Do Parents Really Want Control Over What Students Learn?

What’s driving the screaming matches at local school board meetings—the ones where organized parent groups show up to have their say about everything from critical race theory to bulletproof doors?

There are a lot of overlapping factors: A nation that’s bitterly divided. The pandemic we’re still dealing with, and its impact on children. Racism, sexism and the fear of losing “rights.” Gun violence. The political upheaval resulting in an insurrection, which played out live, on national TV.

And, of course, money and support from outside sources and organizations, which perceive these ongoing crises as an opportunity to chip away at public education.

I’m no stranger to parent-led fireworks at Board meetings. I’ve witnessed verbal storms over sex education and teacher strikes and girls who wanted to lift weights with the wrestling team.

During my second year of teaching, in October, the School Board decided to lay off 20 teachers (including me) who signed annual contracts in the spring, because an August millage election had failed. They made cuts to programs across the board, and established a pay-to-play model for all HS sports. There was a huge board meeting that went on until the wee hours. And what were the parents upset about? Eliminating foreign languages—or elementary art and music?

No. It was about the football team.

One mom was outraged at being asked to fund her son’s final year on the team. “This is his time to shine! Teachers can always find another job—but my son has only one chance to play football in his senior year!” There were perhaps a hundred teachers at this meeting. You can imagine how that remark went down with them.

My point is this: when parents are angry enough to publicly spout off at a school board meeting, it’s seldom centered around informed disapproval of established curriculum, instruction or even assessments (unless someone has lied to them about what’s going on in their children’s classrooms). Even book banning—a chronic hotspot for school leaders—seldom flares up because a parent carefully read their child’s assigned book and was shocked into action.

What we’re seeing now is something else: an orchestrated and funded effort to demean public education and the people who work in public schools. It’s about power and control. It’s about ginning up fear, using dishonesty as a tool. As John Merrow notes:

Many of the adults who have been disrupting local school board meetings not only do not have children enrolled in those schools; they are classic outside agitators, perhaps even from neighboring states. 

The foundation of recent wrangling over control—parents’ rights, if you will—is thoroughly political and got a big boost when now-Governor Glenn Youngkin promised to strip culturally responsive instruction from schools in VA.

Parents have always had rights—including the right to see what their children are learning, access to instructional materials, the option of observing their child in his classroom, and the opportunity to talk to his teachers about any of these.

Teachers have the responsibility to know the curriculum well, to be able to tell parents why certain materials and teaching strategies were selected.  And—should parents be genuinely concerned about any of these things—the responsibility to justify the value of a particular technique or content, to adapt or offer alternatives.

That, in a nutshell, is good teaching–based on trusting relationships and understanding. Every veteran teacher and school leader reading this has had difficult conversations with parents about what and how their children are learning. It’s part of the job. Always has been.

It’s also one of the reasons many teachers pushed back against the Common Core: the standards didn’t fit the students they were teaching. Driving responsibility for determining standards, curriculum and assessment upwards means that teachers are left with explanation that they’re teaching something because it’s on the state test, even though it may be inappropriate or irrelevant for a particular child.

It’s not just parents who want to strip control from schools. From Education Week:

States have a limited amount of power over what materials teachers use in the classroom. A new report shows how some of them are trying—and succeeding—to wield influence anyway. In the majority of the country, districts operate under local control, meaning that school systems, or sometimes individual schools or teachers, have the ultimate authority in deciding what curriculum is taught.

That means that if states want to influence what teachers are using, they have to get creative about what levers to pull. A new report from the RAND Corporation suggests that some states have managed to do just that.

Look for the phrase ‘High-Quality Instructional Materials’ accompanied by some disdainful blah-blah about how clueless teachers design lessons based on what they see on Pinterest, so professional curriculum deciders need to step in and choose better materials. Well-paid deciders, naturally.

Earlier this year, Jennifer Berkshire found reason for hope:

I’ve spent the last few days talking to voters and candidates in New Hampshire who powered record turnout, resounding wins for public school advocates. One theme keeps coming up. Voters were REPELLED by the extremism of “parents’ rights” groups. This was a backlash to the backlash.

In the meantime, all the shoutin’ has left educators limp and discouraged. From Connecticut teacher Barth Keck:

Nationwide accusations of schools teaching “critical race theory” found their way into Connecticut despite any evidence of its existence or even any accurate explanation of what CRT really means from the critics. Superintendent Freeman “cited letters to the editor and social media posts regarding the school’s teaching and equity policies which imply that ‘parents shouldn’t be trusting the teachers and school administrators who are shaping the experience for their children in Guilford.’” 

I have not felt such pressure personally, aside from comments on social media from those calling me a “groomer” and “brainwasher” of children. Granted, I don’t know these people personally, and the only thing they know about me is that I’m a teacher. But that’s the point: Strategic political posturing has convinced scores of people that, rather than a noble and essential profession, teaching is an insidious endeavor whose primary purpose is to push a far-left agenda.

It’s not about the things parents already have a say in—their children’s learning.

It’s about raising a public ruckus.

That Infiniti Commercial

Several years ago, I wrote a blog entitled “I Hate American Idol” for Education Week. EdWeek changed the title to “Music Teacher Hates American Idol”—lest they be accused of trashing one of America’s iconic entertainment boondoggles—and it drew thousands upon thousands of readers and a whole array of nasty comments, which could be summarized thusly: Grow up, whiny music teacher.

Here’s the lede:
I hate American Idol. I really do.

I think it’s an insidious and destructive force on the American media culture (which– let’s be honest–needs all the help it can get), an omnipresent televised influence causing Americans to believe that unless your voice and public persona meet some amorphous standard of style and quality, you should just shut up and stop singing.

Or maybe I should just lighten up. But still.

Everyone who can speak can sing. Really. Singing is just extended, rhythmic speech. Singing is a great gift–a fun, wholesome activity that builds community, expresses joy, sorrow and humor, entertains and binds us together in life’s transitional moments. There is no activity that is not made richer or better illuminated by music.

Community singing around a campfire got ragtag groups of settlers across the prairie, and singing has comforted those who remain behind, bereft, when lives are lost. Music releases emotion far more effectively than words. While it’s wonderful to listen to exquisite vocal harmonies, nothing is more satisfying than actually singing yourself. It’s what we were meant to do as human beings.

And that’s what I tell my students– they are born singers.

If you watch television, you’ve seen the Infiniti commercial where Rich White Lady inexplicably drives her luxury vehicle into a tiered room where children are filmed simply holding—often incorrectly—orchestral instruments. There is a soundtrack marked by significantly scratched tone and seriously out of tune chords, unpleasant to the ears of 21st century consumers who are used to perfect (and often auto-tuned) music. RWL rolls up the window, shutting out the sound, lowers her seat, adjusting the rear view mirror so she can see her adorable daughter, who later rides home in the back seat.

Message: Owning the right car will shut out the cacophony of life. Including the disgusting sounds your children make.

Music teachers universally hate this commercial. Many took time out of preparing for spring concerts, the school musical and recruiting musicians for the 2022 marching band (something everyone in the bleachers on Friday night expects) to comment. There’s plenty to say.

For starters, the piece the students are pretend-butchering is Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, a tone poem based on a literary work by Friedrich Nietzsche, which incorporates the idea that God is dead. So there’s that.

There’s also the fact that the children portrayed are not actually playing the piece (something that’s obvious to instrumental music teachers)—or even attempting to play an instrument. Shots of cute children incorrectly holding musical instruments are commonplace in advertising (see below).

It’s this ‘cute’ angle that’s most annoying. Children, as previously noted, are born to make music—to sing, to move, to create. Teaching them to appreciate a delicate instrument, to persist through the difficult challenge of making good sounds, learning to work together to create something magnificent—isn’t this the critical essence of authentic education?

I found the commercial insulting to my life’s work.

 And I’m wondering:

What if RWL had rolled up her window and ignored her little soccer player, averting her eyes in embarrassment because he was running, knock-kneed, toward the wrong goal?

What if she was scrolling on her phone while her daughter was on stage at a dance performance—unable to watch because the dancing was so painfully inept?

What if she told her 4th grader that her artwork—on display at the school’s art show—was ‘amateurish?’

Parents who reject their children’s efforts at anything because those efforts are clumsy, childish or hard to hear are doing damage. Telling your child that they shouldn’t do something unless it comes easily or can’t be done perfectly is personal vandalism.

I’m not suggesting kids be praised when praise isn’t warranted. I have had literally hundreds of parents joke about their kids’ early efforts at playing an instrument: Moose mating (low brass). Geese honking (oboes). Pigs squealing (clarinets). If accompanied by encouragement and tolerance, these moments can be light-hearted.

One parent remarked: I have sat through a lot of kid concerts and some of them were painful. Let’s face it, when kids are learning, they often do suck.

Nope. That’s the response of an adult who misunderstands the role of persistence and effort. If it’s ‘painful’ to listen, imagine the pain of a child whose parent shuts out their first steps in any endeavor by rolling up the metaphorical window.

Another comment, from a fellow musician: In my band directing days, when parents and staff would joke or complain about the first beginners concert, I’d tell them it was my absolute favorite concert. Four months ago, they didn’t even know how to assemble their instruments. They might not even have known what instrument it was. And now we’re making music.

The first concert was my favorite, too. All six notes, and all the shining faces.

And pretty soon—with time and effort—they can sound like this, taking those skills and friendships into the adult world. No matter what kind of car they’re driving.

Because we’re all born to make music.

Lock and Load and Learning Loss

This is a blog about the escalation of smack talk—the reckless/threatening/false/vindictive/facetious things people say, in an effort to gain power by demeaning others– and a thought or two about how much easier it is to be a smack-talker in 2022 than just a few years earlier.

We’re also seeing more smack talk in schools and about schools. Critical race theory and learning loss are among the many widely abused terms that media perceives as real issues. The terms are essentially meaningless, however, in the daily operation of real schools, places where teachers are paying attention to the well-being and nascent citizenship of real children.

These days, schoolboard meetings are hotbeds of vigilantism driven by smack talk, and we’re witnessing members of Congress—Congress! —trash the sitting President’s strength and motives during a delicate and critical time of international unrest.

Traditionally, school is a place where smack talk is not tolerated, even if it is a regular feature of students’ home life. Poor-mouthing classmates, the use of offensive language, and overt lying are generally suppressed by school cultures, even strongly authoritarian climates where teachers use harsh language to control students.

Every now and then, someone points out that what our students need most now is not Calculus, but media literacy, a carefully developed skill of discretion when bombarded by corrupt but persuasive language.  We used to worry about students being overly influenced by Bart Simpson or semi-dressed babes on MTV—but these days, the filthiest and most damaging lies are coming out of the mouths of politicians and news media. How do you teach kids to ignore their own duly elected Senator?

In 2017, I was part of a local ‘listening tour’ sponsored by my county Democratic party. We knocked on doors and asked people what they wanted from their local government. We wanted to know what their issues and needs were, for upcoming campaigns—but were also willing to listen to their feedback on the 2016 election. We did not call on strong or ‘leaning’ Republicans—only independent voters and those who may have leaned our way at one time.

What we learned: every single person we talked with had a distinct opinion on Trump vs. Hillary (the gender dynamics of the last name/first name contrast being kind of smack-y in itself). Most were willing to tell us who they voted for, and why, although we were trained not to ask.

They did not like or trust Hillary Clinton—and the ones who declared themselves Trump voters were clear about what attracted them to him: the way he talks. He says what he thinks! He isn’t mealy-mouthed like other politicians. He’s down to earth, but strong. His disrespect of women was ‘just locker room talk.’ More than once we heard: Give the guy a chance. Asked about local issues and government, most of them had no ready response.

What our neighbors had to say was almost completely unsubstantiated and unrelated to governing or current issues, not to mention decades’ worth of real facts about Trump’s history as grifter and narcissistic braggart. They took the measure of a candidate by his (or her) willingness to make insulting remarks. To get in a good dig, to trash your opponent. A few men spoke admiringly about Trump literally stalking or silencing Clinton on the stage, during their debates. He was a ‘fighter’—and would fight for us. Which ‘us’ they were talking about was unspoken.

Although hard to prove, beyond prima facie observations, smack talk has become more prevalent everywhere in American life. In my former State House district, for example, one of the Republican candidates told the crowd at a rally to “be prepared to lock and load,” and “show up armed” when going to vote. A Republican gubernatorial candidate suggested voters pull the plug on voting machines, if they didn’t like what they saw at the polls.

Are K-12 students influenced by this kind of loose, vindictive talk? Recently, at a school basketball game, students from a 95% white rural school made monkey noises and used racist insults when Black players on the opposing team were on the court. The report talks of similar occurrences at other games, listing several of these over the past two years.

What interesting to me is the response from the MI Department of Civil Rights: “To ignore the situation without taking those individuals who perpetuated it to account causes a problem and obviously allows it to occur again. So that situation should be controlled not only by the people who are officiating the game, but also the officials who certainly have some control over the students and the actions that they might have later on or during the game itself.”

I agree. Racial slurs and dangerous threats are best handled when they first emerge by the people closest to our students. This is what lies under at anger over faux CRT—adults influencing children to analyze their own prejudice, and respect differences. Good teachers have always done this; it’s the practice of building a classroom community.

So it’s no wonder that judgmental terms like ‘learning loss’ have caught on, and Serious Reports are warning that children in poverty have ‘lost’ the most. All children have been exposed to danger and loss during this pandemic, but whether they’re testing on grade level—whatever that is—should be the least of our worries.

We should be thinking, instead, about turning them into caring and confident citizens, able to identify coarse and deceptive language and reject it.

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

Sports

In the 15 years that I have been blogging and creating content for education publications, there are two subjects that always draw angry (and often nasty and insulting) comments: Women in leadership. And sports.

There’s something about school sports that gets people a little overexcited. There’s a kind of passionate, Friday-Night-Lights loyalty toward school-based athletics that you don’t see for, say, Advanced Algebra or Chemistry. This fervor is often justified with old, familiar tropes: Sports are what keep kids in school. Sports build teamwork and leadership. Being an excellent athlete can lead to scholarships.

All of these have—or once had—kernels of truth. But do these benefits justify spending so much time and energy on preserving big-budget HS sports programs —especially during a virulent pandemic, for God’s sake?

Just how critical are school sports? Senator Roger Marshall (R-KS), during confirmation hearings for Dr. Miguel Carona, nominee for Education Secretary, revealed that he ‘believes that one of the biggest problems facing students and schools today is that allowing transgender students to play school sports means “there is not a level playing field.”’   This is the most important thing a sitting U.S. Senator in a basketball state could think to ask the prospective future leader of public education in America? Evidently.

Hey, I was a public school educator for 30+ years. I understand and appreciate the benefits of school sports programs. I also understand that in many school systems, especially those with privilege, athletics are the 800 lb. gorilla when it comes to making policies that are good for all the kids in a K-12 system, most of whom do not participate in competitive team sports.

I’ve got stories upon stories about that, from personal experience, but instead will share this alternative view of school sports: We had an exchange student one summer, a 16-year old girl from France. She was a recognized gymnast and talked about her passion for the sport and awards she’d won. We were building a new middle school that year, and our guest went with me to look at my new classroom, across from the gym.

She stood in the doorway and asked: Who is this gymnasium for? She was stunned by the stuff being unloaded, including some basic gymnastic equipment—and the beautiful wood-floor basketball court, the bleachers, the locker rooms and showers. Although she’d been a gymnast since she was a small child, she did not associate ‘sport’ with school. You had a physical conditioning class at school, but competitive sport took place (and was funded) out of school.

It made me realize how quintessentially American and ubiquitous school sports programs are—and wonder what that means about our collective understanding of the purpose of school. My usual response to school sports programs (and, let’s be blunt, aggressive parents) calling the shots was to advocate for kids who benefited from other programs—the arts and music, or academic challenges.  

But now there’s a pandemic. And it’s ripped up a lot of our expectations and hopes about what a rich, well-rounded, equitable education looks like, made us re-think what is most important in educating our children.

While each state, right now, is a hot, steaming kettle of clashing perspectives on what a safe return to face to face schooling looks like, the predominant voice in education policy-making in Michigan at this moment is a group called Let Them Play. They have filed suit against the MI Department of Health and Human Services. They have used the new face of ‘freedom’ from faux tyranny—a rally at the Capitol—to get attention. Even the fact that their leader is kind of shady and a conspiracy theorist has not stopped their noble quest to reinstate all contact sports in Michigan high schools—now—and get a spotlight, testifying in front of the Republican-led legislature.

The Legislature was more than happy to do that, because they’ve been in their own war with the Democratic Governor, since forever. Here’s a great headline that kind of summarizes life in Lansing: Republicans Willing to Risk the Lives and Health of Michiganders to Spit in the Face of Gov Gretchen Whitmer.

And yesterday, Governor Whitmer caved on this issue. Winter-season contact sports in high schools will resume on Monday. I’m sure she’s sick of fighting for the health of the state—even though Michigan is succeeding, big-time, in tamping down the rate of infection, currently ranking 47th in daily new case counts—and running up against brick walls with every precaution the DHHS mandates.

How will outbreaks work now, in high school sports? Will they result in temporary shutdowns? Or cover-ups? Who bears responsibility if a cluster of cases emerges after a few weeks of games?

Not my circus.

I mentioned this to a band director friend, and he said he’d long wondered whether professional associations for music education could have similar outcomes if they rallied at the Capitol and made friends with a conservative legislator or six. It was a depressing thought. Not only all that lobbying—but wondering who would advocate for American literature or World Languages or media centers?

The question, again: What benefits do school sports provide that make them worth the cost and the risk? A few kids get athletic scholarships, but only a handful. Same with preventing dropouts. Learning teamwork and leadership through sports is a function of good coaching, and therefore a variable, not a consistent factor.

I would suggest sports are a fun and worthwhile after-school occupation—as are any number of other activities, from the drama club to the robotics team. The most important purpose of public school is finding and enhancing the strengths of all students, so they will bring something positive to the community, as adults.

Too high-minded and la di da? Maybe. What do you think?