Lock and Load and Learning Loss

This is a blog about the escalation of smack talk—the reckless/threatening/false/vindictive/facetious things people say, in an effort to gain power by demeaning others– and a thought or two about how much easier it is to be a smack-talker in 2022 than just a few years earlier.

We’re also seeing more smack talk in schools and about schools. Critical race theory and learning loss are among the many widely abused terms that media perceives as real issues. The terms are essentially meaningless, however, in the daily operation of real schools, places where teachers are paying attention to the well-being and nascent citizenship of real children.

These days, schoolboard meetings are hotbeds of vigilantism driven by smack talk, and we’re witnessing members of Congress—Congress! —trash the sitting President’s strength and motives during a delicate and critical time of international unrest.

Traditionally, school is a place where smack talk is not tolerated, even if it is a regular feature of students’ home life. Poor-mouthing classmates, the use of offensive language, and overt lying are generally suppressed by school cultures, even strongly authoritarian climates where teachers use harsh language to control students.

Every now and then, someone points out that what our students need most now is not Calculus, but media literacy, a carefully developed skill of discretion when bombarded by corrupt but persuasive language.  We used to worry about students being overly influenced by Bart Simpson or semi-dressed babes on MTV—but these days, the filthiest and most damaging lies are coming out of the mouths of politicians and news media. How do you teach kids to ignore their own duly elected Senator?

In 2017, I was part of a local ‘listening tour’ sponsored by my county Democratic party. We knocked on doors and asked people what they wanted from their local government. We wanted to know what their issues and needs were, for upcoming campaigns—but were also willing to listen to their feedback on the 2016 election. We did not call on strong or ‘leaning’ Republicans—only independent voters and those who may have leaned our way at one time.

What we learned: every single person we talked with had a distinct opinion on Trump vs. Hillary (the gender dynamics of the last name/first name contrast being kind of smack-y in itself). Most were willing to tell us who they voted for, and why, although we were trained not to ask.

They did not like or trust Hillary Clinton—and the ones who declared themselves Trump voters were clear about what attracted them to him: the way he talks. He says what he thinks! He isn’t mealy-mouthed like other politicians. He’s down to earth, but strong. His disrespect of women was ‘just locker room talk.’ More than once we heard: Give the guy a chance. Asked about local issues and government, most of them had no ready response.

What our neighbors had to say was almost completely unsubstantiated and unrelated to governing or current issues, not to mention decades’ worth of real facts about Trump’s history as grifter and narcissistic braggart. They took the measure of a candidate by his (or her) willingness to make insulting remarks. To get in a good dig, to trash your opponent. A few men spoke admiringly about Trump literally stalking or silencing Clinton on the stage, during their debates. He was a ‘fighter’—and would fight for us. Which ‘us’ they were talking about was unspoken.

Although hard to prove, beyond prima facie observations, smack talk has become more prevalent everywhere in American life. In my former State House district, for example, one of the Republican candidates told the crowd at a rally to “be prepared to lock and load,” and “show up armed” when going to vote. A Republican gubernatorial candidate suggested voters pull the plug on voting machines, if they didn’t like what they saw at the polls.

Are K-12 students influenced by this kind of loose, vindictive talk? Recently, at a school basketball game, students from a 95% white rural school made monkey noises and used racist insults when Black players on the opposing team were on the court. The report talks of similar occurrences at other games, listing several of these over the past two years.

What interesting to me is the response from the MI Department of Civil Rights: “To ignore the situation without taking those individuals who perpetuated it to account causes a problem and obviously allows it to occur again. So that situation should be controlled not only by the people who are officiating the game, but also the officials who certainly have some control over the students and the actions that they might have later on or during the game itself.”

I agree. Racial slurs and dangerous threats are best handled when they first emerge by the people closest to our students. This is what lies under at anger over faux CRT—adults influencing children to analyze their own prejudice, and respect differences. Good teachers have always done this; it’s the practice of building a classroom community.

So it’s no wonder that judgmental terms like ‘learning loss’ have caught on, and Serious Reports are warning that children in poverty have ‘lost’ the most. All children have been exposed to danger and loss during this pandemic, but whether they’re testing on grade level—whatever that is—should be the least of our worries.

We should be thinking, instead, about turning them into caring and confident citizens, able to identify coarse and deceptive language and reject it.

Freedom’s Just Another Word

Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose
Nothin’– it ain’t nothin’ if it ain’t free…

Remember free schools? They were all the rage, back in the day—long, long ago—when those folks protesting the error-filled ways of public education were hippie types, not scripted, Republican-funded moms with time on their hands.

Often educated in public schools themselves (where they learned to craft logical arguments and read great books), these lefty parents did not want Moonbeam’s schooling to consist of straight rows, workbooks and bells. They wanted the freedom to discuss Real Issues and pursue personal growth.

But as always, the times they are a-changin’.

In a brilliant essay in the NY Times, GWU Professor Elizabeth Anker describes how ‘freedom’ has morphed from the Bill of Rights model I learned about in one of those straight-rows public schools, to what she calls ‘ugly freedoms:’

Today, more and more laws, caucuses, rallies and hard-right movements use the language of freedom as a cudgel to erode democratic governance and civil rights; these laws expand the creep of authoritarianism. One Jan. 6 insurrectionist insisted, “I’m here for freedom,” when describing his participation in the attack on the Capitol. Mask mandate opponents have cited “health freedom,” even if their refusal to mask denies freedom of movement to immunocompromised people and makes communities more vulnerable to Covid.

Freedom, Anker says, has been co-opted.

I can name dozens of other words that no longer clearly mean what they once did: Unconstitutional, for example. Anti-Fascism. Illegal. Forensic Audit. Critical Race Theory. Moms, for Liberty. Election integrity. You can justify putting any number of formerly well-understood terms in scare quotes, these days.

Language, over time, does—and should—morph, as societal norms and technological advances change the way people think and behave. That’s why those 1960s ads with doctors lighting up a Camel to ‘relax,’ are so hilarious.

But I really hate losing freedom, as a political and educational concept. I especially hate knowing that Republicans have weaponized something valuable and politically distinct, turned it into a well-funded, election-winning grievance.

Freedom is a complex idea. Freedom without responsibility is moral adolescence—a phenomenon we have seen played out endlessly during the pandemic, by anti-mask abusers, phony accusations of ‘tyranny’ and a focus on individual rights rather than the common good—during a public health crisis, no less.

As a music teacher, I wrestled with the concept of freedom every year, and shared those dilemmas with my students. Why is every composition on our required festival list written by a white man—can we break free of that?  In a largely white, largely Christian town, should we be representing all winter celebrations in our music, or just having the expected Christmas concert? What are the roots of the music my students are listening to—and is it my responsibility to help them dig into that history?

My career was all about the freedom to teach music in untraditional but deeper ways. And I was incredibly lucky. I never had to deal with rigid standards or statewide assessments, and seldom had parent complaints. I was, far more than other teachers, free to craft curriculum, performances, travel and materials to fit my students, few questions asked.

What I’m reading now is alarming—the heated School Board meetings, book banning, legislated gag orders and threats over what can/cannot be taught. If you only read the news, you might think that public educators have been so thoroughly intimidated that every bit of color and usefulness will be leached out of learning.

But I have doubts about the long-term impact of this astro-turf, give-me-liberty movement. I think raging against diversity and inclusion by silly law-making is destined to fail—especially when you look at recent CNN survey data:

While parental choice has become the subject of frequent political controversy, the CNN Poll found that most Americans reject the idea that the primary responsibility for what happens in the classroom belongs either to parents or to teachers and school officials. Majorities said both groups should have an equally important role in school-related decisions ranging from Covid-19 precautions to the way various school subjects are taught.

Only about one-fifth of Americans (19%) said parents should be the main decision-makers on mask policies, with 17% saying the same about virtual learning and 16% on teaching about racial issues. Just 7% thought parents should have final say over how to teach math. About 1 in 8 Americans, or 12%, said parents’ views should have the most sway over which library books are on the shelves and how American history is taught, while roughly twice as many said teachers and school officials should have more influence on those areas. Respondents split equally over how issues regarding race in America are taught, with 16% saying parents should have more say, 16% teachers and school officials, and 62% saying both should be equally important.

These are pretty small numbers, for a so-called movement. Glenn Youngkin may have ridden parent disapproval over school policy to a governorship, but I am far from convinced that there’s a voting majority in all states to swing elections based on book-banning, faux CRT hype and other curricular issues.

When you look at the numbers, it’s easy to see this as another cycle of school-parent communication, where schools that listen to parents and work cooperatively with them for the good of all their students, are doing the best job of navigating a global pandemic and political warfare based on the Big Lie. Major challenges, indeed.

One of my former students sent me a note expressing her frustration over the screaming matches at the local school board meetings. I know these people, she said—they live in my neighborhood. And they’re not even parents of school-aged kids. For them, this is political gain. For me, this is about protecting my child.

One of the local Liberty Moms came to her door and asked, ‘Aren’t you worried about how your boys will vote, when they’re adults?’ Actually, she wasn’t concerned about that at all—they won’t be voting for many years, and there are a lot of math facts and swimming lessons and trips to the library that needed to happen first—safely. But there is no clearer example of just what her neighbor is really worried about.

It isn’t freedom. It never was freedom. It was about winning.

 Honesty in the Time of COVID

I tested positive for COVID last Monday. My husband (with whom I have been exchanging exhalations since 1975) tested positive at home three days earlier, but my rapid test was negative then. We did drive-thru PCR testing, got our mutually positive results in 23 hours, and less than an hour after that, even though I am 2000 miles away from home, I got a friendly call from my local health department.

We’re going to be fine, thanks, due to vaccinations and booster shots. But I have been thinking about social reluctance to share the fact that one has been infected. Back in 2020, isolated from everyone and wiping down groceries, I collected the most credible articles on SARS-CoV-2 I could find—dozens of them, with overlapping and sometimes conflicting information. One of them said that the coronavirus, uncontrolled, would eventually infect 60-70% of Americans and could kill as many as a million of us.

At the time, it was a horrifying prospect. A million deaths? Unthinkable. Tragic. Preventable. And this was before those trucks rolled out of the Pfizer plant in Kalamazoo.

I set out to be an Agent of Control, a rule-follower, a curve-flattener. It’s kind of the person I’ve been all my life: Bookish Goody Two-shoes. I was hooked on the nightly cable news—Outbreaks at meat-cutting plants in the Midwest! Crisis in NOLA! Refrigerated morgue trucks in New York City! (Those exclamation points are not sardonic, by the way.)

As the first cases emerged in my rather remote rural county, that same health department (which has been, IMHO, a sterling example of competent public service) released only the sketchiest of information about where and how people were getting sick—fully HIPAA compliant.

Most of what I knew about who had come down with the virus came from personal relationships and gossip. There were cases all around me, per HD statistics, in my rural zip code, but I didn’t know who—and the first ugly anti-mask scuffles had cropped up in front of the grocery mart at the only gas station in town. It’s also the only place to get liquor, so it’s pretty much the town square.

I have a friend whose father died of COVID in the summer of 2020. He was very elderly (and old-school stubborn, refusing to mask or let her shop for him). My friend was his primary caregiver for the last decades of his life; when he died, she included the fact that he’d died of COVID in the newspaper obituary.

Doing so set off a family firestorm. Her older siblings were furious—how he died was nobody’s business! He had lived in this area all his life—why shame him? Just say that he went to be with his Lord and Savior, yada yada.

I don’t get that.

At that point, we had already experienced the rolling failures of the Trump administration—the obfuscation and misinformation, the easily refuted faux-optimistic proclamations, the refusal to mask, the scarf lady’s cringing when Trump suggested that bleach might do the trick, if hydroxychloroquine didn’t.

People who caught COVID-19 hadn’t done anything shameful. They’d been unlucky (and, in his case, vulnerable and a little reckless), but they weren’t bad people. Ironically, his church was the county-wide nexus for local anti-masking protests.

Nothing about catching the virus, it seems to me, needs to be secret. What we know about who is getting sick, and how—and even who died from the coronavirus—is public health information, plain and simple. Not private or classified. And certainly not shameful. Do we look back, 100 years later, on the mostly young and healthy victims of the 1918 flu pandemic as anything other than unfortunate?

It’s this cognitive dissonance that intrigues me. What kind of people deny the very real existence of a deadly virus, willingly endangering others? Why wasn’t the emergence of the pandemic a 9/11 moment, a chance for us all to pull together as other nations did? Letting everyone know when you were infected, and when you were cleared—so they could help you, and you could help them, later? How did ‘I’ll pray for you’ morph into ‘pretend you’re not sick?’

Friends teach in a building where over half of the children were absent for several days running in November. Interviewed for the local news, the superintendent claimed that yes, indeed, there were over two hundred children out sick. However, their (here it comes) ‘research’ showed that almost none of the students who were ill contracted it at school, even though there was no mask mandate. This is a patently ridiculous statement, but people seemed to accept it.

I realize that thousands of articles and blogs have been written about America, Selfish Nation—and worse. In spite of President Biden’s attempts to be a good global citizen, our problems are now spilling over borders:

When you live next to a junkie, you can expect something flaming to land in your backyard eventually. America is a political-anger junkie; the trucker convoy is something flaming that has landed in our backyard. 

I just finished There is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century by Fiona Hill. (Read this book. Right now.) Hill deftly ties our national response to the corona virus to something much greater than mere mismanagement—many nations have veered from good to unhelpful decisions and policies while anxiously dealing with a brand-new virus. But in the home of the brave:

Trump played personal and polarizing politics, rather than made policy. Not only the livelihoods but the lives of Americans were at stake. We needed to get our house, America, in order, not just fixate on which man was in the ‘people’s house.’

National unity and purpose, facing a common enemy, have been sacrificed in order for one side to ‘win.’ It’s demoralizing.

I’m hoping my follow-up test tomorrow will be negative. And I’m sharing the news—I got COVID, somewhere—because I want my cautious, civic-minded friends to know that being triple-jabbed means that a positive test isn’t necessarily scary. It hasn’t been fun, being sick, but knowing I wasn’t going to die, thanks to science, and that my local public health officials were tracking me helped immensely.

We’ll get through this together. Maybe.

How ‘Transparent’ is Your School?

The first time I was called on the carpet by a parent for something I taught was in my first year of teaching. In the 1970s. The fact that I remember it so clearly, decades later, is significant.

Here’s what happened: I was teaching my sixth grade general music classes about song parodies. We didn’t fret much, in those days, about standards, benchmarks or learning goals, but I actually had some.

I wanted my students to understand how one tune could carry multiple sets of lyrics—that they were two separate things, and the character and tempo of the tune should match the words, ideally. The tunes, written on the board (this was in the days of pre-lined music chalkboards), would illustrate new rhythmic figures. And writing their own words would be an exercise in creativity for the students.

This was before Weird Al, but I encouraged them to use popular songs, and adapt the words. They worked in little teams, then shared what they’d come up with. A group of boys used the Beatles’ Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, substituting Santa for Maxwell (it was December). Of course, the class thought this was hilarious: Bang, bang, Santa’s silver hammer came down on her head… (and made sure she was dead).

I can’t remember, exactly, how I responded to the boys’ warbling this song. But the next afternoon, I was called to the principal’s office. A mother had called, all upset about what I was teaching my sixth graders—something about Santa being a killer? Surely, that couldn’t be right. Could it?

I explained.

Do you want me to handle this? he asked. (Props to him.) He thought it would be better for me to talk to the mom but was willing to run interference. I’d been a music teacher for all of four months, and it was tempting to avoid that conversation, but I told him I’d call her back tomorrow.

Which was good. It gave me an evening to run through the gamut of emotions. Defensiveness. (I didn’t know what the boys were going to sing!) Scorn. (Shouldn’t a sixth grader be a little tougher? Even with a helicopter mom?) Fear. (What if the mom took this higher than the principal—could I be formally reprimanded? Did she have friends on the school board?)

The next day I called her back and essentially fell on my sword. I explained what I was trying to teach, and how the lesson got away from me. I skipped the defensiveness, scorn and fear. She explained that her daughter still believed in Santa Claus and came home devastated and sobbing when those awful boys thought it was funny for Santa—the real Santa—to be so unfairly portrayed. She talked about Santa as the embodiment of fun and joy and childhood.

I did some private eye-rolling, but I apologized, and promised to have a chat with the class the next time I saw them and enlighten them about inappropriate lyrics. She said she felt much better after speaking to me. And—here’s the important part—I had three more children from that family in the music program over the years, with good relationships all around.

When I told the principal about our conversation, he pointed out that sixth grade, the first year of middle school, is scary for sheltering parents. They fear their children’s maturation, often wanting one more year of childhood, to stop the adolescence train from its inevitable arrival. He complimented me on handling it professionally.  (He really was a great principal.)

Since that day, I’ve had hundreds of difficult conversations with parents. But very few of them were about what I was teaching—the learning goals, teaching materials, class discussions and curriculum. For more than a dozen years, I took more than 100 8th graders on overnight trips—to see musicals and orchestras, to play a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, to visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There were risks in that—but also great rewards.

I also wove what you might call controversial topics into my lessons. The ethical dilemmas of downloading ‘free’ music in the days of Napster, for example (when I knew full well that there was illicit downloading going on in many of their homes). The Black roots of American popular music, and our shameful treatment of some of our most influential artists, including theft of their genius. I did a mock trial around sexism in rock music.

My school was 98% white and very middle class, with lots of stay-at-home moms, in a ruby red county. I was able to do this because I built up trust in the community over time. I told parents, at Back to School night in September, what I was planning and why—the broad outlines, anyway.

I say all this not to congratulate myself on being a model, DEI-friendly teacher. I’m telling you that most of what is happening at school board meetings right now, and all of the proposed legislation to insert parent surveillance into instruction, comes from a very different source than helicopter parenting. It’s a gross political calculation, with ugly threats and outright falsehoods upping the ante.

It springs from defensiveness and scorn—I’m entitled to have control over my children’s beliefs, not some left-wing, bottom of the barrel teacher’s BS! But mostly, it’s about fear. That fear was nurtured in concert with four years of terror over and lies about losing political power–plus racial, sexual and xenophobic animus.

And now we have stupid laws, like the GOP bill popping up in near-identical form in states with Republican-dominated legislatures.The language demands ‘transparency’ around several things:

  • Curriculum approved by the district for each school operated by the district. 
  • Each class offered to pupils of the district as part of the curriculum.
  •  A list of each certificated teacher or other individual authorized under state law to teach in this state who is charged with implementing the curriculum.

I cannot imagine any public school district in the United States that couldn’t provide that information in about 20 minutes, unless they were operating in utter chaos, in which case they have bigger problems than answering parents’ (legitimate) questions about what their kids are learning.

Here’s where it gets a little dicey—and insulting. The law also mandates the sharing of:

  • Textbooks, literature, research projects, writing assignments and field trips that are part of the curriculum. 
  • Extracurricular activities being implemented during designated school hours or under the authority of the school.

And there’s a walloping big threat tucked in:

  • School districts that don’t comply would lose 5 percent of state funding.

Teachers all over the country have been exclaiming how just how nuts this ultimatum is. Good teachers identify student needs and base their lesson plans on what logically comes next, for the kids in front of them. And often, a great lesson opportunity, something not in the formal curriculum, emerges unexpectedly. Teachers know this as the teachable moment.

Here’s an example of that: I was teaching a 7th grade math class and we had just finished a unit on ratios and percentages. We did pages of calculation, and had a culminating test, but I wasn’t convinced the students knew the utility of ratios and percentages in adult life. I was reading the Sunday Detroit Free Press and there was a four-page feature article on changing housing prices and mortgage rates, with lots of tables and graphs. Eureka.

This was before the days when students had their own devices, so I copied and pasted parts of the article into a packet, and we dug into the costs and financing of homes. The first thing that happened was the shock of a bunch of 12 year-olds learning that their homes probably cost more than $100K, which seemed like a fortune to them. We calculated down payments for the homes they chose from pictures in the article, and monthly payments using different mortgage rates. It was actually fun.

It was basic math, the kind of thing parents always say that they want: practical finance. Would they still say that, today? Would there be a parent who found a lesson like this intrusive, giving students information about the comparative value of homes in disparate neighborhoods—or predatory lending? And would they be able to shut this lesson down, for all the students?

Needing to pre-approve every single thing—not just books–that teachers use in instruction would be extraordinarily clumsy. It would suppress creativity, but innovative lessons around current conditions and events now feel dangerous to some parents (check the link for just who those parents are).

The ‘extracurricular’ reference likely refers to clubs and activities where there is less oversight— like the drama club, school newspaper, or the Gay-Straight Alliance, things that make school rewarding, even bearable, for many students.

Here’s the key thing, though. It is exceptionally difficult to predict or control what gets said and done in schools, even with an ironclad curriculum, because the school staff aren’t the only ones talking. The kids are talking, too. My lesson on song parodies didn’t go awry because of anything I did or said. And ask any kindergarten teacher how much they hear about what goes on in their students’ homes.

There’s lots of transparency in schools—they’re among the most transparent and accountable public institutions on the planet. And that’s a good thing.

The Highly Unqualified Teacher

Remember the early days of No Child Left Behind? When everyone was trying to figure out precisely who was a ‘highly qualified’ teacher, under federal regulations?

Here is a sample state document—15 pages’ worth—of the required coursework, majors and minors, certifications, licensure tests and ongoing professional development credits that a classroom teacher needed to be deemed highly qualified, under NCLB. Your mileage, in other states, may vary—but not much. The feds were all about making sure the most capable and knowledgeable folks were in front of our public school classrooms.

Or so they said.

At the time, the education community protested: WE should be the ones to determine whether someone (a certified someone, with a college degree, of course) is qualified to teach X! We have seen that person in action!

But federal guidelines, and states that rolled over for them, caused havoc in public schools across the country. In my middle school, it meant that a beloved veteran– but elementary-certified–8th grade English teacher found himself teaching 3rd grade, one of many personnel shuffles.

Teachers with advanced degrees went back to take courses they could have taught themselves. Rural districts, where one Science teacher covered Biology, Earth Science, and Chemistry and Physics in alternate years, found themselves with a host of ‘unqualified’ teachers who’d been on the job, doing yeoman work, for years.

An avalanche of irritated hoop-jumping ensued.  So that all teachers could be highly qualified. Professional. Experts in their fields. On paper, anyway.

That was then.

There’s been a lot of press lately about the lack of qualified substitute teachers as we navigate a raging global pandemic. States are lowering—really, seriously lowering—the bar to get temporary but warm bodies in classrooms, to keep school doors open.

But chronic substitute shortages have been around (poorly-paid canaries in the teacher preparation coalmine) for decades. I spent three full (non-consecutive) years of my life substitute teaching, in addition to occasional sub gigs as a retired teacher. It usually takes an adult beverage for me to share the details of how those year-long stints came about, but my experience is confirmation that substitute teaching on a day-by-day basis is pretty random.

Some days, the kids are actually moving forward—the teacher has left solid plans and it’s clear that you’re in a place where order is the daily norm. Other days? I once was assigned a 5th grade and arrived to find these plans: ‘Reading—groups. Math—division. Science—rockets.’ That was all—six words.  Try to imagine a well-meaning school bus driver-turned-sub attempting to make lemonade out of that for seven hours.

It’s not the substitute teacher pool I’m worried about right now, however. It’s last-ditch moves (after more than a decade of warnings) to fix the leaky teacher pipeline during a pandemic that are really scary. Worth pointing out: if there were ample trained teachers available to work, and acceptable conditions for them (including compensation), the substitute problem would shrink and vanish.

But first, teaching, as a career, must be reconceptualized. We’re rapidly moving in the wrong direction on that score.

It is entirely possible to create an effective and enthusiastic teacher workforce, state by state. It would take time, money and research-based pedagogical expertise, but we, too, could have a uniformly professional teacher pool.  State and school-based leaders have proposed viable plans to begin doing just that.

We could also find alternative ways to bring job-changers and other school staff into the classroom, by dedicating real money and programming into mentoring, on-the-job professional learning, and skill/content development for those who want a longer-term career in teaching.

What doesn’t help is uninformed legislation to get highly UNqualified teachers into schools right away—and highly publicized hand-wringing over the pandemic-driven ‘crisis’ of unstaffed classrooms. It’s a crisis, all right, but it’s a temporary crisis (and one produced by bad education policies over time, more than COVID).

Speaking of bad policy, there’s a bill currently in the MI legislature to allow college students studying education to become teachers of record. These are not student teachers or even students who have been admitted to candidacy in a selective teacher training program. They’re just college students who wish to teach one day, maybe:

The bill differentiates these aspiring teachers from “student teachers.” The uncertified teachers allowed under the new bill would be paid for their work, and, unlike when working as a student teacher, the bill would allow them to teach completely on their own, without a mentor present in the room.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Pamela Hornberger (R) (ironically, a former art teacher) said this:  

“We’re at the point where we’re voting to put anyone with a pulse and breathing in a classroom to sub. We need to do something.”

Well, yeah. We needed to do something decades ago, but we followed our usual ‘starve public education’ modus operandi, and it caught up with us during an unanticipated public health crisis. So now we’re hoping ‘aspiring’ 19 year-olds will bail us out?

Bad policy on top of bad policy.

But this feels like more than another dumb idea from a Republican legislator (the MI Department of Ed, the teachers’ unions, universities and Democrats are all adamantly opposed, by the way). It feels like just another strategy to weaken and compromise public education by further de-professionalizing teaching.

Lower the bar into teaching, because EMERGENCY! Then, demand that new and inexperienced teachers share a years’ worth of lesson plans, assignments and ‘topics’ so they can be scrutinized by fired-up parents, or cost their district five percent of its already meager state funding.

Kind of makes you wish for the good old days when the bad policy was at least nominally trying to do the right thing by building some highly qualified teachers.

Legislators’ Guide to Making Useful Education Policy, v. 2.0

I recently attended a virtual kickoff rally for Betsy Coffia, who is running for the MI State House, in the newly drawn 103rd district. I first met Betsy after she ran—unsuccessfully—for the old state House seat, more than eight years ago. We met on-line, and she wanted to meet face to face, over coffee.

Betsy asked lots of questions; we had a great conversation. Although she had worked briefly for Head Start, she admitted there were lots of theories and ideas in education policy she found murky. Personally, I was charmed by a candidate who was still hungry to know about ed policy from the perspective of a veteran teacher. In the next cycle, Betsy ran for County Commission and won—twice.

Betsy said (in 2014): “Wouldn’t it be great if there were a guide for legislators to making useful education policy?” So I sketched out one and put it up on my Education Week blog—and from there, it was picked up by Phi Delta Kappan, among other media outlets. It drew lots of commentary—mostly positive.

I just pulled it out. And wow. You wouldn’t think things would be all that different, in eight years. The 2014 version below. Comments about changes in education policy-making—the 2022 version—follow the list of ten.

#1. You don’t know education just because you went to school.

Even if you were paying attention in high school, your perspective as a student was extremely narrow and is now obsolete. Study the issues, which are more complex and resistant to change than you think. Here’s a brief list of things that, in my experience, legislators don’t know diddly about:

  • A cooperative classroom and how to achieve it
  • Formative assessment
  • Effect of class size on daily practice (not test scores)
  • Difference between standards and curriculum
  • Special education
  • Research-based value of recess and exercise
  • Differentiation vs. tracking
  • What quality teaching looks like in practice
  • The fact that ALL learning is socially constructed.

And on and on.

#2. Plan to pay many non-photo op visits to lots of schools. Do things while you’re there. Read with 3rd graders. Sit in on a high school government class or small-group discussion about Shakespeare. Play badminton in a coed gym class. Take garden-variety teachers out for coffee after your visit; let them talk, and just listen. Resist the urge to share the “good news” about legislation you’re cosponsoring. Ask questions instead.

#3. Take the tests that kids have to take. Then you’ll understand why “achievement data” and what to do with it are sources of high anxiety for public schools, teachers, and students.

#4. Be picky about what you read, listen to, and believe. Media is not fair and balanced. In an online world, information and sexy, upbeat story lines are for sale. At the very least, read both sides, with your crap detector on full alert. Consider that media often enshrines flat-out lies in the public consciousness simply because they’re a good headline or the deliverer is charismatic.

#5. Examine your assumptions. When teachers roll out unsubstantiated chestnuts (“No wonder he’s the way he is—just look at his parents!”), it’s teacher lounge talk. But, when elected officials say clueless things, voters pay attention. For example: “Incompetent teachers are being allowed to teach, and substandard service is being tolerated.” Whatever your deepest convictions about unions, teacher pay, urban poverty, or kids today, check those biases at the door. Represent everyone in your district, not just the people who agree with you.

#6. Follow the money, not the party. A lot of what’s happening in education “reform” today is centered around taking advantage of the large, previously untapped market of K-12 education. Before you get on any partisan policy bandwagon just for the thrill of passing a law, ask yourself: Who really benefits from this? Who loses?

#7. Remember you were elected to represent your constituents’ goals and desires, not some special interest group. Even if the prepackaged legislation is slick and convenient and the Koch brothers are willing to fly you someplace warm with golf courses, do the work yourself. Looking yourself in the mirror will be a lot easier in the morning.

#8. Be like Rob Portman. Change your mind and your public proclamations when the evidence is convincing. Changing your mind — if you do it publicly, and don’t try to sneak the shifts past voters with tap dancing and weasel language — makes you stronger, demonstrating that you have confidence in your own core values and leadership. After all, Diane Ravitch altered her views and earned herself a few million devotees.

Corollary: Admit when you don’t understand value-added methodology, the reason STEM is so hot, or constructivism in mathematics education. There is nothing more pathetic than a legislator trying to act like he knows something by tossing out a few buzzwords.

#9. Big and bold gets headlines, but tinkering around the edges gets results. Want to raise teacher quality? Don’t endorse firing the “lowest” quintile, publicly rank-ordering them in the newspaper, or bringing in untrained but photogenic Ivy Leaguers. Do it the old-fashioned way: careful recruitment, building teachers’ skills and knowledge, investing in their capacity and leadership over time.

#10. Honor our democratic foundations. Public education is the most democratic of our institutions, one of our best ideas as Americans. Public schools may be tattered and behind the technological curve, but systematically destroying the infrastructure of public education is profoundly selfish and immoral. Don’t be that legislator.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

From the perspective of 2022:
Some of these are evergreen–#10 especially, but I could add a half-dozen bullet points (the so-called Science of Reading, for example) to #1, as things around which most legislators have zero expertise. The invitation to visit classrooms (#2) once a foundational strategy of reformy organizations like Teach Plus, is defunct in the time of COVID.

Suggesting that legislators take statewide assessments (so they can learn about the tests’ irrelevance and weaknesses) seems downright quaint now. We’re using admittedly bogus test data from 2021 to proclaim that poor kids suffered more under remote learning (which may have also saved their lives, but oh well… learning loss!) Because hundreds of non-profits would have to close if there were no giant data sets to analyze—testing went on, under conditions rendering the results invalid.

Actual policy-making skill, tailored to real needs rather than outside organizations’ agendas—numbers 4, 5, 6 and 7—has grown considerably worse. This is a result of four years of Betsy DeVos, increasingly divisive rhetoric in the media, a poorly managed pandemic, unregulated social media, and the fact that one of our two major political parties has decided that winning is the only thing that matters and to hell with the public good. Public education is now, essentially, for sale.

I’m trying to imagine any teacher cheerily saying to any Republican representative: Check your biases at the door! Those days are over—and the way Glenn Youngkin used deceptive education policy promises to win an election ought to be a cautionary tale for all of us. So much for civic engagement and community-building. So much for re-thinking and all the other blah-blah about improving schools. The action now is locked and loaded, standing on the Capitol steps.

I was really stunned to re-read #9, to remember that there was once a time when ‘big thinkers’ in education were talking about lopping off the lowest-achieving teachers. Now, of course, we’re inviting bus drivers and lunch ladies to substitute teach.  As Peter Greene notes:  It is amazing how quickly some folks have pivoted from “We must ensure teacher and educational quality” to “We must get students into a building with the word ‘school’ in its name no matter what actually happens once we’re inside.” It turns out that an awful lot of that big talk about educational excellence and quality was insincere posturing and as long as we can get schools open and students stuffed inside with something resembling a probably-responsible adult with a pulse, that’s good enough. 

I am optimistic enough to think that writing ten new talking points for writing good education policy is something that might be useful—at some point in the future, if not today. One thing I learned from reading Ibram X Kendi is that most social beliefs and practices are, when you dig deep enough, driven by decades, even centuries, of policy. And, of course, money.

Plus ca change…

The Pastor, the Speaker of the House—and a Christian Academy Education

Perhaps you remember, back in 2020, when Donald Trump invited the MI Senate Majority Leader, Mike Shirkey (R) and the Speaker of the MI House, Lee Chatfield (R) to Washington, D.C.?

It was a couple weeks after the election, and their pictures were everywhere, including two-story projections on the front of Trump’s hotel, with the text ‘Voters Decided—the World is Watching.’ Chatfield and Shirkey were evasive about the actual purpose of this little rendezvous—but hey! When Trump says jump…

It’s also likely this was just one of So Many Stories about Trump’s desperate behavior, post-election, that it has been eclipsed in the national memory, but on November 20, 2020, lots of Michiganders were pretty sure that Shirkey and Chatfield weren’t sitting in the hotel bar discussing truth and justice.

So–the former MI Speaker, Lee Chatfield, has found himself in a bit of a pickle lately.

A police investigation for allegedly sexually assaulting a young teenager, for starters. The story is appallingly greasy: Chatfield groomed and abused a teenager from a ‘broken home’ when he was a teacher in a private Christian Academy founded by his father. Later, she (urged on by Chatfield and his father, ‘Pastor Rusty’) married Chatfield’s younger brother, Aaron. Who later became Chatfield’s driver on trips to Detroit to sow sexual wild oats.

As I said—greasy.

Chatfield became Speaker of the House at age 30, and was term-limited out in 2020. He is now 33. He is married to his HS sweetheart, with five children. He claims his relationship with the victim (which began when she was 14 or 15) was ‘consensual.’ In MI, the age of consent is 16—18 if the older person is an educator.

Lots of hand-wringing by his fellow Repubs, of course. And disgust from people who have always perceived Chatfield as a hard-right lightweight, not worthy of the responsibility of making policy for almost 10 million citizens in Michigan.

What interests me in this story, however, is not the salacious details (and there are way more than the summary, above). It’s the fact that Chatfield was– it pains me to say this—a teacher. Not in any sense a conventional teacher (certified, licensed, prepared, ethical)– but a teacher nonetheless (and, every story reminds us, also a coach and the Athletic Director).

In fact, Lee Chatfield is kind of the poster child for why we have laws in education—why public schools must have elected boards, qualified and vetted staff, new-teacher mentoring and supervision, ongoing professional learning, teacher evaluation, and so on.

At the private, K-12 Christian school where he ‘taught’—a young man in his early twenties, who attended an unaccredited Bible College—the administrator was his father, and the curriculum was unabashedly Bible-based (check it out). Parents at the school must sign an affidavit promising not to engage in destructive criticism of the school and its staff in the presence of their children. It’s cheap, too—you can send all six of your kids there for about what MI gives public schools for one child.

Sounds like a great place, exactly the kind of home-grown school that Betsy DeVos wanted to favor with vouchers. You have to wonder what they’re paying their teachers (and for that matter, their ‘Athletic Director’).  

Chatfield’s district is not far from where I live—and I know that a small K-12 Christian school in the rural woods of northern Michigan might be appealing to parents looking for ‘choice’ and made fearful by the media-fed blabber about how their white children would be made to feel guilty in public schools.

They wouldn’t be terribly concerned about vetting the teachers—they’re Christians, right?—or investigating the curriculum.

(In fact, even though we had a curriculum night every year, wherever I was teaching, parents seldom struck me as being deeply concerned about finer point of disciplinary benchmarks and content outlines. They came to see the face and hear the voice of the person in front of the classroom. Which makes the whole anti-CRT crapola inexplicable, except as a politically motivated and funded scam.)

Sometimes, the person in front of the classroom is an entitled, over-confident predator.  

There are plenty of lessons for policy-makers here, ironically, beginning with a reminder that almost everything we do in public education is controlled by well-worn laws and policies.

Genuinely ethical practice protects and nurtures children. And he who makes his own rules can’t be trusted.

What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been: Five Decades of Ed Reform

Four days ago, I wrote a Blog of Despair—all about the forthcoming demise (or destruction, take your pick) of America’s best idea: public education. I’m not backing down from that conviction; I think the more or less permanent downfall of public schooling is inescapable, unless there are major, sudden shifts in public and political opinion.

One of my former students, now a mother with two school-aged boys, commented on the blog: If we could start over and build education from scratch, what would it look like? 

First—I have to admit that I’m proud of Kendra for asking the kind of question that doctoral students at research universities have been noodling over (without transformational results) since forever.

While there are optimistic legislative packages and snazzy new tools, most real change in education feels sluggish, rather random and exceedingly difficult to analyze. The idea of starting from scratch lies under most reform—charter schools were originally touted as a way to get rid of red tape and innovate. (Pause for cynical laughter.)

The thing is: transformational change involves determination and investment. It’s uncomfortable, expensive—and it takes time. Most change in public schools is driven by forces—financial, technical, social—outside of education. We’re not very visionary or intentional about education.

Education policy thinkers tend to be Stephen Covey-esque in the upbeat, step-wise way they approach change: anticipate, arrange, administer and assess. That’s how we got No Child Left Behind, which was supposed to be the Grand Strategy to identify inequities, raise and equalize standards (a word meaning different things to different stakeholders), harass teachers into somehow teaching better, and then test diligently to ensure accountability.

But– no plan on such a scale succeeds unquestionably. NCLB may have changed the tenor of the conversation, but over two decades of No Child, in various incarnations, have come and gone– and we’re still considering why the results are proof that you can spend billions and not improve education in any meaningful way.

I have been a teacher in five distinct decades, each with its own policy slogans, public perceptions and real problems. We’ve been “at a turning point” more times than I can count. We have surfed the rising tide of mediocrity and been embarrassed by the soft bigotry of our low expectations.  But what has really changed in classrooms? What’s the net impact on actual practice?

My–admittedly ultra-personal and non-scientific–report on Five Decades of American Education:

The Seventies: Got my first full-time, regular-paycheck teaching job in 1975–something of a miracle, as there was a teacher glut in Michigan. Was hired because the principal needed someone right away and we were on the same humor wavelength in the interview.

Soon learned that there was no district curriculum for music or any other subjects. Chose my own teaching materials from catalogs–wasn’t that a curriculum? Taught whatever and however I wanted–no instructional oversight, no mandated materials and nothing resembling “professional development.”

Heard “don’t smile until Christmas” about 50 times from other teachers, sum total of any “mentoring” I got.  Saw teachers smack kids (still permitted by law)–and heard lots of lounge talk about chaos that would happen if the right to paddle was taken away.

I was pink-slipped in Years Two, Three, Four and Six. Was always called back–once because of a lawsuit, after registering for unemployment. All of this was tied to precarious, locally voted school funding.

Gave statewide tests–the MEAPs, then a basic-skills check–but nobody considered them a big deal. Was happy that Jimmy Carter instituted a cabinet position for education–about time! Had a few friends who taught in Detroit–envied their superior facilities, resources and paychecks. Teaching seemed like a fulfilling, creative, and very autonomous job. Most days, it was lots of fun.

The Eighties:  Economic downturn in the early 80s meant further pink-slipping and annual changes of building/teaching assignment necessitated by constant personnel shifts. Had daily loads of up to 400 students in two buildings and–since any certified MI teacher could teach any subject to 7th and 8th graders–a year of teaching math. All of this change was oddly invigorating, if exhausting.

Finished a masters degree in Gifted Education, a popular cafeteria-style ed specialty (like Career Ed, Distance Learning, etc.). Got serious about teaching. Read many books, took fake sick days to observe admired teachers in other districts. Sought leadership roles in Music Ed organizations. Downright hungry for professional conversations.

None of this was required, encouraged or even noticed by the district, which did institute its own curriculum benchmarks in the 80s. Teachers called these curriculum guides “the black notebooks.” Problem: not enough time, staff or resources to teach all the good things in the black notebooks.

Reagan’s release of “A Nation at Risk” interpreted by colleagues as rhetorical excess and unionized-teacher bashing, an imperialistic extension of right-wing momentum gained in the air traffic controllers’ strike. Hoped it would blow over, but having to listen to Bill Bennett’s nostalgic morality fables was nauseating. Still giving the MEAPs, which got harder in the 80s. Took leadership roles in the union–since they were the only teacher leadership roles available.

The Nineties: Decade opens with some optimism. H.W. Bush’s Goals 2000 are kind of inane–First in the world in math and science! –but there’s the sense that policymakers are paying attention, and the belief that public education can and should improve.

Visit Detroit, shocked to see decayed and racially polarized schools–what happened in the last 15 years? Outstate Michigan residents, tired of seeing wealthy suburban schools funded at four times the rate of rural and urban-rust schools, pass a funding bill to get rid of property taxes as source, using sales tax instead. Outstate schools ecstatic as times are flush–auto industry will last forever!

Real and substantive school improvement begins to impact daily practice. There are national standards and benchmarks in most subjects, and teacher committees to update, align, discuss. Required mentoring for new colleagues. Performance assessments, and portfolios of student work. Required professional learning as opposed to blow-off in-service days, although the quality is still iffy.

Further upgrades in the MEAPs, including hands-on tasks for kids, new constructivist tests for science, social studies and writing. Better assessments begin to drive instruction. New teacher hiring done by colleagues. Plus–fab new instructional toy arrives in classrooms: the computer, full of infinite possibilities for teaching and learning. Some teachers begin experimenting immediately; others are intimidated.

Best Secretary of Education ever–Dick Riley–provides eight years of continuity of purpose and coherent policy. Education is still a local-control thing; Feds just there to ensure equity, promote innovation. National certification identifying accomplished teaching becomes reality. Next stop: real leadership roles for exemplary teachers, whose expertise will help policymakers solve problems. Nagging worry: all of this still takes money–and a growing number of poor kids are still completely underserved.

The Naughts: A slow U-turn in policy and conventional wisdom. We’re not gradually improving, after all–in fact, we’re an international educational joke.  All public schools (not just poor/urban schools) are bad. Decidedly awful–and the people who work and believe in them are intellectual dimbulbs who care only about their inflated salaries. How would they handle this in Singapore? China? India? We must compete!

Buzzword of the decade: data. Every person with a computer sees data analysis as the solution. In the lunchroom, colleagues express skepticism about the Texas Miracle even before it’s exposed as just another Data Hustle. Some of the best teachers in the building discover they are not Highly Qualified. Meanwhile, the worst teachers in the building–genuine stinkers–look good under NCLB regs.

We begin administering tests to third graders–and relinquish development of performance assessments that tell us real things about kids’ writing, number sense, comprehension, familiarity with the scientific method. No time for that now–the data-driven race to the top has begun even before it’s formally named.

Saw well-regarded suburban districts become defensive and start advertising as schools of choice. Urban and rural districts were shamed. Teacher preparation institutions–even the good ones– scorned. Paradox of the decade: We must have the smartest teachers! But should they bother studying the science of teaching? Or stay in the classroom for more than a couple of years? No. With data, we can replace teachers as often and as efficiently as we replace technologies.

The Twenty-Tens: The decade begins with the depressing realization that the Obama administration has fully bought into the privatizing, standardizing “accountability” movement, where no child can go untested. There are tweaks to NCLB, but the idea that we can accurately measure teaching/learning excellence through data becomes embedded wisdom. Federal policy demands grow—and competitive financial incentives are dangled in front of states to meet questionable regulatory goals that do little to innovate or improve schools.

The Common Core State (sic) Standards are launched, adopted, fleshed out with assessments and aligned instructional materials during the first half of the decade. Teachers have lots of complaints, but are knocked down by the big systemic wave of federally-driven homogenization. Mid-decade, however, community pushback against the Common Core strengthens—another silver bullet with no results—and its trajectory rapidly descends. Baby Boomer teachers, like me, the core of the profession (for better and worse), leave the field; the conventional teacher pipeline begins to dry up, along with the concept of teacher professionalism.

Now retired, I visit classrooms every week, as substitute, volunteer, special instructor or teacher coach. Every school I visit still looks and feels familiar—the crowded hallways, the marginal hot-lunch pizza, the goofy Things Kids Say. Things have changed since the 1970s, and not for the better, but school is still school.

And then, there’s an election.

The day after the 2016 election, a group of middle schoolers in Royal Oak, Michigan is videotaped shouting ‘Build That Wall!’ to a cluster of Hispanic kids, in the lunchroom. Four years of destroying useful education policy and practice ensue, led by a cartoonishly incompetent Education Secretary and newly emboldened, racist policy-makers. Things in public education go from bad to So Much Worse.

And then came the pandemic.

In April of 2020, I wrote a wildly optimistic blog titled A Dozen Good Things that Could (Just Maybe) Happen as a Result of this Pandemic. I mention this, because I have often, like Kendra, asked myself how I would change public education, if I could start from scratch. I genuinely believed that a pandemic could serve as a cleared slate, a turning point, for our social institutions. Maybe it’s too early to give up on that idea—a reclamation of public education’s mission—but I’m not optimistic.

I would sketch the last 50 years of public education as a bobbling, but slowly rising curve through the 70s, 80s and 90s, with a downturn at Y2K, falling gradually until the last five years, after which the line plummets due south, rapidly. Way south.

A long, strange trip indeed.

The Demise of Genuinely Public Education

“Censorship reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime.”

Potter Stewart, Supreme Court Justice

There is no more local-politics issue than public education.

From Mom gossip about teachers, watching Little Leaguers play, to intense competition for valedictory honors with all the teenaged strivers loading up on useless AP credits—any community’s buzz continually includes trash-talking the local public schools.

The charter school movement tried to take advantage of this, co-opting public education by taking its best features (it’s free, it’s local) and blending them with private school features (selectivity, glossy PR). This has resulted in more waste, fraud and abuse—the very things public schools were accused of, before charters were even invented. In the process, charters drew significant resources away from genuinely public schools.

This is, of course, old news. Charters, vouchers, unhappy parents, ‘education savings accounts’ and court decisions shifting resources away from common schools have been with us for more than a century.

My first political activity, in fact, was phone-banking against a voucher initiative in MI in 1978 (it went down, 3 to 1—like two subsequent voucher proposals). The first time I went to a heated school board meeting, to defend my district’s well-designed sex education curriculum, was even earlier.

Public education has always been under-resourced, contentious and subject to the community it serves. The people who work in public education have always been underpaid, but generally aspire to improve society by helping kids. There are exceptions, of course, but years of history and research bear this out.

You might think I’d be used to this, what with all the banned books, slashed programs (often my own) and vehement parent rhetoric in my personal past. You might think I would be applying the evergreen ‘this too will pass’ theory to what’s happening today, confident that the pendulum will swing, the pandemic angst will fade, and we’ll be back to our highly imperfect normal: public education under siege, but still standing.

It’s taken some time for me to come to this opinion, but I foresee the end of what we currently call public education.

The tipping point is a global pandemic—but the great, battered ship of public ed has been taking incoming fire for a long time. Chunks of its initial purpose and mission—an educated citizenry, democratic equality, a broad introduction to the real world and the humanities—have been regularly chipped off. Something new and malevolent, however, has taken root: an overt push to use public education and already pissed-off parents to win elections.

Today, NPR posted an article entitled ‘Teachers are on the Front Lines in January 6th Culture War.’

It’s a pretty good piece, featuring an array of teachers and curricular experts discussing the difficulties of teaching current events on the anniversary of the January 6th insurrection, after the nation and the Republican party has had a year to, you know, just get over it.

There are brave teachers in MA and MT who are planning to show news videos and discuss the root causes and eventual outcomes. But there’s also a special ed teacher (and regional chapter chair of Moms for Liberty) in Indiana, who’s sticking to math and English, in an effort to be ‘unbiased.’

Unbiased against what? Protecting the rights of camo-clad faux-military marauders to despoil the U.S. Capitol and threaten the lives of Members of Congress? Not willing to sway student thinking about the peaceful transfer of power? Trying to stay neutral on the topic of domestic terrorism?

Just whom are we censoring here? And whom are we protecting?

The story ends with a quote from a middle school teacher, Dylan Huiskan: Not addressing the attack is to suggest that the civic ideals we teach exist in a vacuum and don’t have any real-world application, that civic knowledge is mere trivia.

Veteran public school teachers like me have spent decades developing real-world content discipline applications for our students. We have fought against sterile data-driven education, the relentless pursuit of test scores, the pushing Science and Social Studies and the Arts out of the curriculum. We’ve been trying to DE-trivialize education, professionalizing our own work in the process.

But now we’ve got teachers who think their colleagues are indoctrinating students, by showing them actual live news footage, or discussing an event that happened within their short memory and has huge impact on their own futures as American citizens.

Things are falling apart. We have been crushed by an unexpected medical disaster. One of our two political parties has gone off the rails.  Civility is deadand oh yeah, the planet is fighting back after years of heedless neglect.

And now, we’ve decided to warn teachers—teachers! –not to tell the truth.

As a blogger, I have repeatedly asserted the truism that American schools, often the target of political and media scorn, merely reflect the communities they serve. If that is true—and if democracy is indeed threatened by the events of 2020 and January 6th, then our public schools are threatened as well.

Once, years ago, I wrote a blog using the phrase ‘data Nazis’ and a friend I respect, and trust, chastised me. Use logic and facts, he said. You weaken your arguments when you oversell and hype the danger.

 But maybe the next Civil War is here. Maybe public schools will become a tool for the wrong side:

 Nobody wants what’s coming, so nobody wants to see what’s coming.

On the eve of the first civil war, the most intelligent, the most informed, the most dedicated people in the United States could not see it coming. Even when Confederate soldiers began their bombardment of Fort Sumter, nobody believed that conflict was inevitable. The north was so unprepared for the war they had no weapons.

Is that overkill? Unclear.

But if it’s not—what are our weapons against losing genuinely public education?

The Not-So-Discriminating Reader’s Guide to 2021

For the last decade, I’ve set a goal of reading (at least) 100 books per year. I have accomplished that goal nine out of ten years (missing the boat only 2017, when I clocked in at 97).

I started logging my reading in 2012 with a goal of 135 books a year, mostly because my friend Claudia Swisher was reading 135 books a year. I, however, am no Claudia Swisher—more’s the pity—and have had to convince myself that two books per week, with the elasticity of a nice, round-number goal is Good Enough.

Great, in fact. According to Pew Research Center, the average person reads 12 books per year. There’s even a little speed reading test to see how many books you could read if you read 30 minutes a day.

But I have my doubts about that statistic. Not that people aren’t reading—they are, probably more than ever. They’re increasingly sharing their thoughts about their on-line reading, as well. Books, not so much.

The whole ‘Do Your Own Research’ schtick is based on reading. The January 6th Insurrection was organized via social-media reading and writing. Spelling, no—but being a good speller is usually the result of doing lots and lots of reading (of correctly spelled and reasonably accurate text, of course).

I am a sucker for ‘best of’ lists, especially when I respect the (non-snooty) creator of said list. Here’s Barack Obama’s ‘best of 2021’ list (I’ve read three)—and a really great list of 2021 books from NPR staffers. But I also like lists—like mine, below—that loop older titles into the mix.

These are my five-star, recommended reads from the 110 novels and non-fiction titles I read in 2021. Eight fiction, six non-fiction. Fiction first, plus a disclaimer that I read voraciously and indiscriminately, and five-star my favorites, even if they’re not (ahem) literature.

Cloud Cuckoo Land (Anthony Doerr) It’s a difficult book to get into–and it’s long. You have to have faith that there will be an emotional payoff; it took maybe 100 pages before I started to feel like I was living in five stories simultaneously. There are moments in the book that are shattering–and poignant, and meticulously written (like the scenes during the Korean War, or the building of a cannon before the siege of Constantinople). And again, and again, the book makes us understand the terrible times we live in–that there’s essentially nothing new under the sun, just stories and human foibles.

Go Tell the Bees that I am Gone (Diana Gabaldon) I am a major Gabaldon fan—the only series that I regularly re-read—and it’s been more than seven years since her last ‘Outlander’ book. If you have only seen the TV show (which I also like, but feels pale next to Gabaldon’s writing and sense of time and history), you owe it to yourself to start with ‘Outlander’ (the weakest book in the series) and hang out with Jamie and Claire for a few decades, through the whole saga of nine. It’s a hard book to review (so much has Gone Before), but the book (all 888 pages) is loaded with small and lovely vignettes.

Early Morning Riser (Katherine Heiny) Jane, the protagonist is a second-grade teacher in Boyne City, Michigan (about an hour northeast of here) and all the local details ring absolutely true. The plot kind of meanders around, but every single one of the characters is uniquely drawn and…interesting.  And the writing is spectacularly good, ranging from wise through long stretches of amusing with bolts of flat-out hilarious. Heiny gets school teaching (something authors frequently mischaracterize) absolutely right. She also gets love and marriage and life right.

Lightning Strike (Cork O’Connor) (William Kent Krueger)  A Cork O’Connor ‘prequel’ where we learn some things about Cork’s boyhood, in a small northern Minnesota town, in 1963, where open racism was a daily occurrence.

Like all of Krueger’s books– his two standalones were also written from the POV of a boy–it’s easy to appreciate his flair for realistic dialogue. I spent 30 years teaching middle school boys, and Krueger gets their boy-boy smack-chatter just right. There’s one scene, in the last 25 pages of the book, of three boys sitting around a campfire, that feels like the dialogue from the movie ‘Stand By Me,’ which was adapted from a Stephen King story–half goofy, half profound. The book touches lots of subjects, especially growing up and understanding the world. It’s a well-written gem.

Hamnet (Maggie O’Farrell) Shakespeare is a very flawed husband, in this fictional account, and his creative, intuitive but illiterate wife is the one with strength of character, grounded in her village and close-to-nature way of life. The most wrenching parts of the book, however, are the life/death rhythms of living in the time of plague, the fragility of life. They make the book both beautiful and heart-breaking.

Firekeeper’s Daughter (Angeline Boulley) I live in Michigan, have been on Sugar Island, know the U.P. territory (rural poverty) and trust that Boulley has the language and setting and events right. Her desire, which took years to reach, was writing a book from the POV of an enrolled Tribal member, for teenagers. It seems right to me. Boulley shares the tensions between Native Americans and white people, and Daunis’s enrollment, in a way that feels authentic to me.

The Ministry for the Future (Kim Stanley Robinson) The book is about reversing changes to the biosphere and what happens if we don’t, so it’s a book about all of the lives of all of the people on the planet. It is wide-ranging, covering economic systems, political systems, technologies, crypto-currency and carbon sequestration, the internet and terrorism, just for starters. As soon as I started reading it, I looked at the world and the United States differently.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue (V.E. Schwab) When you boil away all the historical references and characters (which I liked, a lot) and the romance, the story is one more Faustian fable–the devil cuts a deal and lets yet another clueless human live the life of what she believes are her dreams–with the moral being that nobody outsmarts the devil. Maybe. The story ends in a way I didn’t expect, but tilts the playing field and left me smiling, because Addie uses the oldest tricks (word chosen deliberately) in the book.

NON-FICTION:
Two titles about racism (and a third that illustrates why white people have a great deal to answer for and understand); Two titles about sexism (and a third that loops in historic sexism around the topic of adoption).   

 How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America (Clint Smith) This is the perfect book to read NOW. And by now, I mean in this stunning era, where states are passing laws to prohibit K-12 students from knowing about the bruising, wounding realities this book reveals. One short quote, from the chapter on Galveston Island and Juneteenth:

“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.”

American Baby: A Mother, a Child, and the Shadow History of Adoption (Gabrielle Glaser) There’s a lot of good information in the book–and things I’ve not put together, like the money-making aspect of the adoption industry and why their ‘evidence-based’ policies were created. But what makes the book memorable is Glaser’s case study, woven through the facts and figures. The end of the book, while sad, is also powerfully hopeful. As an adoptive parent, I’ve read lots of books about adoption. This is one of the very best.

Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women (Kate Manne) I would estimate that 75% of the facts, cases and statistics in the book were things I’d read before, but even if the book were a mere pastiche of Famous Misogynistic Stories, it would be useful, just to see all the evidence in one place. It’s more than that, however. I really appreciated Manne’s perspective on Elizabeth Warren: she was undeniably the most community-building, smart plan-crafting candidate for president, and why because of (not in spite of) that, she failed.

The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together (Heather McGhee) This may well be–like “Caste” in 2020–the best book of 2021, the book that helps white people understand how centuries of racist policy have hamstrung ALL of us (not just people of color) and made our world poorer and weaker. And it’s based on a nationwide array of examples of just how racist policy has not only left a legacy of inequity, but continues to shape our thinking and our prospects and opportunities.

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (Robin Wall Kimmerer) Kimmerer is a lively writer, who weaves stories around data, and honors her Native ancestry and beliefs. I took lots of ideas away from the book, beginning with the fact that indigenous people lived in harmony with the earth for eons longer than the white people who make fun of their ‘primitive’ culture. It’s a book to make you re-think everything you believed about ritual and religion, fear of dying, the morality of climate change, even living through a pandemic.

Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America  (Ijeoma Oluo) A sober and research-based work, covering a disparate set of topics–politics, sports, education, media and women in the workplace. Oluo’s observations are intersectional in nature, demonstrating how things that seem ‘natural’–things ranging from salaries, power structures, health and welfare–appear that way because policies have been designed to keep them that way. By white men.