The Handmaid Teacher’s Tale

Every now and then, someone will ask about favorite books, the ones you’ve re-read repeatedly. Books that influenced your life. Answers often range from classics (‘Little Women’) to the Bible. I have my own list of a dozen or so—but it’s easy for me to share the book that most influenced my life: The Handmaid’s Tale.

I like what the Washington Post said about it in an early review: Published in 1985, this is a novel of such power that the reader is unable to forget its images and its forecast. It is at once scathing satire, dire warning, and tour de force. “A novel that brilliantly illuminates some of the darker interconnections between politics and sex.”

Darker interconnections, indeed.

When I first read the book (sometime in 1986, shortly after it was published), I was a new mother; my baby daughter was born in 1985. I was also a full-time teacher, with a 45-minute commute, who didn’t have a lot of time for pleasure reading or meandering trips to the library.

I had, however, read and liked Surfacing, one of Atwood’s early works that was on many short lists of early feminist reading—The Golden Notebook, Yellow Wallpaper, The Bell Jar, and the like, those now-classic novels  about women figuring out how the world works. I checked Handmaid out from the library, and hoo boy—that book was one powerful, dystopian reading experience.

Some years later, I read an interview with Atwood (by then, one of my favorite authors), where she noted that there is real-life precedent for everything in Handmaid’s Tale. This truth re-emerged when Hulu created a TV series based on the book in 2017, and viewers commented on the dark and violent nature of the story—I can’t watch! It’s too violent! And totally unrealistic! Umm—nope.

Lest you think I was a raging, underwear-torching feminist back then—hardly. I was happily married, and embarrassingly grateful for my low-wage, womens-work career as a teacher. I went to exactly one consciousness-raising meeting, and came home with a headache, thinking that these women were whiners who needed to solve their own problems rather than waiting for The Movement to change their lives.

And yet. All the way back to my first day as a band teacher, in 1975, I knew that it was a man’s, man’s etc. world, and the power in K-12 education was firmly in male hands. Although the percentage of women who hold down K-12 teaching positions has steadily increased since the 1960s, I was in a heavily male-dominated subset of teachers: band directors. In the late 70s, working on my masters thesis, I acquired the mailing list of all secondary instrumental music teachers in MI. There were seven women holding down HS band jobs in the entire state, somewhere between one and two percent.

That number has slowly, gradually shifted—but it’s taken forty years, and we’re not anywhere near parity yet. I have dozens of humiliating stories about being the only soprano in a room full of tenors and basses, the designated secretary and coffee-maker at professional meetings. Some of them still hurt. Occasionally, on social media, a female band director will share a story about inappropriate remarks made by a male colleague—and there will still, still be men who defend the other man as ‘well-meaning.’

All of this reminds me of a passage in Handmaid’s Tale where Offred–June, for those who know the TV series—reminisces about the day her bank account is frozen, and her husband Luke says not to worry, he’ll take care of her. And he intends to—because he means well. Luke, Offred thinks, is a little too sanguine about all of this—and he’s one of the good ones.

Being a woman in a male-dominated profession was a lot of that operating assumption: good relationships with men were the key to a productive educational work life. If your principal liked you, or your male band-teacher colleagues liked you, you were probably fine. Underestimated, misjudged and overlooked, perhaps. But they’d be polite and friendly, as long as you were no threat to their presumed superiority in a competitive education arena.

A lot of the sexism in education flies way under the radar. It’s subtle. So subtle that the people who are exposing it in their own behavior don’t see their own words and actions as sexist. This cluelessness is not surprising. Unrecognized, unacknowledged sexism is everywhere—in politics, media coverage of current events, everyplace from childbirth practices to cooking.

And paying attention to it matters, a lot, if we care about raising healthy children and building healthy cities.The current debates on transgender students, for example, are rooted in sexism (and, it could be argued, violence):

Supporters of [a bill to prevent transgender students from participating in sports] heavily centered their arguments around athletic differences between cisgender women and cisgender men. Gabriel Higerd, a former adjunct professor of exercise science who researches transgender sports policy, said “biological females are one of our nation’s greatest treasures” and argued that this bill is necessary because it protects cisgender female athletes from competing against transgender female athletes. I have never heard any single group of Americans described as “one of our nation’s greatest treasures” as if they were some sort of commodity and not human beings.

And there you go: Biological females, a great treasure to our nation. We’re back in 1985—or 1947, as women (white women) were forced out of the post-war job market and persuaded their place was in the home, caring for as many children as they could bear. Go back as far as you like. You’ll find sexism. Atwood took us to a place in a not-distant future when men acted on the principle of female fertility being a ‘great (and biblically designated) treasure.’ Not hard to fathom, at all.

I am a big fan of the beautifully filmed Handmaid TV series which uses Atwood’s book as starting point, and of her sequel novel, The Testaments. I did not re-read Handmaid for 30 years. When the series was announced, I bought a digital copy. I remembered all kinds of things about the characters, passages of text, the plot and the utterly chilling world that Atwood created: Gilead. It rang true—or at least possible—in 1986, and just as plausible, if not more so, in 2016.  

 I also know that every time I have written a blog, over the past 17 years, about how women and their talents have been suppressed in EdWorld, I have received pushback. Some of it has been downright ugly.

Which is why I don’t pay attention to reviewers who think that Handmaid’s Tale, focused more and more about savage retribution in Season 4, has jumped the shark. I prefer to think of it as cautionary tale.

Watch—or read—and learn. What goes around, comes around.

Take This Job and Shove It. Or Change It.

I don’t know a single teacher—not one—who has never left school on a Friday afternoon wondering if, just maybe, they should have gone into real estate instead. Under the best of circumstances, teaching is ridiculously hard work, dependent on never-guaranteed intrinsic rewards, rather than perks, benefits and salary, to maintain employee motivation. 

The autonomy and supports necessary for a well-resourced, custom-tailored occupational package for professional educators have been in short and diminishing supply for a couple of decades now. Worse, the profession drains our energies, taxes our personal and communal resources, and has become increasingly driven by top-down data collection. Teaching, as Lee Shulman famously said, is impossible.

And then we had a pandemic.

The papers are full of stories about people quitting or not returning to their crappy (and even lucrative) jobs—for a variety of reasons. If you talk to the ‘back to normal/virus is overblown’ crowd, this is a function of their getting enough government money to live on, and general indolence.

But there is another story:  Americans are ditching their jobs by the millions, and retail is leading the way with the largest increase in resignations of any sector. Some 649,000 retail workers put in their notice in April, the industry’s largest one-month exodus since the Labor Department began tracking such data more than 20 years ago.

People are leaving because they discovered they liked working from home, or because they’re taking care of children or elders now, as the world is still too dangerous for Previous Normal behavior. Or the pandemic has forced them into paths (not commuting, cutting back spending) they’re planning to maintain.

They have re-balanced their personal values, decided that life is, indeed, too short to waste doing junk work.

You can see this as bad for business, particularly the service industry. Or you can see this as economic optimism—the chance for a fresh re-start: One general theory is that we’re living through a fundamental shift in the relationship between employees and bosses that could have profound implications for the future of work.

This applies to education, too—a field generally marked by stable but low-wage, high-skill work done primarily by women. We’ve been experiencing a long-term decline in teacher preparation, nationally, a drop of 67% in Michigan. Those classrooms we’re hoping to fill this fall? Not enough teachers.

Or school leaders.

Veteran educators are used to charter operators and superintendents–like LA’s Austin Beutner–discovering that running a school, a classroom, or a large urban district is not all apples and playgrounds. Beutner’s observation–“We are humans. We have families. We have partners, spouses, kids, our own life responsibilities. For better or worse, schools become a magnet for all of the challenges which face society. . .”—is the story of their working lives, for decades, not a trial period as CEO.

What is interesting to me is the anecdotal evidence coming out of the news about schools, their leaders focusing on what’s good for students—the core of their work—rather than what the legislature or governor thinks students need.

There’s the whole Critical Race Theory divide, for starters. Go ahead—tell us what we can and can’t teach, including the truth about our own history.

There’s the re-born #OptOut movement.  

But there’s more: virtually every Michigan school has decided to go around legislation that requires them to flunk third graders who are not testing at grade level in reading. Bridge Magazine calls this a ‘revolt’– but superintendents and teachers just laughed at legislators trying to move the mandated flunking up to 4th grade. This is akin to soldiers returning from blood-soaked battlefields, informing the generals that their orders are crazy-pants, not gonna work.

And when Michigan’s Chief Doc of Health and Human Services recommended that students be masked when they return to school in the fall, and got pushback from Great Lakes Education Project, a school choice group founded by Betsy DeVos? The recommendation was met with a shrug by school officials, who plan to make their own decisions about whether students will wear masks this fall.

As they should.

If the pandemic has revealed anything about public education, it’s that K-12 schooling is an integral part of the economic engine, and the good parts of Previous Normal will not return until the kids are back in school, 180 days a year.

Who will solve the problems created by the Great Reallocation of talent in K-12 education?

Hate to sound like the eternal broken record here, but shouldn’t we turn to educators—school leaders and teachers, working in their own unique context, to advocate for what their kids need? Better connectivity and technology. Wraparound services for students. A rebuilt teacher pipeline. A little TLC after surviving a pandemic. Better salaries and benefits.

Autonomy.   

Memorial Day

I am old—old enough to remember when Memorial Day was called Decoration Day, and always came on the 30th of May. For many years, I went to the cemetery with my grandmother–also named Nancy–on Decoration Day, with a pot of geraniums for her husband, my grandfather, who died in the 1930s. Her parents, and some of her siblings, were buried in the same cemetery. We went to visit them all, with flowers, taking care not to step on the green beds where they lay.

There were always little flags on veterans’ graves, but so many men (and a few women) were veterans that it seemed like half the people resting in that cemetery had a flag. A graveyard full of citizens who served their country, sometimes dying for that very cause, surrounded by their loving families.

In 1969, May 30 was a Friday. It was an unusually hot day. My high school band played in the local parade, and band parents met us in the park, after the parade, with galvanized tubs full of ice and glass bottles of Coke. I was a senior, playing my last parade on the first day of a long weekend, wearing the stifling gray wool uniform with its little satin-lined red cape, and the flat-topped hat.

It may have been a dare. Or it may have just been the oppressive humidity, and the fact that I’d never have to march in a parade again (or so I thought—ha). But after opening the Coke, I pulled out the braided neckline of my uniform jacket, and poured the icy cold soda right down the front of my body. There was a moment of delicious coolness and some hilarity among the group where I was sitting.

And then the Band Booster president, an officious mom who was in charge of fitting and maintaining 100+ plus band uniforms (and whose two perfect daughters would never dream of despoiling one) came storming over and read me the riot act.

Did I know that I, personally, would be taking my uniform to the dry cleaners? Did I understand HOW MUCH THOSE UNIFORMS COST? And that they had to last for 20 more years? And (this was the real indictment, an uptick in the charges)—did I not respect those who died for our country, those whom we remembered on this sacred day? For shame.

Actually, on that score, she was wrong. I remembered, all right.

I grew up hearing stories about my Uncle Don, who died at 19, in the first wave of Marines on Iwo Jima. My dad’s favorite brother, the handsome one, the rebel. Buried on Iwo Jima, then moved to Rock Island National Military Cemetery, after the war. My dad, after learning his brother had been killed, went AWOL from his own unit in the Army Air Corps, and was busted from Sergeant to Private for the offense. Although he never talked about his own wartime experiences, he never let any of us forget.

In 2021, those who died on the battlefield are a relatively small handful. Thank God, or whomever can be credited with the policies and foresight to keep us out of war.

But in the past year, as more people died from coming in contact with a deadly virus than were killed in combat in WW II, it’s been easier to understand what it feels like to see daily, mounting death tolls in the news. To personally know folks who were sick but survived, to see friends with longer-term disability from COVID, to know families forever riven by death.

Many of them, to use a worn-out phrase, served their country, as well—as stock clerks and bus drivers, teachers and nurses. They died before the vaccine was available, gasping for air, often without family, victims of a different kind of war—an ugly political war, partly created by our own elected leaders.

As an adult, I have experienced Memorial Day in dozens of ways—leading my own school bands in local parades and cemetery services, playing in or directing community bands, and—just two days ago—playing Taps with the Leelanau Flute Ensemble on a friend’s balcony.

Every year, the day reads a little differently. I don’t think it’s disrespectful, or not-sacred, to reflect on all the other things, besides our always-honored war dead, that need remembering. You’ve probably read snippy memes about the difference between Veterans’ Day and Memorial Day.  Both spring from the same source: Let us pause to remember what we’ve done—the noble and the despicable acts, the proud and the shameful. It’s who we are, as a nation.

And—let us teach our children to pause and remember as well. (Click on this link. You’ll be glad you did.)

Some Things Are Always Wrong

When we adopted our son, from South Korea, more than 30 years ago, our wonderful adoption counselor warned us that we would experience racism, having a child who did not look like us.

She shared incidents from her own parenting of children from three different parts of the world, ranging from the clueless—When she begins to talk, will she speak English?—to the downright repellent. She suggested that we think first to educate, before getting angry.  

This was advice that resonated with me—teaching acceptance. Enlightening strangers in the grocery store to the beauty of diversity. Celebrating all the ways families are made. And so on. When a neighborhood kid, whose father had served in Vietnam, called my son a ‘flat-faced gook’ on the school bus, however, I had to re-think.

Some things—racism among them—are always wrong. And you can either face that fact and deal with it, straight on, wherever you encounter it, including schools, or you can employ any number of empty, defensive sophistries.

You can do what Rick Hess does here—spend half a column patting yourself on the back for pushing back against racism while simultaneously building a theoretical parent-defense straw guy the size of Burning Man, using lots and lots of (you guessed it) data, Impressive Academic Vocabulary and political shading:

More than two-thirds of adults say they oppose having schools tell students that America was founded as a racist nation, 70 percent say schools should not teach students that their race is the “most important thing about them,” and more than 4 in 5 oppose using classrooms to promote political activism.

I don’t believe these adults would be enthusiastic about the Biden Department of Education holding up as models of civic education a scholar who teaches “there is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy” and that “only racists say they’re not racist,” and a history program that teaches America was founded as a “slavocracy.” Now, I’ve found that anti-racist diehards tend to respond to such numbers like undergraduates in a Gramsci seminar, by muttering about false consciousness and hegemonic schema.

Hess closes out with a few more self-assured slams against Ibram X. Kendi, whose books have introduced multitudes of Americans to the idea that racism is deeply embedded in centuries of policy-making, resulting in entrenched neighborhoods, discrimination on dozens of fronts and endemic personal prejudice.

If two-thirds of adults actually do oppose telling kids that America has racist roots, where did that false idea come from? And what about the other third—the ones who think that maybe introducing children to the fact that we’ve always been a deeply inequitable society is a good first step? Don’t they count?

As for children, we don’t need to teach our students that their race matters to society. By the time they get to school, they already know. Or they find out on the bus.

Or in the cafeteria. Or on social media.

Recently, students in the (large and well-regarded) school system next to mine opened a ‘slave auction’ on Snapchat, asking for ‘bids’ on students of color. It’s a terrible story in many ways, with lots of bigoted actions and themes emerging. The Superintendent and Board are doing what they’re supposed to do—investigating, thinking about next steps, as the media spotlight is trained on them.

The students are unlikely to be punished legally or via suspension—what they did happened off-campus, so the school is not, technically, responsible. There’s ongoing discussion about whether these social media ‘games’ and ‘jokes’ actually endangered students of color.  But school officials have stepped up and started public conversations on how to include anti-racist content in K-12 curricula.

And you know what happened:

During nearly an hour of public comment on the resolution Monday – which was only on the agenda for discussion, not adoption – several parents criticized the document and the overall work of the Social Equity Task Force, saying it amounted to indoctrination and was pushing an agenda that would divide and not unite students. “I find this resolution also to be offensive, degrading, inappropriate, condescending, and detrimental to all TCAPS students, parents, and community members”…  the “negative rhetoric” of the resolution “imposes toxic assumptions on our children.” Multiple parents worried the curriculum review would force “critical race theory” onto the classroom.

There they are, the two-thirds of parents Hess identifies, and uses as substantiation and support for keeping “toxic” discussions of race out of the classroom.

You don’t need quantification or fancy theories to explain this. Teaching our racist history is pretty much unavoidable, and trying to ignore it makes things worse, not better. Here’s a great (short) piece that it explains it better than I could:

Teaching young people about racism is not indoctrination, but rather teaching viewpoints and providing factual data related to racism that they otherwise are not likely exposed to. Young people need to make up their own minds about how to think about race, but the better informed they are, the more thoughtfully they will do so.

 In short, some things are always wrong.

Is Critical Race Theory Dividing the Country?

When people start referring to a cultural phenomenon with initials—CRT for ‘critical race theory,’ say—you know that whatever that thing once was, it’s now morphed into something completely unrecognizable. Made less complex. Reduced to stereotype. And in the case of CRT, politicized.  

In my long years of classroom practice, pedagogical strategies and hot topics went in and out of fashion. Back in the 70s, values clarification was all the rage. Parents were a little iffy on having students discuss their values, however—probably because they assumed those values were not securely embedded in their sixth graders. And God forbid a teacher should attempt to inculcate values. Or even discuss them.

After values clarification, there was lots of talk about character education. My school had a multi-year project on Reason, Respect and Responsibility. Our project was home-grown, but you could buy pre-packaged character, it seemed—complete with manuals, posters, workshops and student day planners. Every package seemed to come with a testimonial—57% reduction in suspensions!

Today, I see lots of teacher-chat about mindfulness and trauma-informed education. If you think I’m skeptical about the efficacy of these programs—I’m not. I am strongly in favor of whatever it is schools are doing to encourage students to consider their thoughts and behaviors, to elevate the community over impulsive personal actions, to dig deeper into things that are, well, wrong in our society.

I am especially impressed by school leaders who decide to offer their students a chance to consider multiple perspectives and the meaning of justice in a representative democracy. It takes genuine courage to step up, especially when the country seems to be cracking apart and quasi-intellectuals are using big vocabularies and academic terrorism to spook parents over discussing race in America.  

I write all this to point out that teachers incorporate lessons about fairness, caring, harm, self-control, diversity and authority in their classrooms all the time, whether it’s part of an organized program or just daily practice in teaching disciplinary content.

There is no subject or developmental level where values and character aren’t a part of the curriculum, whether intentional or accidental. You couldn’t strip values and character out of teaching and learning if you tried. But try they will.

As Clarence Page noted, those afraid of critical race theory don’t know what it is:        

[CRT] is an evolving practice that questions how race, as a social construct, perpetuates a caste system that relegates people of color to the bottom tiers. I agree with critics who say that CRT often elevates storytelling over evidence and reason and devalues the racial progress that Americans have made, despite the challenges that remain. Real critical race theory is better suited to graduate students than kids. But we don’t do ourselves any favors by hiding good information about this nation’s diversity that can help all of us to better appreciate the “united” in the United States.

So how is that scary? And how is it not relevant to every American citizen? An evolving practice indeed, tangled up in all the things schools are supposed to do: Build American citizenship. Establish workforce skills. Encourage curiosity. Learn how to get along.

If the argument, in all the states now writing anti-CRT laws, was that some troubling but essential questions around CRT—reparations, long-term economic damage, health care disparities, how our racist history in America informs the present day—were best tackled by scholars and adults, well OK.

That still leaves a boatload of foundational work to be done, by people of all ages, and lots of that work falls into the character and values bucket. Simple concepts like: Don’t pre-judge people by external characteristics. Race is a social construct. We have a history of injustice. We all do better when we all do better.   

Also: Go ahead and pass anti-CRT laws. You might scare a few teachers. You might reassure white parents that their children won’t have to hear anything ‘unpleasant’ about our history, laws and subtle forms of discrimination. You might score a few seedy political points.

You might also have to set up a whole new and thoroughly unpleasant teacher policing system to make sure liberal Ms. Flanagan isn’t talking to her students about the roots of the music they listen to, 24/7, and cultural misappropriation. Is that CRT? Who gets to say?

You cannot keep the issues of race and racism out of schools. Schools are a stage where social values play out every day. It isn’t critical race theory that’s dividing the country. It’s fear.

The Great (Unemployed and Underpaid) Transformation

Short version of this blog:

No. We’re not going to get back to normal. The pandemic has changed everything.

You’ve probably seen the meme: There isn’t a ‘teacher shortage.’ There is a ‘Masters-level professionals willing to work for $35,000 shortage.’

And maybe you’re thinking… yeah, no, beginning teachers make a lot more than that. Well—not so much more, if at all. 

And then there’s this–In no state are teachers paid more than other college graduates. The situation has been steadily growing worse. And then all those underpaid teachers were asked to risk their lives, during two school years. Incredibly enough, nearly all of them did.

But COVID was the proverbial straw on the educational camel’s back. Teachers are getting out while the getting’s good.  How many? Depends on who’s asked, and whether they can continue to work at a career that doesn’t support a middle-class lifestyle (and risks their health), even if they love the work and find it fulfilling.

This blog, however, is not only about crappy teacher pay, an evergreen topic. It’s about all the employees—including nurses, service workers, ministers and even politicians—who are just done. We are coming out of a year and a half of terror, hope and exploitation. I predict a national re-examination of what life and happiness are worth.

You have probably—speaking of what gets circulated on Facebook—also seen people grousing about  how unemployment benefits are preventing people from returning to work. Why should (presumably slothful) people show up to work or apply for Joe jobs, when they can stay home and make just as much? That seems to be the knee-jerk thinking.

The poster-child answer? This headline: How Local Companies are Filling Open Roles. It’s about the ice cream parlor that doubled starting wages (from $7.25 to $15.00) and found themselves—surprise!– with plenty of applicants.

What if offering fair unemployment benefits caused starting wages to rise to meet the demand for workers?  What if it was actually naked capitalism that was broken?  

What if people weren’t lazy — and instead, for the first time in a long time, were able to say no to exploitative working conditions and poverty-level wages? And what if business owners are scandalized, dismayed, frustrated, or bewildered by this scenario because their pre-pandemic business models were predicated on a steady stream of non-unionized labor with no other options? It’s not the labor force that’s breaking. It’s the economic model.

I certainly don’t feel bad for McDonalds franchises, ‘forced’ to offer $14 an hour. But won’t it bankrupt small businesses, when they offer a reasonable wage? Well. If you think about growing the economy, one way to feed it is paying people adequate money to spend on the things they need. Just saying.

When people are well-paid and well-treated, you’re not constantly re-hiring and training. Your customers get better service. Your business grows, and your employees are buying food, cars, homes. Maybe even thinking they can afford a family. This includes teachers, by the way.

This cycle is well-known in other prosperous first-world countries. Why are we trying to get more for less here?

In Michigan, 67,000 adults without college degrees are going back to school, on the state’s dime. Part of a multi-phase project to upgrade the workforce, Michigan offered tuition to any adult wanting to learn something new and useful, at a local community college. To their surprise and delight, 67,000 people applied—people looking for a better deal in life. They’re not lazy.

Let’s pull the camera out even further. For many years running, when global citizens are surveyed about their personal happiness, Scandinavian countries top the list. In the Top Ten, only New Zealand is not in Europe. The rest of these nations are in the cold-to-temperate zone, so it’s not the climate making them happy.  And it’s not their McMansions or four-car garages.

It’s security. Health care. Time off for traveling and their families. Good schools. No college debt. Trust in their government. Convenient public transportation. Healthier lifestyles. Ample parental leave.

Adequate wages.

Earlier in the pandemic, there were lots of buzzy stories about people moving across the country, after discovering that they could work from home. It turns out that many of them aren’t moving to verdant pastures (with good broadband). They’re moving for financial or family reasons.

They’re moving to scale back. To be happier—or simply to survive. To be closer to the people they love.

Godspeed to the 67,000 people starting community college in Michigan. A you-go to every employer who is biting the bullet and paying employees more, permanently. Blessings on those who have juggled to keep their families intact. And thank you to everyone who has gone above and beyond during this pandemic, sacrificing for their communities.  

Something is, indeed, broken in America.

Is There a White Supremacy Culture in Schools?

I am currently participating in a 21-day ‘Racial Equity Habit-Building Challenge.’ I signed up with several local friends, as part of our intention to build tolerance and equity in our mostly-white community. We met for a conversation, this past week, and we were all a little blown away by depth and transformative power of the resources and questions in this Challenge. So much to learn.

This is good.

The most striking thing I read is a piece from Day 5 (Confronting Whiteness).  I have learned not to presume that I know much of anything about identifying distinctly white-people beliefs and habits.

At this point in my life (closing in on seven decades), I understand that I’ve been unaware (to put it politely), for a long time, of just how white I am, and how that looks and feels to other people. What I can do now is acknowledge, learn and try to do better.

The piece that rocked me is from the Dismantling Racism Workshop. It’s titled THE CHARACTERISTICS OF WHITE SUPREMACY CULTURE.

To my shock and distress, it described, in great detail, every organization and institution I’ve ever worked for, joined or been associated with, all the way back to kindergarten. Including churches, universities, non-profits, musical and social groups—and most especially, K-12 schools.

Here are some of the basic characteristics (click on the link to read full descriptions as well as antidotes):

  • Perfectionism
  • Sense of Urgency
  • Defensiveness
  • Quantity over Quality
  • Worship of the Written Word
  • One Right Way
  • Paternalism
  • Either/Or Thinking
  • Power Hoarding
  • Fear of Open Conflict
  • Individualism
  • Progress = Bigger and More
  • Objectivity
  • The ‘Right’ to Feel Comfortable

Go ahead—think of a common public school practice or policy.

Mandated, standardized testing, for example. Does such testing not elevate perfectionism, urgency (especially now, when the data yielded will be useless and corrupt), quantity over quality, ‘objectivity,’ power hoarding by testing companies and state education departments, worship of the written word, etc.–over other worthy goals, like community, kindness or self-discovery?  

Virtually every issue, no matter how prosaic, in my long life as an educator, involved at least a couple of these. Staff meetings? (fear of conflict, power hoarding, announcing the one right way) Creating curriculum? (worshipping the written word, perfectionism, bigger and more) Teacher leadership? (defensiveness, paternalism, individualism) And so on.

Here’s the thing I wondered about: What makes these instantly recognizable behaviors represent white supremacy? I could point to these actions in every education ‘reform’ organization and probably every district central office, certainly. But are they inherently racist, or are they just the bad habits organizations accrue?

An African-American friend who is an accomplished veteran teacher took a job with a charter school chain, a few years ago. I was surprised—we’d worked on a number of professional projects together, and I knew she was committed to public education and equity in learning. She explained that the charter where she’d be teaching—and later, served as administrator—was created around the theme of social justice. It would serve Black children, with Black teachers and school leaders.

Besides, the mostly-white professional organizations she’d worked for hadn’t honored the gifts she brought to the work of school leadership. They were stuck on paternalism and hierarchies, silver-bullet thinking, bigger and more, saving the world one white paper at a time.  She wanted to teach kids, to make them understand their inherent worth. She took the job at a significant pay cut, and didn’t look back.

And also: are these traits uniquely American?

When he lectured in the United States, Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget would invariably get what he called “the American question” from a member of the audience. After he had explained various developmental phases that young children go through in their understanding of concepts like length and volume, someone would raise their hand and ask, “How can we accelerate a child’s progress through the stages?”

Bingo.

Do most of us work, unthinkingly, in cultures that use the listed characteristics—‘damaging because they are used as norms and standards without being pro-actively named or chosen by the group’? In other words, are these practices so pervasive that white people don’t even notice them?

I sat for a long time with these questions, reviewing my professional and community organizations and work life, trying to look at things through this lens. How many times did I buy into these ideas, just because they made ME feel comfortable?

What is a white supremacy culture? Is there one in YOUR organization or school?

No Justice, No Excellence

Like most of America, I’ve been glued to the Derek Chauvin trial, watching the evening highlights, nail-biting Tweets–Why is this taking so long? —and cable news analyses. Have we moved forward as a society? Are we, if not woke, at least emerging with new awareness, from centuries of abusive and racist behavior?

Yesterday, before the verdict was announced, I caught the end of an on-the-street reporter’s comments, and she said school leaders–she called them ‘assistant principals’–were on the street with their HS students, awaiting the news, and chanting ‘You can’t stop the revolution.’

The reporter seemed surprised that school administrators would be positive about a student walkout, rather than threatening to put these uprisings on students’ permanent records. Students, it seems, in MN at least, have become more specific and articulate in their demands.

At Minnetonka High School, in Minnesota:

The district has followed through…adding hate symbols to the list of items banned in school dress codes, expanding its reach in hiring to target more diverse job candidates and creating an online reporting system for incidents of harassment and discrimination.

Students see the district’s unwillingness to acknowledge the specific pain or concerns of Black students, or students in other groups, as evidence that leaders haven’t or don’t want to make real changes. Students said their personal experiences with racism at and around school were far more extensive than the messages, and calls for the districts to do more to combat harassment, re-evaluate curriculum and diversify their staffs.

It’s that last bit I find so interesting. Making schools safe and orderly (which includes harassment) has always been the job of districts and their leaders. Hiring, curriculum and instruction have not been considered the students’ bailiwick. But, as a sign carried by MN students said: No Justice, No Excellence.

They’re correct. A genuinely excellent education would center real problems that need solutions. It would welcome diverse viewpoints. It would provide students with the tools and knowledge to go to work on creating a better society. 

There are probably tens of thousands of school mission statements in the United States which use that kind of language—the whole ‘21st Century Learning’ schtick. So how did we get to the Common Core and mandated punitive testing for all public school kids? How did standardization, competition and data worship—a totally UNjust model– become our go-to idea about what good schools look like, rather than embracing diverse identities, talents and histories?

I was pleased to hear that the Biden administration has proposed a grant program to highlight our history of discrimination and bias in civics and history education. It was not enough to dump Trump’s ‘1776 Commission’ education propaganda. The Biden proposal also calls for information literacy. 

It would be easy to dismiss this as just another feel-good education program. The U.S. Department of Education is not permitted to prescribe curriculum, after all (which is why they had to pretend that states and governors instituted the Common Core). But—like both VP Harris’s and President Biden’s speeches yesterday—what the administration says represents the direction of policy-making.  

No justice, no excellence.

Of course, eight Republican state legislatures (ID, IA, LA, MO, NH, OK, RI, WV) are now considering bills to bar teachers from discussing ‘divisive’ topics in their classrooms. Racism and sexism are the chief illicit topics, but I’m sure that partisan politics would also be high on the list of things that legislators would like to see forbidden.

I’ve got news for these legislators: train’s a-comin’ and you can’t stop it.

I was in the classroom on 9/11. I was in the classroom when election results hung in the balance, 2000. I was there when Reagan was shot, when Jim Jones persuaded his followers to drink the Kool-aid, and when we elected a Black man to the White House.  Kids—kids of all ages—always want to talk about what’s happening in the world. Because they’re curious, and observant.

When they’re young, they mostly need reassurance that adults will keep them safe. But as they grow older, they recognize injustice—or they repeat unjust things that the adults around them said. Should teachers be legally compelled to ignore outright racism?

Telling students that the topics are forbidden is an invitation for them to look to the wrong resources for answers. Banning controversial issues embeds systemic racism, sexism, discrimination. Besides, it’s virtually impossible to keep students from talking about high-visibility issues, and legislators can’t police classrooms and fire the diminishing cadre of quality teachers and school leaders.

Better to look issues squarely in the eye, and honor what students have to say, provide facts and counterarguments. Better to encourage students to demand more, settle for less.

Students in Minnesota chanted ‘We are the students, the mighty, mighty students.’

 No justice. No excellence. The two really are inseparable.

Future-focused Education, Future-focused World

I’ve just spent a couple of weeks in Arizona, a first-flight of the fully immunized, and a chance to warm up, eat incredible takeout and be somewhere other than home. A vacation, to see our first-born, in a city that has hundreds of gorgeous outdoor dining patios.

I took along a book—The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson. I’ve been saving it for this vacation, when I could sit on a shaded patio, uninterrupted, and read. Friends recommended it. And it kind of rocked my world.

I don’t read lots of sci-fi, so Robinson’s name wasn’t familiar to me, but I can understand why he has plenty of fans. As dystopian/utopian fiction, the story was pretty good, but what made it unforgettable was the other stuff that Robinson tucks in around the narrative: Observations, testimonies, riddles and mini-lectures on an array of systems impacting the way the world operates, now and possibly in the next few decades.

It’s a series of enlightenments on practices that must become habit before we all think and act globally: economics, politics, health, equity, and above all, the imminent threat of climate catastrophe.

You would think living through a global pandemic would be the kind of event to jump-start that thinking.

We’ve all seen the Crisis = Opportunity meme, but far too many outright crises—dangerous inflection points—have come and gone in these United States without any positive long-term outcomes. In the war against complacency and intransigence, we are losing.

Back in the late 1970s, I took a graduate course in Futurism. If I took one thing away from the class as reliable truth, it was this: the point of studying the future is not prediction—it’s planning. Goal-setting. The textbook we used (remember using textbooks in every class?) included, as an appendix, predictions about alternative futures from famous prognosticators.

Reading through those now is amusing—we have far outstripped where the predictions say we would be in 2020 when it comes to technologies, with our Jetsons phones and carrying the Library of Congress in our pockets. Other changes, however, were just a blip on the horizon 45 years ago: climate collapse, social unrest, the dangerous and growing gap between haves and have-nots. Defunding the police? The student loan crisis? Nobody was talking about those in 1978.

It goes without saying that nobody expected to spend four years of their future living under (and I chose that preposition deliberately) Donald Trump. Preventing another disastrous waste of time, resources and international goodwill like the Trump administration ought to be one of our goals as educators.

We have been talking continuously over the past year about re-thinking the purpose and mission of public education, but most of that talk has been about peripheral things—Zoom classrooms, hybrid models, and the damned tests.

Here’s the question we should be asking: What skills and knowledge do children and teenagers need to make sense of this world and give them agency?

Every young child, for example, should have a thought or two about why sharing with other people makes both of us happier. Every teenager should have experience with service work, and understand the difference between a law and cultural norm. Every single person on the planet ought to be able to distinguish between verifiable truth and burnished opinion.

This pandemic period will linger in the memories on American citizens. What have we done to prepare our world for other, inevitable turning points? Have we trained our children to understand the impact of governance and policy creation? Or does that fall into the caption of ‘Social Studies’ and get swept aside in our eagerness to ‘get back to normal’ and pursue high scores in math and reading?

The Ministry for the Future begins with an unimaginably disastrous, climate-related event that kicks an international team of scientists, political leaders and thinkers, a remnant of the Paris Climate Accord, into action. Each well-considered step they take is designed to, literally, save the planet. Some things work well. Others fail. But all make obvious that we can’t just keep on keepin’ on. We have to change.

Change is scary. Preparing our students ought to address this fact. It’s worth the fight.

Ministry is one of those books that drops a lens in front of the reader. It goes like this: Knowing what I know about the health of the planet and well-being of my fellow citizens, what do I observe about daily life that makes me hopeful? And what do I observe that makes me cynical or afraid?

As it happens, we flew from a state where COVID is out of control and parents are jamming Board meetings to demand that their children go mask-less, to a state where infection rates are among the lowest in the nation. It’s hard to draw comparisons without living someplace, long-term, but Arizonians were mask-compliant everywhere we went. And that compliance was enforced by restaurants and museums, not state law.

Delta’s policies struck me as smart and in-control. Lots of annoying things—rude passengers, late flights, inefficient plane loading, and the drunken seatmate—were not in evidence. The airports were clean and quiet, and absolutely everyone was masked. Old white men doing the ‘not MY nose’ mask thing were publicly corrected. People who failed to check a big, heavy suitcase were corrected, too, when the flight attendant wouldn’t assist.

I could get used to flying masked, and touchless check-in, forever. Air travel is also hard on the environment. Maybe what we all need to get used to is staying home, until air travel is carbon-neutral.

I am mostly on the Cynical and Fearful team, and I put a great deal of the blame on my own nation. On the other hand, I believe there is still inherent in America an opportunity to lead globally. But it means tapping into the talents and resolve of young people. You know–education. 

There are a thousand policy ideas about positive change in schooling leading to an engaged and productive citizenry. But first, we need to have a common vision. I have always liked what Neil Postman said about public schooling and the commons, back in 1995. He understood the future of education, a quarter century ago.

“The question is not, Does or doesn’t public schooling create a public?

The question is: What kind of public does it create?

-A conglomerate of self-indulgent consumers?

-Angry, soulless, directionless masses?

-Indifferent, confused citizens?

Or a public imbued with confidence, a sense of purpose, a respect for learning, and tolerance?

The answer to this question has nothing whatever to do with computers, with testing, with teacher accountability, with class size, and with the other details of managing schools.

The right answer depends on two things, and two things alone: the existence of shared narratives and the capacity of such narratives to provide an inspired reason for schooling.”

― Neil Postman, The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School (1995)

Pick up The Ministry for the Future. It will make you think.

Acceleration Nation

There it was—an ad for dealing with imaginary learning loss. Nope—your kid doesn’t need remediation to bring him up to speed after this year of screen-based semi-school. He needs acceleration! Sure he’s, umm, fallen behind somebody, somewhere. But the solution is not reviewing what he may have missed—it’s accelerating. Going faster. Catching up, then presumably surging ahead. Winning.

I was so struck by the totally American nature of this language—We Must Compete! No remediation for us!—that I googled the company’s motto and found that there are several pre-packaged learning systems and books using the same theme and jargon.

Acceleration, it appears, is having (another) sexy moment. It may even be sexy enough to tap into some of that federal funding this summer, if education vendors hustle and enough media figures wring their hands while bemoaning ‘learning loss.’  

If your kids have been moping around, griping about not seeing their friends and the head-banging monotony of Zoom lessons, it’s logical to be a little anxious about what they have not learned in the past year. Things that might have been not only interesting or challenging, but important for future coursework and plans. It’s OK to worry about their emotional health, their need for exercise and socializing.

But while I have absolute faith in well-prepared, caring teachers to do their best to move students forward, there are still a lot of balls in the air. Will enough people, old and young, be vaccinated in time for a new school year? What curve balls might the virus still be capable of? How will we re-evaluate most critical uses of instructional time with our overstuffed core curriculum—and how much permanent impact will a year of uncertainty and danger have on what ‘school’ looks like, this fall and all future school years?

Hard to say, but I am fairly certain that simply prescribing acceleration rather than remediation is an example of rhetorical flourish over substance.

My Masters degree is in Gifted Education. In my introductory courses, the foundational thinking in every article and text was that there were two basic streams of instructional practice designed to address the needs of gifted children—enrichment and acceleration. In short, going deeper or going faster. Or a combination of both.

The drawback of enrichment was that providing unique challenges for very bright kids meant you had to diversify learning, custom-tailoring lessons for differing ability, something that has always been available, but is a classroom management challenge. With acceleration, you could move children through existing structures faster—taking HS Algebra in 6th grade, for example. If you were willing to put your 11 year old in a class with high school freshmen, that is—and had a plan for what happened when her ability to the do the work outstripped her emotional maturity.

Working in the field of gifted education, it turned out that most parents didn’t care much about going deeper. What they wanted was not in-depth exploration but getting ahead of other students. Accelerating. The idea of extensive, hands-on digging into something Bright Child was passionately interested in was not appealing, especially if there were no tangible identifying markers of giftedness in the process.

I don’t remember much about elementary school, but I clearly remember my reading instruction in 5th grade. Instead of traditional reading groups, we were using brand-new SRA reading kits, color-coded 8 x 11 cards featuring stories or non-fiction articles. You moved up through the colors by passing little comprehension tests at the end of each card, until you reached aqua (or maybe it was gray). Then you started at the beginning of the next box.

You could accelerate by acing colors quickly. Miss a few questions, however, and you were stuck in purple for weeks. I remember scanning the room, or meeting someone at the box to exchange a card and noticing, hmmm—too bad, she’s on orange.

My teacher, Mrs. Wildfong, let me breeze through the first box. Then one day, instead of starting me on the 6th grade box, she pulled me into a corner of the room and showed me a small bookshelf. Quietly, she told me that for the rest of the year, I could read anything I liked on the lowest shelf. After I read the book, I was supposed to write a page in a small spiral-bound notebook about what I’d just read. There were no questions about POV, themes or characters—just my opinion, or what I’d learned.

I read every book on that shelf and filled several notebooks. After that, I had a permanent pass to the library, and permission to go during reading class whenever I needed new reading material. I read completely through the Beany Malone series, the Cherry Ames series, and a group of biographies with blue covers featuring black silhouettes. I also recall that other kids in the class wondered, with some resentment, why nobody else got to go to the library whenever they felt like it.

I remember the year, and Mrs. Wildfong, with great fondness. I tell this story not because I was ‘gifted’—I wasn’t—but because Mrs. Wildfong improvised enrichment, tailoring my reading curriculum without shorting her other students. For the rest of the day, I was doing long division and coloring maps with everyone else. Deeper, not faster.

In the 6th grade, I started at the beginning of the SRA box with everyone else, and when I started moving ‘too fast,’ my teacher made me stay for weeks in one color, reading all the yellow cards then all the brown cards, because heaven forbid any child should outstrip The SRA Box. I did not resent this—I really loved my 6th grade teacher—and my parents did not go to school to complain, to demand that a child reading at the 12th grade level be given special privileges, blah blah blah.

There are lessons in this completely ordinary story.

One is that the pandemic, for some children, may have been like my reading shelf and library pass—a chance to do something educational that they’re good at and enjoy, without the constraints of a large classroom full of kids who are good at and enjoy vastly different things, and a teacher trying to maintain order.

Another lesson is that some—again, just some—children will move forward on concepts or skills they normally would have encountered in the previous year very quickly, once they are given a bit of personal attention from a teacher who is not trying to teach 15 live children and 15 tiny, boxed heads on a screen simultaneously.

This is not about ‘acceleration’—it’s about a caring adult who has experience teaching this particular skill to children. We need teachers (and, importantly, school leaders) willing to dump pacing charts and incessant testing in favor of knowing their students–their personal goals and challenges, not their test scores. We need to reinforce skill- and knowledge-building, confidence and healing after a very rough year. There is no need to ‘set a high bar’—kids have always cleared learning bars at their own pace and feeling OK about yourself is a prerequisite.

A third lesson is that public education has increasingly become a consumer product, and advertising for that product now uses commercial language and advertising techniques. This doesn’t bode well, and probably lies under the insistence of many education nonprofits that standardized testing be done now, so the ‘data’ generated allows them to present a picture of deficient kids who need to go faster rather than deeper.

Let’s stop asking about learning loss and catching up. It’s not a race. Let’s provide the resources to move kids forward.