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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Local Control over Schools: Good or Bad?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today, I’m not so sure.

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

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

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

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

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

As Heather Cox Richardson noted:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time for a Four-Day School Week?

Long before the pandemic, there were occasional media stories about school districts going to a four-day week. These were generally cash-strapped rural districts where busing ate up a big chunk of the available funding, and kids rode an hour or more, often through dicey weather, to get to class. Not paying bus drivers and turning down the heat were pretty much all that was left to cut for these schools.

Four-day weeks were not a sign of instructional innovation, either—most of these districts simply made the four days longer, to meet seat time requirements set in place by state regulations. Going to an alternative schedule might have been painted as a rosy alternative—our teachers think it’s phenomenal!—but it was clearly a last resort. If parents and teachers found they liked the new schedule, for any reason, it was an unexpected benefit.

I’ve been thinking about this, because I think there’s going to be lots more talk about alternative school schedules, fairly soon. The federal dollars going out to public schools now will likely, thank God, keep ‘problem-solving’ in the wake of a pandemic from forcing public schools to scissor and degrade programming in the immediate future, but I foresee more faux panic over learning loss and insistent conservative belt-tightening.

Schools can’t operate without public money and legislators control that money—so, snip-snip.

I think it’s important to remember that the 180(ish)-day calendar is relatively recent, and that, at various times and places in our history, students went to school as much eleven months a year and little as six months a year—and not always the months you might think would be set aside for schooling.  Local conditions and needs drove school attendance and demographics.

The amount of useful learning accomplished was also driven by context, and available resources. I am always amazed at how the economic engine of the United States was incrementally, but robustly, built using one-room schoolhouses, teenaged teachers and nonstandard calendars and time requirements.

My grandmother remembered two weeks off every fall for apple-picking (her school, Local No. 5, was eventually renamed ‘Orchard View’), and another two weeks for hunting. School was out before planting began. None of her eight brothers and sisters went to high school. No need, if there was food in the larder.

For the past few decades, we’ve been determined to standardize everything—curricula, instruction, assessments, time requirements, teacher qualifications, even materials.  It’s absolutely clear that as neat and tidy and uniform as schooling can be made, more learning is not guaranteed.

A cornerstone of post-Nation at Risk reform was that more time in school equals more learning.  It turns out that’s not true, either.All this rule-making did was make us turn to more and more questionable measurements—testing—and comparisons designed to push kids in poverty toward cheaper, stripped-down educations. In Michigan, for a time, Republican policy-makers were promoting ‘value schools’  which would provide a ‘basic’ education for $5000/per pupil.

Lately, there’s been a spate of articles and talk about getting rid of the five-day workweek. Other nations and individual companies have experimented with the idea and have gotten good or promising results, including increased productivity and employee satisfaction. The pandemic has upended our thinking about going to the office—maybe it’s time to do the same for 7/5/180 schooling? You can hear the wheels turning.

Whenever you start tinkering with the standardized concept of schooling—year-round school, for example, popular for a time as a way of reducing costs through maximizing facility usage—Americans tend to get all nostalgic for those hazy, crazy, etc. summers of their youth and businesses panic about the loss of cheap teen labor. Change is hard, and school is a big component of life in these United States.

Maybe what we need is rethinking our commitment to sameness (since kids are also nonstandard and unequal) and focusing on context-based education. What’s good for a first grader in Mississippi may not be optimum for a high school senior in California. Also: reducing the days or hours our children spend in school runs counter to what other first-world nations are doing. Still, let’s let our imaginations wander.

For younger children—K-5, say—school also fills a need for childcare.This is a deal public education made with the citizenry, long ago, allowing parents to seek gainful employment. School as safe, productive place to stash your kids while you work—that’s not a bad thing.

If there were one place where a five-day week/extended day model is most needed and useful, it would be elementary schools. That doesn’t mean that teachers have to be actively instructing students every moment they’re in the building. In fact, more frequent breaks and supervised playtime are exactly what many children need. I learned this, BTW, from watching the way kindergarten teachers in my district adapted their half-day practice into full-day kindergarten, years ago: more ‘free’ time to use classroom materials, more stories, two more recesses—and way less pressure to get it all done in three hours.

It’s in secondary schools where we might experiment with the idea that less seat time might produce better results. There’s already been a move to have secondary students ‘test out’ of classes, but that represents a shallow concept of what it means to have genuinely learned something.

If we’re going to be satisfied with students’ capacity to merely reproduce facts and information, we devalue the experience of learning and working together–which should be the core reason students go to school. It’s the deconstructing, discussing and applying knowledge that matters—sharing a crazy-good book, calculating the cost of gas and insurance for that car, playing in the pep band on Friday night.

Can that be adequately done in four days/week? Sure. Especially if the fifth day includes access to teachers for questions/chats/encouragement/clarifications, plus some personal goal-setting on the part of students.

Then why send older kids to school for five days?  I think it has to do with our concept of Teacher as Enforcer. Unless there is a teacher prowling the room, we think, kids will slack off.

We’ve just experienced an 18-month experiment in teachers being unable to control students’ attention and compliance—for some educators, it was an unmitigated disaster. For others, the year ended with students expressing more concern over not seeing their friends than reduced learning. Some teachers actually learned to appreciate teaching and learning from home.

I was stunned, in reading about four-day weeks, to see that some districts reduced teacher pay, believing they were working less.  This is further confirmation of the Teacher as Enforcer idea—you have to be in the room with a student for teaching/learning to occur. It’s also confirmation that this ‘value school’ idea—a discount education, good enough for those who don’t pay tuition—has not gone away. Where can we cut corners? Well—if teachers only teach four days a week…

I would suggest that teachers and their organizations begin by re-thinking teacher professionalism: what a teacher demonstrably provides, rather than the hours they’re on duty. That’s just a start.

‘Reimagining’ education has become an overused (and inaccurate) cliché. But if the education community can’t imagine new calendars, schedules and missions, someone else is going to put them in place.

Photo courtesy of Robert Valiant

Take This Job and Shove It. Or Change It.

I don’t know a single teacher—not one—who has never left school on a Friday afternoon wondering if, just maybe, they should have gone into real estate instead. Under the best of circumstances, teaching is ridiculously hard work, dependent on never-guaranteed intrinsic rewards, rather than perks, benefits and salary, to maintain employee motivation. 

The autonomy and supports necessary for a well-resourced, custom-tailored occupational package for professional educators have been in short and diminishing supply for a couple of decades now. Worse, the profession drains our energies, taxes our personal and communal resources, and has become increasingly driven by top-down data collection. Teaching, as Lee Shulman famously said, is impossible.

And then we had a pandemic.

The papers are full of stories about people quitting or not returning to their crappy (and even lucrative) jobs—for a variety of reasons. If you talk to the ‘back to normal/virus is overblown’ crowd, this is a function of their getting enough government money to live on, and general indolence.

But there is another story:  Americans are ditching their jobs by the millions, and retail is leading the way with the largest increase in resignations of any sector. Some 649,000 retail workers put in their notice in April, the industry’s largest one-month exodus since the Labor Department began tracking such data more than 20 years ago.

People are leaving because they discovered they liked working from home, or because they’re taking care of children or elders now, as the world is still too dangerous for Previous Normal behavior. Or the pandemic has forced them into paths (not commuting, cutting back spending) they’re planning to maintain.

They have re-balanced their personal values, decided that life is, indeed, too short to waste doing junk work.

You can see this as bad for business, particularly the service industry. Or you can see this as economic optimism—the chance for a fresh re-start: One general theory is that we’re living through a fundamental shift in the relationship between employees and bosses that could have profound implications for the future of work.

This applies to education, too—a field generally marked by stable but low-wage, high-skill work done primarily by women. We’ve been experiencing a long-term decline in teacher preparation, nationally, a drop of 67% in Michigan. Those classrooms we’re hoping to fill this fall? Not enough teachers.

Or school leaders.

Veteran educators are used to charter operators and superintendents–like LA’s Austin Beutner–discovering that running a school, a classroom, or a large urban district is not all apples and playgrounds. Beutner’s observation–“We are humans. We have families. We have partners, spouses, kids, our own life responsibilities. For better or worse, schools become a magnet for all of the challenges which face society. . .”—is the story of their working lives, for decades, not a trial period as CEO.

What is interesting to me is the anecdotal evidence coming out of the news about schools, their leaders focusing on what’s good for students—the core of their work—rather than what the legislature or governor thinks students need.

There’s the whole Critical Race Theory divide, for starters. Go ahead—tell us what we can and can’t teach, including the truth about our own history.

There’s the re-born #OptOut movement.  

But there’s more: virtually every Michigan school has decided to go around legislation that requires them to flunk third graders who are not testing at grade level in reading. Bridge Magazine calls this a ‘revolt’– but superintendents and teachers just laughed at legislators trying to move the mandated flunking up to 4th grade. This is akin to soldiers returning from blood-soaked battlefields, informing the generals that their orders are crazy-pants, not gonna work.

And when Michigan’s Chief Doc of Health and Human Services recommended that students be masked when they return to school in the fall, and got pushback from Great Lakes Education Project, a school choice group founded by Betsy DeVos? The recommendation was met with a shrug by school officials, who plan to make their own decisions about whether students will wear masks this fall.

As they should.

If the pandemic has revealed anything about public education, it’s that K-12 schooling is an integral part of the economic engine, and the good parts of Previous Normal will not return until the kids are back in school, 180 days a year.

Who will solve the problems created by the Great Reallocation of talent in K-12 education?

Hate to sound like the eternal broken record here, but shouldn’t we turn to educators—school leaders and teachers, working in their own unique context, to advocate for what their kids need? Better connectivity and technology. Wraparound services for students. A rebuilt teacher pipeline. A little TLC after surviving a pandemic. Better salaries and benefits.

Autonomy.   

The Great (Unemployed and Underpaid) Transformation

Short version of this blog:

No. We’re not going to get back to normal. The pandemic has changed everything.

You’ve probably seen the meme: There isn’t a ‘teacher shortage.’ There is a ‘Masters-level professionals willing to work for $35,000 shortage.’

And maybe you’re thinking… yeah, no, beginning teachers make a lot more than that. Well—not so much more, if at all. 

And then there’s this–In no state are teachers paid more than other college graduates. The situation has been steadily growing worse. And then all those underpaid teachers were asked to risk their lives, during two school years. Incredibly enough, nearly all of them did.

But COVID was the proverbial straw on the educational camel’s back. Teachers are getting out while the getting’s good.  How many? Depends on who’s asked, and whether they can continue to work at a career that doesn’t support a middle-class lifestyle (and risks their health), even if they love the work and find it fulfilling.

This blog, however, is not only about crappy teacher pay, an evergreen topic. It’s about all the employees—including nurses, service workers, ministers and even politicians—who are just done. We are coming out of a year and a half of terror, hope and exploitation. I predict a national re-examination of what life and happiness are worth.

You have probably—speaking of what gets circulated on Facebook—also seen people grousing about  how unemployment benefits are preventing people from returning to work. Why should (presumably slothful) people show up to work or apply for Joe jobs, when they can stay home and make just as much? That seems to be the knee-jerk thinking.

The poster-child answer? This headline: How Local Companies are Filling Open Roles. It’s about the ice cream parlor that doubled starting wages (from $7.25 to $15.00) and found themselves—surprise!– with plenty of applicants.

What if offering fair unemployment benefits caused starting wages to rise to meet the demand for workers?  What if it was actually naked capitalism that was broken?  

What if people weren’t lazy — and instead, for the first time in a long time, were able to say no to exploitative working conditions and poverty-level wages? And what if business owners are scandalized, dismayed, frustrated, or bewildered by this scenario because their pre-pandemic business models were predicated on a steady stream of non-unionized labor with no other options? It’s not the labor force that’s breaking. It’s the economic model.

I certainly don’t feel bad for McDonalds franchises, ‘forced’ to offer $14 an hour. But won’t it bankrupt small businesses, when they offer a reasonable wage? Well. If you think about growing the economy, one way to feed it is paying people adequate money to spend on the things they need. Just saying.

When people are well-paid and well-treated, you’re not constantly re-hiring and training. Your customers get better service. Your business grows, and your employees are buying food, cars, homes. Maybe even thinking they can afford a family. This includes teachers, by the way.

This cycle is well-known in other prosperous first-world countries. Why are we trying to get more for less here?

In Michigan, 67,000 adults without college degrees are going back to school, on the state’s dime. Part of a multi-phase project to upgrade the workforce, Michigan offered tuition to any adult wanting to learn something new and useful, at a local community college. To their surprise and delight, 67,000 people applied—people looking for a better deal in life. They’re not lazy.

Let’s pull the camera out even further. For many years running, when global citizens are surveyed about their personal happiness, Scandinavian countries top the list. In the Top Ten, only New Zealand is not in Europe. The rest of these nations are in the cold-to-temperate zone, so it’s not the climate making them happy.  And it’s not their McMansions or four-car garages.

It’s security. Health care. Time off for traveling and their families. Good schools. No college debt. Trust in their government. Convenient public transportation. Healthier lifestyles. Ample parental leave.

Adequate wages.

Earlier in the pandemic, there were lots of buzzy stories about people moving across the country, after discovering that they could work from home. It turns out that many of them aren’t moving to verdant pastures (with good broadband). They’re moving for financial or family reasons.

They’re moving to scale back. To be happier—or simply to survive. To be closer to the people they love.

Godspeed to the 67,000 people starting community college in Michigan. A you-go to every employer who is biting the bullet and paying employees more, permanently. Blessings on those who have juggled to keep their families intact. And thank you to everyone who has gone above and beyond during this pandemic, sacrificing for their communities.  

Something is, indeed, broken in America.

Future-focused Education, Future-focused World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-A conglomerate of self-indulgent consumers?

-Angry, soulless, directionless masses?

-Indifferent, confused citizens?

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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