Ten Things I Used to Think

I Used to Think was a writing and thinking prompt developed for students, part of the work done by Project Zero. Lately, we haven’t been all that interested in what students think, or how their thinking might change, given more information, dialogue and cogitation. Instead, we’ve been interested in raising their test scores by asking them to simply reproduce knowledge–or keeping them six feet apart and masked until they’re tested again.

The last four years have radically changed a lot of what I think. For example:

I used to think that choosing the right Secretary of Education was the first critical key to strengthening public education across the nation. I really enjoyed the game of proposing/comparing people who, from various perspectives, would be great Education Secretaries. My standard of excellence was always Richard Riley. Riley was Governor of South Carolina, where he did a great deal to recruit teachers of color and address poverty in public education, before being tapped by Bill Clinton as EdSec. He was not, however, an educator, and he presided over a time when education reform was considered a good thing.  But now—I am uninterested in digging up years-old board memberships and former jobs of prospective candidates for EdSec. I am not convinced that being a long-time educator is a prerequisite for success on the job. Experience in the political and policy realm really matters. I’m not even interested in writing a blog about it. Heresy, I know. But there it is.

I used to think that bipartisanship was a good thing, that moving government forward necessitated both collaboration and compromise. I thought policy creation was sausage-making—everyone gets to put in a little something. I thought having a broad range of opinion, from progressive to conservative, was how the country remained stable, and loyal, and patriotic.  But now, I agree with Rebecca Solnit: We shouldn’t meet criminals and Nazis halfway. (Read the link—it’s fantastic.)

I used to think that churches, in spite of their many flaws, were trustworthy organizations that, on balance, did good in their communities. But now, even though I work at a church that is a beacon of kindness and acceptance in a small town, I am horrified at how far astray from core, all-religions wisdom—the universal, do-unto-others stuff—that many Evangelical Christians have wandered. They say there are no atheists in foxholes—and we’re all living in a kind of viral foxhole these days—but I am heartily sick of driving around and seeing God’s Got This! signs in my neighbors’ yards. I think everyone—believers and non-believers, all creeds and traditions—needs to wear a mask, stay home, wash their hands, and stop pretending to be compassionate or ‘saving’ people.

I used to think that racism springs from acute flaws in human character—hatred, and ignorance, likely instilled early by family and community. But nowthanks to Ibram X. Kendi—I recognize that what has held deep-rooted racism in place in America for 400 years is not a continuous stream of benighted people, but policy. White people stole, platted out, and sold land that Indigenous people lived on, hunted and fished, for centuries: policy. Majority-White public schools have always had far more resources and advantages than the schools Black children attended—and policies that nominally have been established to increase equity have also increased segregation.  A country that was literally founded on diverse expression of thought has built its own caste system, through layers and layers of interwoven policy. The good news is that it’s possible to change policies.

I used to think that free and fair elections were the cornerstone of American democracy, and that most people saw election day as a kind of Norman Rockwell tableau, a cherished opportunity for everyman to have their say. I thought the peaceful transfer of power was inviolate. But now… I don’t even have to finish this one. Turn on the television.

I used to think that teachers, in spite of their lousy pay and lack of control over their own work, were regarded as community heroes and helpers. But now—there’s this. This. This. And thousands more. Today, I read an outrage-inducing piece claiming that yeah, teachers are getting sick and dying (isn’t everyone?) but there’s no way to prove they actually caught the coronavirus at school—so hey, everybody into the water. The negative repercussions on this entitled attitude—teachers are so selfish when it comes to their own health!—will last for decades.

I used to think that voluntary academic disciplinary standards were a useful way of organizing curriculum, and the occasional standardized test (say, three or four between kindergarten and graduation) didn’t hurt anyone, and provided some valuable baseline information. But now, I think that standardization, and the widespread belief that more data will improve public education, is pure folly, an illustration of the old saw that a man whose only tool is a hammer sees every problem as a nail. Rewritten: To a man with a computer, every problem looks like data.  

I used to think bootstrapping was a real thing, taking out loans to get a college degree would pay off in the end, and there was a future for deserving and ambitious students. But now, I believe we have outrun this concept of social mobility through more education, which may have once been true. If you’re rich, or your family is rich, those advantages will hold. If you’re trying to catch up economically, the odds are so seriously against you that your smarts, moxie and good character mean pretty much nothing.  The only possible hope (see above) is major policy change. 

I used to think that I was a pretty good music teacher–way above average, in fact. But now, watching music teachers struggle, every single day, with how to teach music online—and, incredibly, succeeding, I am humbled. Even more important, I’ve witnessed them forming communities on social media to help each other tackle these challenges and share resources and innovations. I’ve seen them have in-depth conversations about core pedagogical issues and the future of their profession. Humbled, I say. Seriously humbled.

I used to think putting up a Christmas tree before Thanksgiving was sacrilege, part of the ugly, metastasizing commercialization that has spoiled a once-simple holiday.  But now—this year—I think that, in this season of kindling light against darkness, any cultural or religious tradition that brings joy is spot on, and the sooner, the better.

Public Schools. Public.

[Many years ago, at my husband’s class reunion]: Inebriated classmate starts rhapsodizing about the extreme superiority of the education they all got at their well-regarded co-ed Catholic high school in the suburbs of Detroit, back in the day. His monologue derails (did I mentioned he was sloshed?) and he turns to yammering at ME (a public school teacher) about how terrible schools are today (he has no children) and that the public schools—well, they’re the worst of all. Everybody knows that.

I bite my tongue.

I’m used to people assuming that private and religious schools are, somehow, automatically better than public schools. On the face of it, if ‘you get what you pay for’ is a truism, private schools ought to be better than public schools. Depending on your definition of ‘better,’ of course.

Part of the cachet of privately funded education is exclusion. You’re paying for the privilege (a carefully chosen word) of sending your child to a school that other people can’t afford, and having them taught using a set of values (religious and otherwise) that your family has chosen, not been assigned to by location.

You are making the decisions, finding a school with a socio-economic level close to yours, probably, in the hopes your children will make friendships with similar children. There may be scholarship money for students with fewer economic resources, but that involves a different kind of screening and exclusion.

A religious school or an independent private school may be the right choice for your child, and however you get them there, knowing you support the school you chose  (financially and values-wise) will help your child understand that you are committed to their education. And that–is huge.

However. I would have to say that the cause dearest to my heart right now is saving public education.

By saving, I don’t mean preserving a nostalgic, return-to-the-past version of public schools where the curriculum was homogenized, the Common Core a distant memory, and everyone sat in straight rows.

I mean saving public education from going under, totally, being dismantled and sold for parts.

Lots of truly ghastly things have happened to public education in the past couple of decades, the pandemic merely being the worst. Teachers have had large chunks of their professional discretion taken away, and their salaries remain in the basement. The accountability movement has turned the mission of public education from citizenship and job training to improving test scores.

And now, teachers are caught in the squeeze between the challenge of teaching students well, using uneven connectivity and tools they’ve not been trained to use—or exposing themselves to a deadly virus. It’s like the worst dystopian plot ever, set in the most prosaic setting: an ordinary classroom.

And the conflicting parties are not red or blue, conservative or liberal. They’re public and private.

There are some things that need to belong to all of us, be cherished and tended and utilized by all of us, each chipping in as they can, because we understand these things are best accomplished by communal resources and effort: Parks. Libraries. Roads. Hospitals. The Post Office. Museums, theatres and auditoriums. Schools. The people who keep our food supply safe and put out forest fires. And of course, things we must have, like the military, police and prisons.

Public things.

Most pushback against public initiatives and investments stems, as far as I can see, from two impulses:

  • It’s my money and you can’t have it.
  • I don’t want to share anything with them. [Fill in your own personal ‘them’– people who don’t ‘deserve’ to enjoy ‘our’ parks, libraries, hospitals, etc. People who don’t belong.] 

For many people, public funding for things like recycling or early childhood services or a new library represents taking away their right to choose. If you don’t read, recycle or know anyone with small children, maybe It feels like money out of your pocket, your ‘right to choose’ overridden.

You take care of your own, right? You shouldn’t have to meet the needs of others. That this is a profoundly anti-democratic idea doesn’t even occur to you. Selfishness and power-mongering are featured, every night, on the TV news. Its us vs. them—freedom!–not all of us, together.

I would posit that one of the few places a wide range of citizens, including those who are Red and conservative, can find common ground is in support for public schools. I find it interesting (and also annoying) that while nearly all public schools are on a grotesque anxiety merry-go-round academically—open, close, re-open, close again, in-person/online/hybrid—football season went on.

Of course, many games were cancelled, championships will forever be listed with asterisks, and there are literally hundreds of stories about how teams played without positive-for-COVID stars (or with them, accidentally–or surreptitiously).

But schools, parents and players were absolutely unwilling to relinquish a sports season. Back in June, when the second (or third) wave was just a far-off possibility of horror, the Republican Legislature in Michigan tried to put their (fairly worthless) policy recommendations for what would happen to public education on a one-pager. It was vague and propagandistic and did not anticipate the widespread transmission that actually happened in the fall. But they were adamant in the one-pager that sports would go on.

At the time, it just seemed like pandering to special groups of parents. But I think, now, that it might be another sign that even the most adamant proponents of phony, gun-toting rugged individualism might not want to give up public education entirely. They just want to control it, squeeze all the profitability out of it, while still enjoying the great gifts (including Friday Night Lights) it has provided to small communities, for more than a century.

We are at a tipping point with public education—either it is recognized as one of the most useful institutions of community-building and progress, or it becomes just another example of scare-labeled ‘socialism.’ Ironically, we used to use public schools to advance public goals—an educated citizenry, training everyone to be productive and innovative, places to vote and be immunized against disease, places to learn the basic concepts of our American government, a genuine melting pot.

It’s time for that national conversation we keep talking about, but never have: What is the real mission of public education? Forget the over-under on who will be the new Secretary of Education. Let’s clearly define the purpose of public schools and stop supporting exclusion with our tax dollars. It’s well worth the fight.

As Roger Cohen said, today, in his final NYT column:

Exclusion precludes belonging. Racism is a close cousin to nationalism, as America has been reminded. They both depend on scapegoating or persecuting “the other”; on the idea, as Kipling put it, that: “All nice people, like us, are We, and everyone else is They.”

The Lost Year Fallacy

The first time I learned about the 1918 flu pandemic—in school, probably junior high history or civics class—I came home and asked my grandmother (who lived with us) what she remembered about the great flu pandemic. She would have been 28 in 1918, still single and working in a grocery and dry goods store.

Not much, it turned out. None of her nine brothers and sisters or their spouses and children had succumbed, nor any friends. She couldn’t remember being ill herself, although she was notorious for living with pain and discomfort. When she was in her 90s, she fell off a stepladder while washing windows. She broke her hip, something that wasn’t verified for a couple of weeks while she hobbled around saying it wasn’t bad enough to go to the hospital, where they might hold her overnight or give her unwanted drugs.

Grandma was no Donald Trump.

World War II broke out when my mother was a freshman in high school. Many of her classmates left school before graduating, to enlist. When they came back, they were offered GEDs and the GI bill to further their education. There were good-paying, middle class jobs for those who just wanted to work, buy a home or start a family.

Their education was disrupted—but hey, duty calls. What’s put off can be reclaimed.

So—why are we claiming that 2020-21 is a lost year? In October, no less? We’re all struggling with this pandemic. Can’t we take a deep breath and try to problem-solve?

Since K-12 public education has been widely operational—for a century, more or less—we have experienced wars, depressions and recessions, 9/11, civil unrest, discriminatory school closings in the South and health scares. School has continued, to the extent possible, during all of these national crises. In fact, in the most degraded and troubled places in this nation, public education is one of the few constants: Kids show up. Kids get taught.

So why are reformers insisting that nothing must change—or we’ll ‘lose’ a year?  With advice like this?

Grades, tracking attendance, grade-level content, and opportunities for acceleration are a must. Pass-fail or pass-incomplete, optional attendance, and a focus on remediation will lead to a lost year whose damage could extend into the future.

Damage to whom? Stand for Children and their grant revenue stream?

The ‘Lost Year’ narrative has come to a scare-tactics peak with Mc Kinsey and  NWEA projecting that students could lose somewhere between three months and a year of learning in 2020-21, even as they attend school remotely. McKinsey claims lifetime learnings will be impacted. CREDO asserted that the average student lost 136 to 232 days of learning in math.

As Chalkbeat points out
: The projections rely on the assumption that students learned nothing (or worse) once schools shut their doors. How could students have lost hundreds of days of learning from missing 60 or so actual days of in-person school?

It has to do with how CREDO converts learning loss, measured in standard deviations, into “days of learning.” The approach is controversial among researchers.

No duh. It also vastly overestimates the real-life utility of testable knowledge students are being fed, the stuff necessary to generate all the predictive data. Test scores—as we all know—do not equate to life, liberty or pursuit of happiness. They don’t even equate to the social connections necessary to get a good job. Even worse, they’re a distraction from the challenges that teachers (the real front-line heroes) now face in trying to figure out how to teach under limited and often dangerous circumstances.

Let me say it again. Test-data estimates, alarmist language and shady research do nothing to help us with the most critical problem we have right now: keeping kids connected to their schoolwork and their teachers. However that’s offered and as imperfect as it may be.

Paraphrased Tweet I read recently:  Can you name one school or district that has actually reimagined education?

Well-heeled education nonprofits now depend on things NOT being reimagined—deeply ironic for those who call themselves reformers. Without tests and data and uniformity and seat time and standard deviations, we’re just back to good old public school, doing our best under the circumstances.

Kind of like schools were in 1918-19, when 675,000 Americans died of the Spanish flu.

Take it Easy on Teachers, OK?

So are we tired of the back to school merry-go-round?

My social media feeds are filled with hundreds—maybe thousands—of stories, most of them first-hand, about what’s happening as schools play poker with a deadly virus and human beings.

There are the Never-ending Shitshow posts: School’s in session for three days before COVID makes an appearance. So school’s out, but kids are still playing soccer for some reason. The first day of all-online school, the internet burps at 8:00 a.m., then dies for five hours. Next, the grapevine (not the school) delivers the news that two more kids and a teacher tested positive. Then—football returns after a two-week hiatus, courtesy of a bunch of powerful white dads.  And maybe there will now be a different hybrid plan, to please working parents. Stay tuned. And on and on.

There are also the Brave, Let’s Do This posts: Teacher (perhaps one with asthma or a history of breast cancer) publicly declares this isn’t what she wants to be doing, but damn it, she’s going in, to serve the kids she loves. There are the usual ‘here’s my room’ photos, with the furniture against the walls, plastic shields around the teacher’s desk and taped squares on the floor. The word ‘exhausted’ appears frequently, and the word ‘terrified’ leaks out, but a principal hears about it and makes her take it down.

There are the Tech Helper posts, where teachers swap tips, tricks, emergency fixes and horror stories about technological platforms, and the idiotic policies schools and administrators have imposed: Kids stay home, teachers must report to school. Kids must wear shoes. Kids must turn on cameras. The ‘gold standard’ is making on-screen school just like in-person school, meeting for six hours a day. Videotaped lessons that are supposed to look like Reading Rainbow or Bill Nye, Science Guy. Bitmoji.

The Oh No It’s Going to Be Like This All Year parent stories, where they realize that March-May was just a tiny sampling of what life is going to be like for this entire school year. If your kid is exerting zero effort at home, is that what he’s like at school? What if my family doesn’t have four computers? Will Grandma monitor the kids when they’re supposed to be working?

But the kind of post that really fries my oysters is the one where the finger points at teachers.

There’s plenty of blame to go around:

  • Decision-makers who spent the summer hoping for the best, fearing the worst, and not doing squat to set up multiple advance planning scenarios based on available data.
  • Entire states where masks, social distancing and hand-washing are actively resisted.
  • The withdrawal of rich, white parents from neighborhood schools because they can form pods, hire tutors, afford high-speed internet and cool programs, leaving schools with students who need school to be cared for and fed.
  • Utter lack of political leadership, reliable data, easily available testing and contact tracing—all the coronavirus blah-blah that’s been plaguing us since (per Bob Woodward) January.

But let’s go easy on the teachers. Virtually none of this is their fault—and what appear to be teachers’ failings and idiosyncrasies are often WAY out of their control.

It’s not teachers who decided whether to return to school. In fact, when the current OK State Teacher of the Year spoke powerfully about the risks of returning to in-person school, parents in the audience booed her. Imagine how that felt.

It’s not teachers, independent of their colleagues and school leaders, who set rules and guidelines for the use of electronic platforms. Most of them, even experienced master teachers, are being observed for compliance and accountability. Many are criticized for things that are completely out of their direction: choice of programs and platforms, amount of time expected for student log-ins, even ridiculous things like dress codes and hand-raising are often subject to scrutiny.

It’s not teachers who decided to load up class sizes because there isn’t enough room to socially distance, or make mask-wearing optional for students.

If your child is struggling with new procedures and missing the old way of doing school, so is their teacher. Most teachers, even old pros, begin the school year nervous and unsure of what to expect—in a good year. They rely on quickly establishing personal relationships to build a community.

Some of them start with strict rules and little humor, others start out warm and inviting, but the ultimate goal is always the same: a well-ordered, friendly classroom where all students are seen and heard. Where nobody is isolated, and nobody sucks up all the attention.  

I have seen kindergarten teachers absolutely enchant 30 five year-olds with songs, stories and fingerplays, sitting in a circle on the floor, creating a little village in a week. But these little villages require constant maintenance and vigilance: A hand on a shoulder. A cheek-to-cheek conversation about what you just did, in the hallway. An encouraging smile. The Look. A belly laugh together, as a class.

NONE of this is available to online teachers, right now. Face to face teachers find their bag of tricks is diminished, too, as they try to avoid a dangerous illness. Some of their best pals have taken early retirement. Some of them are doing double duty, teaching two classes in two modes.

This is not sustainable, their posts say. I’m pedaling as hard as I can. And students will reflect what their parents are saying and doing. A parent who starts the school year nitpicking or condemning their children’s teachers will find their children doing exactly the same. Recipe for discontent.

Please. Give teachers a lot of grace, and a lot of kindness. You owe them as much.

Image: LauraGilchristEdu

Pod Save Us: How Learning Pods are Going to Destroy Public Education. Or Not.

The first thing I thought of when people started murmuring about getting groups of kids whose families were connected together for a little home-based mini-school, was the much-heralded advent of charter schools in my state, back in 1995.

Just about everybody who was around and in the thick of education reform back then thought charters held promise. Throwing off the regulatory shackles! Schools with a unique vision and purpose! No more factory-model instruction!

A group of parents, led by one of those perennial PTA-president moms, approached a group of maybe a dozen teachers in the district where I taught, hoping to start a K-8 charter. Several of the teachers had already been discussing a new, arts-infused ‘dream school.’ The parents had a centrally located vacant building in mind, and had run some numbers that showed, somehow, teachers would be paid commensurately with the district’s salary scale, including benefits—and would be freed to run their classes the way they saw fit.

It’s worth noting that this was before NCLB, the Common Core and mandated testing in grades 3-8. I’m finding it hard to remember, in fact, just what we found so onerous and constraining about practices in the buildings we were working in, but that group of teachers (male and female, including several movers and shakers) agreed to meet with the parent organizers.

The parents were super-enthusiastic. They, too, had ideas to roll out, and were thrilled at the prospect of having a greater say in their children’s education, without having to pay private school tuition. The new charter law let them pick and choose teachers and set the tone for who would be welcome there. The leader of the group declared ‘We’re going to have the cream of the crop in our school!’

And that was it. All of the teachers immediately realized why the parents had done so much research and organizing: it was all for their kids. Kids whose parents did not have similar resources and savvy would be left behind, a phrase that hadn’t even entered the education lexicon yet.

I have long been a defender of the idea that parents should do whatever makes them comfortable, when it comes to their children’s education. If you want right-wing religious training, or single-gender education, or a place where your child will not stick out–thinking here of the Obamas not placing their girls, symbolically, into a public school—hey, go for it. One size does not fit all, although a lot of public schools try to accommodate pretty much everyone.

I think trying to tell parents, during a pandemic–especially when there’s a dearth of authentic leadership around making healthy choices for kids–that they have to play by a particular school’s rules is utter folly. Nothing will, or should, stop parents from trying to figure out how to get the best deal for their children during a crisis. That’s what parents are for.

There will be lots of chaos, changes and new understandings about the nature and importance of public school as we muddle through the beginning of the school year. What I’m hoping is that it won’t be another New Orleans after Katrina—where powerful (mostly white) people dismantled a struggling system for their own purposes. Because they had more money and more power, and they could.

Is that what pod-parents are intending? A way to use a virulent virus to duck out of feeling responsible for all children, or at least those in the immediate vicinity? Or is pod-learning a temporary solution that might lead to a new appreciation of the utterly democratic and cost-effective nature of public education?

Conflicting ideas:

~ Pod-learning has no concrete definition. A tutor (please don’t call them zutors) who works with a half-dozen children, twice a week, to accomplish their assigned schoolwork, is a far cry from dropping your child off at someone’s home every day so you can go to work and they can go to school. Do pod-teachers create their own curriculum or merely adapt what’s available, free, from the local public school? Who hires pod-teachers and what recourse do they have when conflicts occur? And on and on.

~ None of this is new. There have been private tutors, one-room schoolhouses and home-schools since colonial times. More recently, we’ve had distance learning and a revolving carousel of online, customer-friendly, charter schools. There are plenty of ways to get your child at least nominally educated—and also into college. Best to keep the focus on genuine learning, which might involve some deeper involvement and hard questions about what your schooling plan does for your child, besides keep them occupied for six hours a day.

~ If you’re counting on your schooling bubble to keep your kids—and hence, all the people in your household—free from infection while enjoying the freedom of not wearing masks or social distancing, there’s a great graphic for you to study at the end of this blog.

~ Surprise! One of the two great benefits of public education is free/inexpensive childcare. (The other is an educated citizenry but almost nobody talks about that.) What that means is those who can afford to chip in on a pod program can also afford childcare. By hiring a bona fide teacher who is fearful of returning to a public school, you’re deepening the division between haves and have-nots. If, as some talking heads are suggesting, you hire a college student at loose ends—you’re doubling down on the false idea that anyone can teach. Didn’t you already figure that out, back in April?

~ Here’s a certainty: if people form pods to educate their kids, bypassing public schools, it will weaken the commitment to annual high-stakes testing, the Common Core (and its identical cousins with different names), and tightly controlled teacher licensure. That’s not all bad, but deregulation has its downside. Think of it as public education being re-created as a gig economy. Teaching as Uber. Caveat emptor.

~ Teacher professionalism and expertise will be devalued. What will suffer then are the (admittedly idealistic) concepts of deep learning, custom-tailored curriculum, relationship-driven instruction–things that can only be supported by an established system run by professional educators.

~ Pods will have all the problems that public schools have: unsuitable teachers that some parents and children dislike, personality and values conflicts, lack of necessary resources, unforeseen changes in numbers and support for the pod model. Doesn’t matter how large or small your pod is. Doesn’t matter if you’re teaching in a geodesic dome in your backyard—there will be problems.

~ And, of course—the questions around equity. You can argue, correctly, that schools are already inequitable. But what makes a school equitable is not its location or demographics. Equity is built by a reliable stream of resources, committed and talented teachers and genuine leadership. You can’t have an equitable school or provide an equitable education without good people. Temporary, just-in-time pod education disrupts what is good in public education: community-building.

Worst Year Ever

I was amused to see that Jay Mathews, longtime Washington Post education columnist, thinks this will be the ‘worst year ever.’ So bad that he thinks maybe we ought to ask public school principals and teachers if they have any bright ideas about how to do school—what do we have to lose? They might have some creative solutions! #sarcasm

The best charter schools have made good use of their freedom from old school district rules and biases. Why shouldn’t teachers and principals at regular public schools have a chance to do that, at least during this crisis?

At least during this crisis—and then, of course, we’ll go back to ignoring their wisdom and treating them like cheap, interchangeable cogs in a dysfunctional machine.

I have been reading Mr. Mathews for two decades. I understand that he represents the old guard in educational journalism—the folks who are actually employed by mainstream news outlets, rather than the motley and generally unpaid crew of folks writing from the trenches. The people who work in schools every day.

The point of this blog is not to evaluate how accurately journalists report on truths about teaching and learning vs. those who rely on call-Randi-then-phone-it-in columns. There are plenty of classroom-based bloggers, after all, who cannot see beyond their school, their students, and their particular needs.

Still–there are lots of people writing about the crisis around returning to schools now, and that’s good, no matter who they are  We need to hear all the voices, including those whose crazy idea just might work for someone, somewhere, even if it is a non-starter for you.

So here is my idea: What if this were the best year ever?

More specifically, what if this were the year that we–students, teachers, parents—got to try everything we ever considered doing? What if you could design your own teaching-learning path and your own outcomes? Freed from the constraints of rigid curricular standards, conventional M-F schedules and tests designed to sort, rank, reward and punish—what if you got to choose what David Berliner calls ‘good learning’?

Nearly every argument against this stems from our cast-in-concrete ideas of what school is supposed to be: You are supposed to be reading in first grade. You are supposed to learn to ‘socialize’ in school. You are supposed to learn a tiny bit about multiple, discrete subjects every day, instead of spending a whole day (or week—or month) using only one or two disciplines. You are supposed to be ready for college or a career at the end of the thirteen-year race.

You are supposed to be able to focus, seated, indoors for hours at a time, without frequent breaks to stretch, use the restroom or talk to other people. Or daydream. Or read something interesting. Or doodle, look out the window or immerse yourself in a topic, skill or project that is of great interest to you.

In fact, in some schools, it doesn’t matter what you’re interested in—we have your content and your benchmarks all laid out for you. It’s aligned with the test that will tell us what classes you’ll take next year, and the year after that. Will the pandemic be over then?

Perhaps this feels as if I have gone all Summerhill, (the ‘radical’ book all education majors dissected in the 1970s). As if I’m a fan of unschooling–or one of those people who babble about the factory model and how school stifles their child’s imagination. How classes are boring in person and even worse online.

Not so. In fact, I’m a great fan of public education, of kids adapting to a schedule and learning to get along in groups. I think most schools do a credible job of teaching kids what they need to know—and some teachers and schools do a spectacular job of preparing kids for the world to come. I also think (and have gotten into trouble for saying out loud) that the brightest children amuse themselves and are seldom bored in school, at home or sitting in front of a computer. It’s the kids who rely on structure, attention and directions from an adult who are bored, who use their intelligence to be compliant or competitive, rather than creative.

So let’s use the resources that public education controls—and get creative, for once.

The plans for fall have been repeatedly divided—by media and policy-making spokespersons—into three buckets: Regular, face to face school. Hybrid models. Online instruction. None of these models is universally viable.*

More to the point, all of them are based on the idea that we need to tread water and make school as close as possible to what it was in 2019, while waiting for the virus to go away. The US Department of Education’s vow to not grant testing waivers for 2020-21 is not based on their deep desire to see whether kids have ‘fallen behind’ so they can get ‘caught up.’ The entire K-12 system now requires test scores as our product, the gears and levers used to control and shame public education and, where possible, replace it with privatized, for-profit models (including charters).

If tests were to go away, permanently, then schools could start designing their own curricula, tailored to the children they serve.  If benchmarks were to go away, we could return to meeting children where they are and moving them forward. If standards were to become optional guideposts, rather than rigid requirements—the kind that mandate flunking children who struggle to read when they’re eight years old –we might even find them useful, especially novice teachers, beginning to build a practice toolkit.

If this sounds like happy talk, it’s pretty much what we had 30 years ago. It’s hard to remember, but solving educational problems used to take place at the district and state level, and testing was something states did to make sure tax dollars were being wisely spent. In many states, schools that posted low scores were given compensatory funding and technical assistance, and deficits were assumed to be related to poverty.

That was then. And now, we’re headed into the ‘worst year ever’—but only if you accept that what we’ve been doing for the past two decades has been a good use of our resources.

It could also be the best year ever. This won’t happen without a political overhaul and a cataclysmic upheaval in practice. But it may be the best opportunity we have.

* This is a personal gripe, but positioning the return-to-school choices for fall as bifurcated—in-person vs. online—is short-sighted. I live in a place where on-line schooling is close to impossible—a huge rural district (168 square miles) where high-speed internet connectivity is iffy at best. My DSL line (our only real choice) operates at less than one mbps, upload and download—not enough to run a Zoom classroom, upload photos and videos, or send an emailed assignment with a large attachment and expect it to arrive in a few minutes. Buses with wifi hot-spots and free devices aren’t going to suffice.

Please don’t tell me that this is a local government problem. I understand that. But my local government, despite 10 years’ worth of being urged to deal with the problem, is reluctant to act, saying that they haven’t heard complaints, and don’t want to spoil the ‘rural character’ of the county. By the time the local government acts, the school year may well be over.

We were one of the cooperative districts formed by the Rural Electrification Administration in 1935, when many of our farmers were not connected to electricity. The reason then is the same as now: too expensive, not enough profit in connecting farms and wide-apart homes. So yes. It’s political. This is what will happen to our postal service, too, if Trump gets his way.

Kids who can’t go to school online need creativity, too.

Five (Conservative) Ideas about Going Back to School in the Fall

Could you give us some of your wisdom?

Hard to turn down a request like that, from a friend. This particular friend created a freebie news magazine for parents 20 years ago, filled with local ads and feature stories. It’s professionally assembled and well-known locally—and has just shifted to a glossy online platform. And now, my friend needed some contagion-relevant content for the August issue. Topic: Going back to school. In a pandemic.

Well, I could write about that. Then she said: Remember—nothing political! This has to be advice that will comfort parents and not be considered at all controversial.

One of the reasons I left a national blog perch with a paywall and started my own blog was so I could write about all kinds of juicy and controversial things and Say What I Really Thought. It’s been fun, and the juiciest and most controversial blogs have drawn the most traffic.

But hey. I’m flexible. Besides, I was a public school teacher for 31 years, in a district filled with conservative, traditional parents. I can do middle-of-the-road careful; I can offer up sensible advice while not honking anybody off, too much.

This is what I came up with—five non-controversial ideas for parents about how to approach our eventual return to school, whether that’s next month or next year. Your mileage may vary, of course.

  • Be flexible. This may be the hardest thing for parents and teachers—and students as well. We’ve become accustomed to guidelines and traditions: School always starts in the fall and ends as summer begins. School is held in buildings, in classrooms. But this year, we just don’t know what will happen. It will be tempting to assess blame—against school leaders or the government—when we are frustrated. The pandemic is nobody’s fault, however—and the most useful ideas for schooling in a pandemic are often unusual. Will your child meet his teacher outdoors, twice a week? Perhaps. Might the school close and reopen multiple times? Maybe. Will there be distance learning, online or via printed packets? Likely, even if it’s not optimal. Stay open and amenable to change. Your children will follow your lead.
  • Relax—there is no such thing as ‘falling behind.’ First, nearly all schoolchildren are experiencing this disruption to their regular school routine. More important, any veteran teacher will tell you that students do not learn in uniform, year-by-year levels of progress. There are spurts and plateaus, times when new skills and content are gained and times when students merely practice using the things they know and are able to do. Your child—with a little gentle help from you—can continue to grow or solidify their learning: Reading (out loud or silently). Walking in nature. Choosing their own interests and projects to pursue. When in doubt, Google learning ideas for children. And stop stressing over tests and competing. Your child will be OK, in the long run.
  • Stay in touch with your school. If you have bright ideas about how to cope with stemming the spread of infection, or if your children have specific needs, share this information with school leaders and teachers. Give them a chance to help your family adapt. If at all possible, stick with the school—whether public or private—your family chose last year. This is not the right time to go school shopping, hoping to find something ‘better.’ A school where your child is known is a better bet than rolling the dice, academically, during a dangerous national health crisis.
  • Trust school leaders and teachers. They are between a viral rock and the hard place of public needs. They are also willing to take risks and learn new things to provide an education for your child. They deserve our support. Their rules and procedures are designed to keep children safe and create order in the school. If your family does not agree with all of the school’s plan and requirements for re-opening, keep in mind that schools are responsible for communities of children, not just your child. Our democratic society was built on the rule of law; modeling that has never been more important. It is vital for children to respect their school’s directions and decisions right now, around masking, distancing and sanitizing. It’s an important step in building their adulthood and citizenship.
  • We are all in this together. Your children are like millions of schoolchildren across the country, your family’s problems are shared by families across the state. The most productive approach to solving these problems is doing so in a way that benefits everyone in your community, keeping them as safe as possible. Our ability to remain calm and approach a national emergency with a can-do spirit is something Americans have been proud of, in past crises.  We will survive this, and even learn from the struggle, if everyone does their part.

FaceBook: Fount of all Wisdom, Wellspring of Stupid

I know all the things that are wrong with Facebook, all the reasons why now might be the perfect time to Just. Step. Away. Several friends have virtue-signaled their unwillingness to play nice with a man who sells them (and their data) out and closed down their accounts. Many more have taken extended breaks, keeping a toe in (and, I suspect, checking surreptitiously on the regular). Others have shifted exclusively to Twitter or some other, more hip social media site.

But—like that last cigarette or glass of Pinot Grigio, Facebook is addictive. It—and, from slightly different angles, other social media sites—act as the town square, in 2020. During the pandemic, when choosing which information to believe and act on is a matter, quite literally, of life versus death, Facebook is where a lot of people get their news.

And I’m going to say something surprising: that’s not all bad.

Frequently bad, sometimes ruinous, sure—but also (somewhat randomly) useful.

It’s where dialogue is generated. Notice I didn’t say high-level discourse—but I have learned things from reading Facebook. This is mostly because I don’t accept or keep Facebook friends who can’t carry on a conversation.

I am genuinely interested in what people think. Facebook is where I’ve learned that a lot of really benighted people live in my county—and while that’s not happy news, it’s good to know. It’s also where I have met some of the smarter people on the planet and been enriched by their logic and reason.

Facebook can be a kind of socio-anthropological adventure, if you have thick skin and are willing to research and argue your opinions—and also change your mind. Here’s an example:

One of the most commonly asserted and accepted reasons that children need to go back to school in the fall is the thought that school is good for their mental health—the socialization, the ‘normalcy,’ the daily routines and of course, the all-important knowledge acquisition and skill-building that comes with in-person schooling. There is evidence that school is a safer place, physically, for some students—a place where caring adults are paying attention and providing baseline needs, for seven or eight hours.

I saw that argument as rational, if not 100% convincing.  Then, I read this on Facebook, from a child and family therapist, arguments against ‘COVID schooling’ because it’s supposedly ‘good for kids’:

– Having to obey rigid and developmentally inappropriate behavioral expectations to maintain social distancing for hours at a time
– Restricting their engagement with their peers even though those peers are right in front of them
– Somehow having to have the executive functioning within all of this to meet educational standards and possibly experiencing shame, and self-doubt when they reasonably can’t
– Being unable to receive age appropriate comfort from teachers and staff when dysregulated from all of this, thereby experiencing attachment injuries daily

Did this change my mind? Hard to say, because I recognize that there is no one answer to the critical and urgent questions around schooling in the fall. But it widened my perspective. It made me understand that credible people are looking into the other side of ‘kids need school’ when school is a place of fear and rigidity.

I read multiple international, national, statewide and local newspapers, and a couple dozen magazines. I watch TV news. But I also find things on Facebook I wouldn’t find elsewhere—news sources and, more important, the considered thoughts of respected friends, and friends of friends.

There’s value in that. Also danger. It’s easy to believe third-hand quasi-information, especially when it confirms your biases. Raise your hand if you’ve ever re-posted something, then had to take it down, after being embarrassed by a public correction.

Which is why I believe the most important thing we can do, right now, for all literate children, is teach them how to evaluate media. Fortunately, there are great resources to use—and while distance instruction pales in comparison to face to face learning, this is something that can and should be done online

If I were in charge of training teenagers how to assess the media they consume, I’d start with Facebook.

I’d begin with a list of Facebook personalities:

  • The Plentiful Poster who puts up a dozen or two links every day, designed to share the best (in their opinion) articles and resources.
  • The Ad Hominem Attacker who goes first for the jugular in personal critiques. The Orange Cheeto? Cruella DeVos? Our Tyrannical Governor? Forget political arguments and opinions—it’s all about who to blame. There are some people who never get past this level.
  • The Short Attention Spanner who doesn’t read the link they’re posting. Or confirm any outrageous claims with a second source. Or read anything before commenting.
  • The guy who thinks long is better, and proceeds to type paragraph after paragraph, comment after comment, just to wear you down. The woman who can’t remember where she first saw the post—but was blown away by it, thinks it may have been written by a doctor and is thereby God’s honest truth.
  • The My Way or the Highway Poster, who is not interested in discussing. Only telling.

That’s enough for starters.

I’d ask the students to provide other (living or social media) typologies from their experience: Who’s credible? Who’s full of baloney? Who’s trying to impress you? Shut you up by policing your anger and demanding ‘civility’? Snow you with phony facts—or (and this is absolutely everywhere) Fake Math?

I see you waving your hand over there—reminding me that we should begin by teaching kids how to evaluate evidence and websites, not the integrity or authority of people they know or are friends with (two different things) on social media.

But I am reminded of one of those old saws about teaching: Start where the student is. And for many of them, that’s personal relationships or relationship chains.

Who should you trust? It’s absolutely the question of the year.

Are Teachers Babysitters? Maybe.

People are uber-touchy, even panicky, about the questions around returning to school—it’s a life and death issue, all right, including potentially gambling with our most precious asset: our children.

Like any venture that is launched before all the facts and outcomes are available—marriage and childbirth spring to mind here—both in-person schooling in some fashion and staying home for distance learning have their vocal supporters and detractors.

There’s free-floating hostility, too—accusations of parents ‘dripping privilege’ who are urging public schools to reopen, knowing they have the resources to keep their children safe. There are politicians who just want ‘normal’ again, blaming the media, the left, and public institutions for pumping up panic.

And there are teachers—without whom, students will not go back to school—self-righteously proclaiming that they’re not babysitters.

This is not a new statement. A few years back, there was a meme that made the rounds—the teacher rounds, anyway—comparing the work of teaching to babysitting for 30 children for seven hours a day. Guess what? The babysitter made more money. Way more money. So there!

I was never sure what the moral of the story was. Proof that teachers are grossly underpaid for the important work they do by saying that even babysitters make more money? How is that helpful?

Here’s the thing: All work that is critical and essential in building a functional society has its moments of mundane, even undignified monotony. A nurse friend who works in endoscopy once remarked that she’d spent four years studying chemistry, anatomy and biology, but her chief responsibility in her daily job was holding senior citizens’ butt cheeks apart so they could get a colonoscopy.

Not a pretty picture. And not really representative of her skills and expertise, which are substantial. Still, many of what society considers high-level occupations—hedge fund manager, say– are nothing more than a narrow band of knowledge, social connections and high-speed internet. A lot of important work is commonplace and undervalued. Like taking care of children.

Let’s acknowledge, upfront, that the nation, as we know it, will not function without a robust system of childcare. Let’s also acknowledge that PK-12 public education is the biggest piece of that.

Let’s admit how fortunate we are, to have public schools that keep our children safe, Monday through Friday, but also enriched intellectually—and, in many cases, fed, inspired and given glimpses of a better life. Every parent knows what a relief it is when your children are finally in school full-time, and your own work or interests can take precedence for part of the day, knowing that the kids are, indeed, all right.

Teachers are, in fact, childcare experts. Occasionally, someone suggests that teachers’ jobs consist of dispensing knowledge and instilling standard competencies, no more. This is 100% baloney.

Ask any first-grade teacher how many lost teeth she has processed (using protocols for blood-borne pathogens she must review annually). Ask any seventh-grade teacher how many times he’s had to deal with a sobbing child who’s just been called ‘fat’ by mean girls. Ask any high school teacher who’s attended the funeral of a student lost to cancer, or to suicide.

Go ahead—ask them: Did you care for this child? And was that caring an important part of your job? A lot of what teachers have been doing during the shutdown is a kind of childcare, by the way.

During the Great Depression—the one that started because of wealth inequality and the stock market crash—more and more students finished high school. There were no jobs for them, and school was a safer, more productive place than the streets. Public works offered alternative programming, building infrastructure and skills. Funding, during the Depression, was iffy, and politically contentious, but teachers found their extra work in accepting large classes and coping with students who would have otherwise dropped out, paid off in a better-educated citizenry:

The most dismal years for schools were between 1932 and 1936. By 1939 educators observed that Americans’ desire to maintain and improve public education was very deep rooted.

Of course, attending or teaching school in 1934 didn’t involve a pandemic-level health risk.

There’s been lots of digital ink praising grocery store workers, take-out restaurants and USPS drivers for keeping us fed and informed. But what these folks want is not praise for doing their jobs. They want better wages, personal protection against the virus and good health care, which during a pandemic would include regular, free diagnostic testing.

Teachers want the same things—PPE, a viable workplace, testing/tracing, and acknowledgement that they, too, are indispensable, and valued, front-line workers. Corporations don’t expect workers to do their jobs from home, using personal computers and paying for their own internet—why should schools?  

Teachers also want the option of making their own decisions, without condemnation—nobody knows better than teachers that policies and guidelines are one thing, but reality, in schools, is something else entirely.

We simply don’t know enough yet to make sweeping pronouncements about schooling in the fall. This is highly distressing to proactive educators, not to mention parents, who want to get their ducks in a row. But the pandemic is a raging, out-of-control forest fire at the moment, in many places. When teachers mutter about a national strike, to protect their own health and well-being, I think it may well come to that—and it might be justified. But.

Do we all have to follow the same guidelines? Especially since it’s likely that risk levels and mitigation compliance will change, frequently, over the next few months? More to the point: if schools don’t provide childcare, who will?

I keep thinking about a school where I volunteer. About two-thirds of the students there do not have enough broadband access to attend a Zoom meeting or upload an assignment that includes an image or attachment. Theoretically, half of them have access to a device—which may be a single Smartphone for a whole family.

Every child in this district eats a free hot breakfast and lunch at school. It’s a large rural district with families spread out across the county, so it would take a fleet of buses with wi-fi hotspots and free devices for each child to go full-tilt distance learning—and still, most families could not connect in real time.

We’re talking about in-person school here, at least some of the time–or packets. We’ve lived here for 10 years and can testify that adequate broadband isn’t coming anytime soon—it’s simply not a money-maker in remote rural areas where most students live in poverty.

On the other hand, there is only one class of children per grade, in this school, and the largest class is 16. Some classes are as small as five or six. Unlike the vast majority of schools, there is actually room in the school to social distance. It’s a tight-knit community, and there are just 27 cases of COVID in the county.

Is going back to school riskier—to the whole community— than a patchwork of babysitting neighbors or, more likely, kids staying home alone?

I also keep thinking about this statement: Americans’ desire to maintain and improve public education is very deep rooted. Let’s keep it that way.

Rule Followers, Unite! And Stay Alive…

Meme wisdom: Those who have stayed inside, worn masks in public, and socially distanced during this entire pandemic are the same people who are used to doing the whole group project by themselves.

Of all the hundreds of things I’ve read about distancing, risk assessment, statistical analyses and their failings, back to school/stay home, and whether masking is really an IQ test—I like this one the best.

Every teacher with a couple years’ experience recognizes those kids: the ones who do what they’re supposed to do, even if it means picking up considerable slack generated by other kids. Community-minded kids are not always academic superstars, by the way—some of those really resent having to share their superior intellectual skills in the service of a good grade for a group. They will let the teacher know that, too.

In my classroom, rule-followers were kids who retrieved the percussion mallets or folders, after class. Students who showed the person next to them the correct fingering—and said ‘good job’ to their stand mate, when they mastered the Ab scale.

After all, we were playing together. Music is not an interpersonal competition—it’s a group project. We need each other. That was the party line in the band room, anyway—and most kids actually believed it and lived it. It didn’t come naturally, however.

The question is: how do cooperative kids get to be that way? What is the secret sauce that feeds a sense of community responsibility over personal gratification? How can we have pride and true excellence, while staying within the guardrails of kindness and collaboration?

The quick and easy answer is that children learn (or don’t learn) this concept at home: Our family is a team. Don’t be greedy. Don’t be selfish. Use your manners. Think of others. Share.

I would suggest that students also learn (or don’t learn) these behaviors and beliefs in school—and from absorbing an endless stream of media. And by living in the United States. As Bob Wachter says:

America is good at many things. But handling a pandemic—at least in our current political atmosphere—isn’t one of them. In fact, we suck. We’re too individualistic, too spoiled, too vain, too partisan, and too willing to believe misinformation, conspiracies or craziness.

Yikes.

Still, I’ve been having conversations with teachers—both retired, and still in the classroom—who express surprise and horror at things their former students are saying online: No way am I wearing a mask. This whole thing is so overblown. Even if we get a vaccine, I won’t trust it. I need a haircut! This violates our constitutional rights. I heard they’re just saying everyone who dies had COVID. I think Bill Gates is behind this.

So much for the value of science, the actual documents and principles of our government, statistical analysis and media critique skills. Nice job, Teach! Sigh.

In a class on International Education, a Japanese teacher told us that the first goal in every elementary classroom in Japan was a focus on building community—acceptance of every child, no matter what their academic skills or personality, as a valuable and functional member of the group. We work together, we clean together, we play together, she said. It’s our social foundation.

Indeed, many teachers in the United States do several of the same things—build their classroom communities and procedures for working together early in the year, knowing that it’s a worthwhile investment of time that pays off in better discussions, a better atmosphere, better individual and group work. Whatever success teachers had in their lightning-quick shift to distance learning was built on relationships that were nurtured early in the 2019-20 school year.

The problem is that these practices—establishing caring communities, cooperative learning—aren’t always valued in the American system. Following agreed-upon rules becomes a fool’s game, something that only suckers and goody two-shoes types buy into. Japan is a homogeneous society, we’re told—but we, here in the home of the so-called free, are more diverse. We must rely on our individual strengths and ruthless determination to get ahead.

And so we end up with this—and this, both of which illustrate the point where  refusal to comply with simple rules becomes psychopathy. Plus—staggering COVID infection and death rates that could have been prevented or mitigated if everyone—parents, educators, and political leaders—did their part and followed the guidelines.

How do we get people to obey the rules? Ask a teacher. A few quick thoughts:

  • Mandates and punishments seldom work to change behavior in schools. Likewise, we can’t arrest every person who tries to enter a business without a mask, or crowds behind us in line. The more time we spend enforcing rules and punishing students, the more we get this escalation and anger. Schools now defunding in-house police officers are moving in the right direction. Force is the blunt instrument of compliance, as some segments of American society know only too well. Force leads to more force, and all of this is based on fear, a terrible motivator.
  • Incentives have temporary value. Teachers who gave obedient students Jolly Ranchers know this–it’s basic Skinnerian conditioning, and eventually masks the real goal in favor of the reward. You can give customers wearing masks five percent off their purchase, but the habit is short-lived.
  • Community disapproval sometimes works, if gentle, but it can horribly backfire, as any teacher with one recalcitrant troublemaker prone to public fit-pitching will tell you. Being shut out of a community is a painful experience for all humans, children and adults. It seldom leads to permanent changes in attitude and can, over time, damage children and adults. Use cautiously.
  • Persuasion seems to be a wonderful way to change anti-community behaviors. If only it were quick and easy, to just ‘listen to the scientists’ and do the right thing. It doesn’t matter what experts and authorities have to say or how many times you post that clever graphic about the percentages of virus suppression with/without masks—persuasion and its ugly cousin, shaming, seldom work without a long, gradual period of shifting values. We’re a nation of skeptics, encouraged by myth and law to ‘stand our ground’–and our selfish habits die hard.
  • Modeling can be effective in schools, especially adults who model kindness and cooperation. When children see adults behaving responsibly and with a generous spirit, they get the idea that we’re better off working together (at least at school). Modeling works less well with adults, but it’s always worth trying.
  • Leadership is a powerful tool in sustaining a school community and creating a climate of safety and caring. I know lots of teachers and school leaders who had students and staff eating out of their hands, due to strong character and clearly expressed values. We have seen some genuine political leadership during this crisis, as well as abject failure. In fact, it’s never been clearer how much leadership matters—it’s emphatically not true that all politicians are crooked and only interested in benefitting themselves.

The literature on leadership is vast and often contradictory, but every nation that has been successful in quickly changing the habits of its citizens to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus has powerful and well-regarded leaders. In the battle to get citizens to follow the rules we need both leadership and courage. We also need to remember that all these tools can be used for the wrong ends.

It takes courage to call out citizens who are endangering others, people who value their own temporary pleasure over the well-being of others. Heedless people. Selfish people.

People who are tired of being the ones who do all the work in that whole group project, UNITE!

Photo by Will Harper. The local sheriff, when contacted by marina staff, declined to come.