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?

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.

What Happened to All the Caring Parents?

Were you in the classroom when Reye Syndrome was a thing schools were worried about?

Here’s a hint: it first emerged about 45 years ago, a rare but very serious condition that causes swelling in the liver and brain. Reye’s syndrome most often affects children and teenagers recovering from a viral infection, most commonly the flu or chickenpox.

The worst year for Reye (or Reye’s) Syndrome was 1980, when 555 cases were identified, nationally. The numbers dropped precipitously once scientists connected the use of aspirin in children with a viral illness to the onset of the disease. Since 1997, the United States has averaged somewhere around two identified and reported cases per year.

The reason I remember Reye Syndrome so clearly: one of my students had it. A sixth grade girl who was out of school for several weeks. She recovered, thank goodness.

The TV and radio stations and newspapers—state and local—ran stories with boxed and bolded advice: If your child does not recover from the flu or chicken pox, take them to the doctor—or the hospital, if they have a high fever, are vomiting or incoherent. NO ASPIRIN! It was an alarmed topic of conversation at the grocery store, PTA and staff meetings. Caution was the watchword.

That was then.

This week, I read that the large district to the south of the one where I taught was going to require masks for all kids—and that there was concern parents would pull their kids out of Large, Cautious District and send them north to my old district, where masking is, per their website today, completely optional, vaccinated or not.

What happened to the cautious parenting? Damned if I know.

It’s the same overwhelmingly white, middle class suburban district it was, back in 1980. Last year, there were over 300 confirmed COVID cases in the district (so—probably actually way more than the official numbers).

It’s a bright red county, for starters (unlike Large, Cautious District to the south, which is in a blue county). I taught there for 32 years, and lived there for 20. I was always aware that most of my neighbors were Republicans. They were also college-educated and very concerned about their children’s well-being, not to mention their education. I used to think it was an easy district to teach in.

Used to. There’s no reason to doubt that the parents who live there still want the best for their children. It’s just that the definition of what’s best for their children has seriously morphed.

Or maybe it’s because I’m seeing such a place—white, well-educated, focused exclusively on their children’s comfort and happiness—through a different lens. The lens of It’s Not About You, and It’s Not About Little Tyler, either. It’s the lens of community.

If you think that masking children—to keep themselves and others healthy—is an imposition on them, or you, it’s pretty clear what/who matters to you. And if you’re not taking your seventh grader to get a jab, you’re not thinking of your community, or even keeping your family safe.  

About 35% of kids 12-15 are vaccinated or partially vaccinated in this county—the number rises to 48% of teens 16-19. Which is a start, but pales in the face of the potentially lethal variant: Up to one-third of children admitted to our hospital have required critical care — including oxygen delivered through high-flow nasal cannula, noninvasive ventilation, and intubation with mechanical ventilation. More than 300 children across the United States have died of covid since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This indifference and opposition to the best available solutions for protecting kids is not the norm across Michigan, by the way. Here’s a cheery story out of East Grand Rapids (another town that is 95% white, upper middle class and well-educated): According to the county, 95% of people age 12 to 17 in East Grand Rapids are vaccinated and 96% of people over 16 in the district have gotten their shots.

I have to say—I’d sure feel a lot better sending my kid to that middle school. But I would still want everyone to mask up. The most important content teachers could be teaching this year is: Why Masking Saves Lives and Respects Others—science, math and civics in one lesson plan.

We could also teach about the prevalence of irrational behaviors and resistance.

I still have lots of friends (and their children, and their children’s children) in this careless school district. I am fond of them. I am heartily sick of covid-related anger and judgment (and yes, I know that this blog has been laced with anger and judgment).

But this statement feels right to me: We can direct our rage not at lost individuals but at systems of power that made our grim national death count the only plausible outcome. Is it so shocking that a caste-based society that exalts individualism and prioritizes profit above wellness — one of the only industrialized nations without universal health care — would fail to rise to the challenges of a collective health crisis?

I still wonder what happened to the nice parents who insisted that the elementary and middle schools send home urgent letters about Reye Syndrome. Systems of power intervened. The blinders are off.

Forty Minutes

After a delightful holiday weekend, everyone rejoicing in the qualified return to things we love about an American summer, it may feel like a downer to post this. But.

It’s been six months since the Capitol was breached by insurrectionists. You’ve probably heard about the 40-min video, much of it new footage, that was created by the NY Times.

And you’ve probably thought: Forty minutes? I don’t have that kind of time. Besides, I’ve seen all the carnage and violence. No need to wallow.

Well, I’m going to recommend 40 minutes of focused watching. What happened on January 6 wasn’t a one-off accidental mutiny, spontaneous. It was planned, nurtured and carried out by people from all 50 states. People who sincerely believe that the election was fraudulent, who wanted to kill Nancy Pelosi and hang Mike Pence.

Some 500 of them have been arrested–but all are still out there, communicating underground, re-grouping.

Watching the video, for the first time, I felt genuine fear. There were things on the video I’d never seen or even contemplated. ‘Assault on democracy’ is an apt descriptor, not at all a rhetorical flourish.

It is very like us, the nation that calls itself ‘blessed’ and ‘exceptional,’ to see ourselves as beyond rioting in the streets. We see ourselves as entitled to peace, sunshine, picnics on the beach and concerts in the park.

It’s time to remember that the exceptionality and safety we enjoy was hard-earned, over centuries, and often came at the expense of people of color and immigrants.

It’s time to have those conversations about what we truly value, and who the ‘real’ Americans are. This video is an excellent starting place.

The Handmaid Teacher’s Tale

Every now and then, someone will ask about favorite books, the ones you’ve re-read repeatedly. Books that influenced your life. Answers often range from classics (‘Little Women’) to the Bible. I have my own list of a dozen or so—but it’s easy for me to share the book that most influenced my life: The Handmaid’s Tale.

I like what the Washington Post said about it in an early review: Published in 1985, this is a novel of such power that the reader is unable to forget its images and its forecast. It is at once scathing satire, dire warning, and tour de force. “A novel that brilliantly illuminates some of the darker interconnections between politics and sex.”

Darker interconnections, indeed.

When I first read the book (sometime in 1986, shortly after it was published), I was a new mother; my baby daughter was born in 1985. I was also a full-time teacher, with a 45-minute commute, who didn’t have a lot of time for pleasure reading or meandering trips to the library.

I had, however, read and liked Surfacing, one of Atwood’s early works that was on many short lists of early feminist reading—The Golden Notebook, Yellow Wallpaper, The Bell Jar, and the like, those now-classic novels  about women figuring out how the world works. I checked Handmaid out from the library, and hoo boy—that book was one powerful, dystopian reading experience.

Some years later, I read an interview with Atwood (by then, one of my favorite authors), where she noted that there is real-life precedent for everything in Handmaid’s Tale. This truth re-emerged when Hulu created a TV series based on the book in 2017, and viewers commented on the dark and violent nature of the story—I can’t watch! It’s too violent! And totally unrealistic! Umm—nope.

Lest you think I was a raging, underwear-torching feminist back then—hardly. I was happily married, and embarrassingly grateful for my low-wage, womens-work career as a teacher. I went to exactly one consciousness-raising meeting, and came home with a headache, thinking that these women were whiners who needed to solve their own problems rather than waiting for The Movement to change their lives.

And yet. All the way back to my first day as a band teacher, in 1975, I knew that it was a man’s, man’s etc. world, and the power in K-12 education was firmly in male hands. Although the percentage of women who hold down K-12 teaching positions has steadily increased since the 1960s, I was in a heavily male-dominated subset of teachers: band directors. In the late 70s, working on my masters thesis, I acquired the mailing list of all secondary instrumental music teachers in MI. There were seven women holding down HS band jobs in the entire state, somewhere between one and two percent.

That number has slowly, gradually shifted—but it’s taken forty years, and we’re not anywhere near parity yet. I have dozens of humiliating stories about being the only soprano in a room full of tenors and basses, the designated secretary and coffee-maker at professional meetings. Some of them still hurt. Occasionally, on social media, a female band director will share a story about inappropriate remarks made by a male colleague—and there will still, still be men who defend the other man as ‘well-meaning.’

All of this reminds me of a passage in Handmaid’s Tale where Offred–June, for those who know the TV series—reminisces about the day her bank account is frozen, and her husband Luke says not to worry, he’ll take care of her. And he intends to—because he means well. Luke, Offred thinks, is a little too sanguine about all of this—and he’s one of the good ones.

Being a woman in a male-dominated profession was a lot of that operating assumption: good relationships with men were the key to a productive educational work life. If your principal liked you, or your male band-teacher colleagues liked you, you were probably fine. Underestimated, misjudged and overlooked, perhaps. But they’d be polite and friendly, as long as you were no threat to their presumed superiority in a competitive education arena.

A lot of the sexism in education flies way under the radar. It’s subtle. So subtle that the people who are exposing it in their own behavior don’t see their own words and actions as sexist. This cluelessness is not surprising. Unrecognized, unacknowledged sexism is everywhere—in politics, media coverage of current events, everyplace from childbirth practices to cooking.

And paying attention to it matters, a lot, if we care about raising healthy children and building healthy cities.The current debates on transgender students, for example, are rooted in sexism (and, it could be argued, violence):

Supporters of [a bill to prevent transgender students from participating in sports] heavily centered their arguments around athletic differences between cisgender women and cisgender men. Gabriel Higerd, a former adjunct professor of exercise science who researches transgender sports policy, said “biological females are one of our nation’s greatest treasures” and argued that this bill is necessary because it protects cisgender female athletes from competing against transgender female athletes. I have never heard any single group of Americans described as “one of our nation’s greatest treasures” as if they were some sort of commodity and not human beings.

And there you go: Biological females, a great treasure to our nation. We’re back in 1985—or 1947, as women (white women) were forced out of the post-war job market and persuaded their place was in the home, caring for as many children as they could bear. Go back as far as you like. You’ll find sexism. Atwood took us to a place in a not-distant future when men acted on the principle of female fertility being a ‘great (and biblically designated) treasure.’ Not hard to fathom, at all.

I am a big fan of the beautifully filmed Handmaid TV series which uses Atwood’s book as starting point, and of her sequel novel, The Testaments. I did not re-read Handmaid for 30 years. When the series was announced, I bought a digital copy. I remembered all kinds of things about the characters, passages of text, the plot and the utterly chilling world that Atwood created: Gilead. It rang true—or at least possible—in 1986, and just as plausible, if not more so, in 2016.  

 I also know that every time I have written a blog, over the past 17 years, about how women and their talents have been suppressed in EdWorld, I have received pushback. Some of it has been downright ugly.

Which is why I don’t pay attention to reviewers who think that Handmaid’s Tale, focused more and more about savage retribution in Season 4, has jumped the shark. I prefer to think of it as cautionary tale.

Watch—or read—and learn. What goes around, comes around.

Memorial Day

I am old—old enough to remember when Memorial Day was called Decoration Day, and always came on the 30th of May. For many years, I went to the cemetery with my grandmother–also named Nancy–on Decoration Day, with a pot of geraniums for her husband, my grandfather, who died in the 1930s. Her parents, and some of her siblings, were buried in the same cemetery. We went to visit them all, with flowers, taking care not to step on the green beds where they lay.

There were always little flags on veterans’ graves, but so many men (and a few women) were veterans that it seemed like half the people resting in that cemetery had a flag. A graveyard full of citizens who served their country, sometimes dying for that very cause, surrounded by their loving families.

In 1969, May 30 was a Friday. It was an unusually hot day. My high school band played in the local parade, and band parents met us in the park, after the parade, with galvanized tubs full of ice and glass bottles of Coke. I was a senior, playing my last parade on the first day of a long weekend, wearing the stifling gray wool uniform with its little satin-lined red cape, and the flat-topped hat.

It may have been a dare. Or it may have just been the oppressive humidity, and the fact that I’d never have to march in a parade again (or so I thought—ha). But after opening the Coke, I pulled out the braided neckline of my uniform jacket, and poured the icy cold soda right down the front of my body. There was a moment of delicious coolness and some hilarity among the group where I was sitting.

And then the Band Booster president, an officious mom who was in charge of fitting and maintaining 100+ plus band uniforms (and whose two perfect daughters would never dream of despoiling one) came storming over and read me the riot act.

Did I know that I, personally, would be taking my uniform to the dry cleaners? Did I understand HOW MUCH THOSE UNIFORMS COST? And that they had to last for 20 more years? And (this was the real indictment, an uptick in the charges)—did I not respect those who died for our country, those whom we remembered on this sacred day? For shame.

Actually, on that score, she was wrong. I remembered, all right.

I grew up hearing stories about my Uncle Don, who died at 19, in the first wave of Marines on Iwo Jima. My dad’s favorite brother, the handsome one, the rebel. Buried on Iwo Jima, then moved to Rock Island National Military Cemetery, after the war. My dad, after learning his brother had been killed, went AWOL from his own unit in the Army Air Corps, and was busted from Sergeant to Private for the offense. Although he never talked about his own wartime experiences, he never let any of us forget.

In 2021, those who died on the battlefield are a relatively small handful. Thank God, or whomever can be credited with the policies and foresight to keep us out of war.

But in the past year, as more people died from coming in contact with a deadly virus than were killed in combat in WW II, it’s been easier to understand what it feels like to see daily, mounting death tolls in the news. To personally know folks who were sick but survived, to see friends with longer-term disability from COVID, to know families forever riven by death.

Many of them, to use a worn-out phrase, served their country, as well—as stock clerks and bus drivers, teachers and nurses. They died before the vaccine was available, gasping for air, often without family, victims of a different kind of war—an ugly political war, partly created by our own elected leaders.

As an adult, I have experienced Memorial Day in dozens of ways—leading my own school bands in local parades and cemetery services, playing in or directing community bands, and—just two days ago—playing Taps with the Leelanau Flute Ensemble on a friend’s balcony.

Every year, the day reads a little differently. I don’t think it’s disrespectful, or not-sacred, to reflect on all the other things, besides our always-honored war dead, that need remembering. You’ve probably read snippy memes about the difference between Veterans’ Day and Memorial Day.  Both spring from the same source: Let us pause to remember what we’ve done—the noble and the despicable acts, the proud and the shameful. It’s who we are, as a nation.

And—let us teach our children to pause and remember as well. (Click on this link. You’ll be glad you did.)

Is Critical Race Theory Dividing the Country?

When people start referring to a cultural phenomenon with initials—CRT for ‘critical race theory,’ say—you know that whatever that thing once was, it’s now morphed into something completely unrecognizable. Made less complex. Reduced to stereotype. And in the case of CRT, politicized.  

In my long years of classroom practice, pedagogical strategies and hot topics went in and out of fashion. Back in the 70s, values clarification was all the rage. Parents were a little iffy on having students discuss their values, however—probably because they assumed those values were not securely embedded in their sixth graders. And God forbid a teacher should attempt to inculcate values. Or even discuss them.

After values clarification, there was lots of talk about character education. My school had a multi-year project on Reason, Respect and Responsibility. Our project was home-grown, but you could buy pre-packaged character, it seemed—complete with manuals, posters, workshops and student day planners. Every package seemed to come with a testimonial—57% reduction in suspensions!

Today, I see lots of teacher-chat about mindfulness and trauma-informed education. If you think I’m skeptical about the efficacy of these programs—I’m not. I am strongly in favor of whatever it is schools are doing to encourage students to consider their thoughts and behaviors, to elevate the community over impulsive personal actions, to dig deeper into things that are, well, wrong in our society.

I am especially impressed by school leaders who decide to offer their students a chance to consider multiple perspectives and the meaning of justice in a representative democracy. It takes genuine courage to step up, especially when the country seems to be cracking apart and quasi-intellectuals are using big vocabularies and academic terrorism to spook parents over discussing race in America.  

I write all this to point out that teachers incorporate lessons about fairness, caring, harm, self-control, diversity and authority in their classrooms all the time, whether it’s part of an organized program or just daily practice in teaching disciplinary content.

There is no subject or developmental level where values and character aren’t a part of the curriculum, whether intentional or accidental. You couldn’t strip values and character out of teaching and learning if you tried. But try they will.

As Clarence Page noted, those afraid of critical race theory don’t know what it is:        

[CRT] is an evolving practice that questions how race, as a social construct, perpetuates a caste system that relegates people of color to the bottom tiers. I agree with critics who say that CRT often elevates storytelling over evidence and reason and devalues the racial progress that Americans have made, despite the challenges that remain. Real critical race theory is better suited to graduate students than kids. But we don’t do ourselves any favors by hiding good information about this nation’s diversity that can help all of us to better appreciate the “united” in the United States.

So how is that scary? And how is it not relevant to every American citizen? An evolving practice indeed, tangled up in all the things schools are supposed to do: Build American citizenship. Establish workforce skills. Encourage curiosity. Learn how to get along.

If the argument, in all the states now writing anti-CRT laws, was that some troubling but essential questions around CRT—reparations, long-term economic damage, health care disparities, how our racist history in America informs the present day—were best tackled by scholars and adults, well OK.

That still leaves a boatload of foundational work to be done, by people of all ages, and lots of that work falls into the character and values bucket. Simple concepts like: Don’t pre-judge people by external characteristics. Race is a social construct. We have a history of injustice. We all do better when we all do better.   

Also: Go ahead and pass anti-CRT laws. You might scare a few teachers. You might reassure white parents that their children won’t have to hear anything ‘unpleasant’ about our history, laws and subtle forms of discrimination. You might score a few seedy political points.

You might also have to set up a whole new and thoroughly unpleasant teacher policing system to make sure liberal Ms. Flanagan isn’t talking to her students about the roots of the music they listen to, 24/7, and cultural misappropriation. Is that CRT? Who gets to say?

You cannot keep the issues of race and racism out of schools. Schools are a stage where social values play out every day. It isn’t critical race theory that’s dividing the country. It’s fear.

Future-focused Education, Future-focused World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-A conglomerate of self-indulgent consumers?

-Angry, soulless, directionless masses?

-Indifferent, confused citizens?

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had to think about that one.

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

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

Some responses, so far:

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

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

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

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