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Every plaguing problem needs a caped crusader. When it comes to the burdensome culture of standardized assessment, teachers have found one in Joshua Katz (@jakatz87), the “Toxic Testing Terminator.”
It’s been about one year since Katz delivered his TEDx Talk on “The Toxic Culture of Education.” In between then and now he’s run for political office. He’s pushed his students to succeed in his mathematics classroom, despite all the odds. And he’s now begun to look at testing from a parent’s perspective. We sat down with Mr. Katz for our most recent #InspirationalEducator series.
JM: How are you doing?
JK: I’m in the midst of some reading some pretty great articles by Alfie Kohn. He’s blowing my mind by calling teachers who speak out against high-stakes testing (like me) hypocrites. It’s been great digging into his work. It’s really given me something to think about.
JM: How did you get so involved with speaking out against toxic testing?
I always read plenty of professional development, on my own have you, regarding social science and psychology (because education professional development is kind of inbred in their ideas). The first few books that twisted me were Dan Pink, author of A Whole New Mind and Drive, and Carolyn Dweck who wrote Mindsets. Whenever I’d read these things, I’d look through them as the lens of a teacher. It was eye-opening. That led me to the Chicago Consortium on School Research article, which was a bear to finish, but it focused on non-cognitive factors (upbringing, manners, etc.) and how they have an impact on students. They came to a conclusion that, by defining success as attending college or earning power 9 years after high school, the only thing that had a correlation was GPA – and testing, which we were spending a fortune on, had no impact. At all.
Prior to that, my only standard of success was how my students did on a test that I had no business in creating. I started writing my thoughts down, and it became 13-pages of ideas. With some help, I was able to refine it to a 10 minute presentation, and I started focusing on the test-centric culture of education being the problem. I had no control over the definition of my success as a teacher, and it was frustrating. I needed to tell people about it.
JM: You begin your TEDx Talk with one of my favorite quotes: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” How do you think Einstein, the author of that quote, would view education today?
JK: It’s been well-documented that Einstein was very dissatisfied with education in his own time. Since then, the culture has only worsened. He’d be more angry and frustrated. He would lose his mind. He’d probably start his own SuperPAC and crusade against what he perceived to be wrong.
JM: You mentioned in your TEDx Talk that you teach the lower 25% of the student body. Can you share how these students perceive testing?
JK: They’re so beat up by this time of the year, I don’t think they can feel anymore. Most of the students I teach don’t even care. What’s another cut from class? What’s another test? I have a handful of students who are paying attention to the culture; one young lady continually presses the envelope with the principal. Still, most are numb.
JM: What’s missing from the TEDx Talk?
JK: I don’t know if you can tell, but in the middle of the Talk, there’s a part edited out. That was sad, as I had a great 30 second soundbyte. I stated that no matter what happens with these students, we teachers seem to be the only people protecting them from the entire educational system. We as teachers take the shots. We accept it. We do this because we love the kids. We are the only ones in education (minus the parents) who truly do.
JM: At the end of your presentation, you stated that there were 2 ways to move forward with education: one is to double-down and truly fund public education; the other is to completely defund it. Did you really meant that?
JK: Of all the things I’ve stated and I’m starting to waver on, that’s it right there. This is a difficult thought for me, and allow me to put some more thought behind it. Part of me says defunding is the answer. What if we completely abolish all Departments of Education (national, state, local)? What if we let the free market stream provide education? It’s a radical idea, but would it show the public where all their money is going, and who really has the power when it comes to education?
The frustrating thing is that people keep saying “be like Finland.” Well, if we want to be like Finland, fund it 100% but also decentralize it. But I don’t know what will happen in our electoral system.
JM: Is that why you made a bid for Orange County School Board?
JK: After the TEDx Talk, some of our community members said “You should run for school board.” I literally had to “run” for it, as my campaign was assembled so quickly and at the very last minute. The media started asking “who is your campaign manager,” and, though I knew that education was political, I learned everything from scratch in the arena. Some key volunteers guided my vision and policy. However, I had no idea what I was doing until it was almost too late.
JM: What went well in your campaign?
JK: Getting the message out. Building audience. We were able to paint a pretty incredible portrait for education. We were able to highlight that this was a race of the pro-establishment, accountability, and people-in-suits-from-far-away vs. student-centered and teacher-centered views on education. It felt great that people weren’t just supporting me as a person, but the ideas of what’s best for kids – instead of testing. The conversations we generated are still taking place today. That is a huge success.
JM: What would you change if you could do it again?
JK: I don’t know if I would change anything. I didn’t realize how political it was when I first got in, so I should have learned more. Absentee political ballots were already sent out before I even entered the race. Locally in Florida (where only 11% of the voters voted in this election), most races are decided by mail. I would have done everything earlier. (Editor’s note: Katz lost a tight election by just 33 votes)
JM: Since running for office, I saw you published an op-ed where you stated you’ll opt your own children out of standardized testing. What advice do you have for other teachers considering the same?
JK: Do it! My advice to any parent is to keep your children’s rules for school simple: 1. Go to school and learn. 2. Have fun. I’m so fearful because my older daughter is in 3rd grade next year, and I know that rule #2 is going to be violated.
For teachers, when it comes to that advice, don’t be afraid to differentiate your role as a parent from your role as a teacher. A friend (and colleague) of mine was threatened by his son’s principal who said, “You know you can lose your job for (opting out your child from testing).” He was acting in the best interest of his child, not his district. Do best by your children. Teachers should make the same rules for their students. Do best by them.
JM: Do you think the tide has turned and that toxic testing will be on its way out?
JK: No way. It was a non-negotiable for Pres. Obama with the accountability system on the ESEA reauthorization. He threatened to veto anything without testing. We’re addicted to this “accountability” thing.
The tide won’t turn until teachers stop providing the ammo in the war against teachers. Yes, we have given up our authority to assess student learning. We yield that authority to companies. It’s not surprising, because we’re not being taught it in college, PD, or seeing it properly modeled. Heck, ever since the Sandia Report’s reaction to A Nation At Risk, we’ve been pushing educators out of education policy. We are the authority to test, but we yield testing to Pearson and McGraw.
I know because I used to be there. I have Excel spreadsheets from my first 3 years of teaching where I’d toot my own horn, celebrating how my students succeeded a certain way on testing. I’d like to go back to young me and slap me in the face. Don’t yield that authority to a test that you didn’t create or set yourself.
JM: What would you recommend to a teacher — run for office or deliver a TEDx Talk?
JK: I’d say go for a TEDx Talk – but it’s hard to maintain the momentum without something else. It has to be sustained. I have my blog, but I’m just so busy with trying to get kids to graduate high school. If you’re able to launch a Talk, make sure you find a way to sustain momentum.
JM: What plans do you have moving forward?
JK: I am working on another TEDx Talk. I want these struggling students to graduate, and I want to use authentic assessment authority to demonstrate it. We need to stop life skill grades and awarding meaningless points. Teachers, start methodical learning and knowledge assessment. I used to do this stuff, but now I have an 18-year-old in my class who can’t count. That’s a big problem.
The thought, occassionally, is “Oh, this boy can’t read, but he’s really nice.” We need to focus on knowledge, learning, and mastery. That’s our whole purpose. Afterward, we can wrestle testing back from the policy makers and companies. Reclaiming our profession will come when we pair professional and moral authority with motion.
JM: I’d like to label you the “Toxic Testing Terminator.” What do you think of that moniker?
JK: (Laughs) I’m down with that. Today, one of my colleagues asked me how am I doing, as you did and I said, “I’m good, I’m ready to save the world.”
She said, “I know, one kid at a time.”
I said, “No, we’re saving them in big batches.”