Acceleration Nation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are lessons in this completely ordinary story.

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

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

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

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

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

The Villains of Education

Back in the early days of internet bulletin boards and discussion platforms, there was a seminal piece on forming virtual communities that was passed around by educators interested in using technology to do more than record grades and attendance. Its author (Howard Rheingold, maybe?) posited a working theory of how virtual communities evolve, and the kinds of connections they built, if they were allowed to exist over time without moderation.

The author said most groups and interactions tend to cluster, over time, into three patterns: Sex. Religious veneration. Common villains. (Or something pretty close to those.)

What s/he meant was that people in online groups either flirt, worship particular heroes, heroines or initiatives—or communally post critiques about persons or initiatives they don’t like.

These were not the outcomes of virtual communication that I wanted to consider when I read this white paper. Back then, I wanted to believe that real and complex work, deep learning and genuine community could be accomplished online, and that the crummy habits we develop in face to face encounters could be avoided. But no.

If you wallow in ed-related social media (and if you’re reading this, you likely do), then you’ll know how a group that forms around an education topic can go off the rails. You’ve seen someone post an out-of-mainstream idea and get crushed by horrible, trigger-happy commenters, folks who live to uncover a villain and pile on.

The last time I saw this happen was when a teacher in Massachusetts posted that she hoped MA would not waive spring testing this year, because she believed the scores would show that her students did just as well online as in face to face schooling.

You can imagine that this outlier opinion did not go down well on a ‘teachers’ unity’ Facebook page. You can also imagine that it didn’t take more than about ten minutes for accusations about this teacher’s work conditions, privileges, inferior moral judgment about children in poverty, and lack of intelligence to start flying. Nobody was posting: Hmm? Tell me more!

Of course, there’s probably an All Kids Must Test!page she can join, and find new friends, but that’s not the point. Online discussion groups around education DO tend to evolve into monolithic viewpoints—veneration of certain policies, thought leaders and policy-makers, or a place to complain, bitterly, about the same things. Plus, a kind of flirting—looking for others who find our ideas and appearance attractive.

So much for vibrant, informed discourse or intellectual challenges. Even Facebook page names—Dump DeVos, BadAss Teachers—let you know that the readers may have a common POV. Many aren’t interested in an exchange of perspectives as much as finding Their People.

That’s OK. Most of the recent, pre-pandemic Red for Ed organization happened via Facebook pages and Twitter. And, of course, the January 6th Capitol insurrection organizers used the same social media sites.

Shutting social media sites down (or warning users about their real or imagined transgressions) won’t keep us from the Big Three human-group behaviors—flirting, veneration and attacking common enemies. Whether we’re good-hearted public school teachers or Proud Boys, we’re looking to find compadres, heroes and villains.

It’s when emergent events that impact all educators quickly morph into ad hominem attacks and assumptions that I worry about our ability to act as activists around education issues. Let’s not get stuck on naming and shaming enemies before we negotiate and advocate for the things that will support public education. Pointing fingers is cheap; better to hone your talking points.

Let’s not, for example, turn every policy issue into second-guessing the results of the 2020 election—who Bernie or Elizabeth or Pete may have chosen to craft policy as cabinet members, and how much better that would have been than Biden’s cautious, dismantle-the-fortress approach. The same goes for panning high-profile teachers’ union leaders, most of whom are currently trying to build relationships with policy-makers in hopes of impacting education legislation during what might be a short window of change.

Over the past year, teachers across the country have taken it on the chin from frustrated parents and craven political leaders. But there are a whole range of issues—standardized testing, safely returning to in-person school, vaccinating kids, the advisability of school sports during a pandemic, summer enrichment, the curriculum we need now, you name it—where there is room for debate, opinion and local differences.

We seem to be paralyzed by the window of policy shifts opened by a year of forced adjustments to habits of educational practice, plus a new administration in D.C. Reverting to ad hominem jabs at elected and appointed leaders—same old, same old—is wasting an opportunity. Better to throw out some new ideas.

That doesn’t mean we stop advocating. On the contrary, it means better, issue-focused arguments instead of poking at people who have not been on the job long, people who are trying to address life-and-safety problems and please a range of constituencies.

I have made similar comments on social media: Hey! The guy you just denigrated? He’s on our side!
This usually doesn’t go well: It’s my right to criticize!

And so it is. This is a democracy. It’s your right to condemn, fan-boy and flirt. But if you want to solve problems? As F. Scott Fitzgerald said:The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.

Stickin’ to the Union

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For now, I’m stickin’ to the union.

Get rid of the damn test!

Guest blog from Jodi Mackley. Jodi is an advocate for public education, BLM curriculum, and creative writing for all students.  She taught secondary English in the same public school district for 30 years, and now enjoys “retirement” in a much smaller (though public) school setting. 

Next month, I may have to give the MStep test to my high school students, most of whom are English Language Learners. This is my first year teaching them. I don’t need to spend a week or more discouraging them with badly written test questions (which I did not create, do not see ahead of time and won’t get to see afterward). %#*!? is what I have to say about that.

Do ELLs really have to take this test? 

Can ELLs get support? 

Are ELLs scored the same as non-ELLs? 

Heck, who is the bottom-line-authority forcing all kids to take this test? And why can’t caring adults cry out for transparency, change, revolution? For some answers, I went to the Migration Policy Institute for some facts. Only one statement stuck with me: 

“Michigan administers the MStep for accountability purposes.” 

Accountability? Sounds like someone has been naughty. Is it me? I know it’s not my students. They are the last ones to complain about tasks thrust upon them. It’s true. They are happily embracing their American freedoms. 

We expect language learners to be English proficient within six years. Really? Are the test makers fluent in other languages? Can they read culturally biased questions, writing answers in their second language? Did they go to school in another country, with another language, arriving with deep trauma? My students did. 

They are amazingly resilient, and they deserve TLC (all kids do), not timed multiple choice questions on dead British writers and essays to write about visiting United States National Monuments they’ve never heard of. Many are grieving loss of home and life, due to ISIS or another warring faction. Yet test we must. 

The powers that be try to make it look do-able: “Students are considered on track if they meet their personalized growth targets from one year to the next.” The state then offers two (rather inflexible) ways to calculate what is “on track,” being oh so generous to students who just arrived in the U.S. 

They do not have to take the ELA MStep, but they do have to take the Math MStep. Or take them both the first year, but exclude from accountability–until the following year (for measurement purposes, of course). Does any of it help ELLs succeed? I’d like to measure that. 

Let me be clear. Teachers already test and analyze their students. But the State and Nation (group 1) have allowed purveyors of data/ corporate money-makers/ tech. industry (group 2) in the door, and they’ve run wild. (Shh…I also think these two groups are linked.) 

This invasion is fueled by fear and division–as American as sour apple pie. Claims of “failing schools” are as misleading as the reason many broke into our nation’s capitol on January 6th. Much needs repair. 

“Michigan administers the MStep for accountability purposes.” Teachers are in the line of fire, even though we are expert test makers, takers and evaluators. We’d like to see a structured, transparent system of school improvement, one including teachers’ voices and roles. But in my 35 years as an educator, there has never been a one-size-fits-all that worked. To make matters worse, testing was the worst of them all. 

Only one truism cannot fail: Trust educators

Yes, educators. Principals and staff who lead schools along the path of teaching and learning, and when allowed, adventure. I remember the beauty of bonding as a school community, practicing citizenship and leadership, holding each other’s happiness and health in high priority (as a teacher). I remember recess, several times throughout the day. Assemblies. Field Trips. Good lunches with fresh food, not the truckloads of frozen boxes from chain-titan Chartwells (as a student). 

Yet over the past decade, the purveyors of data and greed have sold us not only insipid food, but insipid curriculum, standardized tests and even standardized teacher evaluations. The results: reprimands, mistrust, unnecessary hierarchies, and severely disengaged students long before the pandemic. 

The data collectors cannot measure “soft” skills, nor do they want to. Joy and balance have been forced out. They sell us “Grit” and other racist, classist lessons, but nah. In many schools the system is just as bad as the beliefs, probably worse. 

I have never met a Social Emotional Learning program that passed the purveyor-of-power test. When life’s lessons are seen through a lens of white privilege, the message is not only lost, it was never there. Yet there is still hope. 

We need to stop whoever pulls the levers, catching them in the act of benefiting financially or otherwise. These purveyors of greed see education as a business with a bottom line. Anyone else wonder why an 8th and 9th grade PSAT was recently developed? (cha-ching$) The main cause of “losing profit”: Teacher salaries (and benefits). Why else are fingers pointed at teachers, and not others? %#*!  I still don’t have the answers. 

In the meantime, cancel the damn test.

Jodi Mackley

tl;dr = dd

So—here’s a phrase I hate: Dumbing down.

Pretty much every instance of its use in the education discourse is wrongly construed, unsupported by evidence, and reflects lack of first-hand experience by the speaker. As in: The Common Core has dumbed down the curriculum! Test scores prove that American public schools are dumbed down from the intellectual rigor present in [time frame when speaker was in K-12 school]. Why should we dumb down the canon by letting students read books they choose? And so on.

A lot of educational practices that are labeled ‘dumbed down’ are merely—changed. Evolved. Altered. Less—or more—important to learn than 50 or even 20 years ago, because the world has changed. When it comes to curricula and instruction, the heart of what we do in school, change is essential. Because the world changes, educators must also change. This is a hard concept for a lot of people to understand.

I taught school in five different decades. In my experience, the school curriculum has never once, during that time, been gradually less challenging or dumbed down, overall. In fact, I would argue that most of what is taken as evidence of diminishing academic accomplishment and expectations has roots in excessive testing, a radically altered view of who should be pursuing higher education, pushing curriculum down so far that it’s developmentally inappropriate for the students who are supposed to master it—and shifting demographics.  

We’re not dumbing things down. We’re realigning our priorities, while rowing upstream, against strong currents. Why are we doing this? So we can better teach the kids sitting in front of us.

The first time I ran into the internet shorthand ‘tl;dr’ it was a direct insult. The person who wrote it was ranting about one of my blogs, based on a title that my publisher had given it. Because I think dialogue is the only reason to put your thoughts out on the net, I pointed out that he was accusing me of saying pretty much the opposite of what I’d written in the blog. I took a half hour out of my life to go point-by-point in telling him why (there were some nasty accusations in his comment). I tried to remain calm.

He commented back—oh, I didn’t read it—tl;dr.

The blog was just under 800 words. Most bloggers know what 800 words looks and feels like. They also know that shorter pieces get more eyes. (So do pieces with numbers in the title—speaking of genuine dumbing down.) I started wondering: just how long is tl?

The experience also made me start noticing how often my friends (real friends, people I actually know and respect) would share something with a comment like ‘long but worth it’ or ‘read all the way to the end—the last paragraph will break your heart.’ If a friend shares something, I presume they’ve read it, and there’s something worth absorbing in the piece, whether it’s 200 words or 2000 words.

Even more disconcerting: I frequently post my own writing on other sites and have had readers tell me that my responses to comments are ‘not what the blogger meant.’ When I point out that I AM the blogger, they’re surprised. Where do people think free content comes from?

I know we live in a Twitter media culture, where tweets (the grandchildren of sound bites) are burnished for sharing, or linked in boxcar-like threads, 15 thoughts representing a thesis with supporting evidence. I also know that our, umm, former guy ran an entire first-world nation—some would say into the ground—using mainly random misspelled nuggets of braggadocio and bias. He paired them with rambling, often nonsensical speech-rants to large crowds. And people seemed to like them. In fact, one of the most frequent man-on-the-street comments about Former Guy was: He tells it like it is. God forbid.

So here’s what I don’t get: FG’s speeches frequently ran well over an hour, and were given to people standing outside. In the cold. When you look at transcripts, they’re pretty much an amalgam of incoherence laced with sporadic insults. The exact opposite of toastmasters recommend—short, pithy and laced with humor.

Here are my questions:

  • Are we reverting to an oral culture, where long-form reading is mostly abandoned?
  • Does this have to do with the way we have pushed reading instruction down into kindergarten, short-circuiting the love of stories and language that turns children into eager readers?
  • Is tl;dr evidence of the real dumbing down?

You tell me. And in case you’re wondering, 766 words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

If we had been paying attention, of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teachers, Testing and Why We Might Just Chill

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

Well, maybe.

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

No so with most policy-makers.

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

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

Who do you suppose wrote the following statement?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what we don’t need right now:

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

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

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

Summer School & Learning Loss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Anna Samoylova

Give Me a Poke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alexa knows: Give me mental health tips.

Sports

In the 15 years that I have been blogging and creating content for education publications, there are two subjects that always draw angry (and often nasty and insulting) comments: Women in leadership. And sports.

There’s something about school sports that gets people a little overexcited. There’s a kind of passionate, Friday-Night-Lights loyalty toward school-based athletics that you don’t see for, say, Advanced Algebra or Chemistry. This fervor is often justified with old, familiar tropes: Sports are what keep kids in school. Sports build teamwork and leadership. Being an excellent athlete can lead to scholarships.

All of these have—or once had—kernels of truth. But do these benefits justify spending so much time and energy on preserving big-budget HS sports programs —especially during a virulent pandemic, for God’s sake?

Just how critical are school sports? Senator Roger Marshall (R-KS), during confirmation hearings for Dr. Miguel Carona, nominee for Education Secretary, revealed that he ‘believes that one of the biggest problems facing students and schools today is that allowing transgender students to play school sports means “there is not a level playing field.”’   This is the most important thing a sitting U.S. Senator in a basketball state could think to ask the prospective future leader of public education in America? Evidently.

Hey, I was a public school educator for 30+ years. I understand and appreciate the benefits of school sports programs. I also understand that in many school systems, especially those with privilege, athletics are the 800 lb. gorilla when it comes to making policies that are good for all the kids in a K-12 system, most of whom do not participate in competitive team sports.

I’ve got stories upon stories about that, from personal experience, but instead will share this alternative view of school sports: We had an exchange student one summer, a 16-year old girl from France. She was a recognized gymnast and talked about her passion for the sport and awards she’d won. We were building a new middle school that year, and our guest went with me to look at my new classroom, across from the gym.

She stood in the doorway and asked: Who is this gymnasium for? She was stunned by the stuff being unloaded, including some basic gymnastic equipment—and the beautiful wood-floor basketball court, the bleachers, the locker rooms and showers. Although she’d been a gymnast since she was a small child, she did not associate ‘sport’ with school. You had a physical conditioning class at school, but competitive sport took place (and was funded) out of school.

It made me realize how quintessentially American and ubiquitous school sports programs are—and wonder what that means about our collective understanding of the purpose of school. My usual response to school sports programs (and, let’s be blunt, aggressive parents) calling the shots was to advocate for kids who benefited from other programs—the arts and music, or academic challenges.  

But now there’s a pandemic. And it’s ripped up a lot of our expectations and hopes about what a rich, well-rounded, equitable education looks like, made us re-think what is most important in educating our children.

While each state, right now, is a hot, steaming kettle of clashing perspectives on what a safe return to face to face schooling looks like, the predominant voice in education policy-making in Michigan at this moment is a group called Let Them Play. They have filed suit against the MI Department of Health and Human Services. They have used the new face of ‘freedom’ from faux tyranny—a rally at the Capitol—to get attention. Even the fact that their leader is kind of shady and a conspiracy theorist has not stopped their noble quest to reinstate all contact sports in Michigan high schools—now—and get a spotlight, testifying in front of the Republican-led legislature.

The Legislature was more than happy to do that, because they’ve been in their own war with the Democratic Governor, since forever. Here’s a great headline that kind of summarizes life in Lansing: Republicans Willing to Risk the Lives and Health of Michiganders to Spit in the Face of Gov Gretchen Whitmer.

And yesterday, Governor Whitmer caved on this issue. Winter-season contact sports in high schools will resume on Monday. I’m sure she’s sick of fighting for the health of the state—even though Michigan is succeeding, big-time, in tamping down the rate of infection, currently ranking 47th in daily new case counts—and running up against brick walls with every precaution the DHHS mandates.

How will outbreaks work now, in high school sports? Will they result in temporary shutdowns? Or cover-ups? Who bears responsibility if a cluster of cases emerges after a few weeks of games?

Not my circus.

I mentioned this to a band director friend, and he said he’d long wondered whether professional associations for music education could have similar outcomes if they rallied at the Capitol and made friends with a conservative legislator or six. It was a depressing thought. Not only all that lobbying—but wondering who would advocate for American literature or World Languages or media centers?

The question, again: What benefits do school sports provide that make them worth the cost and the risk? A few kids get athletic scholarships, but only a handful. Same with preventing dropouts. Learning teamwork and leadership through sports is a function of good coaching, and therefore a variable, not a consistent factor.

I would suggest sports are a fun and worthwhile after-school occupation—as are any number of other activities, from the drama club to the robotics team. The most important purpose of public school is finding and enhancing the strengths of all students, so they will bring something positive to the community, as adults.

Too high-minded and la di da? Maybe. What do you think?