or supervisor at least every 2 years. The law does not prevent teachers from being evaluated more frequently (though occasionally local contracts my stipulate limits). If a teacher receives an unsatisfactory rating—a rating that is up to the principal or supervisor—then that automatically means they are in danger of losing their job. They are given the opportunity to show improvement, so there is a process. However, that improvement is evaluated by the same principal or supervisor as gave the original evaluation. If ther supervisor deems they did not show imporvement, then the district can fire the teacher. “Tenure,” for k-12 teachers in California, does not in any way shape or form mean they cannot be fired for poor teaching. The fact that poor teachers are not let go is completely a lack of principals and supervisors doing their job. Often the reason they don’t is their own lack of training and support and that they are often feeling overwhelmed themselves by an impossible job. In this area some principals work in elementary schools of up to 900 students with no assistant principal due to cutbacks.

Many states do not allow teachers to have the protection of due process (e.g. “tenure”). Charter schools, for the most part, do not give teachers such protections. Yet, there is no evidence that they get better outcomes for students. Charter schools do not outperform schools serving like students here in California or anywhere else. Nor do states without tenure outperform states that have tenure. Without even a correlation, much less cause-effect relationship shown between teachers with or without  “tenure” or and student outcomes, to take away such protections claiming it is for the sake of student equity makes no sense at all.

What “tenure” protects is teachers being arbitrarily fired, or as is more often the case, fired for their views or for being outspoken. “Tenure” is a form of due process. It just says the district must show cause in order to fire someone. I lost my first teaching job, for instance, while still in the probationary period, even though I had all excellent teaching evaluations. What I did that was not so smart was openly express disagreement with some of the district policies. As I was still probationary all they had to do was say, we are not asking you back for next year. Even with the protection of due process, I have much more often seen principals and districts go after teachers for being “trouble makers” (i.e. expressing dissent as to school or district policies) than for poor teaching.

The solution to poor teachers is really four fold (at least). One is to attract better teachers. That means making the field more attractive not less. Lack of job security does not help attract people to the profession. Another is to continue to support teachers once in the field, something we do a poor job of. No teacher wants to be a bad teacher. And good teaching can be learned. Also many teachers teach under horrendous conditions. With proper support both in terms of teaching conditions and ongoing professional development, there would be very little poor teaching. We also need to support principals more in the process of both helping weak teachers, and helping them get rid of the bad ones. Lastly, and I do mean lastly, there probably does need to be a better system for figuring out what to do with those very few teachers who either are not cut out for teaching but somehow did get “tenure” or who have burned out and are no longer up to it, but cannot leave teaching because there are no other options for them economically.

The real agenda of the attack on teacher job security is really to reduce the power of teacher unions and an attack on public school teachers in general. Teacher unions are seen as a threat to the almost unrivaled power of the multibillionaires and corporate money in the American political arena. As it is they easily outspend unions 10-1, and seem to control the public discourse about most political issues are framed. Can you imagine their power once they completely decimate what little there is left of the unionized base in this country?

Early Childhood Education

I just got an email asking me to sign a petition to better fund early childhood education. I have to admit, though, that talk of early childhood education always raises mixed emotions with me. On the one hand, how could I not want to give disadvantaged youth the opportunity for quality early childhood education. And there is good research on the both how it can make a difference and on the real lack of it for many children.

But there is the rub. What is quality early childhood education? Over the past decade we have seen kindergarten turn into first grade. A place of worksheets and formal direct instruction.  A place where children quickly learn whether they are “good” or “poor” students. Where they are put in the “fast” or the “slow” group.

Yes research study after research study, as well as comparisons to other countries have shown that earlier is not better. Countries that start formal teaching of literacy later tend to actually do better at literacy over the years. Comparative studies of developmental early education versus formal instruction has shown similar results–developmental forms that do not stress formal teaching leads to better lasting results.

But when I hear of expanded early education, I see that in this country what that likely may mean is early formal instruction, early sorting kids into those who are seen as good at school and those who are not, creating a self-fulfilling prophesy, and taking away a time that should be for children to explore their world, and learn to socialize, and play.

If early childhood education means a time when kids received supported opportunities to be involved in play, in exploration of materials, exposure to wonderful stories and print, to interact with playmates in a safe and supportive environment, I am all for it.

If it means starting “first grade” at 3 or 4, then might we doing more harm then good?

So it is with such fears that I hear talk of expanded early childhood education.

If I were in charge…

People sometimes ask me what I think needs to be done with the schools. This is really a two part question for me. One part is the policy side—what should or should or should not be required. The other part of the question is what are my ideas of what a good school and good teaching look like, which does not imply I believe in mandating those ideas even if I could. For this blog I will look at the former, and discuss the latter in my following blog.

miketest4What I would change is the mandating of curriculum (so called Standards). The mandating of standards for education in a democracy can only be justified in the case of an overwhelming consensus on such standards. There is no evidence for such a consensus, and lots of evidence that these is considerable controversy over both what such a curriculum should look like and whether there should be one at all. While I have my views on what I think all children should learn, I do not see it as my, or anyone else’s place to impose those beliefs on others, much less an entire nation.

Along with that is we need to get rid of high stakes mandated standardized testing. Standardized tests have so many problems, not the least of which is that they impose a standardized curriculum. If a certain test is required , and there are high stakes for how one does on that test, then teachers must teach to it, and students must gear themselves to it as well. That means standardized curriculum. Standardized tests are also, by definition, culturally biased—they have to be normed, which means an automatic bias to the dominant group. That is just a fact of psychometrics. And, as the test makers have admitted, their reliability for individuals is not all that great, and yet they are used to judge individual students. I also do not accept their validity for much more than a test taking skills, schools skills, and one’s zip code.

What I do support is a strong public school system. One thing such a system needs is at the very least equalized funding, and really more funding is need for those who live in poverty and have other strikes against them in life to at least begin to equalize some of the built in advantages those that are well to do and of the dominant culture can give easily to their kids without schools.

I also would not allow schools supported with public funds to select students. The only selection that can be justified is to balance in terms of demographics to more equally represent the community. Such balances do matter. It does matter that we are raised and schooled with those that represent the larger society. Schools of choice are great if the choice is the choice of the students and the parents and not of the schools. One way charter schools often get around this is counseling students out with such phrases as “Your child would/does not fit here.” I would ask of anyone stating that, “Do you have a better school for my child than this one?” If they cannot honestly find a better fit for that child, one that all parties agree to, then they have no place making such statements.

I would give local schools and localities autonomy over what and how to teach. But they would have to publicly justify their decisions, allow for public input and make their results public. What kind of results would vary, but again, they need to justify why they think the results they have used demonstrate a well educated democratic citizen. There would need to be some sort of democratic governance, but that can look different in different places.

These are the main things I see that are justifiable at the national or state level. Others you can think of?

The second part of the question is what do I think good teaching and schooling look like, which I will explore in my next blog.

School Deform

Regarding the current moves of so called school “reform” at the national level. The aspect of this is toward a nationally standardized curriculum (i.e. Common Core). And it is standardization, not standards that are being mandated—make no mistake about it. Standards refer to the quality of something. There is little about quality in the national curriculum—rather what is mandated is the content. The only mandate about quality is about competition—that students have to score above certain cut off scores (and teachers being paid according to those scores). But scores do not equal quality—they equal quantity. These scores tell us virtually nothing about the qualities of the work that students (or teachers) can perform, certainly not about work that matters beyond testing.


What mandated curriculum means is that what we want from public schools is a standardized citizenry. It really is that simple. We cannot teach innovation, creativity, and certainly not democratic citizenship in a school system where one answers to test scores on a curriculum to which those carrying out and engaging in that curriculum have virtually no say.

Those that are enacting this know that those with resources have a way out—schools for the rich still allow for creativity and self governance. That is what the privatization movement, along with the charter school movement is about (at least in part). This, as we know of everything else that is privatized, leads to a system in which the quality is based on one’s ability to pay for it. Those with the most resources can and do pay for schools that still allow for creativity, choice and abundant resources.

So really, the question is simple—if we want a system that teaches one group of children (and their teachers) to be obedient and standardized, and another group educated to be creative and powerful, then we should continue these current reforms. If we want democracy, then we need to democratize schools, and give them the resources and freedom that the rich seem to feel their own children deserve. It really is that simple. Have we or have we not given up on the idea of democracy?

What is Wrong with Vouchers?

The rhetoric behind vouchers is that if everyone had vouchers parents could select the best school for their child instead of being forced to go to “government” schools*.

Where does such logic fall apart? There are two main logistical reasons it is really a false promise. One is economic and the other is question of who gets to choose.

The private schools that the elite send their children to cost tens of thousands of dollars a year to attend. I looked up a few progressive private schools and tuition ranged from $20,000 to well over $30,000, more than many private colleges. And the actual amount they spend per pupil is well over the tuition since they raise lots of extra money from alumni. (They also tend to pay their non-unionized teachers significantly less than public schools.)

Since at best the voucher proposals I have seen only pay a small fraction of that, these vouchers will leave the recipients with few real choices without putting out a lot more money. I do not think the public is going to go for vouchers of $20,000+ and have never even heard such figures discussed. If they did, the public education bugets would soar. (And those already in private schools would and should claim they should get the subsidies too). What it would do in effect, at the rates being proposed, is subsidize the middle class and rich to abandon public schools and send their children to private school, and while leaving such choices out of reach financially for the poor.

The other issue is who chooses. Most private schools have selective admission, and limited space. Since unlike public schools they get to choose their students, even if the voucher fully paid for them (which of course it will not), they would still most likely cream the easiest students to teach, leaving the more difficult to teach children in the public schools.

These two factors in combination would end up subsidizing private schools and middle and upper class families at the expense of public schools and the poor that are left in them. This would further segregate our schooling system into the haves and the have-nots.

Since I have never heard voucher proponents either suggest that vouchers should be at the levels necessary to have them cover the full cost of most private schools, nor to force private schools to take those children, I find their arguments disingenuous.

Charter schools, in theory at least, get around both of the above limitations. There is no tuition; schools receive the same funding as the other public schools, and (at least in California) schools cannot select the students. (In reality, though, they often find ways of using other means to “encourage” and “discourage” certain types of students.) So, is this not a solution?

Why I still do not favor even this is that it fundamentally changes the purpose of public schools. Traditionally we have considered the education of the next generation to be a concern of society as a whole. In fact, virtually every society has considered this to be true throughout history. For this reason, locally elected school boards have governed our public schools.

Charter schools and voucher systems make schooling a private consumer choice. In the charter and voucher systems consumers choose among the choices offered them, but have no guaranteed right to have a say about the schooling other than making that choice. Those who do not have children in the schools have no say at all. Private schools are run privately, and do not have to answer to the public. Charter schools usually have to answer for test scores and financial responsibility, but even there it is to the state and not in any direct way to the local public. While charter schools have governing boards, they select their own members of those boards. This gives control of the content of schooling to those who run the schools, often for-profit concerns, but even if not, private concerns of some sort. While our government is not perfect, should I really trust those who have private agendas and do not have to answer to the public to decide the how and what of our next generation’s schooling? Public school boards are elected, and have open meetings; private schools do not have to. Even if the charters do have open meetings, they are often run by national organizations and so are inaccessible and would probably just say, “Don’t send you child here if you don’t like it our agenda.”

Vouchers and charters are about redefining the public as consumers rather than citizens, which is part of a larger corporate agenda to destroy public institutions and the limit the power of the public.

For the above (and other) reasons, I see truly public schools as the only answer for those committed to a democratic society.

*Read between the lines the implication that anything the government does must be poor quality. Yet since parents in the suburbs and rich areas are perfectly happy with their public schools, why is it only the public schools that the poor kids go to that seem to be failing? “Government” schools for the rich and middle class are fine it seems—as long as they don’t have to share them with the poor.