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 picture 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.

tl;dr = dd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are my questions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If we had been paying attention, of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer School & Learning Loss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Anna Samoylova

Give Me a Poke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alexa knows: Give me mental health tips.

Why It’s Time to Get Rid of Snow Days

Several years ago, I was on the dais at the annual meeting of the Michigan Association of School Administrators—the superintendents—in Dearborn, Michigan. I was there as token teacher, making a few remarks, but the keynote speaker at the evening banquet was their annual award-winner.

He was telling a story about a mistake he made, as a first-year superintendent. The U.S. Weather Service had predicted 12”-16” of snow overnight, with blowing and drifting, in a rural area where snows like this are commonplace. Instead of waiting until morning, and having to activate an early-hours phone fanout and radio alerts, he went ahead and called school off, and went home, secure in the knowledge that there would be snow, and plenty of it.

Of course, the storm veered north and there was no snow. None. Roads were dry and bare. And he spent the next week fielding angry phone calls. When he came to the punch line of his story, a groan swept across the ballroom. They’d all been there.

All these school leaders knew that if there had been an early a.m. storm making roads dangerous, and stranding kids at their bus stops before school was called, he would have faced the same wrath from parents. When it comes to calling snow days, it’s a crapshoot in the snowbelt. Ya can’t win.

In every community, there are the ‘Hey I had to go to work and it wasn’t so bad’ folks who don’t stop to think that driving a school bus full of elementary kids might be different than traversing the roads in their 4-wheel drive pickup trucks.

There are overprotective mamas who don’t want their children out in near-zero weather and keep them home even if there is school. There are middle schoolers who insist on wearing light jackets and no boots during blizzards—and teachers with hour-long commutes because they can’t afford to live in the town where they work.

The most complicating factor is whether the day ‘counts’ in the mandated seat-time requirements each state has for public education. A hard winter, like 2019, will outstrip the six ‘free’ days Michigan allows for weather emergencies. There were MI schools that missed as many as 13 days that year—all of them justified—and the governor had to pass a law to keep them from having to go to school until the Fourth of July.

But now—nearly all school districts have had to deal with remote school. Remote school is not ideal, but pretty much everyone agrees that it’s better than no school at all. So why not scrap snow days? Call them off the day prior, giving everyone lead time to make arrangements for substituting remote school?

There are a handful of arguments against turning bad-weather school outages into remote-school days:

  • A healthy percentage of kids don’t have devices, bandwidth, technical assistance or a quiet space. This is, however, a problem that schools have been working diligently to solve, out of necessity. That groundwork could be used for another purpose.
  • Those very kids are often using school-owned devices and school-provided hotspots. As the pandemic fades, it’s worth considering the idea of the school as main provider (using federal or special state funds) of tech basics to every child (and teacher), so school is not, ever again, completely dependent on face to face learning to be good for kids in poverty. There will always be emergencies, up to and including another pandemic. (Sorry, but it’s true.) Having kids equipped and prepared for remote school as needed is a good investment.
  • Modern-day students will lose the magic of an unexpected day off from school. I taught for 32 years in a state with snowy winters. I loved those back-to-bed calls as much as any teacher or student. But I also know that after two or three days in a row, the excitement fades. When you’re looking at tacking days on to the end of the year, or taking them out of spring break, or re-thinking your entire second-semester curriculum, the reality isn’t so delightful.

John Spencer wrote a delightful piece / podcast about using snow days as an excuse for more play in the school. It has some lively ideas about using unstructured time and a unique environment (snow!) for learning. But there’s no reason why a snow day that keeps kids home shouldn’t be filled with interesting and engaging learning ideas provided by their teacher, counting as a full day of school.

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about suspending mandated high-stakes testing this spring. The assumption is that students won’t do well, that the essential knowledge and skills schools are responsible for teaching aren’t being absorbed with so many kids being schooled remotely. The data will show nothing we don’t already know: the haves are way ahead of the have-nots.

But plenty have teachers have pointed out that they’ve taught first graders how to mute and unmute, to share thoughts and ideas (and time in the spotlight), and to use their keyboards. Out of necessity, not because these things are optimum or even appropriate, especially for the very young. Still, these are real things, learned in an increasingly real environment. We shouldn’t underestimate these gains.

I don’t think it’s truly washed over us—parents, teachers, community leaders—that ‘school’ is forever changed. Having the option of remote school for emergencies as well as opportunities—not just weather-related—could end up being the new schooling model. Think of rural districts that have cut back to four days a week. Think of districts that depend on public transportation during a citywide strike. Think of a HS curriculum that lets seniors job-shadow or intern out of the building, and needs to track their work experience. And so on. School via computer is here.

A local district here, after returning to face to face school, has given students two Fridays off, three weeks apart, so their teachers can take part in a staffwide vaccination clinic at school. They chose Fridays, because many people are under the weather for a day or so after being vaccinated. It’s been an exceptionally mild winter—no snow days. Their superintendent says ‘districts are awarded a certain number of days by the state each year during which school can be cancelled without penalty. Vaccinating staff is a justifiable use of the waiver.’

Exactly.

Be True to Your School

It’s an early Saturday morning coffee-meeting on Zoom. All of us are teacher leaders—what we have in common is awards for our good teaching. What brings us together is a mutual commitment to supporting both public education in our state and the teachers who hold this threatened enterprise together.

Some of us have left the classroom after long careers and moved on to new challenges, but we know that our observations matter little on this day, as the American republic itself seems to be on shaky ground. What we want to know is: What are the kids saying? How are the kids doing? Are they OK?

Of course, they’re not.

Our colleagues working in the classroom talk of their utter mental and physical exhaustion—every week like the first week of school, instructional mastery honed over years now replaced by calling students at home to ask: Are you still in my class? Is anyone in your family sick? Do you have enough to eat?

All I can think is ‘Thank God students have teachers like these.’ Teachers who understand students’ context. Teachers who care. Teachers who are a bulwark against isolation and fear.

One of the teachers mentions talking with her students—cautiously, but necessarily—about the riots and insurrection at the Capitol, and shares a comment from one of them: After all those people came screaming into the Capitol and smashed things and left it filthy, did you see who did the cleaning up? Black custodians. That’s the way it always is—cleaning up after white folks.

The teacher notes that not all of her students are black, but they’re all participating in this discussion. They’re not disengaged. They are riveted. This is real, unlike some of the things they’re supposed to be learning, so they can be tested.

It bears repeating: Public schools are the stage where all the strengths and weaknesses of American society play out. School is our students’ microcosm. School is where identity politics are first encountered. School is where they find their first allies—and ideally, hear truths.

It’s Sociology 101—parents seek the best classmates that they can afford for their children. And once they get their children into the ‘right’ school, they want them to be part of a group. Even Stephen Miller got his political wings by opposing teachers and denigrating custodians, in high school. And the large majority of schoolchildren attend fully public schools.

We all instinctively understand Dunbar’s number: the size of the group with whom anyone maintains genuinely personal and stable relationships is relatively small, somewhere between 100 and 250 people. It’s the theory behind the small-school movement—it’s a good space for learning when people in the community know each other well. Every elementary school teacher worth her salt begins the school year by trying to build a community in her classroom.

School is where values are shaped, and practiced.

It’s also the reason why some groups are interested in injecting fake patriotism into the curriculum. It’s why many education reformers are pushing as hard as they can to ‘unbundle’ education, to ‘personalize’ learning by chopping it into discrete bits to be delivered cheaply online, then tested. 

With so many students adrift, less connected to family and church than earlier generations, teachers and professors might have ‘too much’ influence over what students think.  Break up the public school monopoly (and teacher unions, while we’re at it)! The very essence of the DeVos Education Department.

Will this change, under a new administration? Jury’s out, but both the reformer-privatizer team and the be-true-to-public-education team are expressing hope. Prepare for a power struggle.

In the meantime, here’s an observation that hit me hard, in the post-insurrection reporting.  Daryl Johnson, a senior Homeland Security intelligence analyst in the Obama administration who wrote a government-funded report about the rise of right-wing extremism– later deep-sixed as too controversial—said this, warning that the Capitol riot was just the beginning:


The government is — if they’re responsible — going to be developing programs and resources to start combating the problem. These people have had over 10 years to stockpile weapons and ammunition to get stoked up and paranoid and fearful. So we’ve got to be very careful about how we go about cracking down on these groups. If there are gun laws passed, that’s just going to feed right into their narratives, draw more recruits, radicalize people.

It needs to be more about de-radicalizing. Funding organizations that have people that have left the movement and can develop strategies on how to do outreach and pull people out. There needs to be a massive marketing campaign on what should citizens be doing. If you’ve got family members, neighbors, co-workers that are part of these movements, rather than ostracize and debate and criticize and isolate them, we need to love them, have compassion and bring them into the mainstream. The only way you’re going to get rid of hate is through love. Every person I’ve ever known about that’s been a white supremacist has left the movement through an act of compassion or love. They didn’t leave it because someone convinced them that their belief systems were wrong.

It’s another way of saying, as Martin Luther King did, that we must meet the forces of hate with the power of love. 

We have all read shocking and horrible stories about what happened on January 6, and the people who took part—who invited them, who aided and abetted them, who gave them money, who told them they were ‘loved’ and ‘special.’  It is not enough to post angry and clever tweets (and I’m guilty of this) or cheer for those apprehended and punished.

Young people need places to be, places where their thoughts are heard and valued, where their talents are appreciated and nourished, where their observations about who’s once again cleaning up messes are honored by an adult listener.

Maybe it’s time to be true to public education, the place where all children are welcome.

Stop Trashing Joe Biden’s Cabinet Picks

Especially his choice for Secretary of Education—but lay off the nit-picky nastiness around the others, too. Yes, YOU might have chosen others. Your favorite candidate may have been left behind. But much of Cabinet-choosing is inside baseball, beyond the ken of Joe Citizen. Stop bellyaching.

Biden’s selections all seem pretty experienced, professional and well-known to Biden or people he trusts. And hey—given what he’s got on his plate, and the worrisome lack of information coming from some quarters—I’d be reaching for the tried and trusted, as well.

There are always Cabinet members who don’t pan out, who are gone in a year—and there are people Biden wants who give me serious pause, too. Biden was far from my favorite Democratic candidate, but he displayed qualities which made him President-elect in the most contentious election in modern history. It doesn’t serve us well to flyspeck untried and unconfirmed Cabinet members, because there’s someone we imagine might be better. I’m taking a wait and see approach.

Frankly, 90 per cent of the people who are raking prospective Cabinet members across specific, overheated coals don’t know much about any of the nominees. But they’re willing to retweet some old error, a comment from years ago– or speculate about just how bad someone will be, based on some pretty limited evidence, or a single issue.

Here’s the thing: we’re not dealing with an ordinary transition, where progressives can realistically hope for big-transformative-ideas Cabinet members. We’ve got a pandemic to deal with, for at least six more months, in addition to a dozen political crises that are raw and bleeding—and dangerous.

Not every advisor and policy chief will be anxious to break new ground. Some of them are going to try to please multiple constituencies. Most of them will be lucky to reverse a stunning amount of damage, a lot of which has yet to be unearthed. They also have to pass through a confirmation process with a hostile Congress.

What is important right now is remembering whose policies and advice left us with the mess we’re in, and working to right the ship. I still have hope for an FDR-level change, eventually, but there’s work to be done first.

Like most teachers, I’d never heard of Dr. Miguel Cardona until about four days before he was nominated. But unlike many teachers, I was reluctant to name ‘my’ preferred candidate for ED Secretary. I have seen utterly inappropriate people elevated as ideal candidates–most of whom, thankfully, understand the range and scope of the job, as well as the politics, and said so.

Both Dr. Cardona and Dr. Leslie Fenwick, the other rumored finalist, seemed like good bets, people who had worked across the range of K-12 education and had deep understanding of how well-meant policy initiatives actually played out in public schools.

I heard Cardona’s acceptance speech on the radio and it felt sincere, even inspiring, to me. Biden appears to be honoring his pledge to nominate someone with classroom experience. And frankly, I don’t think there is a magic number of years in the classroom that makes a person qualified to be EdSec. Cardona enthusiastically trained to be a teacher via a public university—he didn’t come into education as a temp. To me, that’s enough.

Dr. Cardona has been a teacher, a school administrator at multiple levels, and a state superintendent during a pandemic. He’s been embedded in public education–as object of policy, administrator of policy and creator of policy.

Scrolling back through all the Secretaries, in Republican and Democratic administrations, he seems pretty close to what teachers have always said was essential, and what they wanted: someone who believes in the critical importance of public education and understands the people who do the work. Cardona will be only the 12th Secretary of Education, but compared to the previous eleven, we’re getting closer to that ideal.

Some folks disagree with Cardona’s prioritizing face to face education during the pandemic, especially for children in poverty—and others agree. He led a state with only 24 charter schools, involving less than .02% of CT students, so his mild remark about schools that serve children well hardly paints him as someone who supports destroying public education in favor of charters or choice. The question isn’t whether you like everything he’s said and done—it’s whether his CV shows him to be dedicated to the core principle of an equitable education for all children.

The Secretary of Education has little control over policy decisions that belong to states—but the rise of federal power in education policy has undeniably been steady, and onerous, for the past two decades. Cardona, as advocate for equity in public education, could be a powerful voice in reducing unnecessary (federally mandated) testing and creating conditions that make it safer for a return to in-person schooling. This might begin with federal oversight over real—not ‘alternative’—CDC recommendations, or, say, rolling out priority vaccination clinics for teachers as first step toward getting kids back to school.

My personal take on this: way too many people do not understand how inequitable virtual schooling is. There are high percentages of public school kids who do not have access.  And when I say ‘access,’ I don’t mean an internet hotspot via a bus parked near the projects. I mean enough devices in the home, some privacy and quiet, someone to help you when you run into trouble, and—most of all—adequate bandwidth to run all the programming.

There are plenty of pressing needs right now, around public education. It’s in crisis—and there’s even limited evidence that some of the strongest advocates of choice and standardization are now claiming that the pandemic has laid bare all the inequities and petty rule-making that have bedeviled public schools since NCLB sent us down the ‘accountability’ path.

Biden seems to have mostly sent us nominees that will be able to get through the confirmation process. There is SO much work to be done. I might eat my words in a year or two (Ghost of Arne Duncan floats into view), but for right now, I don’t want to waste time wishing someone else was president-elect, choosing candidates whose perspectives mirror my own. As someone once said, it is what it is.

Miguel Cardona, President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for Secretary of Education, speaks after being introduced at The Queen Theater in Wilmington, Del., Dec. 23, 2020.

We Are All Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf

I just finished reading A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door: The Dismantling of Public Education and the Future of School, by Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider. Berkshire and Schneider are co-hosts of the podcast Have You Heard, which is the best $2 I spend every month—and, as journalist and historian, both bring interesting perspectives to the ongoing discourse about what used to be called, without a trace of irony or bitterness, education reform.

It’s not a long book—217 pages plus another 40 pages of notes and references—and it’s eminently readable. It would be an excellent choice for anyone who cares about public education—parents and grandparents, policy-makers, teachers and school leaders—to use as concise handbook explaining what the hell happened to public schools over the last couple of decades. There’s a bit of history, a good look at failed-over-time policies, and a clear analysis of the intersecting factors that got us to this point.

Who wants to see public education die, and why? Berkshire and Schneider tell you, but like all interesting and disturbing stories, you have to trace backward first, to the origins and mission of public schooling and the conflicting values America assigned to education, as a start-up nation. This sounds tedious, but it’s not. In short, succinct chapters, the authors spend the first quarter of the book laying the groundwork for the rapid changes—the dismantling of a once-noble idea—we’ve seen in the 21st century.

Ernest Boyer once said that public school is a stage upon which Americans play out their most deep-rooted ethics, and the book deftly illustrates that principle. It takes us through the decline of labor unions, the elevation of the deregulated gig economy and ‘choice,’ and the overwhelming impact of technology on every aspect of American life, school included.

I have lived experience with nearly every theory, concept and action mentioned in the book, from teacher professionalism (or lack thereof) to the DeVos model of privatizing one of the few remaining public goods. Any teacher, at any level, who has been paying attention for the past couple of decades will be familiar with the carefully curated observations and supporting data presented here.

The great benefit of the book is that it connects hundreds of established dots into a flashing arrow: this is the end game, the crushing of once-healthy public schools, monetizing their resources and selling them off for parts. It accurately represents where we are, in the midst of a pandemic and constitutional crisis. The wolf is truly at the door.

Berkshire and Schneider are careful to remind us that the well-heeled will always have school as we know it. Their children will always have creative teachers and challenging curriculum and actual classmates, in a real-life setting, because that is, in the end, the optimum way for students to learn. The question is (and always has been) who’s paying for it, and who gets to share it. The primary goal has never been maximizing each child’s potential, contrary to the thousands of mission statements hanging in front offices everywhere. It’s been ‘What’s in it for my child?’

Although some of the data are optimistic—there is still strong support from parents for their children’s public schools, and for teachers’ demands for adequate funding and resources, even via walk-outs—the authors do not prescribe clearly defined solutions.

I don’t see that as a weakness. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that the future is utterly unpredictable. In a time when we might be taking a breath, rethinking our values around what matters most in public education, and thanking public school teachers for doing their best under some pretty dire conditions, reformers are busily selling yet more glossy rhetoric (don’t miss the chapter on ‘personalizing’ education) and questionable data analyses.  

So—read this book, whether you’re a veteran educator or a kindergarten parent. It’s accurate and sharp, the best education book I’ve read this year.

Ten Things I Used to Think

I Used to Think was a writing and thinking prompt developed for students, part of the work done by Project Zero. Lately, we haven’t been all that interested in what students think, or how their thinking might change, given more information, dialogue and cogitation. Instead, we’ve been interested in raising their test scores by asking them to simply reproduce knowledge–or keeping them six feet apart and masked until they’re tested again.

The last four years have radically changed a lot of what I think. For example:

I used to think that choosing the right Secretary of Education was the first critical key to strengthening public education across the nation. I really enjoyed the game of proposing/comparing people who, from various perspectives, would be great Education Secretaries. My standard of excellence was always Richard Riley. Riley was Governor of South Carolina, where he did a great deal to recruit teachers of color and address poverty in public education, before being tapped by Bill Clinton as EdSec. He was not, however, an educator, and he presided over a time when education reform was considered a good thing.  But now—I am uninterested in digging up years-old board memberships and former jobs of prospective candidates for EdSec. I am not convinced that being a long-time educator is a prerequisite for success on the job. Experience in the political and policy realm really matters. I’m not even interested in writing a blog about it. Heresy, I know. But there it is.

I used to think that bipartisanship was a good thing, that moving government forward necessitated both collaboration and compromise. I thought policy creation was sausage-making—everyone gets to put in a little something. I thought having a broad range of opinion, from progressive to conservative, was how the country remained stable, and loyal, and patriotic.  But now, I agree with Rebecca Solnit: We shouldn’t meet criminals and Nazis halfway. (Read the link—it’s fantastic.)

I used to think that churches, in spite of their many flaws, were trustworthy organizations that, on balance, did good in their communities. But now, even though I work at a church that is a beacon of kindness and acceptance in a small town, I am horrified at how far astray from core, all-religions wisdom—the universal, do-unto-others stuff—that many Evangelical Christians have wandered. They say there are no atheists in foxholes—and we’re all living in a kind of viral foxhole these days—but I am heartily sick of driving around and seeing God’s Got This! signs in my neighbors’ yards. I think everyone—believers and non-believers, all creeds and traditions—needs to wear a mask, stay home, wash their hands, and stop pretending to be compassionate or ‘saving’ people.

I used to think that racism springs from acute flaws in human character—hatred, and ignorance, likely instilled early by family and community. But nowthanks to Ibram X. Kendi—I recognize that what has held deep-rooted racism in place in America for 400 years is not a continuous stream of benighted people, but policy. White people stole, platted out, and sold land that Indigenous people lived on, hunted and fished, for centuries: policy. Majority-White public schools have always had far more resources and advantages than the schools Black children attended—and policies that nominally have been established to increase equity have also increased segregation.  A country that was literally founded on diverse expression of thought has built its own caste system, through layers and layers of interwoven policy. The good news is that it’s possible to change policies.

I used to think that free and fair elections were the cornerstone of American democracy, and that most people saw election day as a kind of Norman Rockwell tableau, a cherished opportunity for everyman to have their say. I thought the peaceful transfer of power was inviolate. But now… I don’t even have to finish this one. Turn on the television.

I used to think that teachers, in spite of their lousy pay and lack of control over their own work, were regarded as community heroes and helpers. But now—there’s this. This. This. And thousands more. Today, I read an outrage-inducing piece claiming that yeah, teachers are getting sick and dying (isn’t everyone?) but there’s no way to prove they actually caught the coronavirus at school—so hey, everybody into the water. The negative repercussions on this entitled attitude—teachers are so selfish when it comes to their own health!—will last for decades.

I used to think that voluntary academic disciplinary standards were a useful way of organizing curriculum, and the occasional standardized test (say, three or four between kindergarten and graduation) didn’t hurt anyone, and provided some valuable baseline information. But now, I think that standardization, and the widespread belief that more data will improve public education, is pure folly, an illustration of the old saw that a man whose only tool is a hammer sees every problem as a nail. Rewritten: To a man with a computer, every problem looks like data.  

I used to think bootstrapping was a real thing, taking out loans to get a college degree would pay off in the end, and there was a future for deserving and ambitious students. But now, I believe we have outrun this concept of social mobility through more education, which may have once been true. If you’re rich, or your family is rich, those advantages will hold. If you’re trying to catch up economically, the odds are so seriously against you that your smarts, moxie and good character mean pretty much nothing.  The only possible hope (see above) is major policy change. 

I used to think that I was a pretty good music teacher–way above average, in fact. But now, watching music teachers struggle, every single day, with how to teach music online—and, incredibly, succeeding, I am humbled. Even more important, I’ve witnessed them forming communities on social media to help each other tackle these challenges and share resources and innovations. I’ve seen them have in-depth conversations about core pedagogical issues and the future of their profession. Humbled, I say. Seriously humbled.

I used to think putting up a Christmas tree before Thanksgiving was sacrilege, part of the ugly, metastasizing commercialization that has spoiled a once-simple holiday.  But now—this year—I think that, in this season of kindling light against darkness, any cultural or religious tradition that brings joy is spot on, and the sooner, the better.