Violence and Threats in Schools: Who’s Responsible?

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.

We live in a country where Kyle Rittenhouse walked free. Where senators and governors boldly lie about election results. Where parents, urged by astro-turf organizations, mob board meetings to protest the teaching of facts and requiring masks in a deadly pandemic. Where thousands of brutal insurrectionists attacked our most sacred building and democratic processes, led by the President of the United States.

Also this: the Oxford HS shooter lives in a state where a gang of angry young men conspired to kidnap and execute the Governor, fantasizing about taking her to a remote location and ‘putting her on trial.

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.

This is not new. Kids have been threatening violence, mayhem and self-harm in schools for decades. My (nice/white/suburban) school district was plagued, off and on for years, by a series of bomb threats.  Legislation alone is ineffective, although strong restrictions on possession of firearms would be a good start.

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.

However. Riled-up parents now see social-emotional learning as just another intrusion into their parental rights.

Rick Hess and Robert Pondiscio portray social-emotional learning efforts as ‘perilous’—pointing out that teachers aren’t trained therapists. They fret about all the trigonometry and Brit Lit that won’t be learned, all the drooping test scores, as teachers strive to nurture their students’ emotional health, before tackling the periodic table.

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.

Flyover in SE Michigan yesterday–4 jets in the ‘missing man’ formation.

‘Self-Care’ vs. Sustainable Leadership

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.

In fact, I think a lot of what happened to Democrats in Virginia—in a race they should have won handily—had to do with suppressing the threat of genuine teacher voices around what gets taught in real classrooms, maybe taking down public education in the process. Plus the utter disruption of a pandemic–and racism, of course.

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 workforce now, 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.

Look, I understand that there’s no easy remedy for the conditions teachers are working under: Angry parents. Lies about the curriculum. Anti-vaxxer moms and virus daredevils. What could a school leader who really wanted to support her staff do?

Grow a backbone. Support public education. Here’s a list of 14 viable suggestions for doing that.

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?

What do teachers want? What all professionals want: Autonomy. Mastery. Purpose.

When Teachers Write about Their Practice

My fellow edu-blogger, Peter Greene, just put up another great blog. This happens with some regularity, and if you’re not reading his stuff, you should be. Not just the ready-for-primetime Forbes pieces, but his more free-wheeling personal blog.

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.

We seem to be at a kind of awful tipping point: Who’s in charge of teachers’ lessons?

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.

Need Teachers?

Like every other state in the union, Michigan is scrambling for teachers.

This is, of course, utterly unsurprising. We’ve all absorbed the message: Treat people like crapola for long enough, and nothing—not even an enticing starting salary (in Montana) of $32K–will lure them into the classroom. That starting salary is, by the way, $15K under Montana’s definition of a living wage.

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?

I get it.

But I can’t help thinking that MI is doing the right thing, in asking recently retired teachers to come back. That’s certainly a better response than lowering the bar, letting uncertified, untrained folks, with/without college degrees, into the classroom as the teacher of record. People who see teaching as a temporary job.

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.

All of this speaks to a larger, harder-to-define problem around the labor force in public ed. Teachers aren’t simply taking early retirement or walking off the job because they hate remote learning or they’re sick of filling in for colleagues when there are no subs. Teachers are suffering a collapse of morale.

And they’re not alone—2.9% of the American workforce, 4.3 million people, quit their jobs at the end of summer. Since the beginning of the pandemic, seven million workers have just dropped out.

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.

Nobody Hates the Gifted

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 replacedby 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.

Headlines about de Blasio ‘hating’ the gifted and the ‘war on the gifted’ popped up. New Yorker magazine re-ran their archived article on How to Raise a Prodigy. Eric Adams, who won the NYC Mayoral primary, has suggested he would keep the program as it is now—which seems to be more about tweaking de Blasio than any principle-driven stand on education policy.

As noted, all of this is unsurprising. America has been arguing about gifted education for at least half a century, without actually addressing the problems associated with setting aside assets to select our brightest children and develop special programming for them.

In the case of NYC schools, most of this boils down to inequities—the appalling idea that intellectual ‘merit’ is quantifiable and much more likely to turn up, for some unknown reason, in well-off white children. Or that rising kindergarten students ‘gained access to the program via a high-stakes exam that some families pay tutors to help their children prepare for. Or that all of this was a response to a particularly well-organized and vocal group of privileged parents.

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.

A couple of years ago, Andy Smarick wrote a piece for Atlantic, entitled The Contradiction at the Heart of Public Education. Tag line: Gifted education puts in tension two equally treasured American ideals: egalitarianism and individualism.

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.

Nice White–Resentful–Parent Syndrome

I worked in the same school district for more than 30 years. Mostly, I taught music—band, choir, elementary music—but occasionally other things: Seventh grade Math (two years), English as a Second Language (for which I was totally unqualified), and a class called Homework Hall.

This was a kind of holding cell where kids who had lots of missing assignments were sent–pulled from elective classes–to receive coaching toward filling in the empty boxes in their teachers’ grade books. A second chance to pass classes they would otherwise fail. A way to protect their permanent record, so to speak.

Back then, the county was a cluster of pretty little all-white towns, interspersed with farmland. When I applied for a teaching position, in the mid-70s, the principal called the village where I got my job “the far edge of white flight.” He was right. More and more people were pushing outward from Detroit, claiming they were looking for a more bucolic setting, and then being surprised when they had to provide their own water, septic and garbage pickup.

Still, it was a good job, and they were hard to come by in 1975. Parents—many of whom had grown up in the area—came to concerts and parent-teacher conferences. They took their kids to the library and volunteered to lead scout troops. They rented band instruments for their children and coached Little League. For a long time—decades—I thought teaching there was ‘easy.’

True, there were worrisome things—the town where my cute, second-floor Mary Tyler Moore apartment was had a reputation as the home of the Michigan Ku Klux Klan. There was lots of local trash talk about Flint (30 miles north) and Detroit (50 miles to the east)—although the area’s transition from rural farmland to outlying suburb was driven, economically, by the auto industry, centered in those two cities.

White flight, indeed. My middle school students occasionally made unfiltered, racist remarks—things they’d likely heard at home—but I was never afraid to call them out. That was then.

Here’s a one-minute video that will tell you all you need to know about this town in 2021, shot earlier this week: Click here.

If you haven’t listened to the NY Times podcast series ‘Nice White Parents’, I heartily recommend it. The tagline captures it all: If you want to understand what’s wrong with our public schools, you have to look at what is arguably the most powerful force in shaping them: white parents.

I no longer live in that town. I moved four hours north several years ago. And guess what? There are lots of ‘nice’ white parents here, too. The stakes are now higher, and student actions are no longer limited to random, clueless remarks. There is outright cruelty—and stormy, ugly school board and county commission meetings.

Sometimes, a kind of common sense prevails—but nice white parents have experience in complaining and getting some action and relief. As a veteran teacher, I can think of dozens of issues that brought angry parents to school board meetings, from sex education to the math curriculum, from bus routes to which neighborhoods got to attend the new, high-tech elementary school (the well-heeled ones, naturally—because those are the parents who showed up to demand access to the new building).

Homework Hall—that class where students got to make up missing work—was created when nice white parents approached administrators, worried that their kid might be doing a second year in the 7th grade. Nice white parents know how to get what they want. And they’re resentful when they do not succeed.

Here’s what I want to know, in 2021: Who is driving the current pushback against honest, warts-and-all American history and civics in the classroom? Who wants to send their unvaccinated children to school unmasked? Who is demanding that teachers scrap their own, self-acquired libraries—the books teachers buy to provide engaging texts for their students?  

Sarah Schwartz of Education Week: In the months after the 2020 election, former Trump administration officials and allies built up a network of think tanks and donor groups dedicated to continuing to advance his policy agenda. Critical race theory has become a central issue for several of these organizations.

Nice white parents, in other words, are organized and funded. There are partisan threads running through this anger, and differences between parents with a college education and those without. Religion plays a role, as does race and gender.

Political scientist David C. Barker summed it up this way:  The populist/anti-intellectual right absolutely believe that the intellectuals are not only out of touch but are also ungodly and sneaky and therefore think they must be stopped before they ruin America. Meanwhile, the intellectual left really do believe the Trumpers are racist, sexist, homophobic (and so on) authoritarians who can’t spell and are going to destroy the country if they are not stopped.

At the base of all the fury over education policy, however, is the fact that white parents have historically had way more success in shaping school programs and practices. And most of the stories in education journalism come from white journalists.

As Ray Salazar writes:  When journalists come from backgrounds where they usually found success in traditional systems — systems that perpetuate inequality — they report from that worldview, bypassing the insights that would be meaningful to people with a different reality.

That different reality is endangered, along with democracy. Those think tanks and donors supporting Trump’s education policy agenda are made up of nice white parents, not the parents of students who are struggling to learn without adequate broadband, materials and well-trained teachers.

Final point: This isn’t getting any better. Most Republicans now believe the Big Lie. State legislatures are working to limit voter access. Trump is still relevant, the overwhelming favorite in 2024.  The anti-democratic political crisis is worse, not better, than it was in January.

It’s a crisis in public education leadership as well.

What is this World Coming To? No. Seriously.

Does it seem to you as if the logical world has tilted on its axis? Does there seem to be an inordinate amount of destructive mania loose upon the land—shattering norms and making citizens on both the political right and left jumpy? And nasty? Even murderous?

Critical questions: Why? And why now?

I started thinking about this while reading about the TikTok ‘Devious Licks’ campaign, which has sent kids into their public school bathrooms to, you know, steal shit. The soap dispenser, the TP holder, the sink. You name it, if you can rip it off the wall and–key point–videotape the stunt to share on TikTok, you are officially cool. And next month, you’ll get to smack your teacher. What fun. Until you get arrested.

I’ve been bemused by the angst over TikTok’s influence on kids’ behavior. Ridiculous pranks are something teachers are accustomed to—all the way back to stuffing kids in phone booths. From the Tide pod challenge to those goofballs falling off milk crates last summer, there’s always some Stupid Human trick to attract school-age kids. Part of the fun (for kids) is scaring their parents and teachers.  You could put an eye out with that BB gun, son—and so on.

Some would like to pin the blame on TikTok, which now has a billion users per month. But here’s what I thought about: those kids in that Michigan middle school shouting ‘Build that Wall!’ on the day after the 2016 election.

If the elected leader of the Western World is openly promoting lies and cruelty, it shouldn’t be surprising that loosening the lug nuts on your principal’s car seems like a fun and even justifiable caper. After all, he’s annoying and gets in the way of what you and your fellow seventh graders feel like doing.

So many norms—from patient care during a pandemic to moderation in political viewpoints to practicing simple and considerate behaviors to protect ourselves and our neighbors—have been bent or shattered in the past 18 months.

Teachers I know have addressed the roiling surf of tamping down student misbehavior during a pandemic with some low-key, on-the-fly brilliance. A friend reported that his school is encouraging kids to post TikTok videos of random kindnesses—like a crew of high school kids repainting a bathroom wall after the paper towel dispenser took a walk. That kind of thing.

Others have reported deep and serious conversations with their students about issues you would think are universal: Respect for everyone. Stewardship of communal resources. Building a better world.

Some of my best moments as a 30-year classroom veteran, came when there was a crisis—a missing instrument, or someone whose dignity had been damaged by another student. You really can build students’ humanity and kindness by modeling it and talking about it.

But now there are parent organizations and reporting forms to track ordinary classroom exchanges, turning students into—for lack of a better term—snitches. State legislatures are trying to figure out how to prevent students from even talking about race and gender.

As a long-time teacher of teenagers, I say: Good luck with that. You can pass all the laws you want, but kids need adult role models, people who are able to build communities of disparate teenagers, and do some work and learning together. And that’s going to happen a lot less when teachers are threatened by legal or local forces.

Here’s one small and local, but telling, example that I found interesting:
In Hudson, OH, high school some seniors are taking a college course in writing, part of an Early College program. They use a book of writing prompts that includes, in over 600 prompts, perhaps a dozen that are not appropriate for high school students—things about drinking and sex, mostly. A parent sees these, and forms a group that wants to see heads roll: school board members, building administrators and teachers. There’s a Facebook post, and suddenly tens of thousands of people are posting their wrath—This is why we have to pass laws! These teachers exposed my child to filth! Fire ‘em all!

Turns out, however, that the book in question has been used for five years at this school, with no problems, largely because every child who took the course had to have a parent sign-off on a statement acknowledging that the college-level materials used in the course might be considered inappropriate. That’s right—parents had to grant written permission for their child to be exposed to writing prompts about drinking and sex. For five years. But in the divided climate of 2021, it suddenly became a Big Issue, worthy of terminating public employees.

Why? And why now?

 Why do you think kids all over America are destroying public property, then sharing videos of themselves rampaging in the restroom of their local middle school? Where have they seen behavior like this before—adults despoiling a beautiful public building, then posting videos of themselves as ‘patriots’?

It’s hard to say what kind of crisis this is—what’s making people show up at meetings and organize demonstrations? So many social factors, including a pandemic, are making people twitchy.

Still, I’m tired of hearing about the schools ‘failing to teach Civics,’ when the same critics show up at Board meetings to complain about discussions of racism in society. What do they think civics is?

We have a lot of work to do to heal the country, in every sense of the word. Public schools and community colleges could be instrumental in that. Schooling has always reflected what’s going on in the nation—and that’s what all those parents and lawmakers are afraid of, and trying to prevent.

School Boards and Other Political Targets

In general, I believe elected school boards are a foundational aspect of public education and democratic citizenship. And yes, I worked in a district where an unbalanced school board made my work life unpleasant at times. I have experienced the power-mongering Board president who brings aboard a whole crew of yes-men and yes-women—neighbors and sisters-in-law– in an effort to crush both Superintendent and the teachers union. And even worse.

I also understand the essential aspect of having a reasonable Superintendent who, in turn, is able to communicate effectively with a board made up of people whose primary goals sometimes center around their personal children’s needs and wants. I am familiar with the anti-Whole Language Board, the Back to Basics Will Save Money Board, and the Sports are More Important than Calculus Board.

But still. Those Boards were duly elected (even the elderly farmers who thought spoiled kids today don’t need a school play or orchestra). There’s always another election in a couple of years, when the community gets hot and huffy about whatever the current Big Issue is. It means someone has to step up and run for public office, developing a vision of what locals schools should look like, but civic engagement is a fine thing.

Let me re-state that. Thoughtful, responsible civic engagement is a fine thing. An essential thing.

All the way back to the Scopes Trial, public debate over hot-button issues has incrementally, over time, shifted opinion about the right way (often labelled the democratic way) to do things. Public institutions, like education, are always subject to political environments and trends. And these days, everybody is simultaneously constitutional scholar, curriculum expert, epidemiologist and Clarence Darrow wannabe.

I’ve been working in and watching public schools for 50+ years and can attest that controversy is both unavoidable and cyclical. Every school has issues that light people up. But in 2021, the stakes are higher than ever—we’re subjecting kids to a scary, unpredictable disease. We made a collective decision—school must go on—and now every local educational jurisdiction must wrestle with student safety vs.  political expediency.

I would be wrong if I said elected Boards most often act on behalf of their students’ well-being.

But I am stunned by the vicious nature of the anti-mask, anti-vax protests—like this one in Oregon, which left the veteran superintendent, who simply followed state law, weeping as he was fired. Or this one—where parents literally pushed their unmasked teenagers past school administrators blocking the way.

How do parents expect their children to respect the rules and authority necessary for safe and productive schooling when those same parents are physically pushing the students to disobey?

The answer is: They don’t, anymore.

And it’s gone way beyond hot tempers at a school board meeting. There are firings and shouting and pushing and shoving. There are also death threats and other aggressions. There’s been a national paradigm shift around who to trust, and who’s in charge.

Reformy types who have pushed for data and more data to ‘fix’ schools in various ways might be interested in knowing this, from a survey of MI parents:

About 78% of Republican parents opposed a mask mandate and about 18% supported it. Most Democratic parents who were surveyed, 87%, support a mask mandate and 10% oppose it. 

For white parents, 41% support a mask mandate and 53% oppose one.  Whereas a strong majority of Black parents — 94% — support a mask mandate.

Like every other issue—how to teach history and social studies honestly, for example—student safety (which really is a life and death matter) has become not merely ‘politicized’ but reason for disrespectful, even violent behavior. As Peter Greene notes, ‘”don’t do anything that will get me a phone call” is a terrible administration policy, especially in times when some folks are intent on whipping up controversy for their own political gains.’

The locus of this behavior? Well, Republican state legislatures—and not just Texas and Florida—now seem to feel as if every issue is black and white, us vs. them, win-lose, without nuance or room for dialogue. It’s the worst of bare-knuckle power struggles.

It’s ugly, and a terrible example to set for children: scream and scheme until you get your way.

The funny thing is: The PDK Poll, the trusted annual assessment of parents’ views on public schooling recently reported that 84% of public school parents felt their schools were ready to open during a pandemic, and 82% felt it could be safe to do so. Three-quarters of parents felt schools would be able to help their children catch up on missed learning, and more than two-thirds thought schools could also mitigate the social-emotional stressors the pandemic created for students.

Those are big numbers, representing a strong vote of confidence for public schools.

I ask again: Where is all the angst at school board and county commission meetings coming from?

What political events have inspired uncivil, hostile behaviors across the country? Are we letting a small minority of previously entitled people run roughshod over the democratic structures of our public institutions?

I Can’t Believe I’m Looking at Test Scores

Here’s the (incendiary) headline: Test Scores Show Dramatic Declines!

Here’s the truth: this set of test scores tells us nothing for certain. The data are apples-to-oranges-to bowling balls muddled. If anything, if you still believe test scores give us valuable information, the data might be mildly encouraging, considering what students have encountered over the past 18 months.

More about the numbers later. First, let me share with you the moment I stopped believing that standardized test data had any valid role in determining whether students or schools were successful.

I was attending a State Board of Education meeting in Lansing. These are monthly day-long affairs where education policy and affairs are discussed and instituted. (Sometimes, the legislature passes different laws, in an attempt to undermine the State Board, but that’s not relevant in this example.) The Board, on this occasion, was setting cut scores from a round of new testing data.

I can’t tell you what year this occurred, exactly, but it was after NCLB was passed, and the Board was doing what they were supposed to do: managing the data generated by federally imposed standardized testing, grades 3-8. 

Until that meeting, I assumed that there was a hard, established science to setting cut scores. I thought scores were reasonably reliable, valid measures of learning and there were pre-determined, universal clusters of students who would be labeled proficient, advanced, below basic or whatever descriptors were used. I assumed there were standard, proven psychometric protocols—percentage of correct answers, verified difficulty of questions, and so on. I was familiar with bell curves and skewed distributions and standard deviations.

What surprised me was how fluid—and even biased– the whole process seemed. There was, indeed, a highly qualified psychometrician leading the discussion, but a lot of the conversation centered on issues like: If we set the Advanced bar too low, we’ll have a quarter of the students in Michigan labeled Advanced and we can’t have that! If we move the cutoff for Basic to XX, about 40% of our students will be Below Basic—does that give us enough room for growth and enough reason to put schools under state control?

The phrase “set the bar high” was used repeatedly. The word “proficient” became meaningless. The Board spent hours moving cut bars up and down, labeling groups of students to support their own well-meant theories about whether certain schools were “good” and others needed to be shut down. So much for science.

The problem is this: You can’t talk about good schools or good teachers or even “lost learning” any more, without a mountain of numbers. Which can be inscrutable to nearly everyone, including those making policies impacting millions of children. When it comes to standardized test score analysis, we are collectively illiterate. And this year’s data? It’s meaningless.

Bridge Magazine (headline: Test Scores Slump) provides up/down testing data for every school district in Michigan. The accompanying article includes plenty of expert opinion on how suspect and incomplete the numbers are, but starts out with sky-is-falling paragraphs:  In English, the share of third-graders considered “proficient” or higher dropped from 45.1 percent to 42.8 percent; in sixth-grade math, from 35.1 percent to 28.6 percent; in eighth-grade social studies, from 28 percent to 25.9 percent.

These are, of course, aggregated statewide numbers. Down a few percent, pretty much across the board. Unsurprising, given the conditions under which most elementary and middle school students were learning. Down the most for students of color and those in poverty—again, unsurprising. Still, there’s also immense score variance, school to school, even grade to grade. The aggregate numbers don’t tell the whole story–or even the right story.

The media seemed to prefer a bad-news advertising campaign for the alarming idea that our kids are falling further behind. Behind whom, is what I want to know? Aren’t we all in this together? Is a two-point-something score drop while a virus rages reason to clutch your academic pearls?

Furthermore: what does ‘proficient’ even mean? It’s a word which appears repeatedly, with absolutely no precise definition. Everybody (including media) seems to think they understand it, however.

The really interesting thing was looking at district-by-district data. There were places where pretty much everybody took the tests, and schools where almost nobody did. Districts where the third grade scores dropped twenty percent while the fourth grade, in the same school, went up eight percent. What happened there—was it teachers? curriculum? It was also clear that charters, including virtual charters, were not the shining solution to pandemic learning.

What I took away from the data is that public education held up pretty well in Michigan, under some dire and ever-shifting conditions. In some places, kids and teachers did very well, indeed, amidst disruption. Kids without resources—broadband, devices, privacy, constant adult supervision, or even breakfast and lunch—had the hardest time. They’re the ones who need the most attention now. And good luck hiring qualified, experienced teachers to do that.

There’s probably a lot that can be learned from a close look at the 2020-21 data, but most of it isn’t about quantified student learning gains. And please—stop with the “acceleration” crapola. The pace of learning will improve when our students feel safe and part of a community, the exact conditions we’ve been striving for in perpetuity, and aren’t present anywhere, in September 2021.

Stu Bloom said, last week: I’m seriously tired of the politicians, pundits (looking at you, NYT Editorial Board), and policy-makers telling teachers and public schools to single-handedly solve the problems of racism and poverty by increasing test scores. Public schools and public school teachers are not the only ones who have anything to contribute to growing our society!

He then goes on to point out the value of actually investing in public education, in evidence-based policies and practices, designed to improve life and learning for all school-aged children. We know what to do, he says. And he’s right.

It’s time to end our national love affair with testing, to make all Americans understand that educational testing is a sham that’s harmed many children. Testing hasn’t ever worked to improve public education outcomes, and it’s especially wasteful and subject to misinterpretation right now.

Local Control over Schools: Good or Bad?

As the new school year started in 2020—last year, before a whole boatload of scientific information was confirmed, or vaccinations rolled out—I got into a Twitter spat with a man whose thinking and scholarship I respect.

He was advocating for all public schools in the United States, or at least his state, to be closed, all instruction taking place online. This was never going to happen–remember who was President a year ago?—but his point was that mandating remote education would save countless lives, many of them children and their teachers.

An excellent point. My counter point was that the case numbers and infection rate were low in my county—and internet connectivity and infrastructure even lower. Lots of students had no access to devices, and even if districts purchased Chromebooks or iPads, there was no broadband to run them. The previous spring, when schools were closed by gubernatorial order, teachers here distributed stapled-together work packets to students along with five days’ worth of breakfasts and lunches.

We Twitter-argued, back and forth, for days, about who should be making these decisions.

He would say: Your state or county should make affordable broadband a priority. I would say: We have been working on that with our recalcitrant, pro-privatization County Commission for over a decade. In the meantime, until that problem is solved, kids won’t have access to school or their teachers.

He would say: School buses with wi-fi! I would say: District is 168 square miles of hills and valleys—not even close to enough school buses!

Other educators would drop into the ongoing squabble. Mostly, they were teachers who felt that widespread, mandated remote learning was the only thing that would keep kids safe.

It seemed to me, then, that local decision-making was key to flattening the curve while balancing the needs of schoolkids. That assuming what was right for your school division or state would not necessarily be right for a school on the other side of the country. That we needed to trust school leaders to make the right choices, with input from their unique communities.

Today, I’m not so sure.

Because I grew up in a pro-union household in the flagship state of the UAW, I assumed, when I started teaching, that locally controlled and negotiated policies were ideal. We should be able to determine things like curriculum, testing, hiring and firing, whether to allow baseball caps, etc. etc. We knew best how to use the resources raised by taxing the citizens of our community.

Ironically, the few things that were state-mandated back then were mostly health- and safety-related: Annual TB tests for teachers. Vaccinations for kids before they were admitted to kindergarten.  Teachers’ legal obligation to report signs of abuse or self-harm. Seat belts and load limits on buses.

If something was critical enough to public well-being, you’d find it in the Michigan school code. The rest was up to school officials and a locally elected board. As it should be.

The person who disabused me of that notion was Renee Moore, an exemplary educator who taught in Detroit before moving to the Mississippi Delta. She pointed out that many local officials and educators did not have the best interests of all students in mind—that in fact, state and federal policies were essential to the pursuit of equity for traditionally underserved public schools and their students. And always had been.

This was a moment when my own clueless privilege smacked me upside the head. If the government didn’t establish rules around school safety, adequacy and equity, who would?

As Heather Cox Richardson noted:

For all that Republicans today insist that individualism is the heart of Americanism, in fact the history of federal protection of the common good began in the 1860s with their own ancestors, led by Abraham Lincoln, who wrote: “The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves—in their separate, and individual capacities.”

Clearly, relying on state and federal government is not the key to student safety and well-being in August 2021—because some state leaders and state legislators are feckless and our window for tapping into federally provided guidance, resources or unity was slammed shut in 2020.

All the devils are loose, and we’re dependent on those separate and individual capacities, plus the relevant evidence and a big dose of courage. The feds can’t save us. We don’t have a policy problem; we have deliberate misinformation and compliance problems.

We’re dependent on people like this guy, a school superintendent in mid-Michigan who is mandating masks even though he’s received irate and threatening phone calls:  ‘I do not have the same scientific skills as some people who work in the state health department. But if somebody else is uncomfortable making a decision, if I have a reasonable support group around me who believe the same way, I don’t have a problem making that decision.’

Good for you, sir—and thanks for taking the heat, and demonstrating local control at its core: Should I make an unpopular decision if I believe it may save lives? Yes.

Local board-meeting meltdowns make clear that good school policy is more than majority-rule. But effective top-down policy also depends on who is at the top.