Pedagogy, Lesson Plans, Instructional Materials—and Politics

This is a blog about Teacher Stuff—the pedestrian daily tools of successful instruction. The boring and ordinary instruments of professional work that teachers, from kindergarten to AP chemistry, use every day.

A story: Several years ago, I was facilitating an on-line mentoring program for career-change teachers, who had previously worked for a Big Well-Known Corporation.

BWC decided to off-load a layer of expensive senior employees (those with 20 years or more) by giving them an exit ramp: Go back to school (on our dime) and become certified teachers. We’ll even subsidize your student teaching. Then resign, and we’ll replace you with cheap recent graduates.

That last line wasn’t actually in the program description, but everybody involved knew the score. BWC promo-ed the program on their website—Giving Back to Your Community!–and added an additional sweetener: BWC would provide e-mentoring, through a national non-profit, for the novice teachers’ first year, since they understood that public schools were filled with terrible teachers who couldn’t possibly be of assistance. After all, their (too-expensive) employees were masters of applied STEM content, who could probably teach veteran educators a thing or two.

It was an interesting gig.

A lot of the work was just dealing with misconceptions. Like the woman who was upset when she was told by the university where she was taking ed classes that she couldn’t have a student teaching placement as a ‘third grade math instructor’ because the job didn’t exist in most places. She could student teach in a 3rd grade, but would also have to teach reading, social studies, science and accept bus and lunch duty, which was a deal-breaker for her. She left the program.

One of my mentees had just started a job as a chemistry teacher in a suburban Connecticut high school. He had been assigned four sections of chemistry and one of AP chemistry. In our first exchange, he was panicked because he had asked for the lessons plans to go along with the texts, and was told they didn’t exist. He checked with his official on-site mentor (the other chemistry teacher at his school) who told him that books didn’t come with lesson plans because you have to tailor lesson plans to the students you have.

Which my mentee thought was not just rude but ridiculous. You mean I have to make up ten separate lesson plans each week? How inefficient! At BWC, all the work was pre-organized. You just followed the templates. This is why public education is such a disaster, yada yada.

If you are not an educator, it might in fact be surprising to suddenly be immersed in typical pedagogical practice where what initially appears to be ‘inefficiency’ turns out to be more effective in the long run. I’m thinking here of those little flip-top heads on a conveyor belt, receiving ‘content’ in ‘Waiting for Superman’–director Davis Guggenheim’s conception of how children learn.

My point here is that the other chemistry teacher was spot-on: Good teachers structure learning goals, lesson plans and instructional methods to meet the needs and quirks of the students in front of them. They also pay attention to results in real time (meaning—you don’t have to wait for test scores), and re-adjust when things aren’t going well.

Peter Green recently wrote an accurate (and amusing) blog that summarizes why teachers will never completely outgrow the need to plan, also listing a half-dozen ways that required lesson plans can become a pointless power struggle or an example of planning theatre.

I spent thirty-odd years planning the week ahead on Sunday nights, with a glass of wine. My plan book was where I scribbled notes when I had a brainstorm (or a failure). The plans were always messed up by mid-week, but I had five preps, and absolutely couldn’t teach without them. But nobody ever fly-specked my plans to make sure I wasn’t inserting CRT or SEL or any other acronym into the pedagogy I saw working for my students, on a daily basis.

Alfie Kohn takes this discussion about teachers’ daily work a step further, reminding us that it’s not just curriculum and lesson plans that the (well-funded) right now wants to control. It’s the way we go about teaching—our pedagogical practices, including things like the pre-eminence of phonics in the Faux ‘Science of Reading’ wars.

Just as social conservatism is all about religion, so religion — or at least this version of it — is all about not only order and obedience, but also faith (which means belief without evidence) in the conviction that Truth resides, fully formed, in certain texts. Carole Edelsky, an emeritus education professor at Arizona State University, has explained that “the far right’s love affair with phonics” reflects their “universe of moral absolutes,” the goal being to decode “what is ‘there’ [and to affirm] appropriate hierarchies – the authority of text over interpretation and ultimately of (the Christian) God over man. To the theocratic right, promoting phonics is a tactic for asserting Christian control of schools.”

That one made me stop and think.

The great irony here is that obedience and faith are what certain politicians want—but not the blue-chip businesses who will be hiring our graduates. Education Week just surveyed ten such companies, asking: What problem-solving skills do you want to see from early-career job seekers that tend to be lacking? And what should K-12 schools do to help bridge those skill gaps?

Corporations said: Flexibility. Cooperation and collaboration. Soft skills. Real-world applications. Learning to fail. Curiosity. Appreciating diversity. Service learning. Teamwork. Creativity and innovation—out of the box thinking.

All of which require a great deal of careful planning, diverse instructional strategies and materials, and zero emphasis on standardization and compliance, which is the pedagogical train we’ve been on for two decades now.

Can those traits and skills be taught? I think so.

The question is whether teachers and school leaders will follow their hearts and minds or be beaten down by politics.

The Heir and the Hillbilly

By now, you’ve probably seen Tucker Carlson and J.D. Vance, author and candidate for Senate in Ohio, wondering why right-thinking dads don’t just ‘thrash’ teachers for inserting their personal ‘sex values’ into the minds of innocent children. We all know that Carlson is worse than a destructive ass–but ol’ J.D., the self-described hillbilly who rose from nothing, sat there nodding and grinning along with Tucker as he incited a little righteous violence against your children’s teachers.

Incident in the Teachers’ Lounge: A dozen teachers sit around a long plastic table, chatting and eating their packed lunches. A custodian enters the room, skirting the table, to grab a soda out of the refrigerator, then stands looking at the bulletin board, while taking long pulls on his drink. There’s a pause in the conversation, and he says: So. You guys think this is funny, huh?

He points to a piece of paper tacked to the board, an internet-distributed list of excerpts supposedly drawn from parents’ absence-excuse notes. Things like: Please excuse Sally. She was in bed with gramps.

There is silence, but the custodian isn’t finished. He says: This is what you do in here? Make fun of parents? He shakes his head and leaves the room. As soon as the door closes, teachers turn to each other and begin talking. What do you think they say? How do they feel?
——————–
I was reminded of this scenario from my own teachers’ lounge as I read Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance. I was anticipating a good read—it was on all the “Best of 2016″ lists—but found the book shallow and insubstantial.

J.D. Vance grew up in a small town in southwestern Ohio in a working-class family. Aided significantly in a tough childhood by his ever-present, loving grandmother, and after a maturing stint in the Marines, he attended Ohio State, then got a law degree from Yale.

An impressive personal narrative—plaudits to Vance for his persistence—but hardly illustrative of the poor habits and prospects of an entire region of the country. Nor does Hillbilly Elegy illuminate any of the very real problems or crises, per the book’s title, facing working-class families in America today, beginning with the dangerous income gap between the haves and the have-nots that threatens the social order.

In fact, Vance is intermittently reproachful, blaming family members (mostly his mother) for being irresponsible and foolish, and chalking it up to their Scots-Irish heritage and growing up in Kentucky. He seems unaware of his own privilege—being a tall, nice-looking, intelligent white man in a country where those qualities are an enormous leg up, for example.

He describes his public school education as sub-par, with the exception of one demanding math teacher. The training and subsequent education benefits of a stretch in the military get short shrift. Ohio State? Easy peasy. It isn’t until Vance finds himself at cocktail parties where his admission to Yale seems to be paying off with high-level clerkships and job opportunities that he realizes he’s been handed a golden ticket, and he’s being watched to see if he can fit in.

Instead of reflecting on all that good fortune, however, he labels his family hillbillies, monetizing their salty speech, their blind loyalty to a particular funeral home, and their parochial weaknesses, as they struggle to survive in the most inequitable First-World nation on the planet.

In the post-war years, as millions of Baby Boomers became the first generation to attend college, class lines began to blur. It wasn’t until my Sociology 101 class that I realized my family was not “middle class,” but further down in the pecking order. It wasn’t until I read W.E.B. Dubois’ “The Souls of Black Folk,” that it occurred to me that moving up in the social order came with a cost to family relationships, and, sometimes, personal integrity. It wasn’t as easy as excelling in school and leaving your grubby antecedents behind—there were other important values besides “success.”

Here’s the question J.D. Vance avoids: Whose fault is it that more than 50 million Americans live in distressed communities, where nearly a quarter of residents lack a high school diploma?” Conversely, who is responsible for lifting themselves out of poverty? Is this a result of hard work and personal discipline only, “rising above” family characteristics—or do social supports, like public education, military training, and publicly funded scholarships also form the proverbial rising tide?

Most of the educators sitting in that teachers’ lounge were second- and third-generation college graduates. To them, the misspelled excuses were funny; their students were sometimes apples who fell near the poorly educated tree. Still, the custodian’s comment—You think this is funny?—found its mark. The post came down. Teachers responded with a mix of embarrassment and defensiveness.

A good public educator accepts all students, kids raised in hothouse homes with thousands of books and trips to the museum and kids who ate sugary cereal in front of the TV until their single mom unlocked the door at midnight. Kids across the spectrum benefit from public education.

J.D. Vance’s story is more about individual good luck than an analysis of a culture in crisis. I expect absolutely nothing from Tucker Carlson, but J.D. Vance ought to know better. He’d be a terrible senator.

Teachers Want to Teach. Just Not in the Way They’ve Been Teaching.

Headline in Michigan Advance: Two Michigan educators exiting this month, many others may soon follow.

I was eager to read the piece—because I know these two, both of them stellar educators. I’ve read her students’ work. He guest-blogged on my Education Week site. They are experts. Veterans. Teachers with a full professional toolbox, and insight into how the system works, in both well-heeled and disadvantaged districts.

The article made much of the fact that they’re leaving now—in March—rather than slogging through the rest of the school year. But in many ways, leaving now is the right thing to do, for two interrelated reasons. It gives districts maximum opportunity to hire in the spring as a few newly minted teachers graduate, and provides a heads-up: Look. Get cracking. You’re going to be short lots of critical personnel, and soon.

It also means that teachers are now behaving like the rest of the working world: Choosing the best and most lucrative opportunities to share their skills and talents. Hiring on and leaving those jobs when it’s convenient. Making their own decisions, based on the way their employers and clients have behaved, rather than being made to feel guilty.

Teachers who leave in mid-year are acknowledging that teaching is a job, like other jobs. It’s not a divine calling or moral obligation like, say, parenthood. Not anymore.

I generally haven’t retweeted or commented on blogs from teachers who have HAD IT, and are leaving their jobs. Long before I got my first writing gig (a local newspaper column) 20 years ago, I contemplated leaving my job, pretty much annually. If you’ve been a teacher, you can guess at the reasons: Lousy pay. Ridiculous class sizes. Overwhelming workload, leaving little bandwidth for family. Evil administrators. And so on.

While the oft-repeated data shows that half of teachers leave their jobs in the first five years, the actual numbers (where did those teachers go?) are murky. Some of those folks aren’t leaving the profession forever—just that building, at that time. Some people who leave teaching stay ‘in education’ (just ask Teach for America). Divided opinion on whether that’s good or bad.  

My take on this is that there is a pre-pandemic baseline for teachers jumping ship, and we won’t know until August just how much trouble public schools are in, when it comes to staffing. But two years’ worth of pandemic teaching has undoubtedly changed the calculation.

Teaching—I repeat—is just a job, and teachers now have plenty of first-hand evidence of how their employers, their state governments, and their clients (parents and older students) value their time, dedication and expertise, during a national health crisis. Answer: not so much.

A couple of days ago, a memo from an Applebee’s franchise executive made the rounds at an Applebee’s restaurant in Lawrence, Kansas, resulting in a mass exodus, both local managers and those paid largely by tips:

“Most of our employee base and potential employee base live paycheck to paycheck. Any increase in gas prices cuts into their disposable income. As inflation continues to climb and gas prices continue to go up, that means more hours employees will need to work to maintain their current level of living. The labor market is about to turn in our favor.”

I would theorize that lots of teachers who are leaving now still like being a teacher—just as there are probably plenty of Applebee’s servers and line cooks who think they could probably do worse than work at Applebee’s.

The point here is that the curtain has been pulled back—legislatures are proposing that untrained college students and bus drivers maybe could, you know, fill some classroom jobs. The labor market is about to turn in favor of those who are chipping away at funding public education, as well as those trying to squeeze a little more out of people who spend half their income on a crappy apartment.

Finding out that the people who control your pay, hours, and the tasks you’re assigned, are plotting to take advantage of your desperation will not lead to an uptick in loyalty or effort.

Teachers, of course, are in a different employment category—most of us see the work as professional, highly skilled, and attuned to a common goal of improving the lives of our students.  And there have always been anti-teacher, anti-union forces roiling the waters of public education, trying to establish ‘value schools’ to minimally educate the poors.

What’s different now is gubernatorial candidates turning school board meetings into political rallies.  The infusion of dark money into what should be local debates over masking and curriculum. The demonstrated increase in violent and criminal behaviors, as the pandemic (maybe) winds down.

Can you blame a teacher—let’s say a teacher who has the financial wherewithal to seek another job, or live carefully on a pension—for deciding that it’s time to get out of Dodge?

I personally know at least a dozen teachers who have either quit, turned in their early retirement papers or are holding off on telling their districts that this is their last year, worried about retribution. I know another handful who are actively interviewing for alternate jobs that either pay more or will provide a better lifestyle than teaching.

I talked to one yesterday. Three times in our conversation she said this:

I really love teaching, but______________.

Fill in the blanks.

The Highly Unqualified Teacher

Remember the early days of No Child Left Behind? When everyone was trying to figure out precisely who was a ‘highly qualified’ teacher, under federal regulations?

Here is a sample state document—15 pages’ worth—of the required coursework, majors and minors, certifications, licensure tests and ongoing professional development credits that a classroom teacher needed to be deemed highly qualified, under NCLB. Your mileage, in other states, may vary—but not much. The feds were all about making sure the most capable and knowledgeable folks were in front of our public school classrooms.

Or so they said.

At the time, the education community protested: WE should be the ones to determine whether someone (a certified someone, with a college degree, of course) is qualified to teach X! We have seen that person in action!

But federal guidelines, and states that rolled over for them, caused havoc in public schools across the country. In my middle school, it meant that a beloved veteran– but elementary-certified–8th grade English teacher found himself teaching 3rd grade, one of many personnel shuffles.

Teachers with advanced degrees went back to take courses they could have taught themselves. Rural districts, where one Science teacher covered Biology, Earth Science, and Chemistry and Physics in alternate years, found themselves with a host of ‘unqualified’ teachers who’d been on the job, doing yeoman work, for years.

An avalanche of irritated hoop-jumping ensued.  So that all teachers could be highly qualified. Professional. Experts in their fields. On paper, anyway.

That was then.

There’s been a lot of press lately about the lack of qualified substitute teachers as we navigate a raging global pandemic. States are lowering—really, seriously lowering—the bar to get temporary but warm bodies in classrooms, to keep school doors open.

But chronic substitute shortages have been around (poorly-paid canaries in the teacher preparation coalmine) for decades. I spent three full (non-consecutive) years of my life substitute teaching, in addition to occasional sub gigs as a retired teacher. It usually takes an adult beverage for me to share the details of how those year-long stints came about, but my experience is confirmation that substitute teaching on a day-by-day basis is pretty random.

Some days, the kids are actually moving forward—the teacher has left solid plans and it’s clear that you’re in a place where order is the daily norm. Other days? I once was assigned a 5th grade and arrived to find these plans: ‘Reading—groups. Math—division. Science—rockets.’ That was all—six words.  Try to imagine a well-meaning school bus driver-turned-sub attempting to make lemonade out of that for seven hours.

It’s not the substitute teacher pool I’m worried about right now, however. It’s last-ditch moves (after more than a decade of warnings) to fix the leaky teacher pipeline during a pandemic that are really scary. Worth pointing out: if there were ample trained teachers available to work, and acceptable conditions for them (including compensation), the substitute problem would shrink and vanish.

But first, teaching, as a career, must be reconceptualized. We’re rapidly moving in the wrong direction on that score.

It is entirely possible to create an effective and enthusiastic teacher workforce, state by state. It would take time, money and research-based pedagogical expertise, but we, too, could have a uniformly professional teacher pool.  State and school-based leaders have proposed viable plans to begin doing just that.

We could also find alternative ways to bring job-changers and other school staff into the classroom, by dedicating real money and programming into mentoring, on-the-job professional learning, and skill/content development for those who want a longer-term career in teaching.

What doesn’t help is uninformed legislation to get highly UNqualified teachers into schools right away—and highly publicized hand-wringing over the pandemic-driven ‘crisis’ of unstaffed classrooms. It’s a crisis, all right, but it’s a temporary crisis (and one produced by bad education policies over time, more than COVID).

Speaking of bad policy, there’s a bill currently in the MI legislature to allow college students studying education to become teachers of record. These are not student teachers or even students who have been admitted to candidacy in a selective teacher training program. They’re just college students who wish to teach one day, maybe:

The bill differentiates these aspiring teachers from “student teachers.” The uncertified teachers allowed under the new bill would be paid for their work, and, unlike when working as a student teacher, the bill would allow them to teach completely on their own, without a mentor present in the room.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Pamela Hornberger (R) (ironically, a former art teacher) said this:  

“We’re at the point where we’re voting to put anyone with a pulse and breathing in a classroom to sub. We need to do something.”

Well, yeah. We needed to do something decades ago, but we followed our usual ‘starve public education’ modus operandi, and it caught up with us during an unanticipated public health crisis. So now we’re hoping ‘aspiring’ 19 year-olds will bail us out?

Bad policy on top of bad policy.

But this feels like more than another dumb idea from a Republican legislator (the MI Department of Ed, the teachers’ unions, universities and Democrats are all adamantly opposed, by the way). It feels like just another strategy to weaken and compromise public education by further de-professionalizing teaching.

Lower the bar into teaching, because EMERGENCY! Then, demand that new and inexperienced teachers share a years’ worth of lesson plans, assignments and ‘topics’ so they can be scrutinized by fired-up parents, or cost their district five percent of its already meager state funding.

Kind of makes you wish for the good old days when the bad policy was at least nominally trying to do the right thing by building some highly qualified teachers.

Legislators’ Guide to Making Useful Education Policy, v. 2.0

I recently attended a virtual kickoff rally for Betsy Coffia, who is running for the MI State House, in the newly drawn 103rd district. I first met Betsy after she ran—unsuccessfully—for the old state House seat, more than eight years ago. We met on-line, and she wanted to meet face to face, over coffee.

Betsy asked lots of questions; we had a great conversation. Although she had worked briefly for Head Start, she admitted there were lots of theories and ideas in education policy she found murky. Personally, I was charmed by a candidate who was still hungry to know about ed policy from the perspective of a veteran teacher. In the next cycle, Betsy ran for County Commission and won—twice.

Betsy said (in 2014): “Wouldn’t it be great if there were a guide for legislators to making useful education policy?” So I sketched out one and put it up on my Education Week blog—and from there, it was picked up by Phi Delta Kappan, among other media outlets. It drew lots of commentary—mostly positive.

I just pulled it out. And wow. You wouldn’t think things would be all that different, in eight years. The 2014 version below. Comments about changes in education policy-making—the 2022 version—follow the list of ten.

#1. You don’t know education just because you went to school.

Even if you were paying attention in high school, your perspective as a student was extremely narrow and is now obsolete. Study the issues, which are more complex and resistant to change than you think. Here’s a brief list of things that, in my experience, legislators don’t know diddly about:

  • A cooperative classroom and how to achieve it
  • Formative assessment
  • Effect of class size on daily practice (not test scores)
  • Difference between standards and curriculum
  • Special education
  • Research-based value of recess and exercise
  • Differentiation vs. tracking
  • What quality teaching looks like in practice
  • The fact that ALL learning is socially constructed.

And on and on.

#2. Plan to pay many non-photo op visits to lots of schools. Do things while you’re there. Read with 3rd graders. Sit in on a high school government class or small-group discussion about Shakespeare. Play badminton in a coed gym class. Take garden-variety teachers out for coffee after your visit; let them talk, and just listen. Resist the urge to share the “good news” about legislation you’re cosponsoring. Ask questions instead.

#3. Take the tests that kids have to take. Then you’ll understand why “achievement data” and what to do with it are sources of high anxiety for public schools, teachers, and students.

#4. Be picky about what you read, listen to, and believe. Media is not fair and balanced. In an online world, information and sexy, upbeat story lines are for sale. At the very least, read both sides, with your crap detector on full alert. Consider that media often enshrines flat-out lies in the public consciousness simply because they’re a good headline or the deliverer is charismatic.

#5. Examine your assumptions. When teachers roll out unsubstantiated chestnuts (“No wonder he’s the way he is—just look at his parents!”), it’s teacher lounge talk. But, when elected officials say clueless things, voters pay attention. For example: “Incompetent teachers are being allowed to teach, and substandard service is being tolerated.” Whatever your deepest convictions about unions, teacher pay, urban poverty, or kids today, check those biases at the door. Represent everyone in your district, not just the people who agree with you.

#6. Follow the money, not the party. A lot of what’s happening in education “reform” today is centered around taking advantage of the large, previously untapped market of K-12 education. Before you get on any partisan policy bandwagon just for the thrill of passing a law, ask yourself: Who really benefits from this? Who loses?

#7. Remember you were elected to represent your constituents’ goals and desires, not some special interest group. Even if the prepackaged legislation is slick and convenient and the Koch brothers are willing to fly you someplace warm with golf courses, do the work yourself. Looking yourself in the mirror will be a lot easier in the morning.

#8. Be like Rob Portman. Change your mind and your public proclamations when the evidence is convincing. Changing your mind — if you do it publicly, and don’t try to sneak the shifts past voters with tap dancing and weasel language — makes you stronger, demonstrating that you have confidence in your own core values and leadership. After all, Diane Ravitch altered her views and earned herself a few million devotees.

Corollary: Admit when you don’t understand value-added methodology, the reason STEM is so hot, or constructivism in mathematics education. There is nothing more pathetic than a legislator trying to act like he knows something by tossing out a few buzzwords.

#9. Big and bold gets headlines, but tinkering around the edges gets results. Want to raise teacher quality? Don’t endorse firing the “lowest” quintile, publicly rank-ordering them in the newspaper, or bringing in untrained but photogenic Ivy Leaguers. Do it the old-fashioned way: careful recruitment, building teachers’ skills and knowledge, investing in their capacity and leadership over time.

#10. Honor our democratic foundations. Public education is the most democratic of our institutions, one of our best ideas as Americans. Public schools may be tattered and behind the technological curve, but systematically destroying the infrastructure of public education is profoundly selfish and immoral. Don’t be that legislator.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

From the perspective of 2022:
Some of these are evergreen–#10 especially, but I could add a half-dozen bullet points (the so-called Science of Reading, for example) to #1, as things around which most legislators have zero expertise. The invitation to visit classrooms (#2) once a foundational strategy of reformy organizations like Teach Plus, is defunct in the time of COVID.

Suggesting that legislators take statewide assessments (so they can learn about the tests’ irrelevance and weaknesses) seems downright quaint now. We’re using admittedly bogus test data from 2021 to proclaim that poor kids suffered more under remote learning (which may have also saved their lives, but oh well… learning loss!) Because hundreds of non-profits would have to close if there were no giant data sets to analyze—testing went on, under conditions rendering the results invalid.

Actual policy-making skill, tailored to real needs rather than outside organizations’ agendas—numbers 4, 5, 6 and 7—has grown considerably worse. This is a result of four years of Betsy DeVos, increasingly divisive rhetoric in the media, a poorly managed pandemic, unregulated social media, and the fact that one of our two major political parties has decided that winning is the only thing that matters and to hell with the public good. Public education is now, essentially, for sale.

I’m trying to imagine any teacher cheerily saying to any Republican representative: Check your biases at the door! Those days are over—and the way Glenn Youngkin used deceptive education policy promises to win an election ought to be a cautionary tale for all of us. So much for civic engagement and community-building. So much for re-thinking and all the other blah-blah about improving schools. The action now is locked and loaded, standing on the Capitol steps.

I was really stunned to re-read #9, to remember that there was once a time when ‘big thinkers’ in education were talking about lopping off the lowest-achieving teachers. Now, of course, we’re inviting bus drivers and lunch ladies to substitute teach.  As Peter Greene notes:  It is amazing how quickly some folks have pivoted from “We must ensure teacher and educational quality” to “We must get students into a building with the word ‘school’ in its name no matter what actually happens once we’re inside.” It turns out that an awful lot of that big talk about educational excellence and quality was insincere posturing and as long as we can get schools open and students stuffed inside with something resembling a probably-responsible adult with a pulse, that’s good enough. 

I am optimistic enough to think that writing ten new talking points for writing good education policy is something that might be useful—at some point in the future, if not today. One thing I learned from reading Ibram X Kendi is that most social beliefs and practices are, when you dig deep enough, driven by decades, even centuries, of policy. And, of course, money.

Plus ca change…

What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been: Five Decades of Ed Reform

Four days ago, I wrote a Blog of Despair—all about the forthcoming demise (or destruction, take your pick) of America’s best idea: public education. I’m not backing down from that conviction; I think the more or less permanent downfall of public schooling is inescapable, unless there are major, sudden shifts in public and political opinion.

One of my former students, now a mother with two school-aged boys, commented on the blog: If we could start over and build education from scratch, what would it look like? 

First—I have to admit that I’m proud of Kendra for asking the kind of question that doctoral students at research universities have been noodling over (without transformational results) since forever.

While there are optimistic legislative packages and snazzy new tools, most real change in education feels sluggish, rather random and exceedingly difficult to analyze. The idea of starting from scratch lies under most reform—charter schools were originally touted as a way to get rid of red tape and innovate. (Pause for cynical laughter.)

The thing is: transformational change involves determination and investment. It’s uncomfortable, expensive—and it takes time. Most change in public schools is driven by forces—financial, technical, social—outside of education. We’re not very visionary or intentional about education.

Education policy thinkers tend to be Stephen Covey-esque in the upbeat, step-wise way they approach change: anticipate, arrange, administer and assess. That’s how we got No Child Left Behind, which was supposed to be the Grand Strategy to identify inequities, raise and equalize standards (a word meaning different things to different stakeholders), harass teachers into somehow teaching better, and then test diligently to ensure accountability.

But– no plan on such a scale succeeds unquestionably. NCLB may have changed the tenor of the conversation, but over two decades of No Child, in various incarnations, have come and gone– and we’re still considering why the results are proof that you can spend billions and not improve education in any meaningful way.

I have been a teacher in five distinct decades, each with its own policy slogans, public perceptions and real problems. We’ve been “at a turning point” more times than I can count. We have surfed the rising tide of mediocrity and been embarrassed by the soft bigotry of our low expectations.  But what has really changed in classrooms? What’s the net impact on actual practice?

My–admittedly ultra-personal and non-scientific–report on Five Decades of American Education:

The Seventies: Got my first full-time, regular-paycheck teaching job in 1975–something of a miracle, as there was a teacher glut in Michigan. Was hired because the principal needed someone right away and we were on the same humor wavelength in the interview.

Soon learned that there was no district curriculum for music or any other subjects. Chose my own teaching materials from catalogs–wasn’t that a curriculum? Taught whatever and however I wanted–no instructional oversight, no mandated materials and nothing resembling “professional development.”

Heard “don’t smile until Christmas” about 50 times from other teachers, sum total of any “mentoring” I got.  Saw teachers smack kids (still permitted by law)–and heard lots of lounge talk about chaos that would happen if the right to paddle was taken away.

I was pink-slipped in Years Two, Three, Four and Six. Was always called back–once because of a lawsuit, after registering for unemployment. All of this was tied to precarious, locally voted school funding.

Gave statewide tests–the MEAPs, then a basic-skills check–but nobody considered them a big deal. Was happy that Jimmy Carter instituted a cabinet position for education–about time! Had a few friends who taught in Detroit–envied their superior facilities, resources and paychecks. Teaching seemed like a fulfilling, creative, and very autonomous job. Most days, it was lots of fun.

The Eighties:  Economic downturn in the early 80s meant further pink-slipping and annual changes of building/teaching assignment necessitated by constant personnel shifts. Had daily loads of up to 400 students in two buildings and–since any certified MI teacher could teach any subject to 7th and 8th graders–a year of teaching math. All of this change was oddly invigorating, if exhausting.

Finished a masters degree in Gifted Education, a popular cafeteria-style ed specialty (like Career Ed, Distance Learning, etc.). Got serious about teaching. Read many books, took fake sick days to observe admired teachers in other districts. Sought leadership roles in Music Ed organizations. Downright hungry for professional conversations.

None of this was required, encouraged or even noticed by the district, which did institute its own curriculum benchmarks in the 80s. Teachers called these curriculum guides “the black notebooks.” Problem: not enough time, staff or resources to teach all the good things in the black notebooks.

Reagan’s release of “A Nation at Risk” interpreted by colleagues as rhetorical excess and unionized-teacher bashing, an imperialistic extension of right-wing momentum gained in the air traffic controllers’ strike. Hoped it would blow over, but having to listen to Bill Bennett’s nostalgic morality fables was nauseating. Still giving the MEAPs, which got harder in the 80s. Took leadership roles in the union–since they were the only teacher leadership roles available.

The Nineties: Decade opens with some optimism. H.W. Bush’s Goals 2000 are kind of inane–First in the world in math and science! –but there’s the sense that policymakers are paying attention, and the belief that public education can and should improve.

Visit Detroit, shocked to see decayed and racially polarized schools–what happened in the last 15 years? Outstate Michigan residents, tired of seeing wealthy suburban schools funded at four times the rate of rural and urban-rust schools, pass a funding bill to get rid of property taxes as source, using sales tax instead. Outstate schools ecstatic as times are flush–auto industry will last forever!

Real and substantive school improvement begins to impact daily practice. There are national standards and benchmarks in most subjects, and teacher committees to update, align, discuss. Required mentoring for new colleagues. Performance assessments, and portfolios of student work. Required professional learning as opposed to blow-off in-service days, although the quality is still iffy.

Further upgrades in the MEAPs, including hands-on tasks for kids, new constructivist tests for science, social studies and writing. Better assessments begin to drive instruction. New teacher hiring done by colleagues. Plus–fab new instructional toy arrives in classrooms: the computer, full of infinite possibilities for teaching and learning. Some teachers begin experimenting immediately; others are intimidated.

Best Secretary of Education ever–Dick Riley–provides eight years of continuity of purpose and coherent policy. Education is still a local-control thing; Feds just there to ensure equity, promote innovation. National certification identifying accomplished teaching becomes reality. Next stop: real leadership roles for exemplary teachers, whose expertise will help policymakers solve problems. Nagging worry: all of this still takes money–and a growing number of poor kids are still completely underserved.

The Naughts: A slow U-turn in policy and conventional wisdom. We’re not gradually improving, after all–in fact, we’re an international educational joke.  All public schools (not just poor/urban schools) are bad. Decidedly awful–and the people who work and believe in them are intellectual dimbulbs who care only about their inflated salaries. How would they handle this in Singapore? China? India? We must compete!

Buzzword of the decade: data. Every person with a computer sees data analysis as the solution. In the lunchroom, colleagues express skepticism about the Texas Miracle even before it’s exposed as just another Data Hustle. Some of the best teachers in the building discover they are not Highly Qualified. Meanwhile, the worst teachers in the building–genuine stinkers–look good under NCLB regs.

We begin administering tests to third graders–and relinquish development of performance assessments that tell us real things about kids’ writing, number sense, comprehension, familiarity with the scientific method. No time for that now–the data-driven race to the top has begun even before it’s formally named.

Saw well-regarded suburban districts become defensive and start advertising as schools of choice. Urban and rural districts were shamed. Teacher preparation institutions–even the good ones– scorned. Paradox of the decade: We must have the smartest teachers! But should they bother studying the science of teaching? Or stay in the classroom for more than a couple of years? No. With data, we can replace teachers as often and as efficiently as we replace technologies.

The Twenty-Tens: The decade begins with the depressing realization that the Obama administration has fully bought into the privatizing, standardizing “accountability” movement, where no child can go untested. There are tweaks to NCLB, but the idea that we can accurately measure teaching/learning excellence through data becomes embedded wisdom. Federal policy demands grow—and competitive financial incentives are dangled in front of states to meet questionable regulatory goals that do little to innovate or improve schools.

The Common Core State (sic) Standards are launched, adopted, fleshed out with assessments and aligned instructional materials during the first half of the decade. Teachers have lots of complaints, but are knocked down by the big systemic wave of federally-driven homogenization. Mid-decade, however, community pushback against the Common Core strengthens—another silver bullet with no results—and its trajectory rapidly descends. Baby Boomer teachers, like me, the core of the profession (for better and worse), leave the field; the conventional teacher pipeline begins to dry up, along with the concept of teacher professionalism.

Now retired, I visit classrooms every week, as substitute, volunteer, special instructor or teacher coach. Every school I visit still looks and feels familiar—the crowded hallways, the marginal hot-lunch pizza, the goofy Things Kids Say. Things have changed since the 1970s, and not for the better, but school is still school.

And then, there’s an election.

The day after the 2016 election, a group of middle schoolers in Royal Oak, Michigan is videotaped shouting ‘Build That Wall!’ to a cluster of Hispanic kids, in the lunchroom. Four years of destroying useful education policy and practice ensue, led by a cartoonishly incompetent Education Secretary and newly emboldened, racist policy-makers. Things in public education go from bad to So Much Worse.

And then came the pandemic.

In April of 2020, I wrote a wildly optimistic blog titled A Dozen Good Things that Could (Just Maybe) Happen as a Result of this Pandemic. I mention this, because I have often, like Kendra, asked myself how I would change public education, if I could start from scratch. I genuinely believed that a pandemic could serve as a cleared slate, a turning point, for our social institutions. Maybe it’s too early to give up on that idea—a reclamation of public education’s mission—but I’m not optimistic.

I would sketch the last 50 years of public education as a bobbling, but slowly rising curve through the 70s, 80s and 90s, with a downturn at Y2K, falling gradually until the last five years, after which the line plummets due south, rapidly. Way south.

A long, strange trip indeed.

The Demise of Genuinely Public Education

“Censorship reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime.”

Potter Stewart, Supreme Court Justice

There is no more local-politics issue than public education.

From Mom gossip about teachers, watching Little Leaguers play, to intense competition for valedictory honors with all the teenaged strivers loading up on useless AP credits—any community’s buzz continually includes trash-talking the local public schools.

The charter school movement tried to take advantage of this, co-opting public education by taking its best features (it’s free, it’s local) and blending them with private school features (selectivity, glossy PR). This has resulted in more waste, fraud and abuse—the very things public schools were accused of, before charters were even invented. In the process, charters drew significant resources away from genuinely public schools.

This is, of course, old news. Charters, vouchers, unhappy parents, ‘education savings accounts’ and court decisions shifting resources away from common schools have been with us for more than a century.

My first political activity, in fact, was phone-banking against a voucher initiative in MI in 1978 (it went down, 3 to 1—like two subsequent voucher proposals). The first time I went to a heated school board meeting, to defend my district’s well-designed sex education curriculum, was even earlier.

Public education has always been under-resourced, contentious and subject to the community it serves. The people who work in public education have always been underpaid, but generally aspire to improve society by helping kids. There are exceptions, of course, but years of history and research bear this out.

You might think I’d be used to this, what with all the banned books, slashed programs (often my own) and vehement parent rhetoric in my personal past. You might think I would be applying the evergreen ‘this too will pass’ theory to what’s happening today, confident that the pendulum will swing, the pandemic angst will fade, and we’ll be back to our highly imperfect normal: public education under siege, but still standing.

It’s taken some time for me to come to this opinion, but I foresee the end of what we currently call public education.

The tipping point is a global pandemic—but the great, battered ship of public ed has been taking incoming fire for a long time. Chunks of its initial purpose and mission—an educated citizenry, democratic equality, a broad introduction to the real world and the humanities—have been regularly chipped off. Something new and malevolent, however, has taken root: an overt push to use public education and already pissed-off parents to win elections.

Today, NPR posted an article entitled ‘Teachers are on the Front Lines in January 6th Culture War.’

It’s a pretty good piece, featuring an array of teachers and curricular experts discussing the difficulties of teaching current events on the anniversary of the January 6th insurrection, after the nation and the Republican party has had a year to, you know, just get over it.

There are brave teachers in MA and MT who are planning to show news videos and discuss the root causes and eventual outcomes. But there’s also a special ed teacher (and regional chapter chair of Moms for Liberty) in Indiana, who’s sticking to math and English, in an effort to be ‘unbiased.’

Unbiased against what? Protecting the rights of camo-clad faux-military marauders to despoil the U.S. Capitol and threaten the lives of Members of Congress? Not willing to sway student thinking about the peaceful transfer of power? Trying to stay neutral on the topic of domestic terrorism?

Just whom are we censoring here? And whom are we protecting?

The story ends with a quote from a middle school teacher, Dylan Huiskan: Not addressing the attack is to suggest that the civic ideals we teach exist in a vacuum and don’t have any real-world application, that civic knowledge is mere trivia.

Veteran public school teachers like me have spent decades developing real-world content discipline applications for our students. We have fought against sterile data-driven education, the relentless pursuit of test scores, the pushing Science and Social Studies and the Arts out of the curriculum. We’ve been trying to DE-trivialize education, professionalizing our own work in the process.

But now we’ve got teachers who think their colleagues are indoctrinating students, by showing them actual live news footage, or discussing an event that happened within their short memory and has huge impact on their own futures as American citizens.

Things are falling apart. We have been crushed by an unexpected medical disaster. One of our two political parties has gone off the rails.  Civility is deadand oh yeah, the planet is fighting back after years of heedless neglect.

And now, we’ve decided to warn teachers—teachers! –not to tell the truth.

As a blogger, I have repeatedly asserted the truism that American schools, often the target of political and media scorn, merely reflect the communities they serve. If that is true—and if democracy is indeed threatened by the events of 2020 and January 6th, then our public schools are threatened as well.

Once, years ago, I wrote a blog using the phrase ‘data Nazis’ and a friend I respect, and trust, chastised me. Use logic and facts, he said. You weaken your arguments when you oversell and hype the danger.

 But maybe the next Civil War is here. Maybe public schools will become a tool for the wrong side:

 Nobody wants what’s coming, so nobody wants to see what’s coming.

On the eve of the first civil war, the most intelligent, the most informed, the most dedicated people in the United States could not see it coming. Even when Confederate soldiers began their bombardment of Fort Sumter, nobody believed that conflict was inevitable. The north was so unprepared for the war they had no weapons.

Is that overkill? Unclear.

But if it’s not—what are our weapons against losing genuinely public education?

Six Gigantic Problems, Six Wrong Solutions in Public Education

So here we are, at our local schools, trying to stay afloat, with daily crises incoming.

The adults who are still bravely teaching, teaching, teaching (+ making administrative and child welfare decisions) in spite of the fact that the world seems to be on fire around them, need help. Don’t take my word—just read pretty much any educator-written blog from 2021.

When we have massive social problems, how do we generate and roll out solutions?

The answer is: Policy.

Policy is how we mounted a successful response before, during and after World Wars, developed and refined sequential national transportation and communication systems, and came back from significant economic depressions. We can point to any number of policy-driven transformations in these United States.

Once policy is put in place, and implemented, we can see its real-world effects. Optimally, the policy will be tweaked until it does what it’s supposed to do: solve the problem. Or at least move things in the right direction.

Yes, it’s infinitely more complex than that—designing good policy is way more than guesswork and a good feeling about how to fix the trouble.  And yes, policies sometimes make things worse. Way worse.

I would argue that public education is one area where terrible policy is now endemic—and sometimes, after clear failure, overlaid with even worse policy. The sheer dispersal of decision-making responsibility is part of the reason. There are legislative levels—federal/state/local—and a whole array of other organizations (the PTA) and people (the Athletic Director, the Union president) who have policy-making roles, assigned as well as assumed.

In fact, it’s hard to think of an education-related policy that has effectively and sustainably worked, beyond the granddaddy of all ed policy: a free, high-quality, fully public education for every American child, no matter what they bring to the table.

Lately, this wrong-policy trend in education has been on steroids—both the frightening gravity of the problems as well as the foolish, even ludicrous suggestions to address them.

A few examples:

PROBLEM: School shooting in Michigan

WRONG SOLUTION: (from a member of the State School Board, no less)—eliminating the attendance requirement for children to go to school in Michigan. State Board of Education member and Republican Tom McMillin posted this suggestion on Facebook last week, saying the “state needs to stop dictating terms of education of our kids.”  You may wonder how McMillin construed this as a solution to mass shootings, but he claimed parents could improve their children’s mental health by keeping them home for as long as they chose.

PROBLEM: Underfunded schools, leading to low salaries and lack of resources

WRONG SOLUTION: A Cash Stampede with teachers on their knees, grabbing dollar bills, in competition with other teachers.  I’ve seen this horrible video compared to the Hunger Games, but to me–with the cheering audience teachers on their knees, scrambling to pay for the tools they need to work– I am picturing the Christians and the lions, at the Colosseum in Rome. So amusing!  BTW, you don’t have to be a policy expert to see what the only real solution to this problem is.

PROBLEM:
Student mental health crisis, due to the isolation and uncertainty of being a child during a global pandemic

WRONG SOLUTION: Deciding that Social-Emotional Learning initiatives, whether they be commercial programs or merely a group of educators trying to help kids get through the first worldwide crisis in their lifetime, are somehow tied to Critical Race Theory, and therefore should be formally banned in our classrooms. Or that SEL is a ‘perilous’ waste of time and money, stealing time from Algebra. There are many viable ways to address the mental health crisis. All will be multi-faceted, and involve an array of attentive and thoughtful adults, determined to buoy the children in their care.

PROBLEM: Not enough teachers, not enough subs, not enough bus drivers

WRONG SOLUTION: Lowering the bar to get warm bodies in classrooms or behind the wheel. Or hiring year-long unqualified substitutes because the requirements for subs are less. Once again, there are many viable policy options to fix this. Suggesting we throw up our hands and let anybody in our classrooms is not only counterproductive—it’s dangerous.

PROBLEM: Student scores on standardized tests remain stagnant, or go down

WRONG SOLUTION: Fix the teachers, through rigorous evaluation of their behaviors and ‘success,’ including those same test scores. If this solution feels convoluted—well, the idea that a mountain of data could serve as a spur to improve practice has never worked particularly well, anywhere. It’s a data-focused non-problem, with a data-focused solution, neither of which matter much, in the real outcomes we want from public education.

PROBLEM: As COVID numbers rise, merely coming to school is stressful. Widespread absences and anxiety.

WRONG SOLUTION: Adding more half-days to the school schedule. This one started out on the right track—less time exposed to unvaccinated children, pre-planned time away from face-to-face learning. But, as most districts have learned, asking for Wednesday afternoons off is not likely to endear you to parents, who have pushed for full-time school in a pandemic, because they need to work.  Less time in school and more technology-focused interaction is probably where we’re headed anyway, like it or not. Four-day weeks. Virtual conferencing. On-line lessons. The new normal. But let’s not worsen the child care crisis in the process.

There have been some good suggestions for addressing issues bubbling up in 2021, the best of which are coming from those closest to the work. And there have been some heavily recycled, proven-wrong policy frameworks that the same old policy creators having been pushing for two decades now, thrown out to see if they’ll stick, when everyone’s distracted by the ongoing dumpster fire.

Where should policy-creators get their ideas about solving big problems?

Because we are living in a completely different world now than we were two years ago, we should look first at the proposed solutions from people who are up close and personal with the problem. The people who are still, in spite of the danger and frustration, willing to be public school educators.

One last thing, for those who would like to tailor solutions to ‘the marketplace’ rather than the common good: Problems in public education are also problems in private and quasi-private (read: charter) schools. School violence, student mental health, the empty teacher pipeline, lack of resources—they’re apparent across the country, in all kinds of schools.

I got a heart-tugging message from a friend who is Principal in a small Catholic elementary school on the border of Detroit, a couple days after the shooting in Oxford. Local police had alerted her to threats that were ‘terrorist in nature,’ suggesting the school close down. But in consultation with her staff, they thought students (who had lost many relatives and caregivers over the past year) would be safer in school.

She said it was a fairly normal day, although she couldn’t wait for the dismissal bell. Then, she went home and threw up.

She wrote:

I am so done with all of this. My job is no longer one of an educational leader. I am an emergency manager around pandemic, school safety, bad weather conditions that flood our school or knock the boiler out… It is rare, very rare to have anything to do with education. I want to return to overseas international schools where the innocence has not been stolen from children. What we have here in the USA is worse than when I fled Sudan due to a revolution. I could understand a revolution. This I do not understand.

Me, either.

Should School Staff Be Charged in the Student Shootings in Michigan?

I waited for the headlines, and here they came: Oxford School District Likely to Be Sued Over ShootingsFurther tart media observations: What does it take to get suspended from Oxford High or searched after violent scribbles? And: Red flags the superintendent blandly describes as “concerning drawings and written statements” that alarmed his teacher.

If I were only seeing these remarks on right-leaning media (where public schools are all presumed to be guilty of So Many Things—including blandness), I wouldn’t be surprised.

But I’m also seeing remarks trying to pinpoint blame for this shooting  posted on teacher/education/lefty sites—by teachers blaming weak-on-discipline administrators, university professors going after mush-mouthed PR-driven superintendents, and school leaders saying their hands are legally tied, when it comes to searching backpacks and booting kids out of a public school without due process.

I’ve read perhaps a dozen lengthy descriptions of what happened, including a detailed timeline provided by the district superintendent, who keeps stressing that the Oxford Schools want to be transparent.

And frankly, my take-away—this is incredibly sad—is that school folks did what they reasonably should have in this instance, and that nothing will cause real change (including metal detectors, more school resource officers, tripling the number of guidance counselors and requiring clear plastic backpacks), until there is a national, minds-and-hearts shift. Gun control, yes, but also a different political ecology.

There’s a whole complex of reasons why American students are surrounded each and every day by allowed, even encouraged, violence.

I was a classroom teacher for more than 32 years, most in the same district, all but one year in secondary schools. I have had students who committed grisly murders. I have students who are currently in prison for major crimes (including one dude who scratched an epithet into a brand-new tuba when he was in the 7th grade). I had kids who sold weed and pharmeceuticals. A handful of my former students took their own lives, or the lives of others, in various ways. One of my students burned down his own house. On purpose.

Each and every one of these students was white, and attended school in a small-town-values kind of place.

Sometimes, there are obvious signs. Sometimes, not. Some kids grow up and out of their worst behavior. Others, who appear to be quiet or moody, turn out to be capable of unspeakable actions. Contrary to what some believe, there is no infallible ‘check for mental health’ procedure.

The worst-behaved student I ever had—a daily pain in the ass who disrupted the entire school building with his rambunctious and hostile behavior —is now a multi-million dollar real estate salesman.

Many years ago, a HS student in a nearby district brought a gun to school, and showed it to a friend. This was in the zero tolerance/punk prisons era—and he was expelled and sent to Juvie. It was in the local newspapers. Because he was a minor, his name was never printed.

A month or two later, I got a new student in the HS band, a tenor sax player. I asked where he went to school previously, and he told me: the next district over. He was a good player, and quickly made friends. The more I got to know him, the more I appreciated his wit, kindness and intelligence. I took him on a band trip to Toronto. He graduated.

Later, of course, the school counselor caught me in the hallway and informed me that he was the kid who brought the gun to school. Thought you should know, she said. You weren’t here when we had the meeting about accepting him.

Social media comments proclaim that any kid who sketched weapons with blood dripping, or penned a self-doom/anti-social message in gothic lettering that caught a teacher’s eye, should be searched immediately then sent home. Pronto.

But–kids draw and paste all kinds of stuff in their notebooks and on their homework—everything from swastikas to oversized anatomical features. Think: video games.

Are we seeing incipient violent tendencies—or teenage boredom? Who gets to judge? The fact is, we don’t generally kick kids out of school for their immature drawings or weird teenage behavior—unless there’s a pattern, over time.

The fact that two teachers reported ‘concerning’ drawings and cell phone use to find ammunition, over the space of a couple of days, means that the adults in school actually were tracking this child. They asked his parents to take him home, and get him immediate counseling. They shared their fears. And the parents refused.

I was struck by one of the superintendent’s remarks—that if they had forced the child out of the building, when the parents refused to take him, the boy would have been home alone. Hanging behind that remark is another fear educators are dealing with during a mental health crisis: What happens when depressed children are home alone, and there are weapons?

I had a student once, a 7th grade girl, who wrote little notes to me, about her feelings of being ugly, a dork, not having friends, and so on. I tried to pay special attention to her, but the language became more frightening– ‘What will they think when I’m gone?’ I took the problem to the school counselor. She asked: Do you think this girl would harm herself, or is she just seeking attention?

I honestly didn’t think she would. I thought she was just lonely. But I still wanted a referral to the counselor, and a parent call. The counselor agreed, but said that parent calls of that nature often didn’t go well. The school might be seen as high-handed and intrusive, telling a family their child had talked about suicide.

Still, she was willing to do it. Because it was the next step. There are protocols for this kind of thing, she said. We follow them.

Would that all parents tried to do the right things, too.

You’ve probably noticed that there are Moms for Liberty organizations and now, faux legal strategies for parents to demand the rights they already have,  popping up like mushrooms, to keep those high-handed, mask-demanding schools in their place, to press forward on incendiary social issues. The climate for productive school-parent conversations (never a given), has been negatively impacted by living through a highly stressful pandemic and its emotional aftermath.

The core resource for well-functioning schools is—and always has been—trust. All good school practice—public/private/rich/poor—hinges on relational trust.

When parents don’t trust schools to have their kids’ best interests at heart, we’re all in trouble. When there is a deliberate push to de-stabilize school boards and overrun safety rules, the trouble gets worse. Without some measure of trust, we can never help the kids who need our help most.

My heart goes out to all the educational staff in the Oxford Schools, working through the worst that can happen in a school community.

Thank you, as the saying goes, for your service. I wish you and your school healing.

Violence and Threats in Schools: Who’s Responsible?

It’s been a terrible week for teachers in southeastern Michigan. A terrible week for students and families and school communities as well. Early yesterday morning, school districts—by my count, at least 60, but that was an early tally*—began announcing that out of the proverbial abundance of caution, they were closing down for two days.

They’re not closing due to COVID (although Michigan’s school-based infection rates are ghastly at the moment). They’re shutting down because of spiraling threats of in-school violence, spread on social media.

School leaders are terrified. Not one of them wants to be the next school where an angry, disaffected kid shoots off more than his mouth.

I have dozens of friends who teach near Oxford, site of Tuesday’s massacre in Oakland County, and know many others who have children or grandchildren in the district.

I have been reading their social media threads: First, the reassurance that they’re fine. Then, sharing of how they knew the students who were injured or killed: a friend of their daughter’s, their babysitter, the boy who was in their second grade class, years ago. Sometimes, anger over the words and actions of the shooter’s parents. Photos of the dead, and #OxfordStrong hashtags.

Then, inevitably, the conversation turns to blame. Copies of the two messages of reassurance sent by Oxford school administrators to parents earlier this month—saying hey, we know about these threats and we’re doing something—are shared. There are repeated acknowledgements that the school followed all the recommended safety protocols. So how did this happen?

Two things—true things—are repeated endlessly in these dialogues. The first is that the nation exposed its true values nine years ago after the slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary, choosing unrestricted gun ownership over the lives of children. The second is that we need a greater understanding and focus on mental health. In our schools, of course.

What is often missing from these heart-wrenching discussions is the fact that schools are just like malls and movie theatres and churches and political rallies—stages for playing out what it means to be an American citizen in 2021, our deepest principles and beliefs.

Despite selfless and heroic actions, despite good parenting and good teaching and due diligence on the part of school administrators and counselors—we live in a pretty ugly country right now.

We live in a country where Kyle Rittenhouse walked free. Where senators and governors boldly lie about election results. Where parents, urged by astro-turf organizations, mob board meetings to protest the teaching of facts and requiring masks in a deadly pandemic. Where thousands of brutal insurrectionists attacked our most sacred building and democratic processes, led by the President of the United States.

Also this: the Oxford HS shooter lives in a state where a gang of angry young men conspired to kidnap and execute the Governor, fantasizing about taking her to a remote location and ‘putting her on trial.

None of this mitigates the reprehensible behavior of this teenager. He is fully responsible for what he did. But it’s worth thinking about the unique context of growing up in America, the people respected as leaders in this nation, the ruthless tactics used to acquire and maintain power and ‘freedom.’

As Eugene Robinson said: I wonder if the people of Oxford, Mich., feel they have more freedom today than they did before Tuesday.

There are kids like [Ethan Crumbley] in high schools around the world. But only in the United States do we enable them to express their teenage angst by bringing guns to school and opening fire on the students, teachers and administrators they see as their tormentors. Only in this country do we make it easier for youths to get their hands on a handgun or an assault rifle than to work up the courage to ask a classmate out on a date.

This is not new. Kids have been threatening violence, mayhem and self-harm in schools for decades. My (nice/white/suburban) school district was plagued, off and on for years, by a series of bomb threats.  Legislation alone is ineffective, although strong restrictions on possession of firearms would be a good start.

That leaves us with the broad recommendation that we need more attention to mental health, everyone’s favorite ‘solution’ to the problem of social violence. I always wonder just what people think enhanced mental health services look like, in schools. Who’s in charge? What do they do?

I am a strong believer in school counseling, but anyone who’s worked in a school knows that counselors—if they even exist—are stretched over multiple responsibilities and way too many students.

The urgent, squeaky wheels for counselors are often standardized test administration, scheduling and college applications, not dealing with individual students’ bitterness or rage. If we had ten times as many qualified counselors, it would only be a band-aid on mental health for children. Compared to other nations, we have miles to go.

However. Riled-up parents now see social-emotional learning as just another intrusion into their parental rights.

Rick Hess and Robert Pondiscio portray social-emotional learning efforts as ‘perilous’—pointing out that teachers aren’t trained therapists. They fret about all the trigonometry and Brit Lit that won’t be learned, all the drooping test scores, as teachers strive to nurture their students’ emotional health, before tackling the periodic table.

I would argue that public school teachers in America understand the simple fact that kids can’t learn when they’re anxious, depressed, or hostile. Everyone’s running their own informal, ad hoc SEL program, all the time.

It’s called caring about your students.
* Per Bridge Magazine, over 150 school districts in Michigan shut down, as a precaution.

Flyover in SE Michigan yesterday–4 jets in the ‘missing man’ formation.