Are Teachers Babysitters? Maybe.

People are uber-touchy, even panicky, about the questions around returning to school—it’s a life and death issue, all right, including potentially gambling with our most precious asset: our children.

Like any venture that is launched before all the facts and outcomes are available—marriage and childbirth spring to mind here—both in-person schooling in some fashion and staying home for distance learning have their vocal supporters and detractors.

There’s free-floating hostility, too—accusations of parents ‘dripping privilege’ who are urging public schools to reopen, knowing they have the resources to keep their children safe. There are politicians who just want ‘normal’ again, blaming the media, the left, and public institutions for pumping up panic.

And there are teachers—without whom, students will not go back to school—self-righteously proclaiming that they’re not babysitters.

This is not a new statement. A few years back, there was a meme that made the rounds—the teacher rounds, anyway—comparing the work of teaching to babysitting for 30 children for seven hours a day. Guess what? The babysitter made more money. Way more money. So there!

I was never sure what the moral of the story was. Proof that teachers are grossly underpaid for the important work they do by saying that even babysitters make more money? How is that helpful?

Here’s the thing: All work that is critical and essential in building a functional society has its moments of mundane, even undignified monotony. A nurse friend who works in endoscopy once remarked that she’d spent four years studying chemistry, anatomy and biology, but her chief responsibility in her daily job was holding senior citizens’ butt cheeks apart so they could get a colonoscopy.

Not a pretty picture. And not really representative of her skills and expertise, which are substantial. Still, many of what society considers high-level occupations—hedge fund manager, say– are nothing more than a narrow band of knowledge, social connections and high-speed internet. A lot of important work is commonplace and undervalued. Like taking care of children.

Let’s acknowledge, upfront, that the nation, as we know it, will not function without a robust system of childcare. Let’s also acknowledge that PK-12 public education is the biggest piece of that.

Let’s admit how fortunate we are, to have public schools that keep our children safe, Monday through Friday, but also enriched intellectually—and, in many cases, fed, inspired and given glimpses of a better life. Every parent knows what a relief it is when your children are finally in school full-time, and your own work or interests can take precedence for part of the day, knowing that the kids are, indeed, all right.

Teachers are, in fact, childcare experts. Occasionally, someone suggests that teachers’ jobs consist of dispensing knowledge and instilling standard competencies, no more. This is 100% baloney.

Ask any first-grade teacher how many lost teeth she has processed (using protocols for blood-borne pathogens she must review annually). Ask any seventh-grade teacher how many times he’s had to deal with a sobbing child who’s just been called ‘fat’ by mean girls. Ask any high school teacher who’s attended the funeral of a student lost to cancer, or to suicide.

Go ahead—ask them: Did you care for this child? And was that caring an important part of your job? A lot of what teachers have been doing during the shutdown is a kind of childcare, by the way.

During the Great Depression—the one that started because of wealth inequality and the stock market crash—more and more students finished high school. There were no jobs for them, and school was a safer, more productive place than the streets. Public works offered alternative programming, building infrastructure and skills. Funding, during the Depression, was iffy, and politically contentious, but teachers found their extra work in accepting large classes and coping with students who would have otherwise dropped out, paid off in a better-educated citizenry:

The most dismal years for schools were between 1932 and 1936. By 1939 educators observed that Americans’ desire to maintain and improve public education was very deep rooted.

Of course, attending or teaching school in 1934 didn’t involve a pandemic-level health risk.

There’s been lots of digital ink praising grocery store workers, take-out restaurants and USPS drivers for keeping us fed and informed. But what these folks want is not praise for doing their jobs. They want better wages, personal protection against the virus and good health care, which during a pandemic would include regular, free diagnostic testing.

Teachers want the same things—PPE, a viable workplace, testing/tracing, and acknowledgement that they, too, are indispensable, and valued, front-line workers. Corporations don’t expect workers to do their jobs from home, using personal computers and paying for their own internet—why should schools?  

Teachers also want the option of making their own decisions, without condemnation—nobody knows better than teachers that policies and guidelines are one thing, but reality, in schools, is something else entirely.

We simply don’t know enough yet to make sweeping pronouncements about schooling in the fall. This is highly distressing to proactive educators, not to mention parents, who want to get their ducks in a row. But the pandemic is a raging, out-of-control forest fire at the moment, in many places. When teachers mutter about a national strike, to protect their own health and well-being, I think it may well come to that—and it might be justified. But.

Do we all have to follow the same guidelines? Especially since it’s likely that risk levels and mitigation compliance will change, frequently, over the next few months? More to the point: if schools don’t provide childcare, who will?

I keep thinking about a school where I volunteer. About two-thirds of the students there do not have enough broadband access to attend a Zoom meeting or upload an assignment that includes an image or attachment. Theoretically, half of them have access to a device—which may be a single Smartphone for a whole family.

Every child in this district eats a free hot breakfast and lunch at school. It’s a large rural district with families spread out across the county, so it would take a fleet of buses with wi-fi hotspots and free devices for each child to go full-tilt distance learning—and still, most families could not connect in real time.

We’re talking about in-person school here, at least some of the time–or packets. We’ve lived here for 10 years and can testify that adequate broadband isn’t coming anytime soon—it’s simply not a money-maker in remote rural areas where most students live in poverty.

On the other hand, there is only one class of children per grade, in this school, and the largest class is 16. Some classes are as small as five or six. Unlike the vast majority of schools, there is actually room in the school to social distance. It’s a tight-knit community, and there are just 27 cases of COVID in the county.

Is going back to school riskier—to the whole community— than a patchwork of babysitting neighbors or, more likely, kids staying home alone?

I also keep thinking about this statement: Americans’ desire to maintain and improve public education is very deep rooted. Let’s keep it that way.

The Blessings of Liberty Include Fully Public Education

I wrote this blog on July 5, 2018–at a site that is now blocked by a paywall. Yesterday, I read Donald Trump’s speech at Mt. Rushmore, and his follow-up speech–pretty much the same blah-blah–at the White House, on July 4. When this popped up in my feed today, it felt as if I was naive then–that I had no idea just how far evil would rise, how a terrible crisis could drive the country even further apart. All of this still applies.

I played my flute in a patriotic-themed outdoor concert last night with the Northport Community Band–as cooling breezes blew across Grand Traverse Bay and firecrackers popped in the distance. There were at least 400 people seated in lawn chairs, clapping along to You’re a Grand Old Flag, The National Emblem and The Stars and Stripes Forever. We played a service medley, as we always do, asking veterans to stand when the tune representing their branch of the service was played. This is standard for our summer concerts–and I usually think of this as hokey, the musical equivalent of a ‘Support Our Troops!’ bumper sticker.

But last night, instead of zoning out during the rests, I watched the crowd–the old men struggling to get to their feet or simply waving from their wheelchairs as the crowd clapped and cheered for them. And I thought of all the major sacrifices–not just lives of young, innocent men and women, determined to serve their country, but the endless struggles for civil rights and equity and justice. I reflected on the striving, loss and pain incurred in the ongoing process of trying to make this nation a true democracy (or republic–take your choice).

The people who tartly point out that we have never been a just and fair nation are correct. But I don’t remember a Fourth of July where I’ve felt more discouraged about the home of the brave, land of the not-really free.

I also still feel a deep commitment, an obligation, to the relevant principles, even as they’re chipped away and made meaningless: Liberty. Opportunity. Equity. Justice. Peace. Persistence.

I found myself, unexpectedly, in tears last night. So much has been lost, damaged, soiled or destroyed. Evil is rising. You can’t deny it. Just watch the news.

Were all the sacrifices in vain–going all the way back to the ragtag Colonial armies, losing their lives over taxation and the conviction that somehow this was their land, that they were entitled, by their Creator, to defend their homesteads and the fruits of their labor? What about the terrible price paid to end the scourge of slavery? To build and invest in becoming a world-class power? All the people who steadfastly developed the American dream–is it just the way of the world that their sacrifices were meaningless in the face of greed and corruption?

The etymological root of the word sacrifice is to ‘make sacred.’ I think I was experiencing the sacred last night, watching the 90-something Navy man sing ‘Anchors Aweigh’ in the front row–and the grandfathers who served in Vietnam shyly nod to each other across the crowd.

I also thought about where and how those men and women were educated. Where did they absorb the idea that citizenship is both blessing and duty? Who taught them to read and calculate, who nurtured their talents and their dreams?

The county where I live–one of the most beautiful spots in the nation, according to Good Morning, America-was originally settled by Native Americans, who still have a large and active presence here, and whose children attend public schools. The abundant fresh waters that drew them here centuries ago are now threatened by a crumbling oil pipeline that lies under a major shipping lane.  Should a public education include factual information about protecting our greatest environmental asset? Is that not also a sacred American principle?

In this holiday week, I am choosing to still believe in the things that genuinely have made America great, those blessings of liberty that include a free, high-quality, fully public education for every child.

Rule Followers, Unite! And Stay Alive…

Meme wisdom: Those who have stayed inside, worn masks in public, and socially distanced during this entire pandemic are the same people who are used to doing the whole group project by themselves.

Of all the hundreds of things I’ve read about distancing, risk assessment, statistical analyses and their failings, back to school/stay home, and whether masking is really an IQ test—I like this one the best.

Every teacher with a couple years’ experience recognizes those kids: the ones who do what they’re supposed to do, even if it means picking up considerable slack generated by other kids. Community-minded kids are not always academic superstars, by the way—some of those really resent having to share their superior intellectual skills in the service of a good grade for a group. They will let the teacher know that, too.

In my classroom, rule-followers were kids who retrieved the percussion mallets or folders, after class. Students who showed the person next to them the correct fingering—and said ‘good job’ to their stand mate, when they mastered the Ab scale.

After all, we were playing together. Music is not an interpersonal competition—it’s a group project. We need each other. That was the party line in the band room, anyway—and most kids actually believed it and lived it. It didn’t come naturally, however.

The question is: how do cooperative kids get to be that way? What is the secret sauce that feeds a sense of community responsibility over personal gratification? How can we have pride and true excellence, while staying within the guardrails of kindness and collaboration?

The quick and easy answer is that children learn (or don’t learn) this concept at home: Our family is a team. Don’t be greedy. Don’t be selfish. Use your manners. Think of others. Share.

I would suggest that students also learn (or don’t learn) these behaviors and beliefs in school—and from absorbing an endless stream of media. And by living in the United States. As Bob Wachter says:

America is good at many things. But handling a pandemic—at least in our current political atmosphere—isn’t one of them. In fact, we suck. We’re too individualistic, too spoiled, too vain, too partisan, and too willing to believe misinformation, conspiracies or craziness.


Still, I’ve been having conversations with teachers—both retired, and still in the classroom—who express surprise and horror at things their former students are saying online: No way am I wearing a mask. This whole thing is so overblown. Even if we get a vaccine, I won’t trust it. I need a haircut! This violates our constitutional rights. I heard they’re just saying everyone who dies had COVID. I think Bill Gates is behind this.

So much for the value of science, the actual documents and principles of our government, statistical analysis and media critique skills. Nice job, Teach! Sigh.

In a class on International Education, a Japanese teacher told us that the first goal in every elementary classroom in Japan was a focus on building community—acceptance of every child, no matter what their academic skills or personality, as a valuable and functional member of the group. We work together, we clean together, we play together, she said. It’s our social foundation.

Indeed, many teachers in the United States do several of the same things—build their classroom communities and procedures for working together early in the year, knowing that it’s a worthwhile investment of time that pays off in better discussions, a better atmosphere, better individual and group work. Whatever success teachers had in their lightning-quick shift to distance learning was built on relationships that were nurtured early in the 2019-20 school year.

The problem is that these practices—establishing caring communities, cooperative learning—aren’t always valued in the American system. Following agreed-upon rules becomes a fool’s game, something that only suckers and goody two-shoes types buy into. Japan is a homogeneous society, we’re told—but we, here in the home of the so-called free, are more diverse. We must rely on our individual strengths and ruthless determination to get ahead.

And so we end up with this—and this, both of which illustrate the point where  refusal to comply with simple rules becomes psychopathy. Plus—staggering COVID infection and death rates that could have been prevented or mitigated if everyone—parents, educators, and political leaders—did their part and followed the guidelines.

How do we get people to obey the rules? Ask a teacher. A few quick thoughts:

  • Mandates and punishments seldom work to change behavior in schools. Likewise, we can’t arrest every person who tries to enter a business without a mask, or crowds behind us in line. The more time we spend enforcing rules and punishing students, the more we get this escalation and anger. Schools now defunding in-house police officers are moving in the right direction. Force is the blunt instrument of compliance, as some segments of American society know only too well. Force leads to more force, and all of this is based on fear, a terrible motivator.
  • Incentives have temporary value. Teachers who gave obedient students Jolly Ranchers know this–it’s basic Skinnerian conditioning, and eventually masks the real goal in favor of the reward. You can give customers wearing masks five percent off their purchase, but the habit is short-lived.
  • Community disapproval sometimes works, if gentle, but it can horribly backfire, as any teacher with one recalcitrant troublemaker prone to public fit-pitching will tell you. Being shut out of a community is a painful experience for all humans, children and adults. It seldom leads to permanent changes in attitude and can, over time, damage children and adults. Use cautiously.
  • Persuasion seems to be a wonderful way to change anti-community behaviors. If only it were quick and easy, to just ‘listen to the scientists’ and do the right thing. It doesn’t matter what experts and authorities have to say or how many times you post that clever graphic about the percentages of virus suppression with/without masks—persuasion and its ugly cousin, shaming, seldom work without a long, gradual period of shifting values. We’re a nation of skeptics, encouraged by myth and law to ‘stand our ground’–and our selfish habits die hard.
  • Modeling can be effective in schools, especially adults who model kindness and cooperation. When children see adults behaving responsibly and with a generous spirit, they get the idea that we’re better off working together (at least at school). Modeling works less well with adults, but it’s always worth trying.
  • Leadership is a powerful tool in sustaining a school community and creating a climate of safety and caring. I know lots of teachers and school leaders who had students and staff eating out of their hands, due to strong character and clearly expressed values. We have seen some genuine political leadership during this crisis, as well as abject failure. In fact, it’s never been clearer how much leadership matters—it’s emphatically not true that all politicians are crooked and only interested in benefitting themselves.

The literature on leadership is vast and often contradictory, but every nation that has been successful in quickly changing the habits of its citizens to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus has powerful and well-regarded leaders. In the battle to get citizens to follow the rules we need both leadership and courage. We also need to remember that all these tools can be used for the wrong ends.

It takes courage to call out citizens who are endangering others, people who value their own temporary pleasure over the well-being of others. Heedless people. Selfish people.

People who are tired of being the ones who do all the work in that whole group project, UNITE!

Photo by Will Harper. The local sheriff, when contacted by marina staff, declined to come.

Michigan Republicans Attempt to Get Out Ahead in Back-to-School Policy

The first thing I did when I retired from teaching was embark on a PhD program in education policy. When I enrolled, my advisor wondered immediately why a newly retired teacher would want to study education policy. She thought I should be in the teacher education program—or maybe the ed leadership division, with all the wannabe superintendents.

But I wanted to study education policy—to see just how the sausage was made, by whom and for what reasons. As a long-suffering object of education policy, I wanted to untangle the process that had so often made me ask: What were they thinking, when they came up with this?

I learned a number of things, most of which weren’t part of any syllabus, none more important than the fact that education policy creation is seldom measured and thoughtful, informed by research, goodwill and common goals.

John Kingdon, one of the most influential thinkers on policy creation, believes that there are ‘windows’ where changes in policy become possible as three streams—a problem, a policy proposal, and politics converge to yield something new.

That’s where we are right now. Big problem: returning to school (or not) during a pandemic. Tons of policy options to address this problem. Politics swirling around the issue, from state control over health mandates, a bitter election season and the devastated economy. What does this mean to our youngest citizens? How will they be educated? This is an oversized picture window for policy creation.

Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, announced a ‘Return to Learn Advisory Council’ in mid-May. It was composed of educators, school leaders, public health coordinators and mental health specialists. The panel would use a data-informed and science-based approach with input from epidemiologists to determine if, when and how students can return to school this fall and what that will look like.‘  Last week, Whitmer said that students will be going back to school in some form, as long as our numbers remain low and the virus is reasonably controlled. All good, right? The rest is TBD.

Yesterday, Republicans in the state legislature released a one-page plan that they labeled ‘Return to Learn’ (sound familiar?)–and it is not really based on science or even data, unless you count the ROI numbers that the ed-tech-corp folks must be running about now (Ding! Ding! Ding!).

Perhaps the Republican legislators read Kingdon, and fear that the window to impose their will might close unless they wrest control of the policy proposals and (especially, given the governor’s 70% approval rating) politics.

The document is a mess (D- to the communications outfit they hired to write it). It’s filled with familiar, yet awkwardly worded, edu-mush like ‘Learning doesn’t stop when a student leaves the classroom. Schools should be measured for how they engage students, not how long a student sits in a seat.’

And there’s this gem: ‘Understanding a student’s knowledge of critical concepts is important to ensuring instruction is focused on the most-needed areas.’ I wonder who thought that one up.

My personal favorite: ‘Our plan empowers school districts to develop flexible learning plans for the 2020-21 school year to maximize student learning.’ What does that even mean?

Most of the items seem to be code for a few things the Republicans have long wanted—‘efficiency’ in education policy– and haven’t been able to get. In veiled and gauzy language, and extremely short on specifics, they cover all the various policy models I learned about in grad school:


  • Students absolutely will be tested whenever they return to school (no worries, testing companies). Because otherwise we’ll have no idea ‘where they are at academically.’
  •  Forgiven snow days (a really big deal in Michigan) would be limited to two (currently, six snow days don’t have to count toward annual required seat time, and school districts can apply for three more in an exceptionally snowy winter). For a document that proclaims ‘how long a student sits in a seat’ doesn’t matter, this is a bit inconsistent, but the legislature seems to be trying to appear tough, the law-making equivalent of ‘I had to walk through drifts to get to school, damn it, and these kids can, too.’ This and other items appear to be things the legislature is still smarting over, and wants to re-litigate, even though they have little to do with the pandemic.
  • In-person instruction will be required for grades K-5. This appears to be a gift to parents who must work, as the cutoff age for needing a babysitter is probably 11 or 12 years of age.
  • Benchmark assessments must be used. (You’re not getting out of that, you lazy teachers!)
  • Online learners will get the same scope and sequence of curriculum, and the same day and hour requirements as those learning in person. No more one-hour Zoom meetings followed by independent work or reading, even though ‘learning doesn’t stop when the student leaves the classroom.’ This appears to be assurance that the online education they’re gunning for is just as good for older kids as face to face classrooms.
  • Schools will be directed to focus only on math, reading, science and social studies, called ‘the basics.’ You know what means, and what will be missing, come fall.

Persuasive Policies:

  • There’s a whole section on health and safety, but all it says is that schools will ‘partner’ with their local health departments to ‘ensure’ health and safety practices that ‘make sense,’ and that intermediate school districts will get $80 million to ‘coordinate safe learning measures,’ whatever that means. No money directly to school districts for these health and safety needs. For example, cleaning and sanitizing, ventilation systems, more classroom space, masks. Stuff like that.


  • There’s a section on ‘Restarting Extracurricular Activities Safely’—with a lot of murky language about empowering parents and local guidance. If you don’t understand what that means, there’s a little basketball icon to subtly explain: Yes, there will be sports.
  • A one-time $500 reward for ‘front-line’ teachers. This—essentially a signing bonus for coming back to teach during a teacher shortage as well as a dangerous pandemic—fools not one single teacher. It’s not gratitude. It’s desperation.

System-changing Policies:

  • The lack of specificity, beyond the 5th grade, and the drumbeat of ‘innovation’ and, especially a promise of $800 per student to implement ‘robust distance learning’ is the biggest deal here. In fact, the concept of ‘attendance’ will be ‘redefined’ to mean ‘engaged in instruction rather than physically present.’ That’s huge. Who needs bricks and mortar schools—except for sports?
  • Schools have already been told to expect cuts—as much as $2000 per student, in a state where baseline funding per student hovers just over $8000/per. Now, in a financial sleight of hand, the legislature is promising $800 per student to spend on distance learning plans.

There’s more, hidden in the policy weeds and glittering generalities, but we all know that a budget, not fancy talk, is how priorities are revealed. A lot of this language comes directly from the Great Lakes Education Project, a DeVos-funded policy house

You don’t need a degree in education policy to see this sloppy one-pager for what it is—exactly the kind of ‘innovation’ that will make educators ask: What were they thinking, when they came up with this?

Strummin’ on the Old Banjo

About twenty years ago, I served on the team of teachers who crafted the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards Certification assessment for music teachers. The 16-member team was carefully drawn from an array of music education specialists, with an eye toward balance. Balance between K-12 and higher ed, vocal and instrumental music, male and female, geographic—and ethnic balance.

Everyone on the team took the work seriously. All of us were experienced master music teachers. We were trying to lay down valid and reliable assessments that could measure a music teacher’s pedagogical skills and content knowledge. It was good work, based on a set of standards drawn up by another diverse national team of teachers.

The National Board Certification process has changed since then—we were the first teachers to tackle these tasks—but the assessment consists of portfolios of the candidates’ classroom practice, including videotaped lessons, and a set of on-demand content assessments. It was our job to design the assessment model, then provide alternate items so the assessment could be used for many years.

The content assessments were designed to be rigorous—for example, composing, in 30 minutes, a short piece of music for specified instruments, voices, key and time signatures and in a prescribed style. If you’re not a music teacher, that might sound impossible, but music specialists compose and arrange music to fit their musicians all the time. A music teacher who couldn’t sketch out a quick composition meeting certain parameters could not be considered accomplished.

In addition to assessments around music teachers’ curricular knowledge, rehearsal skills, theory and composition, there was an exercise to assess teachers’ knowledge of music history. Four members of our team were Black; three had attended an HBCU. And they thought that ‘drop the needle’ exercises, where teachers listened to discrete samples of traditional Western composers and identified the composer, historical period and other compositional or historical features were—not to put too fine a point on it—baloney.

Two team members (both white and male) were music education professors at well-regarded universities. And they believed this knowledge was music history. They refused to entertain the thought that music majors anywhere were not well-grounded in the Western canon. They kept saying things like ‘you’re telling me you can’t identify all nine Beethoven symphonies? That you didn’t study them in college?’

The Black teachers said things like ‘Can you tell me what a field holler is? Can you sing one, right now? Can you trace hip-hop through its various incarnations, back to New York City and the Caribbean? That’s what I studied in college!’

The conversation grew heated at times, and eventually boiled down to this nugget, the thing we’d said we were considering, all along: What knowledge is essential for any music teacher to be effective and accomplished?

There were two distinct schools of thought:

  • One, there is an established canon of Western-generated art and folk music in the United States that represents music of worth. These are the materials we should be teaching our students. The rest is somewhere between inconsequential and trash.
  • Two, our students are immersed in popular music, nearly all of which can be traced back to African roots, in some aspect. Jazz, in fact, is the first truly American art music. To avoid what came before and after jazz in the realm of popular music—or to set it aside as ‘less than’ dead, white, Eurocentric composed music—does our students, black and white, a terrible disservice.

At that point, I had been a music teacher for nearly 25 years and considered myself an exemplary practitioner. Many of the points raised by the Black teachers were new to me. I spent the weeks between the team’s meetings studying ‘multi-cultural’ music. What was the same? What was different?

More importantly, what did my students need? Was I just following in the footsteps of white music educators, using the same music, teaching the same sterile skills, pursuing the same goal of ‘excellence,’ without really considering more important questions about music and human creativity in a culture? The first aha moment for me? Noticing that the method book my beginners used featured ‘Jump Jim Crow’ in a lesson about dotted rhythms.

The ultimate outcome for the National Board music certificate was designing two different assessments—one called Western Music History, testing teachers’ knowledge about the traditional, Eurocentric canon and another called World Music which drew on samples from around the globe, and occasionally tossed in a ragtime or swing tune. It was a decidedly imperfect compromise. By the time our work was done, three of the four Black team members had quit.

When the certificate was rolled out, I was a scorer for the World Music assessment, where it was obvious that many American music teachers didn’t know a lot about non-Western music. In working with candidates—white candidates, especially secondary band and orchestra teachers—I was likely to hear that they found the World Music assessment irrelevant or unfair. Make-work, even—not knowledge they needed to have or use. Those conversations between team members rang in my ears.

Thankfully, these issues have not gone away. Dialogue between music teachers has become richer and digging into folk music and popular standards has revealed a lot of low-level, unrecognized or underestimated racism, in addition to the blatant, out-there stuff. There is significant scholarship around the value of non-Western music—and pushback as well; this piece and the comments are a good example.

I frequently read threads now on music educators’ groups, as well as journals, articles and casual conversations about musical literature and how to re-think habitual literature choices. Nine out of ten preservice music teachers are white. This is a big deal.

For white teachers, reading through compilations of music with racist roots that they’ve sung as children and used in their classrooms is similar to teachers who love Dr. Seuss learning that his books carry some racist baggage.  I’ve been working on the railroad? How can that be racist?

The trick is to ask, and to listen, and not behave as if your favorite pancake syrup has filed for a name change. White people have been in charge of music classrooms, instructional materials and evaluating what ‘good’ music is for centuries. So what if you ‘always’ used Oh Susannah! to teach sixteenth note pickups? Do better.

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, in ‘How to be an Antiracist’ says that racism doesn’t spring from hate and ignorance. Racism is a result of racist policies, policies that form racist systems, and encourage and maintain racist behaviors. That’s a hard concept to understand, at first.

But when I think about all the white music teachers defending the songs that make light of slavery, and enslaved people, it is clear: choosing music that I prefer is making policy. Teachers make this kind of policy in their classrooms all the time. Being an antiracist music teacher begins with our most fundamental responsibility: making the best possible musical choices.

About Joe Biden…

If you only read this blog for thoughts and opinions about education, here’s one you can skip.

I’ve been thinking about Joe Biden.

If you think this is going to be one of those ‘Joe Biden was not even close to my favorite candidate but we all have to vote for him because we’re at the edge of the abyss’ blogs—it’s not.  (Although that’s true.) 

It’s also not a blog about how we have to fix Joe Biden, by pushing him leftward and micro-managing all the choices he makes, beginning with the woman who ultimately becomes his Vice-Presidential pick. It’s already obvious that whomever he chooses, there will be a segment of likely Democratic voters who think she’s the wrong choice and will post long strings of articles critical of her former career, lack of proper experience, age, and personality.

Nor is it a blog about policy, although policy is totally, totally my thing. We can fly-speck every piece of legislation Joe Biden has ever had his hands on, going back more than 45 years, the reasonable and the terrible. But as the guy currently occupying the White House illustrates—a policy platform is just a piece of paper, not (as you may have assumed) an important statement of the party’s core principles and goals.

I mean this literally—the Republicans just announced they will, in fact, be recycling their old platform from 2016; Jared wants to shrink it down to a bulleted 3 x 5 card. He probably wants to drown it in a bathtub, too.

This year, for them, it’s all about Trump: Love him or leave him. The rest? Meaningless detail.

The Republicans obviously understand how little most Americans care about policy specifics. It makes me wonder why the people I’m in conversation with have started so many social media fights over such marginal issues as which candidate had the most extravagant education funding multipliers, the most generous  health care plan, or the most ideologically pure campaign staffers.

A few weeks ago, friends I respect were posting pieces and supportive thoughts about Tara Reade, the woman who accused Joe Biden of sexually assaulting her, decades ago. These were people who—like me—were disappointed that we ended up with Joe Biden. They saw him as a deeply, irreparably flawed candidate and Reade as a woman who, like Christine Blausey Ford, had just been afraid to come forward.

There was heat on some of these threads, anger over what appeared to be a double standard in defending some women who had been harassed, but castigating others. Most people were willing to admit that we will never know the truth, but some kept the sharp criticisms of Biden rolling, saying inflammatory things like ‘We shouldn’t have to choose between two rapists’– way over the line.

What did they hope to gain? Well, maybe a brokered convention. Or a Joe Biden who realized he wasn’t up to the fight–and withdrew his name. Someone else to run against Trump. I’m not just spit-balling here. These were things people put in writing. They couldn’t vote for him.

Since then, Reade’s story has fallen apart, pretty convincingly, through a lot of good reporting—like this. And this, and this, and this—and, most comprehensively, this. It’s even possible to imagine that we have learned some things about accusations of sexual misconduct, and how to sort out those that have merit from those that emerge from some other place.

But that still leaves us with Joe Biden, a man about whom many people on the left express marginal enthusiasm or outright contempt. How did we get here?

Go back—way back, a year ago. From June 17, 2019:

 Former Vice President Joe Biden is still leading the Democratic primary, but is potentially seeing some soft spots in his foundation, according to a group of polls released in recent days. Meanwhile, Sen. Bernie Sanders has plateaued, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren is surging, with Sen. Kamala Harris and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg holding steady right behind the top three.

It’s hard to remember, but Biden led the pack for many months in 2019. Pundits said it was just name recognition, and Biden’s association with a popular former president. The current POTUS was cooking up crooked ways to destroy the Biden family, a quid pro quo that would play out on TV for half the year and reveal the depth of rot and feckless power-mongering in one party. Plus, there were other, better choices for President—both on the progressive side and more centrist candidates.

It seems remarkable now that we ended up with Uncle Joe, the uninspiring veteran pol with the long history of mistakes, gaffes and foibles.

Then we had a grossly mismanaged pandemic. And millions of outraged citizens calling for change, marching in the streets in face masks. And the military reminding the current president its job was to protect our nation, not Neiman Marcus or Tiffany’s.

I have started to think of Joe Biden as the boy next door, or the bowl of chicken noodle soup we long for when we’re sick. Bland, but soothing, something that everyone likes when they can’t breathe—literally or metaphorically.

He may, in fact, be just the ticket—someone disillusioned white men who thought Trump could give them back their jobs would vote for, seeing him as a blue-collar everyman. Someone white suburban women, fed up with the white male phalanxes in every WH photo op, could vote for. And we already know that it was black voters who put Biden back into the primary.

At this moment, I doubt if there’s another Democrat (including the ones I was enthusiastic about) who would be a more universally acceptable candidate to America. Joe isn’t breaking down any barriers, true, but what we need right now is someone a strong majority can vote for.

There’s been some nastiness among progressives around Biden’s carefully doled-out public appearances, and refusal to embrace defunding police, among other issues. Many veteran pols (LBJ springs to mind) used their moderate public profiles to institute great changes in policy, however. And if all Joe Biden does is serve as calming, unifying presence to a bleeding nation, that’s OK. We have to be healthy before we can take advantage of the window of change now opening.

I’m with Joe. And not just because I have no other choice.

Passing Counterfeit Money and Other Thoughts on Policing

Here’s a story about passing counterfeit money:

I was traveling, in Amsterdam, about five years ago. I was nearly out of cash, so I went to an ATM in a modern mall, part of the Centraal Station area, where trains and trams transport passengers from all over the world. I got 100 euros, using my debit card. I did a little tourist-shopping. Then I stopped for a coffee and a croissant, at a Starbucks. The ultimate American thing to do.

When I got to the cashier, I gave him a ten-euro note from the cash I got from the ATM. He passed it through a machine and, in pleasant, Dutch-inflected English, informed me that the bill was counterfeit.

I was stunned—it can’t be, I said. I just got it from an ATM. He smiled, turned the machine toward me. Watch, he said. Then passed the bill under the machine several times, each time registering a bluish light and a red text: COUNTERFEIT. He pulled a pen-like device out from the cash register and ran it over the bill, as well. It was bad money, all right.

Do you have another way to pay? he asked. Preferably not a credit card?

I did. I gave him a handful of coins, change from other purchases, and it was good. He handed the counterfeit bill back to me. I don’t want it, I said. It’s policy, he said. 

I put it back into my zippered travel purse, and he said—ever so politely—you may want to keep that separate from your other money. I pulled it out and stuffed it into my pocket.

I was humiliated, although the cashier could not have been nicer. I left the Starbucks and drank the coffee standing up, out of sight, thinking dark thoughts about how a bank could have given me a bad bill. There was also no recourse. I could hardly go to the bank (if I could even find a bricks-and-mortar bank with the right name) and tell them that they gave me a bogus ten-euro note, demanding my money (approximately 12 dollars) back.

I went back to where we were staying and compared the bill with other ten-euro notes. I could not see the difference.  I thought about why a Starbucks in an international crossroads would scan every single bill, and how a usually reliable source of currency like a major bank could make a (face it, relatively minor) mistake. Stuff happens, as the bumper sticker says.

Eventually, I realized how incredibly lucky I was. I was a middle-aged white woman tourist, obviously (to the guy in Starbucks) American—probably to everyone else I passed. I was treated as if—of course—I had inadvertently been given a bad bill.

No harm, no foul. Just pay for your coffee. Stop being a Karen.

As the conversation in America moves to defunding or reshaping police forces across the country, it’s worth thinking about all the minor infractions happening every day in the realm of criminal justice, and how we interpret those as seriously criminal or merely needing correction. Potentially harmful things we all do—not using your turn signal on occasion, for example—but only some of us pay for.

It’s also worth thinking about infractions we deal with in the classroom, where teachers police the behaviors of children.  

Any teacher who is honest with herself will, if pressed, acknowledge that some kids get away with more. That we—at least mentally—label kids: Sneaky. Helpful. Lazy. Compliant. Honest—or dishonest.

The first (and only) time a genuine crime was committed in my classroom happened over 25 years ago, when a saxophone was stolen. The child who owned the saxophone suddenly ‘couldn’t find’ it. I thought it would turn up—my personal assumption was that the saxophone’s owner was ‘careless.’

After a month or so, I got a call from the local music store. A woman had tried to sell the saxophone in question to the store, which also dealt in used instruments, saying it was no longer needed by her daughter. Fortunately, the store kept serial numbers of instruments it had sold over time, and it was, indeed, the missing saxophone.

The child who lifted the sax from the band room was a compliant and helpful student. Her mother, who tried to cash in on a stolen instrument, was on the school board. When I brought the mess to my principal, he directed me not to tell anyone. Because it would make US look bad.

The missing sax was returned to its owner—whose parents were not informed that someone tried to sell their kid’s possession. Even though we knew. No harm, no foul. Don’t rock the boat.

All of these people are white, of course.

Things have got to change.

Changing What We Teach

Over the past couple of days, there has been a steady stream of resources, generously shared, for anti-racist teaching.  Here, for example.  Here, here and here and here. And this, just this afternoon.

There are plenty of articles out there speculating on when and how we go back to school, and the consequences of going back too soon. But all the handwringing over alternate schedules, classroom lunches and sanitizing the playground are a great example of focusing on the urgent rather than the important.

Going back to School as Usual only works for a segment of privileged kids in well-resourced schools. All schools, including those where parent satisfaction is high and student achievement is admirable, can benefit from re-thinking what we teach—more than how we teach.

There have been endless conversations on Twitter and Facebook about the value of suggested resources and materials, just how age-appropriate they are, and how they intersect—or don’t—with traditional, standards-based curricula. These conversations, even when argumentative and heated, are good.

This is (or should be) teachers’ professional work. These should be the things we’re reading about, dissecting with our colleagues, discussing with our friends. We can’t go on merely doing what we always did. That’s not teaching. That’s mindless reproduction. It’s clear that it’s not working.

This will involve changing who we are and what we think, sometimes. Take this school superintendent in Michigan, for example, who commented, on his Facebook page:   

“Burning, breaking windows, and looting is also an injustice — what happened to Floyd was wrong! A criminal response is also wrong. Any statement otherwise, condones and perpetuates both criminal acts!!  …it all starts with being a law abiding citizen – had he not paid with counterfeit money, had he not resisted, had he not been under the influence — then there would be no contact with officers; that does not excuse the officer; it just eliminates the conflict to begin with!! It starts with being a good citizen!”

Yeah.  Superintendent of a district with more than 5000 students.

But—I have seen and heard other remarks like his in the past week, and in many years past, in times of unrest. From all kinds of people who see themselves as well-meaning, even progressive. From teachers, too, who see themselves as ‘good citizens.’

Which is why we must do more than space desks six feet apart and set up hand-washing stations. What good is school if it’s just transmitting sterile, pre-approved information, teaching basic skills and collecting data? Why take the risk, unless students we’re giving students something of value, something that challenges them to create a better world?

Skimming through the resources shared by teachers who want to know more about anti-racist teaching, I had a familiar ache: I miss having my own classroom. There is nothing like the juice of having a few hundred students (music teachers often have a few hundred students) and plenty of occasions to talk with them about social justice and equity—and cultural appropriation.

If there were any one thing I hoped my students would learn, it would be an awareness that they’re consuming black musical culture without crediting it to the correct source–or respecting it. That’s the reason I did any anti-racist work (and I’m not suggesting I was good at it): my students were soaking in the outcomes of how to creatively make music out of oppression, and they were totally unaware of it.

We need anti-racist curriculum, all right. Including–maybe even especially–in the arts.

I remember a conversation I had with one of my colleagues, about doing a unit–this was back before the curriculum was steered strictly by CCSS–on ‘tolerance.’ She was teaching 8th grade English and wanted to do some readings and discussions. I got excited about the kinds of music that could support and weave through that kind of unit–artists and composers and reasons why music has value in the culture, helps bridge differences.

We talked about what the community might push back against–we doubted that parents would openly confront teachers over readings about racism, but agreed a handful were likely to complain about readings about tolerance around sexual orientation.

Tolerance (a weak word, but hang with me) might be defined in such a unit as:

In a particular time or place…who is it OK to beat up on a Saturday night? A hundred years ago, for example, it was OK to beat up your wife or girlfriend. The police and neighbors would overlook that as ‘family business.’ That was tolerated. That’s not OK any more—at least on paper. It’s also no longer OK to beat up an immigrant, someone of a different ethnicity or color, or someone with a different sexual orientation.

Except—we can all think of plenty of current examples where tolerance of difference has been shattered. For plenty of spurious reasons. Including righteous declarations about ‘citizenship.’

We’re in trouble. We need to teach our children to do better. We need to look hard at coded language. We need to emphasize the most basic civic acts: Voting. Speaking out. Media literacy. Being broadly informed, about a range of issues. Talking to our neighbors and families.

All of that takes courage. Not as much courage as taking to the streets, but courage. If we just go back to school and do the same old things, then all the ‘learning community’ and ‘21st century’ and ‘high and rigorous’ blah-blah we’ve been tossing around doesn’t reflect what our students observe with their own eyes. If we don’t take this opportunity to teach what matters, we don’t deserve the honor and responsibility of being educators.

All about the Mask

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

Arundhati Roy

When I read this quote by Arundhati Roy, it felt like she was speaking directly to educators, as they contemplate the return to school: our data banks and dead ideas vs. a completely new conception of how to equitably and even joyfully–a word that is nearly verboten in these discussions—educate our young.

What’s worth fighting for? What do we keep, and what are we willing to leave behind, passing through this portal?

Because it is a gateway to a new world. Consider this headline: Coronavirus may never go away, even with a vaccine:

Embracing that reality is crucial to the next phase of America’s pandemic response, experts say. A future with an enduring coronavirus means that normal no longer exists.

The struggle to get people to think long-term, of course, is not new to public health. We know that smoking can kill us. Yet, it is still responsible for 1 of every 5 deaths in the United States.

“The problem is people putting the present ahead of the future,” said Tom Frieden, who led the CDC from 2009 to 2017.

Ah yes. Every teacher in America is intimately familiar with those who put an entertaining, carefree present WAY ahead of a sober, worthwhile future. They’re called students.

But students are hardly the only folks who value today’s pleasures over tomorrow’s safety and security. My timeline is filled with exclamations over first forays out into the community, and how few people are willing to follow the rules.

Following the rules is another thing that teachers are all too familiar with—and masks and social distancing are now the dividing point between those who are willing to put up with a little inconvenience and discomfort to keep the rest of the community as safe as possible, and those who (often adamantly) aren’t.

I realize that this is one of those ‘two kinds of people in the world’ gross oversimplifications. But it helps us to understand why a Pennsylvania legislator would deliberately put his opposite-party colleagues at risk while keeping those in his party informed and safe.  My team vs. your team—even when the stakes are life and death.

I was amused to see Angela Duckworth (she of grit celebrity) write in the NY Times:

How do we create a social norm of mask-wearing when, in fact, so many Americans are doing exactly the opposite? One common mistake is drawing attention to the lack of compliance. For instance, highlighting littering as a commonplace problem can inadvertently lead to more littering because it strengthens the perception that littering is the norm. Instead, in press releases and public service announcements, officials should emphasize that the clear trend in this country is toward universal mask-wearing. Norms are also established by high-status role models. 

I don’t agree with much of what Duckworth writes, but on this topic, at this moment, she’s right. 

These are lessons I learned—often painfully—as a young teacher:  Some kids are looking for attention, and will get it any way they can, so it’s much better to focus on their community-minded behaviors than their transgressions. For some kids, outwitting authority is a game—so you have to figure out, first, how, and why, they lost respect for authority. A classroom filled with happy children who understand the rules benefit them is vastly better than a classroom filled with kids who obey out of fear of being punished.

I was pleased to see, in Heather Cox Richardson’s daily newsletter this morning an acknowledgement that masks have become symbolic—and that:

…anti-maskers are losing ground to those advocating mask-wearing. While Trump still refuses to wear one, McConnell, and FNC personality Sean Hannity, among others, have called for wearing masks to help contain the coronavirus.

I want Heather Cox Richardson to be right. But on Monday, I saw plenty of people—in my own little, reasonably safe town—without masks. People not being respectful to the trumpeter on the corner, playing Taps. People gathering in close-in groups to catch up on two months’ worth of gossip. Adults being terrible role models for children.

My inner teacher—hey! (fingersnap)– was seriously activated. I had to remind myself that the best thing I could do was wear my own mask and keep my own distance. Stay on the right side of the divide.

I’m trying to take Arundhati Roy’s advice and walk through this world with little luggage—beyond my mask—looking for a better way to live, and to educate our precious children. There’s much that can be discarded. But not the building of caring communities—that’s what we must fight for first. It’s central to our ultimate health, virus or no virus.

Memorial Day 2020

On Memorial Day, I have often dusted off an old column I originally wrote a dozen years ago. It’s about how I never lost my love and appreciation for Memorial Day as an opportunity for school bands and community members to commemorate the sacrifices made so we could live peacefully.

It always seemed like a great lesson for public school children to learn: gratitude and civics.  

When parents would call, a few days before the parade, and say—hey, Jason won’t be at the parade Monday because we have company coming for a day at the lake, I never responded with anger or points-off punishments.

But I would feel sad about the missed opportunity for students and their families to take a couple of hours to honor our own history, our own heroes. Memorial Day services are one of the few chances we get to put our communal, democratic values on display, without glorifying war or violence.

When we moved up north, I joined a community band and chorus which have been at the heart of a Memorial Day service here for decades. No parade—most band and choir members are retirees. But we’ve played a service in a misty rain as well as blazing sun. It’s always the same: a few patriotic tunes, a speaker, a prayer. Then Taps.

This Memorial Day, there will be no traditional service at the Northport Cemetery. No inspiring message, no Scouts raising the flag, no Village Voices singing ‘The Last Full Measure of Devotion’–and no Community Band playing ‘National Emblem’. It is too risky to bring the town’s residents together to honor the military sacrifices made so we can enjoy life on our beautiful, peaceful peninsula.

Instead, the Northport Community Band will be offering a ‘Rolling Taps’ to those who live in Northport. Sixteen members of the band’s brass section will station themselves around town and, one after the other, play Taps. The tribute will begin at the Northport sign, at the South end of town, moving northward a block at a time, and travel through the Village, each player handing off to the next. The final player will be stationed at the cannon in the Northport Cemetery.

The director of the band found it easy to recruit players. Everyone was pleased to find a way to contribute in keeping a cherished tradition—Memorial Day in Northport—alive. If our grandfathers could storm the beaches at Normandy, one trumpeter said, we can certainly stand on the corner and play Taps. It’s the very least we can do to honor those who sacrificed so much more.

Village residents are welcome to listen from their front porches, their bikes or cars, but are asked to maintain a good distance from brass players as they perform, and refrain from talking or applauding.  Taps—originally a bugle call to signal lights out, a time of rest—has become the most solemn military funeral call, a way to thank and say goodbye to those who served their nation.

Much of the Northport Band’s and Village Voices’ summer season has been cancelled. There’s reason to be sad. But there’s also reason to remember sacrifices made. There are sacrifices being made right now, for the health and strength of this nation. Let us continue to keep the flame burning, beginning on Memorial Day.

Day is done. Gone the sun. From the lakes, from the hills, from the sky.
All is well. Safely rest. God is nigh.

Thinking WAY Out of the Education Box

Heartwarming current ed-news:
Indiana decides that every teacher deserves to be Indiana Teacher of the Year in 2020!

Education Week gives us another five creative ideas for how to pandemic-proof your graduation ceremony!

Don’t miss 10 Ways to Inject a Little Fun into the End of the School Year!

Because that’s about where the education community is, right now— dealing with one crisis at a time.

We adamantly reject the ed-tech dream of empty classrooms and every kid at home with a device. We know how badly that’s worked, even when teachers had six full months to get to know their students, in person. But we can’t quite wrap our heads around what’s next. When we try, it feels like admitting that the prospect of School As We Knew It is probably down for the count.

Three weeks ago, I wrote a blog suggesting that we start thinking about a modified ‘gap year—an admission that school would not be the same until we had confirmed medical solutions for combatting the coronavirus. So we might try ginning up some creative ideas about what to do with P-16 students in the intervening year. It was pretty amorphous service-learning stuff, with young adults and older teens combining on-line coursework with outdoor work and safe environmental or community health projects, a CCC or Peace Corps Lite, adapted to 2020.

That blog got lots of pushback, some of it downright hostile, with nearly all the angst coming from teachers. Nope, they said. Not going to let teens pull garlic mustard out of the woods or direct traffic at COVID testing sites. Not going to let them paint or plant or build. They need to learn! In classrooms! Colleges will fail outright if we encourage a gap year. That can’t happen!

Eventually, I realized that this was grief talking. The anger stage of grief—or maybe denial or bargaining, but grief, all right. Something we love, and have invested our lives in, is now impossible, without a lot of too-risky practices. We’re sad. We’re belligerent. We’re not going to let go of our carefully honed practice or our dreams for our children.

This week, the CDC guidelines for returning to schools, day camps and day care centers became widely available, and the arguments are around whether a particular meme-ish interpretation of the guidelines is accurate. What does ‘if possible’ mean? Are we at Step One or Two? Is it true that the one-page summary was written by a homeschooler, trying to take another swipe at public education?

Because those are things we can deal with—we’re used to counteracting anti-public education crapola, unfortunately. It’s easy to argue about the rules, and how expensive they would be to implement. It’s easy to say that whoever wrote the rules has never been in a classroom with actual children. It’s easy to complain about not being invited to the table. Again. It’s incredibly easy to shoot down every single strategy, from bus-riding to individually packaged lunches.

We’re tired. We know how much work online learning is—how many ‘trial and error’ pedagogical strategies we’ve attempted, then rejected. We’re heartily sick of parents second-guessing the balance of synchronous and asynchronous work, especially under the guise of teacher ‘accountability.’ We know that access to the internet is sketchy, and our hearts break to see how some of our students must adapt.

Here’s the thing, however.  It’s time to put forth solutions (temporary or long-term) from the standpoint of educator expertise. To accept that nothing is the same for the foreseeable future. That ‘temporary’ changes we make now may be set in concrete, eventually. That we can learn a great deal from systems around the world . . .  and in our own neighborhoods. That now may be the time to save money on some things (no more testing) and put them toward others (smaller class sizes).

Some of these changes could be positive. Keep that in mind.

We have adapted to things before: Seat belts and helmets. No smoking. Airport security. Changes in diet. Cars, instead of horses.  Wars. The freaking Internet.

We can do this. In fact, there’s nobody better prepared to re-think how school works than people who work in (and love) schools.

NOW is the time to plan. I know—teachers have worked harder than ever in the past two months and deserve a break. But it’s probably time to consider a year-round calendar, with this summer being the first, planning phase and catch-up time for kids who have dropped off the radar.

If kids have to go to school in smaller groups in the fall (not a bad thing, in general) then we may need split sessions, overlapping terms, staggered transportation schedules. Our first permanent casualty may be 180 days of seat time and three months of summer. In my opinion, overdue.

This would also be a great time to expand project-based and interdisciplinary learning, with students kept in the same small cohorts during their time at school. The usual gripes about PBL and interdisciplinary curriculum center on the fact that they don’t generate higher test scores or rigorous high-level single-discipline learning. But high-quality PBL generates other things—like ingenuity and independence and curiosity. For many teachers, it would be an entirely new way to teach. But change is (sometimes) good.

Jeff Bryant had a great piece about New Mexico’s community schools—another way to approach change, by formally making schools what they often are in practice: community hubs.

While good or at least workable ideas are everywhere, this is clearly not something that can be managed via federal or even state fiat. Each school district or region must make their own choices and be prepared to shift again when things go wrong (as they will).

It’s time to think different, Apple said in 1997. Or think differently (as thousands of English teachers corrected).

Some of these changes could be positive. Keep that in mind.


How Can I Keep from Singing?

The second wave of school change is now bearing down on teachers, students, and parents. You remember March, right? When Mommy-needs-vodka types were posting hilarious blogs thanking teachers and telling them to go right ahead and teach in their jammies? Because holy cow, teachers were the light of the world.

There were those teacher car parades, and funny Zoom memes, before Zoom bombing and low average attendance figures revealed that this was going to be a long, depressing slog. And now? We’re talking about the drop-forge model of school cuts and how unnecessary classrooms are, anyway.

I’m a music teacher. I know what this means. I’ve been through several cut-to-the-bone-and-beyond school reductions. Several of my music teacher friends and social media acquaintances have been dreading the decisions they fear are coming.

Because it’s not just ‘trimming the extras,’ the evergreen but erroneous argument that music, art, physical education, and other active, non-Big Four subjects are somehow less important than the others. It’s acknowledging that some disciplines—in the ways they’re traditionally taught– are currently more dangerous than others.

We’re not going to be singing in groups, as usual, this fall, or rehearsing the band, or learning how to play the euphonium in a beginners’ class.

I sing in a community chorus and play in two community bands, and we’re out of business for months, perhaps a full year. There is no way that students will be allowed to sit, even six feet apart, and breathe deeply while licking their reeds and blowing warm moist air out of their bells. Students will not be leaning their heads in to harmonize or tune. The science is clear: these are genuinely hazardous behaviors.

Trust me when I tell you that band, choir, orchestra, and general music teachers know all about the little boxed heads making wonderful music on your You Tube. They understand far better than the general public about the costs, skills, and technological resources necessary, even for the simplest collaborative music videos. And they also know that 5th grade beginning band students need years before anyone wants to see 45 of them individually negotiating the app, the mic, the conductor, the click-track, the printed music and—oh yeah, producing the right note.

There’s a reason why listening to a scaled-down Toronto Symphony is so exhilarating as they play Appalachian Spring. It’s because all of those musicians once sat in an orchestra full of 10-year-olds, bowing irregularly and approximating pitch, with their teacher–gently, one hopes–praising then correcting them. They learned to love the music (essential for a career) in the same place. All the beauty and ingenuity we’ve seen emerge in music in the last two months started in someone’s music classroom.

Music has gone in and out of favor in American public education. Choral music, easier and cheaper to organize and accomplish, has been around as part of school curricula much longer than instrumental instruction. Bands, as school-based activities and classes, didn’t really get established much before World War II—and then were largely promoted as contests. When the Baby Boom started filling schools, band and orchestra programs took off, as professionally trained music teachers became available and parents and communities saw the value in a wholesome, challenging group activity leading to a lifelong skill.

But that doesn’t mean that school bands, orchestras and choirs haven’t been cyclically imperiled by budget cuts and what might be called fashion. Ask any band director who’s ever had to start a struggling or deceased program over again (raising hand) how long it takes for band to become ‘cool’ in a school culture again, to gather the resources and community enthusiasm needed to build something really magnetic and valuable.

All arts and elective programs go in and out of popularity. Some school sports falter, as well, because they’re expensive or demanding– and kids have other things to do. I’ve been part of a half-dozen ‘Save Our Band’ campaigns. I have boxes full of handouts in my garage as proof. The most persuasive argument, by the way, was always the one that demonstrated music teachers who instruct large performing groups are highly cost-effective; once you start talking about aesthetics and elevating culture, however, you lose your audience.

So what are we to do, facing the school arts abyss caused by the pandemic?

  • First, remember that good programs are always generated by good people. Creative teachers will innovate, as much as they can, to keep the flame burning, even when the conditions and resources are suboptimal. Outstanding people—not budgets, not equipment, not festival ratings–are the fuel, and the inspiration, for keeping the music education alive in tough times.
  • Next, we can shift the paradigm of what a good school music program looks like. Strip it down to its basics—the teaching of melody, harmony, beats and Beatles. Focus on what kids need to enjoy music and understand its role in our lives. There is individual skill-building, of course, but also the lifelong value of musical literacy.
  • Let go—for now, anyway—of all the traditional events and educational practices you’re accustomed to– the big elementary music performance in the gym, recorder class, the choir concert, marching band shows for football games. Stop thinking about the damage pausing or starting over will do to an established program and focus instead on serving kids. Especially let go of competitions. Think outside the grid and the uniform.
  • Ask students what they want to learn about music, what turns them on, how they’ve used music during the pandemic. Assume that music teachers themselves should be the ones to create pandemic-friendly programs using new ideas and goals—administrators will have other things to worry about, and you really don’t want them to decide how to ‘fix’ music.

All those ideas are a framework for teaching music without large groups singing or playing—but the reality is that many music teachers won’t get the opportunity to innovate, create or rebuild. They’ll be excised. Many schools will not value teachers’ excellence, or work to find ways to keep the arts alive.

I had a friend ask me why it was important to have school bands and choirs now that technology could provide more ‘individualized’ instruction.  Why not use pre-recorded backups and autotune and fun little video creation programs or self-instruction guitar modules for music class? Nobody wants to take bassoon lessons anymore, he said.

I asked the obvious question: Did he play in the band or sing in the choir? No. He played football.

I pointed out that the ultimate payoff—teamwork in doing something pleasurable—was similar, but he stopped listening before the kicker: Music is something you can do for the rest of your life. Football, not so much.

There’s one more thing teachers can do: Plan now. Jot ideas and suggestions down. Don’t wait for your state legislature to use the crisis to hack away once again, saying their hands are tied.  That’s the easy path for policy-makers—no money for schools, so sad. Be there with your plan and your pitch early.

You’re protecting something vital to humanity. Don’t stop.


Punching Down on Veteran Teachers

It is the ultimate irony, in this #TeacherAppreciationWeek2020, on the very day that America’s teachers, persisting through the worst educational and global crisis in their careers, are supposed to be honored—that a piece like this would be posted.

Titled How to Make the Coming Teacher Layoffs Hurt Schools and Students Less, with the equally cheery subhead School district leaders may be able to protect their most effective classroom teachers, the piece, in essence, says this: Layoffs are coming. The law now lets you skip over seniority and job protection agreements. So take this opportunity to dump off ‘less-effective’ (and also more expensive) veteran teachers and keep the ones who raise test scores.

But wait! There’s more.

Most states have given up on evaluating teachers in the 2019-2020 school year, either just skipping over this year, because there’s no ‘data’–or using last year’s evaluation. Built into that assumption is that the only true evaluation of teacher efficacy is the test score, but it’s worth the evaluator’s time to ‘pop into’ a virtual classroom. (If there is one, of course.) Where they just might see a veteran teacher, struggling.

On Monday, Larry Ferlazzo pointed out, in an excellent blog, that the American Enterprise Institute’s brand new white paper is suggesting that teachers 55 and older be offered retirement or on-line teaching only, as students return to school. Larry deftly pointed out that 29% of teachers are 50 or older, meaning some 800,000 of us might be put out to pasture. For our own good.

Larry also noted that keeping older teachers in the classroom might become a liability issue for health insurance corporations, who can’t be in the greatest financial shape these days. I would also add: What a great opportunity to skim off veteran teachers, those most likely to be union leaders, articulate critics of ‘accountability’-based education, those winning recognition for outstanding pedagogy, even building an audience for their own ideas about what works in the classroom, using social media.

Gone! Like magic!

Any white paper report is driven, ultimately, by its funders. And seeing John Bailey, currently advisor to the Walton Foundation, as co-author, is not reassuring. What are Walton’s underlying goals? Get folks back to work, let the younger (cheaper) teachers take the risk? Stop all this social safety net-building?

Of course, Andrew Cuomo (and Bill Gates, I’m assuming) chose #TeacherAppreciationWeek2020 to announce that Gates would have a hand in ‘rethinking’ schooling in New York. This set off a chain of alarm among educators across the country, and especially New York.

Cuomo’s remarks were a little blurry but seemed to center on the idea that we don’t need no stinkin’ classrooms, now that teachers had proved that technology could sub in for expensive physical spaces and face to face relationships. Thanks, teachers, for your service! Now—get outta here.

Not a good week to be a teacher. If this is appreciation, no thanks. Also, if this is high-quality research and innovation, it’s worth asking—again and again—where is the teacher voice in all this upbeat Rethinking the Future? Because teachers, who have bailed out the system to the best of their abilities, would have plenty to say. Especially the ones who have been around long enough to not be afraid of speaking their minds.

There’s even alternative research that challenges the idea that our kids are ‘falling behind’ and if so, it’s all the teachers’ fault. But who cares about alternative research or out-of-the-box thinking about how we might permanently change our approach to school? Or our approach to the so-called American Way of Life?

Dear Skilled and Talented Veteran Teachers,

This is supposed to be YOUR week.

 Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum*

*If there are any Latin teachers reading—I know, I know. Took four years of Latin myself.

(Edited) Cuomo slide by Peter Rawitsch


Do We Need a National Gap Year?

It was the worst of times, and then…it got even worse. The age of foolishness, incredulity and the winter of our darkness and despair. But now, it’s spring, and even in Michigan, the snow patches in the woods have receded and everyone’s talking about what comes next. Because, clearly, Plans Must Be Made.

We have to get back to normal. Even though normal wasn’t working all that well for us, six months ago.

I have a friend who lives in California. His high school senior son, after a lengthy college decision-making process, chose Purdue, in Indiana. Right now, the focus is on the missing final exams and graduation ceremony. But soon, my friend may be sending his child 2000 miles across the country to start college during a pandemic. Because Mitch Daniels, former Republican governor of Indiana, says it’s OK.

There are upwards of three million high school seniors in the United States, right now. That’s a lot of young people being dumped into a dangerous society, college- and career-unready, to borrow a phrase. What do they need most right now? What do students already enrolled or just leaving college need?

Perhaps we ought to ask first what the nation needs, at this moment.

There have been hundreds of op-ed and think pieces published, about the transformative nature of a pandemic, as applied to education. And I love reading this stuff—the idea of re-making education from the ground up, fashioning an equitable system that’s based on genuine human and social needs, is just so magnetic. I have participated joyfully in the ‘just imagine’ exercises and soberly considered questions like this:

With worries about fall enrollment and a growing understanding that the fall semester, if it happens at all, will likely be taught at least partly online, colleges will have to argue that what they are delivering onscreen is worth as much as what students would have received in the classroom. This, in turn, may force a conversation about what the colleges are actually selling. Although the service they provide is education, the product for which they charge is the college degree—the piece of paper that promises a student will earn eighty-four per cent more in their lifetime than if they had only a high-school diploma. This and similar statistics are what allow so many college students to think of their loans not as astronomical debts but as investments in their future. Now that future is changing in ways none of us can really apprehend.

But. Tick-tock. It’s going to be September in four months.

Are we going to have school—PK-16—or not? Evidently, unless there are some more convincing guarantees of safety and lots more testing, folks—by a huge margin—don’t want to see conventional school re-opening.

What if 2020-21 became a national gap year? With a new conception of ‘credits’ and compensation awarded to young people and older volunteers for doing essential work in health care and rebuilding the economy?

I have seen the suggestion that entering college freshmen now consider taking a gap year, as is common in EU nations. Generally, those tentative proposals are immediately followed by all the reasons that a gap year is not feasible. Gap years, it seems, are perceived to be the purview of the wealthy or well-connected, who can ‘afford’ a year off from school, without affecting their eventual life prospects.

But what if large swaths of the population, young and old, were deputized and put to work for a year, or even six months? Returning to full-time school—not to mention full-time work, full-time commercial enterprise, regular civic and religious activities—will not be possible without several guarantees (testing, viable therapies and vaccines, trust in leadership). Those things will not be in place by September. So why not build a short-term Peace Corps-like volunteer force, including students?

The Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) recently published a piece proposing that twenty thousand incoming medical students take a year off from medical school to form a national service program for public health. There would be a stipend for these students and a guarantee that medical school would be waiting for them, in a year, when they returned with a better understanding of infectious disease, contact tracing, working with live patients–and perhaps a new purpose.

Appalachian Magazine also suggested that a 21st century version of the Civilian Conservation Corps be established, with work and training available for unemployed citizens. Our crumbling national infrastructure and underserved public institutions—libraries, schools, parks and the post office, for starters—could provide jobs for a year or two, with the feds picking up the tab (better than unemployment). Workers could fill in critical gaps and pick up new skills along the way.

Why aren’t we thinking about creating these kinds of service opportunities for older students as well? I’m not talking about sending high school kids into dangerous hospitals or grocery stores–although the number of people who learn more from jobs that put them through school, than the actual classes, is legion. I learned more waiting tables at the dockside breakfast restaurant, at dawn on summer mornings, than I did in my college lecture courses with their droning lectures and punch-card quizzes. But there wasn’t a pandemic back then—just mouthy fishermen and lousy tippers.

The main worries about secondary school resuming in September come from packing so many students into classes and hallways. I can envision these students attending school mornings or afternoons only—or every other day—to create social-distancing space, then being sent out into the world to address real problems in the off hours, using data collection and analysis, or creative writing, or civic organizing.

Or more free-lance opportunities with the arts, as this lovely article demonstrates. There are lots of creative and practical things older students can do outside the classroom, especially if they have an internet connection and device and a teaching adult checking in with them frequently.

It seems to me that a wide variety of real tasks—everything from shelf-stocking and pizza-making to park maintenance and painting—might be assigned to teens, short-term, as steps in rebuilding essential businesses, acquiring work experience and doing something productive for towns and neighborhoods. These should be tracked, credited and compensated, perhaps in accounts designed to pay for vocational education, college or starter accounts to start small businesses, down the road. It would also give ambitious kids a realistic, insider look at our new economy.

If we were to concentrate education resources now, it might well be around younger children, who cannot be left alone, and cannot be trusted to distance themselves and maintain cleanliness. If there ever were a time to stringently reduce class size, provide high-quality day care and rich, intensive, more-personalized instruction for young children, it would be now.

Bricks-and-mortar schools and good, reliable childcare programming before and after school free parents to return to work, knowing their children are well cared for.  This is the first place that daily temperature testing, masks, bracelets that beep at six feet and sanitation standards should be imposed. If this is our new world, no better place to start than first grade.

Programs like a latter-day CCC or a national health service should be federally funded and administered, but most schools or states would be better off creating their own ad hoc ‘gap’ programs as coronavirus therapies, test-and-trace protocols and vaccines make their way into the world. They will need to feel their way through the difficult developmental space between the crowded middle school cafeteria and a full-blown, live-on-campus college education.

One of my most cherished and repeatedly proven theories about middle school students is that we never give them real, meaningful tasks, or the tools to handle genuine responsibility. Instead we fill their days with rules and ‘practice’ assignments and tests. They can do much more—and high school students can do even more than that– and learn by doing.

If we’re going to ask what can be done to rebuild, after the corona deluge, we can start with youth. First, we honor their sorrow and pain, as the small town below did, with graduation banners on Main Street for each of the 83 members of the Class of 2020.

Then, we ask them to contribute. We need them.


Every Child Left Behind

When I was in third grade, I contracted the mumps. This was my final act in the 50’s-Kid Illness Trifecta: measles, chicken pox, mumps. Back then, pre-vaccine, this was considered No Big Deal. Polio was the thing to worry about—it was a killer. I had a cousin die, at age two, from polio, but nobody knew anyone who lost their life from the mumps.

Unfortunately, however, I developed encephalitis—a brain inflammation—from mumps. I don’t have a lot of information about how the illness was diagnosed or treated; my mother, who would have been the keeper of that knowledge, is long gone. I only know that I was out of school for nearly two months.

I have these distinct 8-year old kid memories: Going to the hospital for tests. Needle pokes. Terrible headaches and keeping my face covered by a towel. Bitter blue pills that I took in applesauce. And lying in bed, alone, for weeks on end, as winter turned into spring.

When I returned to school, I was sent for achievement testing. This was not to find out how far I’d fallen behind, but because all the other third graders had taken the test while I was absent. I was pulled out of class and given the test by a different teacher.

When I finished, she took a pencil and skimmed through the answer sheet. You’re a very smart little girl, she said. This made me incredibly happy–and is undoubtedly the reason why I remember a random remark made 60 years ago. Nobody in my family had ever called me smart. In fact, my mother worried because I spent too much time in the house, with my ‘nose in a book.’

And nobody, as far as I can tell, was stressed about how far behind I may have fallen. Kids got sick, they came back to school, teachers tried to catch them up. Sometimes they zoomed forward. Other times, not. Because that’s what learning was like—sometimes fast, sometimes slower. No big deal.

I read today that Australia has decided that when schools re-open, school attendance will be at parents’ discretion. Those parents who are able to work from home have the option of keeping their children home and using school-provided on-line resources. Parents who are essential workers and have out-of-home jobs to return to may send their children back to bricks-and-mortar schools.

My first thought was that schooling is hard enough when all the kids are there, or all the kids are remote. Expecting schools to smoothly adapt to a bifurcated instructional plan is probably another step toward outright chaos in public education. Leaving us even more vulnerable to astro-turf ‘Commissions’ like these people, waiting in the wings to scoop up funding and ‘create (profitable) solutions.’

My second thought was that hybrid home instruction/physical school might well happen here. We are, at the very least, a year and half away from a world where children are not only themselves safe from a virus, but unlikely to become adorable little vectors.

For all the good—and real—conversations about how invaluable school is in our national social and economic organization, there has been no solid, easily adopted plan for re-starting public education. We may end up with something that looks quite different at first, and we may morph—for much better or far worse—into a completely altered conception of how ‘school’ works.

Here’s an example: A friend posted the suggestion that students return to school in the classroom they were in when formal school ended, in March. That would, she argued, preserve teacher knowledge about students’ strengths and weaknesses and allow the most tailored, individualized instruction.

Immediately, her elementary-school colleagues started raising ‘buts’—but who will teach the new kindergartners? But what will the 7th grade receiving teachers do—will middle school also have to stay at the same level with the same teachers? But what about seniors? But I don’t want to teach the next-grade curriculum!

All of these arguments are based on the idea that all important knowledge and skills can be divided into thirteen neat slices and all students should encounter, engage with and even master these slices, in order, based on their age, before they can successfully navigate to the next grade or higher education or the world of work.

Which is ludicrous. Everyone—and especially teachers—knows this is absurd.

Countless articles and books, and reams of scholarly research have confirmed this inescapable fact, which seems to have been the common (and accepted) wisdom when I was in third grade, 60 years ago: Kids learn at different rates, and those rates are variable throughout any school year or other formal period of learning. Also, they’re better at learning some things than others. That’s just the way it is. Do your best to move them forward.

Which leads to this question: How did we get to the point where everyone in the country agreed that certainly no child should be left behind—and then spend billions of dollars trying to precisely define what ‘left behind’ means, using questionable tests and multiple linear regressions?

If there is one good thing that comes out of this pandemic, in terms of public education, it might be an agreement that all children are potentially being ‘left behind,’ right now, in mastering ‘grade level’ concepts. So pricey common core curricula and the expensive standardized tests they support can be acknowledged as useless for the next few years, and perhaps forever.

Creative, compassionate teaching, hybrid schools, flexible schedules and a focus on needs-based, rather than standardized, learning might actually catch on. And we wouldn’t ever have to label a child as ‘left behind’ again.


Help! I Can’t Read!

Reading is my greatest pleasure in life. Well, one of my greatest pleasures.

There’s music, and the Lake Michigan beaches and my family and my daffodils and a few other personal items on that list. But I absolutely love to read.

My idea of a perfect afternoon is a good book and a glass of wine and either a toasty fire or a shady patio. We travel west every February for a few weeks of Arizona sunshine, and I usually log a dozen or more books that month, fiction and non-fiction. This year, I read 15, before a looming pandemic chased us back across the country and home.

So you would think I’d be buried in books during the enforced home stay, tucked up and cozy, in my quiet household. But no.

I am finding it incredibly difficult to read books. And I am not alone.

According to Christian Jarrett, PhD, a clinical psychologist based in the U.K.:  “Research shows that chronic stress affects the way the front of the brain works—the area…[that] normally controls our ability to concentrate and switch attention from one thing to another.” Simply put, during something as stressful as living through a global pandemic, “we lose our usual mental flexibility and become highly focused on the source of the threat,” making it difficult to lose yourself in another world.

Which makes sense. Because it is not that I am finding it impossible to read. It’s that I’m reading compulsively all day—news and articles and analysis and, damn it, Tweets, memes and blogs of varying quality. Short, disconnected bits of information and opinion. And 90% of it frightening to some degree.

When I sit down to read a book now, I am usually reading on my iPad. The library closed a month ago. We live so far out in the boonies that we are not within our library’s formal district boundaries, so we are not entitled to download books. Don’t helpfully suggest Overdrive or Hoopla—they’re for folks who reside in a library district.

I have read every hardcopy library book I took out before closure (upside: no late fines) and am stuck with buying books for my e-reader. Reading on an iPad means that checking out what I have missed in the last, oh, twenty minutes of focus is just two clicks away. Bye-bye historic fiction or mystery novel. Hello, rising death toll and political malfeasance.

And yes, I know perfectly well that these are the first-world problems of someone incredibly lucky and sequestered.

I have been looking for the perfect escape read. As it happens, I pre-ordered Sarah Kendzior’s new book  Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America,  a few weeks ago and it was delivered to my Kindle last week, just as I was casting about for something that would be so magnetic I couldn’t tear myself away.

Holy tamales. I have been a Kendzior fan since November 2016, when I read her piece We’re Heading Into Dark Times. It was one of those things that you read, and bookmark—in the hopes that someday it will be laughable and obsolete, that things will turn out better and all the angst will fade into obscurity. Sigh.

Kendzior has great credentials, and this book is an easier, more coherent read than her previous book, The View from Flyover Country.  Kendzior completed the book last fall, before the impeachment hearings and before the pandemic.

I have now read about 10 full-on books about Donald Trump and his administration—some with excellent insights into the man and his character and others simply more detailed reporting on what has happened since he announced his candidacy. But Hiding in Plain Sight is different. It rolls back the camera and history to the 1980s when Trump was a flashy New York wheeler-dealer, serial philanderer and con man, in and out of financial trouble. You see how he has, over time, made the US part of a transnational crime syndicate masquerading as a government.

Pieces of evidence I had never considered before fell into place, stunning the reader. But the beauty of the book is that it was not written by a left-wing political analyst whose parents paid for his Ivy League education. It was written by a woman who is currently taking her school-age children to state and national parks to see them, to know what our country was once like, before the friendliness and preserved grandeur fade.

It is a far better analysis of who we really are than your standard old-men-at-the-Waffle-House. And it gives the reader a lot to chew on.

Five stars for the book, the first to hold my undivided attention in the past month.

But now—I desperately need something light and amusing. Help me out here. Patio weather will be here in no time.

looking south2

A Dozen Good Things that Could (Just Maybe) Happen as a Result of this Pandemic

The NY Times launched a series of investigations and articles Thursday around this theme:

It may not feel like it now, but out of this crisis there’s a chance to build a better America: the America we need.

I look forward to reading every single one of the articles—yesterday’s were about our broken health care system and why the rich fear pandemics—but the introductory piece, which is rich in historical examples of sweeping change, made me ask: What good things might come out of this pandemic?

Certainly not the trust in our government that the German people have, the confidence that made them follow the rules, flatten their curve and listen to Mrs. Merkel.

You can already see the folks in power itching to return to the way things were six weeks ago. They’re restless, fretting about an economy that’s rewarded them and left the rest of the country one paycheck and one dangerous job away from disaster.

They are not going for a new normal, one that’s more equitable, with safety and reward spread across the population. They’re trying to figure out how to benefit from the crisis, play the angles.  From the POTUS, yesterday: Once we OPEN UP OUR GREAT COUNTRY, and it will be sooner rather than later, the horror of the Invisible Enemy, except for those that sadly lost a family member or friend, must be quickly forgotten.

Well. I want to open up our great country, too, once it’s safe—but I want this horror to serve as a reminder, forever, of all the things that need changing. Out of this crisis, we really could get a better country, but only if we are willing to fight for it.

My ideas about things that might emerge and stick, if we’re lucky and if we hustle, from this pandemic:

1.  Science becomes sexy again and brings math along for the ride. Merely observing social media attempts to calculate the mortality rate of this virus is enough to give any math teacher a headache. Data analysis has become a daily life-vs-death task. And you have to love a world where Anthony Fauci is everyone’s new hero.  Coping with a virus is expanding vocabularies, building scientific literacies and a respect for genuine, factchecked expertise—for nearly everyone.  Every teacher now has a valid and compelling answer for: Why do we have to learn this stuff?

2. Better air and water quality. You may have seen the pictures of Venetian canals, deep blue and transparent for the first time in a century. You may have read about temporarily clean air over the smoggiest cities, or about citizens in India, now seeing the Himalayas for the first time. But did you know that breathing polluted air makes it more likely that you’ll get COVID-19, and less likely that you’ll survive? Wouldn’t it be great if we got used to cleaner air and water and decided to do whatever it took to keep it that way?

3. Renewed friendships. One of my husband’s oldest school friends just organized a one-hour Zoom meeting for the gang of guys who hung out together, in their madras shirts, in the 1960s. No special reason—just an hour of catching up, hearing about kids and grandkids, laughing. There is an underlying message, however, to every phone call out of the blue, every event planned for fall or 2021: You matter to me. Let’s make it through this. I love you.

4. A Complete re-do of American elections. This one is multi-layered and complicated. For once, the hype is true: this election matters more than any in your lifetime. If the Democrats hang tough (and they should), we might get national mail-in voting with other policies that make registration and voting easier for the November election. Americans overwhelmingly want this.

There could be even more, given a Democratic Congress and Executive branch in the fall. We could jettison or alter the Electoral College.  We could also pass a law limiting the presidential primary, given the headaches, unnecessary spending and ultimate results we got this time. Canada, our closest and most similar neighbor, elected its last prime minister in eleven weeks.

Thought experiment: Imagine that Congress passed a law limiting primaries to six months, still way longer than other first-world nations, and set a national primary date with top-three, rank-order voting. That would mean campaigning for November 2020 would begin next month! Knowing what we know now about the world—would debates be about more than the horse race and which state votes first and gotcha questions? If we overturned Citizens United, and set spending limits (again, like other nations), we might ultimately get ourselves a reasonable set of qualified candidates and a fair election.

5. Return of the Post Office and other federal institutions that should not be privatized or replaced by for-profit services. I live in a remote area. ‘One-day’ deliveries from FedEx and UPS often go an extra day or two—and if something needs to be returned, it’s a 50-mile round trip. But the lady from the local Post Office, driving her own adapted car, comes up my driveway. I love the USPS. The Post Office—through no fault of its own—needs a debt bailout. The USPS is now incredibly important for vulnerable and sequestered citizens and will become, God willing, the centerpiece of the November elections. We could stop flirting with privatizing any number of public services (including prisons, schools and the military). We could fund them adequately, paying workers reasonable salaries and benefits. Some things are public, and need to stay public, that’s why.

6. Rethinking the purpose of schooling. I wrote another blog about this—here. Short summary: The attempt to move schooling online has revealed chasms of inequity, and made clear that what K-12 students need, first, is trust in their teachers, a human connection to learning. There are a half-dozen policies that could change—unnecessary testing, useless standardization, grading, uses of technology and so on—but all depend on a national change of heart, re: public education. Once we have generally agreed that the purpose of public education is to offer every child, no matter what they bring to the table, a free, high-quality education, then we can start re-shaping our practice.

7. Recognition that bandwidth and technological access are the 21st century equivalents of electricity. The Rural Electrification Administration was created by the Roosevelt Administration in 1935 to bring electricity to rural areas. Only 10% of farmers and rural dwellers had access to electricity in the 1930s. Private companies didn’t want to spend the money to run lines to poor people. In 10 years, the REA had improved that statistic to 90%, connecting rural citizens and farmers to running water, refrigerators, modern sanitation and the radio. The Superintendent of Schools in Michigan just reported that a full third of our students do not have access to the internet or devices to use it. It’s time to recognize that access to the internet is equivalent to bringing electricity to farmers and rural areas in the 1930s.

8. The United States become united, rather than 50 competitors. Our president, of course, is operating on precisely the opposite principle: divide and conquer. The more competition and hostility he can generate—through supply theft, preferential distribution of necessities, and plain old nasty remarks—the more he thinks he’s solidifying his base. But there is significant evidence that states aren’t having it. Governors, Republican or Democrat, interviewed on TV, talk about the outstanding leadership of their gubernatorial colleagues without regard to party. They are sending critical supplies from their own stocks to where they’re needed. They’re stepping up, forming networks, generating trust and cooperation between states. It’s the states who are moving to build the unity necessary to federalize the response. Remember how it felt after 9/11? We could have that ‘one country’ feeling again.

9. Factual news becomes the go-to source for Americans. OK, this one’s a stretch—and depends on election outcomes. But even the Wall Street Journal, bastion of bankers and corporate interests, has sharply criticized the President’s fact-free daily rallies. VP Mike Pence backed down from his demand that CNN air all of the President’s baloney sausage, and not just the qualified public health authorities’ segments. Maybe facts matter now more than ever. Because when the lying stops working, we will all understand what is and is not fake news. And can go back to valuing a free and fair press.

10. Widespread inequality and economic hardship—one paycheck away from disaster—is finally brought home and understood. And addressed. From the NYT piece (above): Executive pay has skyrocketed, and shareholders have enjoyed rising stock prices, at least until recently, while most workers are falling behind. If individual income had kept pace with overall economic growth since 1970, Americans in the bottom 90 percent of the income distribution would be making an extra $12,000 per year, on average. In effect, the extreme increase in inequality means every worker in the bottom 90 percent of the income distribution is sending an annual check for $12,000 to a worker in the top 10 percent.

It’s time Americans stopped thinking that a rising stock market and low unemployment represents prosperity. The safety net is shredded. Even social distancing is an economic perk. Our very fates—including whether or not we get dinner—are in the hands of underpaid and underappreciated workers. Income inequality is worse in America than any other first-world nation. (This is what Elizabeth Warren kept bringing up, by the way, when everyone was trying to decide whether she was a shrew or a schoolmarm.) That $12K extra per year figure keeps resonating—what would life be like if every lower-income American made another $12,000 per year? A completely different society, and lots more discretionary income pumped into the economy?

11. A rising social justice movement, led by young people. We’re just seeing the early evidence of this. The outsized American health crisis is grounded in residual white supremacy and xenophobia. The costs and agony of the pandemic will be unfairly borne by people of color and young people. And, as Ta-Nehisi Coates said, last night: The bill comes due, eventually.

12. America finally gets universal health care. This is the biggie, of course—the cornerstone of all these other hopes and dreams. We can lay our highest-in-the-world rate of COVID-19 transmission and unprepared health systems squarely at the feet of our inequitable, employer-funded policies. It will be painful and bitterly contested, but it must happen. It’s both ironic and tragic that universal coverage will be pushed into place, despite the kicking and screaming, not by political leadership but by disaster. But I simply cannot imagine Americans looking at how terrible our system is, compared to all other nations, and all the pain and heartbreak it’s caused, and not demanding something better. What that better is remains to be seen, but we will certainly see change.

Dozen donuts

If Technology Can’t Save Us, What Will?

All the ed bloggers during this pandemic are consumed with whatever we’re calling our frantic attempts to reach out to our students–to ‘keep them on track’—or (more realistically) provide whatever educational succor can be squeezed out of phone calls, emails and glitchy electronic platforms. Or, God forbid, packets.

The academic show, it seems, must go on–and the in-the-trenches edu-commentariat has done some great work, asking the right questions, sharing their tools and materials and philosophies, and warning us off predatory data capture and greedy education commerce. There’s also been a fair amount of righteous bitching. All of this is justified—and welcome.

It turns out that technology cannot, will not replace the human touch, when it comes to learning that is worthwhile and sticks in our students’ brains and hearts. We already knew that, of course. But it’s gratifying to know that school—bricks and mortar, white paste and whiteboards, textbooks and senior proms—is deeply missed.

Public education is part of who we are, as a representative democracy. We’ve never gotten it right—we’ve let down millions of kids over the past century or two and done lots of flailing. There are curriculum wars that never end and bitter battles over equity, the teacher pipeline and funding streams.

 But still. We need school.

It is at school where a kid who might otherwise be looking at a series of low-paying jobs gets interested in science when looking through a microscope for the first time. It is at school where a shy girl shares her first poems with a teacher who says ‘these show great promise’—so she keeps writing them.

It was at school, in my music class, back in the 1970s, where a boy first learned the words a child is black, a child is white, together they grow to see the light,’ singing in my 6th grade general music class. Thirty years later, he got in touch when he saw my name online and told me he was working in Lansing as a civil rights lawyer. I loved that song, he said. Do you remember? You gave us a little sermonette on human rights.

I remember precisely none of this. Here’s what I remembered about him: he had freckles.

If this disaster has taught us one thing, it’s that technology-based communication is and always will be limited. It’s been a lifeline, for sure—medically, socially, commercially—but it does not replace our human institutions. It does not replace the caring and affection that are part of every effective classroom.

Even the low-paying unskilled jobs that have become critical in keeping the world running are not dependent on the things that technology reinforces. Service to others, friendliness, courage and reliability are qualities that can’t be learned in a Zoom meeting or tested on a bubble sheet.

I have not been surprised by the things my fellow music teachers are posting during this lockdown. For them, the end-of-course assessments that will not happen this year are not dreaded standardized tests, final exams and grades. They are the Spring Concert, the Memorial Day parade, the Youth Arts Festival, and graduation, events that demonstrate community pride and pleasure, accomplishment, and even patriotism.

This is why you’re seeing that gallery of faces singing ‘Over the Rainbow’ and the orchestra offering us an Appalachian Spring. That’s why #PlayOnThePorch is so much fun–and families starring in their own home-bound musicals are all over social media.

Of all the heart-tearing stories of sickness and loss that I’ve read, the one that hit me hardest was about an adult choir in Mount Vernon, Washington that decided to go ahead and rehearse on March 10. About 60 choir members attended. Now, 45 are sick, three in the hospital, and two are dead.

The little church choir that I direct had our last rehearsal on the 12th of March—there were 15 singers present. None of them are spring chickens; one lovely-voiced soprano is 92. The day after our rehearsal, the church council decided not to worship face to face for the foreseeable future. The anthem we worked so hard on, forgotten. But their voices rang in my ears for 14 days until I knew for certain all were well, sheltering in place.

This virus can scare us and ravage our communities, but it cannot damage our innate craving for the beauty and solace of the arts.

No matter what the circumstances are, no matter how bleak and despairing, human beings find ways to create and imagine, to sing and to play.

It’s what we were born to do.


We Are Just Trying to Protect Our Own

At least three times in the past week, I’ve heard some variant of this statement:

I’ve noticed that those who are community-spirited and positive about life have become even more so, reaching out to organize helping systems and cheer people up—and those who are naturally whiny, critical and self-involved have now gone into overdrive.

It’s mostly true. Crisis brings out not just true strength of character, but leadership. Crisis also alerts you to who you wouldn’t want to be stuck with in, say, a bomb shelter.

Crisis has also laid bare the vast and growing distance between those whose primary goals center around more for me and mine—and those who mind the community.

If you’re an educator, you’re familiar with that gap. Maybe you work in a stressed school where lack of qualified staff, supplies and leadership is an ongoing predicament, while well-outfitted schools 25 miles down the road are passing out Chromebooks like peppermints to kids already connected at home. Or maybe your work life is a series of conversations with parents who want special treatment—for their child only.

One education professor I know calls this belief—that some kids are inherently more worthy of educational perks than others— ‘deservingness.’  There are other words: Privilege. Entitlement.

Since the founding of the nation, we have wrestled with the tension between mythic rugged individualism, Ayn Rand-style, making it ‘on your own’—and the reality that we’re all on this big national boat together, capitalizing (deliberate word choice) on the contributions of our forebearers.

And now—we have the horror of Florida Governor DeSantis shutting out citizens from states that are particularly hard-hit with COVID-19, by setting up checkpoints on the highway. The implication is that Florida, a state which used its beaches as commercial draws, spreading the contagion across the Eastern Seaboard, is now closing its doors to those seeking to escape that very illness.

They’re closing the gates to Florida—the federally built highways into a place with over seven million second homes. It all feels kind of medieval—pulling up the drawbridge, standing at the ramparts. Too bad about the taxes you pay on your winter getaway! See you next year, maybe. Now turn around.

I live in a county of twenty-two thousand residents, where the average age is about 55.  That’s right. Old folks. Retirees. The gap between rich and poor here is remarkable.

While the county (surrounded by Lake Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay, with other beautiful inland lakes) has the highest average real estate prices in the state, there are in-county schools where virtually all the children receive free and reduced lunch. There are tribal lands—the Grand Traverse Band in my county. We have no hospitals but rely on a good regional hospital in the next county over.

If there were an influx of refugees from overwhelmed downstate hospitals, we’d be screwed. Rich and poor alike, we’d be competing for scarce resources and scarce medical care. All the entitlement of wealth, the second home and fat bank account, couldn’t secure us a hospital bed, private room and ventilator.

This is what scares people around the country—the raw, indiscriminate nature of the virus. Like the folks in this article on Door County, in Wisconsin, very similar to the place where I live, urging people to stay in their winter homes: We’re just trying to protect our own.

What about Newport, Rhode Island—or Martha’s Vineyard, where the year-round service workers who depend on wealthy part-timers’ business to stay afloat are ambivalent (to say the least) about their early arrival? Here’s what one of my favorite novelists said:

Geraldine Brooks, who has made her home on the island since 2006 and raised her two sons there, has had enough of the stay-away sentiment. She posted on an online forum, “Just asking fellow islanders: where is this marvelous community that has enough beds, enough respirators, enough masks, enough nurses? The lifeboats from the Titanic left half full and didn’t go back for fear of being swamped. This feels like that.”

One of Brooks’s novels, ‘Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague’, set in 1666 and based on a real incident, describes a remote mining village in England, where the bubonic plague is systemically killing village residents. It’s clear she’s wrestled with the morality of pandemics.

It’s hard to argue with people who are moving out of a dangerous situation into a place where the virus seems less prevalent. Like the people in remote areas, worried about sharing whatever safety and resources they have, they’re just trying to protect their own.

It’s also hard to argue with people who will do almost anything to get a better deal for their children—including filing a false residency so their child could attend a good public school.

If there’s one lesson we could all learn from this disaster, it’s that we’re all in the same boat, like it or not. Mind the community.
state theatre covid

When Crisis Presents an Opportunity: How about a National Teacher Plan?

Remember Katrina? Remember when schools were closed and the students who went to public schools in NOLA fled, a diaspora, as the city tried to clean up and rebuild and restore?

My friend Jill Saia, who was teaching in Baton Rouge at the time, described days where batches of new students would appear, shell-shocked and sad, and teachers welcomed and made room for them. They didn’t have enough chairs or textbooks–or toothbrushes–but kids sat on the countertops and teachers bought pencils with their own money. Going to school was normal, and however imperfectly, those children were invited into functioning schools and classrooms for a bit of healing normality.

It certainly was one of those ‘Every Crisis is an Opportunity’ moments.

Unfortunately, we know what happened. Wipe out a school system (and, not coincidentally, remove a large number of its poorest and least protected students) and you’ve got yourself the opportunity to let the market create a profitable, PR-driven system of charters. We’ve spent the last 10 years arguing about the all-charter NOLA system, while those students’ schools open, then close.

It’s become abundantly clear that nothing will be the same after the COVID-19 pandemic abates: the economy, the obviously failed American approach to health care and pandemics, our goals in electing political leaders. And, of course, education.

Glass-half-full people (a subset of the population that includes a lot of teachers) have been proposing ways to make society better after we’re back on our feet. From their—healthy—perspective, the only way to see this global catastrophe as a moment that could have a silver-lining backside is to tap into our capacity to change, to make things better. Otherwise, we’re just surviving.

As Ali Velshi said:
We can take this moment to change the policies that have failed us…why not be the first generation that fixes wealth disparity, and income inequality, and universal healthcare, and poverty, and homelessness, and racial economic inequality?

Not to mention education.

My friend Mary Tedrow and I have been discussing this.  Mary spent many years as an award-winning teacher in Virginia, and she also has serious policy chops. Mary said:

I want to go on record. When Trump was elected, I said, “He is going to burn everything to the ground, so we’d better be ready to build an education system that makes sense.” So. The fires are raging. How can we come together to replace the test-and-punish, top-down system with one where reform happens close to students, because teachers are well-trained, work collaboratively, and are free to make informed decisions on how to extend student capabilities to the maximum? When there is a leadership vacuum, leaders step in. What is first on our agenda?

WE NEED A NATIONAL TEACHER PLAN. And we need teachers to help draft it. Here are some of our rough-draft ideas.

  • First step: Get rid of mandated standardized tests at any point in 2020. (Should be easy–everyone agrees that the tests will tell us nothing, and we now have permission.) And then, lay the groundwork to demonstrate, clearly, that tests have never told us more than who the haves and have-nots were. The 2021 tests will only tell us who got supplementary instruction during the school hiatus—let’s scrap those, too. Instead, let’s focus on assessment expertise for teachers, who can use appropriate tools to do what assessment is supposed to do: Tell us what our students know so we can tailor our instruction appropriately, and give our students useful feedback.
  • Second step: Focus on actual student needs instead of comparative, tested common standards. When kids return–in the fall, or whenever–the learning inequities, always present, will be endemic. There will be kids who had zero instruction, and kids whose teachers and parents did yeoman work to keep them moving forward. Let’s stop comparing them–forever. Let’s look, district by district, at where kids are, and start there in rebuilding our instructional models and curricula. Let’s use existing standards only voluntarily as broad frameworks—suggestions, possibilities– to guide custom-tailored learning.
  • Third step: Let’s understand that technology–something that always should have been considered an interesting tool of highly varying quality in instruction–will never take the place of face to face instruction, and stop pretending that online schools are the answer to educating our people. We have data to show us that students in online schools do not do well. And we are currently running a national experiment in online learning which has already yielded gargantuan problems and revealed the resource chasm between well-off children and the poor. Let’s value and re-invest in bricks and mortar schools.
  • Fourth step: Repurpose the testing dollars for teacher education, given the current shortages. All preK-2 teachers should be reading specialists, for starters. We can extend and improve field experiences. We can increase teacher pay and make teacher education more attractive. We can open schools of ed that are cutting-edge models of teacher education and provide a full ride to teacher candidates who then agree to work where they are needed. The answer is not making it easier to get into the classroom—it’s selecting good candidates and giving them in-depth training and experiences.
  • Fifth step: Re-think grading as ‘normal’ required practice. There’s been a national brouhaha over directives to not grade on-line assignments. Not just because no access to the necessary tools and bandwidth cripples some students—but because teachers wonder how to ‘make’ students do the work without a grade hanging over their head. It’s a great question to ponder. If students are only working to get a grade, what does that say about the motivational underpinnings of learning in America? There are plenty of ways, absent grades, to provide feedback, encouragement and additional instruction to students. And for all the aspects of education that currently hinge on grades—who gets into what college, who gets to be valedictorian, who’s on the honor roll—maybe they all need to be re-thought, as well.

There are five, just off the tops of our heads.  Would you like to propose another? Would you like to participate in a conversation about our educator-sourced National Teacher Plan? Here’s the page where the conversation is just starting to bubble up:



Lessons in Educational Leadership from a Real-life Pandemic Crisis

My favorite teacher-blogger, Peter Green @ Curmudgucation had a good piece today. He writes about how school leaders often forget or ignore their core values and beliefs once they become focused on being managers:

A manager’s job– and not just the management of a school, but any manager– is to create the system, environment and supports that get his people to do their very best work. When it rains, it’s the manager’s job to hold an umbrella over his people. When the wind starts blowing tree limbs across the landscape, it’s the manager’s job to stand before the storm and bat the debris away. And when the Folks at the Top start sending down stupid directives, it’s a manager’s job to protect his people the best he possibly can.

Does your principal / superintendent / department chair /boss evidence those behaviors? Mine neither.

Although there are courageous administrators and titled leaders who do stand up to idiotic and counterproductive directives from above, they are infrequent. The best most teachers can hope for is a good Joe (or JoAnn) who doesn’t revel in their power–and understands or looks the other way when rules are bent or sidestepped for good cause.

It has long been my sincere belief that when teachers and school leaders get on the same page, vis-à-vis monolithic policies (like uniform core standards, high-stakes testing, or 3rd grade retention for struggling readers) we will be able to push back mountains. When practice wisdom and skilled educational leadership join hands, the results will be transformative. When, of course.

Which is why it’s been so interesting to watch how school leaders have responded to statewide school closings, a completely unprecedented event. In a nearby district, while students were sent home from school indefinitely on Friday, teachers were ordered to report to work this week. For older and more vulnerable teachers, this was risky. For teachers at home with their own young children, it meant having to find also-risky child care, pronto.

This is an area where there are frequent snow and ice days, and teachers aren’t generally required to come in when driving to school is dangerous. ‘Act of God’ days are written into all our contracts. Why would a district require teachers to report?

Because someone, in Central Office, was afraid that teachers were going to get a vacation. Or get paid for hanging out in their pajamas, watching the news. Someone who wanted to be in control. To manage.

Having the school open at set times so teachers could pick up needed items? Yes, of course. And there was precious little time to meet and get input from teachers—the ones who know their students best—about how to handle a long period of social distancing, while keeping kids connected to school.

Maybe the first on-line instruction should be a building-wide faculty meeting, hosted by the school administrator, for that conversation: What are the best things we can do for our students, right now? What’s the appropriate platform, appropriate activities, appropriate…educational philosophy for school in the time of coronavirus? How do we want to handle this, together?

A virtual meeting like that would be a great—revealing—exercise in what it means to lead, to create the system and supports for an entirely unanticipated circumstance. There are plenty of administrators who think using technology is a matter of familiarity with a program—and hence, someone else’s responsibility. (There were plenty of professors in my graduate work, 10 years ago, who resisted using online discussion tools, preferring to meet in person once a week, rather than post interesting questions, responses and observations as we did the readings. What that usually boiled down to was discomfort in a) using the program and b) not being the resident expert.)

One of the most fascinating things we’ve seen in this crisis is just WHO has stepped up with ideas that make sense, made tough (often unpopular) decisions, grabbed the viral bull by the horns. Governors, working in partnership with regional colleagues. Senators and Representatives. Some State Education Superintendents (like mine) are doing the right thing and demanding a waiver on testing.

There is leadership out there.

But the leadership I’ve seen today that has flat-out humbled me is coming from classroom teachers, who are sharing their plans, ideas and expertise with complete strangers. Want to know how to use a particular learning management platform? Someone is available to teach it to you, even though they’re new to the tool themselves.  Want to join a discussion on the advisability of trying to stick to a schedule and standards? There’s someone who wants to talk about that, too. There are new friends and ideas you never thought of, everywhere. Want an idea that someone just tried for the first time—with success? It’s there for the taking.

Educational leadership is more than supporting and protecting people. It’s unleashing the creativity and generosity of those people. It’s believing in their integrity, their willingness to go above and beyond when the chips are down.

Late this afternoon, I heard that the teachers in the nearby district were no longer required to report for duty this week. Someone got a leadership clue.

And on we go.


Once Again Teachers are First Responders

Thursday night, at 11:00 p.m., Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer ordered the closing of all K-12 public schools in the state, for at least three weeks, beginning on Monday. As of two hours ago, twelve states and numerous large urban districts have ordered shutdowns.

Good for them. I know that without COVID-19 testing, we’re flying blind, and the effects of school shutdowns may be negligible. But taking action—and responsibility—is what leaders do.

I was asleep and didn’t learn about the school shutdown until Friday morning.  Newscasters, parents and community leaders were all weighing in on how this would impact our daily lives. Teachers, on the other hand, were plotting to get to school early enough to get to the copy machine before the paper and toner ran out.

It’s not that teachers were caught by surprise. On-line chatter over the past month has been all about Will Technology Save Us? (no) and Is it Better for Kids to be at Home or School? Teachers are pragmatists. We have to be.

But this is another instance of teachers being foot soldiers, this time in a desperate war being directed by hideously incompetent generals, bent on hiding the terrible news of early defeats. Teachers are like those firefighters in Kirkland, Washington who came to transport extremely ill nursing home residents to the hospital, without gloves and masks. Just doing our jobs, just following directions.

Thank you to the hundreds of thousands of teachers who organized take-home packets and figured out how to get coursework online, even if they didn’t have a clue about how to do it before last week.  And thank you to those who pointed out, with considerable asperity, how incredibly inequitable virtual instruction will be, but went ahead and made plans to do it anyway. Thanks to all who sent home food or arranged for food pickup—or even made a single call to a single household, to make sure an adult was home.

Nobody knows how to do this well. Nobody. But schools and teachers are still trying.

Keeping a functional learning community together is job #1.  Meaning: every child, K-12, who is out of school involuntarily, knows for sure that the adults who have been his/her teachers, playground supervisors or joke-around buddies in the hallway, still care. Staying connected and checking in matter much more than reviewing fractions or watching a dissection video.

This may sound really wimpy and imprecise and touchy-feely to reformers and learning measurement types. And it doesn’t mean that teachers should abandon all attempts to build skills or (for lack of a better phrase) deliver content. Only this: the most important skills a child needs right now are empathy, curiosity and self-direction, kindness and civic engagement.

A child—either kindergartener or jaded teenager—who can discern truth from lies, identify gaslighting, find engaging and worthwhile things to read or watch, and be willing to help his/her family or community at an appropriate level will be learning plenty in the new few weeks.

The old ‘guide on the side’ idea applies here, in spades—teachers who have contact with students need not put on their lab coats and shoot dramatic videos. What they can do is help kids unleash and pursue their own discipline-based interests. They can stay in touch. They can listen.

Teachers have been describing their struggles and fears—whether to prepare for time away or push to get their state or district to close, NOW—eloquently. They are wondering whether they will see their students again, and when. One teacher described yesterday as ‘surreal.’ There is lots of black humor, and also lots of tears.

They are wondering if this global pandemic will be a turning point in our national understanding of how we are—and will forever be—global citizens. Will this experience finally bring the United States into line with other first-world countries in strengthening the safety net and providing universal health care? Teachers—first responders, in so many ways– want to know.

From a teacher in New York City (who believes she must remain anonymous):

Many teachers and staff feel like guinea pigs and disposable right now during a global pandemic because our society didn’t have protections and a safety net for young people in poverty, in this failed healthcare system. We teachers know this every day as we go teach and do our jobs and serve young people, which I love doing and which has been my calling since I was six. Teachers do everything, and this is yet another case where everything we do isn’t enough, AND we are expected to carry the burden for a larger society that won’t carry the burden.

Stay safe. Stay in touch. Wash your hands, teachers. We see you.


The Virus that Ate My Field Trip

For more than a dozen years, I took my 8th grade bands on an extensive field trip, near the end of the school year. The trips were always out-of-state (or out of the country), involving two or three nights in a hotel, plus a symphony performance, cultural experiences like museums, university-based skills clinics, plays and musicals, a formal, white-tablecloth dinner out–and someplace for my students to play a concert.

We selected the destination (Chicago, Cleveland, Toronto, St. Louis, Washington D.C.) in the fall, and raised funds all year. Lots of parents paid to chaperone. The destination became a kind of instructional theme—we studied the blues in our Chicago years, and all-American composers and patriotic music in the D.C. year.

Nothing I’ve done since has ever been a worthier use of instructional time, or a better learning experience, than taking 135, more or less, 13/14-year olds and perhaps 25 parents out in the wider world for a musical adventure. Playing in a Chicago jazz club (at 2:00 p.m., with pitchers of Coke), wandering the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, putting on a concert for veterans in St. Louis, the Phantom of the Opera in Toronto—all good.

The Band Boosters made sure, financially, that everyone went—and one year, we took a virus along with us.

It was some kind of norovirus, according to the local health department, which got into the act after we returned, contacted by a worried mother who thought perhaps her child had been poisoned. But no. All 164 people on the trip got to experience the rapid spread of a virulent virus, up close and personal.

We weren’t 30 minutes out of town, when Bus B (the second of four motor coaches) radioed that one of my flute players was vomiting in the bus bathroom. Her brother had been sick the night before. She said she ‘felt better now.’

My assistant principal was on the trip (on Bus B) and he thought we’d be OK. He isolated her, lying down on the back seat of the bus. Nobody wanted to lose an hour by turning back, and she begged us not to make her go home.

We’d left school around 7:00 p.m. The plan was to drive through the night (approximately a 12-hour drive), have breakfast, then play a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial the next morning, followed by time to explore the Vietnam Memorial, before checking into the Washington Hilton in the afternoon to dress for a seafood dinner at the Baltimore Harbor, followed by a Symphony concert in the evening.

Of course, even though the bus lights were turned out at 10:00 p.m. and students instructed to snooze or at least rest, that didn’t happen. Kids were keyed up (musician joke). They ate snacks and goofed around and lowered their resistance right to the ground. The concert in the morning was the only thing that went really well all day. I have a great photo of the three bands together, in red, white and blue T-shirts, playing their hearts out, with Lincoln benignly watching them from the shadows behind.

By the time the buses arrived at the Baltimore Harbor, a couple dozen Bus B kids were sick. In the grass, in the water. And—during dinner—in the bushes outside the restaurant. My assistant principal offered to take all the sick kids back to the hotel (an hour away). The bus driver got lost and ended up driving aimlessly around Washington D.C. as students were violently ill, an experience my AP described as similar to being in a Fellini movie.

Meanwhile, back in Baltimore, kids who’d felt fine during dinner were rushing up the aisle at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall to despoil the bathrooms there. We did another triage on the three remaining buses. At that point—before anyone had been confined to a hotel room—all the sick people were Bus B students and parents. But by the next morning, the virus had spread to Bus C. At this point, perhaps 50 people were ill, both students and parents.

For the next couple of days, as more people got sick (and some recovered), the field trip became improvisatory. We took healthy kids outdoors, to the Mall, for games and walks. Our bus drivers bravely took those who were well on driving tours to see the White House, Ford’s Theatre, Arlington Cemetery and monuments. Half the chaperones stayed at the hotel and tended the sick.

We cancelled whole-group, ticketed activities in favor of hanging out, on buses or outdoors. The weather was beautiful, which really helped, and we were in Washington D.C. after all. It was a better solution than putting dozens of actively queasy kids on buses to share their symptoms all the way to Michigan.

The hotel and its staffers were incredibly nice. They brought trays of ginger ale to infested rooms. They offered free long-distance phone calls to kids who wanted to contact their moms—this was in 1998, before kids had cell phones. I was carrying a cell—’for emergencies’– but it worked only sporadically in reaching Michigan. I had to call a couple of parents of seriously ill kids, as well. Chaperones kidded: First the Reagan shooting, and now this—but I have strongly positive feelings about the so-called Hinckley Hilton, to this day.

By the 4th day, close to 100 people were sick or had been sick. While it was a nasty bug, it passed through (sorry) expeditiously. Most people were asymptomatic after 24 hours or so, moving into the ‘limp dishrag’ phase of the disease. We decided to stop on the way home, as planned (and paid for), to see Luray Caverns.

I hadn’t been in favor of seeing the caverns initially—not really a cultural thing—but the stop was a godsend. It was something to do together, and the caves were strangely beautiful. Even though there were a few sick kids who opted to stay on Bus D while we toured underground, it felt like we had survived something together, as a group.

Observation: the disease spread predictably. While everyone on Bus B eventually fell ill, and most of Bus C did, about half of Bus D was affected and only one person on Bus A got sick (and she was the mother of a boy who was riding on Bus B). Kids were housed four to a room—and roommates rode the same bus. If you were in the room with a sick person, you got sick.

Pretty much textbook for viral transmission. Which is why you have to feel sorry for the people who were innocently caught on a cruise ship with the corona virus.

Once we were home, most parents were just glad to coddle their kids who had lived through an intense illness without them and listen sympathetically to their horror stories. There was underground conversation about the decisions we made, I know (and I was very happy that the assistant principal had been on the trip, to deal with the more out-there accusations). There were unkind things said about the girl who was ill first. But we got through it.

At the Honors Assembly at the end of the year, students and parents presented me with a hand-painted bucket labeled ‘Washington, DC, 1998,’ which drew lots of laughs.

But—I have to say that surviving a cluster virus with a large group of students is no laughing matter. As the COVID-19 epidemic rolls across the country, there will be lots of low-information speculation on what schools and teachers should have done differently, no matter what decision is made.

This is where campaigning against public education becomes a public health issue. For some kids, school may well be the safest place to be, virus or no virus. We need to trust our schools and teachers to do their best. We need to hope for better information from our government. This will, I fear, soon become a matter of ultimate concern.


Public Education: a Love Story

This is a very personal story.

There are a thousand reasons to admire and support public education—beginning with the idea itself: a free, high-quality public good, offered to all children, a societal building block. There are community schools, with wraparound services and creative magnet schools to nurture special talents and interests. There are new pilot programs and old-faithful heritage programs and Friday night lights. There are special services for kids with a range of disabilities. No one can be turned away. It’s all good.

When the neighborhood is sinking rapidly, businesses leaving and families fleeing, there is good old Oak Avenue Elementary, its playground and parking lot fenced and gated—but still open. Public schools are often the safest places for children, where they can be warm, fed, and cared for, and read a story. Public education may be messed up and threatened these days, in the land of the free, but its noble genesis and its persistence make it one of our best ideas.

This, however, is MY story, the reason why I will defend public schools until my last breath.

My allegiance to public education came first from my dad, who—ironically—received nearly all of his formal education in a Christian school. Not a Catholic school (they’re two different things, where I come from)—a Betsy DeVos-type, all-white Christian school, in western Michigan.

This was a long time ago—in the 1920s and 1930s. My grandparents, who had five children and not much money, scrimped and sacrificed so their children could go to school with the children of other Dutch immigrants, a school with rigid discipline, and very specific expectations.

My grandparents had no compunctions about a school where the children of Italian and Polish immigrants–likely Roman Catholic–or children with dark skin weren’t welcome, a school that used the Bible as text and began each day with prayer. No school dances. No movies downtown. No getting out of your church clothes on Sunday afternoons because you were going to church again on Sunday evening. Better-off families expected to offer Christian schoolteachers a nice chicken dinner on pre-arranged Sundays.

My dad transferred to the public high school in 9th grade and dropped out at the beginning of his senior year, going to work full time and never returning to school. He’d skipped a grade in elementary school, so he was barely 16. It wasn’t a big secret around our house—he claimed he left school because he found it too easy and boring, and he didn’t like being bossed around. My mother used to say that he was the smartest person she knew, and also the touchiest—so perhaps it was true.

My cousins went to Christian school. My brother, sister and I went to public school. When I was in kindergarten, my grandparents offered to pay tuition for me to go to Christian school, but my parents were adamant: their kids were going to public school.

My mother, also from a Dutch immigrant family, went to public school. There was some tension between the two families, centered mostly around who was holier and more upright. It seemed as though letting your children ‘mix’ with God knows who in public schools was irresponsible. Dangerous.

Eventually, my folks moved us to the less prosperous outskirts of town, where there was a K-8 school but no high school. They joined a committee to raise local bond monies to build a high school. I remember my mother canvassing the neighborhood, encouraging neighbors to vote yes, so my baby boomer posse, riding our bikes on the new sidewalks, could have our own neighborhood high school.

I graduated from that high school—with its beautiful auditorium, two gymnasiums, a bowl stadium and a courtyard—in its seventh graduating class. My mom was active in the PTA, and my dad ran the chains beside the field at football games.

My mother also spearheaded a drive called ‘Dollars for Scholars’ which provided no-interest loans to graduates who went on to post-secondary education. Although neither of my parents went to college or saw a college degree as necessary or even desirable–they thought I should go to beauty school–they co-signed when I took out a loan to supplement the scholarships I got from Central Michigan University. Two hundred dollars—a figure that seems ludicrous now, but was the extent of my college borrowing, easily paid back on my generous $9050 salary when I got a teaching job.

It was my teachers who were adamant—I had to go to college. My band teacher, especially, convinced me that I had talent and smarts and belonged on campus, away from home.

Throughout my K-16 career, and even my graduate degree—all in public schools and universities—I got a good, comprehensive education. Most of my teachers, in the 1950s and 1960s, were caring and enthusiastic—and the ones who weren’t taught me other lessons. A small fraction of my HS classmates was college-bound, but that didn’t mean our teachers weren’t demanding. They were. I went to a blue-collar high school, but I was well-prepared for college work. And all of us were educated to be productive citizens—basic skills, a work ethic and the requirements of civic engagement.

At the university, I don’t remember a single graduate assistant teaching any of my classes; my professors were degreed and tenured, and generally worth paying attention to. Friends who went to more prestigious universities joked about undergraduate classes being taught by unqualified, green TAs, while their famous professors were remote, standing in front of massive lecture halls. That was not my experience.

Those were different times, however, and I went through K-16 as part of a huge same-age, post-war bubble. But I clearly remember decades when public education was respected and affordable, and K-12 schools were the center of tens of thousands of communities across the nation.

So what happened?

Jan Resseger says:

If you haven’t been paying such close attention to the education wars, you might not realize that policy around education and the public schools has for two decades been the locus of experimentation with the power and reach of billionaire philanthropists seizing a giant public sector institution from the professionals who have been running the schools for generations. The billionaires’ idea has been that strategic investment by data wonks and venture philanthropists can turn around school achievement among poor children.

There have always been students in our schools for whom English is a second language. There are chronically under-resourced schools, as well as serious inequities between schools for white children and those in neighborhoods where black and brown children live. There have been failed busing schemes and teacher shortages and Why Johnny Can’t Read. We’ve been tinkering with the structural problems in public education since Horace Mann. Everybody thinks they know how to ‘fix’ public schools.

But only recently has the general public been subjected to abject crapola like this: Public Schools are Teaching Our Children to Hate America. (Short version: Well-known and well-funded education gadfly blames American students’ lack of skills and knowledge on a single NY Times supplement.)

I hate to use the phrase ‘War on Public Schools’–but here we are. We may be losing the war, too, as parents choose ‘new and different and heavily advertised’ over repairing and refurbishing a foundational institution once functional, even beautiful. We have ample evidence of the destruction.

Still. I owe who and what I am to public education—and know the same is true for the thousands of students I taught, and the millions who are learning in classrooms, well-equipped or derelict, as I write this.

Love your public schools, and they will reward you.



Women Read. Women Write. Women Vote.

One of the more extraordinary end-of-2019 retrospective/resolution columns was Leonard Pitts’s announcement of his decision to read only female authors in 2020. Pitts, a self-proclaimed avid reader, realized, a couple years back, that he’d read 48 books that year—and only one of them was written by a woman.

What made the piece memorable was not Pitts’s determination to read more women writers; it was his utter surprise, having done the math, at his gendered reading habits. I am a huge fan of Leonard Pitts and his writing—and reading this passage made me admire him and his work even more:

Without realizing it, I had been filtering female authors out of my reading list. It was a jolting discovery for an avowed feminist, but it reminded me how insidious biases can be. And that, for as much as people love to proclaim their absolute lack of prejudice, what they usually mean is that they do not go around thinking mean thoughts about racial, religious or gender Others. Which is well and fine, except that our most powerful and consequential prejudices tend to be the ones we carry without even knowing we do. They lead us to assumptions we make without realizing we’ve made them, actions we take without quite knowing why.

I have written often about the fact that 75 to 80 percent of the PK-12 teacher workforce is female but most of the social media thought leaders, titled administrators and researchers, not to mention go-to education authors and speakers, are male.  

I’ve been on school hiring committees, conference panels, and all kinds of planning teams where the Pitts principle—unconscious filtering of female names and work done by women—prevailed. It’s not as if the men I was working with were overtly sexist. Most of them, like Pitts, wanted to be seen as supportive and unbiased. They had absolute confidence in their ability to be evenhanded and equitable.  Yet, they instinctively reached for the male writer, idea, speaker or candidate—without really thinking any more about it.

Their reasons are predictable. He’s my favorite author. The male candidate has more experience. I’d like to program music written by women, but choosing high-quality literature is more important. I really like the way Guy X speaks—he’s hilarious, and our audience needs to end the day on a light note. I think the parents would prefer that we hire a man (from a principal, on hiring a high school band teacher).

Want to wade ankle-deep in well-meant but ultimately misogynist commentary on the biggest contest in America right now? Check out the Twitter pushback on the burst of enthusiasm for Elizabeth Warren’s breakout performance at the Democratic debate on Wednesday night. Yes, Warren kicked butt, proved she could stand up to puffed-ego men, and had the best answers. But, but… guys—other guys, not me of course, maybe guys in Wisconsin?—won’t vote for her.

Okay, dude.

But I digress. This is a blog about who we read, who inspires us, whose unique voices and perspectives change our world view—or simply entertain us. Leonard Pitts promised to share his revelatory moments (and also was flooded with recommendations of women writers he absolutely needed to read). His commitment made me wonder:

What if an organized group of people made a similar, conscious commitment? I’m only watching movies directed by women this year. I will only choose female physicians for the rest of my life. I will only vote for women candidates.

Does the gender of an author—or speaker, leader or candidate—matter? Aren’t we past all that? Unfortunately, nope. As Brittany Cooper writes in a superb piece on identity politics: Wanting a woman to rise to the top of an almost all-male pack is not a position that needs defending.

Wanting women to be represented in the Oscars, or in major book awards, on conductors’ podiums or in corner offices everywhere is not a position that needs defending, either. We can all get behind free, non-restricted speech for women, and elevating women’s ideas and creativity. Even if it’s just one man’s personal reading list. Thanks, Leonard Pitts, for putting your money where your mouth and library card are.

We are escaping the cold Michigan winter for a few more days, hiding out in an historic neighborhood in Phoenix. I have read 18 books in 2020, so far. Nine by men, nine by women, mostly fiction. I’ve especially liked ‘The Nickel Boys’ by Colson Whitehead and ‘Olive, Again’ by Elizabeth Strout. I seldom think about an author’s gender, and because I enjoy multiple genres, I usually get a good mix without trying.

My professional library, on the other hand—some 200 books on education-related topics—is heavily male. I know because I counted one time. There are reasons, again—many of the books were not chosen by me (someone else’s pick for a course or book chat), many education classics are written by men because the history of education was dominated by male thinking and goals, and, well, you have to have Dewey on your shelf. Thank goodness for Diane Ravitch.

Pitts says reading unfamiliar authors will push him to examine his assumptions:

How many times have I argued that rooting out ingrained biases requires a willingness to venture beyond your comfort zones? In getting out of your comfort zones, you expand them, a process that is ultimately less about abandoning old friends than discovering new ones. 

I guess the question is whether we really want to explore those biases and comfort zones. Isn’t that what education is ultimately supposed to do?


Getting Rid of Gym Class

In 2006, Michigan established a ‘merit curriculum’—a set of HS graduation requirements for every student in MI. There was a lot of fanfare around this standardizing and toughening up, with everyone from the governor to local representatives crowing about rigor and high expectations. Here’s the official blurb:

A high school diploma in Michigan will soon say a lot more about the graduate whose name it bears. It will tell employers that our students have mastered the reading, writing, and math skills required for success in the workplace. It will tell college and university admissions officers and career and technical schools the student is ready for the rigors of post-secondary education. It will tell the world — Michigan is committed to having the best-educated workforce.

Many large, suburban high schools in Michigan already had similar graduation requirements—four math credits, four ELA credits, three science and three specific social studies credits, plus two credits in a foreign language and one apiece in the arts, physical education and health, plus an online or technology class. Other schools, especially smaller and rural schools, were compelled to re-jigger their master schedules, course sequences and staffing.

When state legislatures start tinkering with professional work that used to be the strict purview of school districts and their on-site leadership, weird things happen. One of the big shockwaves of the Merit Curriculum was: Everybody takes algebra! Not only regular old, used-to-be-9th-grade algebra, but also Algebra II. Because that was the ticket to the best-educated workforce, evidently.

Schools pointed out that there was a stratum of students who might benefit from math courses other than algebra—personal finance, practical statistics or career-focused math—but the legislature responded with snotty remarks about teachers not believing their students could do higher math, soft bigotry, low expectations, weak math teaching and so on.

Other districts sighed and divided their Algebra I content into two-year sequences (same stuff, just slower) for kids who would have otherwise been scheduled into Practical Math. Some shifted from semesters to trimesters, so if a freshman failed the first trimester of Algebra, they could take it again in the same year.

And—needless to say—teachers rolled their eyes and did what they always do: adjusted. The Merit Curriculum was just another Big Education Idea that sounded good—success in the workplace!—and it was their job to move kids forward.

Because the Merit Curriculum has now been around for 14 years, it has been tweaked, amended and fine-tuned by districts and the Department of Ed. Now, the legislature wants to have another go; they’re suggesting that maybe Physical Education is negotiable.

The proposed bill also eliminates the arts credit requirement, the foreign language requirements, and Algebra II. The bill’s sponsor—a Republican—sounds just like the educators who warned, back in 2006, that the MC was going to overturn a lot of carefully calibrated, school-based curriculum development and, you know, meeting of student needs. Here’s what Jon Bumstead, the bill’s principal sponsor said:

“Lansing politicians and bureaucrats have decided that all children must fit into the same mold,” adding that Lansing laws take away local control of education and “micromanage” districts. 

“Michigan does not trust our teachers, principals and superintendents to use their knowledge and expertise to teach our children,” he said. 


But the education community pointed all that out fourteen years ago, and the legislature decided they knew better.

Most of the linked article discusses the benefits of the Physical Education and Health requirement—fitness and weight control, knowledge about opioid abuse, depression and suicide prevention. Advocates make the strongest possible case for retaining the P.E. requirements—life and death.

The article’s headline calls physical education ‘gym’—but I know P.E. teachers have worked hard to get past a ‘throw out the balls’ stereotype and focus on personal fitness and critical health issues. What they do is very important.

But pitting disciplines against each other is an old education policy trick. The more requirements imposed, the less freedom students have to select courses that interest them–and the fewer electives offered.

It’s a delicate balance—adding a two-year foreign language requirement meant an immediate shortage of those teachers, while adding any new requirements made it increasingly difficult for kids to take choir or orchestra or a visual arts sequence for four years. Students with high-speed internet connections at home could knock off their tech requirement in the summer; students without tech capacity lost another hour of electives at school, using the computers there. Career and vocational classes suffered—and soon, there were shortages of entry-level technical and industrial workers.

This core argument—how to best prepare students for the future, given the resources available—is evergreen. The Committee of Ten (ten men, of course) sketched it out in 1892, and 25 years later, the Commission on Reorganizing Secondary Education found it necessary to develop new seven Cardinal Principles.

And we’ve been fighting about these questions ever since.

At the heart of the issue are our longstanding mental models of educational scarcity and standardization. We don’t have enough hours in the day, or the resources to offer all that students might find interesting or important, once they get to high school. We are more than wiling to take choice out of teenagers’ hands or demand a ‘higher bar’ so ‘diplomas mean something’—a rhetorical statement if there ever was one. We’re also worried about our personal educational turf.

Should HS students be required to take Physical Education? Don’t ask me. My opinion is biased.

Maybe we should ask students what they think they need, and let them refine their personal education plans, year by year. It’s another planning nightmare, but it might tell us something about what our students find worthwhile.

At the very least, this is work that belongs to a school and its professional staff. Not the legislature.


The Effective Classroom. Do You Know It When You See It?

Over the past couple of days, there’s been a flurry of pushback against this tweet from Tom Rath: Classrooms are such an overlooked part of the sitting epidemic. We need to blow up our thinking about the best ways for kids and adults to learn in groups. We simply learn better when we move more.

Daniel Pink responded: Offices are adopting standing desks & walking meetings. But classrooms still make students sit all day. To improve, consider:

  • Regular breaks to stand & stretch
  • Small-group activities that require moving to switch desks
  • More open space & adjustable desks.

Most of the tweetback looks like this: Obviously, these guys have never seen MY tiny classroom and/or the crappy 1960s-style desks that my students are compelled to use, let alone the crumbling concrete square that we call the playground. Some teacher feedback is defensive: MY students take brain breaks every 45 minutes, to stretch and oxygenate! There’s a lot of cynicism: More open space! Adjustable desks! As if! Hahahahahhaha!

There’s an underlying sense that once again, schools and teachers are being painted as 19th century anachronisms, unwilling to change in response to new ‘thinking’ (whose thinking?) about learning. It’s our fault, somehow, that education is ‘stuck’ in an ‘industrial model’ of straight rows and straight content delivery, and could really benefit by…I don’t know? Switching desks every 20 minutes? Walkabout lessons?

What’s missing from this discussion is a clear idea of what it is, exactly, that teachers are trying to do. If the ultimate goal is keeping kids continuously bubbling and bursting with creativity, well then it really might be a good idea (if we could afford it, which we can’t) to seat each 7-yr old on a bouncy ball and let ‘er rip. As any parent who’s ever hosted a birthday party knows, lots of movement is just the ticket for creative thinking and youthful innovation.

What drives me nuts is anybody’s blanket assumption that they can look at a classroom and evaluate what’s happening there on the basis of how adjustable the desks are or how often the students get out of them. It’s amazingly difficult to assess lesson effectiveness or the quality of student learning just by mere observation. Here’s an example.

When I was in graduate school, in Dr. Mary Kennedy’s seminar on teaching practice at Michigan State University, she showed us three unedited videos of teaching from a long-term research project she’d conducted, then turned into a book, Inside Teaching: How Classroom Life Undermines Reform.

The first video was a young woman teaching a small group of high school boys wearing navy blazers and ties. She was conducting a Q & A session, reading questions from a prepared list, about a novel that the whole class read. She stood at the front of the room, calling on boys seated in semi-circle around her, one at a time. Most of their answers were a phrase or sentence. There were no disagreements, and no interaction between students, all of whom seemed prepared for the lesson, if not excited about it.

The second video featured a male teacher with a big mustache in a Hawaiian shirt. The students were middle schoolers, and were working in clusters of 5-6 on some kind of science investigation, using a single microscope per group. He was circulating, pointing at their lab reports—you sure about the answer on number five?—and occasionally snapping his fingers at an off-task student or pulling kids who had left their tables back to work. The room was noisy, because the groups were close together, and there were bursts of laughter. At one point, the teacher clapped his hands, which caused the room to settle. He asked them to reconsider one of the slides they were looking at, with new information he provided, asking “Does that change your conclusion?”. The noise level to rose again, as they turned back to re-examine their work.

In the third video, the students were upper elementary age, seated at tables, and were following set routines.  Class! the teacher called out. Yes? they responded. The routines were repeated, with the teacher calling explicit directions: Turn to your right-side partner! Talk about the definition! Write your answer! Class! Yes? Eyes up here! Raise your hand if you chose A! Turn to your left-side partner! Read your answers! Use the word in a sentence. Eyes up here! Say the word! Say it again!

After watching all three videos, Kennedy asked us: Who’s the best teacher? Who’s the worst?

It was an interesting discussion. The seminar was composed of graduate-level folks with different work experiences in education, and from different nations. When Kennedy asked to identify the best teacher, best learning, in our humble opinions, there was a completely mixed response.

Many of the foreign students found the second video appalling. (Note to the anti-sitting crowd: it was the only video where students were on their feet or moving or speaking their own thoughts.) Some found the third video, where students repeated chants and actions led by a teacher, to be rote and mechanical, while others found it intriguing—could you really get kids to behave in lockstep like that? There was mixed opinion on the first video—lots of classroom teachers finding it ‘unrealistic’ and ‘flat’ while others thought it an ideal model.

The correct answer to the question is, of course: We have no idea which video snippet represents the ‘best’ (or worst) teaching or classroom model, or whether students in that classroom learned anything worthwhile, or applicable to their lives.

We don’t know what the teachers were hoping to accomplish, either: What were their learning goals? Why were those goals relevant and critical in the learning cycle? Why did they choose that particular delivery model, and how was it appropriate for those learning goals?

Maybe the most important missing piece of information: We don’t know the students. We don’t know what they brought to the lesson, what it’s like to teach them, day in and day out, what their prospects and potential look like. Only someone who’s spent some time with them and cares about their learning is able to assess their growth and needs. Someone who knows the context and can exercise judgment.

So maybe it’s not really ‘time to blow up our thinking about the best way for kids and adults to learn in groups.’ Maybe adjustable desks or strolling lessons won’t change anything.

But don’t expect non-educators to stop tweeting about it.


The Soft Bigotry of Hard Grading

Whoever wrote the phrase ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’ back in the early days of the Bush (W) administration, was a genius. In one nifty sound bite, the blame for the so-called achievement gap was placed squarely on the shoulders of educators, those barrel-bottom, unimaginative civil servants slogging along in low-paying careers.

Not only were veteran teachers unable to conceive of their students’ success (presumably, getting into a competitive-admissions college)—they were also bigots, kind of. Perhaps they hadn’t read 25 books on racism, been hooked on The Wire, or stayed for two grueling years in a no-excuses charter before heading off to Goldman Sachs. They were just stuck in those dead-end teaching jobs.

Early in the ‘reform’ days—a couple decades ago—Disruptor types were prone to proclaiming that high expectations for all students were, in fact, a positive disruption to what they assumed was the low and unimaginative level of teaching practice endemic in public education. Especially in schools filled with kids who took home backpacks full of peanut butter and whole wheat crackers every Friday.

If only teachers had faith in their students, cracking the academic whip and believing they could someday rise above their circumstances and excel—well, then things would be different. What we needed was new—high and rigorous—standards, better aligned curricula, more sorting-out data. We needed ‘choice’ to remove kids from low-expectations government schools.

And of course, better teachers, teachers who embodied these great expectations and were willing to rip up unacceptable assignments. Even if it made kids cry.

The ‘low expectations’ trope became a thing. The 74 was still printing pieces about it, 18 years later, using phrases like ‘complacency is also still alive and well’ and ‘having teachers who were confident that their students would complete college made a real difference in their college attainment.’

The 74’s suggestions for improvement? You won’t be surprised: higher standards, more testing and raising the cutoff scores, rigorous curriculum—and better teachers, the kind who expected more. Nary a mention of better health care, better jobs with higher wages, better childcare options, better support networks for people in poverty. Or less racism.

When I read that Fordham was releasing a new report entitled Great Expectations: The Impact of Rigorous Grading Practices on Student Achievement, I assumed it would be more of the same: a screed against ‘grade inflation’ that urged teachers to use the threat of bad grades as ‘motivator’ in getting kids to Learn More (and score better on high-stakes tests, quantitative ‘proof’ of learning).

Turns out I was right.  Here’s the first paragraph of the introductory summary:
We know from previous survey research that teachers who hold high expectations for all of their students significantly increase the odds that those young people will go on to complete high school and college. One indicator of teachers’ expectations is their approach to grading—specifically, whether they subject students to more or less rigorous grading practices. Unfortunately, “grade inflation” is pervasive in U.S. high schools, as evidenced by rising GPAs even as SAT scores and other measures of academic performance have held stable or fallen. The result is that a “good” grade is no longer a clear marker of knowledge and skills.

Here’s how my 30-odd years’ worth of grading some 5000 students (at least 35K individual grades) squares with the statement above:

  • High expectations are a good thing, all right—but they are not commensurate with giving more unsatisfactory marks. In fact, being a ‘tough grader’ often means that the teacher is not meeting a substantial chunk of kids where they are, then moving them forward. The easiest thing in the world is giving a low or failing grade and blaming it on the student. The hard thing is figuring out how to help that child achieve at the level he’s capable of.
  • The longer I taught, the higher my expectations were, as I learned what students at different developmental levels were able to do—but that was not reflected in the grades I gave. I assumed it was because I had become a better teacher and was getting better results as my teacher tool bag filled. I could see with my own eyes that I had underestimated what my students could learn and apply, if they chose to work at it.
  • I seriously doubt that teachers’ expectations—as defined here by more rigorous grading– have much, if any, impact on kids’ completing college, or even high school. A teacher who encourages a student to think big, to push herself, to reach for the stars and so on, may indeed have a long-term positive effect on a student, especially one with self-doubts. Setting students on a path to higher education and life success is a long-term, K-12 project, one that can’t be accomplished by teachers alone and certainly not by dropping the grading scale a few points to teach them a lesson.
  • Grades aren’t real, although the argument can be made that they’re more real than a standardized test score (which the report also uses to make the claim that ‘raising the bar’ has a salutary effect on student outcomes). No matter how schools try to standardize grading, the human judgment factor creeps in. As it should. Students see their grades as something ‘given’ by the teacher, no matter how many times teachers insist that grades are ‘earned’ and can be accurately, precisely, mathematically granted.*
  • Grade inflation isn’t real either. I am always amused by disgruntled edu-grouches who insist that Harvard, say, is awash in grade inflation. When an institution turns away 94.6% of the students who have the temerity to apply, why are we shocked when the crème de la crème who are admitted get all A’s?
  • If we were doing our jobs better, by Fordham’s metrics—following rigorous standards, choosing engaging and challenging curricula, assessing frequently—wouldn’t the desired outcome be better grades?
  • The worst kind of grading practice is the bell curve. Curving grades has gone out of fashion, but you still see its aftereffects in reports like this that bemoan the overly high percentage of students whose work is deemed good or superior. If you’ve ever had a class filled with go-getters (and I’ve had many), you’ll know it’s possible to teach to the highest standards and have every child in the class performing at a high level. Someone does NOT have to fail. What the researchers here seem to be endorsing is a curve where students in high-poverty schools are not compared with their peers, but with kids in advantaged schools—then taking the top-scoring kids down a peg or two, for their own good.
  • Bad grades don’t motivate most kids to try harder, although this seems to be the sweeping conclusion of the report, which studied 8th and 9th Algebra students in North Carolina. The researchers noted that students in advantaged schools were more likely to make gains when receiving a lower grade. There are lots of charts and graphs showing how teachers who give lower grades initially cause an uptick in standardized assessment scores eventually. This is more likely to happen if that teacher went to a ‘selective’ college or is an experienced veteran teacher, by the way. As for the poor students who go to rural or urban schools—well, they get good grades that don’t reflect what they’ve really learned. Therefore, maybe we should give them lower grades, too, as an early reality check.
  • I repeat: bad grades don’t usually motivate kids, unless there’s someone at home checking up on them, they plan on going to college and care about their GPA. In that case, a lower grade may serve as a heads-up that more effort may be necessary. Do 8th grade Algebra students and students in advantaged schools where most kids are college bound fit into that category? Yes.

Students who do well in school also know how to study effectively– or seek extra help when something is difficult for them. They’re not as likely to think that the tough-grading Algebra teacher doesn’t like them, or that they’ve finally found a subject they can’t successfully master. Lots of previous successes have given them the confidence to pursue a challenging subject.

What struck me about the report was the facile conclusion that a subset of (higher-achieving) students was motivated by a lower-than-expected grade into learning more.

Extrapolating that into a declaration that tougher grading would lead to higher achievement is giving way to much credence to a cranky-pants theory, the one where a kick in the pants is what kids these days really need.


*In my 30+ year career, I taught math for two years. Prior to that, I collected various data to develop and tweak a defensible grading process for teaching instrumental and vocal music. Music is a challenging discipline in which to assess using hard numbers, trust me; I envied my math teacher friends whose grades were always clean, clear percentages. Then I taught math and discovered—eh, you can juke the stats in math, too, through assignment weighting, partner quizzes (recommended by our math series), late assignment policies, re-takes, homework evaluation policies—and so much more. Grading—in any subject or level– is not science. Never has been.


Who is Goliath? And Why Does He Need to Be Taken Out?

Diane Ravitch’s book—Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools—arrived at my house two days ago. Like all of her other volumes, this one is already highlighted, underlined and sticky-noted to a fare-thee-well. (Apologies to school librarians everywhere.)

Ravitch’s books are like that—they’re full of juicy, provocative information and the author tells it like she sees it. When she changes her mind, she tells you that, as well. Like The Death and Life of the Great American School System (2010) and Reign of Error (2013), Goliath is time-sensitive, including the most recent teacher strikes, elections and civic rebellions, and what they accomplished. Ravitch takes the temperature of the current education zeitgeist and finds reason for hope.

What’s happening to public education in America?

Ravitch is perhaps our keenest observer, and when it comes to strong, substantiated opinions, she doesn’t hold back. Absorbing a Ravitch book gives the reader a summation of facts, players and events that put disparate events and opinion into a comprehensive framework, a detailed portrait of right now.  Think of Death and Life as a warning, Reign of Error as blistering critique–and Goliath as we’re mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.

There are a couple of outstanding chapters in the book, which could serve as background for discussion groups or reading assignments for education coursework. Chapter Six, Resistance to High-Stakes Testing, is as good a synopsis as I’ve read on how inexact data from standardized testing became Truth to a nation that had been told their schools (not their schools, of course—those were OK) were failing.

Chapter Seven, on how rewards and punishments don’t work to motivate students, includes a lot of widely misunderstood ideas about how to get the best from each student that self-proclaimed reformers seem to fervently believe, and veteran teachers know are hooey.

Ravitch goes much further than her previous books on debunking the efficacy and usefulness of Common Core State (sic) Standards—and spends a great deal more time explaining how the charter school movement has undeniably damaged public education and fostered segregation. In the six-plus years since her previous book, a lot more damning information about charter schools—scandals, waste and harm done to children—has emerged. I don’t see this as shift in Ravitch’s convictions, but a reflection of the passage of time, allowing privatizers and scammers to invent new ways to cash in using public monies, and investigative journalism to start reporting on what’s really happening behind all the smoke and rhetoric.

In short, it’s a really good book. It would be invaluable to anyone who wants a rundown on how education policy has morphed, over the past two and a half decades, from a locally controlled, state-influenced institution subject to incremental,  community-driven change–to a thoroughly commercialized venture heavily influenced by would-be ‘innovators’ and a federal power-grab.

Ravitch has done us all a favor by tracing the dark roots and substantial financial support for chipping away at neighborhood schools and public education. As always, follow the money.

A confession: I was dying to know what Ravitch was aiming for with the title.  Although it’s not mentioned in the book, a well-known education writer floated the idea, eight years ago, that Big Powerful Teacher Unions were suppressing scrappy little upstart education ‘reformers.’

He referred to the unions and their independent-teacher minions–full disclosure: I was a minion–as Goliath in this battle. Whereas the Gates-funded/Broad-funded/Walton-funded nonprofits and charters popping up like mushrooms, homing in on the untapped K-12 marketplace, were the Davids, building a brave new education world one slingshot at a time.

It was pure reverse-projection baloney, of course, but it caused a splash in the reformy sector, wherein the likes of Teach for America and Stand for Children seemed pleased to be associated with nimble, data-slinging David rather than lumbering, hapless Goliath.

Ravitch renames the players in her first chapter, reclaiming the word ‘reformer’ for those who genuinely wish to invest in public schools. The folks who want to crush traditional public education, she says, are really Disruptors. They’re vandals, not innovators. The teachers, parents and school leaders who want to preserve America’s best idea—a free, high-quality, fully public education for every child in America, no matter what they bring to the table—are the Resistance.

Ravitch provides plenty of information and examples of how the real Davids in this fight, the Resistors, are making headway, on dozens of fronts. She is unsparing in her criticism of those who would damage or destroy public education for private profit. This has not gone down well with those who have invested in reforms and trendy disruptions.

There are not many people—Disruptors, if you will—who have empowered school privatization and are now willing to admit that their ROI yields are unimpressive and propped up by shaky data. Especially since those who have been educating kids, doing the work all along—teachers and school leaders—could have told them what will and will not make a difference.  Resistors have studied school improvement, up close and personal, for more than a century. It can be done, but it won’t involve destruction. Just more hard work.

Diane Ravitch has re-framed the argument and provided evidence that the great ship of public education may be turning around. That is a great gift. Thank you.


Why Aren’t More Teachers of the Year Leading Social Change?

A friend just sent me a link to an article about Kelly Holstine, Minnesota Teacher of the Year, who, earlier this week, knelt, a la Colin Kaepernick, during the national anthem at an NCAA Football Championship game. Holstine said (in a tweet):

Honored as State Teachers of the Year at NCAA Champ FB Game. Given platform to stand up for marginalized and oppressed people. Like many before, I respectfully kneeled during Nat’l Anthem because, “No one is free until we are all free” (MLK).

The interesting thing about my friend is that he—like me—is a former Michigan Teacher of the Year. We’ve had a number of discussions about whether the State Teacher of the Year honorific gives any recipient license to use the title as a bully pulpit.

I say yes.

But I am guessing that a large majority of those recognized teachers, over the 60-odd years that there has been an organized State and National Teacher of the Year program, would disagree. At least, most would think it appropriate keep their personal beliefs under wraps during their tenure as TOY.

Because that’s what teachers are supposed to do, right? Be modestly grateful for acknowledgment of their hard-won excellence at a chicken dinner, then keep their opinions to themselves?

Holstine and the Kentucky Teacher of the Year, Jessica Duenas, also made waves for not attending the National Teacher of the Year ceremony in the White House last April, over which Betsy DeVos presided. Holstine and Duenas were explicit in the press: they chose not to attend because of Trump’s policies toward immigrants, the LGBTQ community, and other marginalized groups.

That hasn’t happened very often. No matter what their political persuasion, it’s hard for your garden variety teacher to not be a little starry-eyed at being flown to Washington D.C. or having her photo taken with the President. And, to be fair, the National Teacher of the Year program, which has long been sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers, does do some prep work with new TOYs: media training, policy workshops, and non-political opportunities for recognition (like the NCAA game).

There have been a handful of out-there State TOYs over the years. John Taylor Gatto was an iconoclast who promptly quit teaching after being named New York TOY in 1991, saying he no longer wished to ‘hurt kids’ while making a living. He wrote books excoriating public education and urging parents to homeschool. He was not, I’m sure, a popular guy in the mainstream education community of New York. I was MI TOY in 1993, and he was held up to my class as an example of What Not to Do.

Brett Bigham, Oregon TOY ’14, was a powerful spokesperson for both LGBTQ students and those with disabilities, and quickly became a compelling national figure—writing, speaking and collecting other awards for his advocacy. His district tried to control his public declarations, including identifying himself as a gay man. A protracted and ugly public fight ended with Bigham being fired, then winning a settlement over being unfairly let go. (There’s a lot more to his story. Click here.)

Bigham’s story is equal parts inspiring, infuriating– and intimidating. Most teachers instinctively realize that being named Teacher of the Year will put them on a different footing than their colleagues, and might result in being resented and ostracized while simultaneously being celebrated.

The 2018 National Teacher of the Year, Mandy Manning of Spokane, Washington, found a good balance between representing teachers in ways that her sponsors could tolerate, while not forgetting the needs of her students—refugees, immigrants and kids whose first language was not English.  She organized a ‘teach-in’ at the border in El Paso, Texas to protest child detention, after writing op-eds proved to be not enough. She was careful to say that it was not a partisan issue—both Republicans and Democrats could or should be concerned about the welfare of children brought to the border.

Manning (whom I deeply admire) pushed up against the limit of the things TOYs (who typically are under the watchful eye of someone invested in the policy-administration process) can get away with saying or doing. Whose watchful eye is managing a TOY? It varies from state to state, but program funders and State DOE officials are usually looking for a vibrant and engaging teacher whose speeches, op-eds and actions won’t ruffle feathers.

I know dozens of State TOYs, and almost without exception, they were definitely managed during their stretch as TOY, and reined in if their public statements crossed the line du jour. In 1993, that line was remarks about local control or school funding– but now, 27 years later, there are plenty of contentious issues for TOYs to write and speak about, from opting out of harmful testing to best-practice reading instruction to just why there aren’t enough teachers to go around and what to do about it.

Want to see a Teacher of the Year start a firestorm? Watch them shift the focus of their stump speech from beneficent ‘helping students’ in high-poverty schools to WHY we allow generational poverty to exist, and whose fault it is that entire communities still have poisoned water.

Twenty-six years ago, in the first year of the Clinton administration, State Teachers of the Year were invited to a National Teacher Forum in Washington, D.C. The purpose was to encourage teachers to use their titles as warrant to speak out on education issues, to not be sidelined as selfless missionaries.

We were asked: What’s the one thing you want policymakers to know?

The answer: We want a seat at the table when policy is made. We want to be partners in, not objects of, reform—because our experience and insights could help make better decisions for children.

Since then, there have been three other administrations, many glossy reports and influential whitepapers, and countless new nonprofits and Gates-funded initiatives, but we’re further away from that goal than we ever were.  What goes around, comes around.

We live in a different age than 1993, media- and technology-wise, but many Teachers of the Year are still waiting to be asked for their thoughts, and debating which advocacy organization will give them the best platform and most exposure.

Being a Teacher of the Year is both responsibility and opportunity. Build your own platform, say what you know for sure, and keep true to your own North Star.

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Why, Democrats, Why?

So now we have a manufactured-for-media tiff between the Sanders and Warren campaigns. If you’re one of the people who have taken sides on social media—shame on you for making this election, already tilting the balance between America as we know it and Chaos, even more dangerous.

On Twitter, someone posted this simple question: Why aren’t the Warren and Sanders campaigns coordinating? Together, their fans form a larger and sturdier block of progressives with similar if not identical policy ideas than the silos where other candidates are holding court—a large enough group that it could conceivably wipe out Fumblin’ Joe Biden or inexperienced neolib Pete Buttigieg, their two biggest challengers.

If progressives want to win this election, the questioner asked, why don’t we take a leaf from Republicans, whose willingness to coalesce behind seriously flawed, even corrupt, candidates and office-holders means they win elections they should, by all measures, lose convincingly? Party before country is the heart of political rot, but—along with voter suppression, gerrymandering and outright lying—it’s been working pretty well for the Republicans.

Why not deliberately work together instead of devolving into he-said/she-said?

What followed was the lengthiest and most discouraging Twitter thread I’ve read in weeks. It was heavy on ugly anti-Warren bits (‘corporate bitch’) but included some ‘Bernie the Socialist’ jabs as well.

The boiled-down essentials: I hate Elizabeth Warren because ___. I don’t like Bernie because ___. I am a die-hard liberal but would never in a million years vote for: (circle one) Warren / Sanders. If [Warren / Sanders] were to be nominated, we’d lose; only [other one] can save us. You want to join forces? You go first. Plus—you’re stupid.

Nobody said: You’ve got a point. Or even—we’re not there yet but given the imminent (like that word?) nature of the Iowa caucuses, we should perhaps be looking at what’s good in candidates who are not our #1 or even our #3. Think about broadening boundaries. Areas of commonality. Move on from hard and fast preferences and consider how to build a coalition, something we will all be called on to do in the next few months. The work could not be more important.

I see your hand waving—you want to remind me that primaries are how the weak are winnowed and the strong survive. The hardening period, yada yada.

The last three major candidates to drop out are people of color. Novice politician Tom Steyer appears to have purchased his place on primary ballots.  These are good reasons to question just what kind of rigorous policy sorting has happened in this primary.  The debates have mostly been sound-bite fests. Some candidates have been hammered; others soft-pedaled.

Frankly, this is not the time for ‘alternative’ viewpoints either—not crazy-pants, incoherent, third-party-spoiler alternative viewpoints like Tulsi Gabbard’s.  Just as infuriating: little mansplainy lectures about corruption and power-hoarding in both parties, proving that the two-party system doesn’t work and how you can’t be arsed to vote for a compromise candidate.

The two-party system doesn’t work. Almost everybody knows it—it gave us Donald Trump, after all. But spare me your superior ‘history of partisan politics’ perspectives. We have bigger fish to fry. We have a country (and planet) to save. We have to pick a Democratic candidate who can survive all the repulsive shit Trump will shovel. We have to rally behind that candidate. We have to win.

And we’re definitely not going to get there by closing our eyes, minds and hearts to the range of what Democratic candidates offer, dragging out spurious quotes from 2012 and snarking about who doesn’t think a female candidate can win an election in 2020.

Some observations:

#1) It’s OK to look at and value demographics. The scariest thing about the current Democratic campaign is that there are no Black or Hispanic candidates remaining, and the ones who left all contributed considerable energy and ideas of value. We lost faces of America when we lost Harris, Castro and Booker. Also—it’s not ‘ageism’ to question the physical vigor of elderly candidates, especially candidates with serious health issues. And it’s OK to get sexism on the table in every discussion of what the ‘best’ candidates offer.

I personally think it’s way past time for a woman POTUS. At the very least, it’s OK to suggest that the strongest ticket will appeal—on a strictly demographic basis—to a cross-section of ages, gender and racial identifications.

People vote for someone they think they can trust. And often, that person either looks like them, or seems to have the same beliefs as they do. Look at who voted for Trump in 2016: white people. Maybe those beliefs are progressive. (Why can’t we all have health care? Other countries do!) But first—the candidate who said that must be someone I believe will genuinely have my interests, and the interests of my people, at heart.

#2) Dirty campaigns are not appealing. It’s always better to offer hope and change. Remember Ronald Reagan’s Morning in America campaign ads? My friends and I laughed and laughed—Morning in America ends with bedtime for Bonzo, ha ha ha! America won’t elect a third-rate actor who makes mushy ridiculous promises like an ad agency! We’re smarter than that!

Lesson learned. Inspiration is essential. And the corollary:

#2A) Fly-specking and cherry-picking candidate flaws is cruel and counterproductive. There was a moment in the last Democratic debate where Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg were arguing about whether it’s OK to take campaign money from billionaires at wine-cave events. For some reason, moderators let the acrid, pointless squabbling go on at some length.

Finally, Amy Klobuchar burst out JUST STOP! She pointed out that we have huge issues to address, a democratic republic to protect. Why waste time trying to get the last word in an in-the-weeds argument? (For what it’s worth, this made me re-consider Klobuchar’s no-bullshit profile in a positive way.)

We’ve seen a lot of that in this campaign, among candidates who should function as a team of rivals. In past couple of days, it’s been Warren and Sanders, hammer and tongs. Please don’t send me links to stories that ‘prove’ any of the mainstream Democratic candidates have a fatal flaw. All of the candidates are flawed, seriously flawed. But one of them has to prevail.

#3) We’re never going to get all of what we want and will always have to settle for a fraction of our deepest desires. This is the fallacy at the heart of nit-picking policy plans.  Bernie will triple ed funding! But Liz will quadruple it! No, they won’t.

If we get a Democrat elected President AND get control of both houses of Congress, we will likely get some incremental progress toward some of the big stuff that other, healthier countries do in fact enjoy—free college, debt relief, universal health care, parental leave, strong public education, the full wish list. But there is SO much to be done, and not a single one of the Democratic candidates has a track record demonstrating ironclad sausage-making skills, a la Nancy Pelosi.

#4) Barack Obama isn’t President anymore. He’s been good about staying out of the scrum. He will campaign for the nominee. But please don’t post any more pictures or glowing, nostalgic memes about his presidency. Keep your eyes on the prize–political leverage, not a hero—and keep moving on.

#5) Don’t attack the Democratic Party. It’s the infrastructure we have right now. You can’t attack a well-oiled machine like the Democratic party and then expect them to forget that you trashed them when you need them. Save the third-party building and alternate viewpoints until after the election. Get on board, little children.

#6) Finally, take this quiz.  You may be surprised at the results.


Bugs in Teachers’ Ears? What We Should Be Doing Instead.

EdWeek re-ran a piece this week about teachers getting remote coaching via earpieces from ‘experts’–always the experts! –who were watching them teach via live video feed:

Virtual teacher-coaching services have become more popular in recent years—teachers record their lessons, and remote coaches review the videos and offer feedback. This approach has been especially popular in rural schools, or in districts that can’t afford to staff their own coaches.

But bug-in-ear coaching takes the approach one step further, happening in the moment. It’s a harder sell to both coaches and teachers, experts say, since it requires a level of vulnerability among both parties.

John Merrow responded with a hilarious send-up of what that might look like, in real life: Insect-based Teacher Training.  Once I stopped laughing, though, I started pondering just who would benefit from a Secret Agent Man earpiece, in any skill-based occupation that depends almost entirely on human communication.

A remote observer may be able to talk a novice plumber through fixing a leaky pipe– or teach someone to master a person-thing activity, like brushing teeth or scrambling an egg. For any consequential task involving human ethics, however, the idea is absurd.

Would an attorney be willing to argue a high-stakes case in court with a remote advisor providing nick-of-time legal precedents? Could a therapist ever learn to trust someone miles away sorting through pre-set responses to the pain happening in front of their eyes?

The very idea is ‘unnerving and demeaning declares Carol Burris. Diane Ravitch says it ‘assumes teachers know nothing.’ Aside from sales-cheerleaders and Education Week reporters who are always looking for controversy to boost their clicks, why should anyone pay attention to such obvious bait?


The question is not ‘Are ear bugs for teachers a good idea?’ They’re not. The question is why they’re being actively pursued in the field of K-12 education, to the evident great interest and approval of school administrators, researchers and education media.

What is it about teachers (as opposed to, say, dentists or insurance agents or plastic surgeons) that makes people think their practice can actually be improved by canned protocols, whispered into their ears when they’re in the thick of their professional work?

Clearly, this plays into what Audrey Watters brilliantly dissected last week—the seductive but false idea that Technology Will Save Education! Also, it reflects the now-widespread acceptance of the concept that test scores are reality, and anything done to improve them is worth the cost. It reinforces the media myth that’s been hanging around for a few decades: teachers are the bottom of the barrel, academically—those who can’t, teach, and they’re populating a large percentage of our classrooms.

But it goes much deeper than that. It’s worth dissecting, rather than just blowing the bugs off as another insulting joke.

Here’s the nub of it: Nobody (except bona fide educators) really gets what the work of teaching actually is. We had the perfect illustration of that in ‘Waiting for Superman’ as the little flip-top cartoon heads came down the conveyor belt, ready to be filled with knowledge.

Contrary to popular opinion and Davis Guggenheim, that’s not what good teachers do. Good teachers begin with knowing their students and caring about their learning. Until that essential step takes place, not much happens—no transmission of content, no application of skills, no regurgitation of knowledge as data. Good teaching is always, always about human connections, human judgment and context.

Go back to those paragraphs from the EdWeek article—where remote evaluators watch videos and prescribe fixes for teachers’ perceived technical weaknesses. This practice skips right over relationships, personal commitment and all-important context, focusing on discrete behaviors instead.

For a time, this video evaluation of teachers was all the rage in Gatesland. It was frequently compared to National Board Certification, a process that also uses videotaped lessons. The difference–and this was never made clear in the breathless excitement over the use of technology to grade teaching–is that candidates for National Board Certification watch and analyze themselves, using explicit standards for professional teaching. The National Board assesses teachers’ ability to analyze their own work—they do not tell teachers what they’re ‘doing wrong’ or how to ‘fix’ their weaknesses, in order to ‘pass’ the assessment.

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards has adapted their assessment recently, to better align with major national education initiatives—but the initial work on NB Certification was done to establish and support full-blown teacher professionalism, the idea that teachers, in their individual classrooms, are best positioned to know what their students need, design learning experiences to reach those goals, and evaluate whether their instruction has been successful—and determine what to do next.

Teaching involves hundreds of daily decisions made on the fly. Experienced teachers make better decisions, not because someone has murmured the ‘right’ tactic into their ear. Only a thoughtful teacher who is paying attention to live responses and results can build a sturdy set of protocols that work for them. Even then, the best veteran teachers are continuously learning from their miscues and bad choices, which are coming at them faster than anyone observing from afar can interpret.

Remote judgment is a misuse of timeless principles of assessment and evaluation. It dismisses trust as a core value in the teaching-learning relationship–are students going to trust the teacher who’s taking cues from an invisible wizard? It suggests that teachers can’t trust their own judgment. It ignores context–and context is everything in learning that sticks to brains.

Perhaps the worst thing is that this practice further paints teachers as both clueless and compliant.

The EdWeek piece, ironically, touches on something important in noting that teachers’ growth and improvement depends on vulnerability. It is this willingness to say ‘I can do better’ that starts the process of real growth.

The informal practice of teachers voluntarily opening their doors to observe and be observed is how we could all become better. So simple! Why isn’t that the cornerstone of all professional learning?

We could also admit that teaching takes years to master, so routinely giving novice teachers fewer responsibilities, more buddies and partner teachers, plus friendly on-site feedback, assuring them that one size never fits all, would help enormously. Deming says ‘remove all threats and fear’—and he’s right.

We could embrace reflection and journaling by everyone, newbie and vet, and provide time for deep, purposeful conversations about our work and our students. We could use established models for what accomplished teaching looks like or invent our own. We could develop the habit of never being satisfied.

None of these would cost more, in terms of time, resource allocation and capital outlay, than putting bugs in teachers’ ears. So why aren’t we doing them?

Until teachers can define, defend and control their own professional work, we will be vulnerable to junk ideas.


Top Reads of 2019

For the past decade or so, I’ve tried to read 100 books a year. It’s been a worthy and mostly achievable goal, a nice round number, and incentive to be deliberate in choosing titles, because—hey, tick-tock.  I don’t log books that I didn’t finish (or almost finish—I included one 600-pager this year that I started skimming after diligently reading 400 mind-numbing pages).

I also don’t count children’s books, although some terrific YA titles have made the cut. I use GoodReads to archive titles, rate them one-five stars, and compose a brief review, mostly to remind myself what the book is about, especially series books. My role model is Nick Hornby, whose Ten Years in the Tub is, IMHO, the Way to Write Reviews.  That is, sloppily and non-linearly, reading multiple books at the same time, being honest about what I love and what moves me–and constantly changing my mind.

Therefore… no neatly ordered top ten titles, no bumping off a favorite because it doesn’t feel prestigious enough for an audience, always embracing good ideas and good writing while overlooking flaws.

I have 14 noteworthy books to share this year, seven fictional titles and seven nonfiction. I’ll begin with books about politics.


I read about eight politically themed, hyper-current books this year. I thought Bob Woodward’s Fear: Trump in the White House was actually kind of a dull rehash of the daily news, and found American Carnage interminable and supercilious. I wish I could say I finished The Mueller Report, but it’s still sitting on my bookshelf with the little bookmark somewhere around 80 pages in. There were three books I thought captured the angst of the Trump presidency in unique ways:

Impeach: The Case Against Donald Trump (Neal Katyal and Sam Koppelman). Two hundred pages of just the facts—a historical context primer, the point-by-point case for the necessity of taking action instead of trying to pre-determine political fallout, and best of all, a rationale for re-thinking who we are, as a nation, our core principles, so this doesn’t happen again. Katyal leaves the reader with a sense that no matter what happens, the impeachment was essential, morally required and what any thoughtful citizen should want.

The Fifth Risk (Michael Lewis) A blood-chilling account of just what it might eventually mean, in terms of human lives and well-being, that our country is being–What? ‘Run’ isn’t the right word, nor is ‘managed.’ That our government has been taken over by a cabal of unqualified, loutish and greedy people who are in the process of dismantling decades, centuries even, of sensible government policy and protocols. Just because they can. And maybe because someone has something on them. It’s an uneven, imperfect book that jumps around from topic to topic—but read it anyway.

A Warning (by Anonymous) Yeah, yeah. I know. Why give a book without a named author any credence at all? That’s what I thought. Then I went to the library to return some books, and there it was, brand new and on the Hot Titles shelf, so I grabbed it, and gulped it down. After, I no longer cared who wrote it. It’s a narrative Whistleblower’s Companion, the WH insider track that Michael Wolff wanted to occupy but didn’t have the weight.

The author is obviously very conservative—and very horrified that this president couldn’t (like previous presidents) be managed, or even influenced. There is a great deal of ruthless truth-telling, presaging and deep alarm in this book, something I’d like to see all conservatives who genuinely care about their country express. In some ways, not revealing the author’s identity made the book bulletproof. You had to focus on the revealed stories and ideas (shocking, appalling stuff) rather than seeing it through the lens of WHO.

Thinker Non-Fiction

Becoming (Michelle Obama) Best autobiography ever. A friend encouraged me to read it, saying it flows like fiction, a can’t-put-it-down tale, and that’s absolutely true. Obama outs herself as a person who has regularly shifted life goals and personas, some she’s more proud of than others—and she outs her famous husband as imperfect in so many ways, not all of them adorable or noble. Girl from the South Side takes her readers on an amazing, and very American, journey.

White Fragility (Robin DiAngelo) I went on a reading quest this year, to try to enlighten—is that the word? —myself, re: pervasive and ugly racism, the social milieu I admittedly swim in and don’t always acknowledge. The other books I read on the subject were less than helpful, ranging from self-congratulatory to confusing to densely theoretical. I have more books in the pile, but found White Fragility the most useful right now, in pushing me to turn and face things—your mileage, of course, may vary. Am I woke? Hardly. I know I have miles to go. But DiAngelo’s book was straightforward and a needed slap upside the head.

Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger (Rebecca Traister) This book made me genuinely excited. Traister encourages women to let ‘er rip—to go ahead and feel the justified rage that you’ve been suppressing for, oh, your whole life. Well-supported by logic and research and written in a breezy, sister-to-sister tone, this is one great (and, naturally, underrecognized) book. Read it.


I used to read a dozen education books every year, but my thirst for ed-books has diminished. Mostly, I’m tired of Big Sexy Ed Ideas, endlessly generated and eventually discarded. There are only a few enduring principles in ed-world (the connection between teacher and student, for one, or a nurturing of curiosity) and these principles have been mainly ignored, for a couple of decades, in favor of various tools.

After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform (Andrea Gabor) is a rare exception, a book that isn’t peddling anything new, simply sharing some thick case studies of schools and districts and people who focused on local, genuinely custom-tailored reforms, and stuck with them until they bore actual fruit, for real students and educators. The book kind of rambles around without a coherent thesis about how to ‘fix’ anything, which is, oddly, one of its strengths; it demonstrates that we can only improve public education one school, one city, one classroom at a time. All else is folly.


I read a lot of good fiction this year. When I went through the list, there were several books that were lightly touched with magical realism, and more than a few that depended on historical events and settings. I could easily have nominated 20, but here are seven absolute gems.

Washington Black (Edi Edugyan) A swirling amalgam of places (from a tropical sugar plantation to the frozen north), the advances of science, divergent social beliefs and unique characters. Reading it is like flying across time and space in a dirigible. The book never loses hope in mankind, and poses continuous questions about the meaning of identity, friendship and equality.

The Women of Copper Country and  A Thread of Grace (Mary Doria Russell)  I discovered Mary Doria Russell last year, reading The Sparrow, Children of God, and Doc. I am enamored of her intelligent writing and sprawling command of subject matter. Women of Copper Country is her latest, and set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, based on real people and events. It’s a heartbreaking book, including a tragedy that happened on Christmas Eve, 1913—the Italian Hall disaster.’ It left me wrung out and tearful—but so did Thread of Grace, which traces events in remote northern Italy near the end of the World War II, as the Axis was crumbling and loyalties were hard to pinpoint, when Catholic clergy were hiding Jewish refugees, and every day brought acts of bravery as well as treachery. Both books are powerfully written.

This Tender Land (William Kent Krueger) A latter-day Huckleberry Finn—another story that will break your heart, and also revive your belief in human goodness. Four motherless children, a mighty river and plain old faith are at the center of this adventure. Krueger is perhaps best known for his Cork O’Connor series, but his two stand-alone novels are both masterful.

Virgil Wander (Leif Enger) Another all-American story tinged with magic (I seem to be attracted to whimsy and nostalgia in the era of Trump). The story is pretty slight, but the writing is absolutely delicious, and for anyone who wants to believe that sometimes, things turn out OK even when prospects seem the most dim, this book will give you the heart and the will to go on.

The Dutch House (Ann Patchett) Ann Patchett may have become my favorite author with this book—and Commonwealth, her previous novel, which I loved just as much. (Bumping off Barbara Kingsolver, whose most recent book was, IMHO, a dud.) Patchett’s two most recent books have avoided being quirky—no magicians or life-saving tree extractions from South America—and have stayed focused on the uniqueness of family. Dutch House has some great characters—Maeve, the cynical older sister, and the World’s Most Wicked Stepmother—and traces a simple but ultimately believable story, centered around a magnificent house.

The Testaments (Margaret Atwood) Recently, a Facebook posting asked readers to list the five books that have most influenced them and changed their lives. I didn’t bite—Really? Five books? —but it was interesting to read responses, see what posters wanted us to believe about their exemplary reading habits. Besides, I could think of only one book, offhand, that fit in the category: The Handmaid’s Tale.

I recently re-read Handmaid, after 30-odd years, and found it just as powerful as, if not more than, my initial encounter. Lots has happened since then, in the real world—both politically, and to Atwood’s seminal work which has now been retrofitted and expanded into a visually arresting, horrifying TV series that I am absolutely hooked on. I ordered The Testaments in advance, read it in a single day, and loved it.

I think the trick to appreciating all that Atwood packs into Testaments (and there’s plenty of irony, humor, horror, adventure and loose-end tying) is to not expect it to be Handmaid, Part II. In Testaments, Atwood does what she’s been asked to do, thousands of times: she finishes the story. She leaves the Deep Meanings and Metaphors and Dark Lessons in place—but layers on a rousing ending to Gilead, orchestrated by a character who turns out to be much more than anyone expected, back in the mid-1980s. She celebrates strength and savvy in women. And she gives us a rollicking good story–nothing wrong with that.

The Decade in Education: What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been

I’m sure you’re not geeked to read yet another combination critique/regret-fest/prognostication blog on the preceding Decade in Education. So I’m not going to write one. Besides, two extremely excellent ‘decade pieces’ were recently published, very different but both relevant and well worth your time.

The first is Audrey Watters’ The 100 Worst Ed-Tech Debacles of the Decade, a long and fascinating chronicle of ‘ed-tech failures and fuck-ups and flawed ideas’. Don’t be put off by the ‘ed-tech’ designation (or the naughty word).  The piece isn’t about computers or devices or digital programs, per se, but covers all technologies—so very many technologies—that were supposed to transform education in some way and ended up being so much splat on the classroom floor.

Go ahead. Skim through it. It starts with smaller, quicker-to-die, media-fueled sexy innovations, and works its way up through virtual charter schools, personalized learning, and venture philanthropy, disrupting all the way. The hits just keep on a-comin’ and just as rapidly disintegrating, disappointing and malfunctioning. I recognized about 90 out of the 100 Watters’ flops, and have been personally involved in utilizing (for educational purposes) maybe a third of them—and I haven’t had my own classroom in the past decade.

It’s the perfectly described list of all the crapola that was supposed to ‘save’ what turns out to have been one of America’s best ideas: a free, high-quality fully public education for every child, no matter what they bring to the table. An idea that needed investment, perhaps, and some re-thinking, but not an endless parade of for-profit ‘tools’.

The second great piece is Peter Greene’s The Ground Level Ed Reform Decade Retrospective, which is just what it says: how the endless stream of ‘reforms’ has gutted what has always been the most worthwhile aspect of public education—the context-specific intersection of good teaching and relationship-based learning.  When Greene says he became the staff crank, that guy who pointed out the obvious—that the heavy press of ‘accountability’ and top-down control was ruining public education–I could relate:

I had never believed that public education was perfect, but I could not understand why so many people in power seemed bent on destroying it. After a decade, I have a better idea why, a better sense of how complicated some of this mess is, of how many different lines cross in the public schoolhouse. In many ways, becoming a student of ed reform prepared me for a Trump presidency, because it made me really confront the degree to which many of my fellow citizens do not share values that I had somehow assumed were fundamental to being a citizen of this country.

Near the end of the last decade, I wrote a piece about my four decades in public school teaching—the 70s, 80s, 90s and the aughts, an exercise in compare and contrast. I called it ‘What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been.’

Condensed version: the 70s—90s were a zig-zag pathway of something like progress, but since the early days of the Bush II administration, we’ve made a U-turn into a new, technologies-worshipping direction (reminder: data = technology) where it’s all about numbers, levers, gadgets and vandalizing, piece by piece, America’s best idea.

And now another decade has passed, with two dreadful Secretaries of Education and increasing federal intervention in the ultimate local institution: public schools. When Betsy DeVos was installed, there was a national flurry of concern that she would push for more charter schools. People in Michigan knew that Betsy’s real goal was vouchers, a fully privatized system that favored white kids in private and religious schools. The rapidity with which states have moved to ‘empowerment scholarships’ and federal dollars have been transferred out of public education revenue streams is stunning. If there were words for what has happened this decade, they’d be something like: More! Harder! Faster!

If there’s anything good to say about the decade it’s that more educators have adopted the moniker of staff crank and are becoming policy scholars, leading Red for Ed movements and writing—articulately and passionately—about what’s really happening, and who’s responsible for trashing public education. There’s been some serious organizing and great publications.

On the other hand, a significant chunk of the teacher workforce is now fully acclimated to the loss of autonomy, endless testing and standardized everything. It’s just the way it is, from their perspective. Teaching has become a temporary, technical job in many places; only the super-strong survive.

If there’s one thing the past five (arrrgh) decades in education have taught me, it’s this: education is ultimately political. You can close your door and teach (thanks, 1970s, for that phrase), but in the end, policy, and the goals and beliefs of the people who make policy, win. And win big.

Policy makes it possible to sell off educators’ professional control over their own work to commercial scavengers and opportunists. Policy tinkers with the separation of public, community-based institutions from those who just want to make a buck. Policy allows, even encourages, racial and economic segregation. Feckless policymaking has put millions of people into lifetime debt for ‘education’ that hasn’t helped their life prospects or personal growth one bit.

In short, this decade left us with a steeper and slipperier slope and more than ever to worry about, when it comes to my life’s passion: preserving public education. A long, strange trip indeed.

I have not given up, however. I am in and out of public schools all the time, as a professional development consultant and teacher-coach. There are great teachers in every building I’ve been in this decade, and lively, curious kids who want to learn.

Hope and faith, my friends. Hope and faith.


Do You Hear What I Hear?

Many years ago, in December, we were having burgers and beer in a local pub, with friends. The sound system was pumping out Burl Ives, Bing Crosby and Mariah Carey, all the ‘classic’ Christmas tunes. One of our dinner companions remarked that I must be happy, surrounded by the Christmas music he was sure I loved.

But no.

I do have a thing for Christmas music—always have, dating way back to the LPs my parents got for ‘free’ when they had their snow tires put on. (In super-snowy western Michigan, it’s either snow tires or a winter spent digging yourself out of those scary, two -story snowbanks.) The LPs featured the likes of Eugene Ormandy, Dinah Shore, Steve and Edie, maybe Elvis. A little drummer boy, a little Jesus, a little rock and roll.

My affection for seasonal music has less to do with ‘getting in the spirit’ than seeing what artists and arrangers do with familiar tunes. Over five decades, I’ve performed in or conducted hundreds of Christmas concerts and programs, and there’s always something delicious to sing or play–and just as often, something really banal or obnoxious (lookin’ at you, Frosty the Snowman).

When I finally had my own collection of Christmas LPs and tapes, in the 1970s, I began making Christmas mix cassettes for friends, an excuse to buy more tasty holiday tunes and then turn them into gifts. Some of my long-time favorite albums—Noel by Joan Baez, arranged by Peter Schickele—stem from that period. I made one mix tape per year, and often mail-ordered LPs and tapes from esoteric catalogs or went scavenging through the bins in Ann Arbor record stores in November.

I still have one master tape made each year, beginning in 1976. Unfortunately, I don’t have anything to play them on anymore. With the advent of CDs, in the 1980s, I copied tracks from CDs and LPs on to cassettes. And when I got a computer with the capacity to burn CDs, the copying went both ways, and the buying went on, non-stop. I currently own about 350 holiday-themed CDs.

That’s right. What was once a hobby was now sort of a sickness.

When iTunes emerged, I could not imagine a more perfect way to indulge. I could buy new tunes for 99 cents while in my pajamas and cherry-pick one or two gems off my existing albums. Which I did, with all 350 CDs, yielding an ultimate iTunes cache of about 2500 Christmasy music files.

At that point, I shifted to making individually tailored CD compilations for new friends as well as long-time recipients. Some friends sent mix CDs back. All was perfect, Christmas music nirvana. Until.

Until digital streaming made CD players and iPods obsolete. And–I got a new computer, and in transferring files from the old to the new, iTunes, in its infinite wisdom, deleted all the tunes that I had copied from CDs, keeping only the new, purchased-through-iTunes files. I lost about 1500 songs. And, according to iTunes, they’re not coming back— iTunes is on its last legs, to be supplanted by Apple Music.  New cars don’t even have CD players.

My annual CD-making has gone the way of Christmas cards and staying up until 2:00 a.m. to wrap gifts and assemble toys : Bye Bye.

But just this morning, a friend sent me season’s greetings, mentioning that she’s listening to a CD I made for her in 2017. Another friend said she still listens to the tape I made for her, in 1982. Right now, I’m enjoying a playlist that I made for a friend who had a fatal heart attack, the summer after that particular Christmas. And—joy of joys—there is a constant stream of ‘Listen to this!’ YouTube videos, posted by friends, with fresh and delightful holiday-themed picks.

Do I have favorites? Cuts that went on many tapes and CDs? Yes. And what makes them good has to do with the synchronicity of tune, lyrics and presentation. Some artists I like just plow through standards and lay on the cheesy sentiment (IMHO, Willie Nelson’s Pretty Paper is atrocious). Others know how to make a tune that everybody knows completely unique.

There is a great deal of gorgeous early Christmas music; tunes that have stood the test of centuries, back to when virtually all music was sacred, dedicated to God. It’s not unusual to hear Quem Pastores Laudaveres in the produce section of your supermarket, come November. And there are a handful of songs that justifiably entered the Christmas canon late—Jackson Browne’s Rebel Jesus or Vienna Teng’s Atheist Christmas Carol, grace coming out of the void—but can be welcomed as the world celebrates the coming of the light, whatever your own personal light represents.

It would be impossible for me to choose 10 or 100 Top Christmas Songs, or even top artists. But here are a few I’ve listened to, today, off the top of my head.

Silent Night—the Hollywood Trombones

Joy to the World—the Empire Brass

River—Rosie Thomas

Sussex Mummers Carol—Burning River Brass

Sweet Bells—Kate Rusby

I have a favorite ‘O Holy Night’ (Jewel) and a favorite ‘Sleigh Ride’ (Sam Bush) and a favorite ‘We Three Kings’ (the Roches) and a favorite ‘White Christmas’ (the Mavericks). I have favorite albums (‘Christmas at Beaumont Tower’) and arrangements.  None of these, by the way, comes from Mannheim Steamroller, which tends to give me a headache. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

Hark! Are the herald angels singing?


Seven Reasons Teachers Trust Each Other More Than…Well, Anyone

When I was a relatively young and inexperienced teacher, it became obvious to me that my school (which I liked and where I wanted to continue teaching) would not ever be providing me with professional learning commensurate with my aspirations—or my intelligence. I wanted to be a better music teacher—better ideas about music literature, better tips on improving my students’ skills and understandings, better insights into classroom management. Better everything.

There were two other band teachers in my district, neither of which was a satisfactory role model. And the professional development my district offered was so generic it was useless. Or worse.

For example, all secondary teachers in the district were subjected to mandated workshops on the Canter Assertive Discipline method, wherein we were supposed to put check marks next to unruly students’ names on the blackboard and send home weekly discipline reports on check-marked outlaws.  At the time, I saw over 200 students a day, in huge classes, with one tiny blackboard already preprinted with music staves.

I was also smart enough to have figured out that I wanted kids to behave responsibly for reasons other than fear, record-keeping and retribution. Other teachers in my building hated the Canter method, too, but brought papers to grade during the workshops. Professional development? Something to endure—don’t expect growth or change.

But there were great instrumental music teachers out there, I knew. I met them at festivals and band directors’ meetings. I heard their bands and orchestras play, and I listened to them talk at lunch, about issues we had in common.  I couldn’t afford to go to statewide conferences—I could barely pay the rent—but I decided to improvise.

For the next five or six years, I took a fake sick day, at least once a year. I called up music teachers whose work I admired and asked if I could spend the day observing their work. Nobody ever said no. I learned something valuable in each of those visits, but one visit—the first—was a standout.

The teacher—Al Johnston at Walled Lake Western HS—was the antithesis of the Lee Canter philosophy of teaching. Al spoke softly but directly to his students, without threats. He filled each hour with purposeful, pre-planned instruction—the kind where you set goals before class, rather than winging it. He was kind, and his students were, class after class, friendly and comfortable with classroom routines.  He knew tons about band literature and told me he’d taken private lessons on instruments where his own skills were shaky—and he’d let the students know he was studying to shore up his weak spots.

After school, he asked if I’d like to see his home office. We went to his house, where his entire basement was filled with cardboard boxes, filing cabinets, LPs, tapes and a drafting table where he wrote marching shows. Everything was neatly labeled and at his fingertips. Wow, I said. You’re so organized. You can go a long, long way on organization, he said.

That was nearly forty years ago, but that one remark reshaped my teaching for years. I began to see everything I learned about being a better music teacher as an information nugget that should be readily retrievable. Sample materials, conducting techniques, tuning strategies, funny stories and memorable concert programs—filed and accessible. There was always something new to add. Stuff got taken out, too, as better ideas emerged.

This was prior to the advent of computers, of course. These days, there are unlimited freely accessible resources online, not the handful of books I relied on in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. There are online conversations involving hundreds of teachers, and videos of great student performances and lesson ideas.

One thing hasn’t changed, however. The people who know the most about what you do, the people who are most likely to move you forward in your quest to be a great teacher, build your personal portfolio of skills and ideas…are teachers.

But not according to Stacey Childress (@NextGenStacey) of NewSchools Venture Fund who is fretting over the fact that teachers have downloaded over one billion pieces of content from one website alone and are using teaching materials, willy-nilly, that have not been vetted by experts. You get a sense of her rising panic in this statement: Full-year comprehensive curricula are far from the only materials teachers use. Supplemental programs have been eating into full-year market share in a big way over the last 15 years

Nearly every teacher surveyed—94%–said they’d used content they found online and a quarter of them find half their materials and lessons ideas there, generating more hand-wringing over the way these freebie materials are supplanting those prepared and vetted by ‘experts’ and offered in the Serious Marketplace of Curricula. Why are teachers resisting the expert-approved core materials and using their own—inexpensive, constantly updated–picks?

From NSVF’s survey: The core textbook was “too hard” and contained examples that were “not sufficiently engaging.” The quotation marks tell you all you need to know about NewSchools Venture Fund’s opinion of teacher judgment.

Further, teachers surveyed confessed that 81% of them trust teachers more than any other source, when it comes to choosing materials and designing lessons. Folks who propose adding expert ratings to popular lesson sharing sites are likely to be disappointed with the results. Teachers are far more influenced by each other than the judgments of experts.

You might wonder why teachers aren’t considered the ultimate experts at deciding what’s too hard (or too easy), or not engaging or downright useless.  Why does NewSchools Venture Fund get to evaluate materials? Here’s their mission statement: We raise contributions from donors and use them to find, fund and support teams of educators and entrepreneurs who are reimagining learning so all children – especially those in underserved communities – have the opportunity to succeed.

In other words, they raise money so they can continue to exist, and influence the education marketplace one white paper at a time. Meanwhile, teachers are saving actual children, 180 days a year, including those in underserved communities.

Why do teachers trust each other? We know our students better than curriculum developers. Shared, teacher-created lessons have been battle-tested and tweaked, rather than aligned to easily tested standards. We are not granted professional autonomy so downloading something new to try can feel a bit like freedom. Developing our own lessons and materials depends on free or inexpensive sources of inspiration, as district resources go toward expensive published materials. A lot of the stuff we’ve been given is not working. Only another teacher can offer practice wisdom.

Thanks, Al. Before the internet, there was your friendship and advice. I owe you.


The Lure of Bad News

I have this Facebook friend—a woman I haven’t seen in decades but who was my actual pal and work partner in high school.  As it happens, with relationships like this—threadbare, based on outgrown commonalities—we have taken two very diverging roads in the yellow wood of life.

And not just politically and socially. She is that person who continually reposts urgent TV reports of missing children, including children who have mercifully been found safe, six months ago. I don’t know where she gets her news and information, but you can count on her to post flamingly incorrect horror stories every three or four days:

Did you know the Obama White House banned nativity scenes?  Not a single flag at the Democratic debate! There once was a time the president was honored, no matter who he was—let’s get that back! Christians are being persecuted! We could feed and house all the homeless in America with what the Democrats have spent on impeachment!

About that last one, which Snopes doesn’t touch—there are an estimated 553, 742 homeless people in the United States. Spending $10K on each homeless person (which might, optimistically, feed them and get them off the streets for six months) would cost us $5.5 billion.  A far cry from the actual costs of investigating the President since 2017, calculated by PolitiFact last month$32 million (minus some $22 million recouped in Paul Manafort’s forfeited real estate).

These numbers are not in the same ballpark. No matter. It’s the shock that counts.

I know what you’re thinking: Unfriend, unfriend, unfriend. Who needs to be connected to someone so benighted, so right-wing?

Well, hmm. Part of the reason I’m still wrinkling my nose at her Boomer memes and posting corrections on her page—no, they found this kid, safe with his dad, in July (confirming link)—is because, I, too, am attracted to bad news.

In fact, we all are, even though the world has always seemed to be bound for hell and things are actually much better now than they used to be.

There is a natural human bias toward bad news. The title of a 1998 article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology sums it up: “Negative Information Weighs More Heavily on the Brain.” Negative stimuli get our attention much more than positive stimuli — which makes evolutionary sense for survival. Nice things are enjoyable; bad things can be deadly, so focus on them. And given that, in the news media, attention equals money, we can see the commercial reason for a lack of headlines such as “Millions not going to bed hungry tonight.”

Think about President Trump’s inaugural speech. Here’s how U.S.A. Today described it: Trump delivers populist manifesto that depicted U.S. as a land of abandoned factories, economic angst, rising crime and dystopian “carnage.”

Not exactly morning in America. Or hope and change, asking what we can do for our country. And we now know that wherever the buck stops these days, it is no longer the Oval Office. Instead, the leader of the free world seems focused on the water pressure in our bathrooms.

Which is a perfect illustration of the President’s mastery of the lure of bad news: These pesky water-saving regulations for new plumbing fixtures (designed to be environmentally friendly)! I find them super annoying! Bring back the Niagara flush! Courtesy of Donald J. Trump! You’re welcome!

So much for the planet.

Using trauma, fear and alarm over distressing news—think Shock Doctrine—to move people to action is not new. In fact, crisis is often an opportunity for positive action—being attacked by a foreign enemy, rapid climate change, perfidy at the highest levels of government. There is genuinely bad news—threats to our democracy and the dangerous and growing equity gap. We can and should do more.

So why bother with those who are unduly influenced by genuinely fake news?

Because we’re all vulnerable. Piece in today’s NYT: Foreign meddling was once the most feared source of online deception before critical elections. Now, some candidates themselves are turning to such manipulative tactics.

Apparently, a healthy chunk of the electorate can’t distinguish between fake bad news and real bad news, so candidates feel free to ask the Russians to intervene. Or the bot factories cook up bad news memes on their own. It’s scary.

I’ll keep posting Snopes corrections on my friend’s Facebook page (even though she now says she ‘doesn’t believe in’ Snopes—or PolitiFact). Because that’s the heart of this perilous situation: there is no one trusted source of truth.


Women and Power

At the very beginning of the 2020 Presidential primary, I sent $5, a one-time donation, to each of four candidates: Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar and Kirsten Gillibrand. I did this because I wanted to see all four of them on the debate stage, and the DNC was counting individual contributors.

What this yielded was a veritable flood of emails asking for donations. I was already getting them from the Sanders campaign (because I donated to him in 2016, also a small-potatoes amount), so this was a lot of email, but it was worth it to see four qualified women debating. We haven’t had that before, and I saw it as one step on the path to equity in electoral politics.

And, although I think it’s unlikely, unless I live to be 100, that I will someday see equity in electoral politics (among dozens of other institutions in the Home of the Free), there are few things I think are more worth pursuing.

When I say ‘equity’ I don’t mean just gender equity—I mean representative equity, being governed by a mix of men, women and people who characterize the entire LGBTQ spectrum, people of color and people of diverse ethnic origin, people who are rich and people who worked as bartenders after gaining a university degree. Young people. Old people. Rural and urban citizens.

Until Congress and State Houses and County Commissions—and, for that matter, school boards and education departments—are representative, we have not achieved real democracy. And considering just how hard some powerholders are fighting to maintain their power, by hook or by crook, this is not a universally admired or pursued principle.

We’re still operating under the subterranean belief that some citizens are more entitled to power than others—generally, the folks who have always held power: rich white men.  Here’s a good example of that, featuring a powerful white man who was the Republicans’ expert witness in the impeachment hearings.

When Kamala Harris dropped out of the race, two days ago, New York Magazine’s The Cut ran this perfect headline: How Are All These Random Men Still Running? Good question.

Zerlina Maxwell, on Twitter: Somewhere a man is typing up his “Why Kamala failed” story and he is not considering race or gender bias and so if you are that man please reconsider your position or read a book.

Keith Boykin, on Twitter: Pete Buttigieg is a 37-year-old mayor of the fourth largest city in Indiana with no federal or state government experience. He was elected with 8,515 votes. Kamala Harris is a 55-year-old US senator from California. She was elected with 7.5 million votes.

Mikel Jollett, on Twitter:  I just saw the news about Kamala Harris withdrawing and all I can think is I would love to live in a country where extremely qualified, brilliant black women could go further in presidential politics than otherwise mediocre white men with a pile of money.


I for one am heartily sick of watching folks in my party—the party I am counting on to defeat the hideous disaster now residing in the White House, and set us back on the path toward a more perfect union—squander whatever good will we have built up by being better than the other choice.

I am tired of in-fighting, nasty cracks about Harris being a ‘cop,’ and Warren being a waverer as she tries to thread the public opinion needle on Medicare for All, or Klobuchar eating a salad with a comb.

Most of all, I have had it with men with money calling the shots, in a thousand different ways: Using their media empires, their personal fortunes, their hand-picked surrogates—or running themselves. I’m with Jamie Lee Curtis: Voting for women is more than gender politics. It’s opting to create real change.

Yes, I know—not all women are better choices. Yes, some women have been disastrous leaders (often pushed into policy corners and bad decisions by white men with money), in spite of their promise. And yes, it would be lovely to live in a world where ‘the best’ candidate could be anyone—demographics would not matter, and genuine merit would reign.

We don’t live in that world. We live in a world where, despite 100 years of female suffrage, we haven’t had a woman serve as president. It’s time.

If there’s anything the 2018 mid-terms have taught us, it’s that women elected to power do upset conventional apple carts and rattle cages.

Charles Blow gets the last word:
It seems to me that the questions here are bigger than [Harris’s] missteps, real or perceived. Every campaign has missteps. It is hard to look at this field of candidates and not remember a cascading list of missteps. And many of them have things in their past for which they have apologized. But one question is why missteps are fatal to some campaigns and not others. It is fair to ask what role racism and sexism played in her campaign’s demise. These are two “isms” that are permanent, obvious and unavoidable in American society. It is fair to ask how those features impacted media coverage, or the lack of coverage.

It’s time for some representative equity.

Some power-sharing.

Some change.


Are Schools Helping to Dumb Down the National Political Conversation?

If there ever was a time when top-notch media analysis skills were crucial for American citizens, the past two weeks were the motherlode of opportunities to sort out manipulated messaging from simple truth.

Dig into that statement a bit. Is it possible to make students better consumers, curators and adjudicators of the digital/media information firehose? Or have schools dumbed down curriculum and academic demands, leading to a heedless citizenry, amusing itself to death? (I didn’t come up with that phrase, BTW—Neil Postman did, long before Facebook, Twitter and Celebrity Apprentice, when cable news was the most dangerous thing on TV.)

The phrase ‘dumbing down’ (or—worse—’dummying down,’ putting emphasis on students’ reputedly flabby brains) has always been anathema to me. I have never—in 40 years of working in classrooms—observed a serious curricular trend toward making things less complex or challenging. In fact, since I started teaching, in the early 1970s, there has been a steady upward push toward what reformy types might call rigor.

States have adopted ‘merit’ curricula, demanding four years of HS math and other course sequences that used to be reserved for the college bound. All public-school students in the nation submit to high-stakes standardized tests annually, beginning when they’re barely eight years old. Seventh graders solve single-variable equations that used be the stuff of ninth grade Algebra. The phrase ‘kindergarten is the new first grade’ is now conventional wisdom in early childhood pedagogy.

Not seeing the dummy-down phenomenon here, except in op-eds by irate business leaders who claim they can’t find the skilled workers they need.

And, of course, some of our Congressional representatives who seemed unable to form rational questions or evaluate and respond to answers when grilling the brave civil servants who sat in front of them last week. Watching and listening, it was easy, over time, to see the obvious chasm between ‘just the facts’ (under oath) and ‘spin, baby, spin’ (not under oath). I kept asking myself: Who is impressed by the shouting, off-topic rants and left-field accusations?

Heather Cox Richardson answered:  Using my eye for propaganda techniques, they reminded me of nothing so much as being a talking head on a documentary. When producers are filming you in that situation, they very carefully ask questions to get a sound bite they can use. It seemed very clear to me that Jordan and Ratcliffe, and especially Nunes, were tangling the witnesses in questions designed to give the questioners short sound bites that they could then make into their own “documentaries.” They were salting the hearings with the language of conspiracies that people who don’t watch Fox cannot understand but which, in their sound bites, can be turned into a narrative that will misrepresent what was said and proven today, marketing it to True Believers who will then continue to support Trump and his party.

And then, as soon as they got their sound bites they would get up and leave.

What I was wondering: Can this ‘eye for propaganda’ be taught? Is it important that our students learn more than facts, timelines and skills? Can they be taught to assess value and truth in all their studies (and I don’t mean just their History, Civics and Government courses)?

Or will they be ripe targets for ‘contagious stories’—simple, emotionally self-validating explanations for current events and issues? Can flagrant lying be ignored or tolerated to maintain the peace, preserve the Republic? We are approaching ‘Germany in the 1930s’ territory here.

Stephen Sawchuk had a provocative piece with a great headline in Education Week: Students Are Really, Really Bad at Spotting Fake News, Misleading Websites. I don’t think it’s only students who are really, really bad—I think it’s the general population, distracted and trying to keep their heads above water, who are finding it hard to get at the truth. It’s all about where you get your news. There is, Sawchuk says:

…alarming evidence that a large majority of students are not well prepared to investigate sources of information for their accuracy, relevance, and quality. And despite more than a decade’s worth of policy chatter about media literacy, whatever schools have been doing doesn’t appear to have been enough to inoculate students against “fake” news. 

It’s doubly concerning given that there are now entire cable-news networks and partisan news sites built around presenting a skewed accounting of facts. Social media hasn’t helped: The atomized nature of online interactions makes it easy to share doctored or fake information. And increasingly, as another recent report coined it, “truth decay” is eroding the notion of objective facts: Americans can’t even agree on a set of basic facts that underpin their arguments or conclusions anymore.

Sawchuk gets this exactly right. I can’t think of a single thing more important, or relevant, in a liberal arts curriculum, K-12, than an investigation of the veracity of news sources. Or teaching kids how, Step One, to be deeply suspicious of pretty much anything that crosses their tiny screens.

It’s not just about sorting out the truthful, centrist sources, and identifying bias in sources. It’s about demonstrating how vulnerable we all are to stories that ring our emotional chimes. Especially kids.

Let me say that again: especially our students. We should be talking about this in schools.

Or else we’re going to end up with more captions like this In rollicking 53-minute conversation, Trump embraces conspiracies, spreads falsehoods and insults opponents—that make it sound like conspiracies, falsehoods and insults were somehow ‘rollicking’ (‘exuberantly lively; amusing’). I know better than to assign blame to the writer—headlines are added later and play by different rules.

But really. Isn’t it time we stopped laughing?

Can schools nurture civic engagement? I think so.

No time like the present.


Should a Cooperating Teacher Make Things More ‘Real’ for His Student Teacher?

Thought experiment: You’re a successful veteran male HS teacher, firing on all instructional cylinders. You take your first student teacher. Your classes this year are right where you want them—the students have begun to trust each other and their own ideas and skills. They’re functioning well. And now—you’re going to turn the teaching over to your young, female student teacher.

You think she’s not likely to have such cooperative classes in her first job. In fact, it took you some time to establish good classroom routines, but hey—that was a long time ago. If she teaches your classes, she might think all kids were that amenable and eager to learn. You ask colleagues for some ideas on how to make her student teaching experience more ‘realistic’—planted behavior problems, stump-the-teacher questions, other ideas to put her on the spot? You’re just trying to give her a taste of the challenges she’s likely to meet. Right?


Stop thinking. Experiment over. Your thoughts?

On the education-group Facebook page where I read a post like this—only not a thought experiment– it was heartening to notice that there were perhaps 50 comments and 45 of them were some variation of ‘what a terrible idea’ or ‘please don’t do this.’

Any student teacher is vulnerable, and tentative. She’ll naturally run into plenty of challenges, no matter how well-behaved the group. While your tips and advice are part of the experience of working with a novice teacher, setting her up for faux problems is not really ethical, dude. You’re supposed to be her guide.

And here’s another thing, something none of the first round of commenters mentioned: There might be a gender dynamic here, including some doubt about a young female teacher’s ability to control a class of high school students. How tempting to be the master teacher, stepping in to save the day, when students are subtly encouraged to relax behavior standards for the student teacher.

If this is beginning feel like a personal story, it is.

Back in the stone age, when I was student teaching, I spent the first two months reorganizing and cataloguing the school’s music library. I handled my cooperating teacher’s correspondence and wrote his monthly column for the band directors’ association. My only ‘teaching’ experience was working one-on-one with isolated students who were having difficulty with a musical passage and giving free flute lessons.

I observed the cooperating teacher work with ‘his’ bands for fourteen weeks, and there was never any spare time for me to direct any group—always a concert or festival coming up, and he wasn’t about to give up his rehearsal time.

Finally, the last week of my student teaching, I got up in front of the high school band, to conduct one piece. The cooperating teacher grabbed someone’s trumpet and started ‘playing student’—slouching, chewing gum, talking loudly. He asked questions he knew I couldn’t answer (Should I play that with an alternate fingering?) and made glaring mistakes. He acted like a jerk. The students laughed.

Any credibility I had with them was gone, in five minutes.

And then, in my final evaluation (which I typed up) he wrote: I think Nancy would be better suited to a position teaching elementary music.

Kind of ironic, since I never had any student teaching experience whatsoever in teaching elementary music. Having now taught music, PK-12, general, vocal and instrumental, I can say with confidence that all levels have challenges.

Cooperating teachers carry great weight in the development of a novice teacher. In my case, I learned what not to do. I learned not to be a bully (and there was a lot more bullying from the podium, back in the 1970s—it was a kind of badge of honor to some). I learned not to control students by fear and threats, but to instill cooperation by being authoritative but kind. I learned that the blood-and-thunder school of band directing was not for me—and I could still have top-notch bands.

And I accepted student teachers. I had a few over my 31 years in the music classroom—and they were all women.  Photo: the author as a first-year teacher.firstyr

What is ‘Quality’ Music? Choosing the Best Materials for Our Students.

Back in the day, when I was an early-career teacher, I was sitting at the judges’ lunch table, at a music festival. It was my first time serving as an adjudicator and the other judges were well-known veteran band directors. One of them was expounding on the poor literature choices made by young band directors. He claimed that identifying quality music was becoming a lost art, and that most newly published band music was ‘trash,’ especially compared to the pieces from the early days of school band programs.

It was out of my mouth before I had time to think: What is ‘quality’ music? How do we know it’s worthy?

His answer was mostly eye-rolling at the other men and sputtering—but he ended by saying that his sainted mother used to listen to country music on the radio, and even as a young lad he knew that it was pure garbage. Nobody was correcting him, by the way. Certainly not me.

I did, however, start thinking more about my own judgment in deciding what music would teach my students the most. I looked for appealing pieces that had some modest challenges embedded. I made some mistakes (buying pieces that were so static and repetitive that even the students were able to see how some music is, well, static and repetitive—and boring). But I also picked some winners, pieces I used again and again, music with some cultural depth or technical tests or simply tunes that the kids loved.

Were my curricular go-tos ‘quality’ music? What features, precisely, comprise quality? Is there a set canon of high-quality titles that should be in every library?

And–who gets to say what those works are, in any discipline? Choosing the best anything is a perennial exercise in taste and appraisal—and over time, the definition of ‘quality’ shifts.

English teachers want their students to read and interact with the most delicious texts. Social Studies teachers want to wrestle with relevant issues and science teachers want to engage their students with scientific solutions to existing real-world problems. What’s most useful and attractive now may not have existed 10 years ago.

I trust teachers to sieve through the Big Ideas and choose good concepts and materials. That’s not possible in many schools, however, where all curricular decisions are made above (if that’s the correct preposition) the classroom. Replacing materials also costs money.

There was a piece in Medium recently that got some deserved attention: Dinah, Put Down Your Horn: Blackface Minstrel Songs Don’t Belong in Music Class.  The gist? We need to take a look at the often-racist roots of some American ‘folk music.’

I read about the piece on an Elementary Music Teachers Facebook page. There was a long thread, discussing music that might have problematic origins. Were there ways to get around questionable lyrics while keeping a jaunty, familiar tune? There was a little disagreement—a couple of people upset by ‘political correctness’—but the large majority of the teachers participating thought the article had value in helping them improve their practice by ditching some songs long considered ‘classic.’

Many admitted that all this information was new—and surprising—to them; they could do better. There were comments about high school and college traditional/fight songs with racist roots or references.

I loved reading these conversations. These are questions that teachers should be discussing. Teachers are conscientious for the most part—they want to teach well. They will even occasionally be vulnerable, confessing that they don’t know how to handle a curriculum/instructional dilemma. This discourse supports genuine professional learning.

For music teachers, the next frontier might well be the dearth of music published for school musicians with female or non-white composers.

Composer Dale Trumbore said this:  Let’s talk about quality.

‘I program music based solely on quality.’ ‘I don’t think about race or gender when I program—only whether the music is good.’

This argument is fundamentally flawed. You’re programming based on the quality of music you’ve already heard. If you don’t regularly hear or seek out music by women or composers who aren’t white, their music will never make on to your programs. Lack of quality isn’t the issue here; unconscious programming is.

Is this a key issue for music teachers? It should be. For a dozen reasons—including our old benchmark: quality.

Recently, there was a revelation that a very well-known school band composer, a white man, had been publishing Asian-flavored pieces using a pseudonym that suggested he was a Japanese female. Eventually, he started feeling a bit queasy about the deception (or perhaps his publisher got tired of not having any PR information about ‘Keiko Yamada’). He publicly apologized and recalled all the inventory using his phony name.

The composer, Larry Clark, sat for a long and somewhat rambling interview with Jennifer Jolley, another female composer, explaining, sort of, why he originally chose to use a pseudonym. He is not entirely successful in this effort, although I am certain he now regrets the initial decision. Jolley holds his feet to the fire—it’s a wonderful, in-depth interview. Then she says:

The lingering effects of Clark/Yamada are to magnify the paranoia and cynicism too often experienced by underrepresented composers. It confirms the most extreme sense that the music world is an unfair system rigged in favor of the privileged. 

I think teachers of all subjects are interested in concepts and materials that show their students the system doesn’t have to be rigged in favor of the privileged—that there are things we all should know and can all appreciate. That curricular materials in all subjects can be authentic and inspiring.

I think I know quality materials when I hear and see them. I also think that our definition of curricular quality has to consider diversity and acknowledge change. Some items are evergreen. Others outlive their usefulness.

How do you define quality?


 Don’t Give Them Your Power

Here’s an eye-catching headline: Middle School Student On A Trip To DC Spat On A Black Person At The African American History Museum.

And the follow-up, somehow even more depressing: The principal of the Connecticut middle school said she did not believe the incident was racially motivated.

There’s more rationalizing, in the local paper. The principal is doing what principals do: trying to express that they’re just kids, prone to goofy adolescent misbehaviors, while explaining just how they’re going to sharply address this in school—assemblies, suspensions, whatever’s in the disciplinary toolbox.

But I’m with Greg Johnson, a local civil rights leader, who said ‘spitting in the museum — opened three years ago to highlight the contributions of African Americans and educating visitors about the history of slavery — was itself a racist act.’

As it happens, I visited the African American History Museum for the first time a few months ago, a road trip with two old friends who were also going for the first time. It was absolutely the best adult field trip ever—it’s a fantastic national resource (thinking like a teacher). And also, one tiny and way-overdue step toward recognizing the unsung economic and cultural contributions of the involuntary diaspora of African-Americans in the United States.

There was a lot to see, to appreciate and to learn. The viewing crowd that day was about 2/3 African American and 1/3 Other. There was a grandmother, wrapped in a colorful homemade afghan in her wheelchair, on a toasty June day–being pushed by an adult granddaughter, who dutifully read the posted copy at each showcase or exhibit. Grandma kept saying ‘Imagine that!’ and every time, her granddaughter rolled her eyes and smiled.

There was a young dad, tracking a wander-y five-year-old, simply telling the boy, at his own level, exactly what they were looking at—the maps, the model ships, the heavy, rusted tools of hard labor. The little boy ran ahead. There is a slave cabin, preserved, transported and rebuilt at the museum. Stepping into the doorway, Dad said ‘this is where one or two whole families of enslaved people lived.’ The boy did a 360-degree turnaround. ‘You kiddin’ me?’ he asked.

It was an amazing day. And then, emerging blinking from the core exhibit, a spiraling, detailed history of slavery, into a sunny atrium, we see them. A half-dozen white boys, middle-school aged –I have 30 years of knowing a middle school boy when I see one–coming down the three-story escalator wearing red MAGA caps. They are, astonishingly enough (or maybe not), accompanied by an adult man, also white, who seems cool with the hats.

People around us freeze, seeing them. A teenaged girl is practically snarling to a friend—Look at them! It’s SO disrespectful. They come HERE—in those hats! Her friend puts a hand on her arm.

Don’t give them your power, she says.

There were more kids in MAGA hats, later in the afternoon, gathering at an appointed spot to meet the bus. Their teachers were busy counting and corralling and wouldn’t have appreciated a question from a stranger: Why didn’t you tell your students to remove their hats? Did you tell them what they were going to see—and why a respectful attitude is required for all visitors to this museum?

Hey. I taught middle school for 30 years. I know that the rules and rationales for visiting this museum may have been hammered out by others, leaving the students’ teachers powerless. It’s better for young adolescents to have had this introductory experience than not.  And, true, 13 year-old boys frequently don’t have great judgment. But all that’s just weak sauce.

Students on any field trip need to be prepared, intellectually, for what they’re going to see or do–or the value of toting kids around to see interesting, meaningful places in the world is seriously diminished. Field trips—like all curricular decisions and activities—are based on the principle that taking students out of the building will make them better able to deal with the ideas and challenges of the real world.

And it’s always wrong to be disrespectful, on purpose, in the real world. Always.

In ‘White People are Broken’, Katherine Fugate shares a story about another museum, and still more white kids wearing MAGA hats, who are confronted by a young black man of the same age, who quietly explains to them that their hats make him uncomfortable. Fugate stands silently by the young man, hoping he will see her as an ally. The MAGA hat students are confused, saying it’s their country. It’s everyone’s country, he replies.

Occasionally, you can read columns–or comments–suggesting that teachers should stick strictly to transmitting factual disciplinary content and stay away from values. There is no such thing, however, as opening students’ flip-top heads and pouring in knowledge. All knowledge, skills and judgment are learned in context, through interaction and practice.

A lot of what is learned in school—and through school-based activities—isn’t ‘content,’ or ‘skills’, per se. It’s how the most important knowledge and skills are useless, unless they’re applicable to living. It’s how to be a thoughtful, curious, responsive person in this world. Or not.

Which means that wearing a MAGA hat in the African American Museum of History and Culture is not just a bad fashion choice. It is, instead, a hateful coded message. And spitting is not just an impulsive decision made by someone too young to know better. It’s an act of degradation, indefensible.

After all, it is truly everyone’s country. Make good choices, and don’t relinquish your power to hate.  AfAm Museum


Sweet Child of Mine

Like—one hopes—most Americans, I watch the ongoing story of children separated from their parents at our southern border with horror and sorrow. There will never be anything even approaching reconciliation or forgiveness for the despicable and shameful behavior of those whose hatred and fear of ‘the other’ drives policy enactment like this. My biggest worry is that, with all the other shocks and distractions we’re juggling in 2019, these children will fade into the background.

Last week, we learned that the number of separated and ‘lost’ children is higher than has been reported:  U.S. immigration authorities separated more than 1,500 children from their parents at the Mexico border early in the Trump administration, the ACLU said, bringing the total number of children separated since July 2017 to more than 5,400. Children from that period can be difficult to find because the government had inadequate tracking systems. Volunteers working with the ACLU are searching for some of them and their parents by going door-to-door in Guatemala and Honduras.

One facet of the story I follow even more closely: the very young children who have been recklessly and deliberately removed from their parents, resulting in ‘lost’ identification information, and are put in foster care here, and eventually even deemed eligible for adoption by American parents.

There have been any number of stories about children too young to speak for themselves winding up in places where their parents, who risked everything to bring them to what they hoped was safety, can no longer find or reach them. Often, these parents are not able to get appropriate help, and are deported, leaving children behind.

Bethany Christian Services, a Michigan-based non-profit that took a relatively large number of separated children into foster care over the past two years, has especially come under fire. I have seen memes and stories accusing Bethany (which has accepted donations from the DeVos Foundation for many years) of essentially stealing children for the benefit of white Christian couples who want to adopt.

I know a little about Bethany CS, because it’s the agency we used when we adopted our son Alex, now 31, from Korea. Ironically, we chose Bethany because they had such a good reputation for ensuring that adoptable children were fully available and duly relinquished by their biological parents.

We had heard horror stories about disrupted international adoptions, families who later learned that their adopted children were placed via coercion, or were babies ‘from nowhere,’ whose parentage couldn’t be traced at all. But not with Bethany.

Bethany was also a little pickier than other agencies—insisting on age limits for parents, a stay-at-home parent for the baby’s first six months in America (which we split, each of us taking three months), and a lengthy and rigorous home study process. The ‘Christian’ in their name didn’t really faze us, although we were not church members at that time. Like getting your life insurance from Lutheran Brotherhood, or putting your money in the Catholic Credit Union, it did not seem like a drawback in the international adoption process, which is plenty fraught.

Our caseworker from Bethany carefully guided us through all the steps—adoption, citizenship, and when Alex was 13, a whole-family trip to Korea, where we were able to sit down with a social worker and translator and read his entire file. We also had lunch with his diminutive foster mother, who spent the entire time patting his face and rolling up bulgogi in lettuce leaves for him to eat.

It was always clear to us just how fortunate we were to raise this young man, a gift to our family. Occasionally, low-information people would suggest that Korea was a backward nation and Alex was lucky to have us, but we always knew that wasn’t remotely true—and earnestly sought many opportunities (camps, cultural organizations and travel) to keep in touch with his remarkable heritage.

In the past few years, however—even before hateful border policies—I have become more and more aware of suspicion, even hostility, toward parents who choose international adoptions. Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know filled in some of those blanks. I read more broadly today, including critiques of multi-cultural families built through international fostering and adoption. It’s not as simple as a child needing a home. I get that.

The situation at the border and Bethany Christian Services’ willingness to foster children who have been separated from their parents there put this into sharp focus.  Bethany’s policies about refusing adoptions to LGBTQ families (recently overturned) came under scrutiny. And there was a lot of finger-pointing toward the DeVos family, which has supported Bethany’s work for many years—not surprising, since DeVos charitable giving (and influencing) is everywhere in Grand Rapids, MI, where Bethany is also based. Snopes does a good job of tracking that money and answering other questions about Bethany: here.

I am not defending Bethany Christian Services—but I do hate to see blanket condemnation of international adoption. It’s also true that children should not be warehoused in cages—and that sheltering migrant children is a multi-million dollar business, prone to profiteering and abuse. This is a problem of our own making.

It’s hard to know, any more, where to draw the bright line between well-meaning people wanting to adopt children who need homes and outright, obvious human trafficking. Recently, evangelical Christians have been pushing families to adopt, as a way of demonstrating that they were willing to take care of the children who might otherwise have been aborted:

In 2007, national Christian leaders like celebrity pastor Rick Warren encouraged their followers to shift their focus from issues of “moral purity”—abortion, same-sex marriage, divorce—to something more positive: helping children in need. More than just “pro-life,” it would be a “whole life” response to the longstanding pro-choice challenge that Christians adopt all the children they wanted to be born. It would also be an extension of existing evangelical engagement with global development and health issues. Promoting adoption would help rebrand U.S. evangelicals, from moral scolds to children’s champions.

The premise of the movement was a particularly American response to global child poverty. It was based on the idea that the existence of somewhere between 143 and 210 million vulnerable children around the world—a number that also includes those who live with one parent or extended family, often in poor conditions—constituted an “orphan crisis,” but that there were also 2 billion Christians who could help. If just a fraction of those claiming to be Christians stepped up to adopt, the movement’s leaders argued, parentless and hungry children, as a category, would cease to exist. As one leader put it, the goal was to “get as many people in the church to adopt and adopt as many kids as you can.” 

I find this ominous. I’m the American parent of a child born in Asia, so you might think I would trust that American instincts and institutions for young children in crisis would be good ones. But I no longer have any confidence in ‘American’ ideals, after witnessing what’s happened at our own border.

Alex and Mom cropped

Should Teenage Trick or Treaters Go to Jail?

For 20 years, I lived in a subdivision in the heart of the school district where I was teaching. Halloween was a big deal—we’d get a couple hundred trick-or-treaters if the weather was nice. Many of them were my middle school students, or former students, now in high school. I bought a lot of candy. The good stuff.

I’d put speakers in an open window, and a spooky music playlist on my iPod (remember iPods?)—pieces that were part of my annual spooky-music lesson plan. The kid who asked ‘Is that Night on Bald Mountain?’ would get an extra piece of candy. And the boys who came for candy, left and switched costumes on the street, then came back—twice—got another piece both times and props for ingenuity.

I would dress up. This was easy—same costume every year—because my 8th grade students performed a Halloween-themed concert, and I was always the Wicked Witch of the Band Room.  It’s a perfect time of year for students with two years’ worth of playing experience to prepare a fun program, stretching their musical skills and knowledge.wickedwitch3

The students dressed in costumes. This was a hard sell for some of them, but they were assured that ‘costume’ could mean something very simple—perennially, there were boys in shoulder pads and football jersey, toting their euphoniums into the gym to play Danse Macabre.

My principals, over the decade we did this concert, were supportive—all school leaders love events that bring hundreds of happy parents into the building, especially when small children are welcome.

One principal was open to all students dressing in non-violent costumes when October 31 was a school day. This did not go down well with a subset of the faculty, who felt middle schoolers were too old for such nonsense and that costumes would be a major distraction to learning.

Are your students typically focused and quiet on Halloween? she asked. Well, no. So let’s let them be kids a little longer. Endorse a little good, clean fun in a safe space.

She was right. Halloween, once a neighborhood-based candy grab for little tots, has turned into a major commercial boondoggle with pop-up stores, sexy whatever costumes and a lot of serial-zombie blood and gore.

Telling seventh graders that they’re too old for all the fun and have to stay in the house and do their math homework isn’t likely to change their minds about anything. And just try to keep your HS sophomore home if their friends are out creating minor-league mayhem. Better they should be in their own neighborhoods, toting pillowcases full of loot, or at parties where there’s a parent upstairs.

So how old is too old?

Chesapeake, Virginia says 13 is the age when trick-or-treaters should be fined or sent to jail, for up to six months. No, really. And if you’re out at 8:05 p.m., it’s a misdemeanor.

I don’t know who made up these rules in Chesapeake, but good luck enforcing them.

And pass me another fun-sized Snickers.


Tired of Democratic Infighting? How Much of it is Sexism?

So—Elizabeth Warren released her very progressive K-12 Education Plan yesterday. As soon as it was released, I got a text with a link to the plan, which I read, top to bottom. Just as I have read the other K-12 education plans.

I get texts about all of Warren’s plans, as soon as they’re developed. I assume this is because I donated to Warren. Actually, I have donated to six candidates this year (those tiny little donations that candidates claim they treasure). One of them has dropped out, but I gave money to two men and four women. Warren is not my preferred candidate—although she’s certainly in my top three. She just seems to be the one with the target on her back. Or, more likely, her head.

I get plenty of email and texts from all of these candidates, some more than others. I delete the money requests, but I read the plans. Because I am interested in what candidates see as political priorities.

Not that any of them, individually, has the political muscle to leverage a full-blown transformation of public education, a totally free national health program, tuition-less college and cancelling student debt. I am a mature, well-informed citizen who pays attention to politics. I’ve known better than to vote for the candidate with the most tempting promises since the 1970s.

That doesn’t mean that policy briefs don’t matter. They certainly do. But could we please stop doing line-by-line comparisons of campaign platforms, looking for miniscule differences? Let’s look for the highlights, the goals and principles of good governance– and more important, the smarts and stamina of who endorsed them.

The fight for what we really get (or don’t get) comes later. Much later. The issues and sub-issues will be hammered out, one by one, in the 2021 Congress. And it would be a shame if we weren’t on the same page then, when it really does matter. Anybody notice how the make-up of Congress is shaping the news these days? Let’s put some attention there.

I was working on another—probably better—blog this morning. I took a break to look at the ongoing conversation on social media. And it was beyond discouraging.

This is awful stuff to read, on friends’ pages. It’s not because we have ‘too many’ Democratic candidates. It’s not about the flaws in Democratic party power-wielding. It’s not about who has strongest platform or policy ideas—because those are just…ideas. It’s because we’re back in boots-or-flipflops mode, obsessing over the polls, the public fights, the personalities. Some of us love the infighting, but it’s dangerous.


On the morning of November 9, 2016, as I was moping around, red-eyed and sleep-deprived, I said to my husband: I wonder when America will be ready for a woman president.

He thought I was over-simplifying what happened, that maybe America just didn’t want Hillary, not anywoman, to be president. He suggested it wasn’t incipient sexism underlying the most stunning loss since Dewey vs. Truman—just a lack of enthusiasm, or some other ephemeral reason—James Comey? The Russians?

But now that we have multiple outspoken, qualified women candidates, it feels like déjà vu—nobody wants to be perceived as sexist, but there it is. Let me go out on a limb here and say that I would very much like to have a woman in the White House before I die. Even if she’s pedantic or not perfect on health care or didn’t do well in one of the debates. It’s time.

I am about to return to that better blog, which actually is about a single topic, with a point to be made. Unlike this blog, which is nothing more than free-floating resentment. Sorry.

I think Warren’s K-12 plan is a good as it gets for any unrealistic grab-bag of Democratic dreams.  She promises to support unions. She talks about the folly of testing. She apparently understands how underfunding has harmed schools. Best of all, she provides a full-throated defense of genuinely public education. Have at it.


Hidden Messages Your School Sends to Students

Once, at a staff meeting, my principal shared a short video he’d seen at an administrators’ conference.  It was an effort, I think, to talk about important things at mandated staff meetings, rather than simple announcements. Although there was a lot of eye-rolling when he cued it up, I thought it was worthwhile, with some apt observations about schooling.

One of those was a suggestion that if we wanted to assess what was most important to us, we should look at the times when the normal academic schedule was disrupted, and the student body gathered for an all-school assembly.

At that point in the school year, we’d had five assemblies:

  • An assembly on the first day, where students were welcomed, then informed which teacher would be leading them to their first hour class and giving them schedules.
  • An annual ‘rules’ assembly for each grade, where the assistant principal went through all the rules in the student handbook.
  • An all-school assembly to introduce the annual fund-raiser, and a follow-up assembly, two weeks later, to reward all the students who sold enough sausage and cheese with an hour out of class to play in bouncy castles and batting cages.
  • A fall sports assembly to recognize athletic teams.

I mentioned this to my principal, who asked tartly if I thought that our school was all about schedules, rules, fund-raising and sports? Why else would we be having assemblies? And did I think that bringing this up to the staff would endear me to him or anyone else?

Actually, I didn’t think our school was focused on administrivia or making money. I thought our teachers, pretty much, were doing interesting things in their classrooms, and our students were offered a nice variety of meaningful activities and clubs.

During the time I taught there, we hosted Holocaust survivors, who sat on folding chairs in front of the bleachers, holding microphones, 800 silent students listening intently to their stories. We also had square dancing assemblies where everyone participated, concerts where band and choir students performed for their peers, and student drama productions. It was—still is—a good place to teach.

But the idea stuck in my head: What are the hidden messages in our conventional school practices?

I learned about the hidden curriculum while working on my masters degree, back in the 1970s, reading Michael Apple and Philip Jackson. It made perfect sense then. But it didn’t much impact my teaching or the hundreds of embedded habits that shaped practice in my building, from 55-minute periods to detentions to tracking.  School was school, and like most teachers, my M.O. was ‘go along to get along.’ It took a long time and a lot of courage to ever raise a question around Things We Always Do.

Why? Because teachers who rock the boat aren’t popular.

A colleague who asks about changing the grading system, or altering the discipline policy, will face a lot of resistance, even if those practices are harming students. It took my district years to pass a ‘no paddling’ policy, even after 95% of the staff had stopped physical punishments, knowing they were cruel and pointless.

I thought about that video when I read Alfie Kohn’s tweet this week:

The entrance area that greets visitors to a typical high school contains two things: evidence (in the form of trophies) that its students triumphed over students from other schools & plaques listing which of its students are better than others. Assignment (for administrators, teachers, and kids): Design a school lobby that reflects a commitment to collaboration and community rather than to sorting and triumphing.

The tweet rang my chimes. I once brought a First Division band festival plaque to the Athletic Director (who had the keys to the showcase) and asked if it could be displayed. He explained that no, the showcase–actually, all the showcases–were for athletic accomplishments. I should hang the band’s plaque on the band room wall. Those showcases, of course were not in the gym, the locker room or athletic department hallway. They were four of them in a main entrance to the school commons, and filled with ancient, often rusting, exemplars of Teams Gone By, people whose names nobody knew.

The not-so-hidden message there, of course, was Sports First, other student accomplishments not so much–a sentiment familiar to many debate coaches, drama club advisors, journalism sponsors, robotics volunteers and National Honor Societies.

I did hang the plaque on the wall of the band room, and added several more, over the years. When I left the job, my successor took them all down and mailed them to me in a cardboard box. So much for tradition and pride in the program.

Kohn’s challenge is right on the money: How can schools challenge their students to build strong communities that bring out the best in all students? How should this be reflected in the school environment?

‘Visibly Pregnant’ Is Not What Matters Most in National Conversation around Women in Teaching

Like most women of a certain age, I identified strongly with Elizabeth Warren’s story of being shown the door once ‘visibly pregnant’—not to mention the alternative certification that got her into a classroom, and her ultimate decision to leave teaching and go to law school, rather than hurdle the licensure barriers in returning to a special education position. Millions of us have stories about becoming parents while teaching, and a lot of them aren’t pretty.

And millions of us agree with Joan Walsh: The Warren story matters because it plays into the way we’ve all been socialized to see women as untrustworthy, which, honestly folks, is gonna make it hard to elect our first woman president. Precisely.

I am gratified that so many testified that yes, Virginia, women—up through and even past the 1980s—have experienced discrimination because they were pregnant or new mothers. Other first-world nations have vastly better maternity leave practices than the United States. The thought that we might soon have a high-level champion for bringing the United States into the 21st century, vis-à-vis equitable child-bearing/rearing policy, is encouraging, even thrilling.

Still, I don’t think Elizabeth Warren represents teaching any more than I thought Laura Bush was a bona fide literacy expert, or that Karen Pence is a reliable source for policy on human rights in education. Just because you’ve been in a K-12 classroom for a short stint doesn’t make you a valid spokesperson for core issues in public education. (Are you listening, Teach for America?)

I tend to agree with my friend Ken Jackson, Professor and Associate Dean at Wayne State University in Detroit, who wrote:

Our national blind spot: the story is not whether Warren was or was not treated fairly by the school principal in 1971 when she was “visibly pregnant.” The story is that–at that time–American classrooms were stocked with people of Warren’s intellect, charisma, and ability. Most were women. That massive labor force has long since moved out of classroom teaching. It isn’t coming back. And American education is running on fumes.

Warren – amidst this trip down memory lane – seems to have little sense of this either. The irony? If by chance she does become President, the crisis in classroom teaching will hit hardest on her watch. People have been fleeing and avoiding the profession since the 80s. The last crop of talented, serious teachers is heading into the last phase of their careers. It really is that simple.

I asked Ken why he thought Warren did not recognize this impending crisis, and he mentioned her uninspiring pledge to make a teacher Secretary of Education. On that issue, I agree with him—perhaps surprisingly, because I think I am a strong advocate for teachers. Which teacher Warren would name as Secretary of Education? I have met plenty of teachers, including award-winning, exemplary classroom practitioners, whose skill sets do not include the policy-crafting expertise, let alone the stomach, to deftly manage bull-headed legislators.

Not that our most recent EdSecs have been paragons of skill and integrity in improving public education, of course.

I once spent an afternoon with a teacher who’d earned multiple pedagogical awards. He came directly out of a high school classroom onto Arne Duncan’s staff, tapped by his Congressman. He told me he’d been excited to get the job, thinking he could make a difference, represent teachers at the proverbial table, share key insights into what schools needed to thrive.

He said shreds of that belief lasted for perhaps six weeks. Lately, he’d found himself thinking that teachers were naïve, even whiny. Still, he got up every morning, put on a suit and tie and went to work. He was considering running for office, because that’s where the power levers were.

And that’s the key point here. There is a serious need to protect what’s good in public education—and there’s a lot—and invest in a reimagined future for schools. If that sounds like wishy-washy BS, it’s because we’ve lost faith in the power of our once-strong public institutions. We need leaders who will explicitly commit to our common goals and values, grab power assertively, and use it for public good.

That’s a big difference from appointing a teacher Secretary of Education. Or ginning up pointless arguments about whether or not a principal pushed a good teacher out of the classroom, 40 years ago, a story generated by  Jacobin staff writer Meagan Day, a Bernie Sanders supporter.

Still—as Jack Schneider says: We should take care to note the way that gender continues to shape the nature of credibility. Do we believe women the way we believe men? The way we respond to this present controversy will tell us something about how far we’ve come, or about how far we have yet to go.

There are serious issues to be hashed through around public education—the diminishing talent pipeline and gender inequity are only two. I disagree with Ken’s thinking that we’ve seen the last crop of talented and serious teachers—I know too many young teachers who have persisted, driven by a deep desire to be excellent—but we genuinely could be in the process of losing one of the foundational cornerstones of American democracy: public schools.

Even if Warren were to be elected, a latent lack of trust in female leaders won’t go away. Our only choice is to keep electing women and keep pushing them to be fearless in seeking power and change.  Photo credit.

Blinded by ‘Science’

At a moment when half of our elected officials are resisting Political Science as means of preserving democracy, or Climate Science as a resource for, say, saving the planet, it must be reassuring to some that the Education field, at least, seems to be pursuing Science these days. Aggressively.

Science standards this and scientific method that and exponential STEM everywhere. Because jobs.

Except—that’s not really the case. Currently, the top ten job opportunities in STEM fields are all in the T part of STEM, and there’s actually not much call for biochemists (and not a lot of money to be made, either). In fact, there are 10 times as many graduates in the life sciences as there are jobs. You can teach, of course, but—the party line is that a STEM degree will take you away from pedestrian careers like teaching into the glamorous world of lab coats and bubbling test tubes.

And speaking of…the ‘science of reading’ has bubbled up, again. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know that mainstream media is now eagerly printing pieces claiming that we have known all along, for decades, how to teach reading—that it’s ‘settled science.’ For some reason, these articles claim, benighted teachers everywhere have either not adopted this one sure-fire method, or more likely, their university training did not include scientific reading pedagogy.

Those teachers! Those colleges! When will they accept Science and teach all children to read the same way?

More than enough digital ink has been squandered on the Reading Wars (and accompanying smackdowns of the hard-won expertise of veteran early childhood teachers with actual students)—but this focus on Science is a new twist. No more book whisperers, personal literacy journeys or other soft terms of art. Bring on the scientific worksheets!

Insistent nudging of reading teachers toward Science pales in comparison to Ulrich Boser’s recent headline in the Education Post: It’s Time to Help Teachers Discover the Science Behind How Kids Learn.  Boser, according to his bio, is a Senior Fellow, a Founder, a Founding Director, an author and Not a Teacher.

I seldom read anything on Education Post but was drawn to the title, and Boser’s opening statement:  We recently surveyed around 200 K-12 educators from across the U.S. to discover their beliefs about learning. The results were not good—and say a lot about the nation’s system of training educators. 

Whoa. The nation’s teachers and those who train them, cut down in one sweep, by Science.

Now, I’m no scientist but it seems like the thoughts of 200 (out of nearly 4 million) teachers, captured by a survey, might not be the most valid and reliable evidence, but hey– I learned to read via the look-say method, so what do I know?

I went to Ed School in the 1970s, and back then, we all took classes on learning theory and educational psychology—the science behind how kids learn. I don’t remember a great deal—they were always textbook/lecture/test courses (there’s some irony in that).

But I remember covering Plato, Bruner, Vygotsky, Piaget, all the biggies. We learned about Skinner and behaviorism—operant conditioning was all the rage in the 1970s classroom—but that never worked as it was supposed to in my classroom.

I would venture to guess that most experienced teachers remember fragments of learning theory, adapted and applied to what has actually happened in their daily practice. They know, for example, that there is a sweet spot in learning—what Vygotsky called the zone of proximal development—where new learning is both achievable and challenging. I personally know that prior learning—the gestalt–matters a great deal. I learned this when I began teaching beginning band to kids who’d never had elementary music and couldn’t match pitches or keep a steady beat.

Boser makes a lot of claims, beginning with the ever-popular ‘Teachers (97% of them, he says) believe in learning styles but they don’t exist! So there!’ You have to ask yourself this question: If it is true that 97% of teachers believe there is some prima facie validity to learning styles, based on their lying eyes, what exactly are they missing?

He provides lots of statistics-based examples of teachers’ intellectual failures and misunderstandings, then Boser hits us with this:  The overall picture suggests that teachers have weak overall knowledge about learning principles. Out of 17 questions related to learning myths and research-supported teaching strategies, respondents performed only slightly better than chance. Respondents got 8.34 questions correct on average—random guessing would give an average response rate of 6.63.

Boser doesn’t have to spell it out any more plainly. Teachers be dumb.

Having set up a giant straw man of an entire professions’ scientific ignorance, Ulrich Boser tells us what we can do about this dire situation. You guessed it—we can get teachers some professional help. Or, as Boser memorably says: How can we create a learning engineering agenda?

Just so happens that he’s the Founding Director of The Learning Agency (‘Part consultancy, part service provider, part communications firm, the Learning Agency’s difference is the science of expertise’). Also: he did a TED talk.

What about the professional development that teachers routinely get, provided by their schools? Isn’t that supposed to be research-based?  Teachers in Boser’s survey claimed they got their updated knowledge about teaching from workshops, conferences, school-mandated professional development and colleagues, which sounds about right to me.

Boser, however, feels that ‘leading teacher training materials’ featured an ‘astounding lack of science’ and working collaboratively with colleagues merely leads to ‘anecdotal’ sharing, not (yup) ‘hard science.’

I once worked with a second-career teacher who had been a chemist in a large, multinational corporation for 25 years, but wanted to get out of the rat race and be a teacher (his words) at the end of his work life. He did a year-long, night-courses teacher certification program at a four-year university, and a semester of student teaching, for the tradeoff of more satisfying work at a lower salary. He wanted to ‘give back.’

He had no trouble getting a job teaching Chemistry in a suburban school. The principal was thrilled to get a real, live chemist with applied scientific expertise. I was his e-mentor.

When he arrived at school in August, he was shocked to find that he’d been assigned four hours of Chemistry and one hour of AP Chemistry. They were two different courses! Twice as much preparation—and by the way, school was starting, and nobody had given him any lesson plans. I told him to be prepared to create his own lesson plans. Another shock.

We’d never do anything like this at Big Multinational, he said. Why would every teacher create new lesson plans? That wasn’t efficient.

Because, I said, you haven’t met your students yet. You don’t know what they know or what they need now. You’ll be tailoring and tinkering with your plans all year long—and ask the other Chemistry teacher for advice before you start writing.

Would all teachers benefit from a more scientific approach to teaching and learning? Or should they just go on collaborating, sharing ideas with colleagues and field-testing their own methods and strategies, building a practice around their own observations?

Ask a teacher.


Who Cares about Knowledge—or the Public Good?

I have to start with a confession: I am a PhD dropout.

After 31 years of teaching mostly secondary Instrumental Music, with brief forays into 7th grade math, English as a Second Language, a Gifted Student pull-out program, and random K-12 music courses (which I was actually qualified to teach), I decided to pursue a PhD in Education Policy when I retired.

I wanted to study education policy intensively. I was tired of being the object of education policy and wanted to be a partner in creating that policy.

I wanted to learn everything I could about where the power levers were and figure out how we found ourselves—a wealthy, democratic society which generated the unique idea of a free, high-quality common school for all children—in a such a muddle.

Why I didn’t finish my terminal degree is a subject for a later column–but I genuinely loved all the coursework, especially digging deep into the purposes and history of public education. The single most impressive researcher and thinker I read was David Labaree. His piece, ‘Public Goods, Private Goods: The American Struggle Over Educational Goals’ made more sense to me than any of the hundreds of books, chapters, monographs and articles I read, reviewed and analyzed in white papers.  From the abstract:

This article explores three alternative goals for American education that have been at the root of educational conflicts over the years: democratic equality (schools should focus on preparing citizens), social efficiency (they should focus on training workers) and social mobility (they should prepare individuals to compete for social positions). These goals represent, respectively, the educational perspective of the citizen, the taxpayer and the consumer. Whereas the first two look on education as a public good, the third sees it as a private good… [T]he growing domination of the social mobility goal has reshaped education into a commodity for the purposes of status attainment and has elevated the pursuit of credentials over the acquisition of knowledge.
American Educational Research Journal,                                                                                        Spring, 1997, Vol. 34, No. 1, pp. 39-81.

Written over 20 years ago, before No Child Left Behind, before the monolithic Common Core State (sic) Standards, just as charter schools and whiz-bang classroom technologies were getting a toehold in the national imagination, Labaree provides a durable analysis of what we could lose (democratic equality) and what we could gain (the hot pursuit of credentials over the acquisition of knowledge) if we weren’t careful.

I re-read the piece every year or so, and damned if it isn’t still accurately evaluating our educational choices and outcomes. We don’t hear, anymore, about the melting pot, the rich townie and the poor farm boy rubbing elbows for the greater civic good of genuine opportunity. And when an articulate bartender, also seeking opportunity, gets elected to Congress, there’s a target on her back.

Today, we watch educators hold teach-ins at the southern border, as children are separated from their parents and put in cages. Hollywood celebrities buy test scores and slots in the most prestigious universities.  Social studies are the ugly stepchild in our STEM-focused, credential-driven world.

Labaree was prescient: Who cares about knowledge—or the public good?

Evidently, some (admirable) people do—and they also care about civic engagement and strengthening democracy. There is a movement to revise the traditional three-branches-of-government Civics curriculum by engaging students in the real work of democracy. From Andrea Gabor:

Civics fell victim to the narrowing of curricula under both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and to the standardized testing regimen that focused on math, science and English. Worried about economic competition from China, neither Democrats nor Republicans anticipated the recent populist and authoritarian threat to Western democracies that civics education is meant to forestall. The reality is, schools need to do both: prepare students for a global economy and to be engaged citizens in a democracy.

The day after a successful student-led Climate Strike is a great time to be discussing this—and Gabor runs down a list of other projects, large and small, where students have provided action leadership, in addition to traditional ‘school’ tasks, like presentations and papers.

A telling fact: educators driving this project have fears about our now-embedded belief that only tests can reveal student learning. This headline says it all: Could Testing Wreck Civics Education?

It’s a thrilling idea, though, at the intersection of political power and scholarship: Students, encouraged by their Civics teachers, use their new-found knowledge and passion to address issues that have been mired in legislative concrete and acrimony for decades.

Labaree is still writing, bemoaning our love affair with easily imposed standardization and structures rather than investing in the potential of individual children:

Erratic funding, poorly prepared teachers, high turnover, dated textbooks – all of these may impede the socially efficient outcomes of education, but they do not prevent reformers from putting in place the central structure of social efficiency in the school system: a tracked curriculum organized around the idea of education for work. 

This is the central rationale around what education policy has become: Education is work training (and all that implies—compliance, duty, relinquishing power in exchange for a wage, and basic, replicable skills replacing human judgment and creativity). Those who have purchased the right credentials will have other options.

Andrea Gabor slips this into her piece quietly, but it’s the central point here: neither Democrats nor Republicans anticipated the recent populist and authoritarian threat to Western democracies. Once education has been devoted entirely to sustaining the economy, it’s no longer a threat to those currently in power.


Why Don’t Democratic Presidential Candidates Talk about Charter Schools?

I was chatting with a group of women last month about the presidential race. All of these women identify as Democrats, and all of them are eager to off-load the current resident of the White House.  We meet monthly, to discuss a current topic, and lately, have closed our gathering by checking in with our current favorites among the candidates. Cory Booker’s name came up.

There was admiration for his smooth, polished presence and rhetoric at debates and on news shows. He was doing well in the debates—and maybe could stand up to Trump, make him look foolish. I interrupted the happy talk: His record on education is terrible. He’s an avowed charter school supporter who nearly destroyed the Newark Public Schools. He’s a big fan of school choice, even vouchers.

I looked around the table at a lot of blank faces. One voice spoke up: So? Why is that so bad?

And then I realized. These women—lovely, principled, left-leaning women—haven’t been fighting the education policy wars for years. One has a grandchild in a charter school.  They want good schools for all kids, but they’re agnostic about alternate school governance. Even a local charter founder spending 41 months in federal prison for tax evasion, having improperly handling millions of public dollars in his quest to establish a lucrative charter chain, didn’t really have much of an impact. That school remains open, drawing over 1000 students from local public districts.

Me? I believe charter schools have done untold damage to public education, and I’ve had twenty years to observe the public money/private management ideology establish itself in Michigan. First, a scattering of alternative-idea boutique schools, another ‘choice’ for picky parents. Then they go after the low-hanging fruit, the schools in deep poverty—and then the healthier districts.  There is now agreement with an idea once unthinkable in America: corporations have a “right” to advertise and sell education, using our tax dollars.

So—no, I cannot be agnostic. In the end, I’d like to see charter schools go away, one at a time, forever, because mountains of evidence have proven that they’re ripe for fraud and malpractice, and because there are far better public-school options, in every city and neighborhood. I think that’s preferable to trying to extinguish or ban charter schools outright—although ending all federal financial support for charters is Step One. That will necessitate a new Secretary of Education. The rest will mean changing hearts and minds—a long, slow process.

Which is why I’m not surprised that most Democratic candidates have not made bold proclamations about charter schools. In the Democratic debate Thursday night, Andrew Yang—a long-time, vocal charter supporter– was the first candidate to field a question about charter schools, a barbed inquiry that also incorporated Yang’s negative comments about teacher unions.

Yang dissembled with a series of talking points all viewers are likely to agree with—we need to pay teachers more and stop focusing on standardized tests, blah blah. When the question was tossed to Booker, he—surprise!—did the same, burying his long-time pro-charter viewpoints under a flurry of unsubstantiated claims of amazing, transformative success in Newark—his own personal fake news.

Aside from Julien Castro’s remark that charter schools were not better than public schools, a truth that a fair segment of America does not recognize, having been subject to media campaigns saying just the opposite, the rest of the candidates steered clear of the charter question. Lots of them said the right stuff about education, from pre-school and HBCUs, to teacher pay and college loans. But even Bernie Sanders, whose comprehensive platform is openly anti-charter, was mum on charters.

I know why we’re not hearing a lot about charters. Approximately six percent of American schoolchildren attend charter schools. It’s not just Betsy DeVos who’s cheerleading for charters—the Obama administration was charter-friendly. Charter school parents are voters. Charter school policies are made at the state level, and unlike Donald Trump, most Democratic candidates seem to have a clear grasp of the idea that they can’t shut down charter schools, en masse, with a stroke of their Sharpie, should they become President.

For many progressive-side parents, charter schools are a fringe issue. They might live in a state where there aren’t enough charters to change the public-school ecology. Or—they know a family that’s happy with their charter school. Or they’re laboring under the decades-old illusion that schools are locally controlled, and nothing will ever happen to destabilize their public school system.

Asked why they send their children to a charter school, parents in my town talked about things like the young, enthusiastic teachers, the brand-new building, and—uniforms.

Charter teachers are young because there’s a great deal of turnover there; spanking new graduates often can’t get jobs in public schools because staff and programs are being cut, so they turn to charters for employment. That impressive new charter building is entangled in financial malfeasance (with my tax money).  And why aren’t parents more interested in the curriculum, programming and school climate, rather than plaid jumpers and polo shirts? Who knows.

Our citizenry is trained in consumerism—promoting education as just another choice to be made was easy, like FedEx or Blackwater instead of the USPS or the US military. Got a problem with the local public school? Don’t invest your time and money in fixing what’s already there. Pick a new school! It’s the American way.

Education is my issue, but charters are a mere slice of a bigger pie. It was gratifying to simply hear candidates talk about education on the stage. Here’s what I would like to hear from a candidate:

Let’s invest more in fully public education—the kind that’s community-based and has elected oversight. Let’s acknowledge the places where it has crumbled and rebuild them, instead of abandoning them. Let’s work toward more economically and ethnically diverse schools, making them places where building an informed citizenry and developing individual talents—not test scores—are our highest goals.

Did I try to change the minds of my friends? Yes, of course. I told them that Cory Booker palled around with Betsy DeVos. They’re long-time Michiganders, and that was all it took.