By Thomas Ultican / Tultican
Author Steven Singer shares a hoary story that has become a national crisis. Unlike a Steven King novel, this book, Gadfly on the Wall, is not a fantasy. It is impossible to overstate the damage being done to America and its children by the greedy, the self-centered and the stupid. They are set on destroying free universal public education in America.
Billionaires be wary, Singer says he is ready to kick your sorry asses.
Many people were disheartened when Donald Trump became president and installed an evangelical who despises public schools as Secretary of Education. Her agenda seems to be ending public education and creating a system of government financed Christian schools. Here, I really love Singer’s attitude. He says:
“We lived through administrations that wanted to destroy us and actually knew how to do it! We can take Tiny Hands, the Bankruptcy King any day! This is a guy who couldn’t make a profit running casinos – a business where the house always wins! You expect us to cower in fear that he’s going to take away our schools. Son, we’ve fought better than you!”
I first met the author of The Gadfly on the Wall at Chicago’s Drake Hotel almost three years ago. Educators, parents and others were arriving for the National Public Education (NPE) conference. The Drake’s lobby waiting area is at the top of a short flight of stairs next to the room where hi-tea has been served since the 19th Century. It was here that I met Karen Wolfe from LA, Larry Profit from Tennessee, Singer from Pennsylvania and many others.
That evening, the tall Anthony Cody was at the top of the stairs greeting new arrivals; many of whom gathered in the elegantly appointed waiting area. It was a conducive atmosphere for my first conversation with a humble, bespectacled, somewhat chubby Singer. I had been reading Singer’s new blog and really liked it. Later, I made some notes about the evening’s encounters intending of write about it when time permitted. Singer beat me to it. In the morning our arrival scene was covered by a wonderful post in his Gadfly on the Wall blog.
I have learned that Singer is disciplined, efficient and a very hard worker. He is emblematic of the teacher blogger. His opinions are sometimes hyperbolic but when he states a fact it is well sourced and the source is readily available. I have often used sources Singer provided when doing my own writing.
Unlike education journalism in commercial and non-profit media, teacher bloggers show more integrity because their peers in the profession demand it. Also, billionaires are not underwriting their blogs. Teachers are providing unvarnished truths about the attack on public education. The Gadfly on the Wall is a compilation of three years of blogs calling out the perpetrators of the attacks on public schools for their false narratives about failing public schools, their often-racist agendas, and their manipulation of data used to justify charter schools, testing and vouchers.
I met Singer again at NPE2016 in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was the same humble likable guy but much busier. I had limited opportunity to talk with him, because he had become a central figure in the Badass Teachers (BATs) Association and he was in demand.
Teachers and their relationships with students are critical. Phony “personalized learning” sold by technology companies and “no excuses” charter schools run by amateur educators are not good enough. Heart and commitment are required. In the article called “Killer in My Classroom,” Singer tells the story of an 8th grader, Tyrell:
“Almost always calm and in control. He was well above the others academically. When one of the others lost his cool, Tyrell would help talk them down.”
Tyrell was moved out of Singer’s remedial classroom and back to regular classes. In his last conversation with Tyrell, Singer tried to convince him that he had better options than “making a stack on the street.”
Singer still wonders if he could have made a difference for Tyrell if given more time, but he will never know. He also has no way of knowing how many children he may have saved. The Tyrell saga still haunts Singer. He shares,
“And Tyrell? About a year later, I read about him in the newspaper.
“Police think it was a drug related hit. Tyrell was in the backseat. He put his gun to the driver’s head and pulled the trigger.
“No more future for either of them.
“Except on restless nights when Tyrell’s face keeps coming back to me.”
The Gadfly on the Wall is organized into five sections: Introduction; Racism and Prejudice; School Choice; Testing; and Teaching. I particularly recommend the article from School Choice, “Top 10 Reasons School Choice is No Choice.” Reason number 10 identifies the root problem. Singer does not mince his words:
“10) School choice is not supported by grass roots movement. It is supported by billionaires.
“The proponents of school choice will tell you that they are only doing the will of the people. This is what parents want, they say. Baloney. … They want to steal the public system and replace it with a private one. They don’t care about your child. They just want to steal the hundreds of billions of tax dollars we pay to educate our children. This is not philanthropy. It is a business transaction meant to screw you and your child out of your rights.”
The Brown versus the Board of education decision spurred “choice.” Singer describes the uncanny resemblance charter schools have to the mid-1950’s scheme hatched by Georgia’s then Governor, Herman Talmage. He said, “We can maintain separate schools regardless of the U.S. Supreme Court by reverting to a private system, subsidizing the child rather than the political subdivision.”
The Madrasa schools of the middle east are often cited as fomenting terrorism by indoctrinating students. In his book, Frames of Mind, Howard Gardner also criticized these schools for employing – almost exclusively – rote memorization, which he said circumscribed creativity.
The modern voucher school movement is making tax money available to Christian oriented school systems that are using a similar pedagogical approach to the Madrasa schools.
This December, Rebecca Klein wrote an article in the Huffington Post, “Voucher Schools Championed By Betsy DeVos Can Teach Whatever They Want. Turns Out They Teach Lies.” She reported, “In Indiana, about 4,240 students received over $16 million in scholarships to attend schools that use the Abeka or Bob Jones curriculum, according to 2016-2017 figures from the Indiana Department of Education.”
Singer writing about the same issue, “These books include the following gobsmackers:” He lists seven gobsmakers. Here is number seven:
“7. Brown v. Board of Education is described as social activism by the Supreme Court: ‘While the end was a noble one – ending discrimination in schools – the means were troublesome … liberals were not willing to wait for a political solution.’
“Teacher’s Resource Guide to Current Events for Christian Schools, 1998-1999 (Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University Press, 1998), p. 34”
Singer goes on to say of school choice,
“The bottom line is this – voters don’t want school choice. It does nothing to better children’s educations. It is a product of segregation and racism, and even in its modern guise it continues to foster segregation and racism.”
Singer makes the argument that when comparing test scores from the US to other countries we are “comparing apples to pears.” The December 12 Washington Post reported on the latest dismal international testing results in reading by US fourth graders. A few days later, Diane Ravitch posted an analysis of these scores by David Berliner. Score on the paper and pencil version of PIRLS 2016:
- USA 549
- Singapore 576
- Hong Kong 569
- Finland 566
Berliner looks at some demographic information and says “First, we can note that Asian Americans scored 591. That is, our Asians beat the hell out of Asian Asians!” Some more US data shared by Berliner:
- White Kids (50% of our students) – 571
- Upper Middle-Class Schools with 10% to 24 % Free and Reduced lunch – 592
- Schools with 25% to 50% Free and Reduced Lunch – 566
Berliner draws the conclusion, “It’s our social and economic systems, not our schools, that cause lower scores than is desired by our nation.”
“By any fair measure, America’s public education system is simply stunning. But the media perpetuates the myth that we’re failing.”
The post called “Standardized Tests Have Always Been About Keeping People in Their Place” was an eye opener for me when I first read it. I have often referred to Singer’s sources showing eugenics is the genesis of standardized testing.
Carl Brigham was one of the original pseudo-scientists claiming that their intelligence tests proved that white people possessed superior intelligence to non-whites. Singer shared this gobsmaking information:
“Brigham created a civilian test of intelligence that could be used to sort and rank students …. He called it the Scholastic Aptitude Test or S.A.T.
“Yes, That SAT.”
Page after page, Singer’s book takes on the forces working to control curriculum and teacher professional development. His points are powerful.
Racism and Prejudice
This section begins with the article “I Am Racist and (If You’re White) You Probably Are, Too.” Other than a short introductory piece, this is how the book begins. I think that is unfortunate.
I am a white guy who grew up in Idaho, one of the whitest places on the planet. I remember my Asian stepdaughter looking for another Asian face in a busy mall in Boise and it was some time before she saw one. I was seventeen before I talked to a black person, because I had never met one. However, my teenage heart was thrilled by Martin Luther King and his fight for justice.
Racist is a word and it has a dictionary definition. Miriam Webster says, racism is “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race” and Dictionary.com says a racist is “a person who believes in racism, the doctrine that one’s own racial group is superior or that a particular racial group is inferior to the others.”
I have heard the claim that minority peoples in America cannot be racist because they lack the financial and political power to oppress the oppressors. However, the word racist does not mean oppressor and to use the term for that meaning invites miscommunication. Racism is a sensitive subject and if miscommunication alienates people, they will not apprehend your message.
I am convinced that Singer’s central point is correct, but the implication of the opening article is if you are white; you are a racist. That cannot be true. Racism is a human problem akin to tribalism and is a worldwide plague for which white people hold no dominion.
The rhetoric about failed public schools normally refers to schools in minority communities. Based on years of ingrained racial prejudice and at best benign neglect, schools for “those people’s children” were not properly funded.
For example, a parent from New Orleans told me about sitting in middle school classrooms with 55 students and no air conditioning. Plus, the fan could only be run 10-minutes each hour. She said that students would watch the clock like a hawk for their 10-minutes. So, when charter schools came to New Orleans, many black parents were enthusiastic about someone finally promising to spend money on schools in their neighborhoods.
In this section, Singer makes many important points. He writes, “If you are not careful, being a public school teacher can be an act of colonization.” For the past more than a decade, I taught in a high school dominated by Mexicans. I was often the only white guy in class. As my experience grew, I became more and more cognizant of how important it was that instead of implementing my culture, I assimilated and venerated their culture.
I was particularly moved by Singer’s treatment of educating refugees. He noted,
“Some may shudder or sneer at the prospect of giving shelter to people in need, that is the reality in our public schools. In the lives of many, many children we provide the only stability, the only safety, the only love they get all day.”
He concluded the article on refugees:
“So if we’re considering letting in more refugees, don’t worry about me. Send them all my way. I’ll take all you’ve got. That’s what public schools do.”
I have tried to give a flavor of this wonderful book along with some of my own views. The bottom line is that Gadfly on the Wall is entertaining, informative and provocative. Thank you, Steven Singer.