Public School Teacher Has Some Harsh Words for Common Core and the ‘Toxic Culture of Education’

Joshua Katz has been a public school teacher in Florida for seven years now.

He started off like many a new high school teacher: He lined the desks up in neat rows, taught bell to bell, made sure students stayed awake — the usual.

Joshua Katz gave a TED talk earlier this year on the "toxic culture of education" and recently announced his bid for local school board where he would hope to help reform the system. (Image source: YouTube)
Joshua Katz gave a TED talk earlier this year on the “toxic culture of education” and recently announced his bid for local school board where he would hope to help reform the system. (Image source: YouTube)

“[It was the] run-of-the-mill, do what you do because that’s what happened to you,” Katz told TheBlaze.

But then he started to read and research more of the nuances of his profession. He started trying different teaching techniques, experimented with desk organization, but he still found he couldn’t go as deep as he wanted to on certain topics with students.

“We had this looming test in April, which is bizarre. To assess a student on year-round learning in April with two months of school left is ridiculous,” he said.

Katz is referring to standardized testing. While it’s nothing new, Katz argued that its purpose has changed in a way that’s detrimental to students, teachers and the system as a whole.

This and other frustrations eventually led him to a national platform where he talked about what he calls the “toxic culture of education.”

“It doesn’t matter if a student is a gifted artist, a loving caretaker, a poetic writer or a talented musician. Those students are the fish being measured on how they climb trees,” Katz said in a May TED Talk about how students are measured by standardized tests, which made some waves in the education world, but especially in Orange County where he teaches and recently announced his candidacy for school board.

“We say the be-all end-all is college, or we leave students to the lowest skill level work, which, more and more, is being occupied by college-educated people. Even with the honors students, they are, in general, too worried about grades and results, and not interested in true learning, which affects their performance in college,” Katz continued.

The ‘Toxic Culture of Education’

Katz told TheBlaze this “toxic culture of education [is] so big, so vague that it goes beyond classrooms, schools and might even go beyond national policy.”

While standardized tests at one point were meant to assess where a student was at, comparing them to how others around the state or country were doing, Katz said that concept has been made “completely punitive.” He said standardized tests are now used to label students, evaluate teacher performance, give schools a grade and “infuse fear at every level” in the educational system.

“It was maybe a good way to see where one group of students [was] comparing to another and just to say, ‘OK what does that mean?'” Katz said of how such testing used to be treated. “Now it means Johnny can’t move onto fourth grade. Mrs. Smith won’t get a pay raise or will have to move to a different school.”

In his TED Talk, Katz labeled businesses as driving this use of standardized testing:

You see, we only have one way to address accountability: Standardized Testing. So, we implement standardized testing, and it shows that schools are failing, teachers are failing, and students are failing. And when everything is failing, guess what we need? We need new textbooks, we need new resources, we need new training, we need charter schools, we need private schools. And who creates all these things we need? Private businesses. The only way to feed the business model in our Toxic Culture is to perpetuate the picture of failure. In fact, I’d love to see any education company that has a business model that is built upon success. There is no money in student success.

[…] these students continue testing, continue failing, and the districts continue new initiatives that can solve the problem. Who makes these products? Who has these solutions? Our super villain. Companies like Pearson and McGraw Hill which operate on legislation and policy written by private lobbying groups like ALEC. Buy the next textbook, the next workbook, the next software package. I’ve been through four Algebra textbooks in seven years. And that’s where the schools and districts are spending all the money. And we stick to the standardized test (guess who makes those?).

And what’s his stance on the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which will come with a new standardized test system?

In general, Katz said that having standards is good, but he is not necessarily a fan of Common Core.

“[E]ducation is a community issue. Every community is different and every community has a unique set of demographics, needs. To have a blanket set of guidelines, you need to keep that in mind.”

He spoke more strongly against the Common Core in his TED talk:

And it’s about to get worse. The Common Core will do more damage [with] its high-stakes test (not to mention its myopic standards masked in a guise of critical thinking which is just developmentally inappropriate rote. I see my daughter’s work in the first grade. They ain’t fooling me). Any education reform that does not address high-stakes testing and the non-cognitive factors of true student achievement, like character and personal habits, is a waste of time and it kills our kids.

Where guidelines can work, Katz said, is when they allow flexibility for different communities and are driven from stakeholders that include parents, teachers and students, not just the main drivers who he said are often business and lawmakers.

Watch Katz’s full TED talk:

Time to ‘Let Go of This Emphasis’ on College?

In Katz’s TED Talk, standardized tests aren’t the only issue. Part of the “toxic culture” also includes the idea that “if you don’t go to college, you have no worth.”

“Look at average amount of student loan debt right now. Is college for everybody? No, obviously not,” Katz told TheBlaze.

And that’s just the financial aspect. Katz said that as baby boomers age, trade jobs will continue to open up, but is there anyone to fill them?

“I don’t see clean-shaven young kids knowing what they’re doing with plumbing,” Katz observed.

Katz announced in June that he was running for Orange County School Board. (Image source: Facebook)
Katz announced in June that he was running for Orange County School Board. (Image source: Facebook)

He also called up recent advice from “Dirty Jobs” Mike Rowe that went viral.

“My first thought is that you should learn to weld and move to North Dakota,” Rowe said.

Though the comedian went on to give much stronger advice, the point is there: trade jobs are a very viable option.

Katz said, “we have to let go of this emphasis” on college and “have to have a more simple way to let students know who they are, what they can give.”

Not everyone agrees with Katz’s viewpoint on the “toxic culture of education” though. Beth Kassab, a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, pointed out examples of schools providing options and flexibility for students more interested in trades rather than college. Kassab went on to share the “other side” of this so-called “toxic” education:

He also blames standardized tests for labeling children as failures as early as third grade.

But what’s more compassionate? Identifying a struggling child in elementary school and giving that child help so he or she can catch up? Or sending that child on to fourth grade prepared to do little else than fall farther behind?

Katz dismisses Common Core, a new set of academic standards, as “myopic standards disguised as critical thinking,” without telling you about the shameful number of college students who need remedial classes after high school because they can’t read well enough.

Katz characterizes Bill Gates as a super villain out to make a buck from the new standards.

He doesn’t mention the $3.4 billion Gates’ foundation has invested in improving public education in the United States, particularly in poorer schools.

Katz announced in June he was making a run for the district school board against Joie Cadle, who has already served three terms. He doesn’t have an exact solution to what he sees as the problem with the education system yet, but said just having conversations about it is the start.

In general terms, Katz said in his TED talk that “testing for the sake of accountability” should end, policy should build up “students with sensible human standards instead of fitting them into robotic boxes for college readiness” and it should ultimately teach them “how to be good citizens.”

“Let’s stop measuring fish by how well they climb trees,” he said.