By Leslie Postal, Orlando Sentinel
6:26 PM EDT, June 12, 2014
Fed up and fired up, algebra teacher Josh Katz this spring took to the stage for a 17-minute denouncement of what he called the "toxic culture of education" in Florida's public schools.
Since then, nearly 30,000 people on YouTube have viewed the University High School teacher's impassioned attack on high-stakes testing, Common Core academic standards, private education companies and the false "narrative" that "public schools are teeming with horrible teachers."
His talk, delivered at a conference in Ohio, earned a mention from a Washington Post columnist, praise from education historian and activist Diane Ravitch and emails from colleagues saying "thanks for speaking up."
Katz posted a video of his talk on YouTube in May and linked to it on Facebook. He also put it on his teacher website next to a reminder about the "drop dead date" for turning in any missing work.
In his speech, Katz said state policies have failed struggling students, who he said lack the skills and home life to thrive in a school environment that stresses college preparation for all.
"Because we have a toxic culture of education … we take the blame for the student who can't focus in class because she hasn't eaten since yesterday's lunch," he said.
A University of Central Florida graduate, Katz, 39, has spent seven years teaching at the east Orange school. He's a father of three young children and came to teaching as a second career.
He ended his fast-paced speech by saying, "I believe in the potential greatness of a public-education system done right, and so do my colleagues."
But in an interview, Katz said that in recent years he's grown frustrated that so much of public education is tied to standardized tests, which Florida uses to judge students, teachers and schools' success.
The question, "What does this do for the kids?" doesn't seem to play into the education equation anymore, he said.
The principal of University High, Anne Carcara, would not comment on Katz's speech, but district spokesman Kathy Marsh said the talk wasn't viewed as an attack on his school or even the Orange County school district.
"There may be some points that raise the ire of some folks or even stir thoughts," she wrote in an email, but it was nothing that would prompt any district concerns.
Katz, however, said he wasn't sure how much longer he would remain teaching, giving that he is "fed up with everything" about state school policy.
State educators say their policies, including measuring student success on standardized tests and holding schools accountable for the results, have led to decade-long improvements. Florida now has more students graduating from high school and more succeeding on national exams, they note.
But Katz said those policies don't focus on what some students really need.
"How can we help them be better students, better people? How can we help them with these noncognitive factors like work ethic and character? How can we make sure that they're getting enough sleep, that they're getting enough to eat, that they're showing up for class?"
Standardized tests, Katz said, have been used to prove that these students and their schools are "failing," a message pushed by "our super villain: private education companies."
The firms that make standardized tests want to "perpetuate a picture of failure," he said, because "companies cannot make money on long-term student success."
The new Common Core standards in language arts and math that Florida adopted "will do even more damage," in his view, because they are tied to more high-stakes testing and to lessons that aren't appropriate for everyone.
Katz first gave a shorter version of his speech last year at a conference held by the Delta Upsilon fraternity, which he joined at UCF. At a second fraternity conference, Katz met someone from the University of Akron who'd heard about his first speech and invited Katz to talk at a TEDx conference at his school.
TED hosts events where the "world's most interesting thinkers" give short speeches on a variety of topics. A TEDx event is similar but independently organized.
Before teaching, Katz worked as an adviser to UCF student organizations and then as executive director for Central Florida Hillel, a Jewish campus organization.
Public education would work better, he said, if principals could run their schools with input from their teachers, not based on "rigged" education rules dictated by Tallahassee.
"No one does it better than a public-school teacher," he said.
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