It’s also likely this was just one of So Many Stories about Trump’s desperate behavior, post-election, that it has been eclipsed in the national memory, but on November 20, 2020, lots of Michiganders were pretty sure that Shirkey and Chatfield weren’t sitting in the hotel bar discussing truth and justice.
So–the former MI Speaker, Lee Chatfield, has found himself in a bit of a pickle lately.
Chatfield became Speaker of the House at age 30, and was term-limited out in 2020. He is now 33. He is married to his HS sweetheart, with five children. He claims his relationship with the victim (which began when she was 14 or 15) was ‘consensual.’ In MI, the age of consent is 16—18 if the older person is an educator.
Lots of hand-wringing by his fellow Repubs, of course. And disgust from people who have always perceived Chatfield as a hard-right lightweight, not worthy of the responsibility of making policy for almost 10 million citizens in Michigan.
What interests me in this story, however, is not the salacious details (and there are way more than the summary, above). It’s the fact that Chatfield was– it pains me to say this—a teacher. Not in any sense a conventional teacher (certified, licensed, prepared, ethical)– but a teacher nonetheless (and, every story reminds us, also a coach and the Athletic Director).
In fact, Lee Chatfield is kind of the poster child for why we have laws in education—why public schools must have elected boards, qualified and vetted staff, new-teacher mentoring and supervision, ongoing professional learning, teacher evaluation, and so on.
Chatfield’s district is not far from where I live—and I know that a small K-12 Christian school in the rural woods of northern Michigan might be appealing to parents looking for ‘choice’ and made fearful by the media-fed blabber about how their white children would be made to feel guilty in public schools.
They wouldn’t be terribly concerned about vetting the teachers—they’re Christians, right?—or investigating the curriculum.
(In fact, even though we had a curriculum night every year, wherever I was teaching, parents seldom struck me as being deeply concerned about finer point of disciplinary benchmarks and content outlines. They came to see the face and hear the voice of the person in front of the classroom. Which makes the whole anti-CRT crapola inexplicable, except as a politically motivated and funded scam.)
Sometimes, the person in front of the classroom is an entitled, over-confident predator.
There are plenty of lessons for policy-makers here, ironically, beginning with a reminder that almost everything we do in public education is controlled by well-worn laws and policies.
Genuinely ethical practice protects and nurtures children. And he who makes his own rules can’t be trusted.
Four days ago, I wrote a Blog of Despair—all about the forthcoming demise (or destruction, take your pick) of America’s best idea: public education. I’m not backing down from that conviction; I think the more or less permanent downfall of public schooling is inescapable, unless there are major, sudden shifts in public and political opinion.
One of my former students, now a mother with two school-aged boys, commented on the blog: If we could start over and build education from scratch, what would it look like?
First—I have to admit that I’m proud of Kendra for asking the kind of question that doctoral students at research universities have been noodling over (without transformational results) since forever.
While there are optimistic legislative packages and snazzy new tools, most real change in education feels sluggish, rather random and exceedingly difficult to analyze. The idea of starting from scratch lies under most reform—charter schools were originally touted as a way to get rid of red tape and innovate. (Pause for cynical laughter.)
The thing is: transformational change involves determination and investment. It’s uncomfortable, expensive—and it takes time. Most change in public schools is driven by forces—financial, technical, social—outside of education. We’re not very visionary or intentional about education.
Education policy thinkers tend to be Stephen Covey-esque in the upbeat, step-wise way they approach change: anticipate, arrange, administer and assess. That’s how we got No Child Left Behind, which was supposed to be the Grand Strategy to identify inequities, raise and equalize standards (a word meaning different things to different stakeholders), harass teachers into somehow teaching better, and then test diligently to ensure accountability.
But– no plan on such a scale succeeds unquestionably. NCLB may have changed the tenor of the conversation, but over two decades of No Child, in various incarnations, have come and gone– and we’re still considering why the results are proof that you can spend billions and not improve education in any meaningful way.
I have been a teacher in five distinct decades, each with its own policy slogans, public perceptions and real problems. We’ve been “at a turning point” more times than I can count. We have surfed the rising tide of mediocrity and been embarrassed by the soft bigotry of our low expectations. But what has really changed in classrooms? What’s the net impact on actual practice?
My–admittedly ultra-personal and non-scientific–report on Five Decades of American Education:
The Seventies: Got my first full-time, regular-paycheck teaching job in 1975–something of a miracle, as there was a teacher glut in Michigan. Was hired because the principal needed someone right away and we were on the same humor wavelength in the interview.
Soon learned that there was no district curriculum for music or any other subjects. Chose my own teaching materials from catalogs–wasn’t that a curriculum? Taught whatever and however I wanted–no instructional oversight, no mandated materials and nothing resembling “professional development.”
Heard “don’t smile until Christmas” about 50 times from other teachers, sum total of any “mentoring” I got. Saw teachers smack kids (still permitted by law)–and heard lots of lounge talk about chaos that would happen if the right to paddle was taken away.
I was pink-slipped in Years Two, Three, Four and Six. Was always called back–once because of a lawsuit, after registering for unemployment. All of this was tied to precarious, locally voted school funding.
Gave statewide tests–the MEAPs, then a basic-skills check–but nobody considered them a big deal. Was happy that Jimmy Carter instituted a cabinet position for education–about time! Had a few friends who taught in Detroit–envied their superior facilities, resources and paychecks. Teaching seemed like a fulfilling, creative, and very autonomous job. Most days, it was lots of fun.
The Eighties: Economic downturn in the early 80s meant further pink-slipping and annual changes of building/teaching assignment necessitated by constant personnel shifts. Had daily loads of up to 400 students in two buildings and–since any certified MI teacher could teach any subject to 7th and 8th graders–a year of teaching math. All of this change was oddly invigorating, if exhausting.
Finished a masters degree in Gifted Education, a popular cafeteria-style ed specialty (like Career Ed, Distance Learning, etc.). Got serious about teaching. Read many books, took fake sick days to observe admired teachers in other districts. Sought leadership roles in Music Ed organizations. Downright hungry for professional conversations.
None of this was required, encouraged or even noticed by the district, which did institute its own curriculum benchmarks in the 80s. Teachers called these curriculum guides “the black notebooks.” Problem: not enough time, staff or resources to teach all the good things in the black notebooks.
Reagan’s release of “A Nation at Risk” interpreted by colleagues as rhetorical excess and unionized-teacher bashing, an imperialistic extension of right-wing momentum gained in the air traffic controllers’ strike. Hoped it would blow over, but having to listen to Bill Bennett’s nostalgic morality fables was nauseating. Still giving the MEAPs, which got harder in the 80s. Took leadership roles in the union–since they were the only teacher leadership roles available.
The Nineties: Decade opens with some optimism. H.W. Bush’s Goals 2000 are kind of inane–First in the world in math and science! –but there’s the sense that policymakers are paying attention, and the belief that public education can and should improve.
Visit Detroit, shocked to see decayed and racially polarized schools–what happened in the last 15 years? Outstate Michigan residents, tired of seeing wealthy suburban schools funded at four times the rate of rural and urban-rust schools, pass a funding bill to get rid of property taxes as source, using sales tax instead. Outstate schools ecstatic as times are flush–auto industry will last forever!
Real and substantive school improvement begins to impact daily practice. There are national standards and benchmarks in most subjects, and teacher committees to update, align, discuss. Required mentoring for new colleagues. Performance assessments, and portfolios of student work. Required professional learning as opposed to blow-off in-service days, although the quality is still iffy.
Further upgrades in the MEAPs, including hands-on tasks for kids, new constructivist tests for science, social studies and writing. Better assessments begin to drive instruction. New teacher hiring done by colleagues. Plus–fab new instructional toy arrives in classrooms: the computer, full of infinite possibilities for teaching and learning. Some teachers begin experimenting immediately; others are intimidated.
Best Secretary of Education ever–Dick Riley–provides eight years of continuity of purpose and coherent policy. Education is still a local-control thing; Feds just there to ensure equity, promote innovation. National certification identifying accomplished teaching becomes reality. Next stop: real leadership roles for exemplary teachers, whose expertise will help policymakers solve problems. Nagging worry: all of this still takes money–and a growing number of poor kids are still completely underserved.
The Naughts: A slow U-turn in policy and conventional wisdom. We’re not gradually improving, after all–in fact, we’re an international educational joke. All public schools (not just poor/urban schools) are bad. Decidedly awful–and the people who work and believe in them are intellectual dimbulbs who care only about their inflated salaries. How would they handle this in Singapore? China? India? We must compete!
Buzzword of the decade: data. Every person with a computer sees data analysis as the solution. In the lunchroom, colleagues express skepticism about the Texas Miracle even before it’s exposed as just another Data Hustle. Some of the best teachers in the building discover they are not Highly Qualified. Meanwhile, the worst teachers in the building–genuine stinkers–look good under NCLB regs.
We begin administering tests to third graders–and relinquish development of performance assessments that tell us real things about kids’ writing, number sense, comprehension, familiarity with the scientific method. No time for that now–the data-driven race to the top has begun even before it’s formally named.
Saw well-regarded suburban districts become defensive and start advertising as schools of choice. Urban and rural districts were shamed. Teacher preparation institutions–even the good ones– scorned. Paradox of the decade: We must have the smartest teachers! But should they bother studying the science of teaching? Or stay in the classroom for more than a couple of years? No. With data, we can replace teachers as often and as efficiently as we replace technologies.
The Twenty-Tens: The decade begins with the depressing realization that the Obama administration has fully bought into the privatizing, standardizing “accountability” movement, where no child can go untested. There are tweaks to NCLB, but the idea that we can accurately measure teaching/learning excellence through data becomes embedded wisdom. Federal policy demands grow—and competitive financial incentives are dangled in front of states to meet questionable regulatory goals that do little to innovate or improve schools.
The Common Core State (sic) Standards are launched, adopted, fleshed out with assessments and aligned instructional materials during the first half of the decade. Teachers have lots of complaints, but are knocked down by the big systemic wave of federally-driven homogenization. Mid-decade, however, community pushback against the Common Core strengthens—another silver bullet with no results—and its trajectory rapidly descends. Baby Boomer teachers, like me, the core of the profession (for better and worse), leave the field; the conventional teacher pipeline begins to dry up, along with the concept of teacher professionalism.
Now retired, I visit classrooms every week, as substitute, volunteer, special instructor or teacher coach. Every school I visit still looks and feels familiar—the crowded hallways, the marginal hot-lunch pizza, the goofy Things Kids Say. Things have changed since the 1970s, and not for the better, but school is still school.
And then, there’s an election.
The day after the 2016 election, a group of middle schoolers in Royal Oak, Michigan is videotaped shouting ‘Build That Wall!’ to a cluster of Hispanic kids, in the lunchroom. Four years of destroying useful education policy and practice ensue, led by a cartoonishly incompetent Education Secretary and newly emboldened, racist policy-makers. Things in public education go from bad to So Much Worse.
And then came the pandemic.
In April of 2020, I wrote a wildly optimistic blog titled A Dozen Good Things that Could (Just Maybe) Happen as a Result of this Pandemic. I mention this, because I have often, like Kendra, asked myself how I would change public education, if I could start from scratch. I genuinely believed that a pandemic could serve as a cleared slate, a turning point, for our social institutions. Maybe it’s too early to give up on that idea—a reclamation of public education’s mission—but I’m not optimistic.
I would sketch the last 50 years of public education as a bobbling, but slowly rising curve through the 70s, 80s and 90s, with a downturn at Y2K, falling gradually until the last five years, after which the line plummets due south, rapidly. Way south.
“Censorship reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime.”
Potter Stewart, Supreme Court Justice
There is no more local-politics issue than public education.
From Mom gossip about teachers, watching Little Leaguers play, to intense competition for valedictory honors with all the teenaged strivers loading up on useless AP credits—any community’s buzz continually includes trash-talking the local public schools.
My first political activity, in fact, was phone-banking against a voucher initiative in MI in 1978 (it went down, 3 to 1—like two subsequent voucher proposals). The first time I went to a heated school board meeting, to defend my district’s well-designed sex education curriculum, was even earlier.
Public education has always been under-resourced, contentious and subject to the community it serves. The people who work in public education have always been underpaid, but generally aspire to improve society by helping kids. There are exceptions, of course, but years of history and research bear this out.
You might think I’d be used to this, what with all the banned books, slashed programs (often my own) and vehement parent rhetoric in my personal past. You might think I would be applying the evergreen ‘this too will pass’ theory to what’s happening today, confident that the pendulum will swing, the pandemic angst will fade, and we’ll be back to our highly imperfect normal: public education under siege, but still standing.
It’s taken some time for me to come to this opinion, but I foresee the end of what we currently call public education.
It’s a pretty good piece, featuring an array of teachers and curricular experts discussing the difficulties of teaching current events on the anniversary of the January 6th insurrection, after the nation and the Republican party has had a year to, you know, just get over it.
There are brave teachers in MA and MT who are planning to show news videos and discuss the root causes and eventual outcomes. But there’s also a special ed teacher (and regional chapter chair of Moms for Liberty) in Indiana, who’s sticking to math and English, in an effort to be ‘unbiased.’
Unbiased against what? Protecting the rights of camo-clad faux-military marauders to despoil the U.S. Capitol and threaten the lives of Members of Congress? Not willing to sway student thinking about the peaceful transfer of power? Trying to stay neutral on the topic of domestic terrorism?
The story ends with a quote from a middle school teacher, Dylan Huiskan: Not addressing the attack is to suggest that the civic ideals we teach exist in a vacuum and don’t have any real-world application, that civic knowledge is mere trivia.
Veteran public school teachers like me have spent decades developing real-world content discipline applications for our students. We have fought against sterile data-driven education, the relentless pursuit of test scores, the pushing Science and Social Studies and the Arts out of the curriculum. We’ve been trying to DE-trivialize education, professionalizing our own work in the process.
But now we’ve got teachers who think their colleagues are indoctrinating students, by showing them actual live news footage, or discussing an event that happened within their short memory and has huge impact on their own futures as American citizens.
Once, years ago, I wrote a blog using the phrase ‘data Nazis’ and a friend I respect, and trust, chastised me. Use logic and facts, he said. You weaken your arguments when you oversell and hype the danger.
Nobody wants what’s coming, so nobody wants to see what’s coming.
On the eve of the first civil war, the most intelligent, the most informed, the most dedicated people in the United States could not see it coming. Even when Confederate soldiers began their bombardment of Fort Sumter, nobody believed that conflict was inevitable. The north was so unprepared for the war they had no weapons.
Is that overkill? Unclear.
But if it’s not—what are our weapons against losing genuinely public education?
So here we are, at our local schools, trying to stay afloat, with daily crises incoming.
The adults who are still bravely teaching, teaching, teaching (+ making administrative and child welfare decisions) in spite of the fact that the world seems to be on fire around them, need help. Don’t take my word—just read pretty much any educator-written blog from 2021.
When we have massive social problems, how do we generate and roll out solutions?
The answer is: Policy.
Policy is how we mounted a successful response before, during and after World Wars, developed and refined sequential national transportation and communication systems, and came back from significant economic depressions. We can point to any number of policy-driven transformations in these United States.
Once policy is put in place, and implemented, we can see its real-world effects. Optimally, the policy will be tweaked until it does what it’s supposed to do: solve the problem. Or at least move things in the right direction.
Yes, it’s infinitely more complex than that—designing good policy is way more than guesswork and a good feeling about how to fix the trouble. And yes, policies sometimes make things worse. Way worse.
I would argue that public education is one area where terrible policy is now endemic—and sometimes, after clear failure, overlaid with even worse policy. The sheer dispersal of decision-making responsibility is part of the reason. There are legislative levels—federal/state/local—and a whole array of other organizations (the PTA) and people (the Athletic Director, the Union president) who have policy-making roles, assigned as well as assumed.
In fact, it’s hard to think of an education-related policy that has effectively and sustainably worked, beyond the granddaddy of all ed policy: a free, high-quality, fully public education for every American child, no matter what they bring to the table.
Lately, this wrong-policy trend in education has been on steroids—both the frightening gravity of the problems as well as the foolish, even ludicrous suggestions to address them.
PROBLEM: Student scores on standardized tests remain stagnant, or go down
WRONG SOLUTION:Fix the teachers, through rigorous evaluation of their behaviors and ‘success,’ including those same test scores. If this solution feels convoluted—well, the idea that a mountain of data could serve as a spur to improve practice has never worked particularly well, anywhere. It’s a data-focused non-problem, with a data-focused solution, neither of which matter much, in the real outcomes we want from public education.
PROBLEM: As COVID numbers rise, merely coming to school is stressful. Widespread absences and anxiety.
WRONG SOLUTION:Adding more half-days to the school schedule. This one started out on the right track—less time exposed to unvaccinated children, pre-planned time away from face-to-face learning. But, as most districts have learned, asking for Wednesday afternoons off is not likely to endear you to parents, who have pushed for full-time school in a pandemic, because they need to work. Less time in school and more technology-focused interaction is probably where we’re headed anyway, like it or not. Four-day weeks. Virtual conferencing. On-line lessons. The new normal. But let’s not worsen the child care crisis in the process.
Where should policy-creators get their ideas about solving big problems?
Because we are living in a completely different world now than we were two years ago, we should look first at the proposed solutions from people who are up close and personal with the problem. The people who are still, in spite of the danger and frustration, willing to be public school educators.
One last thing, for those who would like to tailor solutions to ‘the marketplace’ rather than the common good: Problems in public education are also problems in private and quasi-private (read: charter) schools. School violence, student mental health, the empty teacher pipeline, lack of resources—they’re apparent across the country, in all kinds of schools.
I got a heart-tugging message from a friend who is Principal in a small Catholic elementary school on the border of Detroit, a couple days after the shooting in Oxford. Local police had alerted her to threats that were ‘terrorist in nature,’ suggesting the school close down. But in consultation with her staff, they thought students (who had lost many relatives and caregivers over the past year) would be safer in school.
She said it was a fairly normal day, although she couldn’t wait for the dismissal bell. Then, she went home and threw up.
I am so done with all of this. My job is no longer one of an educational leader. I am an emergency manager around pandemic, school safety, bad weather conditions that flood our school or knock the boiler out… It is rare, very rare to have anything to do with education. I want to return to overseas international schools where the innocence has not been stolen from children. What we have here in the USA is worse than when I fled Sudan due to a revolution. I could understand a revolution. This I do not understand.
I waited for the headlines, and here they came: Oxford School District Likely to Be Sued Over Shootings. Further tart media observations: What does it take to get suspended from Oxford High or searched after violent scribbles? And: Red flags the superintendent blandly describes as “concerning drawings and written statements” that alarmed his teacher.
If I were only seeing these remarks on right-leaning media (where public schools are all presumed to be guilty of So Many Things—including blandness), I wouldn’t be surprised.
But I’m also seeing remarks trying to pinpoint blame for this shooting posted on teacher/education/lefty sites—by teachers blaming weak-on-discipline administrators, university professors going after mush-mouthed PR-driven superintendents, and school leaders saying their hands are legally tied, when it comes to searching backpacks and booting kids out of a public school without due process.
I’ve read perhaps a dozen lengthy descriptions of what happened, including a detailed timeline provided by the district superintendent, who keeps stressing that the Oxford Schools want to be transparent.
And frankly, my take-away—this is incredibly sad—is that school folks did what they reasonably should have in this instance, and that nothing will cause real change (including metal detectors, more school resource officers, tripling the number of guidance counselors and requiring clear plastic backpacks), until there is a national, minds-and-hearts shift. Gun control, yes, but also a different political ecology.
There’s a whole complex of reasons why American students are surrounded each and every day by allowed, even encouraged, violence.
I was a classroom teacher for more than 32 years, most in the same district, all but one year in secondary schools. I have had students who committed grisly murders. I have students who are currently in prison for major crimes (including one dude who scratched an epithet into a brand-new tuba when he was in the 7th grade). I had kids who sold weed and pharmeceuticals. A handful of my former students took their own lives, or the lives of others, in various ways. One of my students burned down his own house. On purpose.
Each and every one of these students was white, and attended school in a small-town-values kind of place.
Sometimes, there are obvious signs. Sometimes, not. Some kids grow up and out of their worst behavior. Others, who appear to be quiet or moody, turn out to be capable of unspeakable actions. Contrary to what some believe, there is no infallible ‘check for mental health’ procedure.
The worst-behaved student I ever had—a daily pain in the ass who disrupted the entire school building with his rambunctious and hostile behavior —is now a multi-million dollar real estate salesman.
Many years ago, a HS student in a nearby district brought a gun to school, and showed it to a friend. This was in the zero tolerance/punk prisons era—and he was expelled and sent to Juvie. It was in the local newspapers. Because he was a minor, his name was never printed.
A month or two later, I got a new student in the HS band, a tenor sax player. I asked where he went to school previously, and he told me: the next district over. He was a good player, and quickly made friends. The more I got to know him, the more I appreciated his wit, kindness and intelligence. I took him on a band trip to Toronto. He graduated.
Later, of course, the school counselor caught me in the hallway and informed me that he was the kid who brought the gun to school. Thought you should know, she said. You weren’t here when we had the meeting about accepting him.
Social media comments proclaim that any kid who sketched weapons with blood dripping, or penned a self-doom/anti-social message in gothic lettering that caught a teacher’s eye, should be searched immediately then sent home. Pronto.
But–kids draw and paste all kinds of stuff in their notebooks and on their homework—everything from swastikas to oversized anatomical features. Think: video games.
Are we seeing incipient violent tendencies—or teenage boredom? Who gets to judge? The fact is, we don’t generally kick kids out of school for their immature drawings or weird teenage behavior—unless there’s a pattern, over time.
The fact that two teachers reported ‘concerning’ drawings and cell phone use to find ammunition, over the space of a couple of days, means that the adults in school actually were tracking this child. They asked his parents to take him home, and get him immediate counseling. They shared their fears. And the parents refused.
I was struck by one of the superintendent’s remarks—that if they had forced the child out of the building, when the parents refused to take him, the boy would have been home alone. Hanging behind that remark is another fear educators are dealing with during a mental health crisis: What happens when depressed children are home alone, and there are weapons?
I had a student once, a 7th grade girl, who wrote little notes to me, about her feelings of being ugly, a dork, not having friends, and so on. I tried to pay special attention to her, but the language became more frightening– ‘What will they think when I’m gone?’ I took the problem to the school counselor. She asked: Do you think this girl would harm herself, or is she just seeking attention?
I honestly didn’t think she would. I thought she was just lonely. But I still wanted a referral to the counselor, and a parent call. The counselor agreed, but said that parent calls of that nature often didn’t go well. The school might be seen as high-handed and intrusive, telling a family their child had talked about suicide.
Still, she was willing to do it. Because it was the next step. There are protocols for this kind of thing, she said. We follow them.
You’ve probably noticed that there are Moms for Liberty organizations and now, faux legal strategies for parents to demand the rights they already have, popping up like mushrooms, to keep those high-handed, mask-demanding schools in their place, to press forward on incendiary social issues. The climate for productive school-parent conversations (never a given), has been negatively impacted by living through a highly stressful pandemic and its emotional aftermath.
The core resource for well-functioning schools is—and always has been—trust. All good school practice—public/private/rich/poor—hinges on relational trust.
When parents don’t trust schools to have their kids’ best interests at heart, we’re all in trouble. When there is a deliberate push to de-stabilize school boards and overrun safety rules, the trouble gets worse. Without some measure of trust, we can never help the kids who need our help most.
My heart goes out to all the educational staff in the Oxford Schools, working through the worst that can happen in a school community.
Thank you, as the saying goes, for your service. I wish you and your school healing.
It’s been a terrible week for teachers in southeastern Michigan. A terrible week for students and families and school communities as well. Early yesterday morning, school districts—by my count, at least 60, but that was an early tally*—began announcing that out of the proverbial abundance of caution, they were closing down for two days.
They’re not closing due to COVID (although Michigan’s school-based infection rates are ghastly at the moment). They’re shutting down because of spiraling threats of in-school violence, spread on social media.
School leaders are terrified. Not one of them wants to be the next school where an angry, disaffected kid shoots off more than his mouth.
I have dozens of friends who teach near Oxford, site of Tuesday’s massacre in Oakland County, and know many others who have children or grandchildren in the district.
I have been reading their social media threads: First, the reassurance that they’re fine. Then, sharing of how they knew the students who were injured or killed: a friend of their daughter’s, their babysitter, the boy who was in their second grade class, years ago. Sometimes, anger over the words and actions of the shooter’s parents. Photos of the dead, and #OxfordStrong hashtags.
Then, inevitably, the conversation turns to blame. Copies of the two messages of reassurance sent by Oxford school administrators to parents earlier this month—saying hey, we know about these threats and we’re doing something—are shared. There are repeated acknowledgements that the school followed all the recommended safety protocols. So how did this happen?
Two things—true things—are repeated endlessly in these dialogues. The first is that the nation exposed its true values nine years ago after the slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary, choosing unrestricted gun ownership over the lives of children. The second is that we need a greater understanding and focus on mental health. In our schools, of course.
What is often missing from these heart-wrenching discussions is the fact that schools are just like malls and movie theatres and churches and political rallies—stages for playing out what it means to be an American citizen in 2021, our deepest principles and beliefs.
Despite selfless and heroic actions, despite good parenting and good teaching and due diligence on the part of school administrators and counselors—we live in a pretty ugly country right now.
None of this mitigates the reprehensible behavior of this teenager. He is fully responsible for what he did. But it’s worth thinking about the unique context of growing up in America, the people respected as leaders in this nation, the ruthless tactics used to acquire and maintain power and ‘freedom.’
As Eugene Robinson said: I wonder if the people of Oxford, Mich., feel they have more freedom today than they did before Tuesday.
There are kids like [Ethan Crumbley] in high schools around the world. But only in the United States do we enable them to express their teenage angst by bringing guns to school and opening fire on the students, teachers and administrators they see as their tormentors. Only in this country do we make it easier for youths to get their hands on a handgun or an assault rifle than to work up the courage to ask a classmate out on a date.
That leaves us with the broad recommendation that we need more attention to mental health, everyone’s favorite ‘solution’ to the problem of social violence. I always wonder just what people think enhanced mental health services look like, in schools. Who’s in charge? What do they do?
I am a strong believer in school counseling, but anyone who’s worked in a school knows that counselors—if they even exist—are stretched over multiple responsibilities and way too many students.
The urgent, squeaky wheels for counselors are often standardized test administration, scheduling and college applications, not dealing with individual students’ bitterness or rage. If we had ten times as many qualified counselors, it would only be a band-aid on mental health for children. Compared to other nations, we have miles to go.
I would argue that public school teachers in America understand the simple fact that kids can’t learn when they’re anxious, depressed, or hostile. Everyone’s running their own informal, ad hoc SEL program, all the time.
It’s called caring about your students. * Per Bridge Magazine, over 150 school districts in Michigan shut down, as a precaution.
I once was on a panel at a Governors Summit on Education in Michigan. The topic was ‘teacher leadership.’ It was the usual format—each panelist gets a pre-determined number of minutes to pontificate (which they invariably overrun)—and then (theoretically) there is open discussion among the panelists, and questions from the audience. The line-up was: A state legislator, a representative from one of Michigan’s two teacher unions, and me.
I was the first speaker and started with the premise—copped from Roland Barth—that if all students can learn, then all teachers can lead. I fleshed that idea out, a bit—that practicing teachers need a voice at the policy-making table, that teachers’ control over their own professional work would enhance their practice and enthusiasm for teaching, as well as their efficacy. And so on.
Legislator was the second speaker and he strongly disagreed. He asserted that his role, over so-called teacher leadership, was oversight. Teachers are public employees who need to be kept on a tight rein; their work rigorously evaluated. If they want to lead, they can lead their second-graders out to the playground for recess (audience laughs). He and his colleagues were the rule-makers and goal setters, not teachers.
Then the union guy spoke. And he, too, felt that ‘all teachers can lead’ was a falsehood. Teachers had no business sticking their nose into policy. That was the union’s job. And it was an administrators’ job to lead a district or building—and suffer the consequences of failure. He knew plenty of teachers who were excellent classroom practitioners but didn’t have the skills, desire or moxie to lead. If they wanted to lead, they should run for a position in their union, or get administrative certification. Applause.
Because the Summit was on a weekday, the hundreds of people sitting in the ballroom were mostly legislators or their staffers, heavily from the Governor’s party, plus university and Department of Ed folks, and reporters. Not teachers.
Although I enjoyed a delicious, expensive banquet lunch afterward, I met nobody whose thinking was aligned with mine, re: organic teacher leadership.
Not a great experience. But telling.
Now, many years later, I still believe that experienced teachers want to lead, and are well-positioned to inform the conversation around education policy.
Teachers are under siege. It’s not surprising that free-floating angst, generated by a highly disruptive pandemic, has been aimed at public schools. It happens cyclically—everything from rising pregnancy rates to chronic illiteracy in poverty-ridden neighborhoods is blamed on educators.
Because–you know what’s coming–everyone went to school and thinks they understand schooling. A pandemic that shuts the entire system down, however, is exponentially catastrophic, impacting everyone. Anger at public schools, even for made-up reasons, is inevitable. It’s the nearest target.
For the last century or so, teachers have been an increasingly female workforce, seriously underpaid and subject to increasingly rigid control from government and on-site leadership. Pretty much the model my co-panelists understood and defended: Some of us make the decisions, others do the work. And hey—enjoy your summers!
But it’s a relatively young and inexperienced teacher workforcenow, and the frightening stories about teachers leaving, in droves, with nobody to replace them, ought to force the education community to ask themselves: What would keep the EXPERIENCED TEACHERS WE ALREADY HAVE (sorry) in the classroom for a couple more years, until we rebuild a leaky pipeline?
Well, it isn’t the ‘Wellbeing’ worksheet (see photo, below), which feels like one of those make-work reproducible masters teachers used to pull out on a sub day. Self-care dittos.
Here—fill this out. Feel better! Clearly, whoever designed this worksheet does not understand the relationship between drinking more water and the one three-minute window per day when peeing is possible.
Hiring the best possible people, paying them fairly, giving them time to work collaboratively, honoring their expertise, and releasing their creativity? How does that sound as a recipe for school-based self-care?
Greene writes, with a certain edge, about a variety of education topics, and he has receipts for his opinions. When I read his words, I am right back at C lunch, listening to the veteran teachers I worked with grumble and snicker about the people who were trying to ‘fix’ schools. And didn’t have a clue about how schools worked, or what happened in real classrooms.
How could you know that every class is a balancing act—attention, content, challenge—whether your students are six or sixteen, unless you’d spent considerable time in front of a classroom? And did so recently—not 40 years ago, when we didn’t expect kindergarteners to read and everyone to take Algebra II?
As we wrestle with ‘To Mask or Not to Mask’ and just what Critical Race Theory actually is and isn’t, we need to hear lots more from experienced teachers. Greene’s aforementioned blog, titled How I Taught Controversial Texts, is precisely what persuadable parents should read right now.
Persuadable parents are those who genuinely care more about the education their children are getting than scoring political points, or throwing their weight around. They’re curious; they want the best for their children. They may be liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat—but they’re mostly wondering ‘What kinds of things might our kids talk about in class? What will they learn?’
Well, Peter Greene tells you. In doing so, he condenses decades worth of teacher wisdom into a few pithy paragraphs, around ideas like this:
Teachers often say that students are welcome to their own opinions in the classroom, but students will wait to see if you mean it, or if this is a class where you get points for agreeing with the teacher. So you have to show them. Once students believe that they really don’t have to agree with you, all sorts of good stuff can happen.
Offer perspectives, but let them wrangle. Let them have the argument in their own voices.
Students are where they are. Despite all the panic over teacher indoctrination, the fact is that you will rarely budge the needle on the beliefs that they bring from home.
Don’t get out the controversial stuff before you’ve built an environment of trust, respect, and safety.
There’s more—read it here—but Greene sounded like every good teacher I ever worked with: a person with a deep understanding of their students and a strong sense of the content and activities that would push those kids to think deeply and express themselves clearly.
Of course, my teaching career in a small town in Michigan and Peter Greene’s career in a small town in Pennsylvania overlapped considerably—and we both spent a long time teaching in one place, where families learn to trust teachers.
Teaching has changed radically in the immediate past, mostly due to terrible policy-making at multiple levels, policies that have chipped away at teachers’ professional work and judgment. The pandemic explains only some of those bad decisions.
It’s time we started listening to the unfiltered voices of teachers.
I spent several years reading 12-page portfolio entries, coaching for teachers seeking National Board Certification. I was always amazed at the differing ways teachers wrote about their practice.
It was an honor to tap into their thinking (and watch videos of their lessons). For some, explaining their choices and results seemed to come naturally, something they did every day. They could explicate and justify their learning goals, and included language like Peter Greene used: Trust. Respect. Safety. Let them have the argument in their own voices.
The National Board’s word for this kind of practice is reflection. But teaching public school in 2021 doesn’t leave much time for introspection, planning learning goals and checking for results. Having your state legislature pile on doesn’t lead to better teaching or learning, either.
Writing about what it’s like to be in the classroom now may be the only way well-meaning parents get some insight into ordinary life in schools–the constant effort to turn students of all ages into engaged and curious citizens, good neighbors and conscientious workers. Especially difficult now, when their young lives have been seriously impacted by an uncontrolled virus.
Keep sharing your perspectives, teachers. We need to hear from you.
Not many independently well-off citizens want to become certified teachers, working for fun and pocket change. Gone are the days when teaching could be seen as an easy, optional second income. Especially these days, when teaching could kill you.
Rebuilding the teacher pipeline is actually something we could do. The infrastructure and research necessary for producing fully qualified, even dynamic, public school teachers is in place, and can be expanded and enhanced. All it would take is adequate funding and a commitment to solving a few thorny issues in public education.
Such as respect for the profession, and an acknowledgement of the stabilizing role public school teachers play in American society. For starters.
Done well, there could be a turnaround—in, oh, a decade or so. In the meantime, however…
The MI Department of Education recently sent out thousands of letters to retired teachers, asking them if they’d like to come back, promising to facilitate re-certification procedures, smoothing a temporary path back into the classroom to help stressed local districts. They also pledged to provide some Title II funding for districts to ‘Grow Their Own’ teachers (support staff and other promising candidates) and urged districts to use newly available money to significantly raise early-career teachers’ salaries.
All good, right?
The response from retired teachers was somewhere between bitter and scornful. NOW you want us to come back? When we’re old and more vulnerable to this deadly virus? When you underpaid us and cut support from the schools and kids we served for the last two decades? NOW we’re valuable?
A few years back, newly retired teachers in Michigan were not welcomed back as substitute teachers. Legislation in MI limited retired teachers’ work in public schools, claiming that drawing a pension and substitute teaching was ‘double dipping’—as if picking up an extra 75 bucks a couple times a week was unfairly greedy, rather than a gesture of support for currently practicing teachers and local schools.
Some of them, undoubtedly, were teachers. If 3% of the workforce in a medium sized school district—1000 employees, say—decided the pay/reward equation wasn’t worth it anymore, a district could easily lose 30 people. That would impact everything from bus routes to reading programs.
And those are national figures—it’s hard to calculate just what pandemic teaching in a politically crazed world has done to the public school instructional force. A teacher friend says all conversations about education right now center on: burnout, early retirement, sub shortages, anger & frustration, mental distress and growing & unreasonable expectations.
That’s quite a list. And the profession will be in crisis for some time to come, even if everybody stopped yelling and started working on rebuilding our public education system tomorrow.
It’s worth asking: Cui bono?
Who benefits from this scenario–a constant churn of teachers at the lowest steps of the salary scale, and a re-conceptualizing of the teacher as technician, ‘managing’ learning remotely, teaching as starter career? Who is trying to strip money and professionalism from public education?
It’s that harder-to-define problem. It’s not just about filling classrooms in 2021; it’s about what teaching will look like in 10 years. Teaching has always been a morally-driven job. Unless you are experiencing joy—or at least satisfaction—in your job, it’s unsustainable.
To his credit, Michael Rice, State Superintendent, and the MI Department of Ed, proposed some reasonable policy solutions for producing more qualified teachers, in addition to asking the old ones to come back. They begin with tuition reimbursement for prospective teachers who make a commitment to teaching, and education loan forgiveness for current and future teachers.
They would provide college scholarships for high school seniors who want to teach, and improve access to university ed schools and teacher preparation programs. Better mentoring. License reciprocity with other states. All good ideas. Will they fly?
Michael Rice: If we expect a major commitment from a wave of young people as our next generation of educators in our great state, the least we can do is to make sure that they don’t go into debt to perform this all-important public service.
That—and a major uptick in salaries—would help. But the thing needed most—public trust in teacher professionalism and community schools—is tangled in ugly politics.
Apparently, Bill de Blasio, Mayor of NYC (at the moment, anyway) is promoting a plan to overhaul the Gifted and Talented program in NYC schools. The old G/T program would be replaced— ‘by a program that offers the possibility of accelerated learning to students in the later years of elementary school. And the test given to kindergarten students to screen for the gifted program, already suspended in part because the city’s advisory school board refused to renew it last year, would be permanently ended.’
This action has– predictably– made some people really mad.
Let me say it again: NYC was testing children as they entered kindergarten, and siphoning them off to special classes for the gifted. Given the unprecedented education issues in play right now, beginning with a deadly virus and a lack of qualified staff, NYC was right to put gifted education in the back seat, as a problem to be better addressed later.
To be clear, I believe we could do a much better job of encouraging and challenging our gifted students. I am strongly in favor of every teacher in America looking for students’ strengths, pushing them to develop that potential, encouraging them to find new passions and interests.
I taught many flat-out brilliant students, and have a master’s degree in gifted education. Giftedness is a real thing—although it is vastly broader and more comprehensive than a skill set ascertained by testing five-year-olds.
I have never met a teacher or school administrator who ‘hated’ the gifted or resented children who bring special talents and assets to the classroom. Nor do I believe it is harmful for bright children to spend their days with peers who learn differently.
We will all spend our lives living and interacting with people who are both smarter and less capable than we are. That’s a core value of public education.
Smarick starts out with some good points about competing philosophies—should we honor individual gifts rather than seeking first to level a playing field? Then he shifts to all the reform efforts that supposedly addressed that level playing field: Charter schools. Vouchers. Teach for America. School-finance lawsuits. No Child Left Behind.
He says this: In hindsight, it is striking how little discussion we had in the reform community about how these efforts did or did not address the needs of kids who were excelling, or how these initiatives were landing on non-disadvantaged communities—places where parents liked things just as they were. That lack of self-reflection led to a decade of humbling for reformers.
He winds up with the cliché you see in all the literature put out by organizations supporting specialized programming for the gifted: When schools don’t foster the growth of the highest-potential young people, the public loses something. Beneficial technologies might not be invented, and profound works of art might not be created.
Clearly, Mr. Smarick has not been in many public schools lately, with their (sarcasm alert) cutting-edge technologies and comprehensive arts offerings for children.
But–on the subject of what we’re losing by not skimming off the most academically capable while they’re still wearing sneakers with flashing lights: Think about the most gifted and inspiring people you know. The folks who developed the vaccines that are saving our lives, perhaps, or the MacArthur Genius awardees.
Did they owe their overwhelming success to taking part in a selective program in middle school? Or was it something else nurturing the spark that drove them to succeed?
I’ve been reading a lot about Colin Powell this week, who graduated from a public high school in the Bronx, then went to City College, where joining ROTC led him to a path of outstanding national and international public service. Would being identified as gifted as a first grader have changed anything about his trajectory?
I believe there are two core issues that should–yes, should–make us cautious about special programming for the gifted: Resource allocation and identification.
Resource allocation is the variable that all schools, districts and states must wrestle with, putting their money where their values are. Paying to test academically promising children, then isolating them for ‘special’ instruction, is arguably a misuse of education’s most valuable resource: attention and instruction from a creative and skilled teacher. Nobody ever talks about the middle-of-the-pack child and what precious contributions they won’t make to society unless they get instruction custom-tailored for their needs.
I could name a dozen things that need urgent attention in public education, beginning with recruiting and fairly paying more of those creative and skilled teachers, and addressing the deplorable state of school funding. It is not wrong to prioritize educational needs—and it’s more like triage in 2021. The worst strategy is using scarce resources to avoid parent complaints. When you’re juggling more needs than available solutions, it’s important to see the big picture, not just respond to demands.
Earlier, I mentioned my degree in gifted education. I took a graduate-level class in Identifying the Gifted as part of my coursework, in which we took some of the tests available at the time, studied IQ distribution charts and argued about who was and was not ‘gifted’.
In sixteen weeks, the class never developed a consensus about giftedness, who was deserving–a word I came to loathe–of more consideration, unique instruction, special academic goodies. Giftedness is an incredibly difficult concept to define—and many children don’t come into or fully realize their abilities until they have gone to school, met a mentor, or had a revelatory experience that leads them into a lifelong passion.
After completing the master’s, I worked for about a decade on programming for G/T students. I was mostly interested in my student musicians, some of whom were exceptionally talented and creative. I pushed for G/T programming at my school and in the region, and sought special, challenging experiences in the arts for these kids.
We finally got a commitment from a local university to host a weekend program for gifted middle schoolers, who would stay overnight in the dorms (it was May; university students had gone home). They would choose one of three tracks to explore—the environment, great literature or the arts—and meet professionals from their field, engage in some challenging activities and discuss what they’d learned.
I submitted one of my students’ names—a girl whose proficiency and love for her instrument was extraordinary. The program coordinator called me up and told me to choose someone else, because the student I nominated ‘wasn’t gifted.’ I’m looking at her scores right now, she said. She’s barely above average.
I talked about her exceptional ability as a musician. I don’t know, the coordinator said. I hate to waste the money on someone who may not benefit. And there it was: resource allocation and identification.
Nobody hates the gifted. In fact, we may not even know who they are.