The Not-So-Discriminating Reader’s Guide to 2021

For the last decade, I’ve set a goal of reading (at least) 100 books per year. I have accomplished that goal nine out of ten years (missing the boat only 2017, when I clocked in at 97).

I started logging my reading in 2012 with a goal of 135 books a year, mostly because my friend Claudia Swisher was reading 135 books a year. I, however, am no Claudia Swisher—more’s the pity—and have had to convince myself that two books per week, with the elasticity of a nice, round-number goal is Good Enough.

Great, in fact. According to Pew Research Center, the average person reads 12 books per year. There’s even a little speed reading test to see how many books you could read if you read 30 minutes a day.

But I have my doubts about that statistic. Not that people aren’t reading—they are, probably more than ever. They’re increasingly sharing their thoughts about their on-line reading, as well. Books, not so much.

The whole ‘Do Your Own Research’ schtick is based on reading. The January 6th Insurrection was organized via social-media reading and writing. Spelling, no—but being a good speller is usually the result of doing lots and lots of reading (of correctly spelled and reasonably accurate text, of course).

I am a sucker for ‘best of’ lists, especially when I respect the (non-snooty) creator of said list. Here’s Barack Obama’s ‘best of 2021’ list (I’ve read three)—and a really great list of 2021 books from NPR staffers. But I also like lists—like mine, below—that loop older titles into the mix.

These are my five-star, recommended reads from the 110 novels and non-fiction titles I read in 2021. Eight fiction, six non-fiction. Fiction first, plus a disclaimer that I read voraciously and indiscriminately, and five-star my favorites, even if they’re not (ahem) literature.

Cloud Cuckoo Land (Anthony Doerr) It’s a difficult book to get into–and it’s long. You have to have faith that there will be an emotional payoff; it took maybe 100 pages before I started to feel like I was living in five stories simultaneously. There are moments in the book that are shattering–and poignant, and meticulously written (like the scenes during the Korean War, or the building of a cannon before the siege of Constantinople). And again, and again, the book makes us understand the terrible times we live in–that there’s essentially nothing new under the sun, just stories and human foibles.

Go Tell the Bees that I am Gone (Diana Gabaldon) I am a major Gabaldon fan—the only series that I regularly re-read—and it’s been more than seven years since her last ‘Outlander’ book. If you have only seen the TV show (which I also like, but feels pale next to Gabaldon’s writing and sense of time and history), you owe it to yourself to start with ‘Outlander’ (the weakest book in the series) and hang out with Jamie and Claire for a few decades, through the whole saga of nine. It’s a hard book to review (so much has Gone Before), but the book (all 888 pages) is loaded with small and lovely vignettes.

Early Morning Riser (Katherine Heiny) Jane, the protagonist is a second-grade teacher in Boyne City, Michigan (about an hour northeast of here) and all the local details ring absolutely true. The plot kind of meanders around, but every single one of the characters is uniquely drawn and…interesting.  And the writing is spectacularly good, ranging from wise through long stretches of amusing with bolts of flat-out hilarious. Heiny gets school teaching (something authors frequently mischaracterize) absolutely right. She also gets love and marriage and life right.

Lightning Strike (Cork O’Connor) (William Kent Krueger)  A Cork O’Connor ‘prequel’ where we learn some things about Cork’s boyhood, in a small northern Minnesota town, in 1963, where open racism was a daily occurrence.

Like all of Krueger’s books– his two standalones were also written from the POV of a boy–it’s easy to appreciate his flair for realistic dialogue. I spent 30 years teaching middle school boys, and Krueger gets their boy-boy smack-chatter just right. There’s one scene, in the last 25 pages of the book, of three boys sitting around a campfire, that feels like the dialogue from the movie ‘Stand By Me,’ which was adapted from a Stephen King story–half goofy, half profound. The book touches lots of subjects, especially growing up and understanding the world. It’s a well-written gem.

Hamnet (Maggie O’Farrell) Shakespeare is a very flawed husband, in this fictional account, and his creative, intuitive but illiterate wife is the one with strength of character, grounded in her village and close-to-nature way of life. The most wrenching parts of the book, however, are the life/death rhythms of living in the time of plague, the fragility of life. They make the book both beautiful and heart-breaking.

Firekeeper’s Daughter (Angeline Boulley) I live in Michigan, have been on Sugar Island, know the U.P. territory (rural poverty) and trust that Boulley has the language and setting and events right. Her desire, which took years to reach, was writing a book from the POV of an enrolled Tribal member, for teenagers. It seems right to me. Boulley shares the tensions between Native Americans and white people, and Daunis’s enrollment, in a way that feels authentic to me.

The Ministry for the Future (Kim Stanley Robinson) The book is about reversing changes to the biosphere and what happens if we don’t, so it’s a book about all of the lives of all of the people on the planet. It is wide-ranging, covering economic systems, political systems, technologies, crypto-currency and carbon sequestration, the internet and terrorism, just for starters. As soon as I started reading it, I looked at the world and the United States differently.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue (V.E. Schwab) When you boil away all the historical references and characters (which I liked, a lot) and the romance, the story is one more Faustian fable–the devil cuts a deal and lets yet another clueless human live the life of what she believes are her dreams–with the moral being that nobody outsmarts the devil. Maybe. The story ends in a way I didn’t expect, but tilts the playing field and left me smiling, because Addie uses the oldest tricks (word chosen deliberately) in the book.

NON-FICTION:
Two titles about racism (and a third that illustrates why white people have a great deal to answer for and understand); Two titles about sexism (and a third that loops in historic sexism around the topic of adoption).   

 How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America (Clint Smith) This is the perfect book to read NOW. And by now, I mean in this stunning era, where states are passing laws to prohibit K-12 students from knowing about the bruising, wounding realities this book reveals. One short quote, from the chapter on Galveston Island and Juneteenth:

“Had I known when I was younger what these students were sharing, I would have been liberated from a social and emotional paralysis–a paralysis that arose from never knowing enough of my own history to identify the lies I was being old: lies about what slavery was and what it did to people; lies about what came after our supposed emancipation; lies about why our country looks the way it does today.”

American Baby: A Mother, a Child, and the Shadow History of Adoption (Gabrielle Glaser) There’s a lot of good information in the book–and things I’ve not put together, like the money-making aspect of the adoption industry and why their ‘evidence-based’ policies were created. But what makes the book memorable is Glaser’s case study, woven through the facts and figures. The end of the book, while sad, is also powerfully hopeful. As an adoptive parent, I’ve read lots of books about adoption. This is one of the very best.

Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women (Kate Manne) I would estimate that 75% of the facts, cases and statistics in the book were things I’d read before, but even if the book were a mere pastiche of Famous Misogynistic Stories, it would be useful, just to see all the evidence in one place. It’s more than that, however. I really appreciated Manne’s perspective on Elizabeth Warren: she was undeniably the most community-building, smart plan-crafting candidate for president, and why because of (not in spite of) that, she failed.

The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together (Heather McGhee) This may well be–like “Caste” in 2020–the best book of 2021, the book that helps white people understand how centuries of racist policy have hamstrung ALL of us (not just people of color) and made our world poorer and weaker. And it’s based on a nationwide array of examples of just how racist policy has not only left a legacy of inequity, but continues to shape our thinking and our prospects and opportunities.

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (Robin Wall Kimmerer) Kimmerer is a lively writer, who weaves stories around data, and honors her Native ancestry and beliefs. I took lots of ideas away from the book, beginning with the fact that indigenous people lived in harmony with the earth for eons longer than the white people who make fun of their ‘primitive’ culture. It’s a book to make you re-think everything you believed about ritual and religion, fear of dying, the morality of climate change, even living through a pandemic.

Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America  (Ijeoma Oluo) A sober and research-based work, covering a disparate set of topics–politics, sports, education, media and women in the workplace. Oluo’s observations are intersectional in nature, demonstrating how things that seem ‘natural’–things ranging from salaries, power structures, health and welfare–appear that way because policies have been designed to keep them that way. By white men.

 The Book We Need Now

Had I known when I was younger what these students were sharing, I would have been liberated from a social and emotional paralysis–a paralysis that arose from never knowing enough of my own history to identify the lies I was being old: lies about what slavery was and what it did to people; lies about what came after our supposed emancipation; lies about why our country looks the way it does today. (Clint Smith)

In this shocking era, when states are passing ill-advised, deceptive laws to prohibit K-12 students from knowing about the sickening, wounding realities of their own history, we truly need a book like Clint Smith’s How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America.

The students Smith is referencing, above, are performing as part of a rich Juneteenth celebration on Galveston Island, TX. They were part of a six-week summer program sponsored by the Children’s Defense Fund, designed to teach children the real story about where they live and what happened there.

Don’t all children need to know about the place they come from? Its triumphs and failures?

In the book, Smith—then a doctoral student at Harvard—visits a number of historical sites around the country that chronicle the record of slavery and its impact on every aspect of American life. He begins at Monticello, sharing his conversations with two white women in his tour group who had no idea who Sally Hemings was– the enslaved woman who gave birth to four surviving children by Thomas Jefferson. These older women, interested in ‘seeing history,’ are astonished to hear about the 600 human beings owned by the great statesman.

Each of the chapters is distinct, featuring plantations, graveyards and annual memorials. The chapter on Angola Prison, in Louisiana, is grim, beginning with its original purpose, in the Reconstruction era: to round up, then house, a low-cost workforce for plantation owners who can no longer rely on the enslaved. The chapter on New York City makes clear that nobody north of the Mason-Dixon line can claim that slavery only existed in the South.

The chapter on Goree’ Island takes us to coastal West Africa, where captured Africans were sent off to their new lives (or deaths) as enslaved workers, and includes this quote from the curator of the House of Slaves, a museum on the Island:

After the discovery of America, because of the development of sugarcane plantations, cotton, coffee, rice cultivation, they forced the [Native Americans] to work for them. And it was because the Natives died in great number that they turned to Africa, to replace the Natives with Africans.

And there it is—this is and always has been about gross economic development. How to make money off exploitive and unpaid labor of others, and the ugly rationalizations used to defend such ugly practices. And how far back this goes—long before the Middle Passage.

In a time when employers are begging for workers after a deadly pandemic (that some employers denied or downplayed), this is a particularly resonant message.

This is, indeed, the book we need now.

Smith tells us, in an Afterword, that he went to many more places than the seven he describes in great detail in this volume. That suggests that there are always places nearby—places where students have been, places they are familiar with—that can serve as testimony and memory of our local history.

As educators, it is up to us to teach that history. This is what all the anti-‘CRT’ protestors fear: the truth.

Smith illustrates that learning the truth is never divisive. It may be painful, and may produce rage—but knowing how this country was built, whose backs and hands produced the wealth and power only some of us enjoy is the cornerstone of building a more equitable society. The truth can unite us, over time. But we have to listen to each other.

Clint Smith is a published poet, and he writes like a poet and storyteller–there is lots of detail and description. Once you get past an expectation of fact-based academic writing, you begin to appreciate his nuanced depictions of people and places, the colorful, palm-strewn islands and damp, gray prison cells. Smith adds only enough data and dry content to enrich, not drown, the narration.

The book is easy to read. I read it one chapter at a time (which I recommend), pausing between to absorb and think, because each segment shares a unique perspective. Smith reiterates, in a dozen ways, that slavery didn’t start in Africa, and African-American history didn’t begin with the capture and selling of human beings.

It was a global wickedness, economically driven, but it still impacts America–the idea and the reality of America–deeply. We can’t get past it until we know the history.

Read this book.

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.

No Justice, No Excellence

Like most of America, I’ve been glued to the Derek Chauvin trial, watching the evening highlights, nail-biting Tweets–Why is this taking so long? —and cable news analyses. Have we moved forward as a society? Are we, if not woke, at least emerging with new awareness, from centuries of abusive and racist behavior?

Yesterday, before the verdict was announced, I caught the end of an on-the-street reporter’s comments, and she said school leaders–she called them ‘assistant principals’–were on the street with their HS students, awaiting the news, and chanting ‘You can’t stop the revolution.’

The reporter seemed surprised that school administrators would be positive about a student walkout, rather than threatening to put these uprisings on students’ permanent records. Students, it seems, in MN at least, have become more specific and articulate in their demands.

At Minnetonka High School, in Minnesota:

The district has followed through…adding hate symbols to the list of items banned in school dress codes, expanding its reach in hiring to target more diverse job candidates and creating an online reporting system for incidents of harassment and discrimination.

Students see the district’s unwillingness to acknowledge the specific pain or concerns of Black students, or students in other groups, as evidence that leaders haven’t or don’t want to make real changes. Students said their personal experiences with racism at and around school were far more extensive than the messages, and calls for the districts to do more to combat harassment, re-evaluate curriculum and diversify their staffs.

It’s that last bit I find so interesting. Making schools safe and orderly (which includes harassment) has always been the job of districts and their leaders. Hiring, curriculum and instruction have not been considered the students’ bailiwick. But, as a sign carried by MN students said: No Justice, No Excellence.

They’re correct. A genuinely excellent education would center real problems that need solutions. It would welcome diverse viewpoints. It would provide students with the tools and knowledge to go to work on creating a better society. 

There are probably tens of thousands of school mission statements in the United States which use that kind of language—the whole ‘21st Century Learning’ schtick. So how did we get to the Common Core and mandated punitive testing for all public school kids? How did standardization, competition and data worship—a totally UNjust model– become our go-to idea about what good schools look like, rather than embracing diverse identities, talents and histories?

I was pleased to hear that the Biden administration has proposed a grant program to highlight our history of discrimination and bias in civics and history education. It was not enough to dump Trump’s ‘1776 Commission’ education propaganda. The Biden proposal also calls for information literacy. 

It would be easy to dismiss this as just another feel-good education program. The U.S. Department of Education is not permitted to prescribe curriculum, after all (which is why they had to pretend that states and governors instituted the Common Core). But—like both VP Harris’s and President Biden’s speeches yesterday—what the administration says represents the direction of policy-making.  

No justice, no excellence.

Of course, eight Republican state legislatures (ID, IA, LA, MO, NH, OK, RI, WV) are now considering bills to bar teachers from discussing ‘divisive’ topics in their classrooms. Racism and sexism are the chief illicit topics, but I’m sure that partisan politics would also be high on the list of things that legislators would like to see forbidden.

I’ve got news for these legislators: train’s a-comin’ and you can’t stop it.

I was in the classroom on 9/11. I was in the classroom when election results hung in the balance, 2000. I was there when Reagan was shot, when Jim Jones persuaded his followers to drink the Kool-aid, and when we elected a Black man to the White House.  Kids—kids of all ages—always want to talk about what’s happening in the world. Because they’re curious, and observant.

When they’re young, they mostly need reassurance that adults will keep them safe. But as they grow older, they recognize injustice—or they repeat unjust things that the adults around them said. Should teachers be legally compelled to ignore outright racism?

Telling students that the topics are forbidden is an invitation for them to look to the wrong resources for answers. Banning controversial issues embeds systemic racism, sexism, discrimination. Besides, it’s virtually impossible to keep students from talking about high-visibility issues, and legislators can’t police classrooms and fire the diminishing cadre of quality teachers and school leaders.

Better to look issues squarely in the eye, and honor what students have to say, provide facts and counterarguments. Better to encourage students to demand more, settle for less.

Students in Minnesota chanted ‘We are the students, the mighty, mighty students.’

 No justice. No excellence. The two really are inseparable.

Acceleration Nation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are lessons in this completely ordinary story.

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

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

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

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

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

Get rid of the damn test!

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

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

Do ELLs really have to take this test? 

Can ELLs get support? 

Are ELLs scored the same as non-ELLs? 

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

“Michigan administers the MStep for accountability purposes.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only one truism cannot fail: Trust educators

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

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

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

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

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

In the meantime, cancel the damn test.

Jodi Mackley

tl;dr = dd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are my questions:

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

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