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?

Opportunity Knocks and Grade Level Answers the Door

Last month, Ed World was abuzz over a flashy new report from TNTP, the refurbished face of The New Teacher Project.  The New Teacher Project was a super-reformy org originally started by Michelle Rhee to promote the idea of placing smart, eager (and also cheap) college grads with superior content knowledge, like Michelle, in needy classrooms, replacing the tired old ineffective dishrag teachers slogging along there.

TNTP has morphed into another grant-funded report-writing nonprofit, surfing the reformy trends and saving the world, one white paper or glossy report at a time. You really need to take a look at the report, because it’s uber-slick, from its title–The Opportunity Myth— to its multi-directional graphics and catchy bullet points.

Its main point: Most students are doing work below grade level. And we should immediately change that, so students can reach their potential, which seems to mean getting into competitive colleges and becoming neuroscientists.

‘That’s the opportunity myth. It means that at every grade level, in every district, for students of every demographic background, school is not honoring their aspirations or setting them up for success—in their next grade, in college, and in whatever they want to do down the road.’ 

Notice—every grade level, every district, every demographic is currently being failed by… schools, which are not setting them up to succeed. Because ‘schools’ are not giving students grade-level work.

How does TNTP know this? Because they amassed a huge data set—20,000 samples of student work!—from students and teachers in five school districts. That’s right—five districts, including three urban, one rural (where all the white kids were) and one charter district. Anyone who’s ever corrected papers knows that 20,000 pieces of student work could easily be the annual total for two or three secondary math teachers—although it certainly sounds like a big, impressive data number. Extrapolating the numbers from five districts to the entire public education system? That’s a data fail.

Peter Greene does a wonderful job of deconstructing the research and the flabby, well-duh recommendations—which begin with the following statement:

 ‘We readily acknowledge that we don’t have a detailed operational plan to improve student experiences at scale. But we believe it’s time to…return to the basic guiding principle that brings us to this work: the right of every student to learn what they need to reach their goals. But we think we know where to begin, and it starts with making students’ daily experiences the center of our work.’

That statement is the dead giveaway that the report, research and recommendations were crafted by non-teachers, who were ‘trained’ to compare a daily assignment to what the Common Core (masquerading as ‘College and Career standards’ in this report) says Any Given Student ought to know and be able to do in, say, 5th or 11th grade.

Because—honestly—I don’t know any teacher who doesn’t believe students have a right to pursue high and worthwhile goals. And ‘students’ daily experiences’ are pretty much the entire point of teaching.

The weakest link in the report, however—the core assertion that marks it as just more pearl-clutching sludge– is all the fussing over ‘grade-level’ work.

Some observations:

  • As a metric, ‘grade level’ is pretty wobbly. We’re all familiar with the fact that kindergarten is the new first grade, and that national standards have pushed everything from algebra to frog dissection down a level or two, whether students are developmentally ready or not. We have increasing numbers of students whose native tongue is something other than English, policy churn and students moving in and out of schools due to ‘choice.’ What Arne Duncan called ‘the same goalposts’ has never been reality.
  • We need to meet students where they are. There’s no point in following college readiness standards and a pacing guide if the students haven’t absorbed today’s lesson or last year’s core content. All those lessons deemed too easy by TNTP might have been exactly what the students needed to move forward.
  • In any given class, even in a highly tracked system, there are students at multiple points on the understanding/application spectrum. And in two weeks, most of them will be someplace else. Some will have leapt ahead. Others will be stuck. And some, for some inexplicable reason, will be in retrograde, with skills once mastered having dribbled off. It’s the teacher’s job to give them all something to do, something that will either add new knowledge, provide practice opportunities, or extend their understanding. Planning lessons is the proverbial moving target, a fact that standards creators and those wishing to ‘re-imagine’ school as more uniform seem to have missed.
  • The use of student work samples to evaluate instruction means the research analysis—comparing the samples to standards—was based on tangible items: paper-based assignments, artifacts created using computers, and so on. Things. This seems to ignore that fact that lots of valuable student work cannot be photographed and sent digitally to ‘analysts.’ It leaves out many types of assignments and assessment models: discussion, observation, silent reading, role plays, student leadership in group learning, model-making, movement, conversations with a teacher. It leaves out things that cannot be assessed but are critical for learning—imagination and play.
  • It’s worth remembering that grade levels (and assigning students to age-similar groups) are arbitrary. And–it’s a journey, not a race. Deciding when to accelerate is a function of experienced judgment on the part of the teacher. I have seen students cover six months’ worth of content in three, once some core ideas took root—and that was in my class made up of students in four so-called grade levels, 9th through 12th

If the purpose of school is giving students tools to pursue their goals, judiciously increasing the difficulty level of their work is only one aspect of successful outcomes. Students need to feel a sense of safety and belonging before the small successes can accrue.  Skipping that step is folly. The range of what students learn in school is vast, and much of it is not measurable.

Probably the most irritating aspect of the report was snapshot profiles of individual students, where the report’s authors reveal their background biases. There’s the immigrant girl headed for a career in medicine: Her father wants her to go to college, so she can avoid the kind of suffering he’s experienced working in a local factory. Remember when unionized skilled factory workers were the backbone of the economic growth of the nation—a job that supported a family, not something to be ashamed of?

And then there’s the student who is torn between boredom and frustration. Sometimes, she finishes her work after 20 minutes, and is bored. But sometimes, she doesn’t understand the work and is frustrated. To me, this sounds like a typical kid in a well-functioning school—one where some things are easy and others hard. The kind of kid who carries a paperback to fill time in one class but needs after-school tutoring in another subject.

The TNTP report, however, sympathizes–her teachers, they claim, should be hitting the magic instructional sweet spot, the zone of proximal development, day after day. Each lesson should be just challenging enough to engage interest, but not too difficult. Otherwise, says the report, months will be wasted every year. Return on investment will be inadequate.

And with that, it becomes clear just who’s on the hook here. And just who has never had to deal with the messy, chaotic, non-standardized, glorious, rewarding job of classroom teaching.



I was editor of my high school yearbook. It was way more work than I anticipated when I took on the job–and because our yearbook wasn’t distributed until August, long after graduation and right before school started, the page proofs weren’t due until after school was out. Which meant I spent the first few weeks of summer slapping final edits on pages, in between shifts at a waterfront breakfast joint favored by 5:00 a.m. fishing enthusiasts and old men who wanted 14 ‘bottomless’ coffee refills and left quarter tips.

If I flirted with them, that is. And I needed every quarter, because I was going off to college–the first in my family–in three months.

As a doctoral student in Education Policy, many decades later, one of my ProSeminar assignments was choosing an educational artifact, analyzing and contrasting three diverse examples of that item, over time. Most of my colleagues chose prestigious, chart-laden reports from non-profits or the federal government on a single topic–mathematics education changes over time, say, or uses of standardized testing data.

I chose yearbooks. I was in possession of my mother’s HS yearbook (Class of ’45), my own yearbook (Class of ’69) and my son’s yearbook (Class of 2006). And I knew something about how yearbooks were put together, whose voices and photos would predominate, and about how easy it was to sneak in juicy little personalized bits that seem uproarious at the time, but may have been overlooked by the faculty sponsor.

Besides the obvious surface features–color photos, fashion and 200 self-indulgent pages– there some distinct differences, over the 60+ years between the oldest and most recent yearbooks. You can tell a great deal about school climate and the socio-economic prospects of the students from a school yearbook, in addition to observing a revealing sketch of critical cultural issues in America at the time.

The ’45 yearbook was sparse, including headshots, nicknames and future plans of students, plus tiny pictures of faculty. There were a few group photos of clubs and events, but no sports teams, no Homecoming queen, no prom. Instead, there was a sober, black-bordered page of boys (and these were indeed boys) who had already lost their lives in WWII, and another page featuring service photos of classmates who had dropped out of HS to join the military. Girls outnumbered boys perhaps three to one in the class that was actually graduating in May.

All students were identified by their course of study–general, business, vocational, college prep.  Most boys in the graduating class were college prep, and my mother had written which branch of the service they entered, post-graduation. Next to one, she even wrote ‘4F.’ Even though both V-E and V-J Days were celebrated immediately after the graduation of this Class of ’45, my mother tracked, with her handy-dandy fountain pen, the classmates who enlisted anyway and went off, presumably to mop up, and those who returned to faithful girlfriends and G.E.D. diplomas.

Life seemed to be about growing up quickly and doing your duty. Kind of the original no-excuses curriculum and climate.

A mere 24 years later, the 1969 volume was infused with Essence of Baby Boomer, from the hippy-dippy cover to the e.e. cummings-like lack of capital letters in page titles and names. Classes had been de-tracked, and nobody was labeled by their scholastic prowess or future educational plans. There was an eight-page photo essay based on a Beatles tune, and lots and lots of sports pages. Other than cheerleading and synchronized swimming, these pages were boys-only features.

The original ESEA was passed in 1965, and four years later, because of the law, my previously all-white, blue collar high school had been integrated. Why? Because we had a newly built school with extra classrooms (unlike overcrowded, older school districts in the mid-1960s). We could house something new: a program for students who needed a ‘special education’ setting. A majority of the newly identified special ed students were black, and were bused from the city to the unzoned outer edge of town, where I lived, to a different school.

I remember asking a teacher about the new kids–who were mostly in self-contained classrooms in 1967-69, mingling with us only at lunch and in physical education–and she said our equalized tax base was low, and we got money for taking these students, money that was needed because we had a smaller revenue stream than other local districts.

It was my introduction to the general inadequacy and inequity of school finance, but I didn’t realize it at the time. I was operating on the ‘Be True to Your School’ model of pride and loyalty, rah rah, sis boom bah. It never occurred to me that, because I lived on the working-class side of town, my school got less money, and the budget had to stretch further. Or that the first kids in my county to be labeled ‘special ed’ were collected out of their home schools and went across town to a school that was underfunded.

My son’s yearbook is twice as thick as mine, and filled with color shots of graduates, plus a paragraph of personal in-jokes and reminiscing for each. There’s a lot more focus on events–casual shots from dances, parties, contests and games. The big difference in 2006 is girls. More girls in leadership roles, the exit of the Future Homemakers club, and an abundance of girls in sports. They’re everywhere.

There are forty pages in the back of the book–in the place where older yearbooks have ads from local businesses–filled with space purchased by parents to celebrate their graduates. These tributes often include a shot of the graduate as a toddler or kindergartener, plus some humble bragging about all the student’s achievements and college plans.

Buying more space in the yearbook to advertise (is that the right word?) your kid is pricey, but lots of parents seemed to see this as one of the embedded costs of having a high school graduate–nearly half the class participated, in quarter / half / full-page increments of parental praise. I’m not criticizing parents for feeling proud of their kids. I’m wondering about parents who absolutely can’t spare the money, feeling bad about their kid not getting a half-page accolade when they’ve worked hard and done well. Kind of puts a different spin on yearbooks, when they’re funded by the folks whose kids are the stars.

Brett Kavanaugh’s yearbook seems to come from a vastly different socio-economic context than any that I studied–but there are some of the same classic yearbook elements that tell us lots about who he is.

Primarily– the now well-known graduation photo with his smart-ass, ‘let’s see what I can get past the faculty advisor,’ guy-joke paragraph of memories. The ones about the Devil’s Triangle, the 100 Keg Club, the truly despicable shaming of a girl (Renate) from a nearby school and the rest of his little witticisms.

In 1982, I had been teaching for 10 years. I can tell you that a faculty advisor who let that stuff be printed was either asleep on the job or (more likely) simply reflecting the prevailing norms at Georgetown Prep, unworried about the boys being jerks because that kind of behavior was common.  Kavanaugh’s personal yearbook memories were similar to what other boys wrote–there were eight of them tormenting poor Renate. The yearbook caught the flavor of the culture around there in 1982. Preppies on the loose.

When Kavanaugh was asked, by Senator Patrick Leahy, about text from his yearbook, he sneered. Oh, he said–we’re gonna talk about my yearbook now?

It’s surprising what you can learn from a high school yearbook.