TEDx Talk fame leads local teacher to seek election

Local algebra teacher Joshua Katz gained fame from his TEDx Talk, which has garnered 50,000 views on YouTube. Friends urged him to run for a seat on the school board.

Local algebra teacher Joshua Katz gained fame from his TEDx Talk, which has garnered 50,000 views on YouTube. Friends urged him to run for a seat on the school board.

Brittni Larson

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Joshua Katz is running for Orange County School Board with the hopes that he can change what he calls “the toxic culture of education.”

But his opponent in the upcoming election said he doesn’t understand the position he’s campaigning for.

Katz’ TEDx Talk, which was an independent event set up at the University of Akron, has garnered more than 48,000 views. In the speech, Katz rails the “toxic culture of education” in Florida’s public schools, where he says too much value is placed on high-stakes standardized tests that aren’t an accurate assessment of students, teachers or their schools and the villain of private education companies corrupting the system.

Katz, a University High School math teacher, spent the last year writing the TEDx talk, and said he had no plan to run for office until after he received widespread support from those who’d seen his speech crying out for change. If he wins the District 1 seat, which includes Winter Park, he wants to use the position to devalue standardized testing and make way for teacher assessments instead.

“Standardized tests are a good way to begin digging into data; they’re a horrible way to determine whether or not a teacher can buy food or pay rent,” he said. “We should be investing in the teacher’s craft, because the vehicle is here, we really can assess learning, we really can define growth, we can define success, we’re just not doing it the right way; in fact we’re doing it in the most harmful way imaginable.”

Katz wants to empower teachers to develop ways to assess their students, use GPA to determine whether a student passes, and include more project-based learning. While there would be core curriculum goals and requirements, each school could set their own way to assess students and teaching strategies to accomplish those learning goals.

“I like the idea of being put into collaborative environments where I’m able to participate in helping to create assessments that better reflect the efforts of my students,” said Keegan Schlake, a University High School government and economics teacher. “I feel like a lot of times the tests and the requirements put in place by the higher ups in the education system are done by people that are not in the classroom and are kind of out of touch with what students are doing.”

That would also leave more time for students to enjoy learning, instead of dreading the “rigor” — a word Katz hates — of school, the pressures of a one-day test determining student value and future, and allow teachers to teach skills like work ethic and perseverance, which he said are better markers for future success. And that’s especially needed for those students who don’t get those lessons at home. Those outside factors — not getting enough sleep because they’re homeless, not having breakfast because there’s no food in the pantry, not having the support of a parent at home — affect a student’s drive and ability to learn at school, he said.

“We have to enrich the lives of the students we interact with over 180 days, and of course we know the best ways to do that: personal connections, getting to know them, working with where they’re at, trying to get them to move ahead, but them from above us, so much pressure to ignore that relationship,” he said.

His opponent Joie Cadle, who is in her third consecutive term as the Orange County School Board District 1 seat, said that what Katz proposes to do if he wins isn’t possible, and that it’s incredibly difficult to change the minds of lawmakers in Tallahassee.

“It’s my opinion, and it’s my belief that he doesn’t know what a school board member does, because a school board member cannot make the changes that he’s talking about making because those are all things that are coming down from the State of Florida and the Department of Education,” Cadle said. “We have no control over it, none.”

She also said that while the standardized testing could be improved, that tests in school prepare students for all of the important tests they’ll encounter in life ahead.

Katz said that he wants to use the position on the school board to interact and build relationships with those in Tallahassee. He wants to first, “shut up and learn,” and then gather a team that would go through the current education statutes, and scratch out and edit those that prohibit his new plan. Then he’d head to Florida legislatures to discuss the changes.

“I’m not threatening, I want to inspire, I want to awaken,” he said. “Let’s remember that education is about the students because I feel that we’ve forgotten that, the students own their education, we don’t own their education, the schools don’t own their education.”

If he loses, he’ll use the backup plan he started with when he was focused on fighting this battle as a teacher. He hopes to go back to teaching at University High School, and during his spare time he plans to meet with every state legislature and show them his TEDx Talk. If they agree with him, he’ll ask for 45 minutes to discuss what they’ll need to do to change the laws to devalue standardized tests and empower teacher assessments. If they disagree, he’ll ask for 15 minutes to try to change their minds.

“I refuse to stop; I refuse to say I have no power,” he said.