Eight Topics Education Bloggers Should Avoid (if they want readers)

I have been blogging for over twenty years—and before that, I wrote the occasional column about teaching for the local newspaper (until The Superintendent sent me a “cease and desist” memo). I have written for a handful of education non-profits, magazines and journals, and spent nine years blogging for Education Week.

When I started blogging, many educators didn’t know what a blog was, and the ones who did spent a lot of time reading and writing about all the Amazing New Tools available, via the miracle of technology. It was an era when financially strapped school districts didn’t hesitate to buy more computers, and everyone wanted to jazz up their lesson plans and see students’ work “published” on the internet. It goes without saying that this was way before Tik-Tok.

Now, I’m writing for myself and anybody who’s interested in reading the thoughts of a veteran educator. Those thoughts aren’t always focused directly on classroom practice, anymore, which was the overt mission of my first paid gigs. Increasingly, my thinking centers on the socio-political reasons for changes in school practice, and what I see as the very real danger that public education might collapse. Even that kind of alarmism is not a sexy, sticky topic for blogs these days, however.

Point being: I’ve been at this for a long time. I’ve written thousands of blogs, columns and op-eds, and observed what gets read and shared, and what sinks like a heavy, published rock. Some of my best work (IMHO, of course) has gone mostly unread. Some tossed-off columns written to meet a deadline got tens of thousands of eyeballs. It’s hard to say what’s going to cause people to read and share a blog.

There are some things, however, that no longer seem to engage teachers (my primary audience) and other education-junkie readers:

#8. Book Reviews  Every now and then, a spectacularly good book about education is published—the kind of book that would help teachers see the work they’re valiantly doing in a new light. I used to teach a graduate course in teacher leadership. One of our icebreakers was naming a favorite book about education. Teachers would routinely admit they hadn’t read an education-related book since college or fulfilling a masters-level coursework requirement. Ironic—and understandable, because working in crisis conditions means you’d prefer to take a break from stress when you read—but also kind of sad.

#7. The Philosophy or Purpose of Education  When Finland gutted and re-did their entire public education system (one that is now deeply admired in the data-driven Western world), they spent years dissecting and re-forming their education goals, before launching an entirely new concept—time that appears to have been well-spent. We don’t do that here. We adopt new programs and slogans on the regular, based mainly on what the people in power think will “work” (to improve data). We resist that deep national conversation about purpose and meaning in education, what our real aims are. We apparently also resist reading about what should matter most.

#6. Teacher Leadership  This one breaks my heart. Teacher leadership and professionalism are at the heart of what I think might save public education, releasing teachers’ moral commitment and creativity in the service of doing right by kids, instead of pursuing goals set by people who haven’t stepped foot in a school for decades. Want to be depressed? Ask practicing educators for their definition of “teacher leadership”—or sit in a teachers’ lounge at lunch and listen to stories of how dedicated and skillful teachers are now treated, in their own workplace. Hint: not as potential leaders.

#5. The Pandemic  Our entire focus, as we move out of a massive global emergency, is trained on two meaningless issues: So-called learning loss—a fancy name for entirely predictable drops in test scores. And a weird obsession with which schools took the risk of meeting face to face, when it was safer for students to be at home.  One might reasonably expect a devastating pandemic to have an impact on students’ emotional well-being as well as endemic confusion about “best practice” during a health emergency. But shouldn’t the questions and initiatives now be around how to support our kids, and figure out what such a traumatic event can teach us all? Instead, there’s all this finger-pointing and blaming. And writing a blog about what positive changes a pandemic might spur gets you zero readers. 

#4. Religion Perhaps you think that religion and public education are two separate things. If so, you are wrong. The intertwining of Church and State—a very bad idea—lies under a lot of the angst in public education in 2023, from book-banning to whatever Hillsdale College is cooking up at the moment. Writing about schools and religion, especially nuanced viewpoints, is a losing proposition. The blogs that get the eyeballs are anti-Christian (on the left) and anti-all non-Christian religions (on the right). Nobody wants to read about a positive role for any religion, like opening church doors to AA or feeding hungry schoolchildren, let alone offering comfort during times of great fear and upheaval.

#3. Racism This one needs an asterisk—because there are plenty of people writing about racism, the most eloquent and productive being those who have lived with its aggressions all their lives. But white women wanting to open a dialogue around racism in schools? Maybe they’re virtue signaling? Writing about racism, and the panoply of school-related issues impacted by systemic bias, is dicey for someone who might be perceived as, well, removed from the action. But as Ijeoma Oluo says in So You Want to Talk About Race? —you have to keep trying. Even if nobody responds.

#2. Research  I’m hardly the first person to write about the disconnect between valid education research and education practice (let alone policymaking) in public schools. And there are readers for pieces that present the most recent grant-funded studies from the Hoover Institution and the folks at Fordham.  Mostly, the commentary is something like: My research is better than your research or Your results don’t mean what you think they do. Even when the research is credible and useful (which isn’t always the case) the audience for genuine research breakthroughs is small and parochial.

#1. Women  I am always fascinated by the fact that teaching is such an overwhelmingly female occupation, and the corresponding chronic disdain for teachers that shapes education policymaking as well as mainstream media. It seems logical that asking a question like “Does the reason teachers make so little money while doing such important work hinge on the fact that they’re mostly female?” would be a hot research topic. But of all the issues I’ve written about in the past 20-odd years, blogs and columns about gender and education get the fewest eyeballs. I’m not sure why—women dominating the teaching profession and the outcomes from that seem to be like the sun coming up in the east: just the way it is.

I used to do blogging workshops, to encourage teachers to write and publish their thinking about education reform and classroom practice. Invariably, the audience would be largely female, but of the prospective bloggers who attended, the ones who followed through with creating a blog (or being hired by someone to write) were most often men. That has changed a bit —there are now more online options for teachers to share their tips and opinions—but I doubt if we’ll ever see four female educators blogging for every man.

Last thought: What blog topics always draw lots of traffic?

  • The Outrage du Jour (weird stuff that happens in schools and then is promptly forgotten)
  • Testing (everybody hates it, and loves reminders that it’s bogus and useless and time-wasting)
  • Wars (the war on teachers, the Reading Wars, the Math Wars, the Recess Wars, etc. etc.)
  • Lists (something about a number in the title)
  • Gifted education (there’s an organized gifted parent legion out there; I recently randomly ran across a man—on another person’s FB page—bragging about ‘ripping Nancy Flanagan a new one’ over a column on gifted education I wrote 10 years ago, a man I don’t know and never exchanged messages with, but who felt absolutely triumphant about… something)

So—what draws you to a particular blog?

America’s Most Vulnerable and Important Profession

The Teachers: A year inside America’s most vulnerable, important profession (Alexandra Robbins) does what many other books about teaching are not able to do–take the reader right into the classroom, and describe what’s happening, with empathy and perception. There are lots of books about problems in American education, and lots of books that suggest solutions for those problems, but we seldom get to see examples, conversations and the people doing the work.

If you want a drone’s eye view of American public education—where it’s been, what bedevils the century-old movement to improve it—I would recommend Diane Ravitch’s trio of excellent books that follow education reform over the last couple of decades, or A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door: The Dismantling of Public Education and the Future of School by Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire.

But if you want to see what happens in the classroom and in the lives of teachers, Robbins accomplishes that better than any book I’ve read since Tracy Kidder’s Among Schoolchildren, written in 1989, which now feels like ancient history . The book is a tour de force—every teacher I know who’s read it agrees—unapologetically written from the POV of teachers without feeling the need to make excuses or backpedal.

Robbins chooses three very fine teachers and takes us through one year (immediately pre-pandemic) of their classroom and personal lives, deftly illustrating how those lives overlap, the pile-up of frustrations and issues bleeding into their emotional well-being.

All three teachers have huge and versatile skill sets and genuine dedication to kids as well as subject matter. Interspersed are data and editorial comment about education and current “reforms” (scare quotes are deserved here), as well as real-life anecdotes and comments that reveal just how far teaching and teachers have sunk, in public estimation.

Robbins highlights things that other education books don’t notice or can’t be bothered with–in-building teacher jealousies and vindictiveness, physical violence against teachers, the long-term effects of cuts to things once considered normal in every school, what it’s like to sit in an IEP meeting with a recalcitrant parent or clueless colleague.

One of her teachers is a middle school special education teacher who finds himself taking on every troubled kid, something that school administrators often push, seeing him as the ultimate “male role model.”  Another is an overachieving fourth grade teacher who knocks herself out to be the perfect teacher for every child, leaving her with no time to build a satisfying personal life (and illustrating, to readers, just how arduous differentiated instruction is, even in a building with adequate resources and good teachers).

The third teacher is a 20-year veteran, a sixth grade math teacher who has mastered the delicate art of getting the best out of her students and runs afoul of a clique of punitive teachers who resent her success and want her to punish kids who are doing well in her class for their sins in other classes.

(Here’s a story from my own experience that parallels her problematic relationships with the people who should have her back—feel free to skip it): We’re having a staff meeting, late spring, to talk about the imbalance of students in elective classes. The middle school bands keep getting bigger and bigger. I will have 93 students in my 8th grade band next year. What this means (besides a classroom management nightmare) is that other elective classes will be tiny, because “too many” students want to be in the band. The Woodshop teacher is outspoken—we need to limit the number of students in band, perhaps allowing the 93 students only one semester of band, in order to give him the minimal 12/class that will keep him employed in the building full-time, rather than splitting his time between middle school and high school, or forcing him to teach a second elective subject.

Everyone knows why all those kids want to be in the band, he says. I turn to him, surprised. I have no idea why kids sign up for band, beyond the fact that they like it.  Mrs. Flanagan gives them all As and Bs, he says. If we forced her to use a bell curve like everybody else, we’d see half of them drop out.

I look around. Nobody’s making eye contact, so it’s clear that this has been a topic of conversation before. And there’s some truth there—I do give a lot of Bs and As, mainly because the students are meeting the goals set for the class. Their parents are paying for their instruments and students must practice to do well in class. We do many performances—both band and individual players. The bell curve is stupid; have all my colleagues really been using it?

I can justify everything I do, but I spent the rest of the year eating my lunch in the band room, paranoid about disrupting the building schedule. And the next September, I have all 93 students in my first hour class. Nobody ever shows up to help. The Teachers is full of stories like this—real things that happen. There is no paradise, no perfect school, although there are many vivid examples of teachers bending over backwards for students and colleagues. Why aren’t we honoring this, financially supporting this work, applauding the folks who show up to teach every day, sacrificing their time and energy for other people’s children?

This book is also the first and best description I have read about the impact of the pandemic on teaching and learning. There have been endless articles and research on “learning loss”–all rife with meaningless data and numbers–but nobody talks about the impact of being expected to position family needs as secondary to students’ needs. Robbins gets this right–there is a line between acting morally vs. choosing school over family, a choice that teachers were urged to make, and reviled when they chose their own families and their own health. We have not yet reconciled that, here in America—but the book makes a good start on it.

Highly recommended for everyone, but especially teachers. It’s a fairly fast and facile read, although well-documented with endnotes, and should give teachers a lift, knowing that their work and their dilemmas have been acknowledged.

Eight Observations about Boredom in the Classroom

My child is bored!

Several years ago, I got into a classroom tangle with one of my 8th grade percussionists. I won’t share the details, but take my word that what he did and said was egregiously defiant, disrespectful to other students–and very public. I called him out for his unacceptable behavior–also in public–and sent him to the office to cool down, something I did fewer than a dozen times in 30 years of classroom practice. Later, I met with him in the office, privately, and we settled on what would happen next. He went on to his next class.

Then I called his mother, who was a high-profile person in our small community, just to let her hear what happened and what the outcomes were. She was appreciative of the call and expressed agreement with my actions. And then she said: Maybe this is my fault for not pulling him out of the band. Lately, he’s been so bored in your class.

I was floored. While this boy may have been a star in some of his classes, he was a middle-of-the-pack performer in the drum section. He was also smart enough to know the music I was dishing off to him was at his challenge level. We were preparing for several fun performances, and he had some key parts to play.

So–why complain to your mom about being bored? What’s that about? How should parents and teachers interpret and deal with charges of being bored in the classroom? Here are eight of my experience-honed, overlapping ideas about student “boredom:”

  • Boredom is never an excuse for bad behavior. Being bored doesn’t get you off the hook for rudeness or worse. If you’re bored, see it as an opportunity to figure out why. In addition, bear in mind that many excellent life habits are established through repetition and plodding along.
  • Boredom should not be immediately equated with “dumbed down” curriculum and instruction. Applied learning happens in peaks and valleys. Practicing almost anything can feel boring, at times. It’s not “too easy” if it’s not yet automatic. Practice at a lower level–solving single-variable equations, reading a young adult novel, singing with a less-experienced choir, playing soccer with younger players–can also be very pleasurable. As a music teacher, I tried to have music in the folder that was over my students’ heads as well as rip-through-it simple.
  • Buying into kids’ boredom as valid reason for disconnecting or misbehaving corresponds to another fallacy: the idea that “good” teachers should make every lesson novel and entertaining to kids. True, there is a strong acting/entertainment factor in dynamic teaching. Great teaching should inspire learning through more than attention-grabbing, however. Reminder: the person who does the–hard, and occasionally monotonous–work of learning is the student. It doesn’t matter how many white-lab-coat chemical explosions they witness, or if their fifth grade teacher dresses up like Amelia Earhart–there is no learning without diligent effort on the part of the child.
  • Boredom is not a sign of giftedness. I once honked off a few hundred parents (and teachers) in the Gifted/Talented community by suggesting that if their children were truly gifted they’d be finding ways to amuse themselves in so-called boring classes. (I also suggested some of these might be less than desirable, given personal experience with very bright kids who love to keep things lively.) Boredom and giftedness are two separate things. I do support challenging curriculum and instruction for very capable students–but not because they’re bored.
  • “Boredom” should not be used as reason to assert that kids should never have to wait for other children to catch up. Children consistently learning at the wrong level (both too low and too high) will be vulnerable to disengagement, of course. But having to wait until the class has solidified a concept before moving ahead is not a crisis. Cliched but true–education is a journey, not a race. Sometimes, you’re leading the pack. Other times, you aren’t. There are benefits to learning in a cooperative group, the primary one being developing the skill of acceptance and appreciation for the viewpoints and capabilities of other human beings.
  • Boredom is merely lack of engagement, a two-way street in terms of responsibility. Are there boring classrooms? Yes. There are boring drills, boring lectures, boring warm-ups–and any number of boring instructional strategies (i.e., worked examples in mathematics) that yield some learning benefits. Daily practice of musical scales isn’t much fun, but it’s an enormously effective technique-builder. Brushing your teeth is boring, too, but that doesn’t mean you should stop.
  • Boredom can be cured–by students. I think the most useful thing parents, teachers (and students) can do to prevent genuine boredom is devise individual strategies to extend learning– read a different book, tackle a more challenging solo, ask for harder problems or other enrichments. Anyone who’s ever leafed through a well-used textbook knows that some kids know how to doodle their way to amusement. Tell your kids to own their boredom and fix it.

My cocky 8th grade student calmed down and finished the year–as do most kids who make a big deal about how bored they are. We should teach students that boredom, like any problem, can be your friend. Right?

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.