The Great (Unemployed and Underpaid) Transformation

Short version of this blog:

No. We’re not going to get back to normal. The pandemic has changed everything.

You’ve probably seen the meme: There isn’t a ‘teacher shortage.’ There is a ‘Masters-level professionals willing to work for $35,000 shortage.’

And maybe you’re thinking… yeah, no, beginning teachers make a lot more than that. Well—not so much more, if at all. 

And then there’s this–In no state are teachers paid more than other college graduates. The situation has been steadily growing worse. And then all those underpaid teachers were asked to risk their lives, during two school years. Incredibly enough, nearly all of them did.

But COVID was the proverbial straw on the educational camel’s back. Teachers are getting out while the getting’s good.  How many? Depends on who’s asked, and whether they can continue to work at a career that doesn’t support a middle-class lifestyle (and risks their health), even if they love the work and find it fulfilling.

This blog, however, is not only about crappy teacher pay, an evergreen topic. It’s about all the employees—including nurses, service workers, ministers and even politicians—who are just done. We are coming out of a year and a half of terror, hope and exploitation. I predict a national re-examination of what life and happiness are worth.

You have probably—speaking of what gets circulated on Facebook—also seen people grousing about  how unemployment benefits are preventing people from returning to work. Why should (presumably slothful) people show up to work or apply for Joe jobs, when they can stay home and make just as much? That seems to be the knee-jerk thinking.

The poster-child answer? This headline: How Local Companies are Filling Open Roles. It’s about the ice cream parlor that doubled starting wages (from $7.25 to $15.00) and found themselves—surprise!– with plenty of applicants.

What if offering fair unemployment benefits caused starting wages to rise to meet the demand for workers?  What if it was actually naked capitalism that was broken?  

What if people weren’t lazy — and instead, for the first time in a long time, were able to say no to exploitative working conditions and poverty-level wages? And what if business owners are scandalized, dismayed, frustrated, or bewildered by this scenario because their pre-pandemic business models were predicated on a steady stream of non-unionized labor with no other options? It’s not the labor force that’s breaking. It’s the economic model.

I certainly don’t feel bad for McDonalds franchises, ‘forced’ to offer $14 an hour. But won’t it bankrupt small businesses, when they offer a reasonable wage? Well. If you think about growing the economy, one way to feed it is paying people adequate money to spend on the things they need. Just saying.

When people are well-paid and well-treated, you’re not constantly re-hiring and training. Your customers get better service. Your business grows, and your employees are buying food, cars, homes. Maybe even thinking they can afford a family. This includes teachers, by the way.

This cycle is well-known in other prosperous first-world countries. Why are we trying to get more for less here?

In Michigan, 67,000 adults without college degrees are going back to school, on the state’s dime. Part of a multi-phase project to upgrade the workforce, Michigan offered tuition to any adult wanting to learn something new and useful, at a local community college. To their surprise and delight, 67,000 people applied—people looking for a better deal in life. They’re not lazy.

Let’s pull the camera out even further. For many years running, when global citizens are surveyed about their personal happiness, Scandinavian countries top the list. In the Top Ten, only New Zealand is not in Europe. The rest of these nations are in the cold-to-temperate zone, so it’s not the climate making them happy.  And it’s not their McMansions or four-car garages.

It’s security. Health care. Time off for traveling and their families. Good schools. No college debt. Trust in their government. Convenient public transportation. Healthier lifestyles. Ample parental leave.

Adequate wages.

Earlier in the pandemic, there were lots of buzzy stories about people moving across the country, after discovering that they could work from home. It turns out that many of them aren’t moving to verdant pastures (with good broadband). They’re moving for financial or family reasons.

They’re moving to scale back. To be happier—or simply to survive. To be closer to the people they love.

Godspeed to the 67,000 people starting community college in Michigan. A you-go to every employer who is biting the bullet and paying employees more, permanently. Blessings on those who have juggled to keep their families intact. And thank you to everyone who has gone above and beyond during this pandemic, sacrificing for their communities.  

Something is, indeed, broken in America.

Student Appreciation Week

So here we are, once again ‘celebrating’ Teacher Appreciation Week, with all the teachers saying—no, no, don’t get me a $10 Starbucks card or (better yet) a $50 bottle of champagne. Instead, write me a sincere note of gratitude. Here, write it on my Facebook page. Feel free to embellish.

We all have that box of thank-you notes. And yes, we re-read them periodically. And hats off to all the folks who bluntly say If you really appreciated teachers, you would…. pay them and let them sit in on decision-making, for starters.

But sometimes, I feel like the Grinch Who Stole Teacher Appreciation Week– seriously, what we actually need is a Teacher Appreciation Decade, during which we encourage promising young people to pursue professional education training, craft a new conception of teacher compensation, and look to other nations for guidance on how to build a select teacher workforce,  valuing diversity and creativity above all.

We just returned home from a couple of weeks away, and at the bottom of our mail tote was a TIME magazine with this cover:  ‘The Lost Year: How the pandemic changed a generation of students.’ The article is much less inflammatory than that title—it’s about high school seniors, and the difficulty they’re having taking the required tests, filling out FAFSAs and setting their sights on the most desirable (and selective, of course–it’s TIME magazine) colleges.

I am intimately familiar with puffed-up headlines on general-readership magazines. But geez. The Lost Year? A Generation of Students?

We’ve lost some things, all right. One of them may our blind faith in the value of testing data—another might be the elitist belief that a student must go directly to a four-year college, or forever be consigned to slogging along with a Joe job and a sub-par life.

I know that colleges and universities—especially those that serve the middle class—are in for tough times and lower enrollments. Institutions with huge endowments will be fine, on all fronts. If Biden’s plan to pay for community college comes to fruition–spoiler: I’m a fan–we may have a whole new layer of society with upgraded skills and no debt.

The Way Things Were has been upended. But like any year where there are transformative events, the outcomes are hard to predict. Is going to community college for a year, while you get your academic ducks in a row the worst thing that could happen? This generation of students—K-12—has faced new challenges. But what they’ve learned has not been lost.

After I read that TIME headline, I was so incensed that I posted a Tweet:

Hey, media.

How do you think teachers feel, after gutting out the most difficult year in their already-difficult career, when you refer to ’20-21 as a ‘lost year’??

A few hundred people liked and Retweeted it and many added thoughtful commentaries.

Like this from Julie Wright:  Students, too. I have so many who’ve been working hard and learning… in some ways way beyond what 8th graders generally know. No, it wasn’t the best or easiest way to learn for most kids, but they’ve done so much. Don’t treat them like passive victims.

From Ashley Stanley: How do we think students feel about these narratives after they left it all on the field? These kids SHOWED UP for their LEARNING this year. These last few weeks, I’m all about helping Ss know that the work they did was real, important, and meaningful.

Jennifer Robbins of Montana: I have worked so hard to support students’ writing, reading, and thinking. As I read poems, essays, & narratives at the end of THIS year, it is not a lost year. They’ve grown by leaps and bounds, and it’s especially clear during 2020. No lost learning in Columbia Falls, MT!

@NShrubs said: Yes! My 2nd graders made lists of all the kinds of things they’ve learned, from fixing their own lunches to subtraction with regrouping to coaching each other on tech stuff via Zoom. My 3rd graders wrote about what they learned about themselves – learning online, reading, etc.

And—sadly–@VictoriaCherry said: How do the kids feel about hearing their own parents complain about having to care for them?

There was lots more. Teachers most definitely do NOT feel that this was a lost year—and, in teacher-like fashion, spoke up in defense of their own students’ hard work under tough conditions. So there you have it.

Who appreciates all the out-of-the-box things kids have had to do this year, in unfamiliar formats and time frames? Their teachers. In my music ed wheelhouse, I have now seen at least three dozen unusual spring concerts, accomplished by students and their ultra-creative teachers, using technology, germ-bags on horns, edited literature to match those able to play. Each one, in its own way, a triumph. And each submitted as evidence: See? We’re getting stuff done.

So—not a lost year. Thanks to the kids. Let’s appreciate them, too.

Future-focused Education, Future-focused World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-A conglomerate of self-indulgent consumers?

-Angry, soulless, directionless masses?

-Indifferent, confused citizens?

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

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

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

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

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

Acceleration Nation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are lessons in this completely ordinary story.

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

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

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

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

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

Stickin’ to the Union

I should start by saying this: My dad was a Teamster, a union guy all his working life. At our house, the union protected the little guy—made sure he was paid fairly, had a benefit package, kept him from spiteful bosses (plenty of those).

When I became a public school teacher, and thus automatically a union member–this was Michigan, flagship union state, in the 1970s–my dad (who didn’t finish high school) was reassured. The union would protect me. He also wouldn’t let me park the first car I purchased on my extravagant $9050 salary, a Toyota Corolla, in the driveway. He had his non-negotiables, and one of them was Made in America.

It came as a surprise to me to learn just how differently teachers in other states viewed the union. A friend who grew up in South Carolina told me teachers there tended to see themselves as ‘above’ a union—to them, he said, the kinds of people who need a union are chicken-processors, or folks who work at the textile mill. People without college degrees. Low-class.

Working in education policy, one of my side hustles was with a dynamic woman who created and ran a professional development non-profit for educators. She began work as a teacher (in the South, in a right-to-work state). She had a distaste for unions. She asked me once: Wouldn’t you like to negotiate your own salary? Weren’t you aware, as a teacher doing side work in professional development, that you could be making three times as much in the private sector?

I told her that I deserved three times my pay–but so do lots of other people in social services and social justice work. I said it was a shame that our country prizes money above service.

But that was a lousy answer. It was the polite martyrdom that teachers are prone to: I know how critical I am in the community, and how much skill I bring to my work, but go ahead—take advantage of my sincere desire to make my community a better place.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that education still depends on teachers. Good teachers. Teachers who can roll with the big waves and tides of fortune. And those teachers, who work every day in isolation from their colleagues, need to be organized.

Over 40 years of union membership, I saw the best and worst of teacher unionism, up close and personal. Unions are organizations, so—like, say, churches—even organizations founded on the right moral goals and principles sometimes go off the rails, usually because of weak or even corrupt leadership. But the good always far outweighed the bad.

So I was pleased to hear Joe Biden give a shout-out to unions in his first press conference.  Part of that might just be Scranton Joe relying on his empathy for the working class. But union pension plans, the secure retirement strategy of millions of union workers, have been given some support in the recent stimulus package—even the Chamber of Commerce thought that was a good idea. And with a massive infrastructure-energy bill, we actually might see good union jobs come back. Wouldn’t that be great?

During the pandemic, snarling at teacher unions has become the refuge of the neo-liberals who feel bad about trashing grossly overworked teachers—the ones who understand that face to face schooling during a raging pandemic is dangerous. Teachers, the rhetoric goes, are noble and good, and doing their best. It’s the unions who are refusing to play nice and make things easier for working—or exhausted—parents.

That’s inaccurate, and a cheap shot. This is a truism, but—there is no daylight between ‘teachers’ and ‘the teachers union.’ Trying to faux-praise one while castigating the other is a needle you can’t thread, even in places where teacher unions barely have a toehold. Teachers need unions more than ever, right now.

If I were asked today why I was content to let the union negotiate my salary, this is what I would say: 

I started work in a union shop/collective bargaining state, where my rights were always protected.

I knew how much I would make in five years, and how to guarantee a higher salary through additional education.

I knew that I wouldn’t lose my job if my principal decided he didn’t like me, but only if my conduct or teaching were substandard–and I knew what those standards were.

I knew that there were far more men teaching in my strong-union state than her no-real-union state, which positioned female teachers as second incomes and paid them as such.

I also knew that keeping teacher salaries low increased turnover, and experienced teachers were better and more effective than a merry-go-round of newbies.

For now, I’m stickin’ to the union.

A Half-Dozen Things You (Could Have) Learned in School: Lessons from a Pandemic

If you’re old and loyal to NPR, like me, you may have listened to Whad’ya Know? on the radio, out running errands on Saturdays, a decade ago. A gently sardonic quiz show, hosted by Michael Feldman, my favorite category of question was Things You Should Have Learned in School (Had You Been Paying Attention).

I was always interested in what people think is, you know, core knowledge–stuff that everyone should have mastered, in the place where I worked for more than 30 years. Mostly, it was prosaic things—the isosceles triangle or the gerund—that you likely haven’t thought of in years.

It begs the question: What do we really want—or need– kids to learn in school? Besides basic literacy and numeracy, you’d think our next highest priorities would be good citizenship, and an appreciation for the benefits of modern science, helping us make progress on the issues that have plagued mankind for centuries. But—thinking about the Governor of Texas here—evidently not.

A year ago, as it was just beginning to dawn on us that this thing was coming our way, I wrote a ridiculously sunny blog about things we could learn from being in quarantine. Naïve things. A new appreciation for teachers was one of them, as well as an up close and personal understanding of both the uses and limitations of remote learning. Increased scientific literacy. National unity in the face of a crisis. I was wrong. So very wrong.

But then—we were all wrong, at first, underestimating the spread, length and virulence of the pandemic, plus the catastrophic and politicized mishandling of it. Turning that into a Civics lesson, or an entire unit on the benefits of a functional government, might be the thing we should be doing now.

If we had been paying attention, of course.

Here are some real-time lessons you may have observed in/about school during the pandemic:

1. There is no getting away from the deal American public schools have struck with the public. We provide childcare, five days a week, for those who need it, as well as daily nutrition in many cases. Stepping away from this deal, even when it might cost teachers and school staff their health and even their lives, has created a massive societal disruption and boiling anger.

I agree with Dr. Leana Wen on this issue: Both sides of the school reopening debate have it wrong. We shouldn’t be debating whether schools are safe to reopen. Instead, we should ask whether in-person schooling is essential. If it is — as many Americans, including President Biden, insist — then we should treat schools as we do hospitals. That means doing everything possible to them make safer, starting with vaccinating teachers.

I was happy to hear President Biden prioritize teacher vaccinations (and yes, it could have come sooner), because I think this deal—we will take your kids for seven hours a day, starting at age four or five—is part of the mission of public education.

We are teachers first, sure, but we have gladly accepted other responsibilities as our niche in society, including meals, health screenings, exercise, wholesome after-school activities and even watching out for the well-being and mental health of children and teens. Lately, we’ve been connecting them to the internet and teaching them the skills of doing work electronically.

If parents now seem more interested in re-starting sports or their relieving their children’s at-home isolation than reinforcing the features of an isosceles triangle—well, we’ve made those possible for the last century, too.

And I think we should continue. Communities must understand that this costs dollars and effort, but it’s tax money well spent. It’s the right thing to do, making public schools essential to communities and the safest place in town.

1a. Corollary: There are plenty of forces that believe the pandemic has been an ideal time to do damage to public education.

2. Americans are terrible at interpreting statistics. I have had conversations with highly educated people over the past year who simply can’t understand infection rates, vaccine efficacy numbers, or why herd immunity might be difficult to achieve.

I taught 7th grade math for two years, and most of these skills sit squarely in the middle school math curriculum—including the correlation between the amount of testing done and cases identified. Every math teacher could be using the plethora of statistical analyses and colorful graphs in the news as examples of ratio, proportion, percentages and variables in human populations. It’s called tailoring curriculum to the students’ real world.

3Americans’ ability to discern truth in the media needs some work, too.

4. Working on these literacies—media analysis, statistics around our own well-being, and the benefits of a functional government dedicated to the public good—can start in kindergarten and continue until adulthood.

Right now, for example, younger adults should be outraged that their children are being forced to take pointless, stressful tests. When they are told ‘it’s the law’ or ‘it helps compare South Dakota kids to the rest of the country’–for what purpose? –their outrage should smolder and burst into flames. They can take civic action, and claim their right to opt their children out of testing. Thus reclaiming their interest and investment in public education, a common good. That’s civics, government, economics and the history of American rebellions in a single movement.

5. The most important thing we could be teaching in health class right now is long-term problem-solving. In 90 days, most of the jockeying for position in vaccine lines will be over. In the meantime, who’s getting vaccinated and who’s still waiting is like a giant, real-life example of one of those morality puzzles: Four people go out in a boat in shark-filled seas. But the boat will sink unless one is thrown overboard. Do we ditch the minister, the beautiful actress, the teacher, or the boat repairman? Discuss.

The person who is going to devise the single, annual preventative vaccine administered worldwide that will lead future global citizens to long-term viral control, or creative reversals of the damage done to our environment, is now sitting in a classroom (or on their bed, in front of a laptop).

Isn’t it our job to inspire a vision of a better world? Shouldn’t this pandemic be a real-life learning opportunity, teaching the parallels between ease of voting and ease of getting a vaccine, for example? Whose governor has made good choices for all the public? Should vaccination be required by employers? Tricky stuff, I know. But it shouldn’t be.

6. Americans are selfish. A simple glance at variance in global successes and failures in suppressing a virus and protecting citizens without destroying an economy, tells us that the United States is low on the self-discipline and community-building scale.

Where do Americans learn to get along with their neighbors and think of others’ needs as well as their own? Where do they learn the habits of order, routine and cooperation? I would argue that we’ve seen both the best and the worst of American thinking in 2021. Do we want the America that looks out for its neighbor when the power goes off in a snowstorm, and people gather to sleep in school gymnasiums—or the America that cut itself off from federal regulation in order to reap bigger profits for the oil and gas corporations?  

So what do we really want—or need– kids to learn in school?

My theory: We need our teaching and curriculum to be centered around big, future-focused questions like: What kind of country and community do you want to live in? What skills do you want to develop to support yourself and build a satisfying life there?

Teachers, Testing and Why We Might Just Chill

You hear it all the time: What we need is teachers at the policy table. They would make the right decisions about things that would truly revive and strengthen public education.

Well, maybe.

Managing and monitoring the behavior and learning of 30 8-year olds or 150 teenagers, making 1500 fine-grained instructional decisions a day, means there isn’t much time for negotiation, nuance, what-ifs and taking everyone’s opinion into consideration. Teachers are also excellent crap-detectors, having had so much practice. Teachers cut to the chase.

No so with most policy-makers.

In a just and fair world—not the polarized and partisan world we live in—legislators are elected to craft policy that sees all sides: Business and the national economy. The environment. The needs of the rural west and the urban east. The well-being of The People. The most equitable way to educate all children.

It is worth remembering that No Child Left Behind–the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in its 2001 incarnation—was a product of bipartisan legislators who really thought they were injecting admirable goals and equity, not to mention accountability, into the venerable ESEA, now 55 years old.

Who do you suppose wrote the following statement?

It is clear that the pandemic requires significant flexibility for the 2020-2021 school year so that states can respond to the unique circumstances they are facing; keep students, staff, and their families safe; and maintain their immediate focus on supporting students’ social, emotional, and academic development.

 Sounds good, right? Actually, it is the opening salvo in a letter from the federal Department of Education, letting states know that they will still be expected to give mandated federal tests this year, although significant flexibility in all aspects of testing has been granted.

Tests can be given in the spring, summer or fall, or all three, in the same district but to different populations. States or districts may choose which tests to give, and make them shorter. Tests may be given remotely. And districts are not required to test 95% of their students to make their results ‘count.’ They must still find ways to share their data with parents and the federal government.

Now—let me say, as a teacher, that I strongly believe that all mandated testing should have been waived this spring, due to the pandemic. The data generated from these tests will be garbage.

But I can understand why the Department did what it did.

First, if testing were waived for the spring testing window, it does not magically go away. It’s still there, on the books. And come fall, when—God willing, as Joe Biden might say—the large majority of public school students will be returning to face to face learning, parents (sensible, caring, good-citizen parents) are going to be asking: How is my child doing? Is he behind?

And I can see teachers everywhere saying: Don’t worry. I’ll figure it out. I’ll meet your child where he is. I’ll work to fill in any gaps that I see.

I believe those teachers. And I know they will use assessments. Not high-stakes, punitive, we-must-compare kinds of standardized tests—but they will certainly be assessing students, to inform their instruction.

I also know that over the past 20 years or so, parents (and many teachers) have begun to believe that test scores are real, that they’re the best, most reliable data we have to tell us what our children know and can do. That’s not true, but—hey, listen to any journalist or newscaster talk about the ‘learning loss’ crisis.  We have our work cut out for us.

I recently shared a letter I wrote to as-yet-unconfirmed Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, urging him to suspend testing, and drew a number of irritated responses from teachers, saying they wanted standardized testing data this spring. Some, to prove that their newly honed online instructional efforts had been effective. Others, to show that students in poverty were not learning as much online—to compare this year’s students to previous classes.

I believe all stakeholders—students and parents, teachers and school leaders, and especially business and government officials are going to need to be weaned off their faith in and reliance on standardized testing data, and moved toward assessment literacy for educators and trust in public education for the rest. We aren’t getting either of those things overnight.

We currently have billions of dollars’ worth of testing infrastructure: laws, test producers, researchers, technological investments, grant-funded non-profits, right down to part-time, hired-on-Craig’s List scorers. We need a plan to improve assessment models and report results to parents and states–because we DO still need assessments. What we don’t need is harmful, disconnected standardized tests and terrible uses of the data they generate.

And we’re not going to get rid of accountability overnight, either. David Labaree says:

The urge for accountability is not unreasonable.  Education should be accountable.  It’s a public institution that needs to be effective at meeting the goals society sets for it, and such determinations can’t just be left to the preferences of teachers or parents or students or administrators.  In addition, it’s not ok that many students don’t succeed in school and that their social origins are key determinants of their success or failure.  Schooling whose outcomes simply reproduce its inputs is not good schooling.  These equity concerns are visible in the names of the two key US laws governing accountability – No Child Left Behind and its 2013 successor, Every Student Succeeds Act.

The problems with accountability lie in the way it is implemented.  The accountability movement in the US and in the world of school reform has relied on a method that defines school success through a small number of metrics – scores in tests that measure comprehension of the formal curriculum.

After 20 years of dispiriting federal policy-making in education, we may have a window for significant change, but we are entering that window through the context of a pandemic.

The first set of policy alterations—flexibility and options around testing–is pretty weak sauce, but it does reflect change. What would happen if all states and districts were permitted to choose their own tests, give them at times they deemed useful, eliminate all punitive uses of test data and no longer be required to test 95% of their students? If that became a permanent (legislatively sanctioned) set of changes, would that be progress?

Policy shifts are often predicated by small changes that snowball. One opportunity I would see right now is for the parent-led opt-out movement. Schools can’t claim that parents exercising their right to take children out of testing threatens their 95% compliance level.  Suppose parents got organized and a significant percentage said—nope, not testing MY kid this year?  Would that not be evidence—data, if you will—that a lot of parents simply don’t think standardized tests are useful?

Here’s what we don’t need right now:

  • Ad hominem attacks (Biden lied! He wants testing. At least Betsy DeVos suspended testing!)
  • Holding out for a no tests, ever again, policy in the second month of a new administration

I feel like we (millions of educators) have been screaming about the folly of mandated standardized testing for two decades with no positive action. We might actually have a window to shift entrenched policies now, in the next four years.

But because it didn’t happen right away, we now have people screaming at the very folks who might be able to help.  By all means, keep writing letters, keep sharing your stories. But don’t give up the faith, yet.
UPDATE: The billions and orgs already invested in pro-testing? They are happy that tests will go on, but unhappy about locally chosen or designed tests and the relaxation of the requirement that 95% must be tested.

Summer School & Learning Loss

It is with some trepidation that I put both ‘summer school’ and ‘learning loss’ in the title of this blog. Trepidation, because both terms have been widely and egregiously mis-used in the month that we’ve had an actual president again.

We are now discussing What to Do About School in terms of safety and instructional efficacy, rather than how to force ‘unions’ (another word deserving scare quotes these days) to push their teachers into a workplace where potentially lethal viruses may be circulating.

To clarify: When I say ‘summer school,’ what I mean is some kind of age-appropriate, enriching and FREE experience for kids, K-12. Things like music camp, Lego teams, outdoor sports and recreation, river canoeing, book clubs, arts and crafts, coding, Young Writers workshop–or volunteering to pull garlic mustard in conservation areas and getting school credit for your work.

I know that a definition of ‘summer school’ generally comes with the stink of the punitive: having to go into a hot, dusty building to ‘catch up’ to your classmates while the custodians strip and rewax the floors outside your classroom. It’s not supposed to be fun, for teachers or pupils. The implication of summer school is that you screwed up—or, worse, were deficient—and need to be fixed.

I am also well aware of the fact that everyone, K-12, needs a break right now. A long, healing break. And what better time to take one than now, when most of the country can be outdoors, and vaccinated families will be able to re-unite and kids can run around and play?

It’s worth pointing out, however, that not all families will be vaccinated, come June, and not all kids will be able to play this summer, in healthy, supervised surroundings. Some kids will go to day care, and a whole lot of them will be on their own. This is also part of the equation—that for some students (and they may not be the students you’d think), summer is already too long. Too unstructured.

Students themselves are ambivalent.Some think that other kids who have ‘fallen behind’—not them, of course—could certainly use summer school to ‘catch up.’ Some are full-tilt protective of their summer break, after the rotten school year they’ve just endured. Some of them are actually worried that their favorite teachers will be asked to keep working with little to no pay. Others say they’ve learned differently this year, but they’ve learned plenty.

As for teachers, most know better than to hope for inspired school leadership that rustles up low- or zero-cost programming opportunities that will keep kids intellectually engaged and perhaps provide a place for parents to drop their children off every day so they can return to work. Nor can we expect interesting activities that will provide some structure and challenge for older students.

If the purpose of summer school were to do more of the inadequate same-old, with the goal of better test scores eventually, I would be adamantly opposed. It would be a waste of scarce resources. And I am only too familiar with teachers accepting summer-teaching roles for insulting hourly rates, because their salaries are so miniscule.

On the other hand—and this is an argument that usually falls on deaf or hostile ears, granted—why not take advantage of smaller numbers of children, the option of working outdoors, plus a window of instructional choice and creativity, and use some of that federal money to offer voluntary summer learning activities?

It might even be a lead-in to permanently changing school calendars, which would be the real cause of ‘learning loss’—if learning loss were a real thing.  

Which it isn’t. It’s pure baloney. Kids learn all the time, in school or at home. The question is what they’re learning, and whether it will be useful to them. Furthermore, schools accept kids ‘where they are,’ all the time. Public schools, that is.

Teachers will meet kids where they are in the fall, summer school or no summer school. And move them forward. As they have always done, after a summer of so-called learning loss.

This blah-blah about ‘union’ reticence to return to face to face learning (because that—ha ha–would solve this made-up crisis) is also baloney, a darker narrative to stop people from stepping back and saying maybe we should never return to normal, because normal has morphed into schooling that is inequitable, punitive and boring. By policy and grant-funded design.

Sometimes, I think the problem is that Americans have no sense of imagination around education:

What would an imaginative response to the requirement that students take tests be? We could start by simply saying no, state by state or district by district. This would take some gutsy leadership—but who’s in charge, after a pandemic? Gates-funded nonprofits or on-the-ground public school leaders?

Parents could organize opt-out campaigns—teachers would support parents, if they took the lead, because teachers want to end punitive testing without jeopardizing their jobs. Schools could devise their own return-to-school pre-assessments, the no-stakes things teachers do every fall, to get a handle on kids’ skill levels and understanding.

We could set an overarching national goal: a year of providing extras for our students—extra programming, extra attention, extra medical and mental health resources, extra tutoring.  We could gut and re-think school calendars, curricular requirements, instructional models, teacher preparation. We could work on reducing standardized tests to three or four over students’ K-12 career.  

Instead, we’re fighting over summer school and learning loss.

Photo credit: Anna Samoylova

Give Me a Poke

Sign-of-the-times screen on my kitchen Alexa: Alexa, give me mental health tips.  Indeed.

So, it’s the end of January and I am finally getting a haircut, double-masked and trying out a new stylist because my regular haircutter has three children at home, due to the pandemic, and hasn’t worked for six months. You know, just another disrupted-life story, one of millions.

I already know what my regular haircutter thinks about politics, but New Stylist—a talker—is rambling on about Our Governor and how she’s destroying businesses, yada yada. Keeping in mind that the woman is holding scissors, I gently mention the declining rates of infection, hospitalization and, you know, death in Michigan, a direct result of the gov’s policies.

There’s a pause and then she notes that Governor Whitmer was in D.C. for the Inaugural—not surprising, as she is Vice-Chair of the Democratic National Party—after she told ordinary people in the state not to travel over the holidays. Do as I say, not as I do, she says. Which is a fair point.

The Governor is fully vaccinated, I say. And she was masked and distancing. It’s the light at the end of the tunnel we’re all hoping for, right? I am expecting her to shift to complaining about how she won’t be getting her vaccine until summer, probably, but no.

She admits she is an anti-vaxxer. We just don’t know, do we, she says, voice dropping conspiratorially. But we do know, I say. And by the time you’re next in line, you’ll have six months’ worth of visible evidence. Dropping rates. Exceedingly rare negative reactions. A chance to address common problems with the vaccination process. She shakes her head—nope, you’re not going to convince her. None of her kids was ever vaccinated.

In the meantime, every person my age is trying every trick known to mankind to get a shot. It’s the conversation opener du jour: vaccine envy, and the swapping of surefire tips to getting poked.

If you’re like me, a retired teacher whose career was 30+ years based on fairness, turn-taking, order, and compassion for others, this vaccination debacle is driving you crazy.

First—half the country is blaming the wrong person(s) for the terrible rollout. Knowing a vaccine was likely should have had us stocking up on needles, rounding up volunteers and securing 600 doses in advance, last fall. Not scrambling now–or relying on people like Ron DeSantis. But here we are.

Second—all those memes about just who should have been put in charge (the one I get most often is Band Directors) are only funny because they’re sort of true. Putting people who are angling to make money in charge may have been a tactical error, but when your government infrastructure is compromised in so many places (see: Texas), maybe relying on Rite-Aid is a better bet. Who knows?

Third—watching who is getting vaccinations, and who’s still waiting, is an exercise in seeing privilege displayed in technicolor, daily, on a national stage.  Vaccinated Ted Cruz, on a plane to Mexico (where they have electricity), and saying in public that he ‘deserves’ a vacation, is the poster-child example of this, if the rumor is true. (Update: The rumor IS true.)

I certainly think Congress and Governors are entitled to first-line defenses, right now, as they work out a relief package to benefit us all, as are nursing home residents and front-line medical personnel. I have been interested to see which states are prioritizing teachers. I’m proud that two-thirds of MI teachers have had their first or both shots—and horrified at how teachers are being treated across the country.

It’s been said repeatedly, but it’s true: this pandemic has exposed and highlighted every single ugly characteristic of American society—from racism to sexism to just plain stupidity. Why aren’t teachers getting the vaccine in some states? Post that question on your social media feed and the answer will come back: because most of them are (underpaid) women.

I signed up—online, because I have the skills and the bandwidth—in early January, when my local health department started taking names. I went to a 45-minute Zoom presentation where the Director of the HD said folks 65 and older would be eligible—and called to queue up– by the last week of January. She emphatically asked us NOT to sign up in more than one place, and encouraged us to help older citizens get signed up online—but said for those older folks who were struggling, there was a Senior Hot Line phone number.

We waited patiently for about three weeks. Friends started getting shots and appointments. Younger friends. Random people with no obvious need. People who drove to the next county over, a Republican hotbed, where citizens were declining to be vaccinated. Teachers (this is good, remember). We heard that a pharmacy a half-hour from our home was now taking names. Feeling a little guilty, we signed up there, too.

It became the thing everyone asked—did you get an appointment? And it was pretty clear that those who got appointments did one or all of these things: Signed up everywhere, even though they’d been told not to. Did not wait to be called. Called multiple sites daily, and were aggressive. Went in person to the health department or pharmacy and were aggressive—or got end-of-day doses ahead of those on the list. One guy I know brought homemade candy to the health department. 

On Tuesday, a friend called and said she’d heard that Local Pharmacy had extra slots—call now, operators were standing by, etc. We called. The woman answering the phone was borderline hostile. Have you already signed up online, she asked? (Yes.) Then you’ll just have to wait your turn. Don’t call back (click).

Friend calls back—did we get appointments? No. I figured out the key, she said—if a woman answers, hang up. If it’s a man, you’ll get an appointment. (I know—crazy.) But we tried once more, got a man on the line this time, and he gave us appointments. Four hours later, we got a text saying those appointments were cancelled.

I have started to feel superstitious about this whole thing. Superstitious and mad. In what kind of country do the sneaky and devious, the line-jumpers and the entitled win?  

Alexa knows: Give me mental health tips.

What Will YOU Do in 2021 to Make This a Better Country?

First—I didn’t think this question up. It was a meme, posted by my friend Betsy Coffia, Commissioner in Grand Traverse County, Michigan, who said this:

What will it look like to truly love and fight for your country, this year?

What bubbled up first for me was ‘Ask not what your country can do for you…’ but Betsy’s thousands of followers didn’t need any further prompting. Grand Traverse County recently made national news when a woman (whom I also know, from a postcard-writing campaign) asked her elected officials to denounce the Proud Boys and one flashed a rifle instead.  After five and a half hours of mainly appalled public comment responding to this event, the Commission, by a 3-3 vote (with the gunslinger recusing himself), voted not to censure him.

Evidently, three of them they think he’s ‘learned his lesson.’

Stuff like this is happening all over the country—outbreaks of overt racism and well-meant attempts to declare anti-racist sentiments starting World War III in civic meetings. Charter school administrators in Utah agreeing that parents can opt out of Black History Month lessons. The whole MTG (Q-GA) debacle.

It is, in fact, the perfect time to ask: What will it look like to love your country, and fight for your country, this year, when the most deadly wave of the coronavirus pandemic crashes over a population frantic to be vaccinated, devastated by unemployment and inequity, and torn in half?

I had to think about that one.

How can you fight for something that is mostly a distant vision or aspirational goal? Also, how do you muster the courage to speak–as we used to say in the 70s–truth to power, when it might cost you friendships, and felicitous relationships with family and neighbors? Plus a lot of time and energy.

So I asked my own friends the same question (tipping my hat to Betsy, of course). And I’m asking you.

Some responses, so far:

  • Listen to other opinions and acknowledge the opposing view. Give clear and supportable reasons for yours. It will take time to un-indoctrinate.
  • Support good local and state level journalism financially.
  • Call B.S. on white supremacy.
  • Seriously taking steps to accelerate the necessary transition to clean, renewable energy.
  • More peace and love.
  • Encouraging and really supporting women to run for office. 
  • Attend school board meetings locally and advocate for critical thinking skills to be taught.
  • Figure out outcomes where people agree, then starting there. Infrastructure, for instance.
  • Denouncing all forms of prejudice whenever and wherever we find them.
  • Try to further eliminate unconscious bias and not be politicized by the rhetoric.
  • Develop patience, in all things. 
  • Work with my church on racial parity in the city and state.
  • Speak up for local politicians when they are attacked by the bullies. Vet local politicians, too.
  • Support public schools and teacher recruitment/retention.
  • Keep asking, “Whose voices are missing here?” Move closer to grandchildren who are in a city, in a blue state.

Most of the people who comment on my Facebook page are educators—and that last bullet was one of two responses that mentioned public education. Perhaps teachers have internalized the goal of supporting public education to the point where they don’t think about it anymore. Or maybe they feel that they alone are powerless, admitting the limitations of one-person campaigns to save public education. But the question still applies: What will YOU do to show love for public education?

I think it would be a good exercise on this cold, wintry week, when the Senate begins the second impeachment trial of a corrupt and failed president, and an insurrection on the Capitol is still visible in our rear-view mirror.

What will YOU do this year to show love to your country? How will you fight for America?