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Home » Joshua Katz: Toxic Culture of Education at TEDxUniversityofAkron (Full Transcript)

Joshua Katz: Toxic Culture of Education at TEDxUniversityofAkron (Full Transcript)

Joshua Katz at TEDxUniversityofAkron

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.

We take the blame for a student who can’t stay awake in class because she spends her nights on a different couch depending on which friend takes her in. And when these students don’t score well – It’s about to get worse. The Common Core will do even more damage because of its emphasis on high-stakes testing matched with its myopic standards that are disguised in critical thinking. I’ve seen my daughter’s kindergarten and first-grade assignments. This isn’t critical thinking. This is developmentally inappropriate rote.

You think they can fool me with this stuff? Any education reform that doesn’t address high-stakes testing and the non-cognitive factors of true success, like character and integrity, is a complete waste of time and it’s killing our kids. Right now, the public narrative in education is all about curriculum, all about schools, all about teachers. We need to start paying attention to our students and who they are. If a student fails Algebra I in their 9th-grade year, I can tell you, chances are that it’s not because it was too hard or they didn’t get it, chances are that it’s not because they had a bad teacher or were at a bad school.

If a student fails in the 9th-grade year, the chances are it’s because the student was missing some type with intangible characteristic, a non-cognitive factor, that enables them to succeed, things like perseverance, initiative, social skills, communication skills, curiosity, sometimes a full belly or a good night’s sleep. Yet, none of these things are considered in our definitions accountability. None of these things are considered in our policies.

So, all the talk about failing schools and failing teachers and how we need to improve the teachers and the schools needs to be shifted to include failing students and how can we help the students. How can we help them be better students, better people? How can we help them with these non-cognitive factors like work ethic and character? How can we make sure they’re getting enough sleep, getting enough to eat, showing up for class? It’s the public narrative that has to be shifted.

We must talk about what is happening in the lives of our students, even our honor students, because we’re 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 a way to earn a meaningful income. I’ll get to that in a minute.

Right now in this toxic culture, all students are forced to study abstract classes in order to be college-ready. And we throw around buzz words like “rigor,” and “STEM,” and the public loves it. We eat it up, we think it’s fantastic, but we’re missing the point that “rigor” has replaced the word “relevant”.

I met with our district and I pitched the idea to bring back home economics, but this time as a math credit. First words in the response, “That’s not rigorous.” So, forget teaching students about measurement, taxes, discounts, loans, credit, debt, retirement planning, because it’s not as rigorous as factoring trinomials and graphing logarithmic functions, so it can’t fit. There’s no room for that in this toxic culture of education.

There’s also no room for the arts and for imagination, which are being systematically removed from our public schools because I don’t think anyone profits from those things.

Now we have already felt the impact of our education policies. There are thousands of highly skilled jobs available right now. There’s opportunity for small business development and innovation like never before. Yet, where are the majority our students and graduates?

There is an enormous opportunity in this economy for our students but we just don’t enable it in the schools because we’re so focused on accountability, and standardized testing, and rigor, and college-ready. If we focus our attention on getting students what they need to find their place in this economy, all students, especially those students, would value education more highly, use their time more wisely, and make better decisions outside of school.

We’ve got to keep the college-bound students going to college. We’ve got to continue that path. However, we need to be more successful and more innovative. But what about the Natalies? I’ve got students that want to be tattoo artists, mechanics, barbers, they want work. Some want to open their own businesses, but they are those students.

They constantly fail their classes, they’re always in trouble in school, they may not even graduate. So, I say let’s scrap algebra for them, let’s teach those students some tangible work skills that can help them in the future the same way we used to do in this system before it was labeled as a failure.

Why not get students out there making a living for themselves, rather than us spending another $10,000 in taxpayer money for another year of school for them to learn how to factor trinomials? Why not get them into the economy?

How do we deal with all of these issues on a grand scale? I believe in Horace Mann’s 1850 vision of an education system that can improve mankind. In public education, we’ve got an amazing opportunity to mold a better tomorrow. Yet, what we are currently doing is so incredibly toxic.

I have two solutions that would be better. The first idea I am not a big fan of. In fact, I don’t like it. We could completely defund public education, give back the $ 750 billion into our pockets, no more taxpayer money going to private companies and non-profit organizations in the name of public education and on the heads of our public school children because that money’s not getting to them or to the classrooms, and it’s certainly not going to teachers.

My second idea, which I am in favor of, is to double down on public education. We’ve got to eliminate these toxic policies, eliminate this focus on high-stakes testing, eliminate the corruption in the cash flow, get the resources more directly to the students, focus on them, on their abilities, on their non-cognitive factors, train and allow the teachers to develop relationships with their students, and assess them on what they truly need to know: Thinking, reasoning, and learning.

I believe in the potential greatness of a public education system done right, and so do my colleagues. But, speaking of my colleagues, the public narrative on teachers, thanks to education reformers like Michelle Rhee and Bill Gates, is that our public schools are teaming with horrible teachers. The reality is that most teachers are accomplishing amazing feats of human achievement and motivation with their students every day, and what they’re able to accomplish is being done to spite a “professional” environment of questioning, belittling, and self-doubt, due to accountability measures and evaluation systems we had no stake in even creating. And teaching used to be called the noble profession.

So, why not make teaching a profession once again? Why not train and allow the teachers to develop their own assessment systems that can better fit their students needs? Why not encourage teachers to collaborate with one another, or at least have a peer-review system like in other professions? Why not involve teachers in the policy-making decisions at the school level, the district level, the state and national level?

The truth of education policy is that it is written and enforced by people who have spent either little or no time in the classroom with the students these very policies are affecting. Take a look at the makeup of any boards of education, including local school boards and secretaries of education. Why not involve the individuals in direct contact with the students to help mold and shape the environment of the students?

Education is the only industry – and it’s a $ 750 billion industry – that is developing a product without any valid market research from its end users. Students aren’t asked what they want or need, the teachers in the schools aren’t asked what would work for their students, the public narrative has to be shifted! The schools and the teachers are not the enemy! It is the private corporations like Pearson that pay the lobbying groups like ALEC to write these policies and laws that get passed over state dinners and campaign contributions because of words like “rigor” and “accountability,” to perpetuate a bottom line on the heads of our public school children. Simply follow the money of all the public tax dollars going to public education.

How much of that money is going to private companies and non-profit organizations for materials, training, resources, vouchers, accountability systems, and the education bureaucracy because the policies support that? Simply follow the money.

So, we have to fight this toxic culture of education, we have to change the public narrative away from the curriculum, away from the schools, even away from the teachers, and we have to focus on our students! We have to teach them how to think, and how to learn, and how to innovate, not how to take tests. These are human beings! Why not stop judging the fish on how they climb trees?


Download This Transcript as PDF here: Joshua Katz_ Toxic Culture of Education at TEDxUniversityofAkron (Full Transcript)


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