Eight Common Internet Safety Violations That Make Me Cringe

AUTHOR’S NOTES: Firstlly, there is some disturbing stuff in here, but this entry is all about keeping yourself and others safe from the disturbing stuff. I’m not sharing any lurid stories or anything like that, but there is information about why some common mistakes are dangerous, and I know I found some of it freaky when it was first explained to me. Finding out how little privacy we have can be paranoia-inducing and frightening. But if you think you’ll be able to handle it, if you won’t be specifically triggered by these issues, I urge you to take a look anyway, and maybe pass on some of these tips.

Secondly, I want to make clear that when someone is tracked down through the internet, and victimized in some way, it is NEVER the victim’s fault. It is always, ALWAYS the fault of the perpetrator who takes advantage of the situation.

I’d just like to see it made a little tougher for those bastards to do, is all.

A while back, I had to take a course for my professional development credits on internet safety. Through this and a subsequent course I completed voluntarily, I actually became certified to teach internet safety to teens and adults along with other content. It became an interest of mine, and I continued to do research on the topic, including research on how agencies like the FBI work to protect people who have (inadvertently or otherwise) exposed their personal information on the internet, or people who have had it exposed by others and are seen as high-risk for targeting by violent crime. I also learned how information is gathered about people from their public information on the internet, and it gave me chills.

As a result of that training, I completely freaked out when the GoogleBuzz debacle happened, and here’s why. During the brief period when GoogleBuzz existed, before Google realized they weren’t going to win any love with the way they were going about starting a social network, scrapped the plan and started over with what eventually became Google+, all account holders with any Google service were automatically signed up with Google. You may remember this, if you were an account holder – you received a message saying your account had been activated, and you could deactivate it any time you wanted. Here was the real issue, though: information about each user was added automatically, extracted from the user’s emails, messages, etc., and posted publicly. After an immediate privacy and security outcry, these items were all made private, and were only public for a few hours at most, so in all likelihood the personal safety of users was never really compromised in any major way, and in fact the whole thing disappeared just a short while later.

So if it was all taken care of, why was I so upset? Well, here’s why: those few hours were enough for automatic information aggregators. Information aggregators are computerized search bots which gather information about people automatically from text available on the internet, and keep them for privately owned business services which sell them to people, for the profit of the business owners. The few upsides: the business owners can’t actually view the data themselves; all data beyond certain basics is restricted access and requires a license for private investigation; because the whole system is automated, there are often errors in the data gathered. But if you want to see something terrifying, look yourself up on Spokeo.com, the easiest to find of those services. You’ll probably find a mix of frighteningly correct and hilariously incorrect information about yourself, all available for anyone who knows your name or enough other information to search you by.

Ah, you say, but I don’t use my real name on the internet, and there’s no way to find me other than that. Maybe so. Maybe you’ve done a really good job of protecting yourself. But many people I know who have prided themselves on protecting themselves really well have fallen into some very basic schemes that could harm themselves or others, or have revealed important information about themselves without thinking about it. Here are some of the ways I’ve seen people make major internet safety mistakes without realizing it:

1. Posting “Missing Persons” graphics from unknown sources

Okay, this is the one that’s most likely to get someone hurt that you don’t even know, rather than you or a friend. Some of these are completely legitimate, others are made and posted by abusers or stalkers looking to track down victims, or simply people who have lost custody battles and such trying to find their way around legal restrictions – but without more information, we should really assume for the safety of the people in those photos, that those restrictions are there for a reason.

I completely understand the urge to help in these situations – hearing that someone’s loved one or child or pet or whoever is missing is a wrench, especially if you’re imagining yourself in either position in that situation. You have the best of intentions when you re-post these, and I respect that.

And sometimes, re-posting them is a good idea. But here are some precautions you need to take first:
Step 1: Do a reverse image search, to check and see if it’s actually from the police. If it’s an official police post, please go ahead and share.
Step2: Search the person’s name in the photo, and see what information you can find about the case. This may give you enough information to determine whether or not you should share the image.
Step 3: If there is a number, search it. If you get a law enforcement agency, or a child services agency, or a school, go ahead and share it. If it’s a law office, you’re probably okay as well, especially if the law office is mentioned on the image.
Step 4: If it’s not an official police photo, and you can’t find the case on the net, and there’s no phone number on the image, just something asking people to post information if they see the person/pet/whoever, OR if there’s a personal phone number on the image (i.e., someone’s house phone), DO NOT SHARE IT. Those are all red flags.
Step 5: If there’s an image of a person that says “Please contact police if you see this person, they’re missing,” go ahead and share it. The worst that happens there is that someone sees the person, calls the police, and it turns out it’s not actually real, and some time is wasted. All the police I’ve talked to about this have said they’d rather have their time wasted a little than have people not call when they think they have a lead on a missing person. (By the way, call the non-emergency number. They’ll know if it’s real, and they’ll direct you appropriately.)

2. Claiming to be a local fan of a specific sports team

I understand that sometimes local fans of whatever team consider themselves to be more “authentic” than fans from out of town. They’re fans because these are the guys and gals from the home turf, not because the team racks up wins. Okay, fine, that’s awesome, I’m glad you love your team. I’m glad you have something you’re interested in that gives you joy and pride, and that you can bond with friends over. I think it’s great.

But please be aware that when you say you’re a local fan of a sports team, you’ve just given away your location to every information aggregator on the internet. They do actually look for information like sports teams precisely because local sports loyalty is such common information to find posted publicly, and now someone trying to find out information about you knows the basic area in which you live.

By itself, “X City metropolitan area” may not be a huge deal in terms of tracking you down. But combine that with “so proud of my students – the soccer team I coach just won second place in the state today,” which you share on your carefully locked down Facebook, which someone else shares on their not-so-private Twitter, to congratulate you. Now the information aggregator, or someone tracking you, knows what school you teach at. And a person can probably find your photo and name on the school website. And if you were a Google member at the time of the GoogleBuzz debacle, they’ve now found your name, address, and telephone number at that time. If your number is in the phone book, it’s probably also now available on the internet for anyone to find, based on, say, “local Orioles fan” and “coach of the 2nd place soccer team in the state,” through information a friend shared about you in all innocence from your original post made with all due precaution.

3. People putting info about themselves in publicly-posted email addresses

This is a twofer, actually, because there are two separate problems here. I’ve seen people combine this one with #2, also, using email addresses with a formula of “localsportsteamfan@domain.com” and it makes me cringe every time.

First of all, you should protect your personal email address in public places; internet harassment is becoming more and more of a safety issue these days, and access to your email is one of the easiest avenues by which someone can seriously inconvenience you and try to silence other activity you may participate in. I’ve received some (relatively mild, compared with others’ experiences) harassment since my Gamergate post, but fortunately my current email address has been shielded from it. All harassing emails have gone to an email address I no longer use precisely because it was compromised.

Secondly, don’t put personal information about yourself in any email address you’re planning on giving out to anyone you don’t know well. It can be used to find out other information, similarly to what is illustrated above. The four most common examples I see are these: a) teens using their age as a number in their address, which can attract predators; b) people naming an interest, which can be used to become close to them in an online conversation; c) identifying occupation, which can be combined with other information to reveal more than you want; d) identifying information you don’t want employers to see, such as political leanings or disability information.

4. Athletes posting their jersey numbers

This is another that’s often combined with the email address issue.

If you participate in any form of community athletics, your team probably has a website. If you are part of a college, university, or any other level of academic institution, and participate in their athletics, your team almost definitely has a website. Photos showing jersey numbers, or photos captioned with jersey numbers included, are really common. Once someone is able to track you to your location, they can identify you by your photo, and then simply turn up at your practice and identify you visually. At which point, you’re at risk. Fortunately, this is actually one of the safety violations the FBI looks out for, but FBI intervention at exactly the right time is obviously not something you want to depend on.

5. Posting selfies that include where you’re staying when you travel

Oh gods, this one makes me want to shake people. I see exactly where the urge to post these comes from, because there are a lot of awesome hotels out there that have wonderful character and look really cool in the background of pictures of you and your friends. There are places that you stay over and over again, that become a home away from home. There are places you’ve been excited to stay for as long as you can remember, and you’re finally getting an opportunity to stay there. I get it, I really do. There are places I’ve stayed that I’ve taken pictures of, just like that.

But please, for the love of all that’s holy, don’t post those pictures publicly while you’re still traveling! If you must post them publicly, which I don’t recommend anyway, keep them private for your safety, post them after you get home. If it’s a place you stay repeatedly, don’t reveal that in any public place. You do NOT want someone to be able to track you to where you’re staying. It’s one thing to post a selfie of yourself with some awesome monument – yes, anyone in NYC for the first time is going to post a selfie with the Statue of Liberty in the background, anyone in Paris for the first time is going to post a selfie with the Eiffel Tower – and nobody is going to automatically assume you’ll go back to that location, so it’s not going to help anyone find you who might be looking. Those selfies, while I still don’t recommend posting them publicly at all, and still preferably not until you’re home, are still vastly safer than the hotel pictures.

While we’re on this topic, don’t post your future travel plans in public places. Just don’t.

6. Putting personal information in photographs taken at home

This is a shockingly easy one to do by mistake. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve emailed a friend to say, “Hey, you want to take down that photo of yourself outside your house – not only can I see your house number, but the street sign with the name on it is reflected in the window, so someone can get your whole address.” Or “be careful with that photo of your new hairstyle, your driver’s license is sitting on your desk, reflected in the bottom left corner of your mirror.”

Before you put any photograph of yourself on the internet in a public place (again, a practice I discourage in general, in the strongest terms possible, i.e., IT’S FUCKING DANGEROUS, DON’T EVER DO IT, keep your photos private), go over it carefully to make sure you’re aware of any and all details about you that can be gleaned from it. Are you wearing a sweatshirt that can identify your current school or athletics team? Is your house number or car license plate visible? Are you wearing a name tag or badge of any kind that reveals anything about you? Is there a “happy 24th birthday” sign or something like that in the background which gives away your age?

7. Assuming that because you posted something privately, it will stay private

This one makes me sad, because it should be okay to do this, it really should. But unfortunately, people make mistakes.

Two rules to remember:
Rule 1: The Internet Never Forgets.
Rule 2: The Internet Is Always Public.

Keep in mind that just because you posted something privately, someone else may not know as much as you do about internet security, and may re-post something by copy/paste, or by transferring from one platform to another, without taking proper precautions, and now that personal photo you took is available for all to see. This is how careers are ruined, people. Be careful. Because once something is out there, you can’t take it back. And it’s not just stalkers or whatever that can make this happen – sometimes it’s just someone who doesn’t know how to update security settings.

If nothing else, the number of people who share those Facebook copyright hoaxes every time they come around, should indicate how much of a danger this really is.

8. “I’m not worried – I can defend myself at home.”

Okay, don’t. Just don’t.

All right, fine. Maybe you have a semi-automatic and three handguns at home, and you’re trained to use them, and you have six guard dogs and four black belts. Awesome. Good for you. And I mean that in all seriousness, as long as you’re practicing proper safety with all of those things. I’m glad you’ve taken precautions to defend yourself.

But sometimes people go to the wrong house, and someone else gets hurt. Or maybe someone you live with gets hurt while you’re defending yourself. Or you get hurt while they’re defending themselves. Or maybe whatever happens, doesn’t happen at home. Or maybe someone gets to your house before you get home from the grocery store, and now those handguns are used against you. It is flat-out impossible to plan for all contingencies, and there are safety issues for other people than yourself.

Wouldn’t it be better just to avoid the issue altogether and protect your personal information on the internet?

School Shootings: The View from a Comic Book Written in 1999 and Re-Read in 2014

Author’s Note: This is disturbing. School shootings and violent deaths of children under discussion. I hope the fact that this subject even exists makes you angry and upset whether you agree with my points or not. Also contains discussion of teenage depression and mental health crises.

I wish desperately that this entry were irrelevant to any issue that could possibly exist today. I wish to dedicate this discussion to all of those who are survivors, and non-survivors, of the kind of hopelessness and senselessness discussed here.

Let’s go back in time to 1999, to late April. The worst school shooting in American history (at the time) had just occurred, and the nation was reeling, trying to make sense of the tragedy. Only, that’s the nature of tragedy, isn’t it – its randomness, the fact that we feel so helpless in the face of it. Writer Warren Ellis judged, quite correctly, that this combination of emotions, mixed with a dose of “horror is other people,” would make for a spectacular Hellblazer issue. At the same time, Marvel Comics had already announced their bold initiative, dealing with teenage deaths in as many series as possible in the upcoming month, and printing the covers of all their series in plain black for one issue (I will never forget walking into Showcase Comics in Bryn Mawr, PA and seeing the wall of black-covered comics to my left, a couple of weeks later).

DC Comics refused to publish the issue, perpetuating (in part – it was already brewing, to some extent) Ellis’ departure from the title. I wondered, at the time, what he’d had to say, and imagined it would hit home. A year later, I found out I was right when I managed to get my hands on black and white scans, read them in my dorm room, and wept for about an hour.

That was a scary time to be both a geek and a teacher in training. Students were being suspended from school for carrying comics in their backpacks. The “video games cause violent behavior” street-corner soapbox became a pulpit-and-microphone, with news coverage. There was talk of including intrusive investigation into personal hobbies and interests in the certification and background check process for new teachers, to ensure that “potential threats” among schoolchildren wouldn’t be overlooked in our country’s halls of learning.

At the same time, part of me wished they were right, even if I knew they weren’t. I wished it were just the comics, or the video games, because it would mean it was just one thing, that there was a magic wand that could be waved, some, dare I say, X-factor, that could be added or subtracted to fix the violence and safety issues and make our schools better places. I knew then that it wasn’t so simple, and I had high hopes that would be understood.

I didn’t realize how deep the nation’s misunderstanding of our teenagers really ran.

I also didn’t realize, until I reread the issue very recently after ten years of teaching experience, just how much Warren Ellis understood. Because damn, that is one of the finest issues of Hellblazer ever written, now that DC Comics has finally had the guts to go back and publish it as part of the “Shoot” trade paperback under the series title Vertigo Resurrected. It stands the test of time better than I think anyone hoped it would. I wish everything written in it had turned out to be wrong.

For those who haven’t read it, a brief summary: a woman named Penny Carnes (who only appears in this issue) is tasked with analysis of video and audio material of incidents of mass violence, to search for common factors. The one item she finds in multiple videos is the presence of our protagonist, John Constantine. She is startled when he turns up at her office but he reassures her that he intends her no harm. He explains that he has been at the scenes of several of these crime scenes in the aftermath as a favor to a recently bereaved friend looking to make personal sense of his own loss. When it becomes apparent that Carnes’ work has not given her any real insight, he becomes angry and points out that the common denominator in all of the incidents is a sense of desperation and meaninglessness in the lives of both the perpetrators and the victims.

The first point “Shoot” brings home lies in its very summary: note the complete lack of anything remotely supernatural. This is a comic about supernatural horror, but in this case, nothing supernatural could be remotely as terrifying as the facts, so Ellis made the smart decision and left them alone.

The second point I see in “Shoot,” which I have never seen made anywhere else, is the conflation of school shootings with other forms of mass violence, not just gun rampages but others as well. There is a clear reference in the comic to some of the mass religious suicides that occurred in the 1990’s. I don’t think I’d ever thought of them as symptoms of the same societal illness, and I appreciate that Warren Ellis doesn’t try to say they’re entirely the same thing, because they’re obviously not, in a number of ways. But he does point out, correctly, that they do have certain commonalities, lying in a cultural illness.

Constantine’s rant at Carnes is one of the greatest sequences in Hellblazer, if not in all of American comics. I’m just going to quote it here, though without the visuals I can’t do it full justice:

“I see kids in a schoolyard in some dead-end hole of a town in some asshole county in some crumbling state with no education and no hope and no future and they’re waiting. They’re just standing there. Born into a life that’s already slid out of view. Looking forward to turning out just like their mommies and daddies. Life already lived for them. Life in a world mommy and daddy couldn’t be arsed to build properly, a world that makes no fucking sense. A world where kids actually go to special classes to learn to recognize real emotions and body language because they were raised by the television. They’re only kids, for Christ’s sake. This is the best response they can manage to the insane fucking world they’re in.”

I know I wouldn’t have wanted to hear that about America’s teenagers in 1999.

I was a student teacher in 2002 the first time I noticed a student with long, bleeding cut marks on her arm. My first year of teaching was the first time I actually had a student come to me to say, “I need help. I think I might hurt myself if I go home by myself today.” It was only one year later after that, that I had a student in my classroom publicly threaten to hurt others, in a manner that brought in the FBI, among others, and it turned out to be a good thing it was reported. My fifth year of teaching was the first time I had a student whisper to me at graduation, “I wouldn’t have survived high school without your support,” and mean it – the proudest moment of my career to date. My seventh year of teaching was the first time I lost a student to a drug overdose, possibly deliberate.

This is all far, far too common. Our nation’s teenagers lead incredibly difficult lives, with traumas they should never have to experience. This occurs against a backdrop of a mechanical system that, except in very good cases, seeks to churn out productive members of society in a specific set of molds. Let me be clear that this is not a condemnation of public schools; private, charter, homeschooling, etc., all other models are just as bad about this, except in the best of situations. And obviously those situations exist, or we’d be much worse off than we are. There are wonderful schools of all kinds, and wonderful homeschooling parents, out there. But the vast majority are falling through the cracks of a system that isn’t honoring them as individuals, in spite of the best of intentions of the people working in that system, whichever type of system it may be.

That sense of being a cog in a much larger machine, is something of which numerous students have spoken to me over the years. I think it’s the single most dangerous thing about our current system, and the most insidious effect of our current plague of over-testing. It’s the one thing that brings together the cases of the isolated and estranged young people who perpetrate some cases of school violence with the cases of popular and successful young people who perpetrate others. And the scariest thing is that there’s no way to fix it. I mentioned over-testing, but eliminating standardized tests today wouldn’t fix this, even if it might help. Lowering class sizes this instant wouldn’t fix this, though it might help. Giving teachers professional respect and professional salaries and giving schools sufficient resources overnight wouldn’t fix this, although it might help. Rearranging our priorities concerning education in this country with the wave of a magic wand wouldn’t even fix it, but it might help. It would take a combination of all these things, plus a concerted effort on the part of every single person involved in raising our young people, plus more things that in all likelihood nobody’s even thought of because the environment for them to show up properly has never really existed, for this problem to be fixed in its entirety – and it’s getting worse, as we spend time focusing just as much on the guns as on the people, arguing with biased and bought research whether it’s better to arm everybody or to arm nobody, when the guns are frankly not the only issue at hand.

And, with some delightful exceptions, we waste our time talking about single issues in sound bites and 140-character microblog entries, trying to find that one thing that will make the problem go away, preferably without raising our expenses.

To quote “Shoot” again, from just a little earlier in the issue: “You’re all looking for something to blame when you should be looking out the window. I mean, it’s typical, innit? You’re looking for that one thing to subtract out of children’s lives to make it all better. Take out the videogames, the funny music, the food coloring, kids won’t shoot each other anymore. You’re not looking at what’s on these tapes.”

You know, it’s generally a bad thing when you read any hyper-political issue of any comic nominally in the horror genre, fifteen years after its publication, and think, wow, that issue was downright prophetic.

So, is the situation hopeless? Should we all just give up, because we haven’t solved the problem in the last fifteen years? Of course not.

Talk to your local community about the kind of schools and community centers you want to see. Offer your help and support where you can, when you can – every little bit helps.

Be one of those concerned individuals who works with young people in some way, even if indirectly – if you don’t have time to volunteer or money to donate, see about getting your workplace or organization to offer internships, or service opportunities, or even summer work on some very basic level. Get our kids involved in something better, let them see that there’s more out there than just more of the same.

Get out there and fix it. Get involved. Vote, for crying out loud.

And hey, taking a little action might help you feel better about things in the long run. And if all of us took just a little action, on a local level, just imagine what the world might look like, not too long from now.

Maybe we can help more of these kids decide it’s worth finding out.

Politics Post: Colorblindness in High-Stakes Testing and the School-to-Prison Pipeline

I have read a lot of articles recently about the evils of high-stakes testing, and I agree with almost all of them. There’s just one aspect of the problem I feel has been massively under-addressed: racial justice in standardized testing.
First, a couple of choice quotations to share. These have been working their way around the internet for a couple of years now, and I’d like to put them together in this post.
“If we’re encouraged to differentiate our instruction, why are we suddenly standardizing everything about education?”
“Fairness in education isn’t every student getting the same thing. It’s every student getting what they need.”
A few years ago, my school had a guest speaker come to talk to the teachers about racial equality in our classrooms. We were all ready to be defensive, sure that we were going to be accused of deliberate discrimination, prejudice, racism, you name it. This defensive attitude existed for two reasons. The first is that, as teachers, we were already seeing the pattern of accusatory speakers at educational events, and it was in fact a reasonable conclusion to come to, that anybody coming to talk to us about improving our practices would take that particular tone. The second, though, was that most of the teachers who were present that day are White. And we were reacting out of a knee-jerk fear of being called on our own privilege. (For a great link on White and other kinds of privilege, and why it isn’t something we have to apologize for or be ashamed of, but is something we have to acknowledge and account for, check out John Scalzi’s brilliant remarks.)
Which, as it turned out, was totally unfounded anyway. Both of our fears were. The guest speaker, Ivory Toldson, was brilliant in every way, and one of the first things he did was point out that most of the inequalities in an individual classroom are not based on deliberate discrimination: they’re based on simple lack of knowledge of the background from which our students come, and based on a simple ignorance born of our own backgrounds – backgrounds we don’t have to be ashamed of or sorry for, but whose results we do have to do something about. His recommendation was not that we suddenly start giving out free passes to students of color, or any such thing that some of us expected to hear. He asked us, plainly and with passion, to get to know our students and their cultures, and to understand their individual needs in order to better meet them. Just as we would with students whose needs differed in any other way. I spoke with Dr. Toldson individually later, and he gave me some tips on reaching out to students, which have been incredibly helpful throughout my career since then.
He was the first person I heard say the second of the above quotations, by the way.
Since that day, which was about four years ago, the education field has become more and more about high-stakes testing, in ways that are increasingly destructive, and disproportionately destructive to our students of color.
How are these things related, you ask? Take a look at that first quotation again.
High-stakes testing works on the basic premise that all students are essentially the same, and that it makes sense to “handle” them all in the same ways. In racial terms, this is referred to as “colorblindness.” At first glance, this might seem like a good thing: not seeing race means seeing everyone as equal, right? Except, no, it doesn’t – it fails to acknowledge important differences in background, racial history, institutional discrimination, and numerous other things, including, yes, the existence of White privilege. For more on colorblindness and its deleterious effects, check this excellent article.
Now take that concept, and funnel it into the creation of a test with stakes that determine how we further label our students. Students who do well on these tests are labelled “successful,” and all sorts of opportunities come their way. Students who do poorly on these tests are labeled “failures,” and they find all kinds of new obstacles placed in their paths – as if they needed that, given that these students clearly already face numerous challenges. In particular, it is due to historical and institutional racism that students of color tend to come from lower-income neighborhoods that are already struggling, and have struggling schools.
This fuels another awful concept, one that makes me sad that we even need a term for: the school-to-prison pipeline. The ACLU’s page (here) on this defines this concept as the “disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into juvenile and criminal justice systems.” The ACLU files this concept under their Racial Justice heading for a reason: it disproportionately affects students of color, in particular black and Hispanic students, and this inequality is only getting worse due to high-stakes testing.
What’s the connection here? The fact that the failure to account for diversity in our school systems punishes students of color for their differing backgrounds, and labels them “failures” through the mechanism of high-stakes testing. This label then places them in a position to be shunted straight into the prison system through decreased funding to those students’ schools, which further stigmatizes their backgrounds… and the cycle continues.
This is absolutely unacceptable, and is a failure on the part of education reform. High-stakes testing has been touted as “the great equalizer,” when in fact it has become the reverse.

Politics Post: The Flaw in “Competitive School Reform” Logic

CONTENT ADVISORY: It saddens me greatly that I feel the need to put a content advisory on a post about education policy, but the fact is, education policy is killing people. This post discusses some of those mechanisms.

I originally posted most of this on my Facebook back in 2011. I am updating it now in the aftermath of the Vergara v. California decision, because I believe that the recent push to take away the last vestige of teacher rights is an extension of the same problems seen in the administration then – though it was early enough in the Obama administration that many of us were only beginning to realize the depth of the problem. Now that more of the effect has become visible, the Race to the Top initiative has also become an even clearer example of why pitting schools against each other in competition isn’t the right recipe for “reforming” the system.
First, some background on the initiative, since it’s been a while. Race to the Top was part of the education funding package which itself was part of the federal stimulus program. Some of the stimulus funding for education went toward prevention of massive layoffs in the public schools across the country, some of it went to renovations of school buildings to keep them structurally safe and make many old buildings asbestos-free for the first time. The rest went toward a program conceived by the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, called Race to the Top.
By the rules of the Race to the Top program, schools – including private and charter schools – would institute new reforms and practices to improve themselves, and submit the results for what amounts to a federal contest, with massive amounts of school funding as the prize. Schools across the country put resources toward self-improvement and reform, hoping to recoup the money later by winning extra funding.
The theory behind Race to the Top is roughly this: if schools are encouraged to self-improve by having a direct financial incentive, then more schools will discover new practices and products that work, which can then be replicated in programs across the country, thus improving all of the schools. Also, by putting the schools in competition against each other, it will further encourage the risk-taking that always accompanies any kind of reform.
It’s a good theory. It works. But what people don’t always realize is that it works because those schools were willing to put tremendous resources into their reforms. Everything comes at a cost, in any industry, and education is no exception. The money for everything has to come from somewhere. And the schools that instituted those reforms and improvements recorded very impressive results.
Then it comes time for the next step: replicating those innovations, and hopefully those results, across the country. That’s the point where our education system finds itself right now. Schools are attempting to implement those same reforms, because that’s the federal mandate: now we know some things that work, so do it. Immediately. Because it’s what our students need. As far as that goes, it’s correct. But the schools that are receiving these mandates don’t necessarily have the resources to put toward those innovations, and the result is that the employees just have to come up with it, somehow. Somewhere.
Schools in my area have been implementing some of the new practices and such that came out of Race to the Top. Some of them even work. I’ve seen huge improvements in our school. It’s great. Scores are getting higher, gaps are closing. It’s awesome. Others are not helping in the slightest, and it’s just making us all – students, teachers, administrators, and support staff – busier for no good reason. Reality check: just because something works beautifully at one school, does not mean it will work at all schools.
But since there’s no money being put into it, the cost has to come from somewhere else. And where it’s currently coming from is other things that make schools work. We’ve bought ourselves curricular reform by sacrificing the idea that teachers and students both have other things in their lives. We’ve bought school reform by sacrificing actual physical supplies (actual example: a few years ago, my school got all sorts of shiny new science equipment, but in mid-February completely ran out of copy paper for the rest of the year, and teachers had to purchase their own paper to make class materials for the remainder of the year). We’ve bought school reform by sacrificing class size (the average class size in my department was 36 for years after this initiative). We’ve bought school reform by requiring students and teachers both to spend hours of after school time picking up the slack left in the supports that used to exist. The improvements based on the Race to the Top program, while very real and significant, are being implemented as if they exist in a vacuum. Our schools are less safe, both physically and otherwise, for every person in them, employees and students alike.
Parents are angrier at the system than ever before, because they perceive – quite correctly – that their children are not being treated as human beings by the current administration. They’re being treated as test scores that happen to be walking around in an incarnation that resembles a teenage human. Students are turning to their teachers for help, but that’s not working either – because teachers are explicitly being told that we are not allowed to make accommodations for the stresses students are experiencing. “I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do. I wish I could help,” is becoming a refrain in our schools. Since 2011, there has been an epidemic of student suicides in my area, due to stress. And teachers can’t give any more time to work than we already do – because, under the pressure of these expectations, many of us have now given up almost everything else in our lives beyond basic obligations, and still don’t have enough time in the day.
This isn’t about teacher pay, which is the argument most people seem to be using against it. It’s about the ways in which Race to the Top has failed the very people we are supposed to be serving with our schools: the students.
Teacher pay is an issue, of course, for a number of reasons. Teacher benefits are an issue. And there is a basic issue of equity for school employees that is coming to a head in states like Wisconsin, New Jersey, New York, and now California. Teachers have already compromised, giving up potential salary increases to maintain benefits, things of that nature. If those bargaining rights are stripped away, those teachers will lose the things they have already sacrificed to keep. They will have more work, under worse conditions. The average length of time someone stays in the teaching profession is five years. That number is way too low, but it can still go down. There will be fewer and fewer experienced teachers in this country.
But the most important thing that so many people are failing to realize, is that unless the teachers are put in conditions where they can work productively, the people who bear the final cost of that are our citizens of the next generation. The way educational reform is being implemented in our country is taking away the adult support these kids need. When teachers are abused by the system, the results are passed on to the students.
Those results, ranging from student test scores dropping to students committing suicide, are absolutely unacceptable.
And with the recent decision in California, teachers’ ability to help students, and to ask schools for the help they need, and to advocate for their children – for our students really are like our children, if you haven’t seen the movie Goodbye, Mr. Chips, go out and watch it right now – because we could be fired without due process for causing administrators inconvenience. Again, this isn’t about teacher pay or teacher tenure. This is about our students and our ability to help them in the ways that they need in order to be successful learners.
Much of the so-called “school reform” movement is based on a single, deeply flawed premise: the reason the schools aren’t better is that they don’t actually want to be better. This isn’t the surface rhetoric, but it is the assumption that underlies the entire basis of the competition-based funding and evaluations and high-stakes testing that have come to dominate the educational environment under the current administration.
Work with my logic a minute. “School reform” policy starts with the idea that all the resources really are there in the schools, it’s just a matter of how they are used, and if we put schools in competition with each other, they’ll all get better because they’ll be motivated. This implies that the schools aren’t motivated already, and that pay and funding are the only things that will motivate schools to improve – in other words, that schools aren’t actually motivated by positive results in their students. The same is true of the idea of merit pay: if one assumes that teachers will naturally improve if they are in competition with each other to improve, this assumes that they aren’t sufficiently motivated already by a desire to serve their students and to do well as professionals. This is insulting in the extreme, as well as untrue for the vast majority of us. So much for the campaign promises to “respect teachers.”
Spring is always a rough time for teachers, and this isn’t going to change even if some of these problems are fixed. But I am disturbed by the number of great teachers I know who are either leaving the profession or strongly considering it, because the environment has become so hostile not just to them but to their students. I know the same thought has crossed my mind numerous times this year.

This post is made in honor of all those educators in all positions, and all those students, who have been so relentlessly overloaded by the current environment in education that they have destroyed themselves, deliberately or otherwise, physically, emotionally, or spiritually.