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.

character-education

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