Genuine Education Leadership

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

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

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

Leadership emerges from respect, friendship and trust.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2022. What a Year?

For several years, I have listed my favorite books—or top ten education prognostications—on Teacher in a Strange Land. I love end-of-year roundups like this.  ‘List’ titles draw traffic. I learned that 20 years ago, when I first set out to blog ‘from the classroom’ (although I was really blogging from my living room, on the family’s single computer). Everybody likes to analyze, compare and name favorites. Everybody likes to look back, and pretend there’s a clean slate ahead.

But 2022 was the ultimate strange-land year, here in Michigan. I think it was the first year where more or less permanent changes, wrought by the one-two punch of a corrupt presidency and a global pandemic, have altered the way we live and work. And, possibly, think.

All the local angst—school board hostilities, county commission craziness, health department firings, attempts to kidnap the Governor—sprang from that discontent. People want better-paying jobs. They want affordable housing. They want good—free—public schools for their kids. But they also want someone to listen to their woes, real and imagined, and confirm their biases, even if those biases are life-threatening.  

Living through a pandemic reminds us: Life is short. Might as well get it right, say what we think.

Best things that happened to all of us in 2022:

  • The midterm elections (nope, the country isn’t going to hell, yet)
  • Kids went back to school (triggering other viral waves, but still…)
  • Biden did most things right (including supporting Ukraine). I can honestly say that although I was not a Biden fan prior to 2020—he came in 12th on my list of candidates—I am very happy that Uncle Joe has been at the helm and accepts good advice.
  • The January 6th Committee Hearings. I seriously doubt that Donald Trump will experience significant consequences from the ugly mess he made of the US Presidency. But I am grateful to know that the nation was able to see the truth, in digestible bites.

Best things that happened to me in 2022:

  • I ran for office–and lost. Running for County Commission was a great experience, however. The district where I live has been ruby red for some 30 years–see that little pink square in Leelanau County? Dems came closer than we have in forever to turning the entire county blue. Running for office has been a bucket-list goal, and the conversations I had with people I’d never met were eye-opening.
  • I got to travel, again, another bucket-list kind of thing. My husband and I have spent February in Arizona since 2016, interrupted by the pandemic. This year, fully vaxxed and boosted, we drove to Arizona—and immediately tested positive. We got free, drive-through PCR tests to confirm. And about a half-hour after being notified that we were indeed positive, we got a call from our local health department, 2000 miles away: Were we OK? (OK-ish) Did we think we needed Paxlovid? A doctor visit? (not really) Faith in my local health care system? Restored.

I also went to Europe for two weeks this fall—and that was splendid.

Best Media Consumed, 2022:

  • Favorite Fictional Book: Demon Copperhead (Barbara Kingsolver). Kingsolver is an author whose works I never miss, and always love. Demon Copperhead is simultaneously hilarious and tragic, and Kingsolver finds a way to meld the ongoing opioid crisis, 19th century Dickensian literature and the American passion for football—and reveal what’s really going on in all three.
  • Favorite Non-fiction Book: Jesus and John Wayne (Kristin DuMez). DuMez teaches at Calvin University, near my hometown and alma mater of lots of super-conservative family members, most of whom would vehemently disagree with DuMez’s conclusions here: that evangelical support was not a shocking aberration from their views but a culmination of evangelicals’ long-standing embrace of militant masculinity, presenting the man as protector and warrior. Meticulously researched, and highly recommended.
  • Best school-y media: Abbott Elementary (TV show) and Tracy Flick Can’t Win (novel, Tom Perotta). Everybody knows about Abbott Elementary—warm-hearted and shockingly close to truth, right down to the egotistical, incompetent principal—but Tracy Flick is also that rarity: a book set in a school that feels very real.

I generally shoot to read 100 books in a year—it’s been my (achieved) goal for a decade. This year, I will clock in (if I’m lucky) at 85 books. The traveling and campaigning bit into reading time. But that general angst—the sense that things will never be ‘back to normal’—is also a factor. It’s hard to relax, to concentrate, to give up a long afternoon living in another world.

Finally, the Bad News is About Schools:

I see the culture, in general, in flux right now. The economy, national politics, health care, media—all of them, from Twitter to The Former Guy, will continue to evolve. But I am incredibly depressed about public education, always the scrappy underdog in the question about how we build citizenship and strengthen the workforce.

I became a teacher in 1974, and have observed public schools, up close and personal, ever since. I’ve seen good times and bad (although I wasn’t able to accurately evaluate, in the moment). But reading my fellow educators’ social media feeds is…heartbreaking, no other word. Should I stay or should I go? Have your students lost all motivation, like mine? Here’s a picture of me taking my 300 personal books out of my classroom. Etc.

In an excellent post, my blogging hero, Jan Resseger, captures the zeitgeist in a single title– Culture Wars at Schools Increase: Undermine Educators, Block Respectful Dialogue, and Make Students Feel Unsafe and Invisible.

That pretty much says it all.

Maybe public education is a lagging indicator—maybe the good news about competent government and public awareness, will eventually track back to the cornerstone institution of American progress, public schools. But I think folks like Ron DeSantis and Glenn Youngkin, and countless others, have targeted public institutions for children as low-hanging fruit, perennially underfunded and unstable, and gone after them.

The damage might be permanent.

What Do We Owe Children of the Pandemic?

Another piece in the NY Times, yesterday morning, all about the learning loss ‘crisis’ created by the pandemic. The article starts with the usual—essentially true—statement about test scores dropping as a result of the disruption of dealing with a global pandemic. But paragraph two goes full-on hype:

Nine-year-olds lost the equivalent of two decades of progress in math and reading, according to an authoritative national test. Fourth and eighth graders also recorded sweeping declines, particularly in math, with eighth-grade scores falling in 49 of 50 states.

I am always curious about why these easily debunked, alarmist claims appear in all the NAEP (‘authoritative national test’) reporting. Because we wouldn’t want to have a calm, rational, evidence-based discussion about how we can help all the kids whose lives were turned upside down by a pandemic, would we?

Instead, we’re left with arguments about whether remote learning is inefficientdata on that are not clear-cut, coincidentally —and panicky faux statistics on lost decades of learning. Faux statistics that the general public does not fully understand, by the way—you have to wonder WHY they’re appearing in the New York Times.

What the analyses of NAEP data do reveal: Nationally, we have accepted the idea that test scores are reality, our only reliable indicator of whether a school is doing its job and individual children are learning. There is no test that measures resilience or student well-being—that information would actually be useful.

There is zero doubt that schoolchildren were negatively impacted during the pandemic. Most of them had to stay home, to protect their own health and the health of their families, at some points in the pandemic—and those viral spikes in the population are not over. Remote learning was patchy and less than ideal, for many children. The world, for all kids, from preschoolers to high school seniors, became an unpredictable and often disappointing place.

The question now is not How Bad Was It? followed by handwringing and blame.

The question is: What Should We Do Now? (Notice that I did not say ‘now that the pandemic is over’?) How can we help kids who have been through a rough patch find stability and comfort, even joy, in a school setting?

What do we owe to those children and youth, some of whom are experiencing their first ‘normal’-ish year at school and some who have cut their K-12 losses and moved into the world of college or work?

I have some ideas about that. But first, some essential questions.

The foundational question: What are our real end goals in educating children?

Improving their test scores is a demonstrably terrible goal, as we have learned with the latest round of NAEP data. If all we offer kids, in school, is instruction designed to bump up scores, and then spend all our media capital bemoaning a three-point drop after a massive health disaster, it’s no wonder they feel disconnected from schooling.  

Another question: Is remote learning ever beneficial? Under what circumstances and conditions?

I would argue that remote learning, while a long way from ideal, served a positive purpose in 2020. And further, having experienced it under triage conditions, we could use that experience to explore better uses of distance learning, instead of deciding that it was both a failure in terms of learning, and, somehow, the teacher union’s fault.

 Finally: How much of this panic over test scores is driven by what the pandemic laid bare: Our society-wide reliance on schools for childcare. Parental angst and fears being politicized by opportunistic partisan groups, funded by dark money.

We need our community schools. And we desperately need to reassure the next generation that we believe they can learn whatever they need to learn to become functional adults—and that we will help them toward that goal, as best we can.

What do we owe the children of the pandemic?

  • A universal health care plan, available to every American.
  • A high-quality, fully funded public education for every child, no matter what they bring to the table, and baseline funding to bring schools in poverty into alignment.
  • Additional free or low-cost education and services for those who need or desire them: Free community college. Free auxiliary tutoring for kids with special needs—ESL, disabilities, long-term health issues, etc. Free apprenticeships. Free preschool. Free career counseling for all ages.
  • High-quality, affordable childcare, and adequate parental leave.
  • Plenty of well-trained and well-paid teachers, pre-K through university level.
  • Rich curriculum that acknowledges all children have different gifts and interests.

We had a crisis-opportunity to examine the stressors and weaknesses in our education system. Let’s not fumble that away by pointlessly crying wolf over an incremental but understandable drop in standardized test scores.

Vote with Heart, not with Hate

There’s only you and me—and we just disagree…  Dave Mason

It’s been fascinating, this weekend, reading about our actual President’s heartfelt plea to save democracy, and the opposing party’s response: Gas prices (with a healthy side of chicken-fried lies) are going to get us elected, so let’s double down on the destruction. Whoo hoo!

I’ve been voting for 50 years, and there’s never been an election like this one. I know we keep saying that this is the most important election of our lifetime–we say it every two years—but holy tamales. The thought of a Republican-led House launching four impeachments simultaneously, with Jim Jordan preening on the news every night? Nauseating.

And yet, here we are.  

In those 50 years, I have voted for Republicans. In fact, I used to vote in the Republican primary in the district where I lived for 20 years, because it was the only way I got to endorse mainstream candidates over crazypants candidates. I knew that Democrats would never win there, so it was a prophylactic exercise.

That was back in the days when the truly whacko candidates were pruned in the primaries. Unlike 2022.

Those of you who were voters in 2000 might remember compassionate conservatism, George W’s election slogan. I was in the .52% margin of voters who chose Gore over Bush, but I can’t remember anything about Gore’s campaign message. Something about a lockbox? Compassion, on the other hand—compassion and action—I can get behind.

God knows we need it. A more compassionate electorate, one concerned with actual facts about our rapidly changing climate and its outsized impact on populations in poverty, about human rights, about all the policy tweaks we could make to lift up our families and neighbors… what’s not to like?

We’re moving in the wrong direction, away from voting with our hearts toward voting with anger, hate and naked self-interest. Voters have been not only given permission to stomp all over their community’s needs, but are now being encouraged to wrest control of election results from township and village clerks.

Two stories about compassion:

A little more than a year ago, one of the communities I hope to represent on the County Commission, Maple City, raised a civic outcry against having a Dollar General in the center of town. Maple City is a modest little town, with a Post Office, a cute restaurant and a gas station, and lots of similarly modest homes. But its residents did not want to be a Dollar General town, or labeled—as Dollar General Corporate did—a ‘food desert.’  After rejecting Dollar General, that parcel of land was designated as space for six small homes—ground was broken, with lots of enthusiasm, a year ago, and the community seemed poised to welcome six new families. Compassion had beat out Dollar General, it seemed.

Right now, however, there are only foundations in place for four of the homes. A request for a tax rebate was soundly rejected, as the price of building new homes and availability of builders rose. Speaking with the people of Maple City, while door-knocking, there’s a lot of confusion and angst over promises made and promises stalled—or broken. The gap between the haves and have-nots—the thing they were trying to prevent by not plunking a Dollar General down in town—has not decreased.

Also—I was horrified to read that Leelanau County is among the top five counties in Michigan for parents opting out of the standard series of vaccinations that Michigan schoolchildren are required to get before entering public schools. More than 10% of our local schoolchildren are now entering kindergarten and the 7th grade unvaccinated.

This number, statewide, used to be vanishingly small, with waivers granted only on evidence-based need, and herd immunity not threatened. For children whose medical conditions contraindicate vaccination, herd immunity is the thing that lets them go to school safely. I taught school for over 30 years, and we never had to deal with anti-vaccine parents.

It’s not a thing we can ‘disagree’ about. It’s not a parents’ rights issue–I strongly believe in parents’ rights. It’s a rejection of science, for starters, overlaid with ginned-up political rage. It’s a rejection of the genuine needs of other people—vulnerable children who need protection!–in order to win some unnamed contest.

So. Vote with heart, not with hate. Compassion and community hang in the balance.

Leelanau Needs to Get Out Ahead of Change

We all love Leelanau’s rural beauty—this is absolutely a ‘common ground’ issue for everyone, Republican or Democrat, who lives here. It’s nice to think that Leelanau could forever be pristine—sparkling lakes, rolling orchards, charming villages. We live in a very desirable place.

But change is coming—as it comes to every community. The trick is anticipating and preparing for that change. When one segment of the County Commission (including my opponent in the District Seven race) decides not to set goals for the upcoming year, they are abdicating the Commission’s responsibility to its constituents.

The Commission’s job is anticipating—or recognizing—challenges and addressing them.

Is this process always smooth and effective? Of course not. But it’s why you’re elected: to identify and serve the needs of your district, and your county.

Because those immediate needs—and the ones we can foresee on the horizon—are very real: Climate change and its impact on agriculture. An array of proposed recreation sites on our lakes, as legacy property owners sell to developers. Eurasian watermilfoil in our largest lake (and the county’s economic engine). A severe shortage of affordable housing (owned and rented), while 40% of the available housing is unoccupied, year-round. A potential uptick in tourism as cruise ships dock in West Bay—and perhaps rail-based tourism as well. The list is long.

And–not all change can be predicted. The pandemic, for example, which served as a divisive and politicized point of contention for countless local government officials, precisely at the time when we were called upon to act in community.

In 2020, a Leelanau County Road Commissioner made national headlines by spewing racist language and thoughts in a public meeting. It was another opportunity to act in community, addressing latent racism in a county where most of the land was deeded, in 1855, to the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa, and strongly repudiating the Road Commissioner’s thoughts.  Some commissioners wanted to sweep the national embarrassment under the rug, however.

When we first moved to Leelanau County in 2010, my husband and I were both running businesses from home—he had a law practice, and I had a small business providing professional development webinars for teachers. And what we considered adequate internet capacity—we had cable internet prior to moving here—was unavailable. I was curious about why—Leelanau County is rural and rolling, and I understand that poses challenges to providers, but the county is also relatively well-off. Why weren’t providers eager to tap into this market?

Tracking the County Commission’s actions on securing broadband is how I got interested in Leelanau County politics. I heard commissioners describe broadband as a luxury, and the extension of internet services as spoiling our rural character. The Grand Traverse Band has been a willing partner in broadband development for years, but the Commission did not seem interested in working with them.

It took a pandemic and an infusion of federal money to get the Commission off square one, but they have now achieved a momentous first step of mapping internet availability across the entire county, uncovering the fact that 22% of the county had zero access to broadband. Think about how that impacted student learning during the pandemic—and how many clean, small businesses that could support a local tax base were turned away by lack of what is now considered a necessary utility.

There is no better local example of getting out ahead of change than what happened when Dollar General purchased property and applied to build a store in downtown Maple City, declaring that Maple City was a food desert, and the opportunity to buy cheap imported junk and off-brand canned goods would benefit its citizens.

Those citizens got wind of the plan and showed up in huge numbers at township meetings to protest. Dollar General withdrew the request—and there are presently two partially completed duplex homes (something we DO need) on the site. 

The irony is that Maple City is decidedly rural—there are fruit stands and community-supported agricultural (CSA) businesses everywhere in the area. Could the town use a small, pick-up grocery? Perhaps. But Maple City and hundreds of other modest small towns are now vulnerable to big corporations, with their eyes on the bottom line, rural character be damned.

The changes coming—inexorably—to northwestern Michigan are even larger than the ones we’ve been dealing with, like getting a septic ordinance in place, or resisting unnecessary gravel pits.  Climate migration is a real thing, and a beautiful, lightly developed area with ample water and a four-seasons climate is like a magnet for wealthy national and international investors.

Again—the County Commission is elected to identify and serve the needs of Leelanau.

Change is coming. Best to get out ahead of it.

This week’s take from the CSA box.

Leelanau Needs Cooperation and Transparency in Government

Every governmental jurisdiction needs cooperation and transparency in the way elected officials and appointed workers run the show. Calling for elected officials to get along, keep their mission uppermost in mind, and not engage in power struggles is hardly novel.

Cooperation and transparency have not always been the core principles guiding the work of the Leelanau County Commission—although the Board has very recently made great strides. They have involved the county in the work of identifying and developing attainable housing, building partnerships with non-profits whose goals align with the Board of Commissioners’. Their research and work are bringing fiber optic cable and towers to underserved areas of the county.

The current Commission just passed—after 30 years of wrangling—a septic ordinance to protect the watershed. They have improved relationships with staff at the Government Center—the folks who give you your marriage license, finalize your adoption and ensure that our local elections are well-run. They have expanded recycling programs and established public comment at the beginning and end of every one of their meetings.

All good.

But ten years of observing the County Commission at work proves that these accomplishments were hard fought, a long time in coming, and by no means guaranteed to remain in the next term.

In the last cycle, the Commission squabbled over wearing masks to meetings early in the pandemic, and tried to roll back spending on Early Childhood programming that was funded by a referendum, claiming that voters made a mistake, and it was their job to override the public’s wishes. They established mandated prayer at their meetings (but only by Christian clergy from this county). In what appears to be a personal vendetta, Republicans on the BOC attempted to wrest control of county finances and human resources away from the Clerk who has competently handled them for decades.

If I could set goals for a strong and productive Leelanau County Commission, the first one would be: Stay in your lane. 

The point of have a bi-partisan County Commission is representing all the citizens—the strong progressives as well as the dyed-in-the-wool conservatives. If democracy works the way it’s supposed to, the folks who have lived and farmed in Leelanau for generations will have their views represented, as will those who moved to paradise more recently, and are excited by its beauty and opportunity.

Leelanau County is home to a National Park as well as the Grand Traverse Band Indian Reservation. It’s a mix of rural, agricultural land and high-end resort towns. All of these varied interests and needs must be acknowledged and addressed by the Board of Commissioners. The BOC does not have time for pursuing individual beefs and enthusiasms.

Recently, the BOC has been forced into defending our competently and fairly run elections. The County Sheriff (who calls himself a ‘Constitutional Sheriff’) organized a group of election skeptics, ironically meeting in the County Building while the Clerk attended a conference on how to run clean elections.

These factors—‘constitutional’ officials, and election deniers trying to gum up civic processes—are popping up everywhere, even after a drama-free primary season. The Leelanau County Commission isn’t the only civic body trying to stay the course during political upheaval.

But stay the course they must.

There is hope. In Centerville Township, a greatly expanded lakeside campground has been proposed—one that would create an RV village larger than any town in the county, with a water park and three pools (not to mention traffic, septic and lake health concerns). Over 200 people showed up for the first explanation of the proposal, crowding into a vintage building with no air conditioning or restrooms.

They were residents from all over the county, demonstrating that people are paying attention. Speakers were well-prepared and polite. There was bipartisan cooperation and transparency.

It can be done.

How to Make More Teachers

We need more teachers.

Good teachers. Well-trained and seasoned teachers. Teachers who are in it for the long haul.

Many of the articles floating around about the teacher shortage focus on data—What percentage of teachers really quit, when the data is impenetrably murky at best? And how does that compare with other professions?

In other words, how bad is it? Really?

These articles often miss the truth: Some districts will get through the teacher shortage OK. And most districts will suffer on a sliding scale of disruption and frustration, from calling on teachers to give up their prep time to putting unqualified bodies in classrooms for a whole year, sometimes even expecting the real teachers to keep an eye on the newbies.

The shortage will look different everyplace, but one point is universal: it’s not getting better.

Teachers are not just retiring and leaving for good. They’re part of the great occupational heave happening because of the COVID pandemic—people looking for better jobs, demanding more pay, in a tight labor market.

Public schools are now competing to hire smart and dedicated young people who want to be professionally paid and supported, especially in their early careers. When you’ve got student loans, higher starting pay is a big deal. And loan forgiveness if you teach for a specified number of years might make a huge difference.

Before anybody starts telling us how to make more teachers, as fast and cheaply as possible, to prevent “learning loss,” we should think about Peter Green’s cynical but spot-on assessment of the underlying goals of folks pushing for a New Concept of who can teach:

Once you’ve filled classrooms with untrained non-professionals, you can cut pay like a hot knife through cheap margarine. It’s really a two-fer–you both erode the power of teachers unions and your Teacher Lite staff cost you less, boosting your profit margin for the education-flavored business that you started to grab some of those sweet, sweet tax dollars. And as an added bonus, filling up public schools with a Teacher Lite staff means you can keep taxes low (why hand over your hard-earned money just to educate Those Peoples’ children). 

Several states (and Florida springs to mind here) almost seem to be competing for the best ways to reduce public school teacher quality, thus reducing public school quality in the process. In addition to offering full-time, teacher-of-record jobs to folks without college degrees, they’re trying to brainwash the ones they already have by offering them $700 to be, well, voluntarily indoctrinated about another New Concept around what the Founders really meant in the Constitution.

Attention MUST turn to an overhaul of how we recruit, train and sustain a teaching force.

All three are important—and have been so for decades. We’ve been talking about improving the teacher force, from selection of candidates to effective professional learning, for decades. As Ann Lutz Fernandez notes, in an outstanding piece at the Hechinger Report, there is a surfeit of bad ideas for re-building the teacher workforce, and not enough coherent, over-time plans to put well-prepared teachers into classrooms, and keep them there.

I have worked on a number of projects to assist beginning teachers using alternative routes into teaching. And while there are problems, there’s something to be said for teaching as a second (or fourth) career,with the right candidates and pre-conceptions, and the right professional learning.

That professional learning has to include a college degree, and field experience. Many high-profile charters advertise the percentage of students who are accepted into colleges. There’s been a longtime push to mandate challenging, college-prep courses at public high schools, and send larger numbers of students to post-secondary education.

Teachers need to be credentialed to demand respect from the education community, plain and simple, no matter what Ron DeSantis says. It’s past 50 years since bachelors degrees were the required norm for teachers in all states. Backing away from that is egregiously foolish—and almost certainly politically motivated.

If we were serious about making more *good* teachers, we’d need two core resources: money and time. Money to effect a significant nationwide boost in salaries, loan forgiveness programs, student teaching stipends, scholarships, plus the development of more alternate-entry and Masters in Teaching programs that include both coursework and an authentic, mentored student teaching experience.

This would also take time—but it absolutely could be done. Would-be teachers should have to invest some skin in the game—not because traditionally trained teachers had to jump through hoops, but because teaching involves commitment to an important mission. Done well, it’s professional work. We can argue about teacher preparation programs, but nobody should be going into a classroom, alone, without training and support. It’s bad for everyone—teachers, communities and especially kids.

What are we going to do in the meantime?

Alternative routes have sprung up all over the country, some unworthy, others better. All are stopgaps, but some of those teachers will continue to grow and excel in the classroom. And I agree with Michael Rice, MI State Superintendent of Schools:    

“If the question is whether we have a teacher that is certified through (an alternative route) or have Mikey from the curb teaching a child — a person who has no experience whatsoever and is simply an adult substituting in a classroom for a long period of time because there isn’t a math teacher, there isn’t a social studies teacher, there isn’t a science teacher — the teacher that is developed through an alternative route program or expedited program is going to be preferable.”

It’s worth mentioning that this shortage has been visible, coming down the road, for years. The pandemic and that great occupational upheaval have merely brought it into focus.

It’s past time to get the teacher pipeline under control. This will take good policy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food for thought. Or prayer. Take your pick.

Tutoring Our Way to Excellence?

Back when I was in ed school—undergraduate and masters-level, in the 1970s—one of the seminal truths we read about and discussed at length was ‘individual attention:’ Why class size matters, how to reach students personally, and the superiority of one-to-one tutoring in knowledge acquisition.

No better way to learn than to have the undivided attention and expertise of a single teacher. If, of course, the family can afford private tutoring, and that tutor is a content expert, skilled in teaching techniques. And also—big point– compatible with the pupil. Tutoring is ideal, in other words, except when it isn’t.

I remember a band-director colleague telling me that in order to play in his select high school band, students were required to take weekly private lessons. He was working in a well-heeled suburban district, and many of his students were studying privately with members of the Detroit Symphony.  

It wasn’t clear how he was getting away with this demand—it wouldn’t fly in my school—but it was a dazzling thought: All of students’ technical issues, solved, on the parents’ dime, by explicit and targeted outside instruction. All he had to do was put these elite student musicians together with high-quality music, then conduct. Easy-peasy.

That’s not exactly right, of course—there’s much more to learning and playing music together than individual skills. In fact, learning, in every subject and in every classroom, depends on a stew of cooperation and community, in addition to dealing with diverse understandings, talents and proficiencies, led by the—caring, one hopes—person in charge.

There are, to put it succinctly, lots of things that cannot be precisely measured, when it comes to learning. The idea that we can accurately  diagnose what students have learned/not learned, and confidently prescribe the best of three strategies to ‘catch them up’ is folly. Student learning is not a statistics problem or a disease, where the correct number of ‘high-dosage’ tutoring sessions will guarantee a return to normal. Whatever that is.

That doesn’t mean that tutoring isn’t a useful strategy. It certainly is. There are plenty of stories about kids who struggle with something academic, then connect with a tutor who helps them over the hump—learning to read fluently or solve equations or whatever.

A friend’s son initially got mediocre scores on his ACT test, meaning he wasn’t going to be accepted at any of the colleges he was aiming for. The son’s English teacher recommended a local woman, a former teacher, who had created a business tutoring students through the college application process.

The boy was unenthused, but met with the tutor four times, then re-took the ACT, gaining nine points, more than enough to expand his college options. On the ACT writing test (now optional), he earned a six, the highest score.

My friend was grateful for the targeted assistance–her son’s self-concept as capable student improved enormously, as well. But she asked me—Why didn’t he learn to write an excellent essay in school? What did he learn in four hours that had not been conveyed in the previous 12 years?

There are lots of differences between working with a private coach vs. learning in a class of 30 or more. Motivation, for one. Privacy—not exposing a weakness in front of peers—is another. In the end, it’s the same stuff we talked about in my ed classes: reaching students on an emotionally neutral, personal level and a class size of one, where feedback and re-dos are immediate.

There have been bursts of enthusiasm around auxiliary tutoring for public school students in the past. Free tutoring was a part of No Child Left Behind’s efforts to help kids in schools that did not make Adequate Yearly Progress, and were deemed ‘failing.’ We are all familiar with commercial ‘learning centers’ in strip malls that promise success in radio ads, before even meeting your child.

Michigan is now considering using $280 million in federal COVID recovery monies for tutoring to get kids ‘back on track.’ And I wish I saw this as a viable option for all children who have missed a lot of in-person schooling during the pandemic.

But the first thing I thought about when I read the Governor’s plan was: If we don’t have enough qualified teachers to fill our classrooms—where are all those skilled tutors going to come from? Because all the research on tutoring, while generally positive, is clear that small groups and expert tutors are essential.

I also remember the NCLB tutoring—private tutoring vendors scrambling to use federal money to set up yet another government-funded after-school program to fix kids who weren’t reading at grade level or were lacking the credits to graduate. The lack of oversight—or coordination with schools—made a lot of those programs useless.

So—who’s going to monitor these new tutoring programs? You guessed it:
It’s not clear what standards the state program would use to evaluate tutors or identify tutoring programs.

“It is a state responsibility to provide leadership and ensure that best practices are followed in this new effort,” said Jennifer Mrozowski, director of communications for Education Trust-Midwest, a nonprofit advocacy group that has called for an expansion of tutoring services. “The state also should have a plan in place to see to it that the dollars are actually being spent on best practices and districts are held accountable for the work.”

Of course. Districts are now supposed to locate and hire suitable tutors, set up programs, provide materials, find transportation, then evaluate student progress. Because, despite all their best efforts during a pandemic, students have ‘fallen behind’ benchmarks set by federal and state policy. The phrase ‘actually being spent on best practices’ is particularly insulting.

A lot of the literature and articles around tutoring refer to an Annenberg study on ‘recovery design principles.’ When you see the phrase ‘high-dosage tutoring’ in a ‘recovery’ plan, someone’s been using the Annenberg research to support a plan for additional instruction. The study is actually useful—it lays out the factors necessary for tutoring to have real impact:

One meta-analysis found that high-dosage tutoring was 20 times more effective than low-dosage tutoring in math. In reading, high-dosage tutoring was 15 times more effective than low-dosage tutoring. Simply providing students with access to tutoring is unlikely to be effective for all students. Paraprofessionals and volunteers may be better suited to one-to-one tutoring because they are less likely to have developed the skills in behavior management and group instruction that are needed for working with multiple students. Tutoring interventions often are not successful when there are no minimum dosage requirements, little oversight, and minimal connections with the students’ schools. A key element of successful tutoring programs is being able to establish a rigorous and caring culture.

It turns out that the most effective tutoring happens three or more times a week, at school, in very small groups or one-to-one. And the most effective tutors are trained educators familiar to students. Which takes us right back to what we have always known about instruction—small class sizes and individual attention from a trusted teacher work best. No surprise at all.

Why I am Running for Office

I am running for office. The County Commission, District 7, in Leelanau County, Michigan, to be precise. I am running for a position that has been held by the same Republican woman (whose name will not be mentioned) for 26 years.

It goes without saying that a lot has happened in Leelanau County, the gorgeous, rolling ‘Little Finger’ of the Michigan mitten, in the past 26 years.

Leelanau County is a peninsula, surrounded by Lake Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay, and scattered with smaller lakes. Shorelines are home to new and historic million-dollar homes with killer views, and the center of the peninsula is agricultural. We grow more cherries here than any other state in the union, and the county is overrun with fruit flies every August (you get used to it). In May, however, a Sunday drive through the orchards is absolutely breathtaking.

There is a National Park—Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, named the prettiest place in the United States by Good Morning America, in 2011. There’s also an Indian reservation, on the remnant of land left after white settlers platted up and sold nearly all the land—most of the county—deeded to Indians in 1855.

I’ve been a property holder here—some 14 acres, sold on a land contract—since 1987. We built a home and moved here in 2010. And within a year or two, it was pretty clear that some of the people making decisions about my life needed to get some new ideas about local governance. There were plenty of issues.

In 2014, 2016, 2018, and 2020, I worked on Democratic campaigns for the Board of Commissioner seat in District 7. They were worthy candidates, with good ideas. And in all four elections, they lost.

The data jugglers for the local Democratic party (for which, I serve as Secretary) seem to feel that no Democrat, no matter how smart they are or how hard they campaign, could win in the ruby-red center of the county.

The outer edges of the county—lots of well-heeled retirees—were turning blue or at least purple. Joe Biden edged out a win in 2020. But District 7—again, lots of farmland and a couple of tiny towns– remained persistently Republican.

Twenty-six Year Veteran doesn’t really bother campaigning much. In the newspaper candidate forums, she writes about how her family has ‘always’ lived here, and how she protects citizens from excessive spending and taxation. No need for any new-fangled ideas, programs or, especially, regulations. My district is studded with Trump signs and those yellow ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ flags.

But change is coming. Out of state (and out of country) buyers are scooping up agricultural land and those homes with the killer views. Our sparkling lakes are threatened by the possibility of Enbridge oil spills, and none of the service industry workers the county depends upon, summer and winter, can afford to live here.

And don’t even get me started on access to broadband, the first inkling I had that all was not paradise after we moved to Leelanau County. The majority-Republican County Commission was not interested in expanding access, seeing it as a private business opportunity, not a public utility. Ironic, seeing that Leelanau County was electrified largely by the Rural Electrification Administration, a depression-era federal project. We still pay our electric bills to Cherryland Electric.

The recent influx of federal dollars is finally going toward broadband coverage, but it took a couple more Democratic County Commissioners and a pandemic for the county to seek the kinds of internet service other entire states have enjoyed for the last decade or more.

So why am I running for office?

First, because somebody had to. If nobody ran, Twenty-Six Year Veteran might assume that everyone feels as she does: Cut taxes. Cut services. Ignore problems. Bury your garbage (this was a response to voter-approved recycling). Vote Trump.

As it turned out, there were four of us willing to run. We all filed the paperwork, then met a couple of days later, promising that whoever won the primary would have the full support of the other three. We toasted with a glass of Prosecco, then talked about issues. We’re all on the same wavelength.

We’re tired of all the Republican baloney that’s been mucking up a full-fledged, voter-approved effort to un-gerrymander Michigan. We’re tired of ongoing fights over issues we thought were settled by public vote—like funding programs for early childhood. We don’t understand why all the rich people buying up properties here shouldn’t be compelled to fund a point-of-sale septic inspection, a crucial first step in protecting our water.

We have watched Republicans force public prayer (Christians only!) at County Commission meetings (yes, I understand the dubious legality) and drive out a hard-working, super-competent local Health Department authority over masking.

There’s more. Way more.

I’ll be writing about the issues (including school-related hot topics) in subsequent columns.  I am running a zero dollars-based green campaign: No signs. No paper literature.

But in the meantime, I’m running for the County Commission.

Vote for me!

Nancy Flanagan, Allison Zimpher, Julie Kradel, Mary O’Neill–all running in District 7.