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.

A Halloween Story

I took this Halloween photo on our deck, around 6:15 p.m. For about 10 minutes, there were these shocking pink clouds, and then–in less than minute–they were gone.

I am always introspective on Halloween. Since we moved here, we haven’t had trick-or-treaters (might have something to do with the 750-ft uphill driveway and not being able to see the house from the road). But the night is always filled with a kind of sorrow for me; I resonate more with All Souls/All Saints–the thin time of year–than costumes and candy.

In 1972, 49 years ago today, I was living in Mio, Michigan. I was newly married (may he RIP), and had a job at the drugstore in town. I worked with a teenaged boy, Jerry, who came in after school to sweep and clean up before we closed at 5:00 p.m. It was a boring job, but I liked Jerry, who was learning to play saxophone in Mio’s new band program.

I heard, from neighbors and teachers in town, that Mio kids went on a rampage every Halloween. The owner of the drugstore boarded up his windows, as did many other businesses. I was a little skeptical of the stories I heard, which seemed to be many levels above soaping windows and rotten egg-tossing. More like smashing windows and spray-painting buildings and slashing tires.

I made myself some coffee (a new pleasure for me) and waited with candy but nobody came. I could hear kids screaming in the streets. And then, around 9:00, sirens.

We didn’t hear the story until the next morning. A group of kids (five or six of them) stole a car. None of them had a drivers license. A 15-yr old boy drove the car a few miles out of town and hit a tree, while going at a ridiculous speed. All but one of his passengers (a younger sister) were killed in the crash.

I have looked for the story since, in newspaper archives, but could never find it, to clarify my old memory. I believe four kids (the oldest 15) were killed and the youngest girl survived.

One of the kids who was killed was Jerry.

I have had many happy, joyous Halloweens since 1972, especially when my children were young and we lived in a family-friendly neighborhood.

Tonight, seeing the beautiful sky, I was reminded that if Jerry were still alive, he’d be old enough to retire.

Stay safe out there, everyone. It’s a beautiful world. Stick around as long as you can.

When Teachers Write about Their Practice

My fellow edu-blogger, Peter Greene, just put up another great blog. This happens with some regularity, and if you’re not reading his stuff, you should be. Not just the ready-for-primetime Forbes pieces, but his more free-wheeling personal blog.

Greene writes, with a certain edge, about a variety of education topics, and he has receipts for his opinions. When I read his words, I am right back at C lunch, listening to the veteran teachers I worked with grumble and snicker about the people who were trying to ‘fix’ schools. And didn’t have a clue about how schools worked, or what happened in real classrooms.

How could you know that every class is a balancing act—attention, content, challenge—whether your students are six or sixteen, unless you’d spent considerable time in front of a classroom? And did so recently—not 40 years ago, when we didn’t expect kindergarteners to read and everyone to take Algebra II?

As we wrestle with ‘To Mask or Not to Mask’ and just what Critical Race Theory actually is and isn’t, we need to hear lots more from experienced teachers.  Greene’s aforementioned blog, titled How I Taught Controversial Texts, is precisely what persuadable parents should read right now.

Persuadable parents are those who genuinely care more about the education their children are getting than scoring political points, or throwing their weight around. They’re curious; they want the best for their children. They may be liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat—but they’re mostly wondering ‘What kinds of things might our kids talk about in class? What will they learn?’

Well, Peter Greene tells you. In doing so, he condenses decades worth of teacher wisdom into a few pithy paragraphs, around ideas like this:

Teachers often say that students are welcome to their own opinions in the classroom, but students will wait to see if you mean it, or if this is a class where you get points for agreeing with the teacher. So you have to show them. Once students believe that they really don’t have to agree with you, all sorts of good stuff can happen.

Offer perspectives, but let them wrangle. Let them have the argument in their own voices.

 Students are where they are. Despite all the panic over teacher indoctrination, the fact is that you will rarely budge the needle on the beliefs that they bring from home.

Don’t get out the controversial stuff before you’ve built an environment of trust, respect, and safety.

There’s more—read it here—but Greene sounded like every good teacher I ever worked with: a person with a deep understanding of their students and a strong sense of the content and activities that would push those kids to think deeply and express themselves clearly.

Of course, my teaching career in a small town in Michigan and Peter Greene’s career in a small town in Pennsylvania overlapped considerably—and we both spent a long time teaching in one place, where families learn to trust teachers.

Teaching has changed radically in the immediate past, mostly due to terrible policy-making at multiple levels, policies that have chipped away at teachers’ professional work and judgment. The pandemic explains only some of those bad decisions.

It’s time we started listening to the unfiltered voices of teachers.

I spent several years reading 12-page portfolio entries, coaching for teachers seeking National Board Certification. I was always amazed at the differing ways teachers wrote about their practice.

It was an honor to tap into their thinking (and watch videos of their lessons). For some, explaining their choices and results seemed to come naturally, something they did every day. They could explicate and justify their learning goals, and included language like Peter Greene used: Trust. Respect. Safety. Let them have the argument in their own voices.

The National Board’s word for this kind of practice is reflection. But teaching public school in 2021 doesn’t leave much time for introspection, planning learning goals and checking for results. Having your state legislature pile on doesn’t lead to better teaching or learning, either.

We seem to be at a kind of awful tipping point: Who’s in charge of teachers’ lessons?

Writing about what it’s like to be in the classroom now may be the only way well-meaning parents get some insight into ordinary life in schools–the constant effort to turn students of all ages into engaged and curious citizens, good neighbors and conscientious workers. Especially difficult now, when their young lives have been seriously impacted by an uncontrolled virus.

Keep sharing your perspectives, teachers. We need to hear from you.

Need Teachers?

Like every other state in the union, Michigan is scrambling for teachers.

This is, of course, utterly unsurprising. We’ve all absorbed the message: Treat people like crapola for long enough, and nothing—not even an enticing starting salary (in Montana) of $32K–will lure them into the classroom. That starting salary is, by the way, $15K under Montana’s definition of a living wage.

Not many independently well-off citizens want to become certified teachers, working for fun and pocket change. Gone are the days when teaching could be seen as an easy, optional second income. Especially these days, when teaching could kill you.

Rebuilding the teacher pipeline is actually something we could do. The infrastructure and research necessary for producing fully qualified, even dynamic, public school teachers is in place, and can be expanded and enhanced. All it would take is adequate funding and a commitment to solving a few thorny issues in public education.

Such as respect for the profession, and an acknowledgement of the stabilizing role public school teachers play in American society. For starters.

Done well, there could be a turnaround—in, oh, a decade or so. In the meantime, however…

The MI Department of Education recently sent out thousands of letters to retired teachers, asking them if they’d like to come back, promising to facilitate re-certification procedures, smoothing a temporary path back into the classroom to help stressed local districts. They also pledged to provide some Title II funding for districts to ‘Grow Their Own’ teachers (support staff and other promising candidates) and urged districts to use newly available money to significantly raise early-career teachers’ salaries.

All good, right?

The response from retired teachers was somewhere between bitter and scornful. NOW you want us to come back? When we’re old and more vulnerable to this deadly virus? When you underpaid us and cut support from the schools and kids we served for the last two decades? NOW we’re valuable?

I get it.

But I can’t help thinking that MI is doing the right thing, in asking recently retired teachers to come back. That’s certainly a better response than lowering the bar, letting uncertified, untrained folks, with/without college degrees, into the classroom as the teacher of record. People who see teaching as a temporary job.

A few years back, newly retired teachers in Michigan were not welcomed back as substitute teachers. Legislation in MI limited retired teachers’ work in public schools, claiming that drawing a pension and substitute teaching was ‘double dipping’—as if picking up an extra 75 bucks a couple times a week was unfairly greedy, rather than a gesture of support for currently practicing teachers and local schools.

All of this speaks to a larger, harder-to-define problem around the labor force in public ed. Teachers aren’t simply taking early retirement or walking off the job because they hate remote learning or they’re sick of filling in for colleagues when there are no subs. Teachers are suffering a collapse of morale.

And they’re not alone—2.9% of the American workforce, 4.3 million people, quit their jobs at the end of summer. Since the beginning of the pandemic, seven million workers have just dropped out.

Some of them, undoubtedly, were teachers. If 3% of the workforce in a medium sized school district—1000 employees, say—decided the pay/reward equation wasn’t worth it anymore, a district could easily lose 30 people. That would impact everything from bus routes to reading programs.

And those are national figures—it’s hard to calculate just what pandemic teaching in a politically crazed world has done to the public school instructional force. A teacher friend says all conversations about education right now center on: burnout, early retirement, sub shortages, anger & frustration, mental distress and growing & unreasonable expectations.

That’s quite a list. And the profession will be in crisis for some time to come, even if everybody stopped yelling and started working on rebuilding our public education system tomorrow.

It’s worth asking: Cui bono?

Who benefits from this scenario–a constant churn of teachers at the lowest steps of the salary scale, and a re-conceptualizing of the teacher as technician, ‘managing’ learning remotely, teaching as starter career? Who is trying to strip money and professionalism from public education?

It’s that harder-to-define problem. It’s not just about filling classrooms in 2021; it’s about what teaching will look like in 10 years. Teaching has always been a morally-driven job. Unless you are experiencing joy—or at least satisfaction—in your job, it’s unsustainable.

To his credit, Michael Rice, State Superintendent, and the MI Department of Ed, proposed some reasonable policy solutions for producing more qualified teachers, in addition to asking the old ones to come back. They begin with tuition reimbursement for prospective teachers who make a commitment to teaching, and education loan forgiveness for current and future teachers.

They would provide college scholarships for high school seniors who want to teach, and improve access to university ed schools and teacher preparation programs. Better mentoring. License reciprocity with other states. All good ideas. Will they fly?

Michael Rice: If we expect a major commitment from a wave of young people as our next generation of educators in our great state, the least we can do is to make sure that they don’t go into debt to perform this all-important public service.

That—and a major uptick in salaries—would help. But the thing needed most—public trust in teacher professionalism and community schools—is tangled in ugly politics.

Nobody Hates the Gifted

Apparently, Bill de Blasio, Mayor of NYC (at the moment, anyway) is promoting a plan to overhaul the Gifted and Talented program in NYC schools. The old G/T program would be replacedby a program that offers the possibility of accelerated learning to students in the later years of elementary school. And the test given to kindergarten students to screen for the gifted program, already suspended in part because the city’s advisory school board refused to renew it last year, would be permanently ended.’

This action has– predictably– made some people really mad.

Headlines about de Blasio ‘hating’ the gifted and the ‘war on the gifted’ popped up. New Yorker magazine re-ran their archived article on How to Raise a Prodigy. Eric Adams, who won the NYC Mayoral primary, has suggested he would keep the program as it is now—which seems to be more about tweaking de Blasio than any principle-driven stand on education policy.

As noted, all of this is unsurprising. America has been arguing about gifted education for at least half a century, without actually addressing the problems associated with setting aside assets to select our brightest children and develop special programming for them.

In the case of NYC schools, most of this boils down to inequities—the appalling idea that intellectual ‘merit’ is quantifiable and much more likely to turn up, for some unknown reason, in well-off white children. Or that rising kindergarten students ‘gained access to the program via a high-stakes exam that some families pay tutors to help their children prepare for. Or that all of this was a response to a particularly well-organized and vocal group of privileged parents.

Let me say it again: NYC was testing children as they entered kindergarten, and siphoning them off to special classes for the gifted. Given the unprecedented education issues in play right now, beginning with a deadly virus and a lack of qualified staff, NYC was right to put gifted education in the back seat, as a problem to be better addressed later.

To be clear, I believe we could do a much better job of encouraging and challenging our gifted students. I am strongly in favor of every teacher in America looking for students’ strengths, pushing them to develop that potential, encouraging them to find new passions and interests.

I taught many flat-out brilliant students, and have a master’s degree in gifted education. Giftedness is a real thing—although it is vastly broader and more comprehensive than a skill set ascertained by testing five-year-olds.

I have never met a teacher or school administrator who ‘hated’ the gifted or resented children who bring special talents and assets to the classroom. Nor do I believe it is harmful for bright children to spend their days with peers who learn differently.

We will all spend our lives living and interacting with people who are both smarter and less capable than we are. That’s a core value of public education.

A couple of years ago, Andy Smarick wrote a piece for Atlantic, entitled The Contradiction at the Heart of Public Education. Tag line: Gifted education puts in tension two equally treasured American ideals: egalitarianism and individualism.

Smarick starts out with some good points about competing philosophies—should we honor individual gifts rather than seeking first to level a playing field? Then he shifts to all the reform efforts that supposedly addressed that level playing field: Charter schools. Vouchers. Teach for America. School-finance lawsuits. No Child Left Behind.

He says this: In hindsight, it is striking how little discussion we had in the reform community about how these efforts did or did not address the needs of kids who were excelling, or how these initiatives were landing on non-disadvantaged communities—places where parents liked things just as they were. That lack of self-reflection led to a decade of humbling for reformers.

He winds up with the cliché you see in all the literature put out by organizations supporting specialized programming for the gifted: When schools don’t foster the growth of the highest-potential young people, the public loses something. Beneficial technologies might not be invented, and profound works of art might not be created.

Clearly, Mr. Smarick has not been in many public schools lately, with their (sarcasm alert) cutting-edge technologies and comprehensive arts offerings for children.

But–on the subject of what we’re losing by not skimming off the most academically capable while they’re still wearing sneakers with flashing lights: Think about the most gifted and inspiring people you know. The folks who developed the vaccines that are saving our lives, perhaps, or the MacArthur Genius awardees.  

Did they owe their overwhelming success to taking part in a selective program in middle school? Or was it something else nurturing the spark that drove them to succeed?

I’ve been reading a lot about Colin Powell this week, who graduated from a public high school in the Bronx, then went to City College, where joining ROTC led him to a path of outstanding national and international public service. Would being identified as gifted as a first grader have changed anything about his trajectory?

I believe there are two core issues that should–yes, should–make us cautious about special programming for the gifted: Resource allocation and identification.

Resource allocation is the variable that all schools, districts and states must wrestle with, putting their money where their values are. Paying to test academically promising children, then isolating them for ‘special’ instruction, is arguably a misuse of education’s most valuable resource: attention and instruction from a creative and skilled teacher. Nobody ever talks about the middle-of-the-pack child and what precious contributions they won’t make to society unless they get instruction custom-tailored for their needs.

I could name a dozen things that need urgent attention in public education, beginning with recruiting and fairly paying more of those creative and skilled teachers, and addressing the deplorable state of school funding. It is not wrong to prioritize educational needs—and it’s more like triage in 2021. The worst strategy is using scarce resources to avoid parent complaints. When you’re juggling more needs than available solutions, it’s important to see the big picture, not just respond to demands.

Earlier, I mentioned my degree in gifted education. I took a graduate-level class in Identifying the Gifted as part of my coursework, in which we took some of the tests available at the time, studied IQ distribution charts and argued about who was and was not ‘gifted’.

In sixteen weeks, the class never developed a consensus about giftedness, who was deserving–a word I came to loathe–of more consideration, unique instruction, special academic goodies. Giftedness is an incredibly difficult concept to define—and many children don’t come into or fully realize their abilities until they have gone to school, met a mentor, or had a revelatory experience that leads them into a lifelong passion.

After completing the master’s, I worked for about a decade on programming for G/T students. I was mostly interested in my student musicians, some of whom were exceptionally talented and creative. I pushed for G/T programming at my school and in the region, and sought special, challenging experiences in the arts for these kids.

We finally got a commitment from a local university to host a weekend program for gifted middle schoolers, who would stay overnight in the dorms (it was May; university students had gone home). They would choose one of three tracks to explore—the environment, great literature or the arts—and meet professionals from their field, engage in some challenging activities and discuss what they’d learned.

I submitted one of my students’ names—a girl whose proficiency and love for her instrument was extraordinary. The program coordinator called me up and told me to choose someone else, because the student I nominated ‘wasn’t gifted.’ I’m looking at her scores right now, she said. She’s barely above average.

I talked about her exceptional ability as a musician. I don’t know, the coordinator said. I hate to waste the money on someone who may not benefit. And there it was: resource allocation and identification.

Nobody hates the gifted. In fact, we may not even know who they are.

 The Book We Need Now

Had I known when I was younger what these students were sharing, I would have been liberated from a social and emotional paralysis–a paralysis that arose from never knowing enough of my own history to identify the lies I was being old: lies about what slavery was and what it did to people; lies about what came after our supposed emancipation; lies about why our country looks the way it does today. (Clint Smith)

In this shocking era, when states are passing ill-advised, deceptive laws to prohibit K-12 students from knowing about the sickening, wounding realities of their own history, we truly need a book like Clint Smith’s How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America.

The students Smith is referencing, above, are performing as part of a rich Juneteenth celebration on Galveston Island, TX. They were part of a six-week summer program sponsored by the Children’s Defense Fund, designed to teach children the real story about where they live and what happened there.

Don’t all children need to know about the place they come from? Its triumphs and failures?

In the book, Smith—then a doctoral student at Harvard—visits a number of historical sites around the country that chronicle the record of slavery and its impact on every aspect of American life. He begins at Monticello, sharing his conversations with two white women in his tour group who had no idea who Sally Hemings was– the enslaved woman who gave birth to four surviving children by Thomas Jefferson. These older women, interested in ‘seeing history,’ are astonished to hear about the 600 human beings owned by the great statesman.

Each of the chapters is distinct, featuring plantations, graveyards and annual memorials. The chapter on Angola Prison, in Louisiana, is grim, beginning with its original purpose, in the Reconstruction era: to round up, then house, a low-cost workforce for plantation owners who can no longer rely on the enslaved. The chapter on New York City makes clear that nobody north of the Mason-Dixon line can claim that slavery only existed in the South.

The chapter on Goree’ Island takes us to coastal West Africa, where captured Africans were sent off to their new lives (or deaths) as enslaved workers, and includes this quote from the curator of the House of Slaves, a museum on the Island:

After the discovery of America, because of the development of sugarcane plantations, cotton, coffee, rice cultivation, they forced the [Native Americans] to work for them. And it was because the Natives died in great number that they turned to Africa, to replace the Natives with Africans.

And there it is—this is and always has been about gross economic development. How to make money off exploitive and unpaid labor of others, and the ugly rationalizations used to defend such ugly practices. And how far back this goes—long before the Middle Passage.

In a time when employers are begging for workers after a deadly pandemic (that some employers denied or downplayed), this is a particularly resonant message.

This is, indeed, the book we need now.

Smith tells us, in an Afterword, that he went to many more places than the seven he describes in great detail in this volume. That suggests that there are always places nearby—places where students have been, places they are familiar with—that can serve as testimony and memory of our local history.

As educators, it is up to us to teach that history. This is what all the anti-‘CRT’ protestors fear: the truth.

Smith illustrates that learning the truth is never divisive. It may be painful, and may produce rage—but knowing how this country was built, whose backs and hands produced the wealth and power only some of us enjoy is the cornerstone of building a more equitable society. The truth can unite us, over time. But we have to listen to each other.

Clint Smith is a published poet, and he writes like a poet and storyteller–there is lots of detail and description. Once you get past an expectation of fact-based academic writing, you begin to appreciate his nuanced depictions of people and places, the colorful, palm-strewn islands and damp, gray prison cells. Smith adds only enough data and dry content to enrich, not drown, the narration.

The book is easy to read. I read it one chapter at a time (which I recommend), pausing between to absorb and think, because each segment shares a unique perspective. Smith reiterates, in a dozen ways, that slavery didn’t start in Africa, and African-American history didn’t begin with the capture and selling of human beings.

It was a global wickedness, economically driven, but it still impacts America–the idea and the reality of America–deeply. We can’t get past it until we know the history.

Read this book.

Nice White–Resentful–Parent Syndrome

I worked in the same school district for more than 30 years. Mostly, I taught music—band, choir, elementary music—but occasionally other things: Seventh grade Math (two years), English as a Second Language (for which I was totally unqualified), and a class called Homework Hall.

This was a kind of holding cell where kids who had lots of missing assignments were sent–pulled from elective classes–to receive coaching toward filling in the empty boxes in their teachers’ grade books. A second chance to pass classes they would otherwise fail. A way to protect their permanent record, so to speak.

Back then, the county was a cluster of pretty little all-white towns, interspersed with farmland. When I applied for a teaching position, in the mid-70s, the principal called the village where I got my job “the far edge of white flight.” He was right. More and more people were pushing outward from Detroit, claiming they were looking for a more bucolic setting, and then being surprised when they had to provide their own water, septic and garbage pickup.

Still, it was a good job, and they were hard to come by in 1975. Parents—many of whom had grown up in the area—came to concerts and parent-teacher conferences. They took their kids to the library and volunteered to lead scout troops. They rented band instruments for their children and coached Little League. For a long time—decades—I thought teaching there was ‘easy.’

True, there were worrisome things—the town where my cute, second-floor Mary Tyler Moore apartment was had a reputation as the home of the Michigan Ku Klux Klan. There was lots of local trash talk about Flint (30 miles north) and Detroit (50 miles to the east)—although the area’s transition from rural farmland to outlying suburb was driven, economically, by the auto industry, centered in those two cities.

White flight, indeed. My middle school students occasionally made unfiltered, racist remarks—things they’d likely heard at home—but I was never afraid to call them out. That was then.

Here’s a one-minute video that will tell you all you need to know about this town in 2021, shot earlier this week: Click here.

If you haven’t listened to the NY Times podcast series ‘Nice White Parents’, I heartily recommend it. The tagline captures it all: If you want to understand what’s wrong with our public schools, you have to look at what is arguably the most powerful force in shaping them: white parents.

I no longer live in that town. I moved four hours north several years ago. And guess what? There are lots of ‘nice’ white parents here, too. The stakes are now higher, and student actions are no longer limited to random, clueless remarks. There is outright cruelty—and stormy, ugly school board and county commission meetings.

Sometimes, a kind of common sense prevails—but nice white parents have experience in complaining and getting some action and relief. As a veteran teacher, I can think of dozens of issues that brought angry parents to school board meetings, from sex education to the math curriculum, from bus routes to which neighborhoods got to attend the new, high-tech elementary school (the well-heeled ones, naturally—because those are the parents who showed up to demand access to the new building).

Homework Hall—that class where students got to make up missing work—was created when nice white parents approached administrators, worried that their kid might be doing a second year in the 7th grade. Nice white parents know how to get what they want. And they’re resentful when they do not succeed.

Here’s what I want to know, in 2021: Who is driving the current pushback against honest, warts-and-all American history and civics in the classroom? Who wants to send their unvaccinated children to school unmasked? Who is demanding that teachers scrap their own, self-acquired libraries—the books teachers buy to provide engaging texts for their students?  

Sarah Schwartz of Education Week: In the months after the 2020 election, former Trump administration officials and allies built up a network of think tanks and donor groups dedicated to continuing to advance his policy agenda. Critical race theory has become a central issue for several of these organizations.

Nice white parents, in other words, are organized and funded. There are partisan threads running through this anger, and differences between parents with a college education and those without. Religion plays a role, as does race and gender.

Political scientist David C. Barker summed it up this way:  The populist/anti-intellectual right absolutely believe that the intellectuals are not only out of touch but are also ungodly and sneaky and therefore think they must be stopped before they ruin America. Meanwhile, the intellectual left really do believe the Trumpers are racist, sexist, homophobic (and so on) authoritarians who can’t spell and are going to destroy the country if they are not stopped.

At the base of all the fury over education policy, however, is the fact that white parents have historically had way more success in shaping school programs and practices. And most of the stories in education journalism come from white journalists.

As Ray Salazar writes:  When journalists come from backgrounds where they usually found success in traditional systems — systems that perpetuate inequality — they report from that worldview, bypassing the insights that would be meaningful to people with a different reality.

That different reality is endangered, along with democracy. Those think tanks and donors supporting Trump’s education policy agenda are made up of nice white parents, not the parents of students who are struggling to learn without adequate broadband, materials and well-trained teachers.

Final point: This isn’t getting any better. Most Republicans now believe the Big Lie. State legislatures are working to limit voter access. Trump is still relevant, the overwhelming favorite in 2024.  The anti-democratic political crisis is worse, not better, than it was in January.

It’s a crisis in public education leadership as well.

What is this World Coming To? No. Seriously.

Does it seem to you as if the logical world has tilted on its axis? Does there seem to be an inordinate amount of destructive mania loose upon the land—shattering norms and making citizens on both the political right and left jumpy? And nasty? Even murderous?

Critical questions: Why? And why now?

I started thinking about this while reading about the TikTok ‘Devious Licks’ campaign, which has sent kids into their public school bathrooms to, you know, steal shit. The soap dispenser, the TP holder, the sink. You name it, if you can rip it off the wall and–key point–videotape the stunt to share on TikTok, you are officially cool. And next month, you’ll get to smack your teacher. What fun. Until you get arrested.

I’ve been bemused by the angst over TikTok’s influence on kids’ behavior. Ridiculous pranks are something teachers are accustomed to—all the way back to stuffing kids in phone booths. From the Tide pod challenge to those goofballs falling off milk crates last summer, there’s always some Stupid Human trick to attract school-age kids. Part of the fun (for kids) is scaring their parents and teachers.  You could put an eye out with that BB gun, son—and so on.

Some would like to pin the blame on TikTok, which now has a billion users per month. But here’s what I thought about: those kids in that Michigan middle school shouting ‘Build that Wall!’ on the day after the 2016 election.

If the elected leader of the Western World is openly promoting lies and cruelty, it shouldn’t be surprising that loosening the lug nuts on your principal’s car seems like a fun and even justifiable caper. After all, he’s annoying and gets in the way of what you and your fellow seventh graders feel like doing.

So many norms—from patient care during a pandemic to moderation in political viewpoints to practicing simple and considerate behaviors to protect ourselves and our neighbors—have been bent or shattered in the past 18 months.

Teachers I know have addressed the roiling surf of tamping down student misbehavior during a pandemic with some low-key, on-the-fly brilliance. A friend reported that his school is encouraging kids to post TikTok videos of random kindnesses—like a crew of high school kids repainting a bathroom wall after the paper towel dispenser took a walk. That kind of thing.

Others have reported deep and serious conversations with their students about issues you would think are universal: Respect for everyone. Stewardship of communal resources. Building a better world.

Some of my best moments as a 30-year classroom veteran, came when there was a crisis—a missing instrument, or someone whose dignity had been damaged by another student. You really can build students’ humanity and kindness by modeling it and talking about it.

But now there are parent organizations and reporting forms to track ordinary classroom exchanges, turning students into—for lack of a better term—snitches. State legislatures are trying to figure out how to prevent students from even talking about race and gender.

As a long-time teacher of teenagers, I say: Good luck with that. You can pass all the laws you want, but kids need adult role models, people who are able to build communities of disparate teenagers, and do some work and learning together. And that’s going to happen a lot less when teachers are threatened by legal or local forces.

Here’s one small and local, but telling, example that I found interesting:
In Hudson, OH, high school some seniors are taking a college course in writing, part of an Early College program. They use a book of writing prompts that includes, in over 600 prompts, perhaps a dozen that are not appropriate for high school students—things about drinking and sex, mostly. A parent sees these, and forms a group that wants to see heads roll: school board members, building administrators and teachers. There’s a Facebook post, and suddenly tens of thousands of people are posting their wrath—This is why we have to pass laws! These teachers exposed my child to filth! Fire ‘em all!

Turns out, however, that the book in question has been used for five years at this school, with no problems, largely because every child who took the course had to have a parent sign-off on a statement acknowledging that the college-level materials used in the course might be considered inappropriate. That’s right—parents had to grant written permission for their child to be exposed to writing prompts about drinking and sex. For five years. But in the divided climate of 2021, it suddenly became a Big Issue, worthy of terminating public employees.

Why? And why now?

 Why do you think kids all over America are destroying public property, then sharing videos of themselves rampaging in the restroom of their local middle school? Where have they seen behavior like this before—adults despoiling a beautiful public building, then posting videos of themselves as ‘patriots’?

It’s hard to say what kind of crisis this is—what’s making people show up at meetings and organize demonstrations? So many social factors, including a pandemic, are making people twitchy.

Still, I’m tired of hearing about the schools ‘failing to teach Civics,’ when the same critics show up at Board meetings to complain about discussions of racism in society. What do they think civics is?

We have a lot of work to do to heal the country, in every sense of the word. Public schools and community colleges could be instrumental in that. Schooling has always reflected what’s going on in the nation—and that’s what all those parents and lawmakers are afraid of, and trying to prevent.

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!