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.

Do You Eat at Chick-Fil-A?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you eat at Chick-Fil-A?

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

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

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

But this is the best book I’ve read, by a long chalk. It’s barely political, focusing on the present, rather than the campaign, the Russian interference, or the 2020 election. It is, however, a blood-chilling account of just what it might eventually mean, in terms of human lives and well-being, that our country is being–What? ‘Run’ isn’t the right word, nor is ‘managed.’ That our government has been taken over by a cabal of unqualified, loutish and greedy people who are in the process of dismantling decades, centuries even, of government policy that works. Just because they can.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something’s happening here. Read this book.

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The Cure for Boring Curriculum

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

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

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

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

I have a few additional questions and observations:

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Guess Who’s Not Here for Your Nonsense?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Education Reformers Keep Pushing the Same Old Stuff

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

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

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

You asked for it, Joan.

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

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

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

Petrilli’s next bullet points:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some highlights:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You know the answer to that question.

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