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.

Student Appreciation Week

So here we are, once again ‘celebrating’ Teacher Appreciation Week, with all the teachers saying—no, no, don’t get me a $10 Starbucks card or (better yet) a $50 bottle of champagne. Instead, write me a sincere note of gratitude. Here, write it on my Facebook page. Feel free to embellish.

We all have that box of thank-you notes. And yes, we re-read them periodically. And hats off to all the folks who bluntly say If you really appreciated teachers, you would…. pay them and let them sit in on decision-making, for starters.

But sometimes, I feel like the Grinch Who Stole Teacher Appreciation Week– seriously, what we actually need is a Teacher Appreciation Decade, during which we encourage promising young people to pursue professional education training, craft a new conception of teacher compensation, and look to other nations for guidance on how to build a select teacher workforce,  valuing diversity and creativity above all.

We just returned home from a couple of weeks away, and at the bottom of our mail tote was a TIME magazine with this cover:  ‘The Lost Year: How the pandemic changed a generation of students.’ The article is much less inflammatory than that title—it’s about high school seniors, and the difficulty they’re having taking the required tests, filling out FAFSAs and setting their sights on the most desirable (and selective, of course–it’s TIME magazine) colleges.

I am intimately familiar with puffed-up headlines on general-readership magazines. But geez. The Lost Year? A Generation of Students?

We’ve lost some things, all right. One of them may our blind faith in the value of testing data—another might be the elitist belief that a student must go directly to a four-year college, or forever be consigned to slogging along with a Joe job and a sub-par life.

I know that colleges and universities—especially those that serve the middle class—are in for tough times and lower enrollments. Institutions with huge endowments will be fine, on all fronts. If Biden’s plan to pay for community college comes to fruition–spoiler: I’m a fan–we may have a whole new layer of society with upgraded skills and no debt.

The Way Things Were has been upended. But like any year where there are transformative events, the outcomes are hard to predict. Is going to community college for a year, while you get your academic ducks in a row the worst thing that could happen? This generation of students—K-12—has faced new challenges. But what they’ve learned has not been lost.

After I read that TIME headline, I was so incensed that I posted a Tweet:

Hey, media.

How do you think teachers feel, after gutting out the most difficult year in their already-difficult career, when you refer to ’20-21 as a ‘lost year’??

A few hundred people liked and Retweeted it and many added thoughtful commentaries.

Like this from Julie Wright:  Students, too. I have so many who’ve been working hard and learning… in some ways way beyond what 8th graders generally know. No, it wasn’t the best or easiest way to learn for most kids, but they’ve done so much. Don’t treat them like passive victims.

From Ashley Stanley: How do we think students feel about these narratives after they left it all on the field? These kids SHOWED UP for their LEARNING this year. These last few weeks, I’m all about helping Ss know that the work they did was real, important, and meaningful.

Jennifer Robbins of Montana: I have worked so hard to support students’ writing, reading, and thinking. As I read poems, essays, & narratives at the end of THIS year, it is not a lost year. They’ve grown by leaps and bounds, and it’s especially clear during 2020. No lost learning in Columbia Falls, MT!

@NShrubs said: Yes! My 2nd graders made lists of all the kinds of things they’ve learned, from fixing their own lunches to subtraction with regrouping to coaching each other on tech stuff via Zoom. My 3rd graders wrote about what they learned about themselves – learning online, reading, etc.

And—sadly–@VictoriaCherry said: How do the kids feel about hearing their own parents complain about having to care for them?

There was lots more. Teachers most definitely do NOT feel that this was a lost year—and, in teacher-like fashion, spoke up in defense of their own students’ hard work under tough conditions. So there you have it.

Who appreciates all the out-of-the-box things kids have had to do this year, in unfamiliar formats and time frames? Their teachers. In my music ed wheelhouse, I have now seen at least three dozen unusual spring concerts, accomplished by students and their ultra-creative teachers, using technology, germ-bags on horns, edited literature to match those able to play. Each one, in its own way, a triumph. And each submitted as evidence: See? We’re getting stuff done.

So—not a lost year. Thanks to the kids. Let’s appreciate them, too.

Is There a White Supremacy Culture in Schools?

I am currently participating in a 21-day ‘Racial Equity Habit-Building Challenge.’ I signed up with several local friends, as part of our intention to build tolerance and equity in our mostly-white community. We met for a conversation, this past week, and we were all a little blown away by depth and transformative power of the resources and questions in this Challenge. So much to learn.

This is good.

The most striking thing I read is a piece from Day 5 (Confronting Whiteness).  I have learned not to presume that I know much of anything about identifying distinctly white-people beliefs and habits.

At this point in my life (closing in on seven decades), I understand that I’ve been unaware (to put it politely), for a long time, of just how white I am, and how that looks and feels to other people. What I can do now is acknowledge, learn and try to do better.

The piece that rocked me is from the Dismantling Racism Workshop. It’s titled THE CHARACTERISTICS OF WHITE SUPREMACY CULTURE.

To my shock and distress, it described, in great detail, every organization and institution I’ve ever worked for, joined or been associated with, all the way back to kindergarten. Including churches, universities, non-profits, musical and social groups—and most especially, K-12 schools.

Here are some of the basic characteristics (click on the link to read full descriptions as well as antidotes):

  • Perfectionism
  • Sense of Urgency
  • Defensiveness
  • Quantity over Quality
  • Worship of the Written Word
  • One Right Way
  • Paternalism
  • Either/Or Thinking
  • Power Hoarding
  • Fear of Open Conflict
  • Individualism
  • Progress = Bigger and More
  • Objectivity
  • The ‘Right’ to Feel Comfortable

Go ahead—think of a common public school practice or policy.

Mandated, standardized testing, for example. Does such testing not elevate perfectionism, urgency (especially now, when the data yielded will be useless and corrupt), quantity over quality, ‘objectivity,’ power hoarding by testing companies and state education departments, worship of the written word, etc.–over other worthy goals, like community, kindness or self-discovery?  

Virtually every issue, no matter how prosaic, in my long life as an educator, involved at least a couple of these. Staff meetings? (fear of conflict, power hoarding, announcing the one right way) Creating curriculum? (worshipping the written word, perfectionism, bigger and more) Teacher leadership? (defensiveness, paternalism, individualism) And so on.

Here’s the thing I wondered about: What makes these instantly recognizable behaviors represent white supremacy? I could point to these actions in every education ‘reform’ organization and probably every district central office, certainly. But are they inherently racist, or are they just the bad habits organizations accrue?

An African-American friend who is an accomplished veteran teacher took a job with a charter school chain, a few years ago. I was surprised—we’d worked on a number of professional projects together, and I knew she was committed to public education and equity in learning. She explained that the charter where she’d be teaching—and later, served as administrator—was created around the theme of social justice. It would serve Black children, with Black teachers and school leaders.

Besides, the mostly-white professional organizations she’d worked for hadn’t honored the gifts she brought to the work of school leadership. They were stuck on paternalism and hierarchies, silver-bullet thinking, bigger and more, saving the world one white paper at a time.  She wanted to teach kids, to make them understand their inherent worth. She took the job at a significant pay cut, and didn’t look back.

And also: are these traits uniquely American?

When he lectured in the United States, Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget would invariably get what he called “the American question” from a member of the audience. After he had explained various developmental phases that young children go through in their understanding of concepts like length and volume, someone would raise their hand and ask, “How can we accelerate a child’s progress through the stages?”

Bingo.

Do most of us work, unthinkingly, in cultures that use the listed characteristics—‘damaging because they are used as norms and standards without being pro-actively named or chosen by the group’? In other words, are these practices so pervasive that white people don’t even notice them?

I sat for a long time with these questions, reviewing my professional and community organizations and work life, trying to look at things through this lens. How many times did I buy into these ideas, just because they made ME feel comfortable?

What is a white supremacy culture? Is there one in YOUR organization or school?

No Justice, No Excellence

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

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

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

At Minnetonka High School, in Minnesota:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No justice, no excellence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The Villains of Education

Back in the early days of internet bulletin boards and discussion platforms, there was a seminal piece on forming virtual communities that was passed around by educators interested in using technology to do more than record grades and attendance. Its author (Howard Rheingold, maybe?) posited a working theory of how virtual communities evolve, and the kinds of connections they built, if they were allowed to exist over time without moderation.

The author said most groups and interactions tend to cluster, over time, into three patterns: Sex. Religious veneration. Common villains. (Or something pretty close to those.)

What s/he meant was that people in online groups either flirt, worship particular heroes, heroines or initiatives—or communally post critiques about persons or initiatives they don’t like.

These were not the outcomes of virtual communication that I wanted to consider when I read this white paper. Back then, I wanted to believe that real and complex work, deep learning and genuine community could be accomplished online, and that the crummy habits we develop in face to face encounters could be avoided. But no.

If you wallow in ed-related social media (and if you’re reading this, you likely do), then you’ll know how a group that forms around an education topic can go off the rails. You’ve seen someone post an out-of-mainstream idea and get crushed by horrible, trigger-happy commenters, folks who live to uncover a villain and pile on.

The last time I saw this happen was when a teacher in Massachusetts posted that she hoped MA would not waive spring testing this year, because she believed the scores would show that her students did just as well online as in face to face schooling.

You can imagine that this outlier opinion did not go down well on a ‘teachers’ unity’ Facebook page. You can also imagine that it didn’t take more than about ten minutes for accusations about this teacher’s work conditions, privileges, inferior moral judgment about children in poverty, and lack of intelligence to start flying. Nobody was posting: Hmm? Tell me more!

Of course, there’s probably an All Kids Must Test!page she can join, and find new friends, but that’s not the point. Online discussion groups around education DO tend to evolve into monolithic viewpoints—veneration of certain policies, thought leaders and policy-makers, or a place to complain, bitterly, about the same things. Plus, a kind of flirting—looking for others who find our ideas and appearance attractive.

So much for vibrant, informed discourse or intellectual challenges. Even Facebook page names—Dump DeVos, BadAss Teachers—let you know that the readers may have a common POV. Many aren’t interested in an exchange of perspectives as much as finding Their People.

That’s OK. Most of the recent, pre-pandemic Red for Ed organization happened via Facebook pages and Twitter. And, of course, the January 6th Capitol insurrection organizers used the same social media sites.

Shutting social media sites down (or warning users about their real or imagined transgressions) won’t keep us from the Big Three human-group behaviors—flirting, veneration and attacking common enemies. Whether we’re good-hearted public school teachers or Proud Boys, we’re looking to find compadres, heroes and villains.

It’s when emergent events that impact all educators quickly morph into ad hominem attacks and assumptions that I worry about our ability to act as activists around education issues. Let’s not get stuck on naming and shaming enemies before we negotiate and advocate for the things that will support public education. Pointing fingers is cheap; better to hone your talking points.

Let’s not, for example, turn every policy issue into second-guessing the results of the 2020 election—who Bernie or Elizabeth or Pete may have chosen to craft policy as cabinet members, and how much better that would have been than Biden’s cautious, dismantle-the-fortress approach. The same goes for panning high-profile teachers’ union leaders, most of whom are currently trying to build relationships with policy-makers in hopes of impacting education legislation during what might be a short window of change.

Over the past year, teachers across the country have taken it on the chin from frustrated parents and craven political leaders. But there are a whole range of issues—standardized testing, safely returning to in-person school, vaccinating kids, the advisability of school sports during a pandemic, summer enrichment, the curriculum we need now, you name it—where there is room for debate, opinion and local differences.

We seem to be paralyzed by the window of policy shifts opened by a year of forced adjustments to habits of educational practice, plus a new administration in D.C. Reverting to ad hominem jabs at elected and appointed leaders—same old, same old—is wasting an opportunity. Better to throw out some new ideas.

That doesn’t mean we stop advocating. On the contrary, it means better, issue-focused arguments instead of poking at people who have not been on the job long, people who are trying to address life-and-safety problems and please a range of constituencies.

I have made similar comments on social media: Hey! The guy you just denigrated? He’s on our side!
This usually doesn’t go well: It’s my right to criticize!

And so it is. This is a democracy. It’s your right to condemn, fan-boy and flirt. But if you want to solve problems? As F. Scott Fitzgerald said:The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.

Stickin’ to the Union

I should start by saying this: My dad was a Teamster, a union guy all his working life. At our house, the union protected the little guy—made sure he was paid fairly, had a benefit package, kept him from spiteful bosses (plenty of those).

When I became a public school teacher, and thus automatically a union member–this was Michigan, flagship union state, in the 1970s–my dad (who didn’t finish high school) was reassured. The union would protect me. He also wouldn’t let me park the first car I purchased on my extravagant $9050 salary, a Toyota Corolla, in the driveway. He had his non-negotiables, and one of them was Made in America.

It came as a surprise to me to learn just how differently teachers in other states viewed the union. A friend who grew up in South Carolina told me teachers there tended to see themselves as ‘above’ a union—to them, he said, the kinds of people who need a union are chicken-processors, or folks who work at the textile mill. People without college degrees. Low-class.

Working in education policy, one of my side hustles was with a dynamic woman who created and ran a professional development non-profit for educators. She began work as a teacher (in the South, in a right-to-work state). She had a distaste for unions. She asked me once: Wouldn’t you like to negotiate your own salary? Weren’t you aware, as a teacher doing side work in professional development, that you could be making three times as much in the private sector?

I told her that I deserved three times my pay–but so do lots of other people in social services and social justice work. I said it was a shame that our country prizes money above service.

But that was a lousy answer. It was the polite martyrdom that teachers are prone to: I know how critical I am in the community, and how much skill I bring to my work, but go ahead—take advantage of my sincere desire to make my community a better place.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that education still depends on teachers. Good teachers. Teachers who can roll with the big waves and tides of fortune. And those teachers, who work every day in isolation from their colleagues, need to be organized.

Over 40 years of union membership, I saw the best and worst of teacher unionism, up close and personal. Unions are organizations, so—like, say, churches—even organizations founded on the right moral goals and principles sometimes go off the rails, usually because of weak or even corrupt leadership. But the good always far outweighed the bad.

So I was pleased to hear Joe Biden give a shout-out to unions in his first press conference.  Part of that might just be Scranton Joe relying on his empathy for the working class. But union pension plans, the secure retirement strategy of millions of union workers, have been given some support in the recent stimulus package—even the Chamber of Commerce thought that was a good idea. And with a massive infrastructure-energy bill, we actually might see good union jobs come back. Wouldn’t that be great?

During the pandemic, snarling at teacher unions has become the refuge of the neo-liberals who feel bad about trashing grossly overworked teachers—the ones who understand that face to face schooling during a raging pandemic is dangerous. Teachers, the rhetoric goes, are noble and good, and doing their best. It’s the unions who are refusing to play nice and make things easier for working—or exhausted—parents.

That’s inaccurate, and a cheap shot. This is a truism, but—there is no daylight between ‘teachers’ and ‘the teachers union.’ Trying to faux-praise one while castigating the other is a needle you can’t thread, even in places where teacher unions barely have a toehold. Teachers need unions more than ever, right now.

If I were asked today why I was content to let the union negotiate my salary, this is what I would say: 

I started work in a union shop/collective bargaining state, where my rights were always protected.

I knew how much I would make in five years, and how to guarantee a higher salary through additional education.

I knew that I wouldn’t lose my job if my principal decided he didn’t like me, but only if my conduct or teaching were substandard–and I knew what those standards were.

I knew that there were far more men teaching in my strong-union state than her no-real-union state, which positioned female teachers as second incomes and paid them as such.

I also knew that keeping teacher salaries low increased turnover, and experienced teachers were better and more effective than a merry-go-round of newbies.

For now, I’m stickin’ to the union.

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