Posts by nflanagan

Nancy Flanagan is an education writer and consultant focusing on teacher leadership. She spent 30 years in a K-12 music classroom in Hartland, Mich, and was named Michigan Teacher of the Year in 1993. She is National Board-certified, and a member of the Teacher Leaders Network. She divides her time between wondering how things got so messed up and dreaming up ways to re-energize America's best idea--a free, high-quality education for every child.

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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