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.

Who is Goliath? And Why Does He Need to Be Taken Out?

Diane Ravitch’s book—Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools—arrived at my house two days ago. Like all of her other volumes, this one is already highlighted, underlined and sticky-noted to a fare-thee-well. (Apologies to school librarians everywhere.)

Ravitch’s books are like that—they’re full of juicy, provocative information and the author tells it like she sees it. When she changes her mind, she tells you that, as well. Like The Death and Life of the Great American School System (2010) and Reign of Error (2013), Goliath is time-sensitive, including the most recent teacher strikes, elections and civic rebellions, and what they accomplished. Ravitch takes the temperature of the current education zeitgeist and finds reason for hope.

What’s happening to public education in America?

Ravitch is perhaps our keenest observer, and when it comes to strong, substantiated opinions, she doesn’t hold back. Absorbing a Ravitch book gives the reader a summation of facts, players and events that put disparate events and opinion into a comprehensive framework, a detailed portrait of right now.  Think of Death and Life as a warning, Reign of Error as blistering critique–and Goliath as we’re mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.

There are a couple of outstanding chapters in the book, which could serve as background for discussion groups or reading assignments for education coursework. Chapter Six, Resistance to High-Stakes Testing, is as good a synopsis as I’ve read on how inexact data from standardized testing became Truth to a nation that had been told their schools (not their schools, of course—those were OK) were failing.

Chapter Seven, on how rewards and punishments don’t work to motivate students, includes a lot of widely misunderstood ideas about how to get the best from each student that self-proclaimed reformers seem to fervently believe, and veteran teachers know are hooey.

Ravitch goes much further than her previous books on debunking the efficacy and usefulness of Common Core State (sic) Standards—and spends a great deal more time explaining how the charter school movement has undeniably damaged public education and fostered segregation. In the six-plus years since her previous book, a lot more damning information about charter schools—scandals, waste and harm done to children—has emerged. I don’t see this as shift in Ravitch’s convictions, but a reflection of the passage of time, allowing privatizers and scammers to invent new ways to cash in using public monies, and investigative journalism to start reporting on what’s really happening behind all the smoke and rhetoric.

In short, it’s a really good book. It would be invaluable to anyone who wants a rundown on how education policy has morphed, over the past two and a half decades, from a locally controlled, state-influenced institution subject to incremental,  community-driven change–to a thoroughly commercialized venture heavily influenced by would-be ‘innovators’ and a federal power-grab.

Ravitch has done us all a favor by tracing the dark roots and substantial financial support for chipping away at neighborhood schools and public education. As always, follow the money.

A confession: I was dying to know what Ravitch was aiming for with the title.  Although it’s not mentioned in the book, a well-known education writer floated the idea, eight years ago, that Big Powerful Teacher Unions were suppressing scrappy little upstart education ‘reformers.’

He referred to the unions and their independent-teacher minions–full disclosure: I was a minion–as Goliath in this battle. Whereas the Gates-funded/Broad-funded/Walton-funded nonprofits and charters popping up like mushrooms, homing in on the untapped K-12 marketplace, were the Davids, building a brave new education world one slingshot at a time.

It was pure reverse-projection baloney, of course, but it caused a splash in the reformy sector, wherein the likes of Teach for America and Stand for Children seemed pleased to be associated with nimble, data-slinging David rather than lumbering, hapless Goliath.

Ravitch renames the players in her first chapter, reclaiming the word ‘reformer’ for those who genuinely wish to invest in public schools. The folks who want to crush traditional public education, she says, are really Disruptors. They’re vandals, not innovators. The teachers, parents and school leaders who want to preserve America’s best idea—a free, high-quality, fully public education for every child in America, no matter what they bring to the table—are the Resistance.

Ravitch provides plenty of information and examples of how the real Davids in this fight, the Resistors, are making headway, on dozens of fronts. She is unsparing in her criticism of those who would damage or destroy public education for private profit. This has not gone down well with those who have invested in reforms and trendy disruptions.

There are not many people—Disruptors, if you will—who have empowered school privatization and are now willing to admit that their ROI yields are unimpressive and propped up by shaky data. Especially since those who have been educating kids, doing the work all along—teachers and school leaders—could have told them what will and will not make a difference.  Resistors have studied school improvement, up close and personal, for more than a century. It can be done, but it won’t involve destruction. Just more hard work.

Diane Ravitch has re-framed the argument and provided evidence that the great ship of public education may be turning around. That is a great gift. Thank you.

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Why Aren’t More Teachers of the Year Leading Social Change?

A friend just sent me a link to an article about Kelly Holstine, Minnesota Teacher of the Year, who, earlier this week, knelt, a la Colin Kaepernick, during the national anthem at an NCAA Football Championship game. Holstine said (in a tweet):

Honored as State Teachers of the Year at NCAA Champ FB Game. Given platform to stand up for marginalized and oppressed people. Like many before, I respectfully kneeled during Nat’l Anthem because, “No one is free until we are all free” (MLK).

The interesting thing about my friend is that he—like me—is a former Michigan Teacher of the Year. We’ve had a number of discussions about whether the State Teacher of the Year honorific gives any recipient license to use the title as a bully pulpit.

I say yes.

But I am guessing that a large majority of those recognized teachers, over the 60-odd years that there has been an organized State and National Teacher of the Year program, would disagree. At least, most would think it appropriate keep their personal beliefs under wraps during their tenure as TOY.

Because that’s what teachers are supposed to do, right? Be modestly grateful for acknowledgment of their hard-won excellence at a chicken dinner, then keep their opinions to themselves?

Holstine and the Kentucky Teacher of the Year, Jessica Duenas, also made waves for not attending the National Teacher of the Year ceremony in the White House last April, over which Betsy DeVos presided. Holstine and Duenas were explicit in the press: they chose not to attend because of Trump’s policies toward immigrants, the LGBTQ community, and other marginalized groups.

That hasn’t happened very often. No matter what their political persuasion, it’s hard for your garden variety teacher to not be a little starry-eyed at being flown to Washington D.C. or having her photo taken with the President. And, to be fair, the National Teacher of the Year program, which has long been sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers, does do some prep work with new TOYs: media training, policy workshops, and non-political opportunities for recognition (like the NCAA game).

There have been a handful of out-there State TOYs over the years. John Taylor Gatto was an iconoclast who promptly quit teaching after being named New York TOY in 1991, saying he no longer wished to ‘hurt kids’ while making a living. He wrote books excoriating public education and urging parents to homeschool. He was not, I’m sure, a popular guy in the mainstream education community of New York. I was MI TOY in 1993, and he was held up to my class as an example of What Not to Do.

Brett Bigham, Oregon TOY ’14, was a powerful spokesperson for both LGBTQ students and those with disabilities, and quickly became a compelling national figure—writing, speaking and collecting other awards for his advocacy. His district tried to control his public declarations, including identifying himself as a gay man. A protracted and ugly public fight ended with Bigham being fired, then winning a settlement over being unfairly let go. (There’s a lot more to his story. Click here.)

Bigham’s story is equal parts inspiring, infuriating– and intimidating. Most teachers instinctively realize that being named Teacher of the Year will put them on a different footing than their colleagues, and might result in being resented and ostracized while simultaneously being celebrated.

The 2018 National Teacher of the Year, Mandy Manning of Spokane, Washington, found a good balance between representing teachers in ways that her sponsors could tolerate, while not forgetting the needs of her students—refugees, immigrants and kids whose first language was not English.  She organized a ‘teach-in’ at the border in El Paso, Texas to protest child detention, after writing op-eds proved to be not enough. She was careful to say that it was not a partisan issue—both Republicans and Democrats could or should be concerned about the welfare of children brought to the border.

Manning (whom I deeply admire) pushed up against the limit of the things TOYs (who typically are under the watchful eye of someone invested in the policy-administration process) can get away with saying or doing. Whose watchful eye is managing a TOY? It varies from state to state, but program funders and State DOE officials are usually looking for a vibrant and engaging teacher whose speeches, op-eds and actions won’t ruffle feathers.

I know dozens of State TOYs, and almost without exception, they were definitely managed during their stretch as TOY, and reined in if their public statements crossed the line du jour. In 1993, that line was remarks about local control or school funding– but now, 27 years later, there are plenty of contentious issues for TOYs to write and speak about, from opting out of harmful testing to best-practice reading instruction to just why there aren’t enough teachers to go around and what to do about it.

Want to see a Teacher of the Year start a firestorm? Watch them shift the focus of their stump speech from beneficent ‘helping students’ in high-poverty schools to WHY we allow generational poverty to exist, and whose fault it is that entire communities still have poisoned water.

Twenty-six years ago, in the first year of the Clinton administration, State Teachers of the Year were invited to a National Teacher Forum in Washington, D.C. The purpose was to encourage teachers to use their titles as warrant to speak out on education issues, to not be sidelined as selfless missionaries.

We were asked: What’s the one thing you want policymakers to know?

The answer: We want a seat at the table when policy is made. We want to be partners in, not objects of, reform—because our experience and insights could help make better decisions for children.

Since then, there have been three other administrations, many glossy reports and influential whitepapers, and countless new nonprofits and Gates-funded initiatives, but we’re further away from that goal than we ever were.  What goes around, comes around.

We live in a different age than 1993, media- and technology-wise, but many Teachers of the Year are still waiting to be asked for their thoughts, and debating which advocacy organization will give them the best platform and most exposure.

Being a Teacher of the Year is both responsibility and opportunity. Build your own platform, say what you know for sure, and keep true to your own North Star.

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Why, Democrats, Why?

So now we have a manufactured-for-media tiff between the Sanders and Warren campaigns. If you’re one of the people who have taken sides on social media—shame on you for making this election, already tilting the balance between America as we know it and Chaos, even more dangerous.

On Twitter, someone posted this simple question: Why aren’t the Warren and Sanders campaigns coordinating? Together, their fans form a larger and sturdier block of progressives with similar if not identical policy ideas than the silos where other candidates are holding court—a large enough group that it could conceivably wipe out Fumblin’ Joe Biden or inexperienced neolib Pete Buttigieg, their two biggest challengers.

If progressives want to win this election, the questioner asked, why don’t we take a leaf from Republicans, whose willingness to coalesce behind seriously flawed, even corrupt, candidates and office-holders means they win elections they should, by all measures, lose convincingly? Party before country is the heart of political rot, but—along with voter suppression, gerrymandering and outright lying—it’s been working pretty well for the Republicans.

Why not deliberately work together instead of devolving into he-said/she-said?

What followed was the lengthiest and most discouraging Twitter thread I’ve read in weeks. It was heavy on ugly anti-Warren bits (‘corporate bitch’) but included some ‘Bernie the Socialist’ jabs as well.

The boiled-down essentials: I hate Elizabeth Warren because ___. I don’t like Bernie because ___. I am a die-hard liberal but would never in a million years vote for: (circle one) Warren / Sanders. If [Warren / Sanders] were to be nominated, we’d lose; only [other one] can save us. You want to join forces? You go first. Plus—you’re stupid.

Nobody said: You’ve got a point. Or even—we’re not there yet but given the imminent (like that word?) nature of the Iowa caucuses, we should perhaps be looking at what’s good in candidates who are not our #1 or even our #3. Think about broadening boundaries. Areas of commonality. Move on from hard and fast preferences and consider how to build a coalition, something we will all be called on to do in the next few months. The work could not be more important.

I see your hand waving—you want to remind me that primaries are how the weak are winnowed and the strong survive. The hardening period, yada yada.

The last three major candidates to drop out are people of color. Novice politician Tom Steyer appears to have purchased his place on primary ballots.  These are good reasons to question just what kind of rigorous policy sorting has happened in this primary.  The debates have mostly been sound-bite fests. Some candidates have been hammered; others soft-pedaled.

Frankly, this is not the time for ‘alternative’ viewpoints either—not crazy-pants, incoherent, third-party-spoiler alternative viewpoints like Tulsi Gabbard’s.  Just as infuriating: little mansplainy lectures about corruption and power-hoarding in both parties, proving that the two-party system doesn’t work and how you can’t be arsed to vote for a compromise candidate.

The two-party system doesn’t work. Almost everybody knows it—it gave us Donald Trump, after all. But spare me your superior ‘history of partisan politics’ perspectives. We have bigger fish to fry. We have a country (and planet) to save. We have to pick a Democratic candidate who can survive all the repulsive shit Trump will shovel. We have to rally behind that candidate. We have to win.

And we’re definitely not going to get there by closing our eyes, minds and hearts to the range of what Democratic candidates offer, dragging out spurious quotes from 2012 and snarking about who doesn’t think a female candidate can win an election in 2020.

Some observations:

#1) It’s OK to look at and value demographics. The scariest thing about the current Democratic campaign is that there are no Black or Hispanic candidates remaining, and the ones who left all contributed considerable energy and ideas of value. We lost faces of America when we lost Harris, Castro and Booker. Also—it’s not ‘ageism’ to question the physical vigor of elderly candidates, especially candidates with serious health issues. And it’s OK to get sexism on the table in every discussion of what the ‘best’ candidates offer.

I personally think it’s way past time for a woman POTUS. At the very least, it’s OK to suggest that the strongest ticket will appeal—on a strictly demographic basis—to a cross-section of ages, gender and racial identifications.

People vote for someone they think they can trust. And often, that person either looks like them, or seems to have the same beliefs as they do. Look at who voted for Trump in 2016: white people. Maybe those beliefs are progressive. (Why can’t we all have health care? Other countries do!) But first—the candidate who said that must be someone I believe will genuinely have my interests, and the interests of my people, at heart.

#2) Dirty campaigns are not appealing. It’s always better to offer hope and change. Remember Ronald Reagan’s Morning in America campaign ads? My friends and I laughed and laughed—Morning in America ends with bedtime for Bonzo, ha ha ha! America won’t elect a third-rate actor who makes mushy ridiculous promises like an ad agency! We’re smarter than that!

Lesson learned. Inspiration is essential. And the corollary:

#2A) Fly-specking and cherry-picking candidate flaws is cruel and counterproductive. There was a moment in the last Democratic debate where Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg were arguing about whether it’s OK to take campaign money from billionaires at wine-cave events. For some reason, moderators let the acrid, pointless squabbling go on at some length.

Finally, Amy Klobuchar burst out JUST STOP! She pointed out that we have huge issues to address, a democratic republic to protect. Why waste time trying to get the last word in an in-the-weeds argument? (For what it’s worth, this made me re-consider Klobuchar’s no-bullshit profile in a positive way.)

We’ve seen a lot of that in this campaign, among candidates who should function as a team of rivals. In past couple of days, it’s been Warren and Sanders, hammer and tongs. Please don’t send me links to stories that ‘prove’ any of the mainstream Democratic candidates have a fatal flaw. All of the candidates are flawed, seriously flawed. But one of them has to prevail.

#3) We’re never going to get all of what we want and will always have to settle for a fraction of our deepest desires. This is the fallacy at the heart of nit-picking policy plans.  Bernie will triple ed funding! But Liz will quadruple it! No, they won’t.

If we get a Democrat elected President AND get control of both houses of Congress, we will likely get some incremental progress toward some of the big stuff that other, healthier countries do in fact enjoy—free college, debt relief, universal health care, parental leave, strong public education, the full wish list. But there is SO much to be done, and not a single one of the Democratic candidates has a track record demonstrating ironclad sausage-making skills, a la Nancy Pelosi.

#4) Barack Obama isn’t President anymore. He’s been good about staying out of the scrum. He will campaign for the nominee. But please don’t post any more pictures or glowing, nostalgic memes about his presidency. Keep your eyes on the prize–political leverage, not a hero—and keep moving on.

#5) Don’t attack the Democratic Party. It’s the infrastructure we have right now. You can’t attack a well-oiled machine like the Democratic party and then expect them to forget that you trashed them when you need them. Save the third-party building and alternate viewpoints until after the election. Get on board, little children.

#6) Finally, take this quiz.  You may be surprised at the results.

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Bugs in Teachers’ Ears? What We Should Be Doing Instead.

EdWeek re-ran a piece this week about teachers getting remote coaching via earpieces from ‘experts’–always the experts! –who were watching them teach via live video feed:

Virtual teacher-coaching services have become more popular in recent years—teachers record their lessons, and remote coaches review the videos and offer feedback. This approach has been especially popular in rural schools, or in districts that can’t afford to staff their own coaches.

But bug-in-ear coaching takes the approach one step further, happening in the moment. It’s a harder sell to both coaches and teachers, experts say, since it requires a level of vulnerability among both parties.

John Merrow responded with a hilarious send-up of what that might look like, in real life: Insect-based Teacher Training.  Once I stopped laughing, though, I started pondering just who would benefit from a Secret Agent Man earpiece, in any skill-based occupation that depends almost entirely on human communication.

A remote observer may be able to talk a novice plumber through fixing a leaky pipe– or teach someone to master a person-thing activity, like brushing teeth or scrambling an egg. For any consequential task involving human ethics, however, the idea is absurd.

Would an attorney be willing to argue a high-stakes case in court with a remote advisor providing nick-of-time legal precedents? Could a therapist ever learn to trust someone miles away sorting through pre-set responses to the pain happening in front of their eyes?

The very idea is ‘unnerving and demeaning declares Carol Burris. Diane Ravitch says it ‘assumes teachers know nothing.’ Aside from sales-cheerleaders and Education Week reporters who are always looking for controversy to boost their clicks, why should anyone pay attention to such obvious bait?

Well.

The question is not ‘Are ear bugs for teachers a good idea?’ They’re not. The question is why they’re being actively pursued in the field of K-12 education, to the evident great interest and approval of school administrators, researchers and education media.

What is it about teachers (as opposed to, say, dentists or insurance agents or plastic surgeons) that makes people think their practice can actually be improved by canned protocols, whispered into their ears when they’re in the thick of their professional work?

Clearly, this plays into what Audrey Watters brilliantly dissected last week—the seductive but false idea that Technology Will Save Education! Also, it reflects the now-widespread acceptance of the concept that test scores are reality, and anything done to improve them is worth the cost. It reinforces the media myth that’s been hanging around for a few decades: teachers are the bottom of the barrel, academically—those who can’t, teach, and they’re populating a large percentage of our classrooms.

But it goes much deeper than that. It’s worth dissecting, rather than just blowing the bugs off as another insulting joke.

Here’s the nub of it: Nobody (except bona fide educators) really gets what the work of teaching actually is. We had the perfect illustration of that in ‘Waiting for Superman’ as the little flip-top cartoon heads came down the conveyor belt, ready to be filled with knowledge.

Contrary to popular opinion and Davis Guggenheim, that’s not what good teachers do. Good teachers begin with knowing their students and caring about their learning. Until that essential step takes place, not much happens—no transmission of content, no application of skills, no regurgitation of knowledge as data. Good teaching is always, always about human connections, human judgment and context.

Go back to those paragraphs from the EdWeek article—where remote evaluators watch videos and prescribe fixes for teachers’ perceived technical weaknesses. This practice skips right over relationships, personal commitment and all-important context, focusing on discrete behaviors instead.

For a time, this video evaluation of teachers was all the rage in Gatesland. It was frequently compared to National Board Certification, a process that also uses videotaped lessons. The difference–and this was never made clear in the breathless excitement over the use of technology to grade teaching–is that candidates for National Board Certification watch and analyze themselves, using explicit standards for professional teaching. The National Board assesses teachers’ ability to analyze their own work—they do not tell teachers what they’re ‘doing wrong’ or how to ‘fix’ their weaknesses, in order to ‘pass’ the assessment.

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards has adapted their assessment recently, to better align with major national education initiatives—but the initial work on NB Certification was done to establish and support full-blown teacher professionalism, the idea that teachers, in their individual classrooms, are best positioned to know what their students need, design learning experiences to reach those goals, and evaluate whether their instruction has been successful—and determine what to do next.

Teaching involves hundreds of daily decisions made on the fly. Experienced teachers make better decisions, not because someone has murmured the ‘right’ tactic into their ear. Only a thoughtful teacher who is paying attention to live responses and results can build a sturdy set of protocols that work for them. Even then, the best veteran teachers are continuously learning from their miscues and bad choices, which are coming at them faster than anyone observing from afar can interpret.

Remote judgment is a misuse of timeless principles of assessment and evaluation. It dismisses trust as a core value in the teaching-learning relationship–are students going to trust the teacher who’s taking cues from an invisible wizard? It suggests that teachers can’t trust their own judgment. It ignores context–and context is everything in learning that sticks to brains.

Perhaps the worst thing is that this practice further paints teachers as both clueless and compliant.

The EdWeek piece, ironically, touches on something important in noting that teachers’ growth and improvement depends on vulnerability. It is this willingness to say ‘I can do better’ that starts the process of real growth.

The informal practice of teachers voluntarily opening their doors to observe and be observed is how we could all become better. So simple! Why isn’t that the cornerstone of all professional learning?

We could also admit that teaching takes years to master, so routinely giving novice teachers fewer responsibilities, more buddies and partner teachers, plus friendly on-site feedback, assuring them that one size never fits all, would help enormously. Deming says ‘remove all threats and fear’—and he’s right.

We could embrace reflection and journaling by everyone, newbie and vet, and provide time for deep, purposeful conversations about our work and our students. We could use established models for what accomplished teaching looks like or invent our own. We could develop the habit of never being satisfied.

None of these would cost more, in terms of time, resource allocation and capital outlay, than putting bugs in teachers’ ears. So why aren’t we doing them?

Until teachers can define, defend and control their own professional work, we will be vulnerable to junk ideas.

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Top Reads of 2019

For the past decade or so, I’ve tried to read 100 books a year. It’s been a worthy and mostly achievable goal, a nice round number, and incentive to be deliberate in choosing titles, because—hey, tick-tock.  I don’t log books that I didn’t finish (or almost finish—I included one 600-pager this year that I started skimming after diligently reading 400 mind-numbing pages).

I also don’t count children’s books, although some terrific YA titles have made the cut. I use GoodReads to archive titles, rate them one-five stars, and compose a brief review, mostly to remind myself what the book is about, especially series books. My role model is Nick Hornby, whose Ten Years in the Tub is, IMHO, the Way to Write Reviews.  That is, sloppily and non-linearly, reading multiple books at the same time, being honest about what I love and what moves me–and constantly changing my mind.

Therefore… no neatly ordered top ten titles, no bumping off a favorite because it doesn’t feel prestigious enough for an audience, always embracing good ideas and good writing while overlooking flaws.

I have 14 noteworthy books to share this year, seven fictional titles and seven nonfiction. I’ll begin with books about politics.

Politics

I read about eight politically themed, hyper-current books this year. I thought Bob Woodward’s Fear: Trump in the White House was actually kind of a dull rehash of the daily news, and found American Carnage interminable and supercilious. I wish I could say I finished The Mueller Report, but it’s still sitting on my bookshelf with the little bookmark somewhere around 80 pages in. There were three books I thought captured the angst of the Trump presidency in unique ways:

Impeach: The Case Against Donald Trump (Neal Katyal and Sam Koppelman). Two hundred pages of just the facts—a historical context primer, the point-by-point case for the necessity of taking action instead of trying to pre-determine political fallout, and best of all, a rationale for re-thinking who we are, as a nation, our core principles, so this doesn’t happen again. Katyal leaves the reader with a sense that no matter what happens, the impeachment was essential, morally required and what any thoughtful citizen should want.

The Fifth Risk (Michael Lewis) 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 sensible government policy and protocols. Just because they can. And maybe because someone has something on them. It’s an uneven, imperfect book that jumps around from topic to topic—but read it anyway.

A Warning (by Anonymous) Yeah, yeah. I know. Why give a book without a named author any credence at all? That’s what I thought. Then I went to the library to return some books, and there it was, brand new and on the Hot Titles shelf, so I grabbed it, and gulped it down. After, I no longer cared who wrote it. It’s a narrative Whistleblower’s Companion, the WH insider track that Michael Wolff wanted to occupy but didn’t have the weight.

The author is obviously very conservative—and very horrified that this president couldn’t (like previous presidents) be managed, or even influenced. There is a great deal of ruthless truth-telling, presaging and deep alarm in this book, something I’d like to see all conservatives who genuinely care about their country express. In some ways, not revealing the author’s identity made the book bulletproof. You had to focus on the revealed stories and ideas (shocking, appalling stuff) rather than seeing it through the lens of WHO.

Thinker Non-Fiction

Becoming (Michelle Obama) Best autobiography ever. A friend encouraged me to read it, saying it flows like fiction, a can’t-put-it-down tale, and that’s absolutely true. Obama outs herself as a person who has regularly shifted life goals and personas, some she’s more proud of than others—and she outs her famous husband as imperfect in so many ways, not all of them adorable or noble. Girl from the South Side takes her readers on an amazing, and very American, journey.

White Fragility (Robin DiAngelo) I went on a reading quest this year, to try to enlighten—is that the word? —myself, re: pervasive and ugly racism, the social milieu I admittedly swim in and don’t always acknowledge. The other books I read on the subject were less than helpful, ranging from self-congratulatory to confusing to densely theoretical. I have more books in the pile, but found White Fragility the most useful right now, in pushing me to turn and face things—your mileage, of course, may vary. Am I woke? Hardly. I know I have miles to go. But DiAngelo’s book was straightforward and a needed slap upside the head.

Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger (Rebecca Traister) This book made me genuinely excited. Traister encourages women to let ‘er rip—to go ahead and feel the justified rage that you’ve been suppressing for, oh, your whole life. Well-supported by logic and research and written in a breezy, sister-to-sister tone, this is one great (and, naturally, underrecognized) book. Read it.

Education

I used to read a dozen education books every year, but my thirst for ed-books has diminished. Mostly, I’m tired of Big Sexy Ed Ideas, endlessly generated and eventually discarded. There are only a few enduring principles in ed-world (the connection between teacher and student, for one, or a nurturing of curiosity) and these principles have been mainly ignored, for a couple of decades, in favor of various tools.

After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform (Andrea Gabor) is a rare exception, a book that isn’t peddling anything new, simply sharing some thick case studies of schools and districts and people who focused on local, genuinely custom-tailored reforms, and stuck with them until they bore actual fruit, for real students and educators. The book kind of rambles around without a coherent thesis about how to ‘fix’ anything, which is, oddly, one of its strengths; it demonstrates that we can only improve public education one school, one city, one classroom at a time. All else is folly.

Fiction

I read a lot of good fiction this year. When I went through the list, there were several books that were lightly touched with magical realism, and more than a few that depended on historical events and settings. I could easily have nominated 20, but here are seven absolute gems.

Washington Black (Edi Edugyan) A swirling amalgam of places (from a tropical sugar plantation to the frozen north), the advances of science, divergent social beliefs and unique characters. Reading it is like flying across time and space in a dirigible. The book never loses hope in mankind, and poses continuous questions about the meaning of identity, friendship and equality.

The Women of Copper Country and  A Thread of Grace (Mary Doria Russell)  I discovered Mary Doria Russell last year, reading The Sparrow, Children of God, and Doc. I am enamored of her intelligent writing and sprawling command of subject matter. Women of Copper Country is her latest, and set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, based on real people and events. It’s a heartbreaking book, including a tragedy that happened on Christmas Eve, 1913—the Italian Hall disaster.’ It left me wrung out and tearful—but so did Thread of Grace, which traces events in remote northern Italy near the end of the World War II, as the Axis was crumbling and loyalties were hard to pinpoint, when Catholic clergy were hiding Jewish refugees, and every day brought acts of bravery as well as treachery. Both books are powerfully written.

This Tender Land (William Kent Krueger) A latter-day Huckleberry Finn—another story that will break your heart, and also revive your belief in human goodness. Four motherless children, a mighty river and plain old faith are at the center of this adventure. Krueger is perhaps best known for his Cork O’Connor series, but his two stand-alone novels are both masterful.

Virgil Wander (Leif Enger) Another all-American story tinged with magic (I seem to be attracted to whimsy and nostalgia in the era of Trump). The story is pretty slight, but the writing is absolutely delicious, and for anyone who wants to believe that sometimes, things turn out OK even when prospects seem the most dim, this book will give you the heart and the will to go on.

The Dutch House (Ann Patchett) Ann Patchett may have become my favorite author with this book—and Commonwealth, her previous novel, which I loved just as much. (Bumping off Barbara Kingsolver, whose most recent book was, IMHO, a dud.) Patchett’s two most recent books have avoided being quirky—no magicians or life-saving tree extractions from South America—and have stayed focused on the uniqueness of family. Dutch House has some great characters—Maeve, the cynical older sister, and the World’s Most Wicked Stepmother—and traces a simple but ultimately believable story, centered around a magnificent house.

The Testaments (Margaret Atwood) Recently, a Facebook posting asked readers to list the five books that have most influenced them and changed their lives. I didn’t bite—Really? Five books? —but it was interesting to read responses, see what posters wanted us to believe about their exemplary reading habits. Besides, I could think of only one book, offhand, that fit in the category: The Handmaid’s Tale.

I recently re-read Handmaid, after 30-odd years, and found it just as powerful as, if not more than, my initial encounter. Lots has happened since then, in the real world—both politically, and to Atwood’s seminal work which has now been retrofitted and expanded into a visually arresting, horrifying TV series that I am absolutely hooked on. I ordered The Testaments in advance, read it in a single day, and loved it.

I think the trick to appreciating all that Atwood packs into Testaments (and there’s plenty of irony, humor, horror, adventure and loose-end tying) is to not expect it to be Handmaid, Part II. In Testaments, Atwood does what she’s been asked to do, thousands of times: she finishes the story. She leaves the Deep Meanings and Metaphors and Dark Lessons in place—but layers on a rousing ending to Gilead, orchestrated by a character who turns out to be much more than anyone expected, back in the mid-1980s. She celebrates strength and savvy in women. And she gives us a rollicking good story–nothing wrong with that.
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The Decade in Education: What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been

I’m sure you’re not geeked to read yet another combination critique/regret-fest/prognostication blog on the preceding Decade in Education. So I’m not going to write one. Besides, two extremely excellent ‘decade pieces’ were recently published, very different but both relevant and well worth your time.

The first is Audrey Watters’ The 100 Worst Ed-Tech Debacles of the Decade, a long and fascinating chronicle of ‘ed-tech failures and fuck-ups and flawed ideas’. Don’t be put off by the ‘ed-tech’ designation (or the naughty word).  The piece isn’t about computers or devices or digital programs, per se, but covers all technologies—so very many technologies—that were supposed to transform education in some way and ended up being so much splat on the classroom floor.

Go ahead. Skim through it. It starts with smaller, quicker-to-die, media-fueled sexy innovations, and works its way up through virtual charter schools, personalized learning, and venture philanthropy, disrupting all the way. The hits just keep on a-comin’ and just as rapidly disintegrating, disappointing and malfunctioning. I recognized about 90 out of the 100 Watters’ flops, and have been personally involved in utilizing (for educational purposes) maybe a third of them—and I haven’t had my own classroom in the past decade.

It’s the perfectly described list of all the crapola that was supposed to ‘save’ what turns out to have been one of America’s best ideas: a free, high-quality fully public education for every child, no matter what they bring to the table. An idea that needed investment, perhaps, and some re-thinking, but not an endless parade of for-profit ‘tools’.

The second great piece is Peter Greene’s The Ground Level Ed Reform Decade Retrospective, which is just what it says: how the endless stream of ‘reforms’ has gutted what has always been the most worthwhile aspect of public education—the context-specific intersection of good teaching and relationship-based learning.  When Greene says he became the staff crank, that guy who pointed out the obvious—that the heavy press of ‘accountability’ and top-down control was ruining public education–I could relate:

I had never believed that public education was perfect, but I could not understand why so many people in power seemed bent on destroying it. After a decade, I have a better idea why, a better sense of how complicated some of this mess is, of how many different lines cross in the public schoolhouse. In many ways, becoming a student of ed reform prepared me for a Trump presidency, because it made me really confront the degree to which many of my fellow citizens do not share values that I had somehow assumed were fundamental to being a citizen of this country.

Near the end of the last decade, I wrote a piece about my four decades in public school teaching—the 70s, 80s, 90s and the aughts, an exercise in compare and contrast. I called it ‘What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been.’

Condensed version: the 70s—90s were a zig-zag pathway of something like progress, but since the early days of the Bush II administration, we’ve made a U-turn into a new, technologies-worshipping direction (reminder: data = technology) where it’s all about numbers, levers, gadgets and vandalizing, piece by piece, America’s best idea.

And now another decade has passed, with two dreadful Secretaries of Education and increasing federal intervention in the ultimate local institution: public schools. When Betsy DeVos was installed, there was a national flurry of concern that she would push for more charter schools. People in Michigan knew that Betsy’s real goal was vouchers, a fully privatized system that favored white kids in private and religious schools. The rapidity with which states have moved to ‘empowerment scholarships’ and federal dollars have been transferred out of public education revenue streams is stunning. If there were words for what has happened this decade, they’d be something like: More! Harder! Faster!

If there’s anything good to say about the decade it’s that more educators have adopted the moniker of staff crank and are becoming policy scholars, leading Red for Ed movements and writing—articulately and passionately—about what’s really happening, and who’s responsible for trashing public education. There’s been some serious organizing and great publications.

On the other hand, a significant chunk of the teacher workforce is now fully acclimated to the loss of autonomy, endless testing and standardized everything. It’s just the way it is, from their perspective. Teaching has become a temporary, technical job in many places; only the super-strong survive.

If there’s one thing the past five (arrrgh) decades in education have taught me, it’s this: education is ultimately political. You can close your door and teach (thanks, 1970s, for that phrase), but in the end, policy, and the goals and beliefs of the people who make policy, win. And win big.

Policy makes it possible to sell off educators’ professional control over their own work to commercial scavengers and opportunists. Policy tinkers with the separation of public, community-based institutions from those who just want to make a buck. Policy allows, even encourages, racial and economic segregation. Feckless policymaking has put millions of people into lifetime debt for ‘education’ that hasn’t helped their life prospects or personal growth one bit.

In short, this decade left us with a steeper and slipperier slope and more than ever to worry about, when it comes to my life’s passion: preserving public education. A long, strange trip indeed.

I have not given up, however. I am in and out of public schools all the time, as a professional development consultant and teacher-coach. There are great teachers in every building I’ve been in this decade, and lively, curious kids who want to learn.

Hope and faith, my friends. Hope and faith.

2020

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Many years ago, in December, we were having burgers and beer in a local pub, with friends. The sound system was pumping out Burl Ives, Bing Crosby and Mariah Carey, all the ‘classic’ Christmas tunes. One of our dinner companions remarked that I must be happy, surrounded by the Christmas music he was sure I loved.

But no.

I do have a thing for Christmas music—always have, dating way back to the LPs my parents got for ‘free’ when they had their snow tires put on. (In super-snowy western Michigan, it’s either snow tires or a winter spent digging yourself out of those scary, two -story snowbanks.) The LPs featured the likes of Eugene Ormandy, Dinah Shore, Steve and Edie, maybe Elvis. A little drummer boy, a little Jesus, a little rock and roll.

My affection for seasonal music has less to do with ‘getting in the spirit’ than seeing what artists and arrangers do with familiar tunes. Over five decades, I’ve performed in or conducted hundreds of Christmas concerts and programs, and there’s always something delicious to sing or play–and just as often, something really banal or obnoxious (lookin’ at you, Frosty the Snowman).

When I finally had my own collection of Christmas LPs and tapes, in the 1970s, I began making Christmas mix cassettes for friends, an excuse to buy more tasty holiday tunes and then turn them into gifts. Some of my long-time favorite albums—Noel by Joan Baez, arranged by Peter Schickele—stem from that period. I made one mix tape per year, and often mail-ordered LPs and tapes from esoteric catalogs or went scavenging through the bins in Ann Arbor record stores in November.

I still have one master tape made each year, beginning in 1976. Unfortunately, I don’t have anything to play them on anymore. With the advent of CDs, in the 1980s, I copied tracks from CDs and LPs on to cassettes. And when I got a computer with the capacity to burn CDs, the copying went both ways, and the buying went on, non-stop. I currently own about 350 holiday-themed CDs.

That’s right. What was once a hobby was now sort of a sickness.

When iTunes emerged, I could not imagine a more perfect way to indulge. I could buy new tunes for 99 cents while in my pajamas and cherry-pick one or two gems off my existing albums. Which I did, with all 350 CDs, yielding an ultimate iTunes cache of about 2500 Christmasy music files.

At that point, I shifted to making individually tailored CD compilations for new friends as well as long-time recipients. Some friends sent mix CDs back. All was perfect, Christmas music nirvana. Until.

Until digital streaming made CD players and iPods obsolete. And–I got a new computer, and in transferring files from the old to the new, iTunes, in its infinite wisdom, deleted all the tunes that I had copied from CDs, keeping only the new, purchased-through-iTunes files. I lost about 1500 songs. And, according to iTunes, they’re not coming back— iTunes is on its last legs, to be supplanted by Apple Music.  New cars don’t even have CD players.

My annual CD-making has gone the way of Christmas cards and staying up until 2:00 a.m. to wrap gifts and assemble toys : Bye Bye.

But just this morning, a friend sent me season’s greetings, mentioning that she’s listening to a CD I made for her in 2017. Another friend said she still listens to the tape I made for her, in 1982. Right now, I’m enjoying a playlist that I made for a friend who had a fatal heart attack, the summer after that particular Christmas. And—joy of joys—there is a constant stream of ‘Listen to this!’ YouTube videos, posted by friends, with fresh and delightful holiday-themed picks.

Do I have favorites? Cuts that went on many tapes and CDs? Yes. And what makes them good has to do with the synchronicity of tune, lyrics and presentation. Some artists I like just plow through standards and lay on the cheesy sentiment (IMHO, Willie Nelson’s Pretty Paper is atrocious). Others know how to make a tune that everybody knows completely unique.

There is a great deal of gorgeous early Christmas music; tunes that have stood the test of centuries, back to when virtually all music was sacred, dedicated to God. It’s not unusual to hear Quem Pastores Laudaveres in the produce section of your supermarket, come November. And there are a handful of songs that justifiably entered the Christmas canon late—Jackson Browne’s Rebel Jesus or Vienna Teng’s Atheist Christmas Carol, grace coming out of the void—but can be welcomed as the world celebrates the coming of the light, whatever your own personal light represents.

It would be impossible for me to choose 10 or 100 Top Christmas Songs, or even top artists. But here are a few I’ve listened to, today, off the top of my head.

Silent Night—the Hollywood Trombones

Joy to the World—the Empire Brass

River—Rosie Thomas

Sussex Mummers Carol—Burning River Brass

Sweet Bells—Kate Rusby

I have a favorite ‘O Holy Night’ (Jewel) and a favorite ‘Sleigh Ride’ (Sam Bush) and a favorite ‘We Three Kings’ (the Roches) and a favorite ‘White Christmas’ (the Mavericks). I have favorite albums (‘Christmas at Beaumont Tower’) and arrangements.  None of these, by the way, comes from Mannheim Steamroller, which tends to give me a headache. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

Hark! Are the herald angels singing?

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