Do Parents Really Want Control Over What Students Learn?

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

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

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

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

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

No. It was about the football team.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Earlier this year, Jennifer Berkshire found reason for hope:

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

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

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

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

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

It’s about raising a public ruckus.

Tutoring Our Way to Excellence?

Back when I was in ed school—undergraduate and masters-level, in the 1970s—one of the seminal truths we read about and discussed at length was ‘individual attention:’ Why class size matters, how to reach students personally, and the superiority of one-to-one tutoring in knowledge acquisition.

No better way to learn than to have the undivided attention and expertise of a single teacher. If, of course, the family can afford private tutoring, and that tutor is a content expert, skilled in teaching techniques. And also—big point– compatible with the pupil. Tutoring is ideal, in other words, except when it isn’t.

I remember a band-director colleague telling me that in order to play in his select high school band, students were required to take weekly private lessons. He was working in a well-heeled suburban district, and many of his students were studying privately with members of the Detroit Symphony.  

It wasn’t clear how he was getting away with this demand—it wouldn’t fly in my school—but it was a dazzling thought: All of students’ technical issues, solved, on the parents’ dime, by explicit and targeted outside instruction. All he had to do was put these elite student musicians together with high-quality music, then conduct. Easy-peasy.

That’s not exactly right, of course—there’s much more to learning and playing music together than individual skills. In fact, learning, in every subject and in every classroom, depends on a stew of cooperation and community, in addition to dealing with diverse understandings, talents and proficiencies, led by the—caring, one hopes—person in charge.

There are, to put it succinctly, lots of things that cannot be precisely measured, when it comes to learning. The idea that we can accurately  diagnose what students have learned/not learned, and confidently prescribe the best of three strategies to ‘catch them up’ is folly. Student learning is not a statistics problem or a disease, where the correct number of ‘high-dosage’ tutoring sessions will guarantee a return to normal. Whatever that is.

That doesn’t mean that tutoring isn’t a useful strategy. It certainly is. There are plenty of stories about kids who struggle with something academic, then connect with a tutor who helps them over the hump—learning to read fluently or solve equations or whatever.

A friend’s son initially got mediocre scores on his ACT test, meaning he wasn’t going to be accepted at any of the colleges he was aiming for. The son’s English teacher recommended a local woman, a former teacher, who had created a business tutoring students through the college application process.

The boy was unenthused, but met with the tutor four times, then re-took the ACT, gaining nine points, more than enough to expand his college options. On the ACT writing test (now optional), he earned a six, the highest score.

My friend was grateful for the targeted assistance–her son’s self-concept as capable student improved enormously, as well. But she asked me—Why didn’t he learn to write an excellent essay in school? What did he learn in four hours that had not been conveyed in the previous 12 years?

There are lots of differences between working with a private coach vs. learning in a class of 30 or more. Motivation, for one. Privacy—not exposing a weakness in front of peers—is another. In the end, it’s the same stuff we talked about in my ed classes: reaching students on an emotionally neutral, personal level and a class size of one, where feedback and re-dos are immediate.

There have been bursts of enthusiasm around auxiliary tutoring for public school students in the past. Free tutoring was a part of No Child Left Behind’s efforts to help kids in schools that did not make Adequate Yearly Progress, and were deemed ‘failing.’ We are all familiar with commercial ‘learning centers’ in strip malls that promise success in radio ads, before even meeting your child.

Michigan is now considering using $280 million in federal COVID recovery monies for tutoring to get kids ‘back on track.’ And I wish I saw this as a viable option for all children who have missed a lot of in-person schooling during the pandemic.

But the first thing I thought about when I read the Governor’s plan was: If we don’t have enough qualified teachers to fill our classrooms—where are all those skilled tutors going to come from? Because all the research on tutoring, while generally positive, is clear that small groups and expert tutors are essential.

I also remember the NCLB tutoring—private tutoring vendors scrambling to use federal money to set up yet another government-funded after-school program to fix kids who weren’t reading at grade level or were lacking the credits to graduate. The lack of oversight—or coordination with schools—made a lot of those programs useless.

So—who’s going to monitor these new tutoring programs? You guessed it:
It’s not clear what standards the state program would use to evaluate tutors or identify tutoring programs.

“It is a state responsibility to provide leadership and ensure that best practices are followed in this new effort,” said Jennifer Mrozowski, director of communications for Education Trust-Midwest, a nonprofit advocacy group that has called for an expansion of tutoring services. “The state also should have a plan in place to see to it that the dollars are actually being spent on best practices and districts are held accountable for the work.”

Of course. Districts are now supposed to locate and hire suitable tutors, set up programs, provide materials, find transportation, then evaluate student progress. Because, despite all their best efforts during a pandemic, students have ‘fallen behind’ benchmarks set by federal and state policy. The phrase ‘actually being spent on best practices’ is particularly insulting.

A lot of the literature and articles around tutoring refer to an Annenberg study on ‘recovery design principles.’ When you see the phrase ‘high-dosage tutoring’ in a ‘recovery’ plan, someone’s been using the Annenberg research to support a plan for additional instruction. The study is actually useful—it lays out the factors necessary for tutoring to have real impact:

One meta-analysis found that high-dosage tutoring was 20 times more effective than low-dosage tutoring in math. In reading, high-dosage tutoring was 15 times more effective than low-dosage tutoring. Simply providing students with access to tutoring is unlikely to be effective for all students. Paraprofessionals and volunteers may be better suited to one-to-one tutoring because they are less likely to have developed the skills in behavior management and group instruction that are needed for working with multiple students. Tutoring interventions often are not successful when there are no minimum dosage requirements, little oversight, and minimal connections with the students’ schools. A key element of successful tutoring programs is being able to establish a rigorous and caring culture.

It turns out that the most effective tutoring happens three or more times a week, at school, in very small groups or one-to-one. And the most effective tutors are trained educators familiar to students. Which takes us right back to what we have always known about instruction—small class sizes and individual attention from a trusted teacher work best. No surprise at all.

Voting is Not Enough to Save Public Education or Keep Schools Safe

Voting is not enough to turn this nation and its communities around, although everyone MUST vote their conscience and core values. It’s a cornerstone strategy in change.

Nor is speaking out enough—although plaudits to every teacher, organization, political candidate and basketball coach who has spoken out against the ugly spasms of hate and violence. More, please—keep talking and keep writing about how we are collectively losing something we once thought invincible: a safe and just democracy.

Even policy will not save us, although it might have a positive impact—the assault weapons ban of 1994 did. Before it expired under George W. Bush’s watch, of course, when the rate of assault-weapon incidents tripled. There were about 400,000 AR-15 style rifles in America before the assault weapons ban went into effect in 1994. Today, there are 20 million.  Policy helps, but is insufficient.

Policy, political power and public discourse are valuable tools—but we need a public uprising, a change in hearts and minds. We can do better. We need to understand how connected we all are, first.

Education depends on safe, orderly, predictable systems—something that the COVID-19 pandemic undermined. It’s taught many of us how interdependent we all are and how interconnected our systems can be.   (Renee Owen, in Education Week.)

Here’s the thing I have been thinking about most, in the wash of grief over the two most recent shootings: The people we lost were community builders, those who sought and worked for safe, orderly and predictable systems in their own lives and towns.  Grandmothers, family caregivers, a retired cop. The supermarket where the Buffalo shooting occurred was a community-driven project to provide grocery shopping in a former food desert.

And the teachers in Uvalde were exactly the kinds of educators we need right now: Committed to kids, thoroughly embedded in the Uvalde community. Skilled veteran teachers. Role models, in a community where over half the citizens speak Spanish at home. They were obviously teaching the children in their care that they were valuable, that they could accomplish great things.

How were they doing this? Safe, orderly and predictable systems that put structure into their work at Robb Elementary School. Until one day, all of those interdependent, interconnected systems failed, and fourth graders were calling 911, begging the police to come and save their lives.

The national conversation right now is centered around what policies, tactics, and personnel could have prevented this.

Several popular-with-Republican theories have been roundly debunked: There were at least 19 good guys with guns who apparently did nothing. The community had already spent more than $600K in ‘hardening’ the building. There was a nine-member local SWAT team to handle shooters on the loose, but they were ‘unavailable.’ The resource officer wasn’t on site, and when he arrived, the shooter walked right past him.

Ted Cruz went with the inane ‘one door’ strategy, proving he’d never dropped his kids off at school—and Sean Hannity talked about trip wires, because those sound cool. That’s enraging, all right—almost as bad as Alex Jones asserting that Sandy Hook never happened.  

All of these ‘solutions’ and strategic assertions are missing the point, however.

Which is: What is there about the United States that breeds domestic terrorism? Especially in young men? We can—and absolutely should—limit access to weapons and ammunition. But why do these disaffected, weapon-toting kids with grudges keep emerging, to threaten peaceful shoppers and innocent fourth graders?

This brings up the question of what we should be aiming for, in public education.

How about this? Human beings who feel accepted as part of a community, and also know they have something to offer that community. You know, the building blocks of successful adulthood– things that make students finish high school with some optimism that the world of independent living and work will pan out for them.

With all the blah-blah about ‘learning loss’ (after a global pandemic, no less) and bogus testing data and parents screaming at school boards—have we taken our eye off what matters most?

Here’s something that made me think—from a piece in the Washington Post about how the gunman presented himself and interacted online:

Many of Ramos’ threats to assault women, the young women added, barely stood out from the undercurrent of sexism that pervades the Internet — something they said they have fought back against but also come to accept.

That made me incredibly sad. Not just empathy for the young women who are (still) fighting sexism. But that the internet, where countless kids hang out 24/7, is precisely where a kid could incubate the idea that shooting up a school would get him attention, establish himself as a badass dude.  

We have a generation of school-aged kids who have experienced significant loss of the safe, orderly and predictable routines found in school for two years. And now, parents are worried that we’re spending too much time on social and emotional issues?

Democrats will tell you their recipe for turning the country in a better direction: Voting. Speaking out. Policy solutions. Using the levers of democracy to save ourselves from a world we don’t want to live in.

But first, we need to stop demonizing those who want to help. The community builders. The teachers in whose classrooms the next shooter now sits.

Social. Emotional. Learning.

What a difference a few years—and a pandemic and an insurrection—make.

Remember when a ‘growth mindset’ was all the rage among reformy types?

In addition to teaching kids about malleable intelligence, researchers started noticing that teacher practice has a big impact on student mindset, and the feedback that teachers give their students can either encourage a child to choose a challenge and increase achievement or look for an easy way out. For example, studies on different kinds of praise have shown that telling children they are smart encourages a fixed mindset, whereas praising hard work and effort cultivates a growth mindset.

Speaking for all the experienced teachers who were introduced to the ‘growth mindset’ concept and its promotion as silver bullet teaching practice: Would that it were so easy. And researchers are just now noticing that teacher practice has a big impact on what students are thinking? Seriously?

And what about grit? The desirable persistence, an ability to pursue goals in the face of discouragement, the thing that underachieving slackers in public schools didn’t seem to have inculcated? They weren’t dumb (or hungry, scared, exhausted or neglected). They just lacked grit. Right.

Both of those things, packaged as programs, were embraced by professional developers, as part of a suite of soft skills that could be used to enhance student performance. There are plenty of other terms veteran educators have run into: Character Development. Restorative Justice. Conflict Resolution.

They all fall under the general category of encouraging the social and emotional welfare of students, giving them tools to manage their emotions and relationships—so they can learn. Also: (unspoken but obvious) so their test scores will go up.

Social-emotional learning (SEL–the reality, not any official program) is just a rather random collection of ways that school staff has always made students (who have all kinds of reasons for feeling anxious and off-balance these days) comfortable enough in a school setting that they can settle down to learn.

Different SEL programs have different foci: Positive behaviors. Making friends. Sticking with tough tasks. Being more thoughtful, less aggressive. Every time you hear a teacher say ‘Use your words’ or ‘What would you like to say to Jason?’ or ‘Take a minute to calm down’—they’re riffing on SEL ideas.

In a good column at Curmudgucation, Peter Greene says that SEL is a real thing, all right, but he can’t defend SEL programs which are now taking a beating from parents. These are, one has to assume, the same parents who thought grit was just the ticket for kids who were living in their family’s car, or that telling certain kids they were smart could cause their heads to swell and spoil them for the workforce.  

A whole lot of the murkiness around what SEL is, and how it relates to Critical Race Theory (CRT)—spoiler: it doesn’t—comes from masterful manipulation of language.

A year after a terrible incident at a local HS, where students of color were put ‘up for sale’ on Snapchat, some parents here still think that systemic racism doesn’t exist here in Traverse City. Some of them saw the incident as simple bullying, no big deal, and others thought it was a matter to be handled by police rather than the school board, although the idea started and was centered among HS students. All of them seemed to think addressing it would cause even more divisiveness.

Why wouldn’t you want teachers, using developmentally appropriate strategies and language, to address emotionally sensitive issues? If students don’t have these conversations in school, under the watchful eye of an adult (especially an adult with the skills to help them process their feelings and social challenges), where will they learn to keep a lid on? To distinguish truth from foul lies? To learn the art of cooperation? Restraint? Respect?

Where will they learn to use THEIR words, instead of picking up a gun?

The interesting thing to me is that none of this is new. Twenty-odd years ago, I was recruited to be part of a video series produced by the Annenberg Foundation, called The Learning Classroom. I had a film crew in my classroom (and my office) for an entire week, capturing footage around how I used social-emotional learning to teach more effectively.

I prepared lessons designed to engage my middle school band students emotionally, by learning Ashokan Farewell, the music Ken Burns used to great effect in his Civil War series, then tying the plaintive tune to the letter that Major Sullivan Ballou wrote to his wife in 1861, a week before being killed in battle. We talked about how many of the recruits at the end of the Civil War were no older than the boys sitting in the band room, how bloody the war was, dividing families.

The filmmaker wasn’t looking for a lesson that used emotion to drive home learning (something that teachers do all the time, by the way, from reading great literature to the exploding mysteries of the baking soda volcano). She wanted to see stormy outbursts from middle schoolers.

Your classroom is like Mayberry, she told me. Everyone is friendly and nice. I desisted from telling her how long it took (speaking of grit) to build a community of 13 year-olds who worked together. I did not say that there were, in fact, days when the emotional temperature of the room was not so pleasant.

While the film crew was there, one of my students returned to school from a month at home recovering from surgery and treatment for testicular cancer. The other kids were happy to see him, and the film director asked me where he’d been. Oh, wow, she said, when I told her. Let’s use this in the episode.

I was aghast. Absolutely not, I said. Not everyone knows why he’s been out—only that he was ill. It would be a terrible violation of his personal privacy. He would never trust me again. He is so fragile right now—how can you even suggest something like this?

The next morning, the film crew was gone, two days earlier than planned, leaving my office filled with dirty coffee cups and discarded papers. I didn’t hear back from the production company, and never got the complimentary set of videos I was promised—so I never saw myself trying to teach using social-emotional learning. Whatever that is.

Last week, when I was doing some reading on SEL, I accidentally found the Learning Classroom series, and the video where my students and I were featured. If you’d like to see it, our part starts about 15 minutes in.

Seeing the video again made me realize that my students displayed more emotional intelligence than the filmmaker. There’s another lesson there.

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.

Good Times, Bad Times. Public Education.

I should start by saying that while there were occasionally some very Bad Times indeed in public education in the last century or so—the folks who are in the classroom at this moment are undisputed champions of working through the mind-bending challenges and crises coming at them.

It’s been chaotic even in the best-run schools, a kind of perfect storm of global pandemic and political upheaval, for more than two years. And we’re going to pay for it, down the line, in loss of professional staff and community goodwill. When I say ‘we’—I mean all of us: teachers, parents, and especially students.

You can’t beat good people up ad infinitum; no matter how dedicated they are, teachers eventually tire of trying to balance the rewards with the downside: underpaid, disrespected. And lately, exposed to a dangerous virus and not trusted to teach their own subjects.

It’s easy to tire of ‘Why I’m Leaving’ articles, but this one caught my eye: Teacher Job Satisfaction Hits an All-Time Low:

‘Past research suggests that many of the people who indicate plans to quit won’t actually do so. But experts warn there are negative consequences from a dissatisfied teacher workforce. Research shows that when teachers are stressed, the quality of their instruction, classroom management, and relationships with students all suffer. And students tend to do better in schools with positive work environments.’

Let’s pause here, to say: Duh.

“What people want is to be able to teach and teach well, and if they can’t do it because they can’t afford to do it or because they have a toxic work environment, that discourages them from acting as teachers who are learning and growing and getting better and increasing their commitment to the work,” said Susan Moore Johnson, a Harvard University professor of education who studies teachers’ working conditions and satisfaction. “That’s the side of satisfaction we need to pay attention to—it’s not just keeping people in their positions.”

‘Also, the low satisfaction levels of teachers already in the classroom may impact the pipeline of future teachers. Enrollment in teacher-preparation programs has declined by about a third over the past decade, and experts say that is likely in part due to the perception of teaching as a low-paid, thankless career.’

Low paid. Thankless. And eligible for food stamps, in some states. What’s not to like?

In the linked article, there is a graph showing the percentage of K-12 teachers who say they are ‘very satisfied’ with their jobs, beginning in 1980. There’s a big dip in 1984 (down to 33%). Beginning in the early 90s, there’s a steady upward climb (to 62%) around 2005 or so, then a downturn, a slippery slope to where things currently stand: 12% of our teacher workforce is very satisfied with their jobs.

Educators aren’t happy.

Remember the famous Santayana quote–Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it? There have been terrible times in education before—segregation and gross inequities, pre-Brown Decision in 1954, and the shameful reaction to it, for example. School funding crises and hot-button issues bubble up periodically.  Hard times are not new.

I actually remember that dip in the early 80s. There was a serious economic downturn, and oil prices shot up. I worked in the suburban outer ring around Detroit, and the financial crisis hit the auto industry, where lots of our parents worked, particularly hard. For the first time, the district lost students, and families.

I remember waving to a tenor sax player, leaving with his school-owned instrument on the day before spring break. He didn’t come back—and his family’s house went into foreclosure. The family left, and took the sax. We waited for a request for records from a new school that never came. There was no internet to cross-reference serial numbers. Bye-bye, Selmer tenor.

I used to think those were bad times. I was wrong, by orders of magnitude.

It’s not a hopeless situation. Here’s a short list of some ‘just for starters’ things we could do to engender a turnaround.  The first two are about a major increase in salaries, and loan forgiveness for those who commit to teaching. So basic, and so essential.

What’s your metric for generating good times in public education?

What Music Teachers Do in the Summer

Scrolling through FB posts from teachers these days is an exercise in sorrow. There’s no other word for it. What’s happening is deliberate damage to the very heart of public education, and most of it is highly politicized nonsense.

I follow an Elementary Music Teachers FB page, filled with suggestions for the Spring program, quick lesson plans for tomorrow and advice for any number of classroom management issues. I just skim through it, admiring the teachers who are digging in, paddling and paddling through deep and stormy waters.

Today, someone said they’d signed up for Orff Training Level One (a summer program to teach an elementary music method that uses keyboard percussion, among other techniques and instruments)–and discovered the training was two weeks long.

What followed was 41 comments from other teachers encouraging everyone to take all three levels (that’s six weeks, in the summer, folks) because it was fabulous. Even though there was homework every night, and six hours of classes in the day. It’s great, person after person said–I use what I learned every day. Take the training!

We got all the way down to the 42nd comment, before someone said: Hey. Does your district pay for this?

Nope. Nope. I get $100 year for professional development. I asked the PTA for a scholarship. Nope. District has a policy not to pay for professional development unless they select it. Nope, nope, nope.

So. It’s April, and music teachers are encouraging each other to sign up for useful summer professional development, on their own dime. During a pandemic.

I don’t know whether to be proud that I’m a music teacher, or angry that there isn’t enough money to send teachers to summer programs (let alone pay them for going).

Shout out to music educators everywhere, who spend their summers working.

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 Glorious Adaptability of Music Teachers

Teachers are my favorite group of people on the planet. There’s been a lot of scare-baloney lately about how much schooling has been missed, learning lost blah blah blah—but a pandemic that’s cost us over a million lives is no joke. And teachers have reliably been heroes, showing up to teach, in spite of a firestorm of unsubstantiated criticisms.

I want to offer a special shout-out to music teachers, my super-super-favorite people. And I want to make a prediction: As awful as the pandemic has been in damaging long-standing gold-star music programs, the net effect could be a useful re-thinking of traditional music education.

I joined the Michigan School Band and Orchestra Association in 1975, as a newbie instrumental and vocal music teacher. In subsequent decades, I was a district and statewide officer, festival host and adjudicator.

The organization existed, in large part, to organize and run festivals. I played the game, attending hundreds of meetings, festivals and conferences, some years with as many as four performing groups. I followed their rules. And in my 40+ year association with the MSBOA, not much changed.

This is not a criticism, by the way. Lots of organizations stick with what worked in the past.

But this year, the MSBOA—wisely—changed their previously rigid festival requirements. They listened to their members’ pandemic teaching woes, and eliminated a couple of technical challenges that might keep school bands and orchestras from participating. They tried, in other words, to increase access to the good things about performing for critique, and made the process more flexible. The new rules are set to expire in three years, unless members choose to keep them permanent—or change them again.

We typically teach secondary music through performing ensembles, and award-winning programs are usually run by teachers with student populations and resources that allow them to cherry-pick talent and supplement instruction with outside lessons and coaching. There was some grumbling about ‘lowering standards’ with the new festival rules from some of these directors (don’t call them teachers). But I saw this as a giant leap forward for music education.

For the past two years, I have marveled at how adaptable music teachers are—teaching from home, using brand-new technologies, holding classes outside or in tents, jerry-rigging masks and sharing information on bioaerosol emissions, something none of us studied in college. I have seen some utterly amazing and ingenious things. Standing-ovation dedication and creativity.

But I also understand that the pandemic has had hidden consequences for music teachers. A small urban program that usually has 45 kids in the HS band has only 23 this year, as students have to re-take classes they failed online, rather than a 3rd or 4th year of band. A choir teacher has become the in-building sub for teachers out with COVID, as her three select choirs are combined into one class. A novice middle school band teacher lost her job in 2021, because her beginning instrumentalists were unable to perform at the Honor Assembly in June, having spent months learning online, instead of playing as a group.

Wondering about all those cast-of-hundreds bands and choirs that inspired you from those little online boxes? Why couldn’t school bands use technology like this?  (Click on it—you won’t be sorry.)  

Unless you’ve access to some advanced recording and mixing equipment, the skill to use it, and reliable broadband for all your students–you’re not going to be doing a lot of detail work on rigorous traditional literature. In fact, the person who works magic in those little-heads recordings is the engineer, not the conductor or the individual students. Not to mention—someone taught every one of those 1400 musicians how to play before putting a microphone on their music stand.

I think ‘lost learning’ is total fallacy for all students and subjects, but especially for music. It doesn’t really matter when students (or adults) learn to master an instrument, or start singing with a choir. Music is a life-long skill and pleasure. Introducing competition, benchmarks and timelines into music instruction is almost always counterproductive.

It’s occurred to me that the slower pace and greater individuality in learning might lead to stronger musicians overall, students who will play for enjoyment long past school contests. When live performances have been pushed into the background, there is also time to focus on other aspects of music education: history, culture, elements of musicianship, improvisation and composition. Maybe even fun.

Also: relationships, the heart of all learning. I hear from teachers that kids are quitting because practicing is no longer possible at home. How can we make it possible for those students to continue making music with their friends, when school is the only place that can happen?

Can use what we’ve learned teaching online by setting up computer-based instruction for kids who can’t fit band into their schedule? Or develop alternative music classes to bridge the gap between the advanced orchestra playing Shostakovich and more basic music-making?

Maybe we decide to be music teachers, not competitive ensemble directors. That’s not all bad.

It’s a matter of creativity and flexibility, something music teachers have in spades.

Lock and Load and Learning Loss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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