The Book We Need Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is, indeed, the book we need now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read this book.

Nice White–Resentful–Parent Syndrome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is this World Coming To? No. Seriously.

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

Critical questions: Why? And why now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why? And why now?

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

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

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

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

School Boards and Other Political Targets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The answer is: They don’t, anymore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are many possible responses:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a crucible moment in public school leadership.

Tucker Carlson Goes to School. Your School.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is Tucker Carlson, really? A distraction.

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

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

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

Teacher Tom says:

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

So forget about Tucker Carlson. Really.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, right. It’s political.

What would your belief statement about public education look like?

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.