Ten Things I Used to Think

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public Schools. Public.

[Many years ago, at my husband’s class reunion]: Inebriated classmate starts rhapsodizing about the extreme superiority of the education they all got at their well-regarded co-ed Catholic high school in the suburbs of Detroit, back in the day. His monologue derails (did I mentioned he was sloshed?) and he turns to yammering at ME (a public school teacher) about how terrible schools are today (he has no children) and that the public schools—well, they’re the worst of all. Everybody knows that.

I bite my tongue.

I’m used to people assuming that private and religious schools are, somehow, automatically better than public schools. On the face of it, if ‘you get what you pay for’ is a truism, private schools ought to be better than public schools. Depending on your definition of ‘better,’ of course.

Part of the cachet of privately funded education is exclusion. You’re paying for the privilege (a carefully chosen word) of sending your child to a school that other people can’t afford, and having them taught using a set of values (religious and otherwise) that your family has chosen, not been assigned to by location.

You are making the decisions, finding a school with a socio-economic level close to yours, probably, in the hopes your children will make friendships with similar children. There may be scholarship money for students with fewer economic resources, but that involves a different kind of screening and exclusion.

A religious school or an independent private school may be the right choice for your child, and however you get them there, knowing you support the school you chose  (financially and values-wise) will help your child understand that you are committed to their education. And that–is huge.

However. I would have to say that the cause dearest to my heart right now is saving public education.

By saving, I don’t mean preserving a nostalgic, return-to-the-past version of public schools where the curriculum was homogenized, the Common Core a distant memory, and everyone sat in straight rows.

I mean saving public education from going under, totally, being dismantled and sold for parts.

Lots of truly ghastly things have happened to public education in the past couple of decades, the pandemic merely being the worst. Teachers have had large chunks of their professional discretion taken away, and their salaries remain in the basement. The accountability movement has turned the mission of public education from citizenship and job training to improving test scores.

And now, teachers are caught in the squeeze between the challenge of teaching students well, using uneven connectivity and tools they’ve not been trained to use—or exposing themselves to a deadly virus. It’s like the worst dystopian plot ever, set in the most prosaic setting: an ordinary classroom.

And the conflicting parties are not red or blue, conservative or liberal. They’re public and private.

There are some things that need to belong to all of us, be cherished and tended and utilized by all of us, each chipping in as they can, because we understand these things are best accomplished by communal resources and effort: Parks. Libraries. Roads. Hospitals. The Post Office. Museums, theatres and auditoriums. Schools. The people who keep our food supply safe and put out forest fires. And of course, things we must have, like the military, police and prisons.

Public things.

Most pushback against public initiatives and investments stems, as far as I can see, from two impulses:

  • It’s my money and you can’t have it.
  • I don’t want to share anything with them. [Fill in your own personal ‘them’– people who don’t ‘deserve’ to enjoy ‘our’ parks, libraries, hospitals, etc. People who don’t belong.] 

For many people, public funding for things like recycling or early childhood services or a new library represents taking away their right to choose. If you don’t read, recycle or know anyone with small children, maybe It feels like money out of your pocket, your ‘right to choose’ overridden.

You take care of your own, right? You shouldn’t have to meet the needs of others. That this is a profoundly anti-democratic idea doesn’t even occur to you. Selfishness and power-mongering are featured, every night, on the TV news. Its us vs. them—freedom!–not all of us, together.

I would posit that one of the few places a wide range of citizens, including those who are Red and conservative, can find common ground is in support for public schools. I find it interesting (and also annoying) that while nearly all public schools are on a grotesque anxiety merry-go-round academically—open, close, re-open, close again, in-person/online/hybrid—football season went on.

Of course, many games were cancelled, championships will forever be listed with asterisks, and there are literally hundreds of stories about how teams played without positive-for-COVID stars (or with them, accidentally–or surreptitiously).

But schools, parents and players were absolutely unwilling to relinquish a sports season. Back in June, when the second (or third) wave was just a far-off possibility of horror, the Republican Legislature in Michigan tried to put their (fairly worthless) policy recommendations for what would happen to public education on a one-pager. It was vague and propagandistic and did not anticipate the widespread transmission that actually happened in the fall. But they were adamant in the one-pager that sports would go on.

At the time, it just seemed like pandering to special groups of parents. But I think, now, that it might be another sign that even the most adamant proponents of phony, gun-toting rugged individualism might not want to give up public education entirely. They just want to control it, squeeze all the profitability out of it, while still enjoying the great gifts (including Friday Night Lights) it has provided to small communities, for more than a century.

We are at a tipping point with public education—either it is recognized as one of the most useful institutions of community-building and progress, or it becomes just another example of scare-labeled ‘socialism.’ Ironically, we used to use public schools to advance public goals—an educated citizenry, training everyone to be productive and innovative, places to vote and be immunized against disease, places to learn the basic concepts of our American government, a genuine melting pot.

It’s time for that national conversation we keep talking about, but never have: What is the real mission of public education? Forget the over-under on who will be the new Secretary of Education. Let’s clearly define the purpose of public schools and stop supporting exclusion with our tax dollars. It’s well worth the fight.

As Roger Cohen said, today, in his final NYT column:

Exclusion precludes belonging. Racism is a close cousin to nationalism, as America has been reminded. They both depend on scapegoating or persecuting “the other”; on the idea, as Kipling put it, that: “All nice people, like us, are We, and everyone else is They.”

In Some Ways, This is Worse than 2016

My friends remember, vividly, waking up after Election Day in 2016. The shock. Their personal emotions, from disbelief to outrage, the sense of betrayal. Who voted this racist, sexist joker in? What can we do?

What was born that day, and later refined, by a vast web of progressive people, media and organizations, has been a big driver of my life for the last four years, beginning with the Women’s March in January of 2017. The Trump presidency daily impacts my beliefs and my actions—so much worrying about the country I love. Maybe it’s the retired teacher in me, but I want to help. I want to live in a more just and peaceful world.

I would have sworn, until yesterday, that all that Indivisble-ing and anti-gerrymandering and election challenging was going well in my state and in the country, in general. The Democratic listening tour, the inspired improvised campaigning during a pandemic, the fact that our candidate was mainstream and inoffensive—it all felt like it was going someplace.

A better place.

I’m writing on Thursday morning, so the election is No Sure Thing, although there’s reason to hope, and to be glad that Michigan shifted roughly 80,000 ballots—a paltry amount– in the right direction over four years. There may be other very modest but pleasant surprises, as the week wears on, but essentially, what I’m experiencing today feels most like grief.

In 2016, it felt like you’d just gotten the shocking, painful news that the country was sick—so you immediately went to work to heal it, with lots of energy and political expertise and innovative tools. In 2020, you realize that the country might actually be sick for a long, long time. Perhaps forever.

Then there’s this (per my friend Mitch Robinson):

When they write about this election result in Michigan in the history books–and they will–let the record show that the state was saved for Joe Biden by black voters in the state’s largest cities–Detroit, Flint, Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids.

The same people who have had their drinking water poisoned, their public schools de-funded and emergency managed into disrepair, their cities gentrified. In general, these voters have been abused by their state’s former Republican governor and a Betsy DeVos-funded and directed state legislature who has never treated the African American community in Michigan with even a modicum of respect or common human decency.

It won’t be the first time Black voters have saved white Michiganders from themselves. Thank you.

In my county, three overtly bigoted County Commissioners were all handily re-elected, even though only one of them even bothered to answer questions from citizens about a major dust-up over openly racist language in countywide offices.Even though the County went blue, overall, for the first time since 2008, finding out that my neighbors are fine with Commissioners who think racism is somehow tied to abortion rates, and deeply respect a sheriff who refuses to enforce a Governor’s pandemic restrictions? That’s sobering.

None of this is a matter of win-some/lose-some politics. The proverbial pendulum.  We’re used to that—and 2016 was an upside-the head reminder that turnout and voter enthusiasm are always the issue. The difference between 2016 and Tuesday night was the bitter knowledge that MORE of the people in your state, not fewer, think Donald Trump is a better choice.  That his four-year reign of incompetence, lawlessness and even death is preferable to whatever mild-mannered Uncle Joe is selling.

I live in a state where this was a (factual, non-Onion) headline, a month ago: Republican leaders join anti-Whitmer rally outside Capitol after FBI reports murder plot against herSo yes, I was hoping for some kind of repudiation of Republican candidates and tactics. And yes, I am frightened about what the next two months will bring.

I’m also worried, now, about future elections. The vote-suppressionists have been developing an effective ground game under Trump. Even if he goes down tweeting in 2020, the people who are happy to see low turnout and unquestioned, careless lying (and I know who they are, locally anyway) got a good grip on how to screw with elections, in perpetuity: De-fund the Post Office. Phony drop boxes. Refusing to mail absentee ballot applications to every voter, even when they were legally ordered to do so. And so much more.

Rolling back suffrage gains that have been hard-fought, in American history.

Garrison Keeler: For the first 50 years of American elections, only 15 percent of the adult population was eligible to vote. Thomas Dorr was one of the first politicians to argue that poor people should be given voting rights. As a member of the Rhode Island legislature, Dorr argued that all white adult men should have the vote, regardless of their wealth. He incited a riot to protest the governor’s election of 1842 and went to prison for treason, but most states began to let poor white men vote soon after. Women won the right to vote in 1920, and many African-Americans were prevented from voting throughout the South until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Widespread voter suppression still happens today, sometimes against specific groups or with specific political motivation.

No kidding.

My biggest worry? What students are learning, right now, about free and fair elections, core democratic values (which are included in the Michigan Social Studies standards, by the way)– and the peaceful transfer of power. I think back to 2000, when we were instructed not to talk about What Is Happening In Florida—and to the teachers, bless ‘em, who are coping with this electoral craziness AND the pandemic, right now.  

So what did I do to support the cause? I was an Election Challenger who was sequestered with the Absentee Vote Counting Board in my (rural, red) township. I arrived, with my badge, on Tuesday morning. The Township Clerk met me at the door and—in front of the 2R/2D counting board—loudly proclaimed that I would be sequestered with the counting board until 8 p.m. when the polls closed. But I would not be able to use the restroom at any point during that time.

The counting board’s heads went up—wait, what? Did you say we couldn’t use the bathroom? No, said the Clerk—not you, just her. One of the Dems asked why. Because you’re a hired, trained board, she said (that turned out to be not completely true, vis-à-vis the training). But she’s just a (air quotes) ‘volunteer.’

That was not my first encounter with an in-person lie from a local Republican official. I had the Secretary of State’s full description of what I could and could not do, printed out, in hand. Township Clerks can’t prevent sequestered observers from using the bathroom at breaks in the action. I sneaked out once, unnoticed, when the whole group took a bathroom break—but wondered about why local officials felt it was OK to leave me alone in the counting room, with opened ballots laying on the table, but not to use the restroom. Where did they learn to be petty and punitive?

In 2018, all indicators showed a modest ‘blue wave’ which I assumed was the slow turning of the great ship. I am doubtful about that now, as I have witnessed armed militias and kidnapping attempts.

As Republican groups began posting anti-Trump media in 2020 (sharper media than the Democrats’ media, BTW), I have been convinced that they were just trying to get out ahead of the actual free and fair election and establish a Republican beachhead for 2022. I am no fan of Tom Nichols, one of the aforementioned anti-Trump Repubs. But this morning, I find his words true:

No matter how this election concludes, America is now a different country. Nearly half of the voters have seen Trump in all of his splendor—his infantile tirades, his disastrous and lethal policies, his contempt for democracy in all its forms—and they decided that they wanted more of it. His voters can no longer hide behind excuses about the corruption of Hillary Clinton or their willingness to take a chance on an unproven political novice. They cannot feign ignorance about how Trump would rule. They know, and they have embraced him.

Sadly, the voters who said in 2016 that they chose Trump because they thought he was “just like them” turned out to be right. Now, by picking him again, those voters are showing that they are just like him: angry, spoiled, racially resentful, aggrieved, and willing to die rather than ever admit that they were wrong.

So—yes. It’s grief I’m feeling.

‘Twas the Week Before the Election

People sometimes ask me if I struggle to find things to write about. The answer is no. Essentially, never. But this week, I have three unfinished blogs about education sitting on my desktop. Blogger block.

I’ve been blogging pretty much since blogging become a thing—and started getting paid for doing it in the early aughts, which made it feel more like reality and responsibility and less like some cool edu-techie thing, where—look!—you’re on the World Wide Web!

Before 2000, I wrote an occasional column for the local daily newspaper—perhaps once every couple of months. I got this gig because I was Michigan’s Teacher of the Year in 1993, and I also was friends with the paper’s Editor. I was highly circumspect in my opinions and wrote about ordinary classroom issues, but my getting published in the newspaper made administrators at my school exceptionally nervous. To the point where I was finally directed to cease and desist with the op-eds. I complied.

I didn’t have a regular writing gig in 2000 (which is probably good; we were directed not to ‘dwell on’ the craziness going on in Florida, post-election, with our students). By the time I had a blog for a national education nonprofit, we were past 9/11 and into the 2004 campaign. Because I was writing for organizations (and being paid by those organizations) and because I was in the classroom for most of the next 15 years or so, my election-time blogs in 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016 were also…circumspect.

I went back to look at some of those pieces.

I was surprised to see how heartbroken I was in 2004. I was hardly a huge Kerry supporter, but the very ugliness of the campaign—Swift-boating an actual decorated veteran—was dismaying. It seemed like a new and disgusting level of dishonesty. We went to a concert at the Wharton Center for Kerry—Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Guy Clark—and while hanging around with other 50-something Boomers, thought for an evening that yeah, we might actually get rid of Bush. Good times.

I wrote several blogs in the Fall of 2008, more than any other election season. I was writing a lot about hope and change, and the building certainty that we had a paradigm-shifting election on our hands. We were definitely getting rid of Bush and there was this great Democratic candidate. It was time. So much optimism.

We pictured Margaret Spellings taking her mandated tests and mean-spirited ‘accountability data’ and getting out of Dodge. We pictured a new focus on equity and social justice in public education. So many pictures.

Yeah. That optimism and those pictures… As much as I admired President Obama, not much useful policy-making happened for MY goals, as a teacher and public school advocate, in the Obama years. I wrote only one election blog in 2012, and it was about what a weasel Mitt Romney was—just another rich white kid, hazing other students in his HS years here in Michigan.

I was blogging for a national publication in 2016. Although I wrote a few tepid blogs about the race, they were mostly around the prospect of our first female president, another paradigm-shifting moment.  I also wrote about how the Trump we saw during the campaign (!) was a bad role model for kids.

But those 2016 blogs were tempered by a bad feeling that we weren’t seeing the whole picture. I thought about Bernie Sanders winning the Michigan primary (I voted for him). And the Tea Party, which hadn’t gone away, in the white Midwest where I live.

I went to the Women’s March in D.C. in January of 2017, and wrote about that. And discovered, over that year, that I could no longer blog about school issues only, divorced from politics, because everywhere you looked, public education was being pummeled by terrible policy-making (and policy destruction, misinterpretation and flouting). Sweet freedom whispered in my ear, as someone once said.

Basically, I started my own blog in 2018 because I was sick of holding my political opinions in a separate suitcase, under control. I wrote gleefully about the midterms, where the five top elected offices in MI went to Democratic women, all of whom have done a fine job of governing, and a couple of whom have had their lives threatened for their trouble.

I wrote about the jammed field of teacher bloggers and politics. I was tired of teachers saying that talking about racism or sexism or equity or justice in the classroom was not allowed. I was tired of pretending that the future of public education didn’t depend, 100%, on who gets elected and runs the show. Time to stop being pushed around by people who have no respect for the common school. Or the kids and parents who rely on public education.

I wanted to write for myself. To advocate freely. So here I am.

This year feels most to me like 2008. There’s a big change coming. And rolling into it will not be easy. In 2008, I worried about violence. And I’m worried now, about violence. In my state. At my tiny little Township Hall. Toward my governor. And throughout the lame duck session, and beyond the Inauguration. You can see what’s coming, every night, on the news, as tens of thousands are lined up to vote, masked, and carrying hand sanitizer and a lawn chair.

Voting is what makes this nation progress, or stall, or go completely off the rails. I’ve written plenty about terrible things this administration has done to public education, and which Democrat I wanted to be President. I’ve also written about Joe Biden, whom I believe may be able to hold the country together, perhaps even better than my first choice.

If I’m having a hard time writing about this election, it’s because it feels surreal, more dissected and more consequential than any other election in my lifetime. In 1968, my father vociferously voted for George Wallace and my mother quietly voted for Nixon and I watched cops beat up college kids in Chicago. That one seemed pretty consequential, as my life goal at that point was moving out of the house to become a college kid, who could say what she thought.

In the meantime, like many of you, I’m having a hard time letting go of the daily doomscrolling and cable news addiction. But let go we must. The election is happening, around the clock. Time to protect all those votes.

We need to save our strength and smarts for after the election, too. There should be little 10-second TV spots saying: Make a Plan for all the days after November 3, too! 

This one matters.

It’s the Right Time to Stop the Overdose of Standardized Testing

A bit of personal history: I live in the first state to launch statewide standardized assessments, back in 1969-70. Every single one of the 32+ years I taught, in every school, at least some of my Michigan students were taking state-sponsored standardized tests. Honestly, I didn’t think about it much.

In the 1970s, we had the MEAP test for 4th, 7th and 10th grades—two to three days’ worth of testing blocks, in the fall. Teachers understood they were tests of basic skills, and the best strategy was simply reviewing traditional concepts. A couple of times, one of the elementary schools in the district where I taught had a 100% pass rate. Because, on the MEAPs, students either did well enough to meet the grade-level benchmark, or they didn’t.

Schools with low pass rates got more money. The state legislature thought more intensive instruction would help children whose critical skills were weak. For the rest, well—the annual check-up was over.

Those were the days.

What this means is that Michigan stands as the first state to have 50 years of testing data, from a wide array of tests. We had state-created tests, aligned with state-crafted standards. For a while, all our juniors took the ACT, whether they were college-bound or not. We’ve used our own, written-by-MI-teacher standards and common standards. We implemented a rigorous, college-bound “merit” curriculum for all, in the hopes that it would raise test scores.

We had cutting-edge hands-on 8th grade science tests, performed in lab groups, where teams of students caused a tubular balloon stretched over a narrow beaker to inflate and deflate, as the gasses inside heated and cooled. That one was fun.

What we haven’t had is clear and steady improvement in test scores. In fact, due largely to clear and steady reductions in funding, we’ve slipped to near the bottom of the pack.

And now, we have students taking computer-based tests at home. In front of their parents. Leaving aside the very real aspect of invalid data, parents are observing, in real time, the testing process. A friend got this message from one of her former students, now a parent herself:

Just had to share how horrified I am by the NWEA tests. Our school this year is allowing us to take them from home and today [my second grader] took the reading and math assessments. He was immediately discouraged by the math (his favorite subject) as the first few questions were things he hasn’t been exposed to yet. This set him up to fail on questions he could answer because he was upset and “feeling stupid”. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to have to proctor these assessments for a group of kids and have your own success as an educator be judged by the results of these awful exams.

Thank you for being such a strong voice advocating for all of our kids and for educating educators. I’m so grateful for the amazing teachers I was blessed with all throughout my time at XX and for the fantastic educators my kids have had thus far too!  Are there places or people that would be helpful to contact or to share our experience with, in order to help propel change?  

The ‘strong voice advocating for all our kids’ this mom is addressing is June Teisan, a nationally recognized teacher leader. And while the thrust of the comment—I had no idea how damaging these tests could be until I saw them for myself!—is more and more common, it’s the last sentence that sets it apart.

Just who needs to know about this? What can parents do?

The Opt-Out movement is still alive, and parents have more reason than ever to reject standardized tests. But this may well be our window for changing, once and for all, our pointless and wasteful love affair with standardized testing. They don’t tell us what we need to know, and they harm kids who don’t deserve harm. It’s as simple as that.

Ask any teacher: What are the real outcomes of using standardized testing? Cui bono?

The scariest thing to me is that any teacher who’s joined the profession in the last 15-20 years is thoroughly familiar with The Tests, and may in fact see them as something we’ve always done, something necessary.  Something, without which, we will be flying blind. They might perceive school as a place where all decisions are best made off-site by ‘experts’ and ‘authorities,’ without whom there would be no ‘accountability.’ A lawless place that needs plenty of guardrails and consequences.

It wasn’t always like this.

June and I had a short conversation about this—who might be able to help parents, teachers and school leaders assemble the strength to buck the corporate test-makers and non-profits? Those who depend on the data generated by tests to make proclamations and influence policy-making?

There are always new reports and opinion pieces on testing to share. Tom Ultican has a good one where he says this, about CREDO’s scare-mongering over projected (not real) falling scores:
 
This is the apparent purpose of the paper; selling testing. People are starting to realize standardized testing is a complete fraud; a waste of time, resources and money. The only useful purpose ever for this kind of testing was as a fraudulent means to claim public schools were failing and must be privatized.

Bob Shepherd, a retired teacher with long experience in the industry says this:

The dirty secret of the standardized testing industry is the breathtakingly low quality of the tests themselves. I worked in the educational publishing industry at very high levels for more than twenty years. I have produced materials for all the major standardized test publishers, and I know from experience that quality control processes in that industry have dropped to such low levels that the tests, these days, are typically extraordinarily sloppy and neither reliable nor valid.

The National Education Policy Center, assessing a series of pro-testing white papers on accountability:

The series correctly concludes that state accountability systems have not improved student achievement or closed achievement gaps over the last decade. Despite this conclusion, however, the series puzzlingly insists that state testing and accountability systems must be reinstated in 2020-21 and must focus on schools with the lowest performance levels.

Reports overstate some research conclusions and ignore a large body of research about factors that influence student outcomes. Specifically, the reports do not acknowledge the critical need for access to quality educators and fiscal resources, which are foundational to any serious effort to improve student outcomes. Moreover, the reports focus very narrowly on test scores as the primary outcome of schooling and ignore outcomes such as critical thinking, media literacy, and civics that are more important than ever.

If there were ever a time when testing ought to be suspended, re-examined and scaled back, it’s now.

Why scaling back and not eliminating them, cold turkey? Because I’ve been on this earth long enough to know that it’s not likely that grant-funded education nonprofits and test manufacturers will go down without a fight.

And try explaining to any forty-year old college-educated Dad that tests don’t matter any more, his children don’t have to take them, and every teacher will just be trusted to do their best from now on.

Ideas like ‘accountability’ have seeped into our national consciousness. Fear of ‘falling behind’ has been the subject of any number of local news stories. And let’s not even start with the beating teachers have taken, during a pandemic, when the idea of neat and tidy, leveled learning goals turned into flaming Zambonis.

We’re not getting rid of tests that easily. However.

Now is the perfect time for school leaders to strip off expensive unnecessary standardized tests, using budget crises and lack of technological infrastructure as an excuse. It might be time to put a focus on critical thinking, media literacy and civics, rather than drilling on testable items. Time to support parents who want to opt their children out.

For fifty years, Michigan has been testing, testing, testing. It’s time for a re-think. And it’s time for parents to turn to teachers and school leaders and demand change.

The Lost Year Fallacy

The first time I learned about the 1918 flu pandemic—in school, probably junior high history or civics class—I came home and asked my grandmother (who lived with us) what she remembered about the great flu pandemic. She would have been 28 in 1918, still single and working in a grocery and dry goods store.

Not much, it turned out. None of her nine brothers and sisters or their spouses and children had succumbed, nor any friends. She couldn’t remember being ill herself, although she was notorious for living with pain and discomfort. When she was in her 90s, she fell off a stepladder while washing windows. She broke her hip, something that wasn’t verified for a couple of weeks while she hobbled around saying it wasn’t bad enough to go to the hospital, where they might hold her overnight or give her unwanted drugs.

Grandma was no Donald Trump.

World War II broke out when my mother was a freshman in high school. Many of her classmates left school before graduating, to enlist. When they came back, they were offered GEDs and the GI bill to further their education. There were good-paying, middle class jobs for those who just wanted to work, buy a home or start a family.

Their education was disrupted—but hey, duty calls. What’s put off can be reclaimed.

So—why are we claiming that 2020-21 is a lost year? In October, no less? We’re all struggling with this pandemic. Can’t we take a deep breath and try to problem-solve?

Since K-12 public education has been widely operational—for a century, more or less—we have experienced wars, depressions and recessions, 9/11, civil unrest, discriminatory school closings in the South and health scares. School has continued, to the extent possible, during all of these national crises. In fact, in the most degraded and troubled places in this nation, public education is one of the few constants: Kids show up. Kids get taught.

So why are reformers insisting that nothing must change—or we’ll ‘lose’ a year?  With advice like this?

Grades, tracking attendance, grade-level content, and opportunities for acceleration are a must. Pass-fail or pass-incomplete, optional attendance, and a focus on remediation will lead to a lost year whose damage could extend into the future.

Damage to whom? Stand for Children and their grant revenue stream?

The ‘Lost Year’ narrative has come to a scare-tactics peak with Mc Kinsey and  NWEA projecting that students could lose somewhere between three months and a year of learning in 2020-21, even as they attend school remotely. McKinsey claims lifetime learnings will be impacted. CREDO asserted that the average student lost 136 to 232 days of learning in math.

As Chalkbeat points out
: The projections rely on the assumption that students learned nothing (or worse) once schools shut their doors. How could students have lost hundreds of days of learning from missing 60 or so actual days of in-person school?

It has to do with how CREDO converts learning loss, measured in standard deviations, into “days of learning.” The approach is controversial among researchers.

No duh. It also vastly overestimates the real-life utility of testable knowledge students are being fed, the stuff necessary to generate all the predictive data. Test scores—as we all know—do not equate to life, liberty or pursuit of happiness. They don’t even equate to the social connections necessary to get a good job. Even worse, they’re a distraction from the challenges that teachers (the real front-line heroes) now face in trying to figure out how to teach under limited and often dangerous circumstances.

Let me say it again. Test-data estimates, alarmist language and shady research do nothing to help us with the most critical problem we have right now: keeping kids connected to their schoolwork and their teachers. However that’s offered and as imperfect as it may be.

Paraphrased Tweet I read recently:  Can you name one school or district that has actually reimagined education?

Well-heeled education nonprofits now depend on things NOT being reimagined—deeply ironic for those who call themselves reformers. Without tests and data and uniformity and seat time and standard deviations, we’re just back to good old public school, doing our best under the circumstances.

Kind of like schools were in 1918-19, when 675,000 Americans died of the Spanish flu.

No More Debates. For the Good of the Country.

It’s been another tough week in Teacher Land. My music teacher buddies in Michigan are writing about coming inside from the cold, after a few weeks of humming softly in a circle on the grass, playing ukuleles or meeting under a canvas canopy with tubas and flutes.

How to make music safely, indoors: a challenge I never had to meet, but creative teachers are figuring out, on the fly, every day. Kudos, and more kudos, to every teacher struggling to make whatever form their instruction is taking effective. Y’all rock.

But imagine you are the 8th grade Social Studies teacher who assigned watching the Presidential debate, asking for a one-paragraph response or trying to discuss it via Zoom. You anticipated lots of fireworks, and actually hope that your students get hung up on the bad behavior. Because otherwise you’ll have to explain who the Proud Boys are–and the fact that a serving president has already falsely deemed the election a fraud, five weeks in advance. Try being ‘neutral’ and pro-civic engagement after that.

There have been lots of jokes today about needing a middle school teacher at the next debate. Ha ha and all that, but as a veteran, 30-year middle school teacher, let me lay down the law: No more debates.

Media outlets and sponsoring organizations don’t need mutable microphones or better rules. (Better rules and guidelines are a feeble solution to a much bigger problem—something every classroom teacher comes to understand, eventually.)

 It’s not about Chris Wallace’s failure—and it was a botched job– to control Donald, either. It was clear to anyone who watched Wallace’s credible interview with him, a few weeks back, that the president was getting his revenge on Wallace and Fox, in a deliberately crafted (and rehearsed) strategy: Dominate. Flood the zone.  Humiliate your opponent.

Trump openly abused everything: His opponent. Family loyalty. Voters’ intelligence. Norms of civility.

Turning off the president’s microphone is the political equivalent of making him write ‘I will not interrupt’ one hundred times on the chalkboard. It also opens up the possibility that he would walk offstage, as is his habit during ‘briefings’ at the White House. None of this is something children of any age should witness, if we want to preserve a democracy and civic dialogue.

What we need is a consequence with teeth that also protects the whole country from the harm: No. More. Debates.

There’s enough time for media outlets and sponsoring organizations to make other plans. Maybe they’re just done. Maybe they offer Town Halls around policies, with candidates appearing separately. Whatever. But what our children and our country saw last night on television should not happen again. It wasn’t rough-and-tumble, bare-knuckle politics. It was, instead, obscene.

Six in ten observers believed Biden ‘won’ the debate (a word that doesn’t really apply—we all lost, last night). Only 28% thought Trump prevailed. If the voting ends up roughly the same way—two to one—we have reason to hope that we will survive this horrible experience.

Biden, in what I thought was one of his best moments last night, turned to the camera and assured us that we could use the institution of free and fair elections to save the republic. Just vote, he said. Trump followed up by declaring the election a fraud and a joke. That’s another thing we don’t want our children to see or believe.

One more teacher story: An award-winning teacher I know in Mississippi started a post today by saying ‘I really need you to read this.’

She said that as a first grade teacher, she had a student whose mother had a blog. After ‘Meet the Teacher’ night, blogging mama wrote about my friend’s ‘weird’ (and ethnically Asian) last name and what she thought about her child having a teacher with that last name.

It was incredibly hurtful, my friend said. Mama ended up pushing to remove her kid from the class. When administration wouldn’t remove him, she withdrew him from school.

I think this is the first time I’ve talked about this, my friend said. It is hard to do. A lot of people never experience racism and xenophobia themselves, so they just aren’t aware of it. I get it. That was me when I was younger too.

She said: I unequivocally denounce white supremacy. I ask that my friends and family join me. I want to see all of my friends and family come out strongly against white supremacy to show love and support of me and my children, as well as love and support of our brothers and sisters who occupy this wonderful planet with us.

She posted two hours ago, and her post has dozens of ‘I denounce white supremacy’ comments, and commiserations from other teachers about dealing with racism in the classroom.

What if every public school teacher said to their class today, in developmentally appropriate language, I unequivocally denounce white supremacy. I denounce it in this classroom. I denounce it in this town. I denounce it in this great nation. White supremacy is—and always has been—wrong.

Parents, teachers and citizens of all stripes should not have to witness abusive, abhorrent behavior and listen to bald-faced lying. We wouldn’t allow our students to do this. We shouldn’t allow our elected leaders to do this, either. For many, many reasons, including that thing you study in school: the lessons of history.

No more debates. Let’s not let Trump destroy discourse, in favor of domination. We all lose.

Take it Easy on Teachers, OK?

So are we tired of the back to school merry-go-round?

My social media feeds are filled with hundreds—maybe thousands—of stories, most of them first-hand, about what’s happening as schools play poker with a deadly virus and human beings.

There are the Never-ending Shitshow posts: School’s in session for three days before COVID makes an appearance. So school’s out, but kids are still playing soccer for some reason. The first day of all-online school, the internet burps at 8:00 a.m., then dies for five hours. Next, the grapevine (not the school) delivers the news that two more kids and a teacher tested positive. Then—football returns after a two-week hiatus, courtesy of a bunch of powerful white dads.  And maybe there will now be a different hybrid plan, to please working parents. Stay tuned. And on and on.

There are also the Brave, Let’s Do This posts: Teacher (perhaps one with asthma or a history of breast cancer) publicly declares this isn’t what she wants to be doing, but damn it, she’s going in, to serve the kids she loves. There are the usual ‘here’s my room’ photos, with the furniture against the walls, plastic shields around the teacher’s desk and taped squares on the floor. The word ‘exhausted’ appears frequently, and the word ‘terrified’ leaks out, but a principal hears about it and makes her take it down.

There are the Tech Helper posts, where teachers swap tips, tricks, emergency fixes and horror stories about technological platforms, and the idiotic policies schools and administrators have imposed: Kids stay home, teachers must report to school. Kids must wear shoes. Kids must turn on cameras. The ‘gold standard’ is making on-screen school just like in-person school, meeting for six hours a day. Videotaped lessons that are supposed to look like Reading Rainbow or Bill Nye, Science Guy. Bitmoji.

The Oh No It’s Going to Be Like This All Year parent stories, where they realize that March-May was just a tiny sampling of what life is going to be like for this entire school year. If your kid is exerting zero effort at home, is that what he’s like at school? What if my family doesn’t have four computers? Will Grandma monitor the kids when they’re supposed to be working?

But the kind of post that really fries my oysters is the one where the finger points at teachers.

There’s plenty of blame to go around:

  • Decision-makers who spent the summer hoping for the best, fearing the worst, and not doing squat to set up multiple advance planning scenarios based on available data.
  • Entire states where masks, social distancing and hand-washing are actively resisted.
  • The withdrawal of rich, white parents from neighborhood schools because they can form pods, hire tutors, afford high-speed internet and cool programs, leaving schools with students who need school to be cared for and fed.
  • Utter lack of political leadership, reliable data, easily available testing and contact tracing—all the coronavirus blah-blah that’s been plaguing us since (per Bob Woodward) January.

But let’s go easy on the teachers. Virtually none of this is their fault—and what appear to be teachers’ failings and idiosyncrasies are often WAY out of their control.

It’s not teachers who decided whether to return to school. In fact, when the current OK State Teacher of the Year spoke powerfully about the risks of returning to in-person school, parents in the audience booed her. Imagine how that felt.

It’s not teachers, independent of their colleagues and school leaders, who set rules and guidelines for the use of electronic platforms. Most of them, even experienced master teachers, are being observed for compliance and accountability. Many are criticized for things that are completely out of their direction: choice of programs and platforms, amount of time expected for student log-ins, even ridiculous things like dress codes and hand-raising are often subject to scrutiny.

It’s not teachers who decided to load up class sizes because there isn’t enough room to socially distance, or make mask-wearing optional for students.

If your child is struggling with new procedures and missing the old way of doing school, so is their teacher. Most teachers, even old pros, begin the school year nervous and unsure of what to expect—in a good year. They rely on quickly establishing personal relationships to build a community.

Some of them start with strict rules and little humor, others start out warm and inviting, but the ultimate goal is always the same: a well-ordered, friendly classroom where all students are seen and heard. Where nobody is isolated, and nobody sucks up all the attention.  

I have seen kindergarten teachers absolutely enchant 30 five year-olds with songs, stories and fingerplays, sitting in a circle on the floor, creating a little village in a week. But these little villages require constant maintenance and vigilance: A hand on a shoulder. A cheek-to-cheek conversation about what you just did, in the hallway. An encouraging smile. The Look. A belly laugh together, as a class.

NONE of this is available to online teachers, right now. Face to face teachers find their bag of tricks is diminished, too, as they try to avoid a dangerous illness. Some of their best pals have taken early retirement. Some of them are doing double duty, teaching two classes in two modes.

This is not sustainable, their posts say. I’m pedaling as hard as I can. And students will reflect what their parents are saying and doing. A parent who starts the school year nitpicking or condemning their children’s teachers will find their children doing exactly the same. Recipe for discontent.

Please. Give teachers a lot of grace, and a lot of kindness. You owe them as much.

Image: LauraGilchristEdu

Pod Save Us: How Learning Pods are Going to Destroy Public Education. Or Not.

The first thing I thought of when people started murmuring about getting groups of kids whose families were connected together for a little home-based mini-school, was the much-heralded advent of charter schools in my state, back in 1995.

Just about everybody who was around and in the thick of education reform back then thought charters held promise. Throwing off the regulatory shackles! Schools with a unique vision and purpose! No more factory-model instruction!

A group of parents, led by one of those perennial PTA-president moms, approached a group of maybe a dozen teachers in the district where I taught, hoping to start a K-8 charter. Several of the teachers had already been discussing a new, arts-infused ‘dream school.’ The parents had a centrally located vacant building in mind, and had run some numbers that showed, somehow, teachers would be paid commensurately with the district’s salary scale, including benefits—and would be freed to run their classes the way they saw fit.

It’s worth noting that this was before NCLB, the Common Core and mandated testing in grades 3-8. I’m finding it hard to remember, in fact, just what we found so onerous and constraining about practices in the buildings we were working in, but that group of teachers (male and female, including several movers and shakers) agreed to meet with the parent organizers.

The parents were super-enthusiastic. They, too, had ideas to roll out, and were thrilled at the prospect of having a greater say in their children’s education, without having to pay private school tuition. The new charter law let them pick and choose teachers and set the tone for who would be welcome there. The leader of the group declared ‘We’re going to have the cream of the crop in our school!’

And that was it. All of the teachers immediately realized why the parents had done so much research and organizing: it was all for their kids. Kids whose parents did not have similar resources and savvy would be left behind, a phrase that hadn’t even entered the education lexicon yet.

I have long been a defender of the idea that parents should do whatever makes them comfortable, when it comes to their children’s education. If you want right-wing religious training, or single-gender education, or a place where your child will not stick out–thinking here of the Obamas not placing their girls, symbolically, into a public school—hey, go for it. One size does not fit all, although a lot of public schools try to accommodate pretty much everyone.

I think trying to tell parents, during a pandemic–especially when there’s a dearth of authentic leadership around making healthy choices for kids–that they have to play by a particular school’s rules is utter folly. Nothing will, or should, stop parents from trying to figure out how to get the best deal for their children during a crisis. That’s what parents are for.

There will be lots of chaos, changes and new understandings about the nature and importance of public school as we muddle through the beginning of the school year. What I’m hoping is that it won’t be another New Orleans after Katrina—where powerful (mostly white) people dismantled a struggling system for their own purposes. Because they had more money and more power, and they could.

Is that what pod-parents are intending? A way to use a virulent virus to duck out of feeling responsible for all children, or at least those in the immediate vicinity? Or is pod-learning a temporary solution that might lead to a new appreciation of the utterly democratic and cost-effective nature of public education?

Conflicting ideas:

~ Pod-learning has no concrete definition. A tutor (please don’t call them zutors) who works with a half-dozen children, twice a week, to accomplish their assigned schoolwork, is a far cry from dropping your child off at someone’s home every day so you can go to work and they can go to school. Do pod-teachers create their own curriculum or merely adapt what’s available, free, from the local public school? Who hires pod-teachers and what recourse do they have when conflicts occur? And on and on.

~ None of this is new. There have been private tutors, one-room schoolhouses and home-schools since colonial times. More recently, we’ve had distance learning and a revolving carousel of online, customer-friendly, charter schools. There are plenty of ways to get your child at least nominally educated—and also into college. Best to keep the focus on genuine learning, which might involve some deeper involvement and hard questions about what your schooling plan does for your child, besides keep them occupied for six hours a day.

~ If you’re counting on your schooling bubble to keep your kids—and hence, all the people in your household—free from infection while enjoying the freedom of not wearing masks or social distancing, there’s a great graphic for you to study at the end of this blog.

~ Surprise! One of the two great benefits of public education is free/inexpensive childcare. (The other is an educated citizenry but almost nobody talks about that.) What that means is those who can afford to chip in on a pod program can also afford childcare. By hiring a bona fide teacher who is fearful of returning to a public school, you’re deepening the division between haves and have-nots. If, as some talking heads are suggesting, you hire a college student at loose ends—you’re doubling down on the false idea that anyone can teach. Didn’t you already figure that out, back in April?

~ Here’s a certainty: if people form pods to educate their kids, bypassing public schools, it will weaken the commitment to annual high-stakes testing, the Common Core (and its identical cousins with different names), and tightly controlled teacher licensure. That’s not all bad, but deregulation has its downside. Think of it as public education being re-created as a gig economy. Teaching as Uber. Caveat emptor.

~ Teacher professionalism and expertise will be devalued. What will suffer then are the (admittedly idealistic) concepts of deep learning, custom-tailored curriculum, relationship-driven instruction–things that can only be supported by an established system run by professional educators.

~ Pods will have all the problems that public schools have: unsuitable teachers that some parents and children dislike, personality and values conflicts, lack of necessary resources, unforeseen changes in numbers and support for the pod model. Doesn’t matter how large or small your pod is. Doesn’t matter if you’re teaching in a geodesic dome in your backyard—there will be problems.

~ And, of course—the questions around equity. You can argue, correctly, that schools are already inequitable. But what makes a school equitable is not its location or demographics. Equity is built by a reliable stream of resources, committed and talented teachers and genuine leadership. You can’t have an equitable school or provide an equitable education without good people. Temporary, just-in-time pod education disrupts what is good in public education: community-building.

Creative and Just Curriculum, Pt II: Six Ideas about Teaching Music During a Pandemic

Facebook post, shared by a colleague: Started band camp last Sunday, two rehearsals per day. No more than 25 students in a group. They wore masks while moving between stations, and after the second rehearsal, two students went home because of low grade fevers. One tested positive. We were forced to shut down for a minimum of two weeks. There was no precaution we didn’t take.

Welcome to 2020, music educators.

About six weeks ago, Texas band directors (a fierce and highly competitive bunch) started posting summer band-camp photos, on a band directors’ site I follow. Flute players with facial shields. Trumpets and mellophones with their bells bagged. Masked percussionists, labeling their mallets, so they’re touched by only one person. They were fired up. Creativity and safety would win the day!

The page today is really tough reading: Shut-down camps. Lost jobs. Will there be a marching band next year if there’s none this year? Pictures of band rooms where precisely 13 students can play while social-distancing. Deep, philosophical chats about the value of music in kids’ lives. And this—how the hell am I supposed to have a band online?

Well, the bad news is: you’re not. And when this pandemic abates, the best-case scenario for all powerhouse performance-based music programs is the option to rebuild. Any teacher (raises hand) who’s ever had to build, then re-build, a music program of any kind knows how difficult that job is, what losses are suffered when your dynamic program loses the thing that makes it magnetic: Pride in performance, fun in preparation.

So don’t think I’m Pollyanna, telling music teachers to keep your chin up and try something new. I know you’re righteously sad about your good work being threatened. What I am offering is this: a few suggestions for doing some authentic music teaching during a terrible time.

For starters—stop calling yourself a band/choir/orchestra director, and begin calling yourself a ‘music teacher.’

Second—understand that your college education and years of experience have given you all the musical expertise you need to create some new ideas about music that can be delivered to students in multiple modes. You know enough about the structure and history of music to create some great lessons. And what you don’t know offhand, you can easily find, without leaving your living room.

Third—don’t think the only curricular options students have are limited to music theory, music history and practicing. Much of our college-level theory and history instruction was deadly dull—no need to repeat it. Also– please don’t assign practicing. You need to give kids a good reason to practice, and logging time for a grade is not a good reason to practice. Learning to play another instrument would be—Bari sax? Ukulele?  

Fourth—you know what tools, student interests and previous skills are available to you. If you’re meeting students in groups, and they all have Zoom, you might be able to do some bucket drumming. Or maybe your orchestra would be more interested in a History of Popular Music survey unit—to find out where the music they listened to originated.

Perhaps you’re stuck with phone calls and emails, and have to do something written or shared via email groups. I used to play what I called Sound Samples for my students, around a theme. They listened to a series of 10 or 12 clips, each a couple of minutes long, with a list of what they were listening to (each with a brief description). The list was out of order. The trick was to listen closely enough to identify key features of the music and thus, identify the pieces. Ungraded—but I know from experience students love guessing right, or figuring out what they’re listening to, using the clues.

For those incredibly lucky teachers who have the right technological tools and skills, teaching students to do ensemble playing via technology, with themselves or others, is a possibility (not Zoom, by the way—it’s the wrong tool for ensemble singing/playing). Only a narrow slice of music educators have the equipment and expertise to do this—but perhaps it’s your personal challenge, right now.

Fifth—Keep in mind that students take a music class to play. Teachers are fearful of play. Not only because their professional evaluations and livelihood are often linked to a mandate to produce satisfactory evidence–data– but open-ended play is not generally The Way We Do Things.

In schools, and in the grim, we’re-behind education policy discourse, a teacher who encourages students of any age to poke at ideas, learn from mistakes, and approach established disciplinary content as a treasure chest to explore is seen as disorganized. You tell ‘em what to do. And then you evaluate how well they’re doing what you told ‘em to do.

I am a music teacher–theoretically a creative art–but can state categorically that music, as traditionally taught in secondary schools, is not very imaginative or playful at all. School music programs tend to become performance-oriented only–and often rigorously competitive—as students get older.

There is an important body of information and skills in music. The more of that disciplinary knowledge students have mastered, and the more proficiency they develop, the greater their ability to capably perform interesting and satisfying music, and become a more appreciative and knowledgeable music consumer. These are all worthwhile educational goals, by the way. Far more worthy, in the long run, than bringing home another trophy.

The National Association for Music Education standards include composition, often overlooked in school music programs focused on replicating already-created music with a high degree of perfection.

After I’d embraced the rehearse-rehearse-perform model for 20 years, I realized I wasn’t teaching my students much about music other than How to Play Band Music. I started experimenting with composition. I had adopted the practice of thematic teaching—focusing on one broad aspect of music each year. The first year I tried to include composition, our theme was World Music—identifying the musical features that make something sound Italian or Scottish, rustic or refined. We listened to gamelan bands and balalaika choirs and West African djembe drummers.

And then I asked them to compose something in an ethnic style.

It’s nerve-wracking to turn kids loose to create. How do you structure that lesson? What’s the subject matter takeaway? What if your students create inferior products (as they certainly will, at first)? Must you grade them?

I had to deal with “Just tell me what to do” and “Can’t I do a report instead?” We persisted. And eventually, it was fun, playing with our acquired skills, creating new music–recording it on audio, video, electronic keyboard discs and paper. Their choice.

Some students performed their compositions live, including several groups and soloists playing the blues (that’s how you teach theory, by the way—using it).  There were R. Carlos Nakai-ish recorder solos and improvised polkas. And lots and lots of drumming.

Most of the work was fairly unoriginal, but some of it was stunning. Here’s the best part. I assigned it on a Friday, giving them almost a month to get things in. On Monday, there were maybe two dozen completed assignments in my inbox, and groups wanted to know: Can we do another one?

Sixth—like most things about school and learning, music programs that are well-funded and adequately staffed get better results. It costs money to support a music program at any level, and a great deal of money to outfit a HS performing group, beginning with a facility. In some ways, losing daily rehearsals and summer camps and access to a world-class auditorium levels the playing field and lets musicians focus on the heart of music—human expression—rather than being best. This could be the year where imagination and creativity (and, in the process, justice) is the focus.

From a marvelous blog, What If We Radically Reimagined the New School Year:

What if this urban district courageously liberated itself from narrow and rigid quantitative measures of intelligence that have colonized the education space for generations, and instead blazed a trail for reimagining what qualifies as valuable knowledge? What if we put our money, time and energy into what we say matters most? What if this school year celebrated imagination? What if healthy, holistic, interconnected citizenship was a learning objective? What if we designed a school year that sought to radically shift how communities imagine, problem solve, heal, and connect?