Parents’ Rights vs. Reality

I am always bemused by the phrase “parents’ rights,” when utilized by right-wing culture warriors in our current education climate. Because—seriously—parents have always had the right to control pretty much anything around what their child was learning or doing in a public school. As long as it was in general alignment with the school’s mission, of course, and didn’t impact the education of other students.

I have been a public school teacher in five separate decades, beginning with the 1970s—and have seen parent demands and outrage issues come and go, from Sex Education (a perennial sore spot in the curriculum) to The Math Program (aka, Why don’t I understand my kids’ homework?) to Pay to Play Athletics. My friends who taught literature were always willing to substitute one book for another, if parents preferred not to have Jason read Huckleberry Finn or The Bluest Eye.

I could name dozens more instances of parents being upset about something “the school” did—or a teacher said—or how a particular policy was enforced.  In fact, one of the reasons to put your children in public schools is the knowledge that you can complain, even organize a group of complainers, and there is a duly elected school board you can address, if school administrators don’t give you what you want.

What if what the parent wants is not in the best interests of their child, let alone all the other students in her class?

Your mind may jump here to the use of pronouns—or acceptance of realities (historical and current) that some parents find threatening–but over time, teachers run into many legitimate reasons not to trust parental requests or judgment (pay attention to that word, judgment…).

For example, I once had an Albanian student who had only been in the country for a few months. The class was a pull-out, called Homework Hall, where kids who had lots of missing assignments were sent with the hope that taking away their gym or computer privileges would cause them to buckle down and make up all the work. I was supposed to stand over them, keeping their noses to the academic grindstone.

Homework Hall was based on a flawed theory to begin with—but this girl was struggling with speaking/reading/writing English, and not completing most of her written work because it was written in a language she barely understood. I tried negotiating with her teachers to significantly reduce her assignments—answering the three most important questions instead of ten, or giving her a buddy who could read things to her, discuss the content to help her form answers with the vocabulary she’d mastered—but not all of her teachers were willing to do that.

In the meantime, her father kept coming to school. After getting a quarterly grade report, showing that she had not turned in some of her work, he wanted daily reports. He didn’t speak English, either—but his teenaged translator said if the girl was “lazy” then she would be punished. Swell.

This girl was the polar opposite of lazy. She worked hard. She was persistent. She just needed school-based adults in her corner. Her father had the right to ask for information about her progress, undoubtedly. And probably it was his prerogative to continue slapping her and verbally abusing her in a language she did understand, which seemed to be his cultural norm for how to deal with bad grades.

It was one of those judgment calls. Stand up for the kid–or decide it’s none of your business and confirm that she actually had failed to turn in assignments, because they were just too difficult?

In fact, every one of the kids in that class was a judgment call—the brilliant boy who simply refused to copy definitions from a glossary or do other pointless work, the child whose parents had just split up and couldn’t concentrate on equilateral triangles, the girl who was hinting at suicide in her English class free writes (which she never turned in, leading her to Homework Hall). Judgment calls, all of them.

What if you wanted to encourage parent-school dialogue—would passing laws requiring schools to post copies of existing legislation guaranteeing parental rights really be the solution?

Or what if you reported a child for seriously threatening behaviors—repeatedly—and nobody came to help

And sometimes—angry parents are absolutely right to speak their minds about what’s happening in the school their child attends.

Parents do have rights—and they should. Public schools are obligated to acknowledge and address parents’ input. The best thing we can do to ensure parental rights are honored is to invite them to speak their minds and express their beliefs and wishes, calmly, with the relevant adults in the room.

What we are seeing now—nominally “parents’ rights”—is not about parents expressing their beliefs about serious education policy or even personal issues involving their child. They are politicized grievances, often based on nothing more than rumor. And they’re often quietly funded by groups that have no personal interests/issues with the school in question—only in damaging public schools.  

The Governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, recently met with a group of parents, some from the district where I taught for 30+ years, to discuss education issues. Here’s what a man (whose son I taught, back in the 90s) had to say:

“The biggest issue I see is just the lack of respect…the Republicans feel that anybody can be a teacher these days, which is the craziest damn thing that you can think of. We recently elected a lot of new school board members who are anti-school. I don’t know any other way to put it. The slates that ran out here are just not going to be supportive of public education. So I think that’s the biggest problem that we see. There are school board members who actually believe, and it just astounds me, that there are litter boxes in the bathrooms. That’s what we’re dealing with.”

Whitmer agreed and made a point to debunk a right-wing conspiracy theory circulated by podcaster Joe Rogan and Michigan GOP Co-Chair Meshawn Maddock that kids are identifying as “furries” and are using litter boxes in classrooms. This has been used to push anti-trans policies in schools.

Thank you, Governor—and all of the other education officials who are carrying on as if culture warriors had legitimate things to talk about, letting the system work as it is supposed to. But in all these school board meetings—especially those that become hostile encounters, it’s good to keep in mind that not everyone is set on building good community schools.

The Network for Public Education has a new (free) publication– Merchants of Deception: Parent Props and their Funders. Find out who’s really got a legitimate beef and who’s out to take down America’s best idea, a fully public education for every child, no matter what they bring to the table.

Keep Your Hands Off My Curriculum

There is a certain irony, I realize, in a music teacher writing a piece called ‘Keep Your Hands Off My Curriculum.’ Music education is generally one of those areas that Moms for Faux Liberty types ignore (unless—and this comes from personal experience—it’s critiquing the tunes chosen by the marching band whose entire existence, to some people, hinges on supporting football players).

Who cares what they’re learning? It’s just music! There’s a lot wrong with that assumption, beginning with the universality of music—as human beings, we’re swimming in it—but first, I want to talk about all everyday curriculum, across the K-12 spectrum–and who controls it.

My pitch here is about the individual teacher voice in selecting materials and designing lessons for students, and it’s based on two fundamental teacher competencies: *
1. Knowing your students well, and being committed to their learning.

2. Having deep and always-growing knowledge and pedagogical expertise in the subjects and developmental levels you teach.

The second of these is something that can and should be continuously improved, across a teaching career. It’s the point (if not the actual outcome) of what we call professional development.

The first, however, depends on the individual teacher’s character and temperament, their belief that all students have a right to learn.

Now—I’m not opposed to standards or other common agreements, whatever each state or district calls them, the big buckets of what students should learn and when. Broad standards can organize and sequence curriculum; outlining disciplinary essentials and giving all educators a framework for what students should know and be able to do, at the end of their schooling, is undeniably important.

What I’m saying is that site-specific agreements– what all 9th graders in the district should read, for example, or how to teach the life cycle of a butterfly–ought to be made by those on the front lines. The ones who know the kids, and are committed to their learning.

This idea ought to be glaringly self-evident—to educators, to parents, even to Joe Lunchbucket who watches Fox News. Kids who live in Flint, Michigan may need to know and be able to do different things than kids who live in Dallas—or Anchorage. Who is best positioned to choose engaging materials, develop concepts, deliver instruction, lead discussions and check for learning?

Certainly not Chris Rufo, who seems to be everywhere these days, merrily inserting his personal beliefs into college syllabi and waging gleeful war on beleaguered K-12 public schoolteachers trying dutifully to teach things, it must be noted, prescribed by others.

It was the linked article on Rufo—and this piece–that inspired this blog. The story is about an Ohio administrator who interrupts a teacher reading Dr. Seuss’s The Sneetches during a recording session intended for an NPR podcast.  A third grader makes a very astute comment; the teacher (Mandy Robek) continues reading, but the admin (Amanda Beeman) shuts that whole thing down:    

“It’s almost like what happened back then, how people were treated … Like, disrespected … Like, white people disrespected Black people…,” a third grade student is heard saying on the podcast.

Robek keeps on reading, but it’s shortly after this student’s comment is made on the podcast that Beeman interrupts the reading.  

“I just don’t think that this is going to be the discussion that we wanted around economics,” Beeman said on the podcast. “So I’m sorry. We’re going to cut this one off.”

(NPR reporter) Beras tried to tell Beeman that “The Sneetches” is about preferences, open markets and economic loss, but Beeman replied, “I just don’t think it might be appropriate for the third-grade class and for them to have a discussion around it.”

I actually have some empathy for the administrator. She’s totally wrong—kudos to the teacher and the reporter for choosing the book and understanding the relevance of the child’s comment—but I’m sure Beeman envisioned her job security disappearing in a wave of rabid, sign-waving Moms for Control Over Everything at the next school board meeting, and panicked.

But that’s the point here: Educators need to be prepared to defend their curricular choices, with passion, conviction, and carefully considered rationales. Rolling over for the likes of Chris Rufo, the Hillsdale crowd, and dark-money funded and fully politicized organizations who wish to take down public education is not professional behavior.

Once they control what gets said and read in the classroom, the next target will be public libraries. All publicly funded services, the things that build healthy civilization and make diverse communities strong, will be on the chopping block. Ironically, this is about what the Sneetches were trying to teach the kids in Ohio: preferences, open markets and economic loss. What students learn, even in 3rd grade, matters, it seems.

This is a huge issue, wrestling over curriculum and parents’ desires, and it’s been part of public education since the very beginning. No matter how many standards are imposed, or school board meetings disrupted, however, the most critical aspect of instruction remains the individual teacher’s understanding of what is useful and important for the students in their care, and their personal knowledge and skill in delivering those things. 

Here’s a story:

In 2008, I was e-mentoring some first-year teachers in an alternative-entry program (in other words, not traditionally trained). They were white teachers, assigned to an all-Black district in eastern North Carolina, country that was once endless tobacco fields. Most of them came from elite universities, and all were laboring under the misconception that they were ‘giving back’ to society. A lot of their conversations were about raising the bar, making a difference, blah blah blah.

It was also the Fall of 2008, when Obama was closing in on the presidency. Students in the school were wild with excitement. One of my mentees, teaching Civics and Government, kept sending me long emails pouring out his concern over the ‘unprofessional’ teachers–the ones who had been there for years. They allowed students to disregard the official curriculum! They spent classroom time talking about this miracle that was about to happen, even letting students campaign. Unethical!

He, of course, maintained that he was sticking to standards and remaining neutral about the race. After all, the students would be taking statewide exams next spring, and he wanted them to score well.  He went so far as talking to the principal about his concerns.

I tried to suggest that he was teaching during events that could make history—and incorporating real life into lessons made them more meaningful. I asked if he had conversations with his veteran colleagues, about why they thought abandoning the prescribed curriculum was sometimes okay. Our dialogue got more and more strained, until he basically stopped communicating with me.

This young man had always considered himself an outstanding scholar in the social sciences. His lesson designs (debates, short-writes, small-group discussions, film clips) weren’t bad at all, especially for a newbie. He had some ideas about how to be a good teacher, and passion for the subject matter. What he was missing was knowledge of students and commitment to their learning. When the principal had a pep assembly to celebrate Obama’s victory, he was disgusted. For a public school, this is totally wrong! he wrote.

I have thought of him often—I’m fairly sure he’s not teaching any more. Which is too bad. Because being a master at custom-tailoring worthy curriculum to the students in front of you is a skill that takes time and confidence. It really cannot be outsourced.

* If you sat for National Board Certification, these principles will look familiar. If they resonate with you, check out the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards’ Five Core Propositions. Good stuff.

Genuine Education Leadership

There’s yet another thread on Twitter today re: ‘rewarding’ teachers by allowing them to wear jeans on specified Fridays vs. giving them permission to go to lunch (with their students, of course) five minutes early. I have an entire bookcase filled with volumes dedicated to the topic of leadership in schools, but somehow, these casual conversations on social media better reflect what’s really happening than all the blah-blah about Reframing, Maximum Impact, Inspiration, Grit or–God help us–What Works.

The thing is—the success (however you measure success) of a school is almost entirely dependent on the people who work there, and their interactions. There are other factors, of course—resources, the surrounding community, thinking about values—but the best framework for doing right by kids comes from good people who like working together.

I’ve worked under dysfunctional principals, as part of a collegial staff, where teachers rose to mentor and support each other, deftly bypassing administrative snits and roadblocks. I’ve worked with great superintendents, gifted managers—and the occasional evil, ego-bound admin—but I am here to say that the real juice in school-based leadership comes from adults who care about kids and get along well.

Leadership emerges from respect, friendship and trust.

Not from someone with a title based on distributing perks—as we have witnessed this week as the leaderless party nominally in power tries to elect a Speaker of the House. Maybe we’ll see Kevin McCarthy offering Republicans the opportunity to wear jeans on Friday, or go to the Congressional cafeteria early. Ha.

My friend John Spencer thinks the ability to manage is an essential piece of being a real leader:

If a leader focuses solely on new ideas and new initiatives, they run the risk of confusing novelty for innovation. There’s no consistency or sustainability. People miss critical details. Often, the leader is so busy leading, they are unable to step back and maintain what’s already working.

Managing requires the unflattering role of maintenance. Maintenance can feel like drudgery. It can seem inconvenient. It’s a humble part of leadership that often goes unnoticed.

But maintenance is vital. A new bridge can connect people across a city. An unmaintained bridge can be deadly. The best principals I know will say, “I’m not much of a manager,” but they empower teachers to self-manage. They proactively step aside and provide the tools and resources that empower teachers. And in the end, empowered teachers empower students.

One thing John mentions really resonates with me: the inability of a formal leader to step back and maintain what’s already working. I’ve never been in a school—as a teacher, professional development presenter or classroom volunteer—that didn’t have some good aspects, things that needed to be maintained.

I’ve been in schools in deep poverty, the schools that public education vultures can’t wait to shut down, where the building is crumbling, and the playground is literally dangerous. I visited a school where there was one LCD projector in the building, bolted to the library ceiling, and a teacher stood on a table with a broomstick to operate it.

Those teachers—were genuine leaders. They knew the serious limitations they were working with, and kept going despite the environment there. I was merely a person who shared some Powerpoint slides. There were already good things happening in that building, courtesy of the people there. Professional development was superfluous, and they knew it.

Now—there are books about servant leadership and distributed leadership that aim for utilizing expertise rather than following a template for success. I’ve spent the last two decades trying to find a formula for teacher leadership that isn’t about giving someone more work and a small stipend, then labeling them a leader, whether their colleagues consider them leadership material or not. There is an endless parade of articles and commentary from teachers bemoaning the fact that they’re not at the table—they’re on the menu, happy to get a five-minute head start to lunch.

We’re still a long way from normalizing the respect, friendship and trust that are the basis of functional school communities, tailored to the kids they serve.

The issues media believes will dominate public education in 2023 are policy-related: Absenteeism. Mandated retention. Accountability (read: test score fluctuations). Educator shortages. Transparency for charters and vouchers. Funding, funding, funding. And of course, COVID and other viral menaces.

It strikes me that—once again—listening to those who have formed their own communities and informally recognize the leaders among them will have the most success in curbing absenteeism, bringing new, fully qualified teachers into the profession, putting the focus on real learning rather than meaningless data chases, and pushing back—from their own experience—against bad policy.

I’d like to share one illustration, a story from one of those trusted and respected veteran teachers, newly retired, about a favorite lesson that he could no longer teach. Read it—it’s a great piece, and he asks a lot of timely and relevant questions. He also says this:

The conundrum for a public high school social studies teacher teaching about the January 6 insurrection is not to sacrifice one’s credibility while also not pushing one’s own political beliefs on students. 

I had an advantage that other teachers trying to thread this needle may not have. I enjoyed the support of colleagues, administrators, students, and parents. You may be a high school teacher working in a less generous environment — one in which local and state politicians have trained their sights on teaching history. You have my thanks and deserve the thanks of all our fellow citizens for your dogged, noble work on behalf of American democracy.

That dogged, noble work? Let’s call it what it is: leadership.

Back to Basics

Here in the Mitten State, our very good governor, Gretchen Whitmer, is running against a political novice whose qualifications seem to be that she resembles the current governor and that she used to host a right-wing TV show: GOP gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon defended blackface, called hijabs oppressive garments, and amplified racist remarks and conspiracy theories during her two years hosting a daily TV show on the far-right media network Real America’s Voice.

Not a nice person, but she is attractive. Stephen Colbert called her ‘Kirkland Gretchen Whitmer’ and followed up with several substantively awful but amusing things she’s said and done. I have been intrigued by her rehearsed talking points (which you can practically see her mentally retrieving), especially the blah-blah she’s been spouting about public schools.

She’s gone full-tilt Youngkin, of course, with the ‘grooming’ and ‘pornography’ accusations, kindergartners being shown how to have sex and pumping up scary nonsense about transgender athletes (the MI HS Athletic Association says there have been 10 documented cases of transgender athletes in the past five years, hardly a trend, let alone a crisis of ‘unfairness’).

But she’s also been talking—repeatedly—about taking public school curriculum ‘back to basics.’  She is clear about what this involves: reading, writing and arithmetic. All the rest is, in her opinion, unimportant, and the reason that our test scores have gone down in Michigan.

Dixon’s four daughters attend private schools. Now, I am a great believer in parents’ rights—the kind that let well-heeled parents send their kids to any school they choose, because of their religious beliefs, the kind of programming they want, or because they think public schools are where the unwashed send their unfortunate children.

If you can afford private school, fine. You go. Just don’t use that as an excuse to cheese out on public education, using deceptive language and–let’s tell it like it is–big fat lies.

As it happens, I know exactly where Tudor Dixon lives—I grew up in that town, and remember factory after factory, places where our dads worked, shutting down in the 1970s and 80s. I know the schools there—I graduated from one of them. People I know and love teach there, and put their trust in public education. My social media stream is awash in photos of their children in those very schools: fall carnivals, Friday night games, and student-of-the-month certificates.

Those are the schools that Tudor Dixon wants to ‘go back to basics’—a term that seems to be evergreen.

“Frankly, our schools have lost their way,” Dixon said, announcing the first of her policies. “Somewhere along the way, radical political activists decided that our schools are laboratories for their social experiments, and our children are their lab rats. And we’re saying enough is enough.”

Well. Veteran political activists teachers may remember other back-to-basics agendas, through the years. Here’s one definition:

Back-to-Basics Movement– During the late 1970s and early 1980s, a perceived decline in the quality of education, as evidenced by declining scores on standardized tests and attributed to students’ choice of so many electives considered to be “soft” academically, led to a back-to-basics movement. Proponents urged more emphasis on basic subjects, particularly reading, writing, and arithmetic, but also science, history, geography, and grammar. They wanted schools not only to teach content but also to help children learn to work hard. They wanted the schools to demand more orderly and disciplined student behavior. They wanted the authority of the teacher to be reasserted, and they desired a more structured teaching style. Finally, back-to-basics advocates often wanted the schools to return to the teaching of basic morality and, in particular, the virtue of patriotism. In many ways, the back-to-basics movement was a reaction against the personal freedom movement of the 1970s, which emphasized drug use and sexual freedom, symbolized by the culture of the “hippies.”

I was there, in the classroom, when a recession in the early 80s triggered a slice-n-dice on the enriched curriculum we were building, in the name of going back to ‘essentials’ which didn’t include music or art. I remember waves of ‘back to basics’ under certain other—Republican—governors, including a proposal to create ‘value schools’ where public school kids would get a ‘basic’ education for less than $5000/per pupil.

Back to Basics has always been code language for ‘spend less money on public education and those kids.’ (Preferably, a lot less.) It’s always been Betsy DeVos’s core mission, and of course Dixon’s campaign is being largely financed by DeVos.

Back to Basics is also a vague and empty idea. Aside from literacy and numeracy, it’s hard to define just what is meant by a ‘basic’ education. The least children need? Foundational principles—and then you’re on your own?

We’ve already stripped comprehensive social studies education and—God help us—recess from the elementary curriculum. Now, apparently, we’re taking interesting books out of the library and relegating active classes to sit-and-get. What else can we yank, because it’s not basic?

Did you notice the definition of the movement in the late 70s was driven by ‘declining scores on standardized tests’? Michigan was the first state to introduce mandated, statewide assessments in the 1970s—the MEAP—so it’s worth asking how those new, baseline scores were declining.

There was a dip in SAT and ACT scores in the 1960s as the first baby-boomers went off to college, and established a new and much larger testing pool. But it’s taken decades and lots of laws to put every student under the testing microscope—is this all so we can take away things that make school fun and joyful?

Back to basics. See it for the propaganda it is.

Amusing Ourselves into Educational Oblivion

A great new piece in the NY Times from Ezra Klein starts with Marshall McLuhan and his iconic quote: The medium is the message. Content—facts, analysis, opinion—is often secondary to the way it is presented.  McLuhan was prescient, of course—can you imagine what he would have made of Donald Trump?—but only in retrospect do we see just how deeply and comprehensively his remark has come to fruition.

Klein moves on to discuss my favorite education thinker—Neil Postman—and his terrific 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. The publisher’s note is a succinct descriptor: a prophetic look at what happens when politics, journalism, education, and even religion become subject to the demands of entertainment.

As it happens, education, religion, journalism and politics are the things I am most interested in, my personal passions. And I’ve seen all of them changing in alarming ways, to fit the attention spans and expectations of immediate gratification that technological change has shaped.

Americans, of course, think they are immune to this. Klein says:

Americans are capitalists, and we believe nothing if not that if a choice is freely made, that grants it a presumption against critique. That is one reason it’s so hard to talk about how we are changed by the mediums we use.

 I heard Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist who’s been collecting data on how social media harms teenagers, say, bluntly, “People talk about how to tweak it — oh, let’s hide the like counters. Well, Instagram tried — but let me say this very clearly: There is no way, no tweak, no architectural change that will make it OK for teenage girls to post photos of themselves, while they’re going through puberty, for strangers or others to rate publicly.”

What struck me about Haidt’s comment is how rarely I hear anything structured that way. He’s arguing three things. First, that the way Instagram works is changing how teenagers think. It is supercharging their need for approval of how they look and what they say and what they’re doing, making it both always available and never enough. Second, that it is the fault of the platform — that it is intrinsic to how Instagram is designed, not just to how it is used. And third, that it’s bad. That even if many people use it and enjoy it and make it through the gantlet just fine, it’s still bad. It is a mold we should not want our children to pass through.

Bingo.

Why don’t we have the foresight to just say no to attractive technologies that are harmful to children’s—or even adults’—development and emotional well-being? They’re addictive. And remember what Frances Haugen told us about Facebook: They knew it was harmful to young women especially. But they buried that knowledge in pursuit of profit.

In an election season, candidates are seldom lauded for their creative policy ideas and expertise, let alone their character and integrity. Instead, we have Boots vs. Flip-Flops elections, like the Presidential contest in 2004 where a bona fide war hero was taken down by deceptive media, leaving the term ‘swiftboating’ behind, in the political lexicon.

Kind of makes you long for the days of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, where folks took picnic baskets for refreshment, and each candidate spoke, uninterrupted, for a total of 90 minutes. Tens of thousands of people attended. And there were no sound bites, memes, re-runs or cable news analysis. The medium—each man, speaking his ideas—was the message.

Fast-forward to 2022, where the MI GOP nominee for Governor, one Tudor Dixon, was described by the co-chair of her party as a ‘younger, smarter and hotter’ version of the current Governor, Gretchen Whitmer. (Plus that Trump Seal of Approval, of course.)

Ms. Dixon seems to be the candidate Republicans thought had the best chance of winning: someone who looks a lot like the current governor, but is a relatively blank slate, having never held elected office. Clearly, this isn’t about making good public policy, or the kind of leadership we need. But it illustrates the degree to which the medium—and Dixon has a history in media–is more important than the message.  

Often, the most entertaining and outlandish candidate wins. Viewers routinely say that the loudest and most aggressive candidate on the debate stage ‘won,’ quality of arguments be damned. But– who wins in the 2022 midterm elections really matters.

If people in your household or family circle are heading back to school this month, what media-savvy Tudor Dixon says about public education matters, too: Among Dixon’s education priorities are requiring teachers to put all curriculum and teaching materials online for parents to review, banning transgender girls from playing on girls’ sports teams, and criminalizing taking minors to drag shows

Much of this is education-media theatre, fed by stoking fear and anger, aimed toward winning elections. The terms and assertions dominating what should be policy discussions about how to shape a community asset—public education—have been, to put it politely, invented.

Fights at school board meetings and public arguments about cherished young adult novels are probably more entertaining than the pedestrian work of stretching public dollars and finding a special ed teacher in August. Boring meetings seldom draw camera crews, and don’t offer the possibility of a mic being stuck in your face.

But there is a role for order and rules and civil discourse. Every teacher in the country understands this.

What Do Students Need to Know? World Languages or the Arts or Personal Finance?

In 2017, I was part of a ‘listening tour’ of voters in my rural, northern Michigan county. We asked our neighbors what their most pressing issues were—what things happening right now in the nation, or locally, worried them most. Our opening query: What keeps you up at night?

Surprisingly, this was a hard question for many people. Typically, after a half-minute of thinking out loud, they’d say that life was pretty good.

So we had follow-up questions to suggest potential avenues for concern. Are you worried about the economy? Political dysfunction? Immigration? Human rights? Education?

One evening, my partner and I were invited into the neat-as-a-pin home of an elderly gentleman, who clearly wanted to chat. He told us—first time we’d heard this–that education was his number one issue.

I asked if he’d been a teacher. No— he’d worked as a farmer, but was a father, grandfather and great-grandfather (he was in his 90s, according to our voter information file). And what was going on in the schools right now was an absolute travesty.

I was prepared to hear about the lack of discipline or new-fangled computer learnin’—but what was keeping this nice old gent up at night was curriculum. Did you know they’re not teaching woodshop or metal shop at the high school anymore?

He shook his head. They’re not showing kids how to work with their hands—to do household repairs, use tools, or put up a simple garage. He said he’d always handled his own home repairs, from wiring a ceiling fan to repairing a leaky toilet. He’d just installed a new dishwasher. And what about students who wanted to go into the trades? What good did Algebra do for boys like that?

(Hey. He was ninety-something. Cut him some slack.)

I thought of him when I learned that Michigan has just signed into law a bill requiring every HS student to take a half-credit class in Personal Finance, in order to graduate. The requirement begins with this year’s eighth grade class, giving schools time to figure out how to incorporate yet another new requirement into an already overstuffed schedule.

I’m all for inculcating a better understanding of how to manage money. Stories about predatory lending alone should make us all more knowledgeable about credit, budgeting, and setting healthy spending and earning goals, especially in young adults.

But I’m not exactly sure that a half-credit course in high school is the ideal setting for that learning. You could read and regurgitate lots of personal-finance content, at age 16, then promptly forget what you memorized, when the knowledge would actually be useful—say, when you got your first big-boy job. Like so much of what we ‘learned’ in secondary school, until you apply the knowledge, it’s more or less inert.

Here’s what bothers me most about adding curricular requirements: Folks are fond of talking about what should be taught in school, but haven’t a clue about the absolute fact that there are only so many slots in a typical secondary school schedule. At the moment, the (also-required) Michigan Merit Curriculum has control over nearly all those slots. What will this new course replace? Because something’s got to go.

Every teacher and school leader has been over this territory endlessly. And every Joe Citizen has a personal opinion about what students should be required to master before leaving school, from economics to penmanship.

Education thinkers tend to talk, at this point, about big-picture skills and perceptions—the development of judgment and discretion and analysis, via subject matter content. It’s the heart of teachers’ professional work.

The curricular canon has shifted since the early 20th century, when Logic, Rhetoric and Latin were considered essential competencies for the well-educated—proof that context matters, and values change over time.

It would be great to use this (and dozens of similar suggestions—like axing social studies and arts courses in favor of STEM) as a kickoff to a deep, statewide conversation on re-thinking credits, standardization and student choice.

It would be an ideal opportunity for discussing the purpose of public schooling. Should students study the natural world and the humanities? Or is moving toward a narrow, commercially-focused curriculum—a secularized prosperity gospel– our goal for students?

For legislators, the go-to in policy-making is concrete mandates: At the discretion of local school boards, the course could fulfill a half-credit in math, world language, or the arts. Currently, the Michigan Merit Curriculum requires four credits in math, two in a language other than English, and one in visual, performing, or applied arts. The Legislature also is considering a separate bill allowing computer programming to count for world language credit. Both measures have strong backing from business groups that say they’re interested in a more skilled workforce. 

Well, there you have it. Job training.

One wonders why fluency in another language, or artistic expression, is so devalued. Aren’t those also desirable skills in the 21st century world of work? As the old man we interviewed said, we no longer respect working with our hands.

Or our hearts, or our voices. The things that make us most human.

Lirty Dies or Wandering the Campaign Trail in ‘22

The Michigan primary is in three weeks, on August 2nd. This is the first pre-election summer I’ve ever been a candidate for anything, so I’m spending more time—what? Thinking politically? Dividing the world into red and blue, R and D? Despairing of the current climate?

Actually, what I’ve been thinking most about is lies. Untruths, mendacities, outright deceit, yada yada—and the party that uses them as bait.

The Capitol Steps –may they rest–a musical comedy group originated over 40 years ago, with a collection of congressional staffers who saw the humor potential in pretty much everything that went down in D.C., had a series of sketches called Lirty Dies.

Lirty Dies were merely phrases with the first letters exchanged—in Capitol Steps parlance, when you WHip their FLurds. A great political tradition: We’re not quite sure what we’re saying; you’re not quite sure what you’re hearing.  Think Herschel Walker.

The problem? Liars win.

This has always been true—plenty of obvious examples in recent history, from the deceptive Trump appointees on the Supreme Court who knew what settled law was, to that dude in Missouri who said that women who were ‘legitimately’ raped could shut that whole thing down.

But in 2022, alternative facts are the norm in every election, from the Big Lie about 2020 to my own small-potatoes campaign for County Commissioner.

In my State Senate district (MI 37th), for example, there are three candidates running on the Democratic ticket. Only one is actually a Democrat. The other two are both Republicans, active in their county parties–and sometime felons, by the way. One of them was quoted as saying, during his podcast on March 31, that the media was trying to destroy the “nuclear family,” with every commercial showing a “biracial mom and dad.” It’s pretty clear who the target audience is.

I’m not really clear on why they think this tactic—running in the party they loathe—will work. There are two actual Republicans running in the primary, so it’s not as if there was nobody to vote for. Just a chance to SPew up real political SCReech, I guess. (That was a Lirty Die.)

Meanwhile, in the Michigan Legislature, the Democrats (the minority party), having been falsely accused by their Republican opponents of being ‘groomers,’ decided to fight back:

As many Republicans push conspiracies about schoolchildren being “groomed” in public schools, a bill introduced by Democrats in the Michigan House that would create a legal pathway to prosecute people who “groom” minors in sexual abuse cases idles, untouched by the Republican majority. 

Partly this is because former (Republican) House Speaker Chatfield is under investigation for actually grooming a 15-yr old girl when he was her teacher at a Christian Academy founded by his father. But mostly, it’s just a ruby-red response to being called out and held accountable for Lirty Dies.

Two weeks ago, the four women running for the Democratic slot in my County Commission district (including me) held an open-air listening session at a local park.  We sent out postcards to likely primary voters to invite them. The weather was perfect, and we had live music and cookies.

The event was a great success—somewhere between 50 and 60 voters showed up, and for two hours, each of us was grilled (or encouraged) by friendly neighbors. People asked good questions about local issues—why our internet infrastructure is inadequate or worse, how to build and repurpose affordable housing, and so on.

The biggest issue is clean water. We live on a peninsula surrounded by Lake Michigan, so passing a mandatory septic ordinance, while the least sexy of issues, is critical.

Midway through the afternoon, an older gentleman and his wife showed up. I greeted him with an outstretched hand, as he passed a table with a fellow Dem collecting signatures for Promote the Vote.  Are they for or against mail-in ballots? He asked. For, I told him.

Mail-in ballots are how the 2020 election was stolen, he said. Oh oh.

I decided to just listen to his issues and concerns. He talked about responsible farming and compost, which seemed to be something we had in common. Then he asked me about my background. I told him I was a retired teacher.

And he proceeded to regurgitate incredible slander about public education, the crapola now floating above every local election: The teachers were teaching kids to hate being white. They were telling lies about history. They were teaching kids about perverted sex (he was embarrassed when he said this, looking down at the ground). There were dirty books, too.

Ironically, his seven children had all attended and graduated from the public school no more than a mile down the road. This is a school where I volunteered—before the pandemic—and that I thought was a good public school, a school that offered a lot of programming for a small district and had a solid staff.

I told him I had been in the classroom for nearly 35 years, then volunteered in three local districts in this county, and I did not believe that teachers routinely did those things. Any teacher who overstepped their bounds in the classroom could and should be called out. By parents—or by an administrator. But this was not the way public education (which is controlled by a locally elected board) worked.

Well, he said. This just started.

He was OK with the school when his kids were there—the teachers were pretty good, and he went to all the football games. But now, he said, teachers have started doing bad things all over the country.

What, specifically? Well, supporting the Blacks, he said. Against the police. Going against the Bible. He struggled to remember what he’d read—some letters, maybe? (No way was I going to fill in the acronym for him. He’d already soaked up too much falsehood.)

You should start volunteering again, he said. Things have really changed in the last couple of years.

I passed him on to another candidate, but he lingered in my mind. Not a bad guy. But he’d been lied to, and he trusted the liars. It was as simple as that.

Lirty Dies.

Voter Linda, chatting with the four candidates for Leelanau County Commission: Allison Zimpfer, Julie Kradel, Mary O’Neill and blog author Nancy Flanagan.

Are Christians to Blame for the Political Mess We Find Ourselves In?

Schoolkids were traditionally taught—at least I was—that the United States was founded because the Pilgrims were seeking religious freedom, an escape from persecution. This incomplete and sanitized declaration dovetailed nicely into the development of formal American schooling and curricula in the 19th and 20th centuries.

It was part of our national creation myth, positioning the original ancestors as men who braved the dangerous ocean journey in order to worship their God in the way they saw fit in this wild, free new land. (Plus their wives and children, of course. Who would naturally be worshipping in the same fashion, and following the laws the men devised.)

Nary a mention of their rapacious commercial interests, let alone the people who had already lived here for a thousand years.

Since the Pilgrims arrived—merely one group of colonizing settlers, albeit one that got lots of airtime in history class—waves of folks with different religious beliefs and heritage, born here/brought here/immigrated here, have shaped the trajectory and norms of livin’ in the U.S.A.  

Educators and civic leaders have adapted to changing mores over more than a century, lurching along and stepping in deep controversy over religious practice—well, all the time. (Think: Scopes Trial.)

Arguing over religious beliefs is our real national heritage. And the separation of church and state is the tool we use to distinguish what is appropriate at home but not at school. The new SCOTUS ruling that permits private (Christian) prayer on public school occasions as long as it’s not required, is another chunk out of that wall of separation. And any veteran teacher will tell you that bringing personal religious beliefs into the classroom is a recipe for disaster.

Contrary to Fox News commentary, good educators are not part of a century-long conspiracy to brainwash little kids about the moral framework of life in community. In my 30+ years in the classroom, most everyone skirted around explicitly talking about religion for fear of violating The Wall of Separation. In some classrooms—the aforementioned history class, for example—discussion of religion is inevitable. Music class, as well.  And literature. And science.

In fact, learning about religion and its impact, positive and negative, on the history of the only world we have, is one of the central reasons to offer public education. But learning about religion is entirely separate from practicing religion, or proselytizing.

The message always needs to be: Religions have existed forever. Religions and sanctified beliefs have caused wars and genocide. Religion has the capacity for both great good and bad—and a whole lot of judging about which is which, and spurious reasons for grabbing power.  Nonetheless, wherever we find extended civilization, there are religious practices.

Lately, the Christians have seemed to be ascending, in terms of political power.   It may have something to do with existential uncertainty of life during the pandemic, or the former President using certain Christians for his own purposes. Or the spate of SCOTUS decisions dragging the nation backwards against social progress, led by a Catholic majority.

Adam Serwer: Given the unholy alliance between conservative politics and conservative Christianity, it is no surprise that right-wing extremists on the Supreme Court prefer to read theConstitution the way evangelicals read the scriptures. That is, selectively, and with a preference for American mores and jurisprudence of the nineteenth century. When men were men and all others were second-class citizens, if not property.

As Garrison Keillor said: Righteous indignation is the easy part of the Christian faith and the hard part is forgiveness.

I would add—‘and also having a sense of humor.’ I’ve seen a lot of social media talk smacking down Christians as a class, blaming them for cruel and regressive policy-making. I know Christianity’s failings better than many, but it seems like we have not outgrown the need for considered values, or the good that religious organizations, Christian and otherwise, have done, for centuries.

Freedom of religion, won at some cost in this nation, has allowed us to safely poke at literal and metaphorical sacred cows and speak freely about what we believe—and dismiss as foolishness. Respecting diverse religious beliefs is a very difficult thing, but if we can’t accept diversity of religious practices (or lack thereof), we are betraying the very story of our founding.

So maybe lighten up on the anti-Christian (or anti-any faith) talk? Or be careful whom you’re sweeping into the category of Harmful and Dangerous while letting other organized groups completely off the moral hook?

Robert Reich: G.O.P. extremism is fed by resentment against the very things that truly make America great — our diversity, our tolerance for difference — it cannot be appeased or compromised with. It can only be defeated.

In  The Ministry for the Future, an awesome book about possible futures (Kim Stanley Robinson), the chair of the Ministry and her trusted associate discuss this question:

What would it take to get the entire planet to commit to necessary sacrifices that could, once and for all, turn climate change and equitable civilization around, practices that would save us all? Mutual assured survival, even mutual thriving?

A new religion, her aide says. A newly conceived religion, based on environmental equity, justice and peace, adopted globally.

My friend Fred Bartels put it this way: God is a personalization of community.

Food for thought. Or prayer. Take your pick.

Do Parents Really Want Control Over What Students Learn?

What’s driving the screaming matches at local school board meetings—the ones where organized parent groups show up to have their say about everything from critical race theory to bulletproof doors?

There are a lot of overlapping factors: A nation that’s bitterly divided. The pandemic we’re still dealing with, and its impact on children. Racism, sexism and the fear of losing “rights.” Gun violence. The political upheaval resulting in an insurrection, which played out live, on national TV.

And, of course, money and support from outside sources and organizations, which perceive these ongoing crises as an opportunity to chip away at public education.

I’m no stranger to parent-led fireworks at Board meetings. I’ve witnessed verbal storms over sex education and teacher strikes and girls who wanted to lift weights with the wrestling team.

During my second year of teaching, in October, the School Board decided to lay off 20 teachers (including me) who signed annual contracts in the spring, because an August millage election had failed. They made cuts to programs across the board, and established a pay-to-play model for all HS sports. There was a huge board meeting that went on until the wee hours. And what were the parents upset about? Eliminating foreign languages—or elementary art and music?

No. It was about the football team.

One mom was outraged at being asked to fund her son’s final year on the team. “This is his time to shine! Teachers can always find another job—but my son has only one chance to play football in his senior year!” There were perhaps a hundred teachers at this meeting. You can imagine how that remark went down with them.

My point is this: when parents are angry enough to publicly spout off at a school board meeting, it’s seldom centered around informed disapproval of established curriculum, instruction or even assessments (unless someone has lied to them about what’s going on in their children’s classrooms). Even book banning—a chronic hotspot for school leaders—seldom flares up because a parent carefully read their child’s assigned book and was shocked into action.

What we’re seeing now is something else: an orchestrated and funded effort to demean public education and the people who work in public schools. It’s about power and control. It’s about ginning up fear, using dishonesty as a tool. As John Merrow notes:

Many of the adults who have been disrupting local school board meetings not only do not have children enrolled in those schools; they are classic outside agitators, perhaps even from neighboring states. 

The foundation of recent wrangling over control—parents’ rights, if you will—is thoroughly political and got a big boost when now-Governor Glenn Youngkin promised to strip culturally responsive instruction from schools in VA.

Parents have always had rights—including the right to see what their children are learning, access to instructional materials, the option of observing their child in his classroom, and the opportunity to talk to his teachers about any of these.

Teachers have the responsibility to know the curriculum well, to be able to tell parents why certain materials and teaching strategies were selected.  And—should parents be genuinely concerned about any of these things—the responsibility to justify the value of a particular technique or content, to adapt or offer alternatives.

That, in a nutshell, is good teaching–based on trusting relationships and understanding. Every veteran teacher and school leader reading this has had difficult conversations with parents about what and how their children are learning. It’s part of the job. Always has been.

It’s also one of the reasons many teachers pushed back against the Common Core: the standards didn’t fit the students they were teaching. Driving responsibility for determining standards, curriculum and assessment upwards means that teachers are left with explanation that they’re teaching something because it’s on the state test, even though it may be inappropriate or irrelevant for a particular child.

It’s not just parents who want to strip control from schools. From Education Week:

States have a limited amount of power over what materials teachers use in the classroom. A new report shows how some of them are trying—and succeeding—to wield influence anyway. In the majority of the country, districts operate under local control, meaning that school systems, or sometimes individual schools or teachers, have the ultimate authority in deciding what curriculum is taught.

That means that if states want to influence what teachers are using, they have to get creative about what levers to pull. A new report from the RAND Corporation suggests that some states have managed to do just that.

Look for the phrase ‘High-Quality Instructional Materials’ accompanied by some disdainful blah-blah about how clueless teachers design lessons based on what they see on Pinterest, so professional curriculum deciders need to step in and choose better materials. Well-paid deciders, naturally.

Earlier this year, Jennifer Berkshire found reason for hope:

I’ve spent the last few days talking to voters and candidates in New Hampshire who powered record turnout, resounding wins for public school advocates. One theme keeps coming up. Voters were REPELLED by the extremism of “parents’ rights” groups. This was a backlash to the backlash.

In the meantime, all the shoutin’ has left educators limp and discouraged. From Connecticut teacher Barth Keck:

Nationwide accusations of schools teaching “critical race theory” found their way into Connecticut despite any evidence of its existence or even any accurate explanation of what CRT really means from the critics. Superintendent Freeman “cited letters to the editor and social media posts regarding the school’s teaching and equity policies which imply that ‘parents shouldn’t be trusting the teachers and school administrators who are shaping the experience for their children in Guilford.’” 

I have not felt such pressure personally, aside from comments on social media from those calling me a “groomer” and “brainwasher” of children. Granted, I don’t know these people personally, and the only thing they know about me is that I’m a teacher. But that’s the point: Strategic political posturing has convinced scores of people that, rather than a noble and essential profession, teaching is an insidious endeavor whose primary purpose is to push a far-left agenda.

It’s not about the things parents already have a say in—their children’s learning.

It’s about raising a public ruckus.

The Strange Land Where We Find Ourselves Now

Ever read a book that resonates, for whatever reason, with the life you’re living—the things you’re thinking about, things that are happening in your world right now?

Munich (Robert Harris) is a fictionalized, but well-researched, account of the Munich Conference in September 1938, wherein a cluster of European leaders thought they had signed on to ‘peace in our time,’ when in fact Hitler had no such intention.

It’s one of those slow burn novels that starts out by introducing us to two very different worlds—the chin-up, upper-crust British government, trying desperately to avoid another devastating European war, and the collection of thugs and sycophants hanging around the Fuhrer who were willing to bulldoze anyone and anything to expand their own power.

I saw parallel after parallel, which made the book (published in 2018) chillingly real.

As political thriller, it’s a good read from a guy who’s written a ton of great political thrillers, many centered in Germany, in the 1930s and 40s. BUT–reading it now, as Putin is devastating Ukraine, because he seems to think he needs more space, and world leaders (elected and un-elected) are trying to stay out of war— is stunningly relevant.

One particularly galling former leader is trying to cozy up to Putin for political advantage, of course. We’re living in a world of thriller plots.

The only knowledge I had about Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and the pre-war period, left over from History class, is that he was widely considered an ‘appeaser’ once World War II began, and his reputation hasn’t been burnished since.

The book is kinder to him, seeing him as a man of a different age, when one’s word was one’s honor. But the image of someone who believed in the power of diplomacy getting totally snookered by the depth of evil remains—powerfully—in mind.

Once the Munich Conference actually begins, every page in the book has a resonant sentence or paragraph, about power and the men who wield it.  Although the whole world now knows the spoiler—World War II and its horrors—the book had me thinking about alternate outcomes, about peace and how to reach it.

Also, of course, what could go wrong in our immediate future, in 2022.

A couple of nights ago, Rachel Maddow had one of my favorite truth-tellers on: Jane Mayer, whose latest piece on the Republican ‘slime machine’digs into the coordinated Lies People Tell to ruin the reputations of Biden’s nominees, the most visible example being the appalling hatchet job attempted on Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson.

Maddow precedes the Mayer interview with an illustrated commentary on Stalin, the cover-ups of his hideous crimes against his own people, and the propensity for Russian dictators to use accusations of–get this–pedophilia as an excuse to imprison or execute citizens who give them grief. The video is 20 minutes long, but worth the watch.

I finished the book, then opened Twitter to find my new hero, MI State Senator Mallory McMorrow, burning up the media world. State Senator Lana Theis (who represents the district where I used to live) started slinging around accusations of Democrats grooming and sexualizing children in her fund-raising materials, and McMorrow let go with five beautiful minutes of pure truth to power.

Accusing someone of the sexual abuse of children really is the worst thing one can say about another adult human. Scroll back to 2016, and the QAnon-inspired ‘Pizzagate’ where Hillary Clinton was accused of (yup) pedophilia.

There seems to be a pattern here. After all, it was Joseph Goebbels who said If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.

More parallels. And the lying has infected our children, and our schools.

Jonathon Haidt, whose work I deeply admire, thinks that social media has been driving this:

It’s been clear for quite a while now that red America and blue America are becoming like two different countries claiming the same territory, with two different versions of the Constitution, economics, and American history… It’s a story about the fragmentation of everything. It’s about the shattering of all that had seemed solid, the scattering of people who had been a community. It’s a metaphor for what is happening not only between red and blue, but within the left and within the right, as well as within universities, companies, professional associations, museums, and even families.

Historically, civilizations have relied on shared blood, gods, and enemies to counteract the tendency to split apart as they grow. But what is it that holds together large and diverse secular democracies such as the United States and India, or, for that matter, modern Britain and France?

Social scientists have identified at least three major forces that collectively bind together successful democracies: social capital (extensive social networks with high levels of trust), strong institutions, and shared stories. Social media has weakened all three.

I am aware of the irony of posting this blog—all about lies and social fragmentation—on social media. But maybe social media is our only recourse at the moment. Senator McMorrow has had over 10 million views of her video, and it’s been enthusiastically applauded on left-leaning media.

Someone has to tell the truth.  Someone has to pay attention.