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.

School Boards and Other Political Targets

In general, I believe elected school boards are a foundational aspect of public education and democratic citizenship. And yes, I worked in a district where an unbalanced school board made my work life unpleasant at times. I have experienced the power-mongering Board president who brings aboard a whole crew of yes-men and yes-women—neighbors and sisters-in-law– in an effort to crush both Superintendent and the teachers union. And even worse.

I also understand the essential aspect of having a reasonable Superintendent who, in turn, is able to communicate effectively with a board made up of people whose primary goals sometimes center around their personal children’s needs and wants. I am familiar with the anti-Whole Language Board, the Back to Basics Will Save Money Board, and the Sports are More Important than Calculus Board.

But still. Those Boards were duly elected (even the elderly farmers who thought spoiled kids today don’t need a school play or orchestra). There’s always another election in a couple of years, when the community gets hot and huffy about whatever the current Big Issue is. It means someone has to step up and run for public office, developing a vision of what locals schools should look like, but civic engagement is a fine thing.

Let me re-state that. Thoughtful, responsible civic engagement is a fine thing. An essential thing.

All the way back to the Scopes Trial, public debate over hot-button issues has incrementally, over time, shifted opinion about the right way (often labelled the democratic way) to do things. Public institutions, like education, are always subject to political environments and trends. And these days, everybody is simultaneously constitutional scholar, curriculum expert, epidemiologist and Clarence Darrow wannabe.

I’ve been working in and watching public schools for 50+ years and can attest that controversy is both unavoidable and cyclical. Every school has issues that light people up. But in 2021, the stakes are higher than ever—we’re subjecting kids to a scary, unpredictable disease. We made a collective decision—school must go on—and now every local educational jurisdiction must wrestle with student safety vs.  political expediency.

I would be wrong if I said elected Boards most often act on behalf of their students’ well-being.

But I am stunned by the vicious nature of the anti-mask, anti-vax protests—like this one in Oregon, which left the veteran superintendent, who simply followed state law, weeping as he was fired. Or this one—where parents literally pushed their unmasked teenagers past school administrators blocking the way.

How do parents expect their children to respect the rules and authority necessary for safe and productive schooling when those same parents are physically pushing the students to disobey?

The answer is: They don’t, anymore.

And it’s gone way beyond hot tempers at a school board meeting. There are firings and shouting and pushing and shoving. There are also death threats and other aggressions. There’s been a national paradigm shift around who to trust, and who’s in charge.

Reformy types who have pushed for data and more data to ‘fix’ schools in various ways might be interested in knowing this, from a survey of MI parents:

About 78% of Republican parents opposed a mask mandate and about 18% supported it. Most Democratic parents who were surveyed, 87%, support a mask mandate and 10% oppose it. 

For white parents, 41% support a mask mandate and 53% oppose one.  Whereas a strong majority of Black parents — 94% — support a mask mandate.

Like every other issue—how to teach history and social studies honestly, for example—student safety (which really is a life and death matter) has become not merely ‘politicized’ but reason for disrespectful, even violent behavior. As Peter Greene notes, ‘”don’t do anything that will get me a phone call” is a terrible administration policy, especially in times when some folks are intent on whipping up controversy for their own political gains.’

The locus of this behavior? Well, Republican state legislatures—and not just Texas and Florida—now seem to feel as if every issue is black and white, us vs. them, win-lose, without nuance or room for dialogue. It’s the worst of bare-knuckle power struggles.

It’s ugly, and a terrible example to set for children: scream and scheme until you get your way.

The funny thing is: The PDK Poll, the trusted annual assessment of parents’ views on public schooling recently reported that 84% of public school parents felt their schools were ready to open during a pandemic, and 82% felt it could be safe to do so. Three-quarters of parents felt schools would be able to help their children catch up on missed learning, and more than two-thirds thought schools could also mitigate the social-emotional stressors the pandemic created for students.

Those are big numbers, representing a strong vote of confidence for public schools.

I ask again: Where is all the angst at school board and county commission meetings coming from?

What political events have inspired uncivil, hostile behaviors across the country? Are we letting a small minority of previously entitled people run roughshod over the democratic structures of our public institutions?

I Can’t Believe I’m Looking at Test Scores

Here’s the (incendiary) headline: Test Scores Show Dramatic Declines!

Here’s the truth: this set of test scores tells us nothing for certain. The data are apples-to-oranges-to bowling balls muddled. If anything, if you still believe test scores give us valuable information, the data might be mildly encouraging, considering what students have encountered over the past 18 months.

More about the numbers later. First, let me share with you the moment I stopped believing that standardized test data had any valid role in determining whether students or schools were successful.

I was attending a State Board of Education meeting in Lansing. These are monthly day-long affairs where education policy and affairs are discussed and instituted. (Sometimes, the legislature passes different laws, in an attempt to undermine the State Board, but that’s not relevant in this example.) The Board, on this occasion, was setting cut scores from a round of new testing data.

I can’t tell you what year this occurred, exactly, but it was after NCLB was passed, and the Board was doing what they were supposed to do: managing the data generated by federally imposed standardized testing, grades 3-8. 

Until that meeting, I assumed that there was a hard, established science to setting cut scores. I thought scores were reasonably reliable, valid measures of learning and there were pre-determined, universal clusters of students who would be labeled proficient, advanced, below basic or whatever descriptors were used. I assumed there were standard, proven psychometric protocols—percentage of correct answers, verified difficulty of questions, and so on. I was familiar with bell curves and skewed distributions and standard deviations.

What surprised me was how fluid—and even biased– the whole process seemed. There was, indeed, a highly qualified psychometrician leading the discussion, but a lot of the conversation centered on issues like: If we set the Advanced bar too low, we’ll have a quarter of the students in Michigan labeled Advanced and we can’t have that! If we move the cutoff for Basic to XX, about 40% of our students will be Below Basic—does that give us enough room for growth and enough reason to put schools under state control?

The phrase “set the bar high” was used repeatedly. The word “proficient” became meaningless. The Board spent hours moving cut bars up and down, labeling groups of students to support their own well-meant theories about whether certain schools were “good” and others needed to be shut down. So much for science.

The problem is this: You can’t talk about good schools or good teachers or even “lost learning” any more, without a mountain of numbers. Which can be inscrutable to nearly everyone, including those making policies impacting millions of children. When it comes to standardized test score analysis, we are collectively illiterate. And this year’s data? It’s meaningless.

Bridge Magazine (headline: Test Scores Slump) provides up/down testing data for every school district in Michigan. The accompanying article includes plenty of expert opinion on how suspect and incomplete the numbers are, but starts out with sky-is-falling paragraphs:  In English, the share of third-graders considered “proficient” or higher dropped from 45.1 percent to 42.8 percent; in sixth-grade math, from 35.1 percent to 28.6 percent; in eighth-grade social studies, from 28 percent to 25.9 percent.

These are, of course, aggregated statewide numbers. Down a few percent, pretty much across the board. Unsurprising, given the conditions under which most elementary and middle school students were learning. Down the most for students of color and those in poverty—again, unsurprising. Still, there’s also immense score variance, school to school, even grade to grade. The aggregate numbers don’t tell the whole story–or even the right story.

The media seemed to prefer a bad-news advertising campaign for the alarming idea that our kids are falling further behind. Behind whom, is what I want to know? Aren’t we all in this together? Is a two-point-something score drop while a virus rages reason to clutch your academic pearls?

Furthermore: what does ‘proficient’ even mean? It’s a word which appears repeatedly, with absolutely no precise definition. Everybody (including media) seems to think they understand it, however.

The really interesting thing was looking at district-by-district data. There were places where pretty much everybody took the tests, and schools where almost nobody did. Districts where the third grade scores dropped twenty percent while the fourth grade, in the same school, went up eight percent. What happened there—was it teachers? curriculum? It was also clear that charters, including virtual charters, were not the shining solution to pandemic learning.

What I took away from the data is that public education held up pretty well in Michigan, under some dire and ever-shifting conditions. In some places, kids and teachers did very well, indeed, amidst disruption. Kids without resources—broadband, devices, privacy, constant adult supervision, or even breakfast and lunch—had the hardest time. They’re the ones who need the most attention now. And good luck hiring qualified, experienced teachers to do that.

There’s probably a lot that can be learned from a close look at the 2020-21 data, but most of it isn’t about quantified student learning gains. And please—stop with the “acceleration” crapola. The pace of learning will improve when our students feel safe and part of a community, the exact conditions we’ve been striving for in perpetuity, and aren’t present anywhere, in September 2021.

Stu Bloom said, last week: I’m seriously tired of the politicians, pundits (looking at you, NYT Editorial Board), and policy-makers telling teachers and public schools to single-handedly solve the problems of racism and poverty by increasing test scores. Public schools and public school teachers are not the only ones who have anything to contribute to growing our society!

He then goes on to point out the value of actually investing in public education, in evidence-based policies and practices, designed to improve life and learning for all school-aged children. We know what to do, he says. And he’s right.

It’s time to end our national love affair with testing, to make all Americans understand that educational testing is a sham that’s harmed many children. Testing hasn’t ever worked to improve public education outcomes, and it’s especially wasteful and subject to misinterpretation right now.

Birthdays and Gifts

I clearly remember all my decade birthdays, except number 20, which is a blur. Not old enough to drink and not really happy with my life. That’s all I got.

It’s easier with subsequent decades. There was a husband and a house at 30, kids at 40, and some professional recognition by 50.  And 60 seems like yesterday. Yesterday, alas, was 10 years ago.

Do I have a favorite decade birthday? Yes. When I turned 40, my wonderful husband made all the arrangements to take me on a surprise trip. This is how he did it: He called me from work in the summer before my 40th birthday and told me he was entering a contest for an all-expenses paid trip to anywhere in the United States. Where would I want to go? Boulder, Colorado, I told him. Ah—good one, he said.

Then he surreptitiously made all the arrangements—flights, members of the family to babysit and keep their mouths shut in the meantime, an adorable little log-cabin resort in the foothills to the west of town with an outdoor hot tub. He told me to pack my hiking boots and my bathing suit—that we were going on a mystery trip.

It was memorable and wonderful in every possible way. Boulder remains one of my favorite places on earth, and I still wear the earrings he bought me from an art show vendor on Pearl Street.

I have passed through decade markers without a whole lot of angst or reflection. Sixty seemed like coming into a certain kind of wisdom and serenity—newly retired, a new home, new friends, new adventures. A time to accomplish all the things I’d been too busy to enjoy while working and raising a family. A time to travel while still healthy and mobile, to garden, to read, to cook. To write about education.

Most importantly, it was a return to the absolute joy of making music—of capitalizing on all the work I did as a teenager to build and polish my musical skills.  I joined three community musical groups, got a part-time gig as a church music director, and started taking piano lessons, something I have wanted to do since I was in fifth grade. I got my flute out and practiced. I helped establish a thriving flute ensemble. I played for weddings and funerals and other occasions.

I will be seventy tomorrow.

And for the first time, I feel old-ish. Not old-old, but there is a creeping realization that I have some limitations. I still plan to be around for additional decades—my grandmother lived to 103, and was hale and hearty until her last day on earth. I’m healthy and have possession of my marbles.  And I have lots of plans for the future—after all, I have skills and knowledge, things I learned in school, that have made my life, into this eighth decade, rich and rewarding.

I think about my students’ parents, eager to sell that saxophone or trumpet when their child could not decide between band and football. I would ask: What can you give your child today that they can use, literally, for the rest of their lives?

I will be seventy tomorrow. I’ve been playing the same flute—the one my parents re-mortgaged their house to buy—since 1967.

Thanks, mom and dad. I made it to 70!

Local Control over Schools: Good or Bad?

As the new school year started in 2020—last year, before a whole boatload of scientific information was confirmed, or vaccinations rolled out—I got into a Twitter spat with a man whose thinking and scholarship I respect.

He was advocating for all public schools in the United States, or at least his state, to be closed, all instruction taking place online. This was never going to happen–remember who was President a year ago?—but his point was that mandating remote education would save countless lives, many of them children and their teachers.

An excellent point. My counter point was that the case numbers and infection rate were low in my county—and internet connectivity and infrastructure even lower. Lots of students had no access to devices, and even if districts purchased Chromebooks or iPads, there was no broadband to run them. The previous spring, when schools were closed by gubernatorial order, teachers here distributed stapled-together work packets to students along with five days’ worth of breakfasts and lunches.

We Twitter-argued, back and forth, for days, about who should be making these decisions.

He would say: Your state or county should make affordable broadband a priority. I would say: We have been working on that with our recalcitrant, pro-privatization County Commission for over a decade. In the meantime, until that problem is solved, kids won’t have access to school or their teachers.

He would say: School buses with wi-fi! I would say: District is 168 square miles of hills and valleys—not even close to enough school buses!

Other educators would drop into the ongoing squabble. Mostly, they were teachers who felt that widespread, mandated remote learning was the only thing that would keep kids safe.

It seemed to me, then, that local decision-making was key to flattening the curve while balancing the needs of schoolkids. That assuming what was right for your school division or state would not necessarily be right for a school on the other side of the country. That we needed to trust school leaders to make the right choices, with input from their unique communities.

Today, I’m not so sure.

Because I grew up in a pro-union household in the flagship state of the UAW, I assumed, when I started teaching, that locally controlled and negotiated policies were ideal. We should be able to determine things like curriculum, testing, hiring and firing, whether to allow baseball caps, etc. etc. We knew best how to use the resources raised by taxing the citizens of our community.

Ironically, the few things that were state-mandated back then were mostly health- and safety-related: Annual TB tests for teachers. Vaccinations for kids before they were admitted to kindergarten.  Teachers’ legal obligation to report signs of abuse or self-harm. Seat belts and load limits on buses.

If something was critical enough to public well-being, you’d find it in the Michigan school code. The rest was up to school officials and a locally elected board. As it should be.

The person who disabused me of that notion was Renee Moore, an exemplary educator who taught in Detroit before moving to the Mississippi Delta. She pointed out that many local officials and educators did not have the best interests of all students in mind—that in fact, state and federal policies were essential to the pursuit of equity for traditionally underserved public schools and their students. And always had been.

This was a moment when my own clueless privilege smacked me upside the head. If the government didn’t establish rules around school safety, adequacy and equity, who would?

As Heather Cox Richardson noted:

For all that Republicans today insist that individualism is the heart of Americanism, in fact the history of federal protection of the common good began in the 1860s with their own ancestors, led by Abraham Lincoln, who wrote: “The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves—in their separate, and individual capacities.”

Clearly, relying on state and federal government is not the key to student safety and well-being in August 2021—because some state leaders and state legislators are feckless and our window for tapping into federally provided guidance, resources or unity was slammed shut in 2020.

All the devils are loose, and we’re dependent on those separate and individual capacities, plus the relevant evidence and a big dose of courage. The feds can’t save us. We don’t have a policy problem; we have deliberate misinformation and compliance problems.

We’re dependent on people like this guy, a school superintendent in mid-Michigan who is mandating masks even though he’s received irate and threatening phone calls:  ‘I do not have the same scientific skills as some people who work in the state health department. But if somebody else is uncomfortable making a decision, if I have a reasonable support group around me who believe the same way, I don’t have a problem making that decision.’

Good for you, sir—and thanks for taking the heat, and demonstrating local control at its core: Should I make an unpopular decision if I believe it may save lives? Yes.

Local board-meeting meltdowns make clear that good school policy is more than majority-rule. But effective top-down policy also depends on who is at the top.

What Would It Take to Genuinely Do What Is Best for Kids?

It’s quite the headline. Defiant Superintendent: How Can I Follow a Law I Believe Endangers My Students?

There are many possible responses:

These wonderings are at the heart of my long-time, central theory about school reform: When formal, titled school leaders join forces with teachers, kids win.

This is a wide-focus theory, that applies to almost everything about running a public school: Curriculum. Instruction. Assessments. Budgets and resources. Staffing. Public relations. The master schedule. Everything down to whether the supply closet is locked–or teachers are trusted to use the construction paper judiciously, with sharing in mind.

In my 32 years of teaching in public schools—in a strong-union state most of that time—there was almost always a divide between administrators and teachers. Of course, there were ‘good’ principals and superintendents, who kept communication channels open and were open to new ideas.

But every two or three years, when the union was negotiating our salaries and working conditions, there was a bright line between ‘us’ and ‘them’—we were the good guys who wanted autonomy and adequate resources. And they were the bean-counters and policy followers, whose ultimate job was managing us, and our productivity. We were for the kids; they were for the district, the taxpayers and the rule of law.

Over several decades, I had easily three dozen administrators, and most of them were somewhere between pretty good and outstanding. A handful were unimaginative or timid. One or two were vindictive bullies. Someone like that can throw off an entire building or district, setting teachers against each other, changing the learning climate, making school a miserable place to be for lots of kids and staff. People matter.

And now—these same people are players in a game with life-and-death consequences.  A game wherein dark money political organizations want to disrupt placid school board meetings, in an attempt to control curriculum, and parents feel free to physically attack teachers and administrators over mask mandates.  

This is the worst possible time to have a tentative, apprehensive administrator. The school leader who is unable to articulate and defend her own core beliefs about what students need to learn in 2021, and how to teach them safely, is worse than useless. 

If you were tempted to pin the admin-teacher power gap on unions, I think teachers in right-to-work states have even less power over their own work.

The President has directed Secretary of Education Cardona to combat governors who “block and intimidate local school officials.” It will be interesting to see which Superintendents choose community safety over a bullying gubernatorial or legislative directive.

It will also be instructive to watch which districts roll over—and which extend their newfound power to retaining control over their own curricula when the anti-CRT ‘concerned moms’ pay a visit to the school board.

This year is going to be a long, bumpy ride. Districts will be forced to make many deeply contested choices, and the best way to navigate that journey is listening to your workforce, and having a morally framed reason for pretty much everything you do. Doing what’s easiest, to shut people up, is not a morally framed reason.

Have you heard masking children called ‘child abuse’ or worse? That’s their message; what is yours? And how far will you go to defend it? Summon your courage.

Best case short-term scenario: Districts are transparent about their health and safety choices. Somebody has to be the adult in the room. We don’t pay attention to crazies. The feds back us up.

Best case long-term? Leaders find their voices. Schools begin to reclaim the professional work designed for their particular students. What to teach. How to do it safely and effectively. How to build school communities. (And yes, I know that local control can go awry and become ineffective or inequitable.)

What would it take to genuinely do what is best for kids?

A few days ago, a Hechinger report on what science tells us about improving the middle grades made the rounds among middle school teacher communities online. It’s a great piece, but the reaction from veteran middle school teachers was a resounding duh.

We’ve always known that middle schoolers want most to be taken seriously, and that the way we have middle schools set up—cells and bells—is not and never has been conducive to deep learning in 12 year-olds. So why do middle schools mostly look the same as they did 20 years ago? Why aren’t we making choices that evidence tells us are good for kids?

Because, middle school teachers said, our administrators kept a tight lid on innovation in the post-NCLB era. Because test scores. Sad, no?

This is a crucible moment in public school leadership.

What Happened to All the Caring Parents?

Were you in the classroom when Reye Syndrome was a thing schools were worried about?

Here’s a hint: it first emerged about 45 years ago, a rare but very serious condition that causes swelling in the liver and brain. Reye’s syndrome most often affects children and teenagers recovering from a viral infection, most commonly the flu or chickenpox.

The worst year for Reye (or Reye’s) Syndrome was 1980, when 555 cases were identified, nationally. The numbers dropped precipitously once scientists connected the use of aspirin in children with a viral illness to the onset of the disease. Since 1997, the United States has averaged somewhere around two identified and reported cases per year.

The reason I remember Reye Syndrome so clearly: one of my students had it. A sixth grade girl who was out of school for several weeks. She recovered, thank goodness.

The TV and radio stations and newspapers—state and local—ran stories with boxed and bolded advice: If your child does not recover from the flu or chicken pox, take them to the doctor—or the hospital, if they have a high fever, are vomiting or incoherent. NO ASPIRIN! It was an alarmed topic of conversation at the grocery store, PTA and staff meetings. Caution was the watchword.

That was then.

This week, I read that the large district to the south of the one where I taught was going to require masks for all kids—and that there was concern parents would pull their kids out of Large, Cautious District and send them north to my old district, where masking is, per their website today, completely optional, vaccinated or not.

What happened to the cautious parenting? Damned if I know.

It’s the same overwhelmingly white, middle class suburban district it was, back in 1980. Last year, there were over 300 confirmed COVID cases in the district (so—probably actually way more than the official numbers).

It’s a bright red county, for starters (unlike Large, Cautious District to the south, which is in a blue county). I taught there for 32 years, and lived there for 20. I was always aware that most of my neighbors were Republicans. They were also college-educated and very concerned about their children’s well-being, not to mention their education. I used to think it was an easy district to teach in.

Used to. There’s no reason to doubt that the parents who live there still want the best for their children. It’s just that the definition of what’s best for their children has seriously morphed.

Or maybe it’s because I’m seeing such a place—white, well-educated, focused exclusively on their children’s comfort and happiness—through a different lens. The lens of It’s Not About You, and It’s Not About Little Tyler, either. It’s the lens of community.

If you think that masking children—to keep themselves and others healthy—is an imposition on them, or you, it’s pretty clear what/who matters to you. And if you’re not taking your seventh grader to get a jab, you’re not thinking of your community, or even keeping your family safe.  

About 35% of kids 12-15 are vaccinated or partially vaccinated in this county—the number rises to 48% of teens 16-19. Which is a start, but pales in the face of the potentially lethal variant: Up to one-third of children admitted to our hospital have required critical care — including oxygen delivered through high-flow nasal cannula, noninvasive ventilation, and intubation with mechanical ventilation. More than 300 children across the United States have died of covid since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This indifference and opposition to the best available solutions for protecting kids is not the norm across Michigan, by the way. Here’s a cheery story out of East Grand Rapids (another town that is 95% white, upper middle class and well-educated): According to the county, 95% of people age 12 to 17 in East Grand Rapids are vaccinated and 96% of people over 16 in the district have gotten their shots.

I have to say—I’d sure feel a lot better sending my kid to that middle school. But I would still want everyone to mask up. The most important content teachers could be teaching this year is: Why Masking Saves Lives and Respects Others—science, math and civics in one lesson plan.

We could also teach about the prevalence of irrational behaviors and resistance.

I still have lots of friends (and their children, and their children’s children) in this careless school district. I am fond of them. I am heartily sick of covid-related anger and judgment (and yes, I know that this blog has been laced with anger and judgment).

But this statement feels right to me: We can direct our rage not at lost individuals but at systems of power that made our grim national death count the only plausible outcome. Is it so shocking that a caste-based society that exalts individualism and prioritizes profit above wellness — one of the only industrialized nations without universal health care — would fail to rise to the challenges of a collective health crisis?

I still wonder what happened to the nice parents who insisted that the elementary and middle schools send home urgent letters about Reye Syndrome. Systems of power intervened. The blinders are off.

Time for a Four-Day School Week?

Long before the pandemic, there were occasional media stories about school districts going to a four-day week. These were generally cash-strapped rural districts where busing ate up a big chunk of the available funding, and kids rode an hour or more, often through dicey weather, to get to class. Not paying bus drivers and turning down the heat were pretty much all that was left to cut for these schools.

Four-day weeks were not a sign of instructional innovation, either—most of these districts simply made the four days longer, to meet seat time requirements set in place by state regulations. Going to an alternative schedule might have been painted as a rosy alternative—our teachers think it’s phenomenal!—but it was clearly a last resort. If parents and teachers found they liked the new schedule, for any reason, it was an unexpected benefit.

I’ve been thinking about this, because I think there’s going to be lots more talk about alternative school schedules, fairly soon. The federal dollars going out to public schools now will likely, thank God, keep ‘problem-solving’ in the wake of a pandemic from forcing public schools to scissor and degrade programming in the immediate future, but I foresee more faux panic over learning loss and insistent conservative belt-tightening.

Schools can’t operate without public money and legislators control that money—so, snip-snip.

I think it’s important to remember that the 180(ish)-day calendar is relatively recent, and that, at various times and places in our history, students went to school as much eleven months a year and little as six months a year—and not always the months you might think would be set aside for schooling.  Local conditions and needs drove school attendance and demographics.

The amount of useful learning accomplished was also driven by context, and available resources. I am always amazed at how the economic engine of the United States was incrementally, but robustly, built using one-room schoolhouses, teenaged teachers and nonstandard calendars and time requirements.

My grandmother remembered two weeks off every fall for apple-picking (her school, Local No. 5, was eventually renamed ‘Orchard View’), and another two weeks for hunting. School was out before planting began. None of her eight brothers and sisters went to high school. No need, if there was food in the larder.

For the past few decades, we’ve been determined to standardize everything—curricula, instruction, assessments, time requirements, teacher qualifications, even materials.  It’s absolutely clear that as neat and tidy and uniform as schooling can be made, more learning is not guaranteed.

A cornerstone of post-Nation at Risk reform was that more time in school equals more learning.  It turns out that’s not true, either.All this rule-making did was make us turn to more and more questionable measurements—testing—and comparisons designed to push kids in poverty toward cheaper, stripped-down educations. In Michigan, for a time, Republican policy-makers were promoting ‘value schools’  which would provide a ‘basic’ education for $5000/per pupil.

Lately, there’s been a spate of articles and talk about getting rid of the five-day workweek. Other nations and individual companies have experimented with the idea and have gotten good or promising results, including increased productivity and employee satisfaction. The pandemic has upended our thinking about going to the office—maybe it’s time to do the same for 7/5/180 schooling? You can hear the wheels turning.

Whenever you start tinkering with the standardized concept of schooling—year-round school, for example, popular for a time as a way of reducing costs through maximizing facility usage—Americans tend to get all nostalgic for those hazy, crazy, etc. summers of their youth and businesses panic about the loss of cheap teen labor. Change is hard, and school is a big component of life in these United States.

Maybe what we need is rethinking our commitment to sameness (since kids are also nonstandard and unequal) and focusing on context-based education. What’s good for a first grader in Mississippi may not be optimum for a high school senior in California. Also: reducing the days or hours our children spend in school runs counter to what other first-world nations are doing. Still, let’s let our imaginations wander.

For younger children—K-5, say—school also fills a need for childcare.This is a deal public education made with the citizenry, long ago, allowing parents to seek gainful employment. School as safe, productive place to stash your kids while you work—that’s not a bad thing.

If there were one place where a five-day week/extended day model is most needed and useful, it would be elementary schools. That doesn’t mean that teachers have to be actively instructing students every moment they’re in the building. In fact, more frequent breaks and supervised playtime are exactly what many children need. I learned this, BTW, from watching the way kindergarten teachers in my district adapted their half-day practice into full-day kindergarten, years ago: more ‘free’ time to use classroom materials, more stories, two more recesses—and way less pressure to get it all done in three hours.

It’s in secondary schools where we might experiment with the idea that less seat time might produce better results. There’s already been a move to have secondary students ‘test out’ of classes, but that represents a shallow concept of what it means to have genuinely learned something.

If we’re going to be satisfied with students’ capacity to merely reproduce facts and information, we devalue the experience of learning and working together–which should be the core reason students go to school. It’s the deconstructing, discussing and applying knowledge that matters—sharing a crazy-good book, calculating the cost of gas and insurance for that car, playing in the pep band on Friday night.

Can that be adequately done in four days/week? Sure. Especially if the fifth day includes access to teachers for questions/chats/encouragement/clarifications, plus some personal goal-setting on the part of students.

Then why send older kids to school for five days?  I think it has to do with our concept of Teacher as Enforcer. Unless there is a teacher prowling the room, we think, kids will slack off.

We’ve just experienced an 18-month experiment in teachers being unable to control students’ attention and compliance—for some educators, it was an unmitigated disaster. For others, the year ended with students expressing more concern over not seeing their friends than reduced learning. Some teachers actually learned to appreciate teaching and learning from home.

I was stunned, in reading about four-day weeks, to see that some districts reduced teacher pay, believing they were working less.  This is further confirmation of the Teacher as Enforcer idea—you have to be in the room with a student for teaching/learning to occur. It’s also confirmation that this ‘value school’ idea—a discount education, good enough for those who don’t pay tuition—has not gone away. Where can we cut corners? Well—if teachers only teach four days a week…

I would suggest that teachers and their organizations begin by re-thinking teacher professionalism: what a teacher demonstrably provides, rather than the hours they’re on duty. That’s just a start.

‘Reimagining’ education has become an overused (and inaccurate) cliché. But if the education community can’t imagine new calendars, schedules and missions, someone else is going to put them in place.

Photo courtesy of Robert Valiant

Excellence vs. Winning

It was everywhere on Facebook yesterday. A guy named Byron Heatha teacher, natchwrote a powerful post about Simone Biles, remembering Kerri Strug’s stupendous gold-medal vault performance in 1996, landing on one foot, as the other ankle was injured: 

Yesterday I was excited to show my daughters Kerri Strug’s famous one-leg vault. It was a defining Olympic moment that I watched live as a kid, and my girls watched raptly as Strug fell, and then limped back to leap again.

But for some reason I wasn’t as inspired watching it this time. In fact, I felt a little sick. Maybe being a father and teacher has made me soft, but all I could see was how Kerri Strug looked at her coach, Bela Karolyi, with pleading, terrified eyes, while he shouted back “You can do it!” over and over again.

My daughters didn’t cheer when Strug landed her second vault. Instead they frowned in concern as she collapsed in agony and frantic tears.

“Why did she jump again if she was hurt?” one of my girls asked. I made some inane reply about the heart of a champion or Olympic spirit, but in the back of my mind a thought was festering:

*She shouldn’t have jumped again*

The more the thought echoed, the stronger my realization became. Coach Karolyi should have gotten his visibly injured athlete medical help immediately! Instead, Bela Karolyi told Strug to vault again. And he got what he wanted; a gold medal that was more important to him than his athlete’s health.

There’s more—Heath makes several points, perhaps the most important being our new national lenses on what constitutes heroism, going above and beyond—and what’s abusive. What I remember most about that incident is Karolyi scooping Strug up after her jump and carrying her off the court and up to the podium. Strug is tiny—4’8” and childlike–and the image in my brain now feels less triumphant than creepy.

I also thought of my first year as a HS band director, at band camp. We had a good group of college-age sectional coaches, including a color guard instructor who had those girls eating out of her hand–drinking milk at dinner (strengthens your bones!!), going out to the field 15 minutes ahead of the band for extra practice, pushing them even when they were pale with exhaustion, to show the band that they were trying harder than the rest.

Mid-week, she came to me and told me one of the girls was slacking off–a whiner, a baby. Saying her wrist hurt. Crying. The girl was brand new to the band–I didn’t know her at all, so I didn’t have any idea if she was, in fact, a whiner. The guard coach told the girl it was put up or shut up–if she wanted to be in the band, she had to do all the moves. Work through the pain. The other guard members, and the band, were depending on her.

I sat down with Megan at the sidelines; she was sobbing and clutching her wrist. I called her dad from the camp office—this was before cell phones– and offered to take her to the closest hospital for an X-ray. He said he would drive up and meet us there. Sure enough, her wrist was broken. Shattered, in fact.

Her dad drove to camp and picked up her things. He was furious after hearing that the coach had shamed her and made her do things that may have made the break worse.

Of course, by the time band camp was over, and we were back at school, she had quit the band and never returned.

The color guard coach was young, maybe 21 or so, and mostly doing what had been done to her in her years as a flag twirler—demanding the physical and mental effort necessary to put on a good show.

But I was the teacher, the arbitrator of pushing kids to excel vs. pressuring teenagers to ‘work through pain.’ There is a difference, and I thought I understood which was optimum for teaching and learning.

I know lots of coach types (and lots of band directors) who have adopted the blood-and-thunder school of drill, discipline and devotion. And maybe a little pain.

The question is always, I suppose, why? What’s the desired outcome?

Is it about winning? Or is it about excellence—which, as Simone Biles has amply demonstrated, does not require competition? Two different things.

We’re a winner-take-all society. But it hasn’t served us particularly well.

Tucker Carlson Goes to School. Your School.

A colleague was just told she cannot have her high school freshmen read The Autobiography of Malcom X this year, a book her students’ parents were likely to have been assigned when they were in school. This is in a blue state with no “divisive concepts” legislation passed. (Anne Lutz Fernandez, via Twitter)

And… there you go. It’s everywhere now, red states and blue. The fear, the anxiety, the confusion. The misinformation/disinformation/lack of information. A backlash to the utter tumult that was 2020—21.

Fear. Is there anything you can do, brave educator, to stop it?

In her daily column, Heather Cox Richardson drew parallels between McCarthyism in the 1950s, and the current pushback against an actively progressive government:   

WI Senator Joe McCarthy__insisted that the country was made up of “Liberals,” who were guiding the nation toward socialism, and “Conservatives,” who were standing alone against the Democrats and Republicans who made up a majority of the country and liked the new business regulations, safety net, and infrastructure.

Sound familiar? Needless fear. It’s a good reminder, however, that we’ve been to this rodeo before, as citizens. And as public school educators:

Banned books. Sex education. Insertion/deletion of religion into school practices. Girls’ sports. Hairstyle battles. Student protests against [you name it]. New math. Drugs in schools.  Teacher salaries. Remote, hybrid or face to face. Whole language vs. phonics.

It’s always something. Public schools are where a community’s fears and aspirations for their children and the future play out. It’s one of the few places where citizens can confront the elected peers who are making decisions about taxpayer-funded community goods.

And for attention-seekers, public schools are low-hanging fruit. Here’s how Tucker Carlson recalls his first-grade teacher:

The Fox host had written that his distaste for liberals began at seven years old, with his teacher Marianna Raymond — a “parody of mother-earth liberalism” who “wore long Indian-print skirts.” He claimed Raymond eschewed “conventional academic topics, like reading and penmanship,” and would sob “theatrically” at her desk. “Mrs. Raymond never did teach us [to read]; my father had to hire a tutor to get me through phonics,” Carlson wrote in Ship of Fools. His “sojourn as a conservative thinker” began shortly thereafter, adds the Post.

Raymond, however, has a completely different account of Carlson’s time in her class at the affluent La Jolla Country Day School. She remembers Carlson as “very precious and very, very polite and sweet,” and denies sobbing at her desk, wearing an Indian skirt, or venturing into political territory at all. What’s more, not only did she teach Carlson reading in the classroom — she was later hired to tutor him at home, the Post reports.

If you’ve been a public school teacher for a few years, you’ll recognize the nastiness in Tucker Carlson’s tone. It’s the old trope: Everyone went to school; therefore, everyone thinks they’re an expert.

What is Tucker Carlson, really? A distraction.

A distraction with millions of viewers, certainly—but if we were to draw up a list of what needs doing right now, for kids, and what teachers are saying about the upcoming year, it would never include combat over Critical Race Theory, since nine out of ten teachers say they’ve never taught it.

What should we be working on? Vaccination rates—all vaccinations, not just COVID. Safety protocols. Finding enough qualified staff. More recess and free play. Mental health for kids. Civil rights, as academic content and high-interest current event. Using the arts to help children understand and cope with a pandemic. Getting books into kids’ hands.

We can’t count on our organizations to solve our problems, although they have stepped up to help on the CRT front. Ultimately, however, issues have to be addressed school by school, classroom by classroom. Because that’s where the real juice is—in the interactions between teachers and students.

Teacher Tom says:

If a teacher rightly has any power at all, it is the power of Now. It isn’t the power of hierarchy, of being right, of being in charge. Now is the ultimate power of seizing an opportunity. The children with whom I work already understand this power much more fully than do I. Now is the natural habitat of the very young and it is where teachers must go if we are to be any good at all. That is where the power is.

So forget about Tucker Carlson. Really.

Mission, Vision, Purpose and Other Things Nobody Pays Attention to in Public Education

I could write a blog every week on all the Big Important Things that nobody pays attention to in public education. But then—that would make me a philosopher and not a teacher.

Right now, we really need deep thinkers, visionaries, those dedicated to clarifying our mission in public ed, trying to prevent dumpster fires, rather than putting them out, which is now a fair part of teachers’ work.

Instead, we have shallow, attention-seeking chatterheads lighting fires, then sprinting away—looking at you, Mike Petrilli and Tucker Carlson, and all  the ‘Concerned Moms’ who don’t want their children to, you know, feel bad about the facts of American history.

In fact, when you look at the sweep of schooling in America—going back to Horace Mann—there is no one overriding set of principles upon which public education has firmly rested for two centuries. Mann promoted a free, secular education, open to all children—the local academic melting pot that would lift an unruly, barely civilized nation into democratic greatness.

And what a magnificent idea that was—probably the last inspiring, visionary plan to educate the citizenry. Except, of course, for all the people who were left out, or given scraps and hand-me-downs. Or weren’t even considered citizens. Not so great for them, and they were building the nation, too.

There’s always been lofty rhetoric about public education. And the reality has always been far more complicated and far less effective at achieving whatever it is public ed is supposed to achieve.

And that’s the rub. What are we trying to accomplish, in our public education system? What’s our purpose? What are our overarching goals? What’s our product?

It’s a great question to ask in a new-teacher interview: What’s your philosophy of education?

Back in the 1970s, I got that question a couple of times (and had an answer—it was part of my undergraduate education as a prospective teacher, that pedagogy coursework everyone denigrates).

Today, the interview questions are pragmatic—test scores, standards, deliverables—but there is real value in figuring out what’s most important to teach, what your students need. What you believe. What the country needs, even.

On July 7, Joe Biden tweeted this: The fact is 12 years of education is no longer enough to compete in the 21st Century. That’s why my Build Back Better Agenda will guarantee four additional years of public education for every person in America – two years of pre-school and two years of free community college.

Well, I’m all for free preschool and community college. You go, Joe. They’re only pieces of the comprehensive, coherent plan we need, but the education community is accustomed to working with (and around) bits-and-pieces ed policy. We’ll take positive fragments, any day.

Jennifer Berkshire had an interesting response to Biden’s tweet: Biden’s insistence on defining education solely in economic terms is so discouraging. IMO, this is a big part of why public education is as precarious as it is right now. Not only does it put the blame for being economically *noncompetitive* onto individuals themselves, but it leaves out the essential role that schools play in a democracy.

Bingo. Which comes first—the random policy promise, or the philosophy?

Berkshire and her co-writer Jack Schneider, an education historian, wrote this in an excellent piece in The Nation:

Our schools can’t fix the problems of poverty, and parts of the Biden administration seem to know that. But until education policy breaks free from this framing of the purpose of school, it will remain difficult to recognize what our schools can do. At a time when voting rights are increasingly being restricted, when we continue to debate the value of Black lives, and when we can’t agree on basic facts, public education has an essential role to play. We don’t have public schools in this country so that young people can compete for advantage against each other—or so that the private sector can reduce the costs of training labor. Instead, we tax ourselves to pay for universal K-12 education because public schools are the bulwark of a diverse, democratic society.

And—voila!—there we are, back to Horace Mann. The mission of public education is an educated, engaged citizenry. Open to absolutely everyone. Too bad we routinely lose sight of this core purpose, a defined public good.

If you want to read an excellent synopsis of how our national (non)philosophy of education has morphed and evaporated, over the decades, I recommend Consuming the Public School, by David Labaree:

We ask schools to promote equality while preserving privilege, so we perpetuate a system that is too busy balancing opposites to promote student learning. We focus on making the system inclusive at one level and exclusive at the next, in order to make sure that it meets demands for both access and advantage.

Does this sound like a system that just puts out emergent fires with policy band-aids—or a system grounded in principles of democratic equality? Other countries have overhauled their education systems after having a national conversation about what public education should be focused on. Why can’t we?

Oh, right. It’s political.

What would your belief statement about public education look like?