Here is the full transcript of math teacher Joshua Katz’s TEDx Talk: Toxic Culture of Education at TEDxUniversityofAkron conference.
Joshua Katz – Math teacher
Everyone is a genius, but, if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it’s stupid. There I was working with a student, Natalie, on solving equations.
She had to multiply 2 x 9, and got stuck. This happens all the time, I’m used to it, but I decided to go for the teaching moment. All she had to do is count by twos nine times. Now, she tried and failed four different times, on her fingers, on paper, in English and Spanish 2? 4? 8? 12? Natalie was 16 years old and in the 9th grade, and she’s not alone not by a long shot.
I teach at a high school with a student population of near 3,000. It’s one of 30,000 high schools across the US, so you have to imagine how many Natalies are out there.
Now, I’ve seen the best of our school system and I can say that our best students can compete with the best students from around the world. In fact, when looking at the PISA results, that compares our students to other countries, we currently rank in the 20s. Yet, if we disaggregate our results by district poverty level and compare the US District to those top countries by poverty rates, it is clear that our students are at the top.
But our best students are only a small percentage of the overall population even in the honors classes. And then, what about the Natalies? I specialize in teaching algebra to the bottom 25% of high school students and I work mostly with those students.
Now, the best of those students want to do well, but, when they realize what they’re capable of, they’re either stuck in a path of academic mediocrity or they’re so close to graduation they just need a credit to pass. It’s almost like a scene of wasted potential.
Now, the worst of those students have had no education of character, common decency, appropriate language, appropriate behavior. They barely know right from wrong. These are the students who are at risk of dropping out, incarceration, or abusing social welfare.
Now, what’s out there waiting for those students? Jobs, college? They’re in an education system that says if you don’t go to college you have no worth. So, their only alternative is to be underemployed, to find illegal work, or to abuse social welfare. Those students are marginalized by what I call a toxic culture of education.
It doesn’t matter if a student is a gifted artist, a loving caretaker, a talented musician, or a poetic writer. Those students are the fish being judged on how they climb trees because we say the end-all-be-all is college or we’re leaving students to the lowest skill level work. Even in the honors classes, these students are so wrapped up about grades and answers they’re afraid to learn, and that’s impacting how they’re performing at college.
But I am not here to talk about the current student loan debt crisis. Now, you have to understand, I don’t place the blame on them. Yes, they can take credit for who they are, but this is about something much bigger than the students.
Our toxic culture of education begins with a classic supervillain archetype. I focus on Syndrome, from The Incredibles. The supervillain’s plan is to unleash a doom on to the world that only this supervillain can stop, thus gaining all the desired power. Now this is exactly what happened in education, in the 1980s and before, and then culminated in “No Child Left Behind”.
Private education companies realized they could use public education, a multi-billion-dollar industry, to create a nearly endless stream of taxpayer money. They channeled millions of dollars into lobbying efforts and focused on two words, “rigor” and “accountability,” and put everything into place.
State statutes were passed, district rules were enforced, and then finally No Child Left Behind became the national standard. Don’t get me wrong about politics. These efforts were underway long before they were passed, so both parties get to take full credit for their disastrous results, especially with “Race to The Top”. We somehow took the education system that produced the individuals who put a man on the Moon with technology less powerful than the phone in my pocket, and characterized that education system as a failure using the word “accountability”.
We only have one way to address accountability: Standardized testing. So, we implemented standardized testing, and then a 1983 publication called “A Nation at Risk” showed standardized tests proved schools were failing, teachers were failing, students were failing. And, when everything is failing, guess what we need? New text books, new workbooks, new resources, new training, accountability systems, new schools, private schools, charter schools. And who is it that creates all of these things that all of a sudden we need? Our supervillain: Private education companies. The only way to feed a business model in this toxic culture of education is to perpetuate a picture of failure.
I would love to meet any education company that has a business model that is built upon long-term student success. There simply is no money in long-term student success.
Now, how is it that we can believe that a standardized test is what accurately measures student achievement? How can we believe that it measures student growth, that moment when a student’s light bulb is finally lit, “Aha!,” that moment when a student says thank you for helping him graduate with a 20 GPA? How can we attach a number to that moment when a third grader finally has the ability to write his own name, who by the way has been labeled a failure for himself, his teacher, and his school?
Yet we crave education standardization, we believe we need these high-stakes tests, because we eat up the misinformation provided by these companies and policies using a false validity of their testing results. Our testing culture begins in elementary school.
Colleagues of mine work with third graders, third graders who suffer from anxiety from high-stakes testing. From a one-day, one-shot, four-hour, computer-based test the future path of a student is set, an academic identity is established, and a message is delivered loud and clear: “Either you can or you can’t make it!” And no matter what the teacher tells the student about how good they are or what talents they have, if the student doesn’t score well on that high-stakes test, the third graders know exactly what it means and begin to define themselves, and it’s starting to happen now in kindergarten.
So, we continue this barrage of standardized tests and the students continue failing, and the districts have to continue the next initiatives that can solve the problems. Who is it that manufactures these products? Who creates these solutions? Our supervillain, private companies like Pearson and McGraw-Hill, who operate off policy and legislation written by non-profit organizations and lobbying groups like ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. “Buy the next text book! Buy the next workbook! Buy the next digital software package, the next teacher evaluation system!” I have been through three Algebra I textbooks in seven years, and still we stick to the standardized tests.
Guess who makes those? In this toxic culture, we illogically attempt to compare education to business. We completely ignore the impact of poverty and hunger on student achievement, and we pay no attention to the non-cognitive factors, like personal habits and personal values, that are the realistic measures and predictors of student achievement, and, that way, we can place the blame on the schools and on the teachers to continue this cycle.
And because we have a toxic culture of education, the teachers and the schools have accepted this accountability for all students, even those students. We take the blame for a student who can’t focus in class because she hasn’t eaten since yesterday’s lunch. We take the blame for a student who’s always in trouble in school because he doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong.