Would You Recognize a Good Lesson If You Saw It?

Here’s a scary headline: Michigan Democrats Look to Change Teacher Evaluation System.

Not so much the “Democrats” part—although I’d argue that not having a clue about evaluating teachers is common in both parties—but the implication that way fewer than 99% of public school teachers are doing acceptable work:

Consider: During the 2021-2022 school year, 99 percent of Michigan teachers were ranked either highly effective or effective on evaluations.

State Rep. Matt Koleszar, D-Plymouth, chair of the House Education Committee, told Bridge Michigan the state’s teacher evaluation system often leads to school administrators “checking a box” as they monitor teachers rather than using the process to help struggling teachers improve.

“I think when you have a better evaluation system and you’re supporting someone who needs that help and needs (those) resources, that ultimately is going to (filter down) to the student.”

I am decidedly NOT a fan of basing any percentage of a teacher’s evaluation on standardized test scores (it’s 40% in Michigan, under our current, Republican-developed system). And I am a true believer in the statement that teacher practice can be improved—and a good evaluation system (plus—key point—the time, trained personnel and resources to implement such a system) could help.

With so many moving parts, and the current handwringing (and bogus data) around low test scores in students emerging from a global pandemic, re-doing teacher evaluations which might be in place for decades seems precarious at the moment.

The questions, really, are: What are we looking for, in a teacher? What skills and qualities do good teachers exhibit—and are they measurable, with the tools we currently use? What outcomes are most critical for students—and what (easily measured) outcomes disappear quickly?

When the legislature can agree on answers to these questions—with input from the education community and invested parents, of course—let me know. Cynicism aside, how do we streamline teacher evaluation in ways that make it easy to capture and share expertise, help promising teachers build their practice, and excise the folks who shouldn’t be there?

There is, by the way, no shortage of ideas and research around teacher improvement; our international counterparts are already doing a better job of this. Anyone who’s looked at Japanese Lesson Study models, or meta-analyses on building effective learning environments knows this—but investing in viable teacher evaluation systems that also build capacity will not come about with a new written tool or protocol. It will take a new mindset.

Because I spent many years looking at videos of music teachers, while serving as a developer for the National Board’s music assessment, I also understand that there are limitations in evaluating teachers by observing their lessons.

For example: You have to know what the teacher’s learning goals were, going into the lesson, and have some context around who’s in the room. The core competency for nearly all teaching is knowing the students in front of you. You can’t build effective lessons without that knowledge. And that’s hard to evaluate.

I used to teach with a man who didn’t bother to learn the students’ names, because the classes were large—60 or more. His rationale was that learning names was time that could be better spent delivering content. He delivered a whole lot of content, all right, but never got great results, because there was no human relationship glue inspiring students to use that content.

Try to put that into an evaluation tool.

Dr. Mary Kennedy, one of my grad school professors, had a video library of teachers teaching. She would usually show two videos, and then ask us to compare and contrast—and roughly evaluate.  One pair of videos (and discussion) that I remember:

  • A man in a Hawaiian shirt, cargo shorts and flip-flops is facilitating a hands-on science experiment with a half-dozen groups of middle school students, clustered around lab tables. The room is noisy as students manipulate equipment and fill out lab reports, but the teacher is wearing a mic that picks up his comments and students’ questions as he moves from table to table. Several times, when students ask a direct question, he turns it back to them—What do YOU think? Why? Once, he claps his hands and asks the entire class to re-examine the stated purpose of the experiment. There is a beat of quiet, and then students are back to talking and writing. The video picks up students who appear to be off-task, as well, looking at the camera or talking to someone at another table.
  • A young woman is teaching a HS literature class. She is well-dressed and very articulate. The video begins with a Q & A exchange about the assigned reading, with a young man wearing a navy blazer and tie. The questions probe facts from the text—Who is the real victim in this chapter? Does this take place before or after the barn-raising scene and why is that important to the narrative? —and the young man has clearly done the reading, as his answers are all correct. The camera moves back and we see there are about eight teenaged boys in the class, all in blazers. She cold-calls the students, in turn, and they all answer her questions correctly. Other than the questions and short answers, the class is silent.

After watching the two videos, Dr. Kennedy asked: Which was the best lesson? Who was the best teacher? The class was vehemently divided—and remember, these were all graduate students in education. Imagine showing two similar videos to a legislator or one of the Moms 4 Liberty— then asking them to pick out the “best” teacher.

Ironically, the current quest to limit controversy and hot topics in public school classrooms makes it even more difficult to evaluate teacher practice. The best lessons—the ones that stick—are often messy and hard-won. And our best teachers—articulate, student-focused and creative—are being shut down by the very people designing their evaluation procedures.

We used to laugh at the inadequate teacher evaluation checklists—Is the teacher dressed neatly and well-groomed?—prevalent in the 1970s. But we haven’t solved the problem of how to evaluate all teachers fairly and productively. Yet.

Eight Topics Education Bloggers Should Avoid (if they want readers)

I have been blogging for over twenty years—and before that, I wrote the occasional column about teaching for the local newspaper (until The Superintendent sent me a “cease and desist” memo). I have written for a handful of education non-profits, magazines and journals, and spent nine years blogging for Education Week.

When I started blogging, many educators didn’t know what a blog was, and the ones who did spent a lot of time reading and writing about all the Amazing New Tools available, via the miracle of technology. It was an era when financially strapped school districts didn’t hesitate to buy more computers, and everyone wanted to jazz up their lesson plans and see students’ work “published” on the internet. It goes without saying that this was way before Tik-Tok.

Now, I’m writing for myself and anybody who’s interested in reading the thoughts of a veteran educator. Those thoughts aren’t always focused directly on classroom practice, anymore, which was the overt mission of my first paid gigs. Increasingly, my thinking centers on the socio-political reasons for changes in school practice, and what I see as the very real danger that public education might collapse. Even that kind of alarmism is not a sexy, sticky topic for blogs these days, however.

Point being: I’ve been at this for a long time. I’ve written thousands of blogs, columns and op-eds, and observed what gets read and shared, and what sinks like a heavy, published rock. Some of my best work (IMHO, of course) has gone mostly unread. Some tossed-off columns written to meet a deadline got tens of thousands of eyeballs. It’s hard to say what’s going to cause people to read and share a blog.

There are some things, however, that no longer seem to engage teachers (my primary audience) and other education-junkie readers:

#8. Book Reviews  Every now and then, a spectacularly good book about education is published—the kind of book that would help teachers see the work they’re valiantly doing in a new light. I used to teach a graduate course in teacher leadership. One of our icebreakers was naming a favorite book about education. Teachers would routinely admit they hadn’t read an education-related book since college or fulfilling a masters-level coursework requirement. Ironic—and understandable, because working in crisis conditions means you’d prefer to take a break from stress when you read—but also kind of sad.

#7. The Philosophy or Purpose of Education  When Finland gutted and re-did their entire public education system (one that is now deeply admired in the data-driven Western world), they spent years dissecting and re-forming their education goals, before launching an entirely new concept—time that appears to have been well-spent. We don’t do that here. We adopt new programs and slogans on the regular, based mainly on what the people in power think will “work” (to improve data). We resist that deep national conversation about purpose and meaning in education, what our real aims are. We apparently also resist reading about what should matter most.

#6. Teacher Leadership  This one breaks my heart. Teacher leadership and professionalism are at the heart of what I think might save public education, releasing teachers’ moral commitment and creativity in the service of doing right by kids, instead of pursuing goals set by people who haven’t stepped foot in a school for decades. Want to be depressed? Ask practicing educators for their definition of “teacher leadership”—or sit in a teachers’ lounge at lunch and listen to stories of how dedicated and skillful teachers are now treated, in their own workplace. Hint: not as potential leaders.

#5. The Pandemic  Our entire focus, as we move out of a massive global emergency, is trained on two meaningless issues: So-called learning loss—a fancy name for entirely predictable drops in test scores. And a weird obsession with which schools took the risk of meeting face to face, when it was safer for students to be at home.  One might reasonably expect a devastating pandemic to have an impact on students’ emotional well-being as well as endemic confusion about “best practice” during a health emergency. But shouldn’t the questions and initiatives now be around how to support our kids, and figure out what such a traumatic event can teach us all? Instead, there’s all this finger-pointing and blaming. And writing a blog about what positive changes a pandemic might spur gets you zero readers. 

#4. Religion Perhaps you think that religion and public education are two separate things. If so, you are wrong. The intertwining of Church and State—a very bad idea—lies under a lot of the angst in public education in 2023, from book-banning to whatever Hillsdale College is cooking up at the moment. Writing about schools and religion, especially nuanced viewpoints, is a losing proposition. The blogs that get the eyeballs are anti-Christian (on the left) and anti-all non-Christian religions (on the right). Nobody wants to read about a positive role for any religion, like opening church doors to AA or feeding hungry schoolchildren, let alone offering comfort during times of great fear and upheaval.

#3. Racism This one needs an asterisk—because there are plenty of people writing about racism, the most eloquent and productive being those who have lived with its aggressions all their lives. But white women wanting to open a dialogue around racism in schools? Maybe they’re virtue signaling? Writing about racism, and the panoply of school-related issues impacted by systemic bias, is dicey for someone who might be perceived as, well, removed from the action. But as Ijeoma Oluo says in So You Want to Talk About Race? —you have to keep trying. Even if nobody responds.

#2. Research  I’m hardly the first person to write about the disconnect between valid education research and education practice (let alone policymaking) in public schools. And there are readers for pieces that present the most recent grant-funded studies from the Hoover Institution and the folks at Fordham.  Mostly, the commentary is something like: My research is better than your research or Your results don’t mean what you think they do. Even when the research is credible and useful (which isn’t always the case) the audience for genuine research breakthroughs is small and parochial.

#1. Women  I am always fascinated by the fact that teaching is such an overwhelmingly female occupation, and the corresponding chronic disdain for teachers that shapes education policymaking as well as mainstream media. It seems logical that asking a question like “Does the reason teachers make so little money while doing such important work hinge on the fact that they’re mostly female?” would be a hot research topic. But of all the issues I’ve written about in the past 20-odd years, blogs and columns about gender and education get the fewest eyeballs. I’m not sure why—women dominating the teaching profession and the outcomes from that seem to be like the sun coming up in the east: just the way it is.

I used to do blogging workshops, to encourage teachers to write and publish their thinking about education reform and classroom practice. Invariably, the audience would be largely female, but of the prospective bloggers who attended, the ones who followed through with creating a blog (or being hired by someone to write) were most often men. That has changed a bit —there are now more online options for teachers to share their tips and opinions—but I doubt if we’ll ever see four female educators blogging for every man.

Last thought: What blog topics always draw lots of traffic?

  • The Outrage du Jour (weird stuff that happens in schools and then is promptly forgotten)
  • Testing (everybody hates it, and loves reminders that it’s bogus and useless and time-wasting)
  • Wars (the war on teachers, the Reading Wars, the Math Wars, the Recess Wars, etc. etc.)
  • Lists (something about a number in the title)
  • Gifted education (there’s an organized gifted parent legion out there; I recently randomly ran across a man—on another person’s FB page—bragging about ‘ripping Nancy Flanagan a new one’ over a column on gifted education I wrote 10 years ago, a man I don’t know and never exchanged messages with, but who felt absolutely triumphant about… something)

So—what draws you to a particular blog?

Where the Boys Aren’t: Why is Teaching Still a Female-Dominated Profession?

Last week, the Michigan Department of Education named Candice Jackson, a third grade teacher and instructional coach in the Detroit Public Schools Community District, the 2023 Michigan Teacher of the Year.  Hearty congratulations to Ms. Jackson, and my heartfelt wish for an awesome year, packed full of opportunities.  In my (admittedly unasked-for) opinion, teachers in Detroit have been beaten up for decades, but are a talented, determined bunch—teachers with a mission. It’s especially wonderful to see one of them recognized, and their work showcased.

What I found interesting is that all ten of the regional finalists are women. They’re a diverse bunch, too, teaching across the K-12 spectrum in multiple subjects and contexts.

I’m old enough to remember when hiring men to teach in elementary schools was a district goal—we thought that men would serve as role models for younger children and were ecstatic when our new varsity basketball coach was hired to teach kindergarten.

Hiring women as administrators and in secondary jobs that usually went to male candidates (like—cough—band directors) was seen as progressive (by some school boards and hiring committees, anyway); the percentage of women in formerly male-dominated education roles has steadily crept upward.  Over half of school principals are women, in 2023, and a quarter of superintendents are female, a 12% jump over the past two decades.

There’s some research that suggests blended teaching cultures benefits students—that veteran teachers and novice teachers have much to teach each other—and there’s research that supports learning gains when students have teachers of the same race. But what about gender?

The K-12 teaching force has grown increasingly female, although slicing and dicing the numbers is tricky. States where teacher unions are still strong tend to have more male teachers, especially secondary teachers—which may be a function of higher salaries. In Southern, right-to-work states, the percentage of male teachers is lowest—about 18%  of the K-12 workforce in Virginia, Mississippi and Louisiana.

An imprecise but useful stat: about three-fourths of K-12 public school teachers are women, across the United States. Interestingly, there are more men (white men, anyway) teaching in private schools than in public—and for considerably less money.

You may not have noticed, but this week is both National Nurses’ Week as well as Teacher Appreciation Week. A cynical person might wryly suggest that it’s efficient to double up these “honor women” weeks, get all this female recognition nonsense over with and let them get back to their underpaid service jobs.

But something has been happening in nursing careers. There are more men training to become nurses—nearly doubling their numbers from 2008 to 2021—and salaries are rising fast.

As we consider how to stop the hemorrhaging of the teacher workforce, the question might be: What is happening, in K-12 public education, that makes women stay—and excel in—teaching and aspire to school leadership positions? What is driving men away from education jobs? And why would men decide to pursue nursing, but not teaching?

I have some thoughts about that—but need to preface them with a disclaimer: None of this is hard evidence, let alone causal evidence, but it’s pretty clear that the female-dominated teaching profession, once the refuge of intelligent women who wanted interesting careers and couldn’t find them elsewhere, is in trouble.

Money is one obvious reasonalthough male teachers in the U.S. make about $2200 more than female teachers. Teaching is, always has been, a low-paying job, and it’s getting worse. As a society, we’ve moved away from the idea of a male breadwinner and female secondary income—the “my wife is a teacher so she can be home with the kids in the summer” syndrome.

When teacher unions began lobbying (and striking) for more (fair) pay, decades ago, the never-ending source of a low-cost, qualified female workforce for public education dried up. The response was not acknowledging the importance of public schools in building society, and paying up, but pushing back and even vilifying the unions.

But it’s more than salaries—because blaming it all on low salaries implies that women, more than men, are more willing to be servile, working for peanuts because women have always worked for peanuts and a good feeling. When you look at the puff pieces around Teacher Appreciation Week, it’s important to note that Americans have accepted the idea that public education programming and materials (not just salaries) are funded by goodwill, generosity and Donors Choose– and that’s OK.

The United States is also an increasingly technocratic society. We have not gotten over our love affair with STEM education, although it’s clear that fabulous STEM jobs have been way oversold. We don’t value the humanities or important work with very young children, two things that are absolutely dependent on skilled teaching and judgment. In fact, we’ve embarked on yet another wrong-headed reading war with the mislabeled “Science of Reading,” a triumph of misplaced faith in a one-size-for-all, science-will-save-us method for the ultimate individualized task, learning to read. A task, it should be noted, that is overwhelmingly accomplished by women.

I think teaching, despite a lot of empty rhetoric, has steadily lost social prestige. This is ironic, because (trained and certified) teachers today are better prepared and more skilled than teachers of yesteryear. There were enormous strides made, pre-NCLB, in teacher professionalism: increased education, greater selectivity, mentoring, innovative curriculum development, pilot programs in teacher ladders and a marvelous new tool—computers in the classroom.

All of that turned around, c. 2001, and the public education focus shifted from mastery to accountability. Good teaching was less about creativity, community and judgment and more about test scores and competition. If you were looking for autonomy, mastery and purpose, you were less likely to find it in a public school—this might explain why white men still teach in higher numbers in private schools, despite lower overall salaries: because their personal work is acknowledged as central to student success.

You would think that a global pandemic—which was devastating to nursing– would have sent more people out of nursing than teaching, but nursing is a growing profession, with more candidates than the available programs can handle. And more of them men, willing to do difficult, important work.  

The pandemic has upset occupational norms, goals and rewards.  Anyone who’s passed a McDonald’s advertising $21.00/Hour jobs understands that it’s a brave new world, a re-ordering of priorities.

The people who will be standing in front of classrooms in the future, the Gen Z educators who assume schools are for testing and competing, not nurturing, those fully accustomed to shooter drills and recurring violence—will they be willing to just follow orders?

Will we eventually lose the dedicated and talented female education workforce, too?


Teaching 101: Lesson Planning in TX

Here’s a truism that educators repeat endlessly (and, apparently, fruitlessly): Just because you went to school, doesn’t mean that you understand how schools work.

It applies to all the logistical and philosophical details about schooling, from busing to teacher prep to grading. Just because you had three recesses per day in elementary school doesn’t mean that kids in 2023 have that essential play built into their days. Just because you took Algebra I in ninth grade doesn’t mean that your seventh grader won’t have single-variable equations in their homework packet. Just because teaching seemed easy (or dreadful) to you, as a child or teenager, doesn’t mean that anybody can do it.

And so on. You don’t know what’s going on in schools—or why—unless you’re there all the time and have deep knowledge of education policy and practice.

In a wonderful piece in his eponymously named blog, Tom Ultican writes about a deal going down in Texas:

 Under this new legislation, the state of Texas is contracting with Amplify to write the curriculum according to TEA guidelines. Amplify will also provide daily lesson plans for all teachers. The idea is to educate all Texas children using digital devices and scripted lesson plans while teachers are tasked with monitoring student progress.

This, of course, is not new at all. Education publishers and nonprofits have been hawking standards / curricula / benchmarks / instructional materials / “innovative” reforms—all of them ‘aligned’—for decades, ramping up this effort post-NCLB, and culminating in the Great National Project to Standardize Everything, the Common Core.

Tom does a superb job of deconstructing the fallacy of one-size-fits-all lesson plans, as well as giving his readers a heads-up about Who Not to Trust in Ed World and what they really want.

I was struck by this quote from the so-called Coalition for Education Excellence (“Reducing teacher workloads with State support”):

“Many teachers in Texas are currently working two jobs—designing lessons and teaching them—which is contributing to their exhaustion and teacher shortages. Access to high-quality instructional material can reduce teacher workloads and play a critical role in delivering quality education.”

I have no doubt that many Texas teacher are actually working two jobs, given that the minimum salary for 5th-year TX teachers (who have certainly created lots of lesson plans at the point) is less than $40K. I imagine asking that 5th year teacher if he would rather have more money or free (mandated) lesson plans, courtesy of Texas, which has already spent more than $50 million on the pre-designed, screen-ready lessons from Amplify.

Here’s where the lack of insider knowledge—”just because you went to school…”—comes in, at the intersection of curriculum and instruction. I guess that free (mandated) lesson plans might sound like a good idea to someone whose conception of instruction was formed by the conveyor belt of students with flip-top heads featured in “Waiting for Superman,” another artifact of the roiling education reform dialogue.

No amount of marketing pomposity can change the fact that teachers, in order to be effective, need some control over their professional work. Effective teaching goes like this:

  • Get to know the students you’re responsible for—their strengths, their shortcomings, their quirks. Let them know you care about them, and intend to teach them something worthwhile.
  • Using that knowledge, design and teach lessons to move them forward. Persist, when your first attempts fail or produce mediocre results. Check on their learning frequently, but let them know that you’re checking in order to choose the right thing to do next—not to punish, or label them. Re-design lessons using another learning mode, accelerate, cycle back to review, pull out stragglers for another crack at core content, challenge those who have mastered the content and skill with enrichment activities—and do all of this simultaneously, every hour of the school day.

In other words, designing lessons and teaching them cannot be separated, if you’re hoping to create a coherent curriculum or motivated learners. They’re entirely dependent on the students in front of you. Removing one of the two from the equation makes it harder, and more time-consuming, if the goal is crafting a learning classroom.

One of the phony reasons for adopting the Amplify curriculum TX state legislators have been fed is that students were being taught “below grade-level content.” 

It would be easy for those without experience as educators to assume that kids in Texas were being short-changed, left behind, by feckless teachers lazily spoon-feeding them easy subject matter.

There might be actual reasons for this: some curricula is best understood and applied when taught sequentially. A sharp teacher, getting to know her students, can identify gaps and address those before moving to the next stage—a far better and more efficacious plan than starting with whatever the state has designated as “grade-level.”

The grade-level curricula may be inappropriate for some kids (special education students spring to mind here). It may have been set by people who haven’t been in a classroom in decades, or don’t understand what the pandemic—or poverty—have done to students in any given state or town.

Lesson planning and its partner, effective instruction, are things that teachers get better at, year after year. They are a central part of what it means to be a good teacher. Taking lesson planning away from an entire statewide public school system is not an act designed to make teachers’ lives easier.

It’s about control over what gets taught.

America’s Most Vulnerable and Important Profession

The Teachers: A year inside America’s most vulnerable, important profession (Alexandra Robbins) does what many other books about teaching are not able to do–take the reader right into the classroom, and describe what’s happening, with empathy and perception. There are lots of books about problems in American education, and lots of books that suggest solutions for those problems, but we seldom get to see examples, conversations and the people doing the work.

If you want a drone’s eye view of American public education—where it’s been, what bedevils the century-old movement to improve it—I would recommend Diane Ravitch’s trio of excellent books that follow education reform over the last couple of decades, or A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door: The Dismantling of Public Education and the Future of School by Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire.

But if you want to see what happens in the classroom and in the lives of teachers, Robbins accomplishes that better than any book I’ve read since Tracy Kidder’s Among Schoolchildren, written in 1989, which now feels like ancient history . The book is a tour de force—every teacher I know who’s read it agrees—unapologetically written from the POV of teachers without feeling the need to make excuses or backpedal.

Robbins chooses three very fine teachers and takes us through one year (immediately pre-pandemic) of their classroom and personal lives, deftly illustrating how those lives overlap, the pile-up of frustrations and issues bleeding into their emotional well-being.

All three teachers have huge and versatile skill sets and genuine dedication to kids as well as subject matter. Interspersed are data and editorial comment about education and current “reforms” (scare quotes are deserved here), as well as real-life anecdotes and comments that reveal just how far teaching and teachers have sunk, in public estimation.

Robbins highlights things that other education books don’t notice or can’t be bothered with–in-building teacher jealousies and vindictiveness, physical violence against teachers, the long-term effects of cuts to things once considered normal in every school, what it’s like to sit in an IEP meeting with a recalcitrant parent or clueless colleague.

One of her teachers is a middle school special education teacher who finds himself taking on every troubled kid, something that school administrators often push, seeing him as the ultimate “male role model.”  Another is an overachieving fourth grade teacher who knocks herself out to be the perfect teacher for every child, leaving her with no time to build a satisfying personal life (and illustrating, to readers, just how arduous differentiated instruction is, even in a building with adequate resources and good teachers).

The third teacher is a 20-year veteran, a sixth grade math teacher who has mastered the delicate art of getting the best out of her students and runs afoul of a clique of punitive teachers who resent her success and want her to punish kids who are doing well in her class for their sins in other classes.

(Here’s a story from my own experience that parallels her problematic relationships with the people who should have her back—feel free to skip it): We’re having a staff meeting, late spring, to talk about the imbalance of students in elective classes. The middle school bands keep getting bigger and bigger. I will have 93 students in my 8th grade band next year. What this means (besides a classroom management nightmare) is that other elective classes will be tiny, because “too many” students want to be in the band. The Woodshop teacher is outspoken—we need to limit the number of students in band, perhaps allowing the 93 students only one semester of band, in order to give him the minimal 12/class that will keep him employed in the building full-time, rather than splitting his time between middle school and high school, or forcing him to teach a second elective subject.

Everyone knows why all those kids want to be in the band, he says. I turn to him, surprised. I have no idea why kids sign up for band, beyond the fact that they like it.  Mrs. Flanagan gives them all As and Bs, he says. If we forced her to use a bell curve like everybody else, we’d see half of them drop out.

I look around. Nobody’s making eye contact, so it’s clear that this has been a topic of conversation before. And there’s some truth there—I do give a lot of Bs and As, mainly because the students are meeting the goals set for the class. Their parents are paying for their instruments and students must practice to do well in class. We do many performances—both band and individual players. The bell curve is stupid; have all my colleagues really been using it?

I can justify everything I do, but I spent the rest of the year eating my lunch in the band room, paranoid about disrupting the building schedule. And the next September, I have all 93 students in my first hour class. Nobody ever shows up to help. The Teachers is full of stories like this—real things that happen. There is no paradise, no perfect school, although there are many vivid examples of teachers bending over backwards for students and colleagues. Why aren’t we honoring this, financially supporting this work, applauding the folks who show up to teach every day, sacrificing their time and energy for other people’s children?

This book is also the first and best description I have read about the impact of the pandemic on teaching and learning. There have been endless articles and research on “learning loss”–all rife with meaningless data and numbers–but nobody talks about the impact of being expected to position family needs as secondary to students’ needs. Robbins gets this right–there is a line between acting morally vs. choosing school over family, a choice that teachers were urged to make, and reviled when they chose their own families and their own health. We have not yet reconciled that, here in America—but the book makes a good start on it.

Highly recommended for everyone, but especially teachers. It’s a fairly fast and facile read, although well-documented with endnotes, and should give teachers a lift, knowing that their work and their dilemmas have been acknowledged.

The Absolute Folly of Standardization

Remember the days when Arne Duncan insisted that having different ‘goal posts’ in every state was preventing us from improving public schools in America? Good times.

I wish I could say we’ve evolved since 2015, when Duncan stepped down. Or after it became obvious that the pandemic was rendering test data even more corrupt and useless than the test data we were enthusiastically generating early in the 21st century to solve our problems and raise that bar. (Sarcasm alert.)

Alas, we’re still hooked on the idea that a third grader in Manhattan should know and be able to do the same things as a third grader in rural North Dakota, that Algebra belongs in 8th grade (or is it 9th) and six year-olds should be starting to read, dammit. Because global competition, falling behind, blah blah blah.

In fact, one of the problems with the word “standards” and its etymology, is that everyone thinks they know what standards are supposed to mean and determine. A precise definition

I’m not actually referring to standardized testing in this blog, although if you believe standardized testing is the only way or best way to understand how your child is doing in school, read this.

Nor am I particularly concerned about the standards (whether local, state or cleverly disguised Common Core Standards) that many educational institutions use to organize curriculum. It’s worth remembering that most of the first “national standards” (in the 1990s, spurred by the Nation at Risk report) were created by educators’ disciplinary organizations, with lots of teacher input—and were voluntary, with grade-span suggestions for what students should know and be able to do, and the order in which things were most effectively taught.

If that doesn’t ring a bell, it’s because those standards sank like a stone. It’s hard to even find links to them by diligent googling, but non-educators rejected them for various reasons, most notably Lynn Cheney who went after the History standards in the Wall Street Journal. They often included updated instructional methods and curricular ideas (constructivist math, teaching English as a second language, hands-on science and, of course, new ideas about how America actually became a nation).

The first round of national standards weren’t attached to mandated standardized tests, either. They were about curriculum and instruction. When the second round of national standards—the Common Core– were developed, they were part of a standards-aligned tests package, part of the movement toward “accountability” (a word that should forever have scare quotes when mentioned in an educational context). Practicing teachers weren’t seriously invited to the creation process and the word curriculum was not mentioned.

If tests and curricular benchmarks aren’t standardization, what is? Here’s a quote from Nel Noddings that explicates this beautifully:

The worst feature of current moves toward standardization is the insistence that all kids meet the same standards, regardless of their interests and aptitudes. This insistence is claimed to be a gesture toward equality, but it really is a sign of contempt for the wide range of human talents and the necessary work done by many of our citizens.

Any parent of two, different children understands this at a cellular level. Contempt, indeed.

Can’t meet the standards? We’re placing you on the left downslope of the bell curve, when you’re eight years old. Because we’re pursuing equality. It’s science.

There is value in knowing at what age we can expect most, if not all, students to reach intellectual and developmental milestones. That’s not the problem.

The trouble arises when we use the tools of school—instruction, curriculum, assessment—to compare the students in our care, to label them, to sort them into standardized categories when they are very young. To essentially assign their potential. To show contempt for the wide range of human talents.

What about grade levels? Aren’t there specific skills and knowledge we should be demanding of 5th graders or sophomores? Shouldn’t they all be getting the same core content at the same time?

It’s important to remember that grade levels were an efficiency tool invented when there was a big push to get everyone to go to school, rather than relying on tutors, homeschooling—or no schooling at all. Anyone who has taught school can tell you that grade levels are ephemeral, an organizational fiction.

A room full of children of precisely the same age will always have different skill and aptitude profiles. That’s not to say that we should try to adjust groups to meet academic levels, because kids learn at different rates, at different times, and in different ways–and punishing students by keeping them from their peers is insulting and bound to backfire.  

Age-based grouping is probably as good a method as any for group instruction and socializing. The trick is providing children with educational experiences that match their interests and present skills. Teachers know this as differentiation—and it’s a major challenge. (One of the best descriptions I’ve ever read of a teacher who is trying to differentiate instruction for a wide range of same-age students can be found in Alexandra Robbins’ The Teachers. Mind-boggling.)

Here’s another thing Arne Duncan used to say: Education is the civil rights issue of our generation.

I actually think he was mostly right about that—and the fact that his phrase has been co-opted by ugly right-wing thinking and lawmaking may be proof that it’s a powerful thought, when it comes to actual equity and using our schools to support and encourage individual potential.

Which is the opposite of standardization.

Girls. Period.

Alternate title: The Idea that Girls’ Menstrual Cycles are Shameful Information, Unless Important People Need to Know.  And you’re right–that doesn’t make sense.

Back in the day, when I was in junior high, girls were excused from taking showers after Phys Ed by discreetly telling the gym teacher, standing ever-ready with her clipboard, that they were having their “P.” She would dutifully note this on a mimeographed list of students.

This wasn’t done to assure that the girls weren’t chemically altering their bodies, thus making them superior athletes. In fact, girls weren’t even considered competitive athletes until Title IX. The reason for tracking girls’ menstrual cycles was to ensure they took showers unless their delicate condition and public embarrassment temporarily exempted them.

It’s clear—and it’s a good thing—that the old rules about even mentioning menstruation have long since crumbled. I spent 30 years teaching middle school band, and routinely kept menstrual supplies in my lower left-hand drawer, because you just never knew when a middle school girl would be surprised. And, possibly, mortified.

We didn’t have a school nurse, and the machines in the girls’ restroom were no longer refilled. Unless I wanted hapless girls canvassing 10 of their friends or making group trips to lockers and restrooms, freebie necessities were kind of like Kleenex and hand soap—donations to civilized life in the band room. Items not provided by the school—but nothing to feel embarrassed about.

Recently, a friend who is currently teaching at a local middle school emailed a cluster of friends and asked if any of us would be willing to donate pads and tampons. Not just for school-based emergencies, but also making it possible to send home overnight and weekend packages for girls whose families were not routinely supplying them. Because they’re expensive.

I keep thinking about that as I read the news out of (naturally) Florida—and other benighted states. Whose business is teaching girls—and boys—about menstruation, a natural human function? And why are legislators sticking their noses into what should be an everyday occurrence in schools, ho-hum?

Headline in the Washington Post: Florida bill would ban young girls from discussing periods in school. So—stop me if I’m wrong here—a child (and there are many girls whose periods start when they’re in elementary school; the age of menarche is getting increasingly lower) discovers that she is bleeding. In addition to needing some supplies and some friendly support, she will be breaking the law should she talk about it. According to some old man at the State Capitol.

Let’s name names:
During a Florida House Education Quality Subcommittee hearing Wednesday, state Rep. Ashley Gantt (D) questioned her Republican colleague, state Rep. Stan McClain, on his proposed legislation that would restrict certain educational materials used in state schools. House Bill 1069 would also require that instruction on sexual health, such as health education, sexually transmitted diseases and human sexuality, “only occur in grades 6 through 12,” which prompted Gantt to ask whether the proposed legislation would prohibit young girls from talking about their periods in school when they first start having them.

“So if little girls experience their menstrual cycle in fifth grade or fourth grade, will that prohibit conversations from them since they are in the grade lower than sixth grade?” Gantt asked.

McClain responded, “It would.”

I guess that’s one reason why Florida girls might be given menstrual products before their first period—so they won’t have to ask for them, risking arrest, or subject a sympathetic teacher to law-breaking by doing what I used to do, all the time: quietly sending girls to my lower left-hand drawer.

I repeat: this is all normal and natural. It was a great day when Health and Physical Education teachers started delivering sex education information to mixed classes of boys and girls. I wish all schools provided free pads and tampons for girls who needed them. We could do better.

Although I agree that parents should be their children’s first and most influential teachers on the range of human sexuality topics, I was profoundly grateful that both my own children had great, no-nonsense sex ed teachers, beginning in 5th grade. Learning about your body—just the facts—and having your gender-based questions answered truthfully? What a gift to children approaching adolescence, a gift we can all benefit from.

As for the claim that FL Governor Ron Desantis is collecting information on girls’ menstrual cycles—well, that’s not precisely true. It’s the statewide High School Athletic Association that’s asking questions, and they’re saying it’s not about rooting out transgender students or embarrassing girls, yet again. There are legitimate reasons for caring coaches to watch for amenorrhea due to eating disorders or exercise stresses, for example. A student athlete who became pregnant would need special treatment. Here’s the information they want to know (click).

What if we were a nation where normal body functions were well-understood, and stuff like knowing how and why to delay pregnancy were agreed-upon knowledge for all pre-teens? I’d feel a lot better about the Florida HSAA asking girls how old they were when they began menstruating, and how many periods they had in the past year in that case.

In the current context, that information feels private, to me. There is trust lost, on all sides, between girls and young women– and whoever’s running the educational show in Florida right now.

And that’s sad.

Thinking about Teachers at the Table

In the fall of 1993, the United States Department of Education (under Richard Riley, Secretary of Education) held what was intended to be the first annual National Teacher Forum. Organized by Terry Dozier, Special Assistant to the Secretary, state Teachers of the Year and their chosen outstanding teacher partners were invited to Washington D.C. to discuss how to bring the teacher voice into policymaking.

I’ve been to lots of conferences and seminars, but few impacted my life as a teacher leader more than the first National Teacher Forum. I can remember, verbatim, phrases—Honor what we know!—and aphorisms we used: Teachers want to be partners in, not objects of, education policy.

The idea of teachers at the policy-making table was downright thrilling. We deserved to be at the table—in fact, it was our table.  Our contributions could make a huge difference in policy around student learning and public school organization. We had answers to education’s persistent questions. Ask us!

We were all assigned a partner in the US Department of Education. We went to workshops (this was where I first heard of National Board Certification). We networked with the legislators and bureaucrats who were making policy around the work we did every day. We were encouraged to start our own state forums for accomplished teachers. Best of all, we started something few of us had heard of before this: an online bulletin board and discussion group. I was a moderator of that group—and still have many professional friends from that time.

I wish I could give you links so you could explore this wonderful program, and read the publications that resulted, but an hour of googling and a scouring of ed.gov have yielded zero information on the Forums (there were eight—the entire initiative and its published results were taken down in 2001, as No Child Left Behind turned education policy in a vastly different direction). I found two publications—Teachers Lead the Way, from the 1997 Forum, and a reprint of the 1994 Forum document, Prisoners of Time, which was apparently (and ironically) co-opted by the Education Commission of the States.

I share all this to illustrate the fact that teachers have long been interested in controlling their own professional work, and willing to share their expertise and perspectives with policymakers. Personally, I’ve been involved in several initiatives to bring teachers to various policy tables. After the National Teacher Forums bit the dust, State Teachers of the Year organized themselves—and even proposed Teachers at the Table legislation (which went nowhere). The idea keeps bubbling up.

Point being: the only people who think having a substantive teacher voice in education policymaking is a great idea are teachers. And, of course, their state and national unions—who represent the broad outlines of teacher-friendly policy via lobbying and advocacy, and are wary of independent teachers proclaiming their teaching expertise makes them policy experts, as well.

Publications and media about the teacher voice haven’t shut down in the intervening 30 years. Independent blogging, non-profits and social media have elevated pieces about the necessity of asking teachers whether a Big Sexy Idea about how to ‘fix’ issues in public education will work (usually, no) and what might actually improve teaching and learning.  

In short, as Jose Vilson says in his TED Master Class, no conversation about education should happen without the teacher voice front and center.

But—as with all things in education—there are caveats in thinking that gathering a group of teachers (even award-winning teachers) and asking for their policy ideas would be the fastest way to better schools.

Teachers aren’t trained to do policy creation and analysis. They can tell you, in excruciating detail, what bad policy does to student learning in their context. But good policy is written with measurable goals and specific outcomes in mind, accompanied by the supports and spurs that will get us there.  It requires imagining not only happy results but unintended consequences.

Policy is not (exclusively) mandates and incentives. Sometimes, it involves capacity-building, persuasion—or overt systemic change, which takes time and accrued data to analyze. Regularly asking teachers to comment on the changes wrought by policy shifts ought to be a no-brainer, however. Acting on educators’ feedback would be even better.

Here’s an example: My state instituted a third-grade retention law in 2016, wherein students who didn’t meet the third-grade standard for reading proficiency would be held back—a mandate, taking away a decision that had always been made by teachers and parents. Half the states in the nation now have similar policiesand politicized policymaking has made other states feel they need to crack down on those lazy eight year-olds.

It’s a terrible policy, for dozens of reasons, beginning with its target audience and punitive nature. In six years, it hasn’t yielded anything beyond angst and anger, much of which has been directed at teachers and schools, not clueless (or, sadly, vindictive) lawmakers.  

The good news here is that MI Governor Whitmer seems poised to sign a bill repealing the third-grade retention mandate. Nevada’s repealed theirs, too. The MI bill’s sponsor, Senator Dayna Polehanki, is a former teacher. A Michigan Teacher of the Year, Leah Porter, testified in hearings.

There’s a role for teachers in examining and fine-tuning education policy—and a strong need for teachers to run for public office to share their experience and expertise. As we said, at the 1993 National Teacher Forum: Honor what we know.

Eight Observations about Boredom in the Classroom

My child is bored!

Several years ago, I got into a classroom tangle with one of my 8th grade percussionists. I won’t share the details, but take my word that what he did and said was egregiously defiant, disrespectful to other students–and very public. I called him out for his unacceptable behavior–also in public–and sent him to the office to cool down, something I did fewer than a dozen times in 30 years of classroom practice. Later, I met with him in the office, privately, and we settled on what would happen next. He went on to his next class.

Then I called his mother, who was a high-profile person in our small community, just to let her hear what happened and what the outcomes were. She was appreciative of the call and expressed agreement with my actions. And then she said: Maybe this is my fault for not pulling him out of the band. Lately, he’s been so bored in your class.

I was floored. While this boy may have been a star in some of his classes, he was a middle-of-the-pack performer in the drum section. He was also smart enough to know the music I was dishing off to him was at his challenge level. We were preparing for several fun performances, and he had some key parts to play.

So–why complain to your mom about being bored? What’s that about? How should parents and teachers interpret and deal with charges of being bored in the classroom? Here are eight of my experience-honed, overlapping ideas about student “boredom:”

  • Boredom is never an excuse for bad behavior. Being bored doesn’t get you off the hook for rudeness or worse. If you’re bored, see it as an opportunity to figure out why. In addition, bear in mind that many excellent life habits are established through repetition and plodding along.
  • Boredom should not be immediately equated with “dumbed down” curriculum and instruction. Applied learning happens in peaks and valleys. Practicing almost anything can feel boring, at times. It’s not “too easy” if it’s not yet automatic. Practice at a lower level–solving single-variable equations, reading a young adult novel, singing with a less-experienced choir, playing soccer with younger players–can also be very pleasurable. As a music teacher, I tried to have music in the folder that was over my students’ heads as well as rip-through-it simple.
  • Buying into kids’ boredom as valid reason for disconnecting or misbehaving corresponds to another fallacy: the idea that “good” teachers should make every lesson novel and entertaining to kids. True, there is a strong acting/entertainment factor in dynamic teaching. Great teaching should inspire learning through more than attention-grabbing, however. Reminder: the person who does the–hard, and occasionally monotonous–work of learning is the student. It doesn’t matter how many white-lab-coat chemical explosions they witness, or if their fifth grade teacher dresses up like Amelia Earhart–there is no learning without diligent effort on the part of the child.
  • Boredom is not a sign of giftedness. I once honked off a few hundred parents (and teachers) in the Gifted/Talented community by suggesting that if their children were truly gifted they’d be finding ways to amuse themselves in so-called boring classes. (I also suggested some of these might be less than desirable, given personal experience with very bright kids who love to keep things lively.) Boredom and giftedness are two separate things. I do support challenging curriculum and instruction for very capable students–but not because they’re bored.
  • “Boredom” should not be used as reason to assert that kids should never have to wait for other children to catch up. Children consistently learning at the wrong level (both too low and too high) will be vulnerable to disengagement, of course. But having to wait until the class has solidified a concept before moving ahead is not a crisis. Cliched but true–education is a journey, not a race. Sometimes, you’re leading the pack. Other times, you aren’t. There are benefits to learning in a cooperative group, the primary one being developing the skill of acceptance and appreciation for the viewpoints and capabilities of other human beings.
  • Boredom is merely lack of engagement, a two-way street in terms of responsibility. Are there boring classrooms? Yes. There are boring drills, boring lectures, boring warm-ups–and any number of boring instructional strategies (i.e., worked examples in mathematics) that yield some learning benefits. Daily practice of musical scales isn’t much fun, but it’s an enormously effective technique-builder. Brushing your teeth is boring, too, but that doesn’t mean you should stop.
  • Boredom can be cured–by students. I think the most useful thing parents, teachers (and students) can do to prevent genuine boredom is devise individual strategies to extend learning– read a different book, tackle a more challenging solo, ask for harder problems or other enrichments. Anyone who’s ever leafed through a well-used textbook knows that some kids know how to doodle their way to amusement. Tell your kids to own their boredom and fix it.

My cocky 8th grade student calmed down and finished the year–as do most kids who make a big deal about how bored they are. We should teach students that boredom, like any problem, can be your friend. Right?

Teacher of the Year: Popularity Contest or Tall Poppy Syndrome?

My opinion on various teacher recognition programs has always been clear and simple: Teachers in America get so little in the way of acknowledgement and perks that every single teacher honored for their excellent work richly deserves the spotlight and whatever rewards come with it.

Teaching, as Lee Shulman famously noted, is impossible. And yet millions of teachers get up every morning and head off to do critical work that benefits our communities–and is also underpaid, misunderstood, phenomenally challenging and complex. If any of them get a public pat on the back, or a tangible bonus, it’s deserved. No question.

So I was surprised to see an article [pay wall] in Education Week, generally considered the educational equivalent of the Gray Lady, with the headline The National Teacher of the Year Award: A ‘Call to Service’ or a ‘Popularity Contest’? :

Past finalists and honorees have said the process of being considered for National Teacher of the Year was a humbling experience that allowed them to advocate for the profession they love. It’s not meant to elevate some teachers at the expense of others, they said, but rather allow them to represent the needs of teachers and students on a national level.

But, but, but—when the five finalists for this year’s National Teacher of the Year award were posted on EdWeek’s Facebook page, there was a flurry of negative comments—over 200, last I checked, beginning with the snark about Teacher of the Year programs being a popularity contest. There was some defense of the National Teacher of the Year program, but the bulk of the comments might be summarized as suspicious, even resentful, of teachers who are singled out for recognition.

Comments clustered around three assertions:

  • Competitions pit teachers against each other. This is a uniquely ‘teacher thing’—the desire to build community and work together is central to running a productive classroom. If you’ve ever been to a teacher award banquet or ceremony, you’ll notice that honored teachers cross the stage humbly, heads down, then “share” the honor with their colleagues and students, if they get to make remarks. Compare that to, say, realtors being rewarded for millions of dollars in sales—pumping their trophy, and promising that next year’s sales will be even higher. The metrics of good teaching are—and absolutely should be—personal and site-specific, unlike other careers where it’s easy to say who is “best.” There were also some spiteful comments of the “I can’t believe they picked this lousy teacher I know” variety.
  • Not all teachers have access to Teacher of the Year or similar awards. There were lots of remarks about the work that teachers needed to do to be considered for an award—papers to write, interviews to schedule, evidence to assemble. All of this takes away from being awesome in the classroom (true). In addition, teachers’ workplace conditions are vastly dissimilar. Some teachers have adequate resources and students whose families have helped them become goal-oriented. Other teachers have none of these things, but do their best anyway. How could that be fair, when assessing a teacher’s impact and outcomes?
  • All teachers are Teacher of the Year for someone. I absolutely agree that all teachers deserve more—lots more—than having one of their colleagues plucked out for a certificate or prize. I concur that teachers everywhere are grossly underpaid for the complexity and importance of the work they do, and—especially these days—unfairly beleaguered. But I’m not sure if this means that outstanding teachers (because there are outstanding teachers) should never be identified and feted. This feels like Tall Poppy Syndrome.

I am interested in all of this because I was Michigan’s Teacher of the Year, in 1993. I am also a National Board Certified Teacher—two very different, but credible teaching awards. I have seen teacher award programs from the inside, and heard all the remarks about defining exceptional teaching made on EdWeek’s Facebook article—some directed at me, of course.

My take: The single most gratifying—and humbling—accolade was being named Teacher of the Year in my medium-sized school district, where I was nominated by another teacher, where my work with students was well-known, and where I was surrounded by highly skilled and supportive colleagues.

Being named Michigan’s Teacher of the Year, by contrast, sort of dropped from the sky. I didn’t seek it (beyond writing and submitting the application, at the urging of my superintendent), and was dumfounded and a little dismayed when I actually won.

Few people understand how different “Teacher of the Year” programs are, district to district and state to state. In some buildings, the same teacher can be named year after year and it does feel like a competition. In some states, the TOY is released from teaching for an entire year, to travel and speak. Other states have significant perks: Leased cars. A seat on the State Board of Education. A wardrobe allowance, since the Teacher of the Year shouldn’t keynote conferences in her denim jumper.

During the year I served as TOY, I was also working full-time, at my regular job teaching 320 middle school band students. The district found (and paid for) subs for days when I had TOY responsibilities, which meant that frequently, teachers in my building were asked to sub when I had to leave early to speak at a banquet, or drive across the Mackinac Bridge to the Upper Peninsula for a workshop. I took every request that I could manage, often paying my own mileage and expenses.

I was out of the classroom 37 days. It was hard on my students—and even harder on my family. I had two small children and my wonderful husband picked up mountains of slack. It was exhausting, and I was glad when it was over. My superintendent put up a green and white road sign at the entrance to the village: Home of Nancy Flanagan, Michigan Teacher of the Year, 1993. Later, my husband retrieved that sign from a dumpster behind the school’s bus garage. C’est la vie.

During that time, I heard lots of sarcastic “famous teacher” remarks—and a few questioning whether I was actually TOY material. Five years later, I sat for National Board Certification, because I wanted to prove that I was indeed an accomplished teacher–to put a metric on the title, to provide evidence, a bona fide seal of approval. It was a great (and similarly exhausting) experience, but it’s worth noting that National Board Certified Teachers hear many of the same remarks about maybe being too big for their teacher britches.

By far the best part of being Michigan Teacher of the Year, however, came in the years after 1993. TOYs are sort of like Jimmy Carter—once you’re out of office, the stress subsides and the opportunities to do good work are endless. I got a gig at Education Week as a teacher-blogger. I discussed professional development on C-Span at the National Governors Association Conference.  I had interesting interactions with Michigan Governors.  I still got to teach.

And—I met incredible people, most of whom are educators. That’s the perk that all teachers should have—the conviction that the nation is filled with good teachers, plus the opportunity to exchange ideas and inspirations, professional goals and camaraderie, all of which is available to any teacher willing to reach out and start a conversation on social media.

I wish all of this year’s awardees the best.