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.

 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.

Birthdays and Gifts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will be seventy tomorrow.

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

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

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

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

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.

The Handmaid Teacher’s Tale

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

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

Darker interconnections, indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Future-focused Education, Future-focused World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-A conglomerate of self-indulgent consumers?

-Angry, soulless, directionless masses?

-Indifferent, confused citizens?

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

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

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

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

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

Acceleration Nation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are lessons in this completely ordinary story.

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

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

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

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

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