Not Funding Schools or Paying Teachers? That’s a ‘You Problem’, Right?

In the school district next to mine—and where I live, all the schools are small and rural—there was an unpaid collective lunch debt in June. As a goodwill gesture, a local craft brewery paid off the debt, $2700, so all the students in Suttons Bay will start the year with a clean slate. There are about 525 kids, PK-12, in the district and roughly half of them meet qualifications for free or reduced lunch.

According to Realtor.Com, the median price of homes for sale in Suttons Bay is $454,000.

You can get a pretty nice house for $450K, almost anywhere in the Midwest. So why are there so many kids on free and reduced lunch in the school district? You can get a hint by noting that the young man who suggested The Mitten Brewing Company pay off students’ lunch debt is both bartender at The Mitten and substitute teacher in Suttons Bay.

There’s poverty in paradise, as Bridge Magazine revealed in a startling series of articles. There are people supporting families on three or four patched-together jobs, often in industries serving the older, wealthier residents in those gorgeous lakefront homes. Lots of those hard-working people have college degrees—the thing that was supposed to keep them ahead of the pack—and student loans.

You could see this as repellent conservative motormouth Ben Shapiro does:

Well, the fact is if you had to work more than one job to have a roof over your head or food on the table, you probably shouldn’t have taken the job that’s not paying you enough. That’d be a you problem.

Does Ben Shapiro think that teachers in Suttons Bay (where the average pay is just north of $50K) have a You problem by accepting a job where they are willing to sacrifice personal well-being in order to teach children? Since the national average pay for teachers is about $60K, and teachers in MS, WV and OK are working for much, much less—does that mean that starry-eyed public school teachers shouldn’t take these shitty jobs, period?

Reading comments on the article about The Mitten paying off the lunch debt, it’s easy to understand that our current local social milieu is not terribly compassionate when it comes to feeding kids a nutritious meal while they’re at school. While the Suttons Bay district feeds everyone, whether they have money or not, commenters seemed to feel that lunch debts were most definitely a You problem—or, rather, a Them problem, with Them being irresponsible seven-year old freeloaders sucking up hot dogs, beans and canned peaches. Not to mention milk.

Pay off their debt now, and they’ll just expect you to do it next year! And slide me another $7 craft beer, OK?

It’s confusing, sorting through the right way to think about this. There are nearby districts that give every child a free breakfast and lunch, rather than try to sort through paperwork poverty credentials or label students. Good for them. And what about teachers who essentially beg for the auxiliary supplies that will make their classrooms more homelike, fun and effective, through #clearthelist or Donors Choose?

Do we hold out until the district gives us everything we want or need? Or do we patch together three or four supplementary strategies to build an engaging teaching practice and a comfortable classroom, relying on our second job to make the car payment for the long commute, when housing in our price range is not available?

Well. I generally find that educators who righteously stand on principle—i.e., the public should pay for public education—are teaching in districts that are relatively well off, and in subjects that are tested and therefore not likely to be eliminated in the next round of budget cuts.

I spent 30 years teaching instrumental music in a suburban school. I did fund-raising every single one of those years to keep the program alive and flourishing. With the help of legions of enthusiastic parents, we bought instruments and music and sent students on out-of-state and international travel experiences. The program was threatened every time there was a budget shortfall, but it never died, because of parent support.

Should public schools pay for everything, from French toast sticks to beakers for the chemistry lab? Unequivocally. Should all public-school teachers make $60K, minimum? Absolutely.

The question is what to do until that happens—and who suffers when the charity and fund-raising end.

We know the answer to that. And we know who will take the long-term, $15/hour substitute positions in districts that can’t find enough teachers.

It’s an Us problem. All of us.

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Fifty Years Ago

I graduated from high school fifty years ago. As graduation years go, it was a pretty dramatic time.

Richard Nixon was sworn in as President in January–and just as the Beatles were winding down, Led Zeppelin released their first album, forming my personal soundtrack in that summer-to-fall of 1969. She’s leaving home. Good times, bad times. Give peace a chance.

It was the first year that the tally of casualties in Viet Nam went down, rather than up—but already too late for some of my older schoolmates. The summer of 1969 was a series of stunning incidents: The Stonewall riots. The Cuyahoga River catching fire. Chappaquiddick. Hurricane Camille. The Manson slayings. Woodstock. The Apollo landing, and the moon walk.

Me? I was working at a Kentucky Fried Chicken. In the space of one summer, I had a meteoric rise from dishwasher and kitchen cleaner, sluicing grease into floor drains, to salad maker, cashier and eventually shift supervisor, in three short months.

On the night of the Apollo landing, I drove to the beach with friends after work. We lay on our backs in the still-warm sand, and looked at the moon—and dreamed of a world where rivers would run clean, politicians would be honest, senseless crime and war would be eradicated, and the moon would merely be our first stop in exploring the universe.  In spite of what now seems like a tsunami of unusually bad news, there was a sense that there really would be a time when we would be free to love whomever we chose, bomber death planes would turn into butterflies, yada yada.

All we had to do was hang on, keep the faith. And—for me— get out of Dodge.

I could not wait to leave my hometown. It’s not like I was headed anyplace unique—a regional state university a couple of hours away, where I had a substantial music scholarship and a work-study. On August 15, 1969, I hitched a ride to Central Michigan University for college orientation. When I got home two days later, my mother gave me the once-over. I thought maybe you were headed to New York for that music festival with all the hippies, she said, wrinkling her nose.

The funny thing is—I was about as far from being a rebellious hippie at that point as any conventional 17-year old with a day job slinging extra-crispy chicken wings. I still wore knee socks and pleated skirts. I ironed my hair. I practiced my flute every day. It was going to be my ticket to a better life.

And that turned out to be true. Although it wasn’t in my plans fifty years ago, I became a teacher, a career I had significantly underestimated in my pre-college life. It was teaching, working in public education, meeting smart and funny colleagues and–OK, I’m just going to say it–inspiring the next generation, that made me what I am today. I’m proud to be a teacher, especially a music teacher. I’ve led a fabulous, colorful, rewarding, blessed life.

But I am saddened, when I think of all the missed opportunities, the great U-turn in what we considered possible, back in 1969. The environment, the government, science and the arts, humanity and justice—whatever happened to ‘we are stardust, we are golden—and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden’?

What’s happened to public education, foundational building block of all that progress, is the most discouraging. When I went to CMU, we had to double up in the dormitories because there wasn’t room for the tidal wave of baby boomers, eager to be the first college-educated generation. Public high schools were building science labs, sports stadiums, auditoriums and language labs, funded by parents eager to give their children a good public-school education. There was a shortage of teachers, and the ones I had were newly unionized, seeking better salaries and benefits, and pursuing advanced degrees.

Everything, it seemed, was possible, fifty years ago.

So did I go to the 50 year class reunion? No.

I still work weekends, as music coordinator in a liberal church. There was nobody else to play on the Sunday morning after the reunion, and it’s my job.  Also–I still communicate, often, with the dozen or so people I was closest to in high school. The reunion was a long way to go to see folks who have probably forgotten me.

And—honestly—I was worried about someone showing up in a MAGA cap, then being unable to tamp down my anger about the aforementioned loss of opportunity, plus the kids in cages at the border, the shootings, the corruption at the highest levels of government, and so on.

I’ve never been good at keeping my mouth shut.

But I haven’t given up hope. There will be good nights this week to lie on the beach and watch the Perseid meteor shower, and think about being billion year-old carbon, the golden stardust of faith.

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What Can We Expect Schools to Do about White Nationalism?

As the news stories about back-to-back (to-back) shootings emerged, I waited for what was surely coming.

Listening to talk radio while driving for an hour on Sunday morning, the stories from CNN, NPR, MSNBC and Bloomberg were similar: Shock and horror. Informed speculation about root causes. Serious conversation about domestic terrorism and white nationalism. Comments from Democratic presidential candidates (many of whom were moved by anger and frustration to expletives), calling for immediate Congressional action. Thoughtful remarks about gun control.

Then I turned to Fox. They were talking about… video games. And the role of the media (other media, evidently—not Fox, of course). How public schools had taken God out of the equation, leading to moral collapse and failed school policies. How the Internet and digital tools had fomented this crisis, so we all needed to put down our phones. The talk on Fox was all about mental health (another thing that public schools were lax in reporting or fixing). Thoughts and prayers a-plenty, laced with blame for public institutions.

The only thing in common: high praise for first responders.

Two distinct worldviews. Where does public education fit into this picture? If you’re patient, you’ll almost always get to hear what Joe Sixpack thinks ‘the schools’ have done wrong in shaping the next generation and how to fix these errors.

Is it fair for folks on the right to suggest that schools have absconded from their moral duty to imbue students with ethical principles? Should our first impulse be to ‘harden’ schools—or to be anti-racist role models for young children? What part can public schools and teachers play in building a more just and equitable society, reducing hate and violence?

Where do we start? Is it even our job?

First—I believe it is our job. As education thinkers and writers going back to Plato have noted, teaching is a moral calling. Dispensing information and nurturing skills are useless without a value-framed context for applying them. Any teacher who wants to step away from the certainty that what we say and do impacts kids, rippling throughout their lives, needs to think hard about going into real estate, instead.

Also–public education functions as a stage where Americans test and play out their deepest values and convictions.  You can’t escape. Someday, the shooter may come through the front doors of your school, throw the bomb through your open classroom window or threaten a Congressional Representative on your watch.  If you’re lucky, it will only be Jason from 4th hour, challenging you again over his right to paste a Confederate-flag sticker on his history book–but teachers always, always have to be thinking about what kids are taking away from their conversations and lessons.

I’m sure that some parents feel queasy about public school educators declaring their intention to teach in culturally and morally responsive ways. But the latest PDK poll indicates strong support for teaching Civics, and if introducing age-appropriate anti-racism lessons and anti-violence discussions isn’t ‘Civics,’ I don’t know what is.

There has always been confusion and dissension over the purpose of public education, but 45% of teachers view preparing students to be good citizens as public schools’ main goal. This is not an exclusive objective—we still need to be establishing basic academic and life skills; we need to send our kids down the job preparation path, at a minimum.

But it seems to me that underneath all of the things we are trying to accomplish, nurturing the qualities that make a person a good neighbor, parent, worker and community member boil down to citizenship. People who drive hundreds of miles to kill people whose skin color is different, or whose names reflect their families’ country of origin, aren’t good citizens.

How to start? There is a lovely blog (written in 2017) circulating recently, entitled How am I supposed to confront white supremacy and racism on the first day of school?  ‘From the minute my students walk through the door, I want them to know that they are loved and accepted for exactly who they arethat their voices carry power, that they are part of a community.’  It’s filled with beautiful thinking that cuts across subject disciplines and age levels, and gives teachers a moral framework for action.

But I also suggest that we can be far more specific. There are books for small children that address gun violence and racism.  We can build resistance to disinformation. With older students, we can explore the science and data behind mass violence.  We can also teach our students basic American geography and history without whitewash.

And–as trusted citizens, we can pull up our socks and become part of the growing national community of resistance to what is happening, every day, in our government. We can correctly label this, every chance we get, as domestic terrorism.

I can see the hands going up right now—I don’t trust my child’s teacher to teach ‘Moby Dick,’ let alone white nationalism. I’m fearful of my kids’ teachers’ political opinions, because they don’t align with mine. I don’t want some crazy anti-gun teacher criticizing my right to hunt deer.

The problem is–for all their flaws, schools are what we have, the only existing educational infrastructure available for children. I don’t have total faith in schools to accurately illuminate and warn against white nationalism, across the board. But better to start somewhere than declare teachers and schools useless in this war we are all fighting.

I take my inspiration for this perhaps overly optimistic hope from visiting Germany–and learning about how they teach their own history, now. From my own blog:

Our guide began by telling us that the impressive, forbidding structure we were looking at across the placid lake was not a museum. Museums are for sharing cherished cultural artifacts, he said. There are plenty of those in Germany, and we encourage you to visit them. A documentation center, on the other hand, is a public record of a human failure—one for which Germany was responsible. It was Germans’ moral duty to keep the archived memory alive at the Documentation Center, in concentration camps, and courtrooms.

He spoke of regional political differences pre-War, how a country in acute financial distress could be utterly divided about causes and solutions. He talked about generational differences and how it took Germans three full generations to understand how a handful of men turned a fundamentally decent people into killers, persuading those for whom horrific prejudice was just not a deal-breaker, if Germany could be restored to greatness. 

Someone asked the obvious question: How on earth could so many rational people buy into Hitler’s psychosis?

Ah, he said. This is where people from every nation must pay attention. Hitler was a genius at using available media and technology. Crystal radios were made cheap, and the same sticky message—an alternate, economically driven message of national pride—was pumped into all homes. “News” was what the party decided.

Public rallies were enormously effective. A common enemy had been clearly identified, the future was brighter because there was a plan for everyone, not merely the political elites. The ultimate community-building success.

I asked, as a teacher, what German schoolchildren were taught about Germany’s role in World War II. It was part of their national curriculum, he told us. They began with equity and community in early childhood, accepting differences and playing together. When students were 12, they read Anne Frank. Media literacy and logic and an intense focus on preparation for good, attainable, satisfying jobs were part of the program, in addition to history, economics and the predictable disciplines. We do not avoid our history, he said.

So what do you do in America, he asked?

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Learning to Read

When educators talk about the Reading Wars, they’re not overexaggerating.

With the possible exception of the similarly bitter Math Wars, there’s no pedagogical battlefield more littered with sacred-cow theories, bold statements, unsubstantiated policy and outright acrimony.

Recently, the combat has heated up again, with a handful of irate but organized parents and a spokesperson with good media connections claiming that the ‘science’ of learning to read is ‘settled.’ As if a proclamation about the One Best Way could convince the public (and, even more ridiculous, reading teachers) that if we all just calmed down and standardized reading instruction, every single child could read by the end of first grade, as God intended.

Which was why it was so refreshing to read this from Michelle Strater Gunderson, long-time first grade teacher (and articulate union leader) in the Chicago Public Schools:

It should not be expected for a child to read by the end of first grade. We should only be concerned if the process of learning to read has not yet taken hold. Please debate.

At this writing, there are 65+ comments, all of which boil down to this: No debate. The statement is true (often followed by personal examples of how this race-to-read pressure has done great damage to children).

I have waded into the reading instruction controversy a couple of times—here and here, for example—and always drew irate observations about my lack of credibility as commenter on reading pedagogy, because I am a music teacher. What did I know about teaching kids to read?

It’s true that I am not a traditional reading teacher. Instead, I taught about 5000 (that’s not a typo) kids to read a new language–music–when they were somewhere around ten or eleven years old.

In other words, fifth or sixth graders, developmentally ready to cope with the intellectual task of interpreting symbols, putting them into musical phrases and sequences, while simultaneously thinking about fingers, embouchures and wind production, tone quality, intonation, expression, and reading at a fixed rate. It’s a very complex process, as difficult as phonic awareness, combining sounds into words, and then making meaning.

I did all this in very large, less-than-ideal mixed-instrument (and mixed ‘ability’) groupings, often as many as 50 students in a class. I need to stress here that I am nothing special, in music-teacher world– secondary band, orchestra and choral teachers do this all the time.

Yes, some students come to us with previous experience as music readers, just as some students come to kindergarten already having a fair grasp of decoding and a healthy vocabulary of sight words. Music students may also have developed unhelpful music-reading habits (inability to keep a steady beat, for example, which plays havoc with group instruction). Other students come to the process of learning to read music as ‘failed’ traditional readers, but end up becoming valuable members of our musical groups, because of the adaptation skills they have developed—watching and listening for cues that aren’t apparent to them through visual symbolic interpretation.

I was able to teach kids across a wide spectrum to read music because:

  • My students, at age 10 and above, were developmentally ready for the knowledge work, the interpretation of representative symbols—in current ‘reading expert’ parlance, the ‘codes’ established in Western music.
  • They were strongly motivated.
  • The learning process was both challenging and fun.
  • Strugglers were not singled out, but allowed to make mistakes, anonymously, for a relatively long period of time, until they perceived their own errors, asked for help, or were corrected. Nor were students grouped by any perception of their ability or talent—there were no ‘Bluebird groups’ in beginning band, where the core learning took place.
  • There was little home pressure–not many parents were expecting virtuosos (or cared all that much); it was an elective and it was supposed to be a pleasurable enrichment activity.
  • Learning was non-competitive.
  • There were multiple modes of learning available in every single lesson: Reading accurately (visual). Watching and imitating the teacher or other players until fingers and positions or vocal production felt comfortable (kinesthetic). Listening and matching (auditory). An uncritical acceptance of mistakes as a way to learn (social acceptance), then trying again.

What amazes me is that none of this is ever considered ‘reading instruction’ or ‘the science of learning to play an instrument.’  We just collectively stumble our way through the early stages of learning to play or to sing, using every tool available, having fun while we’re at it. There are schools of thought in music instruction (just as there are in reading pedagogy), but there are no public Music Wars.

Another amazing thing: there is ample evidence that learning to play a musical instrument strengthens all of the innate skills necessary for fluent reading. (Here, and here—and there are dozens more examples in my files.) But I’ve never seen anyone suggest that it would be better to give students supplemental musical instruction when they’re labeled ‘behind’ in reading proficiency (a word I’ve come to mistrust). Instead, we take away the arts and recess, or simply force the child to repeat a grade, repeat the same ineffective reading instruction, believing humiliation is the cure.

Michelle Gunderson is right. We’re pushing too hard, too fast. And it isn’t helping—it’s making things worse.

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Lesson Plans and Other Problematic Tools of Teaching

Once, back in the early days of teacher blogging, I was part of a cadre of ‘recognized’ educators (I know—the term makes me cringe, too), who were pumping out blogs for a national magazine making the transition to an online format. We were posting every two days, because our editor was a little manic about fresh content as key to increased traffic.

What this meant was that I was writing feverishly, coordinating topics with my fellow teacher-writers so that we didn’t all write about the same thing. There was little responding to current policy issues or op-eds popping up on critical national questions. Instead, there was a whole lot of generic, one-in-the-can education writing.

What I remember was that after a year, the editor evaluated our personal relevance via tracking the most-read blog topics. The number one draw? A blog about faculty meetings. Seriously.

Evidently, teachers wanted to read about their ordinary, daily practice. The ultimate tinkering around the edges, pedestrian things that get griped about in the faculty lounge.  This hasn’t changed—my FB and Twitter feeds have been overrun last week by a piece on a recent Hechinger Report entitled ‘Does Lunch Have to Be 45 Minutes?’

This preference for the prosaic bubbles up in mid-summer when the school supplies displays appear (and scary teacher dreams return). Teaching is one of those professions where satisfaction and mastery of the work depends heavily on accruing and curating a wide array of craft knowledge. Good teachers really do have strong opinions on staff meetings and optimum lunch breaks. They matter.

In my building, having your lunch time attached to your planning period–some 90 continuous discretionary minutes–was highly coveted, something given to 20-year veterans who sucked up to the scheduling secretary. The other desirable spot was first hour, when everyone else was teaching and the copy machine was finally available.  These things may sound inconsequential, but they’re not.

One of these evergreen subjects is lessons plans.  Should they be required and collected? Should they be standardized? Should they include goals/objectives/relevant standards? Are they even a real part of what teachers do—or just blah-blah to satisfy someone in the office? What is the real purpose of lesson plans—another mandated task that checks up on lazy teachers? Preparation for an emergency sub? An organizing tool for better teaching?

Offhand, I’d say the answer to all but one of those questions (the last one) should be—or could be–‘NO.’ Here’s a recent piece (again, very popular and widely shared in the teacher circles in which I travel) which makes a lukewarm but (IMHO) flawed case for abolishing required lesson plans, going as far as suggesting that lesson plans are a deterrent for those who might wish to be teachers during a nationwide teacher shortage.

During my 31-year career in the classroom, I often worked with colleagues who resisted the contractual requirement that they turn in weekly lesson plans. As veteran teachers, they felt that detailed planning on paper was mindless hoop jumping. According to them, good teachers could step into a class, all their knowledge and skills percolating, and proceed to do the right things, without having to rely on notes. Good teaching as natural artistry.

The thing is—this never worked for me. Any time I ever went into school without a clear plan for what I was going to do every hour of the day, Things Went Wrong, and I left school with a headache. This was especially true when I was a younger teacher, and my aforementioned craft knowledge was skimpy. For the 31 years I was in the classroom, I sat down every Sunday night, usually with a glass of wine, and wrote lesson plans. Because on the Sundays that I didn’t, I paid for it on Monday. I never outgrew the need for an organizing tool.

Of course, by Wednesday, the plans were defunct, off-track, amended and adjusted—but they still served a purpose. Turning them in to the principal was pointless, although I always complied, and I am profoundly grateful that I never had to follow a lesson plan template or pacing guide, list state standards, or give my plans to a sub who would have been mystified about what to do.

My plans were my own, generally written on a yellow legal pad with thought bubbles, bulleted learning goals, don’t-forget reminders, essential questions and useful extensions, what you need when your amazing 48-minute lesson is—surprise! —over and done in 32 minutes. Extensions are strategies (sometimes, something as simple as a juicy question) that reinforce the core idea or skill. After you’ve taught for years, you’ll have a mental bag full of extensions. Writing them down just reminds you to use them.

Here’s the reason I think lesson plans aren’t non-essential make-work: It took me a good 20 years to understand the parameters of high-quality lesson design. I wrote crappy plans, just to get them done and have a list of things to do, for a long time.

Eventually, I understood the structure of a good lesson—knowing your students and what they need before you plan, setting goals for learning, choosing appealing materials, paying attention to kids’ responses, and reflecting on how effective each lesson was, what students actually learned. After that, I found the lesson planning process indispensable.

I found I’d been planning a lot of disconnected but cool musical activities. My students were always busy—engaged—but I was missing richer and more coherent learning. Because I hadn’t thought deeply about it and put it in my plans.  The best piece I’ve ever read about this phenomenon is here: The Grecian Urn Lesson.

There are undoubtedly veteran teachers who have it all in their heads, but any teacher who resists planning in favor of winging it might take a reflective look at what, precisely, kids are taking away from their classroom. (Photo by CaptPiper)Photo by CaptPiper BY-NC 2.0

Three Years Ago

I wrote this three years ago, right after the shootings in Orlando. I was working, at the time, as pianist for Sunday services in a local church–a nice, friendly church a short distance from my home in northern Michigan. I had an experience there that rattled me–and I wrote about it, on Facebook. It was June, 2016–before the Access Hollywood tape, before the debates, before the dawning recognition that someone had welcomed Russia into our electoral process.

Facebook dished this up to me as a ‘remember when?’ option–and I was startled to see just how prescient it was. So I’m sharing it now, three years later:

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I have been thinking, all day, about something that happened yesterday. It’s been nagging at my consciousness as I read and watch coverage of the tragedy in Orlando. It’s not something I can put into a blog post, because it covers a wider swath than education. But it’s bothering me, a lot.

I live in a purple county in a purplish state. Among my true friends, the big discussion lately has been “Bernie or Hillary?” But among my neighbors, acquaintances and the organizations I belong to (and work for), there are lots of Republicans. Good people, I think–people who work hard, who care for their families and do good work in the community. People who are reasonably intelligent and trustworthy–people I respect and with whom I socialize.

It’s always been that way. I vote my conscience, based on information rather than personality, advertising or family tradition. I have never been a straight-ticket voter. And I have no partisan litmus test for the people I befriend.

I overheard a conversation yesterday, in the least likely place you can imagine, about the shootings and Donald Trump’s response to the tragedy. Four men, all sixty-ish (and all white)–pillars of the community, volunteers and grandfathers–were quietly discussing the events. One said “I’m worried that Trump’s going to say something he’ll regret.” (What? What more could he possibly say than the terrifying, appalling things he’s already said?) Another said “He needs to keep his mouth shut until he’s elected–then he can say things about Muslims and the gays and the Mexicans. But he can’t afford any mistakes right now, not while people are upset about Orlando.”

Mistakes? Mistakes!?

Their conversation continued on, these four “respectable” men– about how Trump would bring back the country they loved. How he’d restore the military, at last, and support small businessmen (no feedback on business women, alas). How their guns would be safe for four years (this is hunting country–the pro-gun bandwagon is big around here). How good it would be to have a man who believes in God (their God, the real God, not the Muslim God Obama worships) back in the White House. How very much they all loathed Hillary Clinton, see her as a criminal. They said these things. Out loud.

I was only a few feet away from the men, who weren’t exactly hiding anything, standing there with their styrofoam cups of coffee, kibbitzing. And it hit me like a concrete block upside the head: there are a whole lot of people who’d probably rather have Kasich or Cruz or Prince Jeb or Little Marco, but will vote for Trump in this election because he’s the one who will be on the ballot. He’s their only choice, as they see it. He may be a bigmouth or wrong on some things–but he’s the one they’ll vote for. And all of these men, trust me, are definitely voters.

It’s not as if I wasn’t aware these Reince Priebus-like people existed–but it rolled over me like an icy wave: People I know and like (or used to like) will be voting for Donald Trump. Not just moronic Tea-Party strangers, bellowing and threatening with misspelled signs at the rallies. Not just richer-than-rich capitalist predators with trophy wives. Not just feckless Republicans-for-life. But–people I know, people I attend services with, joke with at the post office. They’re Trump voters, whether they like him, or not. And they know who they can reveal their political preferences to–and who to avoid, when discussing him. They’re the people who will decide this election, too.

Seriously, it was a paradigm shift, one of those moments when you see your entire social environment in a completely different light. Organizations you found trustworthy become suspect. Core beliefs and principles are held up for examination. What happened in Germany in the 30s and 40s becomes plausible. The unfathomable–the national joke–becomes real.  (June 13, 2016)
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Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Education Policy Blunders

Here’s my theory of how Democrats can win the next election.

It doesn’t have anything to do with electability, because one man’s ‘electable’ is another woman’s ‘no thanks, old white dude.’ It also doesn’t have anything to do with one specific issue—because there are a dozen bona fide Hot! Burning! Critical! issues right now (the destruction of the planet, for starters) and nobody seems to be paying much attention to the one candidate who puts that at the top of his list.

We got troubles, right here in River City.

Fortunately for us, we also have at least a dozen pretty good candidates, probably more. And we have months of opportunity to hear lots more from each of them, to actually use the primary debates as a thoughtful winnowing, an in-depth national conversation on the full range of issues. We can not only pick a candidate, we can audition candidates for other Congressional roles, as potential cabinet members, judges and future political stars.

Unless Donald Trump doesn’t make it to the finish line— and even if the plug gets pulled mid-campaign— we are surely looking two old conservative white men as Republican opponents. While it may seem shallow and obvious to focus on demographics, Democrats can run a ticket that represents women, people of color and younger voters. If you put together women, POC and progressive youth as a voting bloc, that’s a considerably bigger cohort than 50%.  The trick is to get them excited about actually voting.

Which is why I was so disappointed to see educators—teachers! — going after Elizabeth Warren.

Not because she’s my top candidate. I don’t have a top candidate. In fact, I mistrust anyone who’s settled on The One. Because what that means is that you’ll start aggressively looking for flaws in the other candidates and focus entirely on your candidate’s virtues (real or imagined) and the narrow band of issues that mean the most to you. You’ll stop listening to negatives about your candidate (and they all have negatives).

You may actually start writing blogs about why you don’t like a potentially viable candidate, dredging up meh reasons that they cannot be trusted. You may throw around phrases like ‘hard pass’ and ‘no way in hell’ and ‘never liked her anyway.’ You may dig deep into things the candidate said decades ago, even stretch the truth, just a bit, to make your point and attract like-minded readers.

You can also start valuing things that don’t matter much, in the big picture: Which candidate publicly introduced an idea before the other candidates, for example. In building a coherent and comprehensive set of policy suggestions, first isn’t necessarily best. Nor is changing one’s mind a deal-breaker. I admire a candidate who looks at the evidence and then articulately shifts position.

Demanding that a candidate release a full accounting of his or her views on a particular subject RIGHT NOW is also foolish. Candidates deserve the right to listen to lots of potential voting groups and examine their own values before constructing a set of pledges and promises (which, as all adult voters, including MAGA types, know, are not guarantees).

So let’s talk specifics here: Charter schools—and Bernie Sanders vs. Elizabeth Warren.

I am ardently opposed to charter schools, based on the indisputable outcomes of a mature charter environment, the literal mountain of evidence that has accrued in my home state, Michigan. I’ve written about this at some length (here, here, here) and so has the local press (here).

Some of my former students teach in charters (because that’s the only place new teachers in MI can get jobs); people in my family teach in charters. It’s either that or don’t teach at all. They know how I feel—and mostly, they know what the evidence says. Charters, however—for worse, not ever better, are now deeply woven into the Michigan landscape, inescapable.

When I moved to the town where I now live, some 10 years ago, I joined the League of Women Voters and discovered they’d produced a paper in support of charter schools and choice in general. I was stunned. Didn’t they know what charters were doing to Detroit Public Schools—or why that mattered to them, ultimately?

I learned that the paper had been written when there was one mom-and-pop, hands-on learning/small class size/progressive curriculum charter in town. And some of the members’ grandchildren attended the school, happily. There was no evidence that the educational ecology had been negatively impacted.

That was then. Now, things really are different. There are more than enough data and school closings (and a local charter founder in prison for tax evasion). Anyone who’s paying attention can see what a terrible idea it is to give public money to privately—often secretively—managed schools.

But I understand that many states which have resisted charters, or maintained strong oversight and controlling legislation, are where Michigan was 10-15 years ago. Charters don’t seem like a big deal to some voters—not as big a deal as crushing student debt, the opioid crisis, climate change or the growing and dangerous gap between haves and have-nots. And alienating civic-minded, legislatively engaged parents whose children are in charters (or private schools, for that matter) is a politically unsavvy idea at the moment.

Deciding that one candidate—Warren– must be booted out of contention, simply because the woman who introduced her at a rally had ties to charter world feels nitpicky at best. Charging her with disloyalty because one of her education advisors got his start in Teach for America?

Well. I want to hear a lot more about Warren’s vision for K12. I want to hear what she thinks about rebuilding the teacher pipeline, using fully trained and qualified teachers (and promising to support better pay for important work), not two-year adventure teachers. But I refuse to judge any candidate on what amounts to skimpy, unspecific charges. Working for a non-profit or joining TFA out of college is not a full-throated declaration of principles.

Just as Buttigieg’s stint at McKinsey doesn’t mean he’s a raving conservative capitalist, and Klobuchar’s reputed binder-throwing doesn’t mean she’s abusive, and Harris’s record of doing her job as a big-city prosecutor doesn’t mean she lacks compassion—Warren’s staffers are not proof that she is anti-public education or anti-teacher. We all need to take a step back and look at the big picture.

We have several good, viable candidates. Let’s ask the hard questions. Let’s not pick our personal number-one and go after the others. Resist the lure of the all-American horse race, for once. Develop a list of five, rotating new faces in and out. Look for strengths, rather than inventing weakness. Allow for mind-changing (even for Uncle Joe Biden, and others whose records as governors and mayors are pretty clear). Waiting before pulling the trigger is almost always the best plan.

But what about charters? William Julius Wilson, in The Truly Disadvantaged, writing about policy, notes that the most popular and sticky public policies have benefits for everyone, even if their origin was around solving a problem for a specific group. Charter schools, at least rhetorically, were supposed to provide educational options, especially for those whose schools were not meeting their needs. Pretty quickly, they morphed into a back door for those who saw K-12 education as a giant, untapped market.

If Wilson is right, what we need is a system of schools that meet all children’s needs reasonably well. A plan to shut down charters through federal intervention will be neither universally popular nor sticky. We need to support all public schools—the suburban schools that are community centers, the urban schools with wrap-around services, the little boutique schools with unique curricula. We need to make public education so resource-rich and service-oriented—so popular and sticky– that charters can’t compete.

And we aren’t going to do that by trashing any of the Democratic candidates. That’s counter-productive.

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Learning Styles: Detrimental or Useful?

Did you ever sit through a professional development workshop on learning styles? I have—at least twice. Once with the dreaded Outside Presenter (from a university that shall not be named), and once with a well-respected teacher in my building, both at least 20-25 years ago, when learning styles were a thing.

They’re not a thing anymore.

In fact, they’re ‘detrimental.’ According to a number of education psychology experts, learning styles themselves don’t exist, so actually it’s believing in them that’s detrimental. Detrimental to whom? Students. Teachers. Parents.

Shaylene Nancekivell, PhD, visiting scholar at the University of Michigan and lead researcher for a new study on the myth of learning styles, divides folks who believe in them–some 80%-95% of people across the globe, BTW—into two groups: Essentialists and Non-essentialists.

Psychological essentialism is the belief that certain categories of people have a true nature that is biologically based and highly predictive of many factors in their lives. People with essentialist opinions about learning styles may be more resistant to changing their strongly held views even when they learn that numerous studies have debunked the concept of learning styles.

Non-essentialists are ‘more flexible.’  The other group–those who understand that learning styles are myths that have been debunked by scientific research—doesn’t have a formal name. Let’s call them academic pedants.

And now you’ve just read the first reason why these cyclical pieces about how learning styles don’t exist drive me crazy: researchers set up experiments to examine a bit of ‘conventional wisdom’ that some (not all) teachers find useful–or have found useful at some point in their career.

They then inform teachers that their pet theories about teaching and learning are baloney. Next, they label them ‘essentialists’–and build straw teacher-men, speculating about how teachers use these silly, foolish ideas and, by the way, resist change.  Because, you know, they’re teachers.

Previous research has shown that the learning styles model can undermine education in many ways. Educators spend time and money tailoring lessons to certain learning styles for different students even though all students would benefit from learning through various methods. Students study in ways that match their perceived learning style even though it won’t help them succeed. Some teacher certification programs incorporate learning styles into their courses, which perpetuates the myth for the next generation of teachers. Academic support centers and a plethora of products also are focused on learning styles, despite the lack of scientific evidence supporting them.

I certainly agree with the last sentence. The number of ‘educational’ products that are built on theoretical quicksand is legion. And I can list a dozen ongoing ‘wars’ around the best way to teach important content, each with its own ‘research base’ and, probably, a vocal advocacy group. The shelf life of an educational theory is often short.

But correctly identifying ‘best practice’ that will help all students succeed is, and always has been, a moving target. Stamping out a belief in learning styles is hardly going lead to an erasure of what Nancekivell calls ‘maladaptive practice.’

In a Facebook discussion on the referenced article, I was touched when a friend (Nate Smith-Tyge) said this:  I do think the learning styles beliefs come from a good place.

I think so, too. Teachers are trying to reach kids by trying different strategies and modalities. Some will work better than others. If paying attention to the easiest, most efficient and indelible way to teach something to an individual child means a teacher is dabbling in learning styles, so be it.

As a 30-year music educator who frequently got the kids who were misidentified as ‘kinesthetic learners,’ I can testify that there are undoubtedly preferences and natural tendencies in learning to play an instrument.

Some students learn to play by reading their beginners method books. They learn the note names and memorize the fingering chart. Their focus is on note-reading, counting and blowing or bowing at the same time. It’s a tricky, uncoordinated multi-task at first, but eventually, through persistence, they get the pieces put together. Instrumental music teachers love kids like this—some teachers won’t let students even pick up their instruments until the preliminary cognitive/visual material is mastered.

Other kids learn to play instruments by watching others and doing what their mouths, arms and fingers do. They couldn’t care less what’s in the book. They want to play! They come in the second day, saying see what I can do! (In my neck of the woods, that was usually ‘Let’s Go Blue!’) How did they learn this? From watching YouTube or maybe an older brother who told them what keys to press.

These kids make the first group, still playing whole notes, heads in their books, nuts.  I always had students who complained that other students were watching their fingers or slide positions—which felt, to the note-readers, like cheating.

Still other novice musicians fool around, trial and error, until they can repeat a sequence of sounds: a tune. Parents were constantly telling me about their amazing child who could pick out any tune on the piano, or saxophone or trombone, after hearing it a few times. It’s hardly an unusual trait—auditory memory—but it’s definitely a learning preference.

It’s also the way many rock, pop and country musicians learn—strictly by listening, and remembering. No paper involved. A friend who plays bass tells me that in a gig with a new group of musicians, he seldom tells folks that he reads music; some people find it off-putting.

The Suzuki method of teaching basic instrumental skills relies on watching and listening, mimicking, repeating and improvising, to a far greater degree than traditional American music pedagogy. Suzuki students learn to DO, and to listen, rather than read, for a long time.

If I believed in learning styles (ha), I would say that Suzuki students exercise and develop their auditory and kinesthetic modes first and save the visual/verbal symbolic interpretation skills until students are older. There’s a lesson there for American educators.

The point is: there are multiple ways to learn to play a musical instrument. All of them have value, and none of them is a ‘best practice’ or ‘maladaptive.’

Dan Willingham is the national guru on the myth of learning styles. I once wrote a blog entitled ‘I Believe in Learning Styles’ and he graciously commented and engaged in a lively discussion about the semantic differences between preferences, abilities and learning styles.

I came away feeling as I still do today: I get the yada-yada about theories of mind and theories of instruction. But I still feel as if teachers who have found benefits from addressing those learning preferences, abilities and styles are coming from a good place. Their observations and gathered evidence matter, too.

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Is Your School Band Playing this Weekend? Thank a Teacher.

I’m not much of a flag waver, really. I always thought that author James Baldwin captured my feelings precisely in Notes of a Native Son when he wrote:

I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.

These days, perpetual criticism is essential. We are headed into dark times, redefining the meaning of patriotism and sacrifice. It’s easy to lose faith in our government and the grand experiment—all men created equal—that founded this nation. It’s easy to let hope die when threats of another pointless war appear on the horizon.

I still believe, however, heart and soul, in the shining but imperfect ideals of a democratic education –equality under the law, the American common school, a free, high-quality education for all children, simply because they deserve it. Thirty years of teaching school have given me a hard crust of cynicism about many things related to education and America. But I never lost my enthusiasm for the Memorial Day parade.

For 25 years, my middle school band students marched through the small town where I taught and lived, in the Memorial Day Parade. There was a whole set of traditions around this event, which grew larger and more complicated every year: the aural passing down of our special drum cadences from the self-appointed 8th grade drumline leaders, mending the color guard flags originally purchased through a pizza sale back in ’88, and patching up hand-me-down snares and sousaphones scrounged from the high school.

There was never a budget for this–middle schools don’t typically have marching bands–but somehow there were always T-shirts, and cold drinks at the end of the parade route. We had a stunning handmade banner that two moms whipped up with lots of lamé and sequins. In my last year, we marched nearly 300 students, on a morning when the sky was a sapphire blue and Air Force jets flew overhead as we rounded the corner by the cemetery.

This took up a fair amount of teaching time. I would get on my knees and beg colleagues for 20 minutes on the Friday before the parade, to assemble five bands into a single marching unit and take a few spins around the parking lot. One year, as I was trying to get the back of the band to master pinwheel corners, the front rank (rambunctious 8th grade trombones) marched right up the sidewalk, opened the front doors, and led the band, playing America the Beautiful at top volume, through the school hallways. By the time I sprinted up to the head of the band (and the principal popped, red-faced, out of his office), marching through the school was a done deal–and became yet another annual tradition.

I was always clear with my students about the meaning and purpose of Memorial Day. They would occasionally whine about how boring America the Beautiful was–Mr. Holland’s band played Louie, Louie, right? I explained that they were old enough to dedicate a morning to thanking local patriots and acknowledging the sacrifices made by Americans over centuries. Older people, watching them march by, would be pleased to hear traditional music. It was about respect.

We do this, I told them, to remember and honor those who made it possible for you to live in this beautiful little town, in this safe world. People like my Uncle Don, who died in February 1945, part of the Fourth Marine Division which stormed Iwo Jima. Or Ray Shineldecker and Joey Hoeker, two high school classmates who lost their lives in Viet Nam. I had lots of funny stories to tell about Joey, who lived around the corner in my old neighborhood–a big, goofy kid who was what guidance counselors in the 1960s called “not college material.”

On our last band trip to Washington D.C., after performing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, I was loading tympani onto the buses as my students toured the Mall. A few girls came running up, calling “Mrs. Flanagan! We found him!” Found who, I asked.

Joey Hoeker, of course–on the Wall. And I lost it, right in front of all those kids.

I thank those who served and sacrificed so I can love my country, and criticize it, too. A hat tip to all the band teachers and student musicians who help make Memorial Day meaningful this weekend. And to hero teachers and band directors everywhere– donating yet another weekend to the community –please keep teaching, in spite of everything.

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The Teacher as Assessor

A little handmade meme has popped up recently in my Facebook feed, shared by Alexandra Penfold, a children’s author and food writer.

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Interesting, no? Being told—by scientific measurement, no less—that you were minimally proficient at the skill that was your heart’s desire and life goal. And then sailing on to the very wonderful career you planned, data be damned.

There are lots of implications here, most importantly that test scores are not even close to reality. The first question I would ask Penfold, if I could, is whether she was ever made to feel as if her skills were ‘remedial’—either by any of her teachers, or by her family. I doubt it.

But I have heard plenty of stories about kids who seemed to be fine, cooking right along, until they were derailed by surprising test results, causing a radical change in plans (different classes, different college, different career). Testing impacts lives—and Penfold probably missed the worst of the data fetishism that has become standard in American public education.

And yet, the alternative—the teacher as sole assessor–has come to feel almost random to us. Do we trust teachers—all teachers—to provide useful and accurate feedback, the kind that nurtures children’s dreams and also pushes them to excel? It’s a tall order.

Teachers develop their personal assessment skills and models over time. And building equity and encouragement into testing and grading (as opposed to using evaluation as sorting or punishing) takes a lot of trial and error. Some teachers are good at using grades and scores as investments in student growth. Others, not so much.

Universities don’t do enough to prepare teachers with a range of assessment strategies—but there are limits to the training even the best college programs provide. The only way to become seriously good at assessment—in ways that help students– is practice over time.

Here’s a story:
When I was a novice teacher (back in the 1970s, when merely suggesting that teachers ought to have common grading scales or practices was considered an insult to one’s academic freedom), one of my assignments was 5th grade beginning band. I met with students in like-instrument groups, twice a week.

There were no grades. Band was considered an elective activity, and none of the elementary electives were graded, largely because the teachers who taught them saw hundreds of students each week. I thought of myself as a Band Director, a more rigorous secondary teacher. I thought part of the reason my students weren’t making the progress I thought they should–backsliding between sessions, snickering when they made mistakes, not taking their learning seriously–was because they weren’t getting a grade.

So I graded them secretly. I had them play, every 2-3 weeks, one at a time, and took notes on a legal pad. I clustered them in groups—the stars, the competent ones, the not-yet-but-maybes, and those who really shouldn’t be in band next year, when they would be meeting daily and at last getting real letter grades. By the end of the year, I had a lot of unshared data on these students.

There was one little girl in the clarinets that I found hopeless. I got tired of switching her hands (left on top, right on the bottom, instead of the reverse) and putting the correct fingers over the holes. She was a sweet girl, chubby, bespectacled and earnest, but her clarinet playing was comprised mainly of squeaking (leaky fingers), honking and miscounting. In my rank ordering of about 20 clarinet players, she was dead last.

The pad went into the bottom of a cardboard box, when I moved up to the middle school the next year. The clarinet player moved up, too. In fact, I taught her for eight years, giving her the John Phillip Sousa award as a senior, as she headed off to the university as a music major.

I found the pad some years later. I had, of course, forgotten all about my earlier assessment of a girl whose persistence carried the day. It was easy to see how her initial failures were largely my fault; by the time I found the ‘assessment,’ I was much better at teaching beginning clarinets. I was also lots better at using the power of the test or grade to enhance learning.

But that’s the bottom line here: assessments have tremendous power, for progress or penalty.

Be careful out there.

Who Do I Appreciate? Music Teachers.

Like a lot of my educator colleagues, when it comes to Teacher Appreciation Week, I come down somewhere between surly and cynical, preferring actual respect and control of my professional work, not to mention adequate compensation, over a potluck lunch and a mug.

Being snotty about Teacher Appreciation Week is bad form, however—a cheap shot. Exhausted teachers everywhere deserve recognition and our gratitude for making it most of the way through the ’18-’19 marathon. And one subset of educators—music teachers—merit an entire month of appreciation.

Music teachers do it all. They teach 250 students a day, often in groups of 65, with each student holding a noisemaker. Elementary music teachers might see 500 students in a week, struggling to learn all their names, and packing five or six skills into a dozen 30-minute lessons per day. Music teachers take their students out and about, singing for the nursing home or marching in community parades. They’re responsible for hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of fragile, finicky equipment—and often have to raise the money to replace what’s broken or worn out or keep the music library fresh.

They deal with childish egos and children’s artistry, then put the results of their practice out there for untrained, opinionated parents to judge in concerts, musicals, contests and Friday football shows. They often sacrifice their home and family lives for the good of their programs, knowing that those programs can easily be cut at the next Board meeting, because they’re not ‘essential.’

I am part of a Facebook group of 26K music educators. What happens in BD Group stays in BD Group, but someone just asked if any of us had ever had to send a student home from a field trip or band camp. There were 158 horror stories shared (along with some great prophylactic advice), but none saying ‘…and then I stopped taking my students anywhere.’ Because everyone knows that what makes a music program memorable and magnetic is the concert at the State Capitol or the last night of band camp, when that large group of diverse kids has bonded into a weary but cohesive unit.

It’s easy to hack away at music teachers and their work. Everyone in the building or district or community has an opinion on what a ‘good’ elementary program, halftime show or orchestra concert looks and sounds like. I once got a letter from a Board member’s wife suggesting we raise money to buy capes to spice up the marching band shows. Her high school band had capes, and they were the ‘top band in the state.’ According to her, anyway. Multiply that by every, say, month—and you get the picture.

Or you can read an article entitled The Tragic Decline of Music Literacy and Quality,’ by Jon Henschen, a financial advisor from MN, which includes cheery bits like this:

Public school music programs have been in decline since the 1980’s, often with school administrations blaming budget cuts or needing to spend money on competing extracurricular programs. Prior to the 1980’s, it was common for homes to have a piano with children taking piano lessons. In 1909, piano sales were at their peak when more than 364,500 were sold, but sales have plunged to between 30,000 and 40,000 annually in the US.

Besides the decline of music literacy and participation, there has also been a decline in the quality of music which has been proven scientifically by Joan Serra, a postdoctoral scholar at the Artificial Intelligence Research Institute of the Spanish National Research Council in Barcelona. The results of the study revealed that timbral variety went down over time, meaning songs are becoming more homogeneous. Translation: most pop music now sounds the same.

One wonders if Henschen has ever listened to American pop music from the 1950s. In fact, his piece could easily have been written in the 1950s. We’ve been fighting to keep music literacy and quality from ‘declining’ for a century or more. And when I say ‘we’—I mean music educators.

Stories, studies and op-eds about the value of music education pop up regularly. Like this one, from a young man looking back with gratitude at his musical experiences in high school.

Or this one, thanking a battle-axe music teacher that Jon Henschen would have lauded, for straightening him out and putting him on a path to becoming a lifelong musician.

Or this video, a perfect illustration of the utter joy of singing.

And yet—somehow, the message about the critical value of music education gets lost, over and over again. Why is that? Serious question. Why haven’t we learned that music—all the arts, really—are about our very humanity? In fact, there is new evidence that the ability to keep a beat, that most basic of musical skills, is linked to the ability to read.

Now, music teachers everywhere already knew this, especially those entrusted with developing a steady beat or pitch recognition (yup—it’s science) or simple melody repetition with small, distracted children at 2:45 in the afternoon, a half-hour before the bus comes. But still– it’s nice to see.

I’ll put that research into my bulging digital file labeled Music Advocacy, perhaps pulling it out when the next wave of Phonics Warriors suggests that we need to be re-allocating resources currently spent on ‘specials,’ because, you know, Reading First.

In the meantime, Music Teachers: I see you. I hear you. I thank you for your creativity, persistence and sacrifices. You absolutely rock.

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Who Is Gifted? Why Does It Matter?

Having authored a dozen or more columns on gifted education, it’s easy to predict reader response. It’s unfailing, in fact. There is a well-organized parent advocacy army associated with educating our brightest kids, always at the ready to respond to published commentary, claiming anything less than a full-bore endorsement of extra resources and programming for gifted kids is Not Enough. Because they deserve it.

Essentially, I agree with them. In fact, I got a Masters degree in Gifted Studies, back in the day (way back), because I thought I wasn’t challenging my most accomplished students and wanted new ways to deepen their musical learning. I actually thought I represented the ‘talented’ part of ‘Gifted and Talented.’

Stepping into Gifted World was revelation, however. Educators in the field were mostly interested in whether curriculum for the gifted should focus on acceleration or enrichment. (Acceleration won.) And, of course, the core disciplinary question was just who was entitled to such enhanced curriculum. I learned about the range of testing tools to identify giftedness and creativity. There were cutoffs and variables and labels. There was a fair amount of dissent, even hostility. And nobody was talking about kids with exceptional talents in the arts.

My thesis involved surveying music teachers around the state, who were very kind and willing to respond (in the days where that involved paper and the US Postal service). Most of them offered excellent ideas on strengthening and expanding musical excellence in their own classrooms, as well as special instruction, camps, honors ensembles and other challenges.

Although musical talent is overlooked in the ‘gifted’ discourse, I remain interested in gifted programming in public and private schools. I have taught any number of genuinely gifted students over 30+ years, kids whose interests and capacities, across the academic board, were extraordinary. I saw bright students who didn’t fit in formal programs for the gifted and sank like stones. I saw kids whose parents seemed to have one goal: winning non-existent academic races. I saw children whose unique and remarkable gifts seemed unrecognized—by everyone, including their own teachers.

Gifted programs have come and gone over the intervening decades (mostly gone, as funding dries up and the focus shifts to data-based accountability). But this week, I read an article from Hechinger that took me right back to grad school and the never fully-clarified question: Who is gifted?

The most troubling aspect of gifted classrooms is that they tend to be disproportionately filled with white and Asian students while bright black and Hispanic students often get overlooked. Indeed, gifted and talented programs can sometimes look like a clever tool to separate children by race or ethnicity in school. In New York City, for example, white and Asian parents who have the resources and/or inclination to prepare their four-year-olds to excel on standardized tests snag almost three quarters of the coveted seats. Meanwhile, black and Hispanic students make up more than 65 percent of the public school system.

The article focuses on slicing and dicing test data, asking insulting questions about whether ‘watering down’ a talent pool by allowing kids who test in the 92nd percentile to take classes with kids in the 99th percentile is ‘fair’–a word that presumes precise, certain numerical identification of ability and potential based on one test score (the MAP test, in this case). Fair to whom?

There are lots of presumptions in the article—that only certain students deserve to be offered special instruction, that students who missed a couple more questions on a computer-delivered test are inherently less capable than students who may have had two lucky guesses, and that segregating students in racially-similar schools makes identifying gifted kids and offering them tailored instruction easier.

Troubling, indeed.

The tsunami of readily available testing data has led to articles and arguments about percentages of a human quality as slippery and ill-defined as giftedness. It makes sentences like this possible:

Education experts, like the rest of us, argue endlessly over whether it’s a good idea to accept the trade-off between achievement and diversity.

Think about that. Should any educator—let alone an expert—see ‘accepting’ diversity as an option, and then only if it doesn’t get in the way of faster delivery of the same content? Or meaningless higher scores? There are a lot of questionable value judgments embedded in this one sentence.

It’s questions like these that make people skeptical about the value of exclusive programming for gifted children. If programming for the gifted is just another data-driven contest, a prize to be won, then it’s a waste of resources. There needs to be a solid rationale for offering bright children across the spectrum—rich and poor, black, brown and white—rich and stimulating curriculum, distinctive instruction and unique programming.

It was that rationale—kids deserve opportunities that match their capacities and talents—that drove me to study education for the gifted. It’s enough. But only if we can avoid excluding and ranking children, and hoarding opportunity through the use of achievement data.

Nor can we demand allocation of more resources for the gifted on the basis of ‘national security’ or ‘the Chinese are doing it,’ as this article does. National security is an important goal for every American citizen, no matter what their achievement test scores reveal.  We’re not going to accomplish security (not to mention life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness) without offering a meaningful education for every single child, no matter what they bring to the table. photo-1532168881420-27ec4ba493a6

Who Should Pay for Public Education?

Short answer: The public.

Short rationale: Public education is a public good. When it’s funded by taxes, and oversight is provided via elected boards, there is, at least nominally, a backstop against corruption and egregious inequity, and there is a public mechanism for expressing dissatisfaction as well as suggestions for improvement.

Does this always work out perfectly? Of course not. Hahahahhaha.

Does this then mean that perennially strapped public education should be open to ‘improvement’ plans funded by the very rich?

No. Because billionaires and their foundations have something other than the public good in mind when they offer school districts millions to follow a plan that sounds good to funders. Furthermore, there is no backstop against things going horribly wrong, once they’ve accepted the money and conditions, before the billionaire pulls out and claims that it’s the district’s fault that millions have been squandered.

See: Newark, New Jersey.

Foundations are not hoping to have enough money to send all the fifth graders to camp, or rebuild the orchestra program, or provide more modern science equipment. Billionaires and their organizations aren’t interested in small-potatoes needs. They want Big Sexy Ideas—like gutting tens of thousands of tailor-made local curricula (easily dismissed as a ‘patchwork’) and replacing them with national standards (which somehow will evolve into a ‘more rigorous’ national curriculum).

They want freedom (for schools to teach Creation ‘Science’)! They want accountability (which always translates, somehow, into more data, prone to errors, misinterpretations, and illegal release exposures)! They want something new and groundbreaking, something…personalized! That’s the ticket.

An argument sprang up on Twitter this morning, re: public schools taking Gates money.

Jennifer Binis says:

So. Gates is giving away money. People in different contexts in American education need money to implement projects, design new curriculum, or test new ideas. I’m getting the sense some think no one should apply for Gates money.

Apparently, there are those who look for places that have applied for Gates funding and work to put them on blast. Without understanding why said educators applied for funds or the parameters of the grant. It’s basically, “Gates bad.”

Gates makes many of the same mistakes most philanthropists make. But I legitimately don’t understand what anti-Gates people want grant applicants to do instead. Propose raising taxes? My wondering remains: where should educators get money from instead?

Well, that’s an easy one for me.
Public monies should pay for the core mission of public education, by which I mean instruction, curriculum and assessment. The daily operations of schools. Private money—lookin’ at you, Bill Gates—comes with strings and conditions. Always.

So yes, we should propose raising taxes to more adequately fund public schools, so they don’t have to apply for grants from foundations that will want control over aspects of their core work. Underfunding public education (and the rise of the Billionaire Social Entrepreneur Class) have pushed many public schools into a corner: they need more money to accomplish the things they want to be doing. The things they know will help their students flourish.

Schools can become dependent on grants. Teachers these days are often forced to Donors-Choose even basic supplies. We have abandoned truly adequate public education funding in favor of piecemeal begging and co-opting our principles for much-needed money. Public institutions, from roads, fire-fighting, hospitals and libraries to the military, need public funding. Because we all depend on them.

Binis again:

In other words, you’re saying everyone in education should be dependent on tax dollars for everything they do. That seems like an untenable, unsustainable model.  We’re not going to get out of it by telling people who accept private donations they’ve committed some grievous sin against public education.

To be clear: you’re saying get rid of the PTA. Get rid of every car wash, popcorn sale, and candy bar fundraiser. All theater performances and concerts need to be free. All sporting events need to stop charging admission or having private sponsors.

Well. I’ve never told people who accept private donations that they’re sinners. I’ve worked for three different organizations that took Gates money, and belong to another–and I’ve seen first-hand what happens when you take the big bucks. You stop trying to please your clients and members– and you start trying to do what it takes to get the next grant.

There’s also a difference between fund-raising for a specific, targeted purpose (athletics, the drama club, building the elementary library) and agreeing to play by the Gates Foundation’s grant rules. I’ve done both.  It’s often a matter of scale and expected outputs. The PTA knows precisely who will benefit from the Fall Carnival, and how. Gates is looking for confirmation of one of their Big Sexy Ideas—to ‘scale up,’ prove a point, tweak an idea.

I’m not saying that Foundations don’t sometimes do valuable work—of course they do. But they should never be considered a replacement—supplanting not supplementing—sufficient funding.

The Twitter conversation meandered, as they tend to do. But I’ll give the (spot-on) last word to Tim Fournier, long-time educator in Grand Rapids, Michigan:

I return to my previous three points that tend to get overlooked amid the side-spats. 1. Public Schools are underfunded 2. Big Philanthropy can corrupt as much as it can help. 3. Community independence should not be sold, no matter the lofty intentions.

Amen. piggy_bank_images_money

Image: Creative Commons

Hardly a Man is Now Alive

Does “the 18th of April” ring any bells for you?

Ten years ago, exactly, in my graduate seminar in education leadership (full of would-be superintendents working on PhDs at my well-respected research one university), our professor entered the room, struck a dramatic pose and said…

“On the 18th of April” (long pause, class attentive)

“In seventy-five” (long pause, dead silence)

“What?” (gray-haired Prof scans the room)

In a small voice, I say,

“Hardly a man is now alive
who remembers that famous day and year.”

(another pause, Professor smiling, nodding)
I clear my throat and say…

“It’s the one that begins ‘Listen my children…'”

(blank faces)

“and you shall hear…”

(still nada)

“of the midnight ride…”

(a couple of people are getting it now)

“of…?”

(muttered voice from the class) “umm, Paul Revere?”

Prof points to me and says “Don’t answer!” Then he asks: “Who’s the poet?”

When nobody–not one of the 20-odd people in the room– could answer, or would even try, he lets me tell the class. Longfellow.

“When did you learn that?” he asks.
Fifth grade. And I only know an abridged version. But still.
One if by land, two if by sea–and I on the opposite shore shall be…

I learned “O Captain, My Captain” (speaking of anniversaries) in 8th grade.

And the prologue to “Romeo and Juliet” in high school. Still with me, along with memorized King James scripture, lots of Cummings, Dickinson and Frost and an embarrassingly large cache of song lyrics.

Why aren’t we using poetry to teach history?

Well, two roads diverged in a yellow wood…

And we chose easily measured standardized test questions.

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Do You Eat at Chick-Fil-A?

We just finished two cross-country journeys in a Subaru Forester with a large dog. It’s a 4-day/3-night trip, with long, 10-12 hour driving days culminating in overnight stays in mediocre, pet-welcoming LaQuintas. There is little time or opportunity for interesting restaurant meals. All food is in our little cooler, picked up at a quick-stop market (the kind attached to gas stations) or obtained in a drive-through situation.

Yes, lots of fast food.  Yes, I know it’s not good for us. By the second or third day, we don’t care.

On the upside, we play endless games of Twenty Questions, listen to talk radio and laugh a lot. Most of the trip is excruciatingly dull (lookin’ at yew, Texas panhandle). Because we’ve done this trip, out and back, for four years, we know how pointless it is to look for an interesting or healthy take-out meal on I-40, other than the odd Route 66 diner. McDonald’s makes good coffee and while we’re there, we might as well get a sausage biscuit—that’s the prevailing spirit of this driving marathon.

What we don’t do is eat at places that are politically problematic. Papa John’s, Wendy’s and Waffle House are out. And we never eat at Chick-Fil-A.  I don’t mean just on-the-road eating. Neither of us had ever eaten at a Chick-Fil-A. In our whole lives.

This is not much of a sacrifice. There isn’t a Chick-Fil-A within three hours of our house—and only ten in our whole home state. Having serious socio-political problems with the founding principles of CFA, then deciding not to eat there is an empty gesture—unlike not buying L.L. Bean flannel sheets, which are awfully nice in a cold Michigan winter. But I have heard—from any number of people, especially those who live in the South—that Chick-Fil-A sandwiches, waffle fries and lemonade are super-tasty. The best.

So you know what’s coming, right? We’re in Oklahoma, and very low on gas, plus we all need a rest, so to speak. And it’s dinner time–we’re hungry. We choose an exit that looks promising—one that features multiple gas stations and a shopping center, plus a confusing ramp that feeds drivers into a traffic circle. We take care of business first, feed the dog, then start looking for a fast-food restaurant.

And the only one there is a Chick-Fil-A. There might be a restaurant in the shopping center, hidden, but we can’t wait for take-out food. We drive both ways, going through the annoying circle three times, until we run out of civilization. If we’re going to eat now, instead of an unknown number of miles down the road, it’s Chick-Fil-A. So—pledging each other to secrecy—we agree to, just this once, eat the forbidden fruit.

I ordered the signature chicken sandwich, waffle fries and lemonade. I have to say I was anticipating a much better than average fast food meal.

But it was gross. The meat was tough and squished together with cheese and pickles—who puts cheese on a chicken sandwich? —and the chicken coating was flavorless. The fries were limp, underdone and cool. And the lemonade was your standard artificial lemon-flavored beverage that begins as a powder and ends with a chemical aftertaste. There was a boatload of ice. And to top it off, one napkin apiece. My husband’s meal was equally grim.

There was a perky teenage window attendant, who gave us back correct change with a smile. But that’s a pretty low bar.

Now—fast food is always a hit-and-miss affair (I should know). I’ve had some truly terrible Quarter Pounders with cheese on these trips. The most variable food, in our experience, comes from Sonic, where the milkshakes are usually yummy, but anything fried tastes like small chunks of seasoned concrete. It’s possible we ran into a bad Chick-Fil-A.

But that’s not the point. The message here is that I’ve spent a couple righteous decades avoiding Chick-Fil-A, and I wasn’t missing anything.  I thought about that lousy sandwich when I read about Grace Slick licensing one of her songs to Chick-Fil-A for a commercial, then giving the profits to an LGBTQ rights organization.  Way to take a lemon and make (real) lemonade, Grace.

I’m all for standing on your principles—or better yet, using an opportunity to publicly demonstrate what those principles are and why, as folks seem to be doing in San Jose, by hanging Gay Pride flags near a proposed Chick-Fil-A in the airport. For every person refusing to eat a CFA sandwich, there’s probably another one proudly consuming them, thinking they’re MAGA-food. The trick is not to win the war, but to make people think.

Pete Buttigieg, on the campaign trail in South Carolina, recently said that while he sincerely dislikes Chick-Fil-A’s politics, he ‘sort of’ likes its chicken.

Buttigieg suggested that he could forge a peace deal between the LGBTQ community and the Atlanta-based fast-food chain, which has donated millions over the years to groups that oppose same-sex marriage. He says, “So maybe if nothing else I can build that bridge. Maybe I’ll be in a position to negotiate that peace deal.”

I can think some other peace deals where we could use that approach.

Do you eat at Chick-Fil-A?

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Risky Business: Long-term Damage to What America Does Best

Here’s a book to put on your short list: The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis.

I’ve now read a number of books (somewhere between four and six, depending on how you categorize them) about the Trump campaign and presidency–by celebrated authors (Bob Woodward) and sarcastic geniuses (Matt Taibbi) and lesser-light authors and scribes. It was a weird, unprecedented campaign and an appalling, slapdash start to a presidency–everyone from Michael Wolff to Katie Tur to Chris Christie says so.

But this is the best book I’ve read, by a long chalk. It’s barely political, focusing on the present, rather than the campaign, the Russian interference, or the 2020 election. It is, however, 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 government policy that works. Just because they can.

Lewis is his usual cynical and incisive self, and the stories he presents are interesting–case studies of how the government protects people and nurtures innovation and provides basic information to make lives and livelihoods better, everything from safe energy to nutrition to the weather. The government is not perfect, or even close, of course, but it’s served us reasonably well for a couple hundred years.

Bye-bye to all that. Reading this book was the first time I considered just how much has already been undone and what some of the long-term consequences might be. Lewis has NOT written a polemic–just an inside peek at things we aren’t considering, because we’re so distracted by this administration’s behaviors, antics and moral failings.

If you’re one of those people who thinks the government is nothing but embedded corruption, you especially ought to read this book, as Lewis steps back from the spotlight and looks at a few less obvious things the government does, to keep us safe, healthy and informed—and to keep the lights on.

Among Lewis’s fascinating subjects is John MacWilliams, who was the Chief Risk Officer at the Department of Energy during the Obama administration. It’s MacWilliams who lists what he thinks are the five biggest risks America is facing. The first four: Nuclear weapons and waste, North Korea, keeping Iran from building a nuclear bomb, and the shaky, vulnerable patchwork that forms our electrical grid.

The fifth risk is program management. Here’s Lewis, explaining what that means:

“The risk a society runs when it falls into the habit of responding to long-term risks with short-term solutions. … ‘Program management’ is the existential threat that you never really even imagine as a risk. … It is the innovation that never occurs and the knowledge that is never created, because you have ceased to lay the groundwork for it. It is what you never learned that might have saved you.”

Lewis looks at the Departments of Energy, Commerce and Agriculture, beginning with the fact that the Trump administration was—to put it mildly—utterly unprepared to staff agencies and develop policy. He makes the work these federal agencies do fascinating—no easy task—and gives long-time government employees a pat on the back for a whole lot of behind-the-scenes work that goes completely unrecognized until it’s gone. Which is precisely the situation we’re facing—loss of essential services due to short-term thinking and deliberately installed incompetence.

As a teacher, I would have to say that no Secretary of Education has ever drawn as much attention and loathing as Betsy DeVos. No surprise to this lifelong Michigander who was introduced to the DeVos family in 1978, when they first got a school voucher initiative on the ballot. DeVos has most recently gotten a lot of bad press for her support of zeroing out the federal line item for Special Olympics, and suggesting that bigger classes just might lead to more learning.

But it’s instructive to think of these issues as loss leaders in the Trump education policy plan. Deep in the bowels of the Education Department, data has gone missing, special education funding threatened, for-profit ‘colleges’ supported, predatory loan programs tolerated, and 29 meaningful programs have been targeted for elimination.  And so much more, elevating short-term profits over the only justifiable reason to have an education department: to make the life prospects of our youngest citizens better.
Frank Bruni in his NYT newsletterAs things stand already, America will need years to climb out of the Trump trench in terms of international relations, minority disenfranchisement, a conservative stacking of courts and sheer indecency. I shudder to imagine the damage and the recovery period after two terms of Trump.

The book has a rushed feel, as if Lewis were impatient and needed to get this out before any more national treasures, useful data and successful programs are crushed. He lets the reader draw conclusions and make connections, resisting the temptation to share his own recommendations. And really—it’s not necessary. The book is better for it.

Something’s happening here. Read this book.

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The Cure for Boring Curriculum

The New York Times published a story this weekend about an amazing research-based discovery: a way to fix boring high schools. The writers (Jal Mehta, who teaches at Harvard, and Sarah Fine, who works at High Tech High in San Diego) spent six years traveling the country, visiting 30 public schools, looking for a cure for boredom, since only about a third of students report feeling engaged in high school.

They assumed that kids were bored because the work was too conventional and easy—and that ‘innovative’ high schools and more rigorous core classes were the solution. But no. It turned out that the answer was curriculum and instructional strategies more like ‘electives, clubs and extra-curriculars.’

In essence, two different logics reign in the same buildings. Before the final bell, we treat students as passive recipients of knowledge whose interests and identities matter little. After the final bell — in newspaper, debate, theater, athletics and more — we treat students as people who learn by doing, people who can teach as well as learn, and people whose passions and ideas are worth cultivating. It should come as no surprise that when we asked students to reflect on their high school experiences, it was most often experiences like theater and debate that they cited as having influenced them in profound ways.

Well. Speaking as a former instrumental and vocal music teacher, my first question is: It took six years and 30 schools (and, undoubtedly, a hefty grant) to figure that out?

I have a few additional questions and observations:

  • The authors mention that about ¾ of fifth graders report being engaged in school. So why didn’t they start there? What is it about being 11 that makes school at least moderately interesting, across the board? Does any of this terminal ennui have anything to do with being an American teenager and all that entails?

 

  • The authors lump all courses that are not ‘core’ (read: not subject to standardized testing) into an ‘after the bell’ category. In fact, lots of elective courses are squarely part of the standard curriculum in any functional public high school: Visual arts, physical education, band, orchestra and choir, theatre arts and core-related courses like green engineering, gender studies, school newspaper—and on and on. What these courses and activities have in common is the fact that they are chosen              by students, not required by the school or state. There was a time when we allowed  students far more choice in selecting their own classes. These days, much of that      choice has been taken away by ‘merit’ requirements for endorsed diplomas. And,       of  course, testing.
  • In core classes, focus has narrowly shifted to What’s On The Test. Textbooks are selected because they’re ‘aligned.’ Huge chunks of instructional time are dedicated to test prep. Engaging instructional methods like project-based learning are scrapped when test scores don’t go up. It doesn’t matter whether the subject matter is easy-peasy or advanced. When the goal is better test scores, both curriculum and instruction suffer. Kids understand meaningless credentialing and data competitions better than anyone.
  • My own experience with boredom is that it is often a sign that the student doesn’t fully understand the intellectual content and is fearful of being outed. Or is hoping to be entertained, rather than having to invest attention and effort in something difficult with no ensured success. Or it is subject matter that carries zero interest and no prospect of future use, in the opinion of someone who’s 16.

So what’s to blame for this epidemic of boredom? Here’s what the authors say:

Students are batch-processed, sorted into tracks based on perceived ability and awarded credits based on seat time rather than actual learning. Making matters worse are college admissions pressures, state testing, curriculum frameworks that emphasize breadth over depth, simplistic systems of teacher evaluation, large classes, large teacher loads and short class periods.

SO disappointing. There is plenty of reason to re-think curriculum and instruction for high school students. But please—let’s not blame teachers and schools for failings based on boneheaded policy written by people who don’t respect the deep caring and relationship-building essential for student engagement.

Many teachers and school leaders get great results in spite of large classes and student loads, 48-minute periods, college anxieties, testing overload and whacky teacher evaluation models. Because they’re skilled and experienced enough to go around all the policy barriers to meeting the kids where they are– then teaching them something they find valuable.

The authors finish with one of those ‘we need to’ sections, wherein we get rid of the batch processing, mile-wide-inch-deep curricula etc. and the future is rosy. If they really wanted to be helpful, however, they would go after state legislatures and federal accountability policies, as well as for-profit curriculum publishers and test-makers. Not the weary foot soldiers trying to do the right thing for teenagers.

They might even consider challenging the Talking Ed-Heads at their own and other elite universities, who put out pieces like this one—Don’t Give Up on Curriculum Reform Just Yetin which yet another Harvard-based researcher blames the failure of more rigorous curriculum to yield better test results on teachers who aren’t smart enough to interpret more ‘complicated’ curriculum.

Somebody is paying these folks to study these things. Why don’t they just ask teachers?

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Guess Who’s Not Here for Your Nonsense?

First off, I have to credit Shanna Peeples, all-around cool edu-person and 2015 National Teacher of the Year, for the title of this blog, swiped from her Twitter feed. It’s about those marvelous young ladies, high school students in Maryland who confronted the boys who were rating their looks and ranking them on a list with numbers calculated to the hundredth place. And then passing the list around for up-to-the-minute updates.

If you missed the story, it’s well worth a read (here). The blog title should give you a clue: these girls were not having it.

Furthermore, they did something about it. When an administrator limited formal consequences to a single boy and asked the girls not to spread the story around, they organized, confronting their principal, gathering 80 students into an ‘intense’ co-ed meeting where they expressed their anger and discomfort, and putting a series of follow-up responses and conversations into action.

The young women interviewed in the story were powerfully articulate about why they wanted an end to this boys-will-be-boys nonsense.

“Knowing that my closest friends were talking to me and hanging out with me but under that, silently numbering me, it definitely felt like a betrayal. I was their friend, but I guess also a number.”

They also talked clearly about what it felt like to suddenly feel unsafe at school, when they already felt unsafe in the wider world. One boy—the contrite and admittedly ‘privileged’ young man who started the list—says All the Right Stuff. No mention of what other boys said and did.  But Washington Post commenters had plenty to say, a lot of which was misogynistic labeling and get-over-yourself jabs.

No matter. I took great comfort in the article, imagining the girls just telling it like it is: Degrading. Dismissive. Sexist.

It’s hard to imagine this happening in many schools (and indeed, the girls got mixed messages from the administrators, who first tried to suppress and minimize the fallout, then later called the girls ‘brave and vulnerable,’ praising their actions).

There are places where this would be totally and instantly swept under the rug by administrators, with girls being told some version of ‘get used to it’ or ‘it’s no big deal.’ There are parents who would come in and throw their weight around, defending Jason who’s just a red-blooded American boy. There are teachers and coaches who would look the other way, not wanting to rock the boat.  I might be wrong, but I am guessing most schools would prefer asinine sexist behaviors on campus be ignored, unless they impede the academic workings of the classroom or—God forbid—impact test scores.

The best part of the story is that it was students who did NOT let that happen. They demanded—and got—a hearing. They did the young men a solid, too, by explaining to them how it feels to be judged and categorized, a great lesson to learn before going off to college.

It was great to see the story in a major national newspaper. It reminded me, immediately, of the early days after the Parkland, Florida shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school, as student leaders emerged and organized to have their say about the root causes of school shootings and what could and should be done to stop school-based violence. Like the young women at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, they had courage and passion and commitment. They grew into their roles. While the adults in charge stood at the sidelines, teenagers righteously took responsibility and control.

There’s also this: Both high schools were comprehensive and well-regarded, offering specialized courses and opportunities for kids to soar.  The students in Maryland were all part of an International Baccalaureate program, and the students in Florida mostly knew each other from the school’s award-winning drama program.

The students were preparing for leadership roles already, through their schoolwork and after-school activities. It’s nice to see some tangible and important student leadership that’s not testing data or an adult-sponsored contest. Would that every high school student in America had the same educational background and opportunities.

The newspaper article says ‘there’s power in numbers’ and that’s undeniably true. But there’s also power in community, in belonging, in rallying with your friends to do something significant.

You go, young women. Thanks for speaking out.      Photo credit: Tyler Nix
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John Engler and Me

Long-time Michiganders, especially those of a certain age, have probably seen the latest news blast about our hefty ex-governor, John Engler. No, not the incident where he, in his role as Interim President of Michigan State University, accused sexual predator Larry Nassar’s victims of ‘enjoying the spotlight.’  And not the story about Engler’s unauthorized offering one of those victims a quarter of a million dollars, later claiming he was engaging in a ‘philosophical discussion’ about how much money would satisfy them.

The latest on John Engler is his non-appearance at investigative interviews being conducted by Michigan’s Attorney General, about the Nassar affair. Engler has been claiming he’s out of town, but then turned up courtside at an MSU basketball game.  The AG, Dana Nessel, sent a letter to the MSU Board President:

“We must lead from the top. The reluctance of the former interim president of the University to cooperatively participate in a law enforcement investigation into the largest sexual assault scandal in the history of higher education — yet happily sit court-side to watch the men’s basketball team on multiple occasions — speaks volumes about allegations of a culture of indifference on campus.”

Exactly. But Engler doesn’t see it that way.

Today, his lawyers sent Nessel a letter saying that nope, he’s not coming in for any interviews, unless and until Nessel recuses herself. Because she doesn’t like him. That’s right. Specifically—“You have prejudged Mr. Engler’s veracity and motives without ever talking to him. You have launched unfounded attacks and besmirched Mr. Engler…” 

It goes on like this at some length, besmirching Ms. Nessel herself, calling her inexperienced and lacking integrity. Your typical heavyweight bullying and mansplaining.

I’m not worried about Dana Nessel, who seems to be pretty level-headed and courageous. But the re-emergence of John Engler has given me a chance to reminisce about the times I encountered—you might even say helped out and then got dumped on by– John Engler. It’s a long story, but it involves similar outsized bullying and setting up innocent people.

John Engler was Governor when I was Michigan Teacher of the Year, in 1993. And through a series of very unlikely circumstances, I worked with Engler on a funding initiative, Proposal A, in May of that year. (For veteran MI Educators, this was the first Prop A, the one that went down in flames. A second version, the one we’re still living with, passed in 1994.)

It started with a focus group, doing PR work for Republicans. Asked whose voice and opinion they would trust most on education issues, the group identified the Teacher of the Year, as #1 on a long list of public officials and civic leaders. And I was Teacher of the Year.

The MEA was partnering with the Governor on the ballot initiative, and my union urged me to shoot TV commercials and radio spots supporting the Proposal. I thought it was a good policy (it disconnected property tax and school funding), and so I did. I also did a one-day fly-around the entire state in a small 4-seater plane, to build local news coverage, the day before the vote.

I sat knee-to-knee in the plane with the governor (who shared his tuna fish sandwich with me, as I didn’t pack my own lunch). We were speaking at airports and at schools. My assigned job was just to shake hands with the locals—the Governor was supposed to be the speaker. But at the first place we stopped—a middle school in Saginaw—the gov was flopping, big-time. He kept pausing in his printed remarks for applause, which never came.

I was sitting behind him, on a folding chair, and suddenly he turned to me and motioned me forward, saying ‘Look, I brought Hillary Clinton with me!’  (No. I don’t really resemble the then-First Lady, aside from the fact that we’re both white women, but I suppose that’s enough for John Engler.)

By the time we hit our third school, I was the featured speaker, talking about how great their public school was and why we needed money to keep it that way, and Engler was just shaking hands with the locals. It was painfully obvious how awkward he was with high school and middle school kids. In between schools, in the air, he asked me all kinds of questions about teaching and my students. He was—not to put too fine a point on it—utterly clueless about the strengths of public education. And he used the Hillary Clinton line every place we went.

I got called a half-dozen times that summer to do education events with the governor—Presidential Scholars, Chamber of Commerce receptions, legislative gatherings at the Governor’s Mansion. I had two young children myself, at the time, but I always got a babysitter and showed up, in heels and pantyhose. It seemed like I might have some influence over his thinking, just by being present and articulately representing teachers.

But no.

Five years after I was Mi-TOY, I got a call from Governor Engler while I was on vacation, at a lakeside cottage in northern Michigan. He needed me to fly to St. Louis and appear on a television program with him, as part of a National Governors Association conference. In three days. It would be a panel discussion around ‘education.’ His assistant would call me with information about flights.

It was all pretty sketchy and involved ending my vacation three days early. Fortunately, his assistant had a bit more information on the topic—National Board Certification—but it seemed odd that there wasn’t more preparation, information about the panel, where to be when, and so on.

I flew to St. Louis, took a very expensive taxi downtown, arrived at the hotel and conference center and nobody seemed to know where I was supposed to be, although they had a name badge and tote bag for me.  I had flights in and out on the same day, and the televised panel was supposed to happen in a couple of hours, but nobody on Governor Engler’s staff could be reached.

Suddenly, across the lobby, I saw a teacher I knew, from North Carolina. She rushed over. ‘Where were you?’ she asked. It seemed that there were going to be six governors on the panel, and each had brought a National Board Certified Teacher to St. Louis. All the teachers were all flown in yesterday, had gotten to know each other and were given media coaching and sample answers, as well as a gala dinner with their governors, last night. My name was on the list, but of course, I wasn’t there. Neither was Engler.

My friend gave me that media packet with the sample answers—and I had already thoroughly prepared, back at home, on my own. We were led into the room where the program was going to be televised. It was exciting—President Clinton was there. I saw that I had a chair and a nameplate in the panel setup. But no Engler. Several governors asked me where he was—I had no idea. I sat down and studied the packet. I felt embarrassed.
Eventually the program began. The camera went around to each of the governors, who introduced their teacher partners, but stopped before it got to me. It occurred to me that I had flown to St. Louis to be stood up by my own governor, on TV. I could not imagine what I had done to deserve that.

About 40 minutes into the 90-minute program, Engler strolled in, and sat down. He turned to me and said cheerily ‘You made it!’ Governor Jim Hunt (NC), who was moderating the panel, stopped the discussion to announce that Governor Engler had arrived, and asked him to introduce me. He did, getting my hometown, subject discipline and school district wrong. I noticed he was clutching a handful of handwritten notes.

‘Governor Hunt, now I have some questions,’ Engler crowed. Reading directly from the notes, he began to question the value of National Board Certification, using some cheesy, disproven research from a right-wing, anti-union organization. There were a number of questions—of the ‘Isn’t this just another useless way for teachers to make even more extravagant salaries?’ variety. And he was directing the questions at me.

I looked over at Governor Hunt and he was shaking his head, subtly—no, no, don’t answer.

But I was prepared. I debunked his so-called research findings. I cleared up falsehoods in his questions and statements. I noted that teachers in his and my state paid their own money to be assessed and didn’t receive a salary stipend. I talked about the value of the process to me, in my classroom, as a professional teacher. I threw in bits of the sample answers for good measure and told him where I really lived and worked since he’d gotten that wrong in his introduction.  He argued back, from the notes. At one point, I remember saying ‘You’re wrong, Governor.’

Then I looked at my watch. I had less than an hour until my flight. The panel hadn’t even ended. I picked up my tote bag (I still have it) and ran out the door, calling for a taxi. A reporter chased me out—‘I’m from Education Week! Did you just tell your governor that he was wrong?’ I gave her my card, and Bess Armstrong called me the following week, and put the story on the front page.

I never heard from Governor Engler again. I sent his office my expenses—taxis, parking, mileage to/from the airport–but was never reimbursed.  A couple years later, I was rolling a suitcase through Reagan Airport in D.C. and saw him—it’s an unmistakable silhouette. Our paths crossed, on those moving sidewalks. Hello, Governor, I said. He looked blankly at me. Nothing.

So—good luck, Dana Nessel. I know something about this man’s character. Not that he’s hiding it, these days.

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Education Reformers Keep Pushing the Same Old Stuff

One of the people I respect most, in edu-journalism, is Joan Richardson. Mostly, this is because I used to read her fine pieces in the Detroit Free Press, and later, her work as editor of Kappan magazine, and she always seemed like the epitome of a concept that gets lots of lip service but is rarely achieved: fair and balanced.  Plus—she once met me for coffee, and afterward, sent lots of questions and even some writing assignments my way, looking for the perspective of an actual teacher.

So when I saw her applauding Mike Petrilli’s overblown puff piece about what education reformers believe, I was surprised:

This piece is written by a conservative with whom I rarely find common ground. But he’s done a stunning job of capturing the key issues in education reform today. While I remain fervently opposed to charter schools, I agree with virtually everything else in this essay, and would love to hear others talk about this.

You asked for it, Joan.

Petrilli starts strong, with a list of universal beliefs about education: Education is key to a truly democratic nation, every child deserves a good school, teachers are important and worthy of gratitude, and post-secondary education does not necessarily need to involve a college degree for success in life.

Bravo. But in the very next paragraph he goes directly to the Reformers’ Motto: There are only two perspectives around educational change—the (noble, innovative) ed reformers’ and the (recalcitrant, bottom of the barrel) status quo.

The counter-principle has been expressed ad nauseum, in books, articles and panel discussions for two decades, but I guess it must be said again: Most current educators—the ones who want to see their schools change, improve and thrive—cannot be included in that ‘status quo’ bucket. Andrea Gabor just wrote a book with multiple examples of how teachers and school leaders did just that—innovated with positive, even amazing, results. And none of them were ‘ed reformers,’ working for deep-pockets non-profits, following the Fordham playbook. Nobody likes the status quo, Mr Petrilli.

Petrilli’s next bullet points:

Good schools deliver strong results for students—and all schools should be held to account for their results. Petrilli doesn’t define, in his explanatory paragraph, precisely what those results look like, but instead meanders about saying that some schools have caring adults and happy kids but they’re not meeting their education mission. This is code language for ‘test scores.’ So all that work toward helping kids love learning and develop self-confidence, all the investment in books and a clean and inviting learning space? Meaningless unless the data threshold is met.

Our schools as a whole could be delivering much stronger results for all their students, but especially for disadvantaged children. Hard to disagree with this, but Petrilli’s rationale is muddied by questionable statistics—only one-third of American kids read at the (undefined) proficient level, kids aren’t ready for college, and so on. We all think that too many kids of color and kids in poverty are underserved. The question is what to do about it—and that’s where reformers, whose bright ideas (like siphoning kids out of underperforming public schools into no-excuses charters) haven’t worked well, might want to re-think.

One size does not fit all, so we should embrace a pluralistic school system. That sounds SO good, doesn’t it? It sounded good to Al Shanker when he first proposed charter schools, 31 years ago. The fact is, we have always had a pluralistic school system. There were private independent schools and exclusive boarding schools and religious schools—and public schools. And enormous (one might say pluralistic) variance between the public schools—kids in Connecticut, Wyoming and Alaska experience public education very differently. As they should.

In fact, what has impeded pluralistic, custom-tailored education is the uptick in federal influence and top-down policy: Common Core standards, competitive grants for states that mostly closely follow federal guidelines, mandated standardized tests (which, in turn, standardized curriculum), shifting public money to privately-managed CMOs. School leaders who are eager to innovate often have to do so while skirting or ignoring state and federal policy. Not to mention the ‘same goalposts’ mantra adopted by the education reform community: Test scores are real, and that should drive change, nationally.

Side note: ‘Pluralistic’ must be the new code word for ‘charter.’

Petrilli winds up the paper with a classic reformy blueprint for how reformers are going to change Ed World. Seeing as how they’ve had little positive—and plenty of negative—impact in the past two decades, this feels like a combination of bravado and re-hashing all their ineffective policy ideas.

Some highlights:

Academic standards that aim for readiness in college, career, and citizenship.
We already have these, of course, and states are rapidly fleeing from them, or disguising them with new titles because they’ve invested so much in materials and assessments.  Standards can be useful—but the Common Core can’t produce anything remotely close to ‘readiness for citizenship.’ Only high-quality instruction, caring adult role models and a functioning community can do that. The same goes for CCSS-‘aligned assessments’ (‘Tests worth preparing for!’) and school rating systems.

Another side note: Petrilli–no fool–never mentions the Common Core in this mini-manifesto.

Strategies for intervening in, and/or replacing, chronically low-performing schools. Petrilli equivocates a bit here, saying that some reformers are still willing to try to save chronically low-performing schools, although grants have dried up. Others, of course, demand that we close these down and replace them, now, probably with charters. The entire ed-reformy mess in, say, New Orleans or Detroit, seems to have escaped reformers’ notice.  There are plenty of strategies for intervention in low-performing schools and virtually all of them begin with an infusion of cash and resources that won’t go away when the grant ends. Nor are leadership or community input into saving these schools mentioned.

Educator quality.  Petrilli suggests that we reject the view that anyone can become a great teacher, regardless of their training—although he’s predictably not a fan of traditional teacher preparation. In fact, it’s hard to discern exactly who he thinks should be in the classroom and front office, beyond the ‘well-educated’ who arrive at their teaching placements via ‘flexible pathways.’ I take that to mean that only some Teach for America corps members or similar recruits with degrees from prestigious colleges are worth keeping, long-term.

For Petrilli, good teaching is all about the smarts and the willingness to accept feedback toward their growth as an educator. I basically agree with that (although I would never define intelligence by test scores or attending a big-name college)—people who aren’t curious, humble, and determined to keep improving shouldn’t pursue teaching.

I should point out that these promising candidates also expect to be compensated with a living wage and supported by their colleagues and administrators as they work toward excellence, a big factor in beefing up the teacher pipeline. Petrilli says no teacher should get tenure unless they’ve proven to be ‘effective’—but again, what that means is murky.

Charter Schools Here, Petrilli, is on familiar turf and goes, full-tilt, into a defense of the Very Best Charters, without examining what diverting public funds to privately managed schools has wrought, across the country. He uses words like ‘onerous’ and ‘oversight’—concepts that have somehow not managed to reliably manifest themselves in states with low-regulation charter legislation. He makes his shaky case even weaker by demanding MORE money for charter schools, claiming they could do so much more if we just ‘fairly’ funded them.

It’s at this point that anyone reading this defense of education reform might be tempted to say: Hey. You’ve had close to twenty years to prove that weakening teacher pathways into the classroom, establishing ‘rigorous’ standards and assessments, shutting down low-performing schools and experimenting with private school governance models work.

They don’t work. We now have (unfortunately) plenty of evidence, and more rolls in daily.

But there’s more.  Petrilli tucks a few Suggestions for High Schools into his closing paragraphs. One is ‘a diploma that means something’—a concept we were arguing about when I started teaching, in the 1970s. Good luck with defining that one or proving that holding back the foundational block for a young citizen to get a job and start being an adult has done anything worthwhile for society.

He also encourages early college programs (OK) and Advanced Placement courses and International Baccalaureate models in high schools (each worth a column by itself, but not The One Answer to improving high school for the vast majority of kids).

And then—he quietly suggests that we start to ‘personalize’ education to let each student ‘move at his own pace.’  Which may be our hint that ed reformers are jumping on the one-kid/one-computer teach-yourself education bandwagon as the Next Big Thing.

Finally, there are a few potshots at the difference between right-wing (‘character, morality and patriotism’) reforms and left-wing (‘social justice and creative expression’) reforms. And finally—the frosting on the cake—he sticks a toe into the idea that private and religious schools should also get public money.

In case you were wondering what education reformers were up to these days, that’s a summary of Fordham’s big, innovative ideas. Comments?

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Six Things More Important than that Desperate Housewife Cheating to Get Her Kid into a Prestigious College

I was mildly shocked by the network news leading off with the ‘cheating to get into college scandal’ last night. Were they just sick of starting each broadcast with the latest on Paul Manafort, Roger Stone and Tim Apple?

The story is pretty juicy, involving real-life arrests and Famous Actresses Shamed and photoshopping rich kids’ heads onto actual athletes’ bodies posed in rowing sculls—and, oh yeah, an ex-basketball coach taking in hundreds of millions to ‘help’ them cheat.

But really—who’s surprised by this? In my last blog, I mentioned David Labaree’s superb white paper on how social mobility—not democratic equality, job preparation or something as mundane as the joy of learning—had become the predominant reason and purpose for schooling in America.

To Labaree, it’s all about credentialing. And to wealthy, influential parents, evidently, the right kind of credentialing matters more than setting a good example, or, you know, personal integrity.

In the end, I think it’s a kind of dumb and not very important story, for six reasons I’ll list in a bit.  A national episode of schadenfreude isn’t going to change people’s minds about the actual value of a college degree, unfortunately.

But first, I’d like to re-share one of the more interesting stories that got buried when it first surfaced, in the days after the 2016 election: The Story Behind Jared Kushner’s Curious Acceptance into Harvard.
ProPublica editor Daniel Golden wrote a book a decade ago about how the rich buy their children access to elite colleges. One student he covered is now poised to become one of the most powerful figures in the country.

It’s the grubby secret of American higher education: that the rich buy their under-achieving children’s way into elite universities with massive, tax-deductible donations. The book reported that New Jersey real estate developer Charles Kushner had pledged $2.5 million to Harvard University in 1998, not long before his son Jared was admitted to the prestigious Ivy League school. At the time, Harvard accepted about one of every nine applicants. (Nowadays, it only takes one out of twenty.)

I also quoted administrators at Jared’s high school, who described him as a less than stellar student and expressed dismay at Harvard’s decision.

“There was no way anybody in the administrative office of the school thought he would on the merits get into Harvard,” a former official at The Frisch School in Paramus, New Jersey, told me. “His GPA did not warrant it, his SAT scores did not warrant it. We thought for sure, there was no way this was going to happen. Then, lo and behold, Jared was accepted. It was a little bit disappointing because there were at the time other kids we thought should really get in on the merits, and they did not.”

Today’s story has drawn a great deal of attention—and a boatload of commentary on social media. Much of that seems to be either hatred of Hollywood stars (and a surprising amount of speculation about the political leanings of actresses), hatred of rich people who get things they do not deserve, defense of admissions policies at elite schools by those who attended them–and righteous anger over poor kids who tried so hard to get into Stanford or Yale, but were cruelly rejected because someone took their slot.

I haven’t heard or read a single comment today suggesting that NO college degree is worth a half-million dollar payoff, before the kid even steps inside a classroom.  What makes people angry, evidently, is the internalized belief that a degree from a prestigious college is a kind of golden ticket—and not something that can be purchased. The shiny and utterly erroneous conviction that attending a high-status university is a matter of (chuckling) ‘merit.’

So that’s the first thing that makes this an unsurprising, less than meaningful story: getting your kid into college by deceptive means is, ironically, something that rich people (who have the money to pay full tuition) do. It’s not a liberal or conservative thing–it’s a fraudulent, morally bankrupt rich person thing. And the kids whose parents spend fortunes to scam them in already have a backup bank in their corner, and plenty of connections to a world of privilege and affluence. Now that this particular con has been revealed, their goal—a degree from an exclusive college—has been cheapened and devalued.

Second–it’s been going on forever. Rich people have been buying privileged educations for their (perhaps undeserving) children, since the first ‘legacy’ admission to a respected college, 300+ years ago. Rich people offer colleges and universities perks and money and wings on new buildings, and somehow, colleges get off their admittance high horses, and let Junior in. And let’s not even get started on the cheating that always happens on SAT and ACT tests, and the loose admission standards for athletes.

Third—the media framing of this story doesn’t lead viewers or readers to useful conclusions. What people will remember is that two actresses did this–when they were only two of three dozen privileged (white) families who cheated to get their kids into prestigious colleges and GOT CAUGHT. The other families, unnamed by the media are also guilty (perhaps more, if you assess guilt by the amount of money paid to their fixer). And what about the ACT proctors who were bribed, and admissions officers and coaches who were paid off? Why aren’t we seeing their pretty faces?

Fourth– Perhaps this will be an informative experience for parents who think that having their kid get into a prestigious college is the be-all and end-all of the path to a happy life. Doubtful. But it would be wonderful to have a spate of media pieces pointing out that, for example, Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks and wannabe President, graduated from Northern Michigan University. Matriculation is not destiny. Jared Kushner is not leading the Middle East peace process because of his Harvard education—he’s been given extraordinary powers and undeserved access to our national security secrets because he married Ivanka Trump.

Fifth–And what about learning? Isn’t THAT why we send our children to college–to expand their intellectual horizons, challenge their academic strengths and build up their areas of weakness? What if the best college for your child’s intellectual growth–the place where they can dig in, develop their passions, try new things–is NOT the most famous or prestigious? Shouldn’t we be concerned about the undue hype attached to a small number of colleges, instead of improving all institutions of higher learning, making them more democratic, vibrant and welcoming?

Sixth—Deep under this story lies a question about exclusivity, education and the American psyche. Why has there been so much talk about who deserves one of the very few slots at Harvard—and no talk about the opportunity hoarding going on here? If the Ivies, Stanford et al are the ultimate educational experience, why don’t we reproduce what they offer at other institutions—or expand admissions numbers? Shouldn’t all worthy candidates have access to a top-flight educational experience?

You know the answer to that question.

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What Do Americans Think Schooling is Supposed to Do?

My friend Mary Tedrow once asked, on a social media platform, a series of deep questions designed to stick to the brain, sending thought bubbles off in multiple directions: What is our product, in public education? What consistent deliverables are schools and teachers supposed to generate, over time?

Like all good conversation starters, it yielded some pretty obvious answers and some light-bulb moments. Older teachers tended to think the purpose of public schooling was centered around citizenship—turning out graduates who had basic skills, plus a developed sense of obligation to society, to hold a job, be a good neighbor, to vote and pay taxes.

Others felt that the elementary to secondary pipeline was supposed to develop workplace capacity, the same basic literacy and numeracy, plus other qualities (‘team player,’ for example) useful to businesses—with the caveat that colleges and universities would finish the job preparation for ‘higher’ occupations.

There were dreamers–I say that with great affection–who hoped schools and teachers would find the talents and innate good in all children, helping them set and pursue lofty goals.

Mary, however, suggested that the general public now thought our product was test scores.

The more I think about her statement, the more I think it’s true.

Last night, on the local network evening news (which I watch solely to get the weather), there was a story on MI Governor Whitmer’s proposed boost in education spending. Local news in northern MI is just that: very local. There’s a regular fish and game report, and an annual story about the kid who shot the 12-point buck. Reporters tend to look like they’re in HS, but all dressed up. The station is a launching pad for wannabe TV journalists—entertaining, in a homey kind of way.

The reporter, a young woman in hat and mittens, is standing in front of a local high school for the beginning of her report, then moves inside to interview the superintendent and a teacher, who say the right things: We desperately need this money to upgrade our materials and staffing. We especially need support for Special Education and Career-Technical Education. A lot of our students go directly to work, out of HS. The teacher and superintendent both speak articulately about dollar amounts per pupil, and what that could mean for programming.

Cut to the reporter, again in front of the school: “So there you have it–more money for schools, more money for special education and CTE, more money to improve Michigan’s test scores!”

NO! NOT to improve test scores. Wrong.

I’d be OK if the reporter had said ‘to improve education.’ I’d even accept ‘to improve career prospects for students’ (although it’s a lot more than that).

But really–it’s money to improve lives and futures. It’s an investment in our students, because we want a better-educated citizenry. And that’s not just blah-blah. It’s true.

Why did the reporter say the money was designed to improve test scores? Lots of possibilities. Do reporters at small local stations write their own copy? If not, who does? Maybe it’s the same guy who does the fish and game report.

This station is owned by Sinclair Broadcasting Group, which has made no secret of its right-wing political viewpoints—but test-focused education policy is hardly a right-wing issue. Democrats created Race to the Top, after all, a kind of cage-match state to state fight for funding, completely dependent on achievement data.

I’m guessing that the reporter simply thought that any significant increase in funding for public schools was designed to improve their digits, because that’s how you know schools are ‘good.’ To her, it was one of those things everybody knows, and nobody questions: a school’s product is test scores.

About two decades ago, David Labaree wrote a seminal piece on the purpose of public education, identifying three goals that have historically defined what Americans think public schooling is supposed to do.

The three: Democratic equality (citizenship), Social efficiency (job-training) and Social mobility (allowing individuals to compete for social position). Labaree also notes that social mobility—a private good, rather than a public good—has become dominant, reshaping education into a ‘commodity, for the purposes of status attainment, elevating the pursuit of credentials over the acquisition of knowledge.’

Labaree was writing before NCLB, the Common Core, the rise of test-based ‘accountability’ and rampant school choice. But I think he would agree with Mary Tedrow—conventional wisdom now positions testing data as reality, the most important product in assessing both the value of schools and the children who attend them. The most important goal in public education: good scores.

Numbers, data and credentials (all private goods) have superseded the public value of community-based schools and the public servants who work in them. That’s a sea change.

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Are Your Students Watching History?

One of the more intriguing aspects of Wednesday’s fascinating, glued-to-the-tube Congressional train wreck was the backchannel Twitter conversation among teachers. Specifically: How do we talk to our students about this? Are we watching this with our seniors in government class? It’s history in the making, all right. How do teachers deal?

If you’ve taught as long as I have, you (and your students) have witnessed several crises happening in the world, including politically and socially sensitive events. Anyone who thinks that a teacher can avoid talking about a public tragedy, a politically contentious election outcome or the death of an iconic American is a fool. School is where kids collect, every day. School is where they talk about stuff. Adults can’t and shouldn’t suppress this, but they can provide context.

Even small children talk about big events, often confusing fact and fiction. When Pope John Paul died, in 2005, I was teaching younger children. The funeral took up a lot of time on mainstream TV, and my littles talked about it endlessly. I eventually figured out that some of them didn’t know who the Pope was, why he was important. A couple of my students thought he was ‘old fashioned Santa Claus’ (St. Nicholas) because of his red robes and tall hat. They were bereft.

That’s kind of sweet and chuckle-y. But the morning Kurt Cobain died, there was genuine grief among some of my 8th graders. A mixture of emotions, in fact—confusion, fear, horror and faux detachment. The wanted to present as chill and aloof, but the idea of someone so tuned into their self-image taking his own life was terrifying. I remember taking time to ask them what his music meant to them, how it felt to hear news of such an unnecessary loss. Suicide is tricky ground—but to say nothing, to shut down the mourning of young teenagers, rendering their strong emotions as inconsequential, felt wrong.

There is no template for these discussions, of course. On 9/11, the teachers in my building were directed to carry on with regular lessons, turn off TVs and not to ‘dwell’ on the shocking events. By contrast, a friend teaching in an elementary building told me her principal went classroom to classroom, beginning with the kindergartners, gathering the children in a circle and explaining, in the simplest language, that though terrible things had happened, they were safe in school.

When the cause of a catastrophic incident is politically neutral—the Challenger explosion, for example, which I watched on TV with a library full of sixth graders—teachers are free to talk about O-rings and weather, and to express their own shock and sorrow. When Jim Jones persuaded 900 people to end their lives via lethal Kool-Aid, in Guyana, nobody was arguing about who the bad guy was. Many of my students were certain that if anyone tried to convince them to poison themselves, they would run away and hide in the jungle—a healthy response. Believing that one has control over their actions and feelings is not a bad thing, when you’re a pre-adolescent.

Handling all these occurrences while surrounded by vulnerable children and teens takes excellent teacher judgment, of course. And there are times when mixing the News of the Day with classroom interactions is dicey: when kids are simply too young to process the implications of his lawyer calling the President a ‘conman,’ for example.

On the other hand, we’re forcing very young children to practice sheltering and holding up their bullet-proof backpacks when there’s an active shooter on the premises, which seems, umm, developmentally inappropriate to me.

In fact, the most common crises aftermath for teachers in America revolves around shootings—shooting (and sometimes killing) presidents and national leaders, neighborhood or police-initiated violence, and any number of school shootings. There’s no way to avoid mention of shootings or violence when you’re teaching kids of any age—what matters is how you deal with children’s questions, fears and (now) political goals.

In 2000, when the election results were in limbo for weeks, some of my colleagues were warned off from teaching relevant content—the Electoral College and how it came to be, for example—while the story was unfolding in real time. Which is ironic—one of the most taboo topics in American classrooms (including Civics, History and Government class) is politics.

This isn’t universal. Many excellent social studies teachers wade right into political controversy, urging their students to weigh issues and think for themselves, custom-tailoring language and sophistication of the debate to their students’ level of understanding. But I’d wager that an equal number of teachers tiptoe around politically tinged arguments. They—and their administrators—fear parent or community pushback.

None of this builds genuine informed citizenship. Which is why I think watching the Cohen hearings would be instructive for older students. Right there, on display—a man whose own credibility is highly suspect, charging the President with criminal behavior. This is how democracy is supposed to work. Shouldn’t we all be watching?

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I’m a Loser, Baby. So Why Don’t You Kill Me?

I decided right away, when Donald Trump Jr. made his inane remark about ‘loser teachers’ spreading socialism, that I wasn’t going to respond in any tangible way. A serious eye-roll perhaps, or a brief snort. I knew there would be reactions—memes, blogs and columns and snarky tweets, digital photo frames spelling out ‘LOSER’ in red —to wallow in. No need to add to the clutter of pointless, short-term outrage.

After all, the guy’s a moron. Crafting a snarky response for just another forgettable disgrace in the daily parade of verbal horrors would be too easy.

So I waited for the spate of blogs.  I’ve read a at least a dozen pieces written by earnest, irate teachers who work so hard, don’t get enough money or recognition, and are tired of this shit.

Of course, those teachers DO work so hard. Of course, they’re doing a good job, making a difference, changing lives 24/7 for $40K a year, barely able to feed their families and driving 14-year old Cavaliers. It’s outrageous that the President’s feckless son calls them ‘losers,’ for their effort to instill a little lukewarm democracy in their classrooms.

Then I read a piece on Education Week from a teacher blogger making the same case: We have a right, even a duty, to imbue our students with basic principles of citizenship outlined in our constitution. What was most noteworthy about this blog was the number of comments—90, the last time I looked. I blogged at Education Week for nine years, and I never had 90 (angry, accusatory, trolling) comments. EdWeek is a pretty staid place, protected by a paywall, but these were bot-worthy, name-calling anti-teacher, anti-public education comments, posted at a sober website where educators go to discuss policy.

My friend Ken Jackson, who teaches at Wayne State University made this point:

Is this merely an ugly Trumpism or is it something all of us– including those in education — have internalized? Does the remark point to something much more problematic about our collective attitude towards teaching? And when I say “our” I mean, again, those in education.

Ken points out that teaching is only one skill he is supposed to bring to the academy—research and administration are valued as much as, perhaps more, than the act of teaching:

My sense of responsibility towards students is greater than it has ever been. When I see traditional age students, I don’t see a random collection of young people, I see my daughter. And I give the kids in my charge what I would want her to have. That is considerable.

We have made — at all levels of education — getting out of the classroom the GOAL, not the end. Staying in the classroom is to lose.

Check the newspapers: Tom Watkins, Amber Arellano, Tonya Allen, Doug Ross — these are our “education” stars and gurus. People pay THEM to talk and write about education. What do they have in common? They have never seen the inside of a classroom.

Don’t blame “Jr.” — He is us.

Another friend, Cossondra George, teaches math in a tiny town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She expressed her disgust with Trump Jr.’s remark and got pushback from local Trump supporters who try to assure her that Jr. didn’t mean ALL teachers or HER, specifically—’just the ones who are willfully trying to push a Socialist agenda and using education as a platform, a misuse of power.”

Cossondra’s response was so powerful that I’m quoting her verbatim here:

 I don’t want to live in a society where we don’t all work together for the good of the all–where we don’t offer education and healthcare to our most vulnerable people, where we don’t have police, fire, ambulance protections. if that means that sometimes, some of my tax dollars support a program I’m not in favor of, that’s a risk I’m willing to take. I don’t see how a sane person can think people should be able to choose whether or not to pay taxes. If people don’t choose to, what happens to schools, hospitals, roads, fire departments, etc.?

There is just a huge concern about respect for teachers and public education today. When a ‘trusted’ speaker bashes educators so blatantly, that ‘trickles down’. How many students now feel empowered to be disrespectful to their ‘loser teachers’ because some arrogant ass that has most likely NEVER spent a single day in a public school classroom, makes that kind of remark at a campaign rally for our sitting president?

Remember—she lives in a small town, where her students and their parents will be bumping into her in the produce aisle. I admire her courage.

I’ve now seen many, many similar conversations on social media. This is a big deal. A thoughtful piece in the Washington Post brought it home:

In a stadium filled with people chanting “USA, USA,” the son of the president of the United States called for hostility toward teachers because of their so-called political leanings. This is a message you would expect in an authoritarian regime, not at a rally for the U.S. president.

By working daily with young people, teachers are the stewards of the future. Whether Democratic or Republican, liberal or conservative, right, left, center, blue or red — seeing and reinforcing the value of a teacher should be a national pillar that rises high above partisan politics and cheap applause.

Throughout history, schools and teachers have always been among the first to be targeted by authoritarian regimes and extremists. Independent thinking, creativity, compassion and curiosity are threats to dogmatic beliefs and rule.

I was wrong. We need to pay attention, every day. Thanks, teachers, for speaking out. You may be the first line of defense.

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Blackface and Other Ugly Truths. Not Just a Southern Thing.

I have lived in Michigan all my life. I never thought of myself as a Yankee until I started working for an education nonprofit based in the South and quickly picked up that nickname–as well as a reputation for being on the side of teachers’ unions (guilty), and outspoken in a way that was downright unladylike. Nobody ever said ‘Bless your heart’ to me.

In fact, it’s easy for folks who don’t live in the South to feel a little smug about being on the right side of the War Between the States, even though it happened more than 150 years ago. Northern educators are fond of pointing out that the lowest-achieving states tend to cluster across the south-eastern tier of the United States.

We are seldom encouraged, however, as teachers, to think about the range of historical and economic streams—or the policy wars—that led to such disparate outcomes. Worse, we’re not pressed to ask what we can do to address and support equity and justice nationwide in an economy that is increasingly global. We get let off the hook sometimes.

The recent outrage over Ralph Northam’s yearbook photo, and his fumbling response, is a case in point. As Teju Cole points out in a New Yorker podcast, white men of a certain age grew up in a deeply racist culture, and not much has changed since then. Since Reconstruction, blackface and minstrelsy have been used to belittle black Americans. We are nowhere close to reconciling our national shame over deep-seated scars of injustice.

The difference with Northam—what separates him from other political leaders who went to school in the 1980s– is that Northam got caught. And once caught, seemed to have no idea how to express shame, humbly ask for forgiveness, admit that he needs to be educated about his failures, past and present, use his own guilt to lead people in a new direction– and so on.

It’s not the call of non-Virginians, of course, but I think Ralph Northam should resign, even though by most accounts, he’s been a good governor. I also thought my previous governor, Rick Snyder, should resign in disgrace over decisions that led to poisoning the water in Flint, then withholding the truth from the citizens of Michigan. Somehow, however, white men of a certain age can survive insulting—or poisoning—black people. If that’s not insidious racism, I don’t know what is.

There’s been some recent conversation about the biased and inaccurate teaching of history and social studies, in the South particularly, which strikes me as just another way to point fingers at schools, rather than acknowledging that schools are a stage where society plays out its deepest values and goals.

Teachers in the North and the South have chronically bungled the topic of slavery, for starters, but it goes deeper than that. Schools are also a stage where assumptions and taboos and unexamined but common practices play out.

I personally have been warned by an administrator not to ‘focus’ on the African roots of the music my students were marinating in, for example, because parents might not like it. Teachers in all parts of the country tangle daily with politically incorrect ideas and forbidden issues—and not just in Civics class. You’d be surprised what first graders ‘know’ and want to share with their little friends.

Recently, a retired teacher buddy asked me if I remembered ‘slave sales’ being a part of Spirit Week at my school. My friend had been tracking a FB page where adults who went to high school together were lamenting the fact that the ‘fun’ things they did (including a ‘slave sale’ assembly) were now banned. Political correctness run amok was the consensus, among the dozens of commenters. It was all in fun. Wasn’t it? The teachers participated, after all, and the school allowed it. Even worse, there were black and white photos shared, including someone in a KKK hood, and a person in a noose.

A female classmate had called the commenters out, saying this is horrible now and was horrible then. She posted a link on hidden biases, asking folks to turn the conversation toward an examination of why this was considered OK behavior.  This led to a lot of irritated mansplaining and rationalizing and attempts to call HER out. (Who is she, anyway? I don’t remember her.)

Talk about discouraging.

The worst thing for me was that I did remember a ‘slave auction’ at my middle school, in the late 70s or early 80s. It had been a tradition there for years, as a fundraiser for something—the cheerleaders were offered up ‘for sale’ and did the bidding of their ‘owners’ for a day. The auction was shut down when a group of boys pooled their money to buy a cheerleader, then brought out a saddle and put it on her. The principal stepped into the mix (finally) and that was the end of ‘slave’ auctions.

So–let’s not get on our high horses about better behavior in any part of the country.

In the New Yorker podcast, Teju Cole was asked if the Northam affair might be a national tipping point, in our awareness, disapproval and extinguishing of racist behaviors. No, he said. We have no idea what conciliation or reparations look like. We’re currently living with the backlash against a black President. The best we can hope for is incremental growth toward equity.

Is Teju Cole right?  DfVv5LRVAAIyP_F

Third Grade Flunk Laws–and (Un)intended Consequences

Like many states, Michigan has a Third Grade Mandatory Retention law for students who are not reading at grade level in the statewide assessments. And like most states, the law is riddled with exceptions, loopholes and what you might call pre-existing conditions. In other words, well-connected parents who don’t want their child who struggles with reading to fail the third grade will be able to wiggle out of it. If you’re poor or attending a ‘failing’ school, you’re pretty much toast if your reading skills (or test-taking skills) are subpar–when you’re eight years old.

Much of the critique around ‘3rd grade flunk’ legislation centers on the damage done to kids by being forced to repeat a grade, the financial burden on schools as they are compelled to provide an additional year of instruction to large segments of their elementary population, and the complete lack of proof that these laws work. If our goal is higher rates of genuine literacy, rather than punishing schools and vulnerable students, there are better ways to get there.

We could begin by noting that Finland, a perennial head-of-list country when it comes to international comparisons of literacy accomplishment, does not begin formal reading instruction until students are seven years of age—roughly second grade—because they believe that’s when a majority of students are developmentally ready to handle the complex intellectual tasks of phonemic awareness, decoding and making meaning of the symbols on the page. By age nine—4th grade—Finnish students are ahead of ours, even though our 4th graders have been subjected to formal reading instruction for five years at that point.

There’s something seriously wrong here.

Now we are witnessing the other consequences of the Third Grade Threat—pushing inappropriate instruction down to kindergarten, as anxious districts fear that students who are not reading at grade level (a murky goal, to begin with) will embarrass the district when letters go out to parents of third graders who are supposed to be retained. Because it’s the law.

Who’s to blame when students lag behind (arbitrary) literacy benchmarks, for whatever reason, from learning in a second language, an identified disability or merely being a late-bloomer? Teachers, of course.

Early on, much of the angst was directed at ‘those districts’—the ones where high numbers of students lived in poverty, the districts where 40% of kids weren’t reading at grade level, and teachers were presumed to be less-than (an absolute fallacy, by the way). But the dread over having to face public wrath around flunking 8-year olds has spread to alpha districts.

A disgruntled kindergarten teacher in Ann Arbor shared a memo that was sent to KDG teachers in Ann Arbor two days ago. It appears, in its entirety, including misspellings and grammatical errors, below. Ann Arbor is a large, well-regarded district with a diverse population that includes children from well-educated families as well as pockets of poverty. Most of its schools are highly ranked by the State Department of Education, and a couple of its neighborhood schools post test scores lower than the state average.

But Ann Arbor kindergarten teachers, it seems, are now part of a get-tough literacy accountability pipeline, where their personal beliefs about how children learn emphatically do not matter, and their coaches and administrators are taking them to task, including a ominously worded reminder that their instruction could and will be observed at any time.

They are reminded that ‘large’ numbers of kids—kindergartners, remember, three years before the hatchet falls—are failing.  And the boss wants to know why. In writing. Including a response to the question of how teachers are ‘demonstrating rigor’ in their ELA instruction.

It’s a crackdown, all right: ‘Student progress begins and ends with you. We cannot let borderline students get a pass.’

If this is happening in Ann Arbor—not a perfect district, but one that has demonstrated some progressive ideas and academic successes—how has this law negatively impacted reading instruction in other districts?

Are these unintended consequences? Or is this what the Third Grade Flunk law was supposed to do all along—wrest control of reading instruction from professional teachers?
—————————————————————————————

Memo of February 6 to kindergarten teachers in Ann Arbor (italics are mine):

“Good afternoon K teachers,

I hope that you all had a wonderful day off and stayed off of the slippery roads. The purpose of this email is to get the conversation started with you all ASAP and for us to better understand where are (sic) K students are and how we are going to ensure their success. In hopes for us to get the full picture of what we need to look at there are several questions and items that we need more information from you by Friday, February 8, 2019. (Note: email sent February 6.)

  1. Please share with XX and I your reading groups (specifically name of students, days/times you meet with them and for how long). When we read them, these schedules should reflect at least 4-5 days a week with your lowest (below grade level) readers and fewer days for those at or above target. Please note that we may pop in during the time you give to see how a few friends are doing.
  2. Please provide XX and I with a hard copy of your most current benchmark assessment that helped you to determine reading groups.
  3. Questions that require honest answers…

How many of your kids be ready to read for 1st grade teachers at a level “E” by the beginning of next year? Please list them.

What literacy supports and strategies have you been offering students and families that go beyond the classroom?

What do you believe is your responsibility to students in the area of ELA?

This year we had a very LARGE number of students falling significantly below grade level.
What was the underlying cause for this last year? 
What have you changed about your practice this year so that this does not happen again?
How are you demonstrating rigor with in your ELA practice?

As we dive into how our youngest and brightest look at this point, we must also remember that our personal views and opinions around developmental appropriateness may not match what the district is asking you to achieve. Nonetheless, each of you is still responsible for meeting and achieving the grade level outcomes set out by the district. Please remember that student progress and success begins and ends with you.

In addition, growth data is dependent on the level of success student have. As you go into the next round of evaluations do you have the evidence and data that will accurately demonstrate the appropriate reading growth. This year we will not be using “the standard error of deviation”, either students have made the necessary growth or they have not. With the NEW THIRD GRADE READING LAW we can not let borderline kids get a pass. These student will have to securely demonstrate success. (Caps not in original email.)

Thank you in advance for you thoughtful responses and speediness in getting this information to us. We will be setting up a mandatory meeting to discuss these points further for sometime next week. We will have XX join us as our Literacy Expert.

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Defining ‘High-Quality’ Curriculum

photo-1514339013457-0fcf969367dfHey, remember when Bill Gates and his disciples were pushing the Common Core and every day there was another info piece published in Ed World saying, emphatically and even snippily, that these were STANDARDS, not a CURRICULUM?

Remember those assurances that a national consensus on standards and reliable, aligned assessments evaluating student mastery of those core standards were merely a conceptual framework–the beginning and the end of their Grand Master National Make-Schools-Better plan. Remember when they claimed school districts and individual teachers were free to craft their own curricula? Because teachers knew the kids (duh) and how best to teach them to reach those standards–providing students continued to do well on the tests, of course.

Well, that was then. The headline now is ‘Gates Giving Millions to Train Teachers on High-Quality Curriculum,’ closing the instructional cycle: Standards—Curriculum—Assessments.

Grantees will work to improve how teachers are taught to use and modify existing series that are well aligned to state learning standards.

So–teachers won’t be using hand-selected materials or instructional activities they find relevant or engaging to their students’ lives. They won’t have the authority to ditch packaged materials that don’t work for their kids and create something that does. They will merely be trained—my least favorite word, when it comes to authentic teaching—to ‘use existing series.’  Series pre-approved by Gates and constructed by off-site by textbook writers. Whoopee.

You could see it coming, with the surfeit of dismissive articles on how teachers rely on Pinterest to create their lessons and wouldn’t know rich, rigorous curriculum if it dropped from the sky. This underlying disdain for teachers is often masked by chipper sentences like this one:

Expecting teachers to be expert pedagogues and instructional designers is one of the ways in which we push the job far beyond the capabilities of mere mortals.

I went to ed school a long time ago, but I left with the conviction that my job would be centered on creation of a relevant curriculum for my students and the pedagogical skill to deliver that curriculum. If teaching is not pedagogy and instructional design, what is it that teachers are supposed to be doing?

I do—unlike some of my colleagues—see the value of a loosely framed set of disciplinary standards to follow VOLUNTARILY, especially early in a teaching career. It helps to know how to sequence core learning objectives (some old-school language from the 70s that still applies). It helps to have a toolkit full of strategies to teach those objectives. What helps most is friendly, talented colleagues who provide running support when things don’t go well—another way to teach a key concept or go-to materials that aren’t in ‘the series.’

Sometimes, I think all the hand-wringing around teachers being unable to select, organize and teach a coherent curriculum comes mostly from those who are worried that teachers might choose learning materials and goals that they don’t agree with. It’s true that teachers have a lot to do, day in and day out, but taking their most critical responsibilities away from them means stripping them of what it means to be a teacher, turning them into technicians, record-keepers and disciplinarians enforcing work they don’t believe in. It’s demeaning.

I also don’t believe this is about Gates and Company making more money. It’s about control over a once-creative, socially essential occupational field.

A few years ago, I applied to become a ‘model lesson’ designer in a project launched by my State Department of Education. The money was not impressive, but the work was done over two weeks at a beautiful resort in northern Michigan, and several of my teacher colleagues were participating. The idea was to design exemplary lessons around topics and skills in the state grade-level curriculum standards (pre-Common Core). These lessons would then be available for all teachers in Michigan to use, to enhance their curriculum.

The work was done using a nationally familiar model of lesson design. Thousands of teachers across the country have read the book and undergone the training. Because this workshop was organized in a hurry (had to spend that grant money!) the sponsoring organization didn’t have a trainer available. Instead, they sent out two teachers to deliver the training and help us write the units.

These teachers were flat-out great. Both knew the lesson design process and material well but were pragmatic in assuring us that the ‘gourmet’ lessons we were designing were not the stuff of everyday teaching. They were ambitious and creative and used technology (one of the requirements) that lots of teachers didn’t have access to. A couple days in, there was a discussion about how the Department expected these lessons to be used.

One of the teachers leading the workshop admitted that he didn’t believe ANY lesson could be used, wholesale, by another teacher.  You might find a great idea or strategy, he said—but any smart teacher will tweak and modify. Tweaking and modifying are what teaching is. And creating your own lessons, custom-tailored to the kids in front of you—that’s what great teaching is.

There was applause when he said this, but the Department folks at the back of the room, scrolling through their phones, looked uneasy. The two teachers were gone in two days, replaced by a woman from the sponsoring organization, who made us discard the work we’d done already as ‘drafts’ and start over. To my knowledge, the lessons were never used.

So much for ‘high-quality’ curriculum. It’s hard to see how the millions Gates is dropping on this project will end up benefiting real kids. There is no such thing as a sure-fire, teacher-proof lesson. The person in front of the room always matters more.

Photo: Thammie Cascales

What Are We Supposed to Learn from the Covington Catholic High School Boys?

Maybe you don’t want to read another gush of outrage over those kids who tried—and failed—to humiliate Omaha tribal elder Nathan Phillips. I’ve seen at least two dozen full-scale editorial pieces, in the mainstream and alternative media, plus many more posted on social media with one of the many shaky iPhone videos and a few choice insults in the comments.

Perhaps you have decided that the news cycle for MAGA Boy and the persistently drumming Native American elder has run its course. Maybe you called or emailed the school in Kentucky to express your displeasure. Make a few comments on social media posts—and considering that the event is now over, it goes into the ‘Old Outrages’ file, along with the Hitler-salute Youth in Baraboo, Wisconsin, and the Stanford swimmer who got away with rape, pretty much. Not to mention Michael Brown, Tamar Rice, et al..

Perhaps there are just too many outrages to keep burning, burning, burning all the time. It’s exhausting. But maybe that’s the problem—we get angry, or sad, or sickened by all signs and signals that there’s something really appalling happening in this country. And we feel powerless to do more than comment.
More than that, we’re not really sure who or what to blame. We don’t know how to fix this.

Is this about a spoiled and entitled generation of kids? Is it about Catholic schools, sending teenaged boys on a mission to publicly protest a woman’s right to have control over her own body? Who thought that was a good idea? Or is it really about the adults—a response I’ve heard from many educators—and their failure to step in and stop the reprehensible behavior of the boys in their charge, to point out their disrespect, to yank them back?

I think the fact that virtually all the boys in the video were wearing MAGA hats answers that last question. Clearly, that was acceptable gear for a visit to the nation’s capital. They got off the bus with those baseball caps, their cell phones to document their manly actions, and their inclination to rumble.

The thing is—and I’m not the first to point this out—we’ve seen boys like this before. Boys like this have been part of our history, from Birmingham to Wounded Knee to Charlottesville. They sit in corner offices, the halls of power and the highest court in the nation.  To boys like this, life is a game of winners and losers. They want to be winners, to come out on top. And white boys think they have the advantage there.

The question now is not who’s most to blame— or whether the boys even understood the political and philosophical differences between the Black Hebrew Israelites, who were also protesting, and the cause of the Indigenous Peoples March.  Doubtful.

The question we need to be asking is what this incident represents about us, as a nation. What will we do next, how can this be mended, what does it mean to be ‘great?’

Perhaps the most on-point and frightening thing I’ve read came from Nathan Phillips himself:

Phillips said he recalled “the looks in these young men’s faces … I mean, if you go back and look at the lynchings that was done (in America) …and you’d see the faces on the people … The glee and the hatred in their faces, that’s what these faces looked like.”

So–let’s stop talking about this incident as proof that Catholic schools are missing the moral mark, or that teenagers are clueless jerks who don’t know their own history, or that parents need to take a firm hand and stop defending their kids (instead of hiring PR firms to clean up the mess).

This is about a malevolence sweeping across our country. We’re all involved here. This is about racism, in all its filthy and sordid flavors, shapes and forms.

It’s just more evidence that demons we thought had been tamped down, again and again, are on the loose once more. Ethnocentrism, xenophobia, and white nationalism, parading around in red hats. The cracks in our democracy widening. A new sense of who the natural winners and losers are—who ‘deserves’ to come out on top.

In one of the videos, Nathan Phillips says:

 “Let’s make America great. Let’s do that.”  After an exchange about “stolen land” one young person responds to Phillips’ group by saying, “And y’all stole it from the aboriginals. … Land gets stolen. That’s how it works. It’s the way of the world.”

There you have it. Not sure who told this kid that stealing property was the way of the world, but if this is what young men attending a school that purports to inculcate strong moral character believe, we’re in terrible trouble.  White teachers and parents need to take a good look at not only what happens on school trips, but in the curriculum, the athletic fields, at the dinner table and every other place that our kids look for role models and guidance. Because they ARE looking.

That doesn’t mean I’ve let these kids off the hook. I haven’t. Only this: if you were relieved that YOUR children/students/community would never behave like this, look at what’s coming down the pike.

 Decide for yourself what is causing this upsurge in hate and ugliness.

Nathan Phillips gets the last word:
Phillips said the students who derided him Friday were motivated by fear of different people. 

“The Black Israelites, they were saying some harsh things, but some of it was true, too,” Phillips said. “These young, white American kids who were being taught in their Catholic school, their doctrine, their truth, and when they found out there’s more truth out there than what they’re being taught, they were offended, they were insulted, they were scared, and that’s how they responded. One thing that I was taught in my Marine Corp training is that a scared man will kill you. And that’s what these boys were. They were scared.”

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How to Teach Virtue? Start with a Charter School.

Yes. The title is sarcasm.

But the idea must be acknowledged. It sprang from the mind of one of most venerable Famous Educators, a hoary pillar of the never-ending education reform movement, Chester E. Finn, known to his fellow reformistas as ‘Checker.’ Checker is currently paterfamilias of the Thomas Fordham Institute group, one of whom, Michael Petrilli, recently suggested that the education reform movement has been so successful in accomplishing its goals that it was currently fading into media obscurity. As if.

I have never been a fan of Finn’s approach to school reform. (Click here, for example.) Finn, whose teaching career spanned one full year, is one of those private-school, private-colleges, wordsmithy edu-pundits who look down—way down—on fully public education, seeing it as a hopeless tax-funded entitlement program for subpar youth.

My favorite example of this comes from his book, Troublemaker, a very readable sort-of autobiography where he positions himself as an education policy rebel—a ‘gadfly’– poking at sacred public education cows. He talks about the difficulties he had teaching high school as a newbie, and blames them on the lack of a good syllabus. Because in working with ‘tough’ kids, with ‘few prospects,’ a rigidly defined curriculum rich with the classical canon is your ace in the hole as a novice teacher.  (Sarcasm again. Sorry. There’s something about Finn’s George Willesque writing that brings out the snark.)

Finn now writes the occasional op-ed at Flypaper (get it?), tutting about mistakes made by those who persist in defending public education and don’t see issues his way. His most recent one is ‘Rekindling moral education: A worthy challenge for schools of choice.’  If you’d like a get a flavor of Finn’s erudition and moral rectitude, you can read it, but I’ll summarize for you:

The nation is going to heck in a handbasket, and it’s time for schools to get on the stick and start teaching some values moral certainties, because ‘we’ are observing ‘an excess of selfishness, cheating, laziness, and willingness to be a burden on others.’

He (Finn) has read two excellent essays, comparing the views of Aristotle, Kant and Rousseau (a long-time favorite target for Finn), and thinks we could benefit from high-quality, philosophy-driven moral instruction in our schools, the kind of instruction that private and especially religious schools have always embraced.

In fact, it’s an ‘obligation’ for schools of choice to embark on this, right away. Regular public schools, which Finn has taken to calling ‘compulsory-education schools,’ however, shouldn’t even bother. They’re faceless bureaucracies, after all, and they dare not offend their ‘common’ constituencies by trying to ‘habituate certain values.’ Finn puts ‘Blaine Amendments’ in quotes, lamenting the fact that religion has been shut out of public education. Charter schools, on the other hand—well, there may be some ‘workarounds.’

Finn finishes the column with some high-flown blah-blah about teaching the Categorical Imperative to school-of-choice kindergarteners–trusting that TFA corps members could develop the curriculum, no doubt, doing their bit to hold back the ‘debased and unworthy society’ that’s coming down the pike.

Well. Speaking as a long-time compulsory-attendance schoolteacher, I can testify that character education has always been a part of public schooling. In fact, the foundation of most school discipline practice, K-12—from simple classroom rules, morning meetings and honor councils all the way to formal programs like Restorative Justice and (God help us) Canter’s Assertive Discipline—has been established to shape the character and behavior of students. The idea that public schools shy away from defining morally correct behavior and overlook genuine offenses is ludicrous.

In fact, if there is a societal force moving against teaching truth and justice in public schools, it might be our own legislatures. Here in Michigan, it took 18 public ‘listen and learn’ sessions to overturn right-wing edits to the state’s social studies standards:  People discovered references of the government’s role in guaranteeing freedom of religion, freedom of expression and freedom of press had been struck. So were references to the Underground Railroad, women’s rights activists and the suffrage movement as well as emerging civil rights of immigrants and the LGBTQ community.

As I was reading Finn’s rapturous description of parochial schools and their long-time commitment to the inculcation of virtue, I thought about Brett Kavanaugh’s calendar of debauchery and phony, spitting outrage when his entitlement was threatened. Religious-based schools do indeed have the freedom to teach their preferred principles and models—and parents have the prerogative to pay for the privilege of having their kids attend school with similarly well-connected families—but none of that is a guarantee that Catholic schoolboys adopt a higher standard of moral behavior in adulthood.

It’s Checker Finn’s titular assertion that charter schools are the perfect place for character education to get a good toehold on changing society that’s most absurd. Perhaps Checker Finn hasn’t been following the endless (and I do mean endless) stories of charter corruption. Charter schools have been around long enough to have posted some solid evidence about their efficacy and outcomes—when Finn mentions that some of them have used their commitment to personal merit as a ‘brand,’ he does so without apparent irony.

Perhaps he hasn’t seen the videos, or understood that the adorable children in ‘Waiting for Superman’ have not been ‘saved’ from the debased and unworthy world he fears. If Checker Finn were to show up in my town, he couldn’t have a conversation with the ‘visionary’ charter school founder here, because he’s in prison for financial malfeasance, although he’s still collecting rent from his personal school of choice. Moral rectitude, indeed.

I don’t disagree with Checker Finn’s take that the world has grown colder, and less worried about honesty and integrity.  But I think there’s another reason why. It has to do with role models, not school governance models.

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My Thing for Elizabeth Warren

I often remind myself that my grandmother was 30 years old before she got the chance to vote. In my 20s, advocating for the ERA to pass (spoiler alert: it didn’t), I asked my grandmother if she considered herself a suffragette, back in the day. Was she champing at the bit, wondering when women would achieve parity with men?

Not exactly. She was happy to have the vote—and used it faithfully, right up until she died at 103, to vote mainly for Republicans, because her brother was a Republican and advised her to do so. But although she was a remarkably independent and self-sufficient woman, for her times, she was not a banner-waving feminist in her 20s.

My grandmother worked, full-time, after leaving school in the 8th grade, in 1904. She lived with her parents, her older married sister and then alone, throughout her 20s. She bought a car with her savings, before she even knew how to drive, getting one of her other (also Republican) brothers to teach her. She didn’t marry until 33, after everyone had given up on her prospects. She was an old maid–until she eloped to Chicago with a 40-something cigar maker.

She was, however, civic-minded, participating in troop support during WW I, reading a daily newspaper and contributing to many charitable causes. She supported herself and her only daughter throughout the worst of the Depression, working at a grocery store after her husband died. She was never anywhere close to well-off, and her grandchildren made fun of her string-saving and vegetable-scrap soup-making. The family joke was that she put one chocolate chip in each cookie.

I think my deep love and respect for my grandma’s persistence in getting on with her life, no matter what, has something to do with my thing for Elizabeth Warren. I remember the big digital display at the Democratic Convention in 2016, when Hillary Clinton ‘cracked the glass ceiling,’ thinking that it was one thing to have finally nominated a woman. But another to actually get her elected.

I liked Clinton well enough (although I voted for Bernie in the primary), seeing her as the best-prepared candidate in American history.  But I did not identify with her or find her story compelling. She was the cool, confident girl at the top of the class who didn’t make mistakes. She was calculating, and shrewd. In retrospect, those are excellent qualities in a president—and I’d give up a lot to have her in the White House now. Perhaps her role in history is to have cracked the ceiling so others can take the escalator, although I’m certain that’s not what she was aiming for.

Elizabeth Warren, on the other hand, is relatable. For me, anyway. Her family was undeniably working class, prone to working-class prejudices (her mother’s ethnic background, for example), and frequently broke. Her brothers all joined the military, a common career plan for the guys who graduated from my blue-collar high school in the sixties. She dropped out of college at 19 to marry, then quickly regretted it and figured out how to get that degree, after all. She went to law school as a young mother. Whatever notoriety and accomplishments Elizabeth Warren has earned, they all belong squarely to her.

But–is relatable a valuable trait? How do we pick a candidate for president?  David Leonhardt has some good advice on that, in the NY Times today: 

First, think for yourself. Don’t try to figure out what kind of candidate some other hypothetical voter — a swing voter, say — is likely to want. Think about which candidate excites you.

The strongest presidential candidates usually are more than the sum of their demographic traits and résumé lines. In the 2016 primaries, Donald Trump sure didn’t seem like the most electable Republican candidate — but he won. In 2008, a first-term African-American senator with the middle name Hussein didn’t seem like the most electable Democrat — but he won. If you find someone who legitimately excites you this year, there’s a very good chance that candidate will also excite other voters.

Leonhardt’s second piece of advice:  The Democrats should choose a candidate who understands the appeal of economic populism right now.

Bingo.

Aside from climate change, I think the rapidly expanding gap between the haves and the have-nots is the most critical issue in the United States today. It undergirds other major issues—racism, health care, education, housing and infrastructure, the well-being of the citizenry. And there’s nobody running for POTUS who understands better just how much—and in what ways– the middle class, working class and those in genuine poverty have been screwed by our economic policies and growing inequity than Elizabeth Warren. It’s her life’s work.

I remember clearly the first time I saw Elizabeth Warren on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart.  It was in 2009. She was clearly nervous—she says she threw up backstage—and very much the rattle-on, didactic professor. I learned, from her few minutes on TV, just who was responsible for the financial collapse that had negated my puny investments, and which Wall Street lawyers had been put in charge of ‘fixing’ the economy. She was blunt and bold. She ought to run for Congress, I thought.

I read her book, and was impressed. And I started following her career, beginning with her brainchild, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and its struggle to get established, with Obama ultimately deciding she wouldn’t have enough ‘support’ to be its first Director. She’s been speaking out for working families and populist economic values for a decade now, proposing solutions and identifying roadblocks to equity. She’s also routinely been underestimated.

Warren’s enormously popular in her own state. She even called out Hillary Clinton’s two-faced senatorial voting record on financial issues—a pretty gutsy thing to do. Later, once Clinton won the nomination, she supported her—as a team player, another role that winning politicians are compelled to play in a highly partisan system like ours. And now—she’s supporting the Green New Deal, working cooperatively with some of the most progressive new politicians in Washington.

So—just what is it that is preventing right-thinking Americans for backing Warren’s candidacy for President? Maybe it’s the fact that only 52% of Americans say they would feel comfortable with a woman president.  In Atlantic Monthly, Peter Beinart, after dissecting Warren’s flirtation with identifying her genetic heritage and her policy views, says this:

All this ignores the harsh truth that when women politicians—especially women politicians who embrace a feminist agenda—overtly seek power, many American men, and some American women, react with “moral outrage.” They may not express that outrage in explicitly gendered terms, just as they may not express their anxiety about a black candidate in explicitly racial terms. They may instead cite DNA testing or hidden emails or San Francisco’s cultural liberalism. Or they may simply say they find the candidate’s mannerisms off-putting. The media’s role is to dig deeper: to interpret these specific discomforts in light of the deeper discomfort that Americans again and again express with ambitious women.

The media, and those who don’t do that deeper digging can always find a reason here or there to pillory a candidate like Warren—something she said about charter schools 20 years ago, a discomfort with her earnest, opposite-of-aloof personality, or nailing her for challenging Trump’s disparaging label of ‘Pocahontas.’

I fully understand Tribal leaders’ irate clarification: being Native American is not a matter of DNA testing, but cultural identification. But I also understood Warren’s urge to tell her family story. Cross-cultural mixing is the story of America—and as recently as a generation or two ago, many a family’s unity was destroyed by prejudice and intolerance against those with different skin color, religion, ethnic background or class. Although it may have backfired, I thought it was Warren’s story to tell, her grievance to address. And, in the end, not really a big enough deal to knock her off the list of prospective national leaders.

After the 2016 election, I volunteered to go on a ‘listening tour’ for my county’s Democratic party. I went with a partner, and we knocked on doors of voters who were identified as independents and those who did not vote in the previous November. We asked what their most important local, state and national issues were—and what qualities their ideal candidates would have. It was fascinating.

We only found person who admitted to voting for Trump, here in a state that pushed him over the edge. Instead, people talked about how much they disliked Hillary Clinton, going all the way back to her tenure as First Lady, where she was ‘pushy’ and Not Elected President. Yeah, she was broadly experienced and smart, blah-blah—but they just did not like her. They couldn’t relate to her. Plus, they said, she was a liar. Many of them proudly told us (strangers, remember, who knocked on their door, and asked completely different questions) they didn’t vote for anybody as President.

All of this makes convinces me that we need to change the way we talk about women in politics:

 For the last two years, women have been standing up. We marched. We phone-banked. We canvassed. We fund-raised. And most importantly, we spoke up. We said, “Me too!”  We said, “I’ll run!” We said, “Enough!” And finally, we had an outcome that wasn’t soul-crushing. After two years of suffering through a relationship with our abusive country and thinking nothing was going to change, we had a reason to celebrate instead of mourn.

So naturally, the internet could not let it stand.

Amen. It’s time to look as seriously at women running for President as we do men. To see their gaffes as just that: gaffes. To investigate their background experiences, expertise and deeply held principles. To stop trying to find that one disqualifying incident or irritating characteristic. To see them as genuine leaders and professionals, with warts and strengths. If there’s anything that 2016 taught us, it’s that Americans have a tolerance for obvious warts, if they see something else they like.

My grandmother never raised a ruckus about not being able to vote because it never occurred to her that her gender had been systematically suppressed. Things just were as they were—men made political decisions and women fried eggs.  Change, like a woman in the White House—let alone a woman who genuinely came from blue-collar roots—would have been unthinkable. In 1920, Grandma was just happy to get the vote.

But a whole century has passed. It’s time for someone like Elizabeth Warren to be President. There are others—in fact, Warren is only one of my top five candidates. But all of them bring something new and energizing to the table. Let’s make change in 2020.9947-full

One Hundred Books

I try to read one hundred books per year. I arrived at that number after a few years of pursuing competitive reading, setting ever-higher unreachable goals and then ‘cramming’ in late December in an attempt to slide in under the wire. I was reminded, uncomfortably, of my kids, back in the day, reading easy-peasy picture books to juke the competitive-reading, Pizza Hut-driven stats on the charts posted on their classroom walls. Data, not delight.

My best reading buddy, Claudia Swisher, read 152 books this year, but I have now decided to simply admire Claudia from afar and try to hit three digits, with a mix of old and new, fiction and non-fiction, keeping a book or two (or five) going at all times. I log my reading at GoodReads, rating each book (one to five stars) and writing at least a couple sentences, if not a full-blown review. It took awhile to get into that habit, too, but now I really appreciate having a list of what I’ve read, especially series, wherein titles blur after a few months.

This was not a particularly great year for reading—for me. I read more one- and two-star entries than usual, and for the first time ever, logged two DNF (Did Not Finish) books. It might be my Calvinist upbringing, but I have always powered through books once I’ve read a few chapters.

Perhaps it’s an increased awareness that—tick-tock—I have only so much time left, but I’m done finishing stinkers, forever. And yes, some books take a while to gear up, then reward you generously at the end. But should I have to invest time while hoping things pick up? No. Unless someone I trust (see the aforementioned Claudia Swisher, or my best friend Sandy, or my husband Terry, also a prodigious reader) tells me to persist.

When I was just two books shy of my goal, I asked Twitter for some short but worthy suggestions and Monise Seward turned me on to a YA graphic series—The Amulet. The books are beautifully drawn and feature rip-snorting, mind-boggling adventure plots. I’d read only one graphic novel before, in my life, and decided I didn’t like graphic novels. So—thanks, Monise. You—and others—changed my mind about what to read next.

Here are the best, most thought-provoking things I read in 2018, in the order I read them:

Little Fires Everywhere (Celeste Ng)

The Power (Naomi Alderman)

Men We Reaped (Jesmyn Ward)

The Hate U Give (Angie Thomas)

The Sparrow (Mary Doria Russell)

Beartown (Fredrik Backman)

The Female Persuasion (Meg Wolitzer)

I read the Wolitzer in July—and since then, it’s been a long, dry stretch wherein I’ve read some fine fiction and some good nonfiction, but nothing that turned me around, emotionally or intellectually, like the seven books (one nonfiction, six fiction) I listed.

Each is hyper-linked to a good review, so you don’t have to take my word for it.

Looking at the list, I am pleased to see that six of seven authors are women. I also see that the central themes of the books are aligned with my most cherished core beliefs or deepest questions, from cross-cultural adoption to the unremitting wrongness of racism in the United States. The books look at male privilege (overt and hidden) and sports privilege and, strange as it sounds, Jesuits in space.

I read three books about our cracked, bizarre political situation this year, but didn’t think any of them had a firm grasp on what we have in store as a nation—how the Trump presidency will alter our future. I read some pretty good books on education, too, but didn’t encounter That One book that will be part of the educational canon of transformational thought.

Many of the four- and five-star books I read last year came from friends’ recommendations.

Would you like to recommend a book or two?  I appreciate all of your suggestions.

Also—posting this shot of sunrise on my deck, New Years Day.  (I took a picture on Christmas morning, too, at the exact same time, and it’s entirely different.) Happy New Year, fellow readers. IMG_0521

Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. Or Not.

As I write, the TV pundits are out in full force on this four-day holiday weekend. I can hear their voices in the next room, saying: ‘Wall. Build the Wall. Steel-slat Wall. There will be no wall, wall, wall.’

It’s deeply ironic, isn’t it? As every other medium is sharing messages of joy and peace—caring for those with all kinds of needs, highlighting the season of giving and forgiving, yada yada—our duly elected President is using his incredible authority to reinforce naked dominance, even outright cruelty, over those same needy folks, at this moment. No joy and peace for you, asylum seekers!

The antidote, for me, has been (more irony) social media, seeing holiday memories, wishes and celebrations pictured on friends’ timelines. I don’t know how many dogs in Santa hats it takes to push the crisis at the border out of mind, temporarily—but I’m down to see them all. We need a little harmony and mirth, before returning to the cause of preserving democracy.

The most heartening things I’ve seen in the past week have come from the schools and classrooms of my educator friends—kids singing, jingle bells ringing, cookies being decorated, trips to the reindeer farm, and stories read. I know that each teacher, PK-12, is struggling with how much ‘holiday’ to inject into the daily life of their classroom—as if they had control over the commercialized Christmas madness that descends on the nation, mid-November.

It’s always a judgment call, for public school educators. How to honor all traditions, sacred and secular? How to walk the fine line between what ‘most people’ celebrate and what is actually happening in the homes of the children in our care, some of whom are decidedly not celebrating anything? How to determine whether a holiday-related story or activity or essential question is worthy of inclusion in a custom-tailored curriculum for our particular students? Probably most pressing: How to keep a lid on the mounting excitement (and dread) and keep kids moving forward?

It’s especially difficult for colleagues who teach music. I have often thought that there should be a whole required course in the university music education curriculum on incorporating cultural traditions respectfully and without running afoul of community expectations. The ACLU has some incredibly useful materials for educators and civic organizations on community celebrations, a widely misunderstood topic (see: The not-really-a ‘War on Christmas’).

Many music teachers, especially those at the elementary level, default to the secular (which often sprang from sacred roots, when traced back) and end up with a lot of Santa Claus music, of dubious worth, or weather-related ‘winter’ tunes which are wildly inappropriate in Arizona and Florida.

I’m not criticizing—it’s really tricky. The longer one teaches in a particular community, the easier it becomes to reconcile December programming with democratic values, but issues always bubble up. Two stories:

#1. I am mentoring a promising, enthusiastic first-year elementary music teacher in my district, although we teach in different buildings. She’s putting together a winter-themed program for December. It looks great to me. My son is in the building where she teaches, and he likes the songs he’s learning. A couple of weeks before the concert date, her principal (an overt born-again Christian) instructs her to end the program with ‘Silent Night.’ He pictures the whole auditorium singing along—and he’ll pop for those flickering fake candles.

She mentions this to other teachers in the lunchroom. They’re outraged. It’s against the law! Just tell him no!  (Note: there are lots of other issues with this principal, beyond separation of church and state.) She comes to me, her official mentor, asking for advice.

Has she had a conversation with him about how appropriate it is to end a program with such an iconic Christian tune? Has she mentioned how little time she has with each group, to explicate what ‘round yon Virgin’ means to your average first grader? Answer: Yes.  And he is adamant. It’s what he wants, and he has directed her to do this.

My advice? Perhaps first-year teachers, even those who know better, have to do what the principal directs.  Her colleagues should understand—they know him, plus they want to keep her on staff, because she’s talented and the kids love her.  Next year, or when she gets tenure, she will be in a better position to choose her own curricular materials and defend them.

That was then.  Today, I might give her different guidance. What do you think?

#2. I am teaching elementary music myself, in a K-5 building. We are preparing for a December assembly for parents and families, during the day—very casual and fun, just a chance to sing and jingle, on the day before winter break.

A first-grader’s father makes an appointment to see me.  I am prepared. I have met, many times, with parents who have different faith traditions, and have always been able to craft a satisfactory solution to holiday programming.

The father is a minister at a fundamentalist church in the district. He’s come to direct me not to mention Santa Claus in my classroom. No stories about Santa. No songs about Santa. No Santa hats or decorations.  He’s perfectly happy for us to sing ‘Away in a Manger’ (his suggestion), but please—no ‘Jolly Old St. Nicholas.’ He and his wife have always told their children The Truth about Christmas: there is no Santa Claus, and kids whose parents promote this myth are lying to their children.

Well. While making sure the first-grade songs don’t include Santa is not a problem, some of the other classes have started working on Santa-related songs, including the 5th graders’ very clever rendition of ‘Mr. Santa’ to the tune of ‘Mr. Sandman’ with some cool bom-bom-bom-bom harmonies at the beginning, even a little half-baked counterpoint.

Fifth graders don’t believe in Santa Claus (unless it’s beneficial to their gift tallies), but they’re OK with singing about him. Nobody believes the Beatles lived in a yellow submarine, but we’re all willing to join in on the chorus. Right?

I tried to explain this to the minister; I would avoid directly mentioning or singing about Santa Claus in his daughter’s presence (nor did I want her to spill the beans to horrified Little Believers in her classroom, an evergreen issue for early childhood educators). But I couldn’t take Santa out of the entire program.

He smirked. He thanked me for my time and told me his daughter would not be attending the program. All in all, probably for the best, because—trust me—even when teachers try to excise symbolic representations of the holiday for the best of reasons, somehow Santa Claus keeps comin’ to town. Jolly-old-saint-nick

Christmas Time: Minefield for Teachers

 

Several years ago, in an effort to make the building look festive as parents visited for various events, my middle school principal suggested mandated a Christmas door decorating contest in December. Each homeroom would choose a theme and embellish their classroom doors to match. Naturally, it was a contest—with the winning homeroom scoring donuts and cocoa.

I had some reservations about this. Competitive decorating—for a holiday that represents only one faith-ish tradition—is really not kosher, so to speak, in a public school. Even with a fairly uniform—middle class, non-diverse—student population, embracing a range of celebrations and ‘reasons for the season’ has always been my M.O., the way to meld parent expectations around a December concert, and teach students that mankind, in arctic and temperate zones anyway, has marked the Solstice as celestial turning point. Everything else, from Santa Claus to midnight Mass, came later.

Besides, enforced cheer can be anxiety-producing for many students in December, even in a school district where a very large majority of students celebrate Christmas in their homes.  There are always children whose grandmother is seriously ill, whose dad has lost his job, whose parents have split and are now experiencing two, or more, less-than-Hallmark celebrations, marked by tears and disappointment.

In fact, the longer you live, the more you realize that sweetness and light at the holidays happens only sometimes. When you’re genuinely mature, you can come to seriously appreciate the bittersweet holiday, the annual opportunity to reflect on the ups and downs of life, the quiet pleasures of memory.

But not if you’re, say, twelve—and wondering why other kids get Force One hand-operated drones, and you’re just hoping to have dinner with someone who cares about you.

One year during the weeks leading up to the winter break, I asked my students to write about what they planned to do during their time off. Most wrote things like, “see my cousins,” “get a new gaming system,” and “go skiing.” However, one of my students turned in a blank piece of paper with just his name on it. When I asked him why he didn’t write anything, he reluctantly told me that he wasn’t excited for the break. He said all winter break meant to him was two weeks at home alone while his mother was passed out on the couch. No tree. No family dinners. Not even any presents.

I was discussing this minefield with three of my friends who are veteran teachers. One said:

The year I moved from elementary to HS remedial, I loved every minute until about Thanksgiving… I finally went into my principal’s office and admitted I was a terrible teacher and I wasn’t doing anything right. She gently explained the difference between what my littles were anticipating, and my bigs. How holidays were dreaded… It helped me right the ship and look at my students with new eyes.

And another wrote:

I taught homeless children for nearly two decades. There were two times a year when we’d see them cry as they left the building. One was Christmas and the other was the end of the school year! Having come from a supportive family with family traditions around the holidays, I can only imagine what these youngsters endured.

Lest you think this holiday stress is a function of poverty, here’s a comment from a teacher at a private boarding school:

The period between Thanksgiving break and winter break is one of the most stressful of the year here. Whatever the nature of the home life each kid may have, the adjustment on return from a break always takes some time as does anticipation of and preparation for an upcoming break. Additionally, some international students go out on a home stay here rather than returning to their home. All this means some kids feel they are in non-stop transition, which is really hard. Advisors and our school counselor, being aware of this, do what we can to make ourselves available to kids however they may need us.

 

When my homeroom of 8th graders heard about the door decorating contest, they immediately recognized it for what it was: a sugar-laced bribe. While many of the doors in the building began sporting live greenery, battery-pack flashing lights and construction paper fireplaces, our door was blank and undecorated as the deadline approached.

Finally, one of the girls (it’s always a young woman who takes the lead on a project like this) covered the door in brown butcher paper and wrote ‘What Do You Really Want for Christmas?’ at the top. We left magic markers next to the door and invited everyone on the 8th grade hallway to participate. *

What happened next was low-key but amazing. Students wrote about noble things—true peace on earth, healing the planet—but also their private needs:  No fighting at my house. My brother comes home from the hospital. I get to see my friends from my old school.

Students stuck things to the door with glue sticks—notes from friends, grades ripped from the top of assignments. It became a graffiti wall, untidy and the opposite of celebratory.

I wasn’t there when the teacher-judges came around but can only imagine their faces as they saw Mrs. Flanagan’s cop-out door.  So very un-Christmasy—but maybe not.

We didn’t win. But we had cocoa anyway.

*See commenter Cara’s remark below–she’s right, it was a sexist thing to say. And not accurate.4303131636_fd8630a77b_b

Helicopter Mom Comes for Lunch

It happened maybe 20 years ago, but I remember it clearly—because it was so unusual.

I was teaching a middle school band class, and there was a knock on the door. I went to answer—and it was David’s mother, holding a big shopping bag.  I turned to call David to the door, assuming he’d forgotten something at home, and good ol’ stay-at-home Mom was rescuing him.  But she stopped me.

Keeping out of the class’s line of vision in the hall, she reached into her bag and pulled out a small pie. With potholders. “I don’t want David to see me,” she said. “But I was baking this morning, and wanted him to have pie, fresh out of the oven, for lunch.”

I took the pie, gingerly, and she set off down the hallway.  The pie smelled and looked fantastic. I carried it back into the classroom and set it on a bookcase. There were plenty of remarks: How come Mrs. Flanagan got a pie and they were stuck with cafeteria food? Could they have some? Whose mom was sucking up to the teacher?

I explained that it wasn’t for me. And because it would be obvious who’d be eating the pie in ten minutes, I told them it belonged to David—a quiet, cooperative trumpet player. David’s face got beet red, as I settled the class down for the final few minutes of instruction. When the bell rang, he picked up the pie—and the potholders—but waited until everyone was out of the room to leave.  He didn’t look like someone who’d just been given the best school lunch ever. In fact, he looked mortified.

In the teachers’ lounge, my colleagues were discussing another pie delivery, made to David’s sister.  It wasn’t a kindly, delighted conversation. In fact, the other teacher who had taken a secret pie drop-off was expertly mimicking Mom’s tiny, high-pitched voice: You know how pies are best when they’re warm? It’s her favorite kind!

The general—ruthless—conversation was around parents who can’t let their children go to school, damn it, like every other kid, and be unspoiled and un-special for seven hours a day.  Make them a pie at home. Don’t bring it to school. And the same goes for their mittens.

I tended then—and now—to agree. School is, by its nature, a group experience, where we learn more than long division and state capitols. It’s a place where we learn to take turns, take only what we need, wait for others to speak and tough it out when things don’t go our way. There’s a reason why Robert Fulghum made a mint by laying out why everything we need to know is learned in kindergarten.

In 30+ years in the classroom, I’ve met plenty of parents who wanted special favors for their children. Some seemed reasonable, others merely a way to excuse their children or mitigate their child’s very natural and productive struggle with difficult challenges. The parent who frequently runs interference for their child is not doing them any favors, in the long run.

This is, of course, generalizing. Some kids deserve and benefit from a break, or special treatment. These are judgment calls, case by case situations. This is why we want thoughtful and kind people working in schools—to decide whether Johnny needs a hand up or a kick in the pants in his journey toward becoming civilized.

Parent involvement in, and monitoring of, daily life at school, however, has undeniably increased. The ‘choice’ movement—where disgruntled parents can easily choose another (free) school for their child—has enhanced (or exacerbated, take your pick) helicopter parenting.  Don’t like the curriculum or the teacher—or your children’s classmates? Pick another school. Plenty of choices available.

I was stunned to read, in the Atlantic, no less, that schools are trying to decide how to deal with an influx of parents wanting to eat lunch with their children.

What could be wrong with Dad wanting to pop in once a month and chow down on sloppy joes and carrot sticks with his second grader?  School lunches last about 25 minutes, and it would be a treat for most elementary school children to see a parent’s friendly face. It could strengthen the school-home bond. Perhaps even improve behavior in the cafeteria, with a couple of extra adults around.

Then I read the story.

There were the parents who brought pizza for their kid and his friends, leaving other kids envious. The moms who worried about their kids being picky eaters and not getting optimum nutrition. The one who just wanted to know more about what goes in her child’s day:

“You see what people are eating, not eating, see which kids are throwing food, talking too loud, who is sitting by themselves. It’s a chance to poke in on your kids’ day that you wouldn’t get if you didn’t have lunch with them.”

It’s the very definition of helicopter parenting—all about the judging, the disapproval, the social arbitration, the inability to let a child make her own friends and choices. And woe to the school that tries to put brakes and limits on eating lunch with your child, as often as you choose.

There’s a shift happening here, toward individualizing education and a consumerist perspective on a public good. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and a school lunch just a school lunch. But the story made me uneasy. Power and control over small things in public schools can lead to power and control over bigger things.  A little pie today, the whole enchilada tomorrow.    school-lunch-830x553

 Batch Processing Students on an Assembly Line Using the Factory Model

There’s a revealing little clip in ‘Waiting for Superman’—the feel-bad documentary that was designed to damn public education before revealing and promoting its amazing new successor, charter schools. WFS was loaded with such cartoon animations, weak analogies and essentially irrelevant video captures from TV shows and industrial films from the bad old days (meaning always) when public education utterly failed students. This particular clip shows groups of students on conveyer belts being transported to their destinies as either well-educated ‘leaders’ or, alas, farms and factories, based on the schools they attend.

The belabored point being: a better education (now available by lottery!) would save kids—just like Superman does— from what, generations ago, were considered the natural outcomes of their station in life. Education—not parent income—as magic carpet to a materially good life.

I am heartily sick of reading about the also-inherited, traditional ‘failings’ of public education. I don’t want to read another column about the Committee of Ten and how, 125 years ago, they got it all wrong and now we’re stuck with a useless curriculum and ineffective instruction techniques. I don’t want to hear about the factory model of schooling and how clueless, timid, non-disruptive folk are running public schools like egg crates, isolating teachers and students in age-related cohorts, unwilling to innovate.

Ten to one, the proposed solution involves a whole lot of expensive technology, to ‘individualize’ or ‘personalize’ education for each and every child. But this isn’t a blog about kids and endless screens and profit-making and using unfair metrics to compare students’ memorization skills.

It’s about the concept that much of what happens in school, right now, with students in batches and the same curriculum and instruction being delivered to all 4th graders, factory-like, rather than custom-tailored is not always a bad thing. Sometimes, those old habits work pretty well. A great teacher can build a fine learning community (a phrase I don’t always trust) and teach the kids’ socks off. It happens every day.

And furthermore, people already doing the actual work—teachers—are a lot more amenable to carefully thought-out change, when you don’t refer to their current practice as an ‘assembly line.’

Hanging out on Twitter, I caught this comment from Dr. Tony Wagner, well-known author, presenter and expert on disruption and 21st Century education.

Tony Wagner‏ @DrTonyWagner 

 

Yes. Our assembly line education system was designed to both sort kids and also to batch process large numbers of immigrants & kids from farms to teach basic literacy & numeracy for the industrial era. Think of it as the “Model T” of education. Now we need “Tesla” schools.

Bearing in mind that he’s Dr. Tony Wagner (author of six books, as he points out during some contentious discussion following the next tweet), and I am just a small-potatoes teacher blogger, I nevertheless was irritated enough to respond:

nancyflanagan‏ @nancyflanagan Nov 20

If you really want to transform public education, please stop using dismissive language like ‘batch process’ and ‘sort kids’ and ‘factory model.’ Your zingy ‘Tesla’ comment overlooks the millions in R&D spent on cars, but not on kids.

Dr. Tony Wagner Replying to @nancyflanagan

.@nancyflanagan My comments describe a system’s intent & is historically accurate. It is not a criticism of teachers who do their best in spite of a bad system design. I was one. And I agree that we need more $ for education. Tesla is an analogy for system redesign & edu R&D.

nancyflanagan‏ @nancyflanagan Nov 20 Replying to @DrTonyWagner

‘Assembly line,’ etc. *may* be historically derived, but are still a rank insult to the creative, humane work of modern educators, who don’t see kids as widgets. If you want genuine change, begin w/ those already leading it, not slam-tweets damning the ‘system.’

Because that’s the thing. All folks who are serious about dramatically changing an outmoded educational system feel they have to start by verbally tearing down time-honored practices first. It’s not a quid pro quo—supporting and strengthening what’s good in our community schools does not necessitate name-calling or castigating everything that we’ve been doing for years. Things like circle time, class discussion, reading silently or out loud, Q &A, on-demand writing, group work and games have not outlived their purpose and efficacy. Working with others doesn’t get old.

There are plenty of successful nations who are ‘batch processing’ children in same-age cohorts and getting good outcomes.  Here are 12 recommendations from Finland via the Hechinger Institute (sorry—I know—Finland again) on how to improve American public schools and not one of them suggests that we further ‘individualize’ education, using fine-tuned technologies. Instead, the focus is on community, trust and the well-being of children.

And please—can we stop saying that while a physician from 1918 would not recognize a surgical theatre from 2018, but classrooms today look pretty much the same? In addition to being false—there have been sweeping changes in purposes, practices and technologies at every level—it also overlooks the fact that most of our old-fashioned classrooms look that way because they’ve been seriously neglected for decades.

I do need to note that Dr. Wagner did not shy away from conversation on the Twitter exchange, even when challenged by more sharply articulate tweets than mine. But he has great influence in Ed World. He and other big-name commenters should not be recycling disrespectful ‘factory school’ language. It’s harmful, not helpful.

 

 

 

Black Friday. It’s Not a Thing, Really.

If this is Tuesday, tomorrow is Thanksgiving Eve. And Friday is the day after Thanksgiving, an excellent time to put up your sparkly, festive outdoor lights, weather permitting. Or read a book, supplemented by leftover pie with extra whipped cream, now that you don’t have to share. Or see friends who are home for a few days. In fact, there are dozens of healthy, life-affirming things you can do on Friday.

It’s not a good day to shop, however.  https_mashable.comwp-contentgalleryugly-turkeysugly-turkey-5

Don’t get me wrong. It’s fine to shop early for gifts for your beloveds, and even those you don’t particularly care for but feel compelled to gift in the holiday season. The fun of gift-giving comes from knowing the recipient well and savoring the pleasure of their joy and surprise. That shopping, however, can happen in July or the first week of December or via the internet at some random midnight. Just don’t do it on Friday.

Friday is not ‘black’ in any sense. It’s merely the day after a national holiday–a day when frisky kids hoping for parental attention are out of school, when you may need to burn off a few calories, and when your residual musing about gratitude (thanks-giving, that is) may lead you to a day spent in profitable thought about the good, shareable things in your life. A day for people. Even (and I am deeply suspicious of this word) your blessings.

I do understand that it’s the day merchants want to recoup their ‘losses’ and turn them into a solid month of profit–black ink. More profit than last year, actually. This is kind of like the way the school reformers press to see this year’s test scores top last year’s. Every year must be bigger and better.

Everyone calls this ‘growth.’ There are famous, full-blown clubs for growth, replete with Republican operants, innovative strategies to reward greed, and probably secret handshakes. Growth is supposed to be the One Big Thing we all desire and pursue

But I have to ask: What do you owe these sellers and commercial interests? Why are you responding to their glitzy loss-leader bait, loading your shopping carts and packing the icy parking lot, to get a TV at 50% off? In addition to feeling tired and cranky, do you feel manipulated? You should

What impulse in our nature draws us to such a ‘bargain?’  Whatever it is, it wasn’t always part of the American story.  Early Christmases–even those in the 20th century–were far simpler but no less joyful. One of Bill McKibben’s early books was about celebrating the holiday with a $100 limit on spending, relying instead on creativity.

Most of us would consider this wistfully, then conclude that, given our obligations and habits, and the expectations of others, it’s impossible. But what if it weren’t? Most world religious customs see the ancient, cyclical return of the light as a time for celebration, and have stories and rituals associated with fending off the darkness. It’s not about spending. It’s about love and tradition.

Ignoring Black Friday is a great place to start. Black Friday was not widely recognized until the 1980s in most parts of the country. Like Sweetest Day gifts and Presidents’ Weekend sales, it was invented by folks who want your money.

Think for yourself. Black Friday is not really a thing.

The Best Woman for the Job

Now that I’m not in the classroom every day, I occasionally have breakfast with a group of retired band directors who live in Northern Michigan and meet monthly to reminisce about the good old days in public school music education. Here we are, in September. Notice anything?

cadillac breakfast.jpg

 

I’m guessing the gender ratio would be similar in any state, if you got retired school band teachers together.  Kind of looks like Congress did, in the 1970s, when I started teaching. Or graduation day at any law, engineering or medical school, back then. A man’s, man’s, etc. world.

I have a large collection of stories around being the only alto in a room full of tenors and basses, year after year. Some of them are funny (like my very first regional band directors’ association meeting, where I was offered the position of Secretary five minutes after introducing myself—and I took it). Some are terrible, heart-rending memories of being belittled, underestimated and ignored. Or worse.

The funny thing is, I didn’t set out to be a pioneer.

I wanted to teach instrumental music, for two simple reasons. One, playing music was my greatest joy in life. Nothing moved me and fulfilled me more than the challenge and the glory that came from making beautiful music.  That may sound like rhetorical overkill, but it’s true. I got hooked on gorgeous music early in life and wanted to turn it into my life’s work. I wanted to share that joy with kids—make their lives richer and more rewarding.

The second reason I became a band director is because I thought I’d be good at it.  I’d observed many instrumental conductors at all levels, played in lots of groups other than my school band—and knew something about what motivated me as a student musician. I had already worked hard to successfully master an instrument and was confident that I could learn the skills and knowledge necessary to become a school band teacher.

Of course, I knew that most band teachers were men. In fact, I’d never worked with or even met a woman director. My high school band instructor told me that he ‘didn’t believe in lady band directors’ and suggested I pursue elementary music education as a college major. The university I chose (like other universities at the time) did not permit women in the marching band—it took lawsuits to make that happen, around the country. Nobody was encouraging me or mentoring me.

Nevertheless, I persisted. It really wasn’t a dramatic personal quest to break a glass ceiling with my piccolo.  I just wanted to teach band.  It seemed like a fun and rewarding job. For anyone.

I went on job interviews where my fitness and stamina in directing a band were questioned. One principal I interviewed with told me he had no intention of hiring me—he just wanted to meet the girl who thought she could handle his HS band.  When I finally got a job, teaching middle school band, the principal who hired me had been on the job one day.  Maybe he didn’t know the rules about band directors? In any event, once I got a job, I was a band director for 30 years.

I’ve been thinking about this a great deal, as mid-term election outcomes have become clear. You’ve probably seen the photographic comparison of Republican vs. Democratic freshmen in the House of Representatives.  ‘Diversity on Stark Display’ says the headline—and it would be difficult to argue, in a representative democracy, that diversity isn’t the crucial ingredient in a fair and equitable decision-making body—or teaching staff, for that matter.

Senator Debbie Stabenow wrote a piece about how the top four offices on the ballot in Michigan were won by women. Not because they were women. But because they were the best person running for the job. The entire mid-term election was a festival of firsts, on the diversity front—and the outcomes were good.

Numbers, in all jobs and experiences once thought to be (usually white) men’s work, are leveling out. The visible trends are positive. And that—in politics, education and the world of work—is good. I’m grateful to every woman who carved or smoothed the pathway for those who came after her.

That doesn’t mean that subtle, deeply embedded sexism has gone away, though. It hasn’t.

It’s often understated and frequently not recognized by its perpetrators. Men relate differently to other men than they do women, in the workplace (and on line). Sometimes, our buried assumptions drive actions in ways we can’t predict. It’s complicated. I learned to work around bias toward women as band directors, but it never went away.

I’m not just making this up, by the way. There’s research.

Whenever I’ve written a blog about the lopsided gender relationships in education, I get a lot of negative feedback. There is lots of room for growth in the way we value who’s teaching second grade, and who’s writing the laws that govern education, however.

You have to be careful before leveling a charge of sexism. But the fact remains, sometimes the best woman for the job is passed over for someone whose qualifications are being louder and ‘bolder.

 

 

Why Don’t People Vote for Public Education?

She’s a longtime friend, although we haven’t seen each other face to face in years. She lives in a very rural part of my (geographically large) state. She’s a picture-sharing, hands-on grandmother and a talented gardener. And–she’s a creative, award-winning veteran teacher, respected by generations of kids and parents in her remote school district. I wish I had a dollar for every time someone has praised her patience, skill and dedication in the classroom.

Yesterday, this woman, vocal advocate of second chances for students, expressing gratitude and innovative math, was infuriated. Not only did a school bond issue go down in flames on Tuesday, the same citizens in her town enthusiastically voted to approve recreational marijuana use.

She let off more than a little steam online and was uncharacteristically bitter.  It wasn’t just about the asbestos in the walls, laughably old technology and sketchy outdated heating systems. (Think: Michigan winters, 125+ inches of snow. Seriously.)

It was about what her students perceive when they enter that building: this is what my community thinks is ‘good enough’ for me and my classmates.

More than 100 comments bloomed, from sympathetic friends across the country and right there in her hometown. Much of it was commiserating about how little the citizenry cares for public education. There were dozens of thank-yous from parents and students, testifying to her proficiency in teaching, patience and kindness, and there was plenty of anger over misplaced values. Short-term personal gratification ahead of better prospects for the next generation, that kind of thing.

She was right to be furious.

In Michigan, a state where per-pupil funding is not based on property taxes but is calculated by a unique –notice I didn’t say ‘fair’ or ‘effective’–formula developed in the 1990s, the only say voters have in determining how much of their tax contribution goes to schools is around bond issues. Voters can say yes to updating schools or building new ones. Bricks and mortar stuff—but not salaries or materials, operating expenses.

It’s ironic, this ability to vote on crumbling facilities—the new roof necessary because of ice dams or the toxic plume behind the bus garage—while all the dazzling stuff that the Tony Wagners of the world think will transform learning and make kids ready for the 21st century is not fundable by taxpayer voting.

And I’m not referring just to computers and other digital technologies (although my friend lives in a place where a high-speed connection and feature-loaded personal devices are by no means a given).  I’m talking about small, custom-tailored classes, personnel capable of dealing with personalized learning needs, and constantly updated materials. It all costs money, something that isn’t immediately obvious in the glossy pictures of ‘21st century’ high school students in their coffee-shop learning pods.

My friend has done more than the average teacher to personalize her practice and facilitate an unsexy version of 21st century learning. She has been recognized for innovative use of technology (vitally important in distance learning), but it’s way more than that. She feeds kids (literally and metaphorically) and clothes them and loves them as her own. And she worries about what they’re learning and how it impacts their future. She stays current. She hasn’t given up.

Naturally, there were comments about people in this underemployed area being unable to feed their families. That’s not just blowing smoke (of any flavor). Rural poverty is typical in this part of Michigan. And voting against taxation is a time-honored tradition in Red America, even if it means your kid attends a school where the drinking water isn’t safe, like this one.

I’ve heard parents say, repeatedly, that they can’t afford to say yes to even a slight increase. And I know the answer isn’t in scolding them for their purchasing choices or other financial values. We have lost our middle class and our working-class folks aren’t keeping up, economically. What we need, really, is a higher minimum wage and better jobs, the kind that make it possible to stretch a household budget and invest in your community.

It’s a systemic, deep-rooted problem. And it’s complicated by the fact that many ‘no’ voters feel powerless about so many things—they don’t control the cost of gas or groceries, they can’t find a new job, but they can say no to a bond issue. They can rationalize it by saying kids ‘don’t need’ fancy new amenities.

You can understand why charter schools, put up quickly and initially funded by for-profit CMOs, have curb appeal in rural areas.

The saddest comment came from a woman who noted that the school was the ‘beating heart’ of this tiny town. That, I think, is what this comes down to. We have lost our appreciation for place-based education, for having a common purpose of making things better for the next generation. We’ve been encouraged to focus on ourselves.

We have political role models whose greatest accomplishments have come from cheating others, on full display this week.

All politics are local—and there’s nothing more local than a school bond issue. I’m glad my friend shared her disappointment and resentment, because she lives there, too, and is part of the community. Today was Parent-Teacher conference day, and she posted a cheery message about how important it is to know more about her students. This is what democracy looks like–saying your piece, then moving ahead. It’s what we did on Tuesday.

She’ll survive. I have my doubts about public education.sad-505857_960_720

 

What a Difference a Decade Makes

I’ve been rooting around in my old blog files—especially the ones from October of 2008, when I was glued to the Presidential debates and surfing a fine emotional edge: Would Americans bitterly disappoint me by stealth-voting, at the last minute, for Geezer McCain and his no-account Veep?

Immediately following the 2008 election, I wrote a blog called ‘The Audacity of Pie’ which urged people to relax, celebrate and give thanks. There would be plenty of time to choose exactly the right Secretary of Education and devise plans to revitalize public education. Because everything was different, now.

And that was an election where pretty much everyone and everything I voted for won.

Fast-forward ten years, to a point where the late, lamented John McCain is regarded as a great statesman, compared to his fellow Republican senators. And just about everyone I know is biting their nails as they drive to the next candidate forum, canvass training or fundraiser.

So yeah—hope and change can be pretty ephemeral.

My friend Sabrina Joy Stevens posted this on her Facebook page yesterday:

I am very worried about people tying their emotional well-being and sense of empowerment to the outcomes of elections.

Bingo.  The rich thread that followed was a reflection on all the weariness, heartache and righteous anger this election has generated: Older folks remembering the ebullience of other, long-forgotten political victories that ultimately did not yield Woodstock Nation. A present-day acknowledgement that it’s not just about winning elections—lives and livelihoods are at stake. Potentially frightening after-effects of a Democratic triumph. Reminders to breathe.

Are we exhausting ourselves—mailing postcards, knocking doors, phone-banking, watching the same hideous stories on MSNBC, wondering how it could get any worse—only to find that whatever happens on Tuesday night is anti-climactic, at best?

Wisdom from Sabrina: Voting is nowhere near the *only* way we build or exert power, many people have been systematically barred from doing even that bare minimum, and people believing that “your vote is your [only] voice” is a key reason why we’re in this mess in the first place.

When the Blue Wave or Blue Trickle occurs, it is only the first step in a long, long march. This can’t be turned around in two years, or four. Anyone who studies political movements knows that it can take decades or centuries to permanently move the needle, change hearts and minds, turn the great ship, choose your metaphor.

And just when things seem to be coming right, the arc of justice bending, slightly, in the right direction, all of your earnest organizing, your rosy vision, goes to smash.

I don’t ever want to wake up to a morning like November 9, 2016 again. But I’m old enough to know that I might. Money talks, and it doesn’t often speak from the perspective of integrity or equity. We’re a self-loving, wealth-loving rugged-individualist kind of nation, in spite of our uniquely democratic origins and our rhetoric.

We are not trained, in school, as other cultures are, to be part of a coherent community, to wait for the last person to cross the finish line. We value and recognize champions, and are willing to overlook the cheating and inequity it takes to make certain people perpetual winners. No matter who’s in the White House or calling the shots in Congress or the Supreme Court, this is who we seem to be.

It’s going to take a lot more than an election to change that. The difference between 2008 and 2016 campaigns should be overwhelming proof of our muddled, even corrupt, national values.votepumpkin

I feel no guilt or regret about occasionally taking a mental health break from the elect-good-candidates grind. Even laughing, sometimes. But where I draw my real strength is from community. That’s been the best part of the past two years: identifying people who are as appalled as I am by what’s happened to democracy.  

I have learned so much from people—old friends and new—in this two-year cycle. From the women I met, briefly, at rest stops on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, en route to Washington D.C. for the Women’s March. From the Indivisible group that sprang up in my county. From women who never dreamed they’d run for office, but somehow are standing for election on Tuesday.

That’s something we can feel good about—no matter how the voting comes out. That’s the real foundation of change—people.

Follow Me into the Voting Booth

downloadActually—it’s one of those little tri-fold plastic visual shields, set in front of an uncomfortable metal folding chair, in the Solon Township Hall, a white clapboard building just as quaint and folksy as you might imagine a northern Michigan polling place to be. But what happens there is powerful and predictive. This is, as the saying goes, what democracy looks like, here in Leelanau County.

In August, before the Primary, I did something I’ve not done before: I told my Facebook community who I planned to vote for, in the gubernatorial race, and why. I did not expect a conversation—perhaps a few upward thumbs– but a long and rich thread bubbled up, including two or three commenters who found my logic ‘disappointing’ or worse.

It was the antithesis of a word we’re hearing a lot lately: tribal, left vs. right. In fact, it was a kind of state-wide town hall-ish discussion where my friends and acquaintances put forth diverse viewpoints, in real time, on what this state needs. Even the people who thought I was making the wrong—WRONG!! Angry Face! —choice had rational, if heated, things to say.

And a couple weeks after the primary, while at breakfast, a friend whose transparent values and good intentions are her trademark told me she had changed her mind, after reading the discussion. On my Facebook page. I felt ridiculously proud. Not because she’d embraced the same candidate as me—but because people had come to my virtual home to seriously talk politics. Democracy.

I will not be voting until November 6th. I am eligible, as a <cough> senior citizen, to vote absentee in Michigan, but for many reasons, I like to push my own ballot through the machine. I’ll be working as an election challenger, too.

I’m voting for Democrats, mainly. This isn’t always the case; years ago, I routinely voted in the Republican primary, because I lived in such a red county that the primary was the only place I had any discretionary power over who would be making the laws I had to live by. There have been other reasons to split my ticket.

Still, this is a year to tip the scales in favor of the good-guy party, seeing as how Republicans across the country are currently providing a garish, sickening illustration of feckless and corrupt conduct. Go blue, no matter what. More interesting to me than the candidates this year are the statewide proposals. There are three, and it is my fond (and probably unrealistic) hope that social studies teachers all over Michigan are discussing them in class. In reverse order:

Proposal Three is the easy one. In fact, it’s a no-brainer. It’s a proposal that makes voting easier and brings MI in line with most other states: early voting, automatic registration, straight-ticket voting to shorten lines, more reasons and flexibility around absentee voting. It’s the ultimate tidying-up of outdated, anti-democratic voting practice in the Mitten State.  Anyone who took Civics in high school ought to vote YES.

Proposal Two is the anti-gerrymandering proposal. It’s drawn a lot more attention than Prop Three—in fact, anti-Prop Two ads were just pulled from a couple dozen radio stations after an emergency court filing proved they were flat-out lies. The Republicans are terrified of this one; Michigan is one of the most heavily gerrymandered states, through a series of backroom efforts designed to disenfranchise people of color and left-leaning communities.  Michiganders vote blue in every election, overall, but end up with more red representation. That’s wrong.

Am I convinced that the plan Voters Not Politicians (who sponsored this proposal) came up with is perfect? Not at all. I attended early VNP meetings where various gerrymander-busting tactics—going through the courts, for example—were examined.

I came away understanding that there is no foolproof or cheap way to get rid of the scourge of the party in power picking their voters. I fully expect there will be hiccups, even battles, along the way. But something needs to be done. I’m sick of political parties—both of them– using inequitable and unfair means to hoard power. It’s also wrong. YES on Two.

Proposal One is about regulating the recreational use of marijuana. I’m voting YES.

This might be surprising to some of my fellow educators who worry about making it easier for students to access pot. I want to stress that I’ve been worried about schoolkids and harmful drug use for forty years. I actually think regulating marijuana, limiting sales of a state-controlled product to those who are 21, and giving the police clear guardrails about prosecuting sales and use, are good things.

My reasons echo those of Carol Siemon, a Lansing prosecutor who wrote a powerful op-ed on why Proposal One is a good idea:    

 “All too often, young adults and persons of color were swept up in the dragnet of drug enforcement and the “tough on crime mentality.” Today, data supports that the arrest rate of African American males is 3.3 higher than the arrest rate for white males for possession of marijuana.

Marijuana prohibition hasn’t worked and continuing to enforce this failed law is an exercise in futility. The cost is too high in so many ways. It’s time to draw this industry out of the black market, regulate and tax it, and free up law enforcement resources to concentrate on serious issues that truly impact our state’s quality of life — issues like the opioid epidemic, guns, domestic violence, and other violent crime.”
Remember, Carol Siemon is a respected county prosecutor, not a potential merchant or regular user. She looked at police data on teen drug use and driving safety from Colorado and Washington and finds that threats about an increase in accidents are unsubstantiated.

You might think I’m excited about the tax ‘windfall,’ a third of which is promised to schools. Michigan is not taxing marijuana as heavily as Colorado and Washington, so the word is more like ‘trickle’ than windfall.  I am also skeptical about any promises to help fund schools through set-aside taxes. We’ve been down that road before. Many times. There are dozens of shell games the legislature can play when funding schools. What we need is education-friendly legislators, something we can also address on November 6th.

Besides, schools should not have to depend on the marijuana market to get new tools and materials.

That’s what I think. How about you?