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)


(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.


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?

chick fil a peach milkshake bbq chicken

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.


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?