Parents’ Rights vs. Reality

I am always bemused by the phrase “parents’ rights,” when utilized by right-wing culture warriors in our current education climate. Because—seriously—parents have always had the right to control pretty much anything around what their child was learning or doing in a public school. As long as it was in general alignment with the school’s mission, of course, and didn’t impact the education of other students.

I have been a public school teacher in five separate decades, beginning with the 1970s—and have seen parent demands and outrage issues come and go, from Sex Education (a perennial sore spot in the curriculum) to The Math Program (aka, Why don’t I understand my kids’ homework?) to Pay to Play Athletics. My friends who taught literature were always willing to substitute one book for another, if parents preferred not to have Jason read Huckleberry Finn or The Bluest Eye.

I could name dozens more instances of parents being upset about something “the school” did—or a teacher said—or how a particular policy was enforced.  In fact, one of the reasons to put your children in public schools is the knowledge that you can complain, even organize a group of complainers, and there is a duly elected school board you can address, if school administrators don’t give you what you want.

What if what the parent wants is not in the best interests of their child, let alone all the other students in her class?

Your mind may jump here to the use of pronouns—or acceptance of realities (historical and current) that some parents find threatening–but over time, teachers run into many legitimate reasons not to trust parental requests or judgment (pay attention to that word, judgment…).

For example, I once had an Albanian student who had only been in the country for a few months. The class was a pull-out, called Homework Hall, where kids who had lots of missing assignments were sent with the hope that taking away their gym or computer privileges would cause them to buckle down and make up all the work. I was supposed to stand over them, keeping their noses to the academic grindstone.

Homework Hall was based on a flawed theory to begin with—but this girl was struggling with speaking/reading/writing English, and not completing most of her written work because it was written in a language she barely understood. I tried negotiating with her teachers to significantly reduce her assignments—answering the three most important questions instead of ten, or giving her a buddy who could read things to her, discuss the content to help her form answers with the vocabulary she’d mastered—but not all of her teachers were willing to do that.

In the meantime, her father kept coming to school. After getting a quarterly grade report, showing that she had not turned in some of her work, he wanted daily reports. He didn’t speak English, either—but his teenaged translator said if the girl was “lazy” then she would be punished. Swell.

This girl was the polar opposite of lazy. She worked hard. She was persistent. She just needed school-based adults in her corner. Her father had the right to ask for information about her progress, undoubtedly. And probably it was his prerogative to continue slapping her and verbally abusing her in a language she did understand, which seemed to be his cultural norm for how to deal with bad grades.

It was one of those judgment calls. Stand up for the kid–or decide it’s none of your business and confirm that she actually had failed to turn in assignments, because they were just too difficult?

In fact, every one of the kids in that class was a judgment call—the brilliant boy who simply refused to copy definitions from a glossary or do other pointless work, the child whose parents had just split up and couldn’t concentrate on equilateral triangles, the girl who was hinting at suicide in her English class free writes (which she never turned in, leading her to Homework Hall). Judgment calls, all of them.

What if you wanted to encourage parent-school dialogue—would passing laws requiring schools to post copies of existing legislation guaranteeing parental rights really be the solution?

Or what if you reported a child for seriously threatening behaviors—repeatedly—and nobody came to help

And sometimes—angry parents are absolutely right to speak their minds about what’s happening in the school their child attends.

Parents do have rights—and they should. Public schools are obligated to acknowledge and address parents’ input. The best thing we can do to ensure parental rights are honored is to invite them to speak their minds and express their beliefs and wishes, calmly, with the relevant adults in the room.

What we are seeing now—nominally “parents’ rights”—is not about parents expressing their beliefs about serious education policy or even personal issues involving their child. They are politicized grievances, often based on nothing more than rumor. And they’re often quietly funded by groups that have no personal interests/issues with the school in question—only in damaging public schools.  

The Governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, recently met with a group of parents, some from the district where I taught for 30+ years, to discuss education issues. Here’s what a man (whose son I taught, back in the 90s) had to say:

“The biggest issue I see is just the lack of respect…the Republicans feel that anybody can be a teacher these days, which is the craziest damn thing that you can think of. We recently elected a lot of new school board members who are anti-school. I don’t know any other way to put it. The slates that ran out here are just not going to be supportive of public education. So I think that’s the biggest problem that we see. There are school board members who actually believe, and it just astounds me, that there are litter boxes in the bathrooms. That’s what we’re dealing with.”

Whitmer agreed and made a point to debunk a right-wing conspiracy theory circulated by podcaster Joe Rogan and Michigan GOP Co-Chair Meshawn Maddock that kids are identifying as “furries” and are using litter boxes in classrooms. This has been used to push anti-trans policies in schools.

Thank you, Governor—and all of the other education officials who are carrying on as if culture warriors had legitimate things to talk about, letting the system work as it is supposed to. But in all these school board meetings—especially those that become hostile encounters, it’s good to keep in mind that not everyone is set on building good community schools.

The Network for Public Education has a new (free) publication– Merchants of Deception: Parent Props and their Funders. Find out who’s really got a legitimate beef and who’s out to take down America’s best idea, a fully public education for every child, no matter what they bring to the table.

Field Trips Gone Wild

Truth meme, about teaching middle school: Sometimes, Stuff Happens. Or, more accurately, stuff happens all the time and pretty much everyone rolls with it. Because middle school.

I almost hate posting this blog. I know the district and the union would prefer that this incident be quickly forgotten, as it should have been. And as it would have been, had a newbie board member not turned it into an opportunistic fanning the flames of Our Schools are Corrupting Innocent Youth.

Short synopsis: Middle school band and orchestra students, accompanied by their teachers, take a field trip to see the Detroit Symphony. They stop for a pizza lunch on the way home. Because there are so many of them, the owner of the pizza joint offers extra space upstairs to eat. This space—empty when the students are eating there—is set up as a nightclub on weekends. Kids take photos of themselves swinging on poles—and Board member foments outrage by talking about how teachers are taking their kids to strip clubs in a sketchy area, inviting parents to complain.

Yeah. Because that’s what music teachers do—take their students to naughty places. Grooming them, via Beethoven and bassoons.  

What bothers me most is that nobody—not in any of the articles or social media outbursts—comments on the teachers’ professional generosity and ambitious goal for their students– to see and hear a world-class orchestra, and include lunch in the deal.

As any teacher who’s ever initiated a field trip—even a walk to the local fire station—knows, these things take a lot of time and planning. There are the parent permission slips (which these students had), the content students must absorb before going (how to behave, when to clap, which instruments form an orchestra, information about the music they’re going to hear and the musicians playing it). There is the problem of recruiting enough parent chaperones. Don’t forget the financial arrangements—whether the cost was picked up by the school, the boosters organization or the students themselves—which represent hours of management, collecting money and fund-raising.

Why isn’t anybody saying Wow! Plaudits to those music teachers for their hard work in putting together a worthy field trip for music students?

Because I’m fairly certain that this will be the last time those particular teachers take their kids to see the Detroit Symphony. Or any other special, academically valuable foray outside the school walls.

I say this as a 30-year veteran of taking music students places, to see/hear/experience music beyond our own band room. I took 8th graders out of state and occasionally out of the country every year, to see and hear things that weren’t available to them in our semi-rural community. There were always two concerts on these multi-day trips—one to listen to, the other that we played—and a focus on music and culture. There were also formal, sit-down dinners, buffet breakfasts, museums and science centers, musicals and movies on the bus and rules! So many rules!—all of which took preparation and parent buy-in.

And I have stories.

Lots of stories, most of which are like this pizza lunch—amusing, spur of the moment, Stuff that Happened, certainly not pre-planned. I’ve had students get lost in the Toronto Science Center (with a parent, no less). I’ve had tornadoes come through the city where we were staying, requiring us to kneel in the hallway of the hotel, hands laced over our necks. I once took a student who was eight months pregnant on a four-day field trip in another state (she was a dedicated musician, who now sings professionally).

Then there was the time that more than half of the 130 students came down with a stomach bug, while on the trip. Not fun at all.

The story I’d like to share, however, is about taking my students to a night club in Chicago, on Rush Street, near Division. It had been a great trip—the Chicago Symphony, seeing West Side Story at Drury Lane, eating at Ed Debevic’s—and on the last day, we scheduled a pizza lunch at this particular club, so we could hear the house band play some blues before heading home.

As we entered the place, it smelled strongly of smoke. In the daylight, it was not a glamorous place—there was a little stage, sans pole– but it was clean, and the staff was bringing out pizzas and pitchers of soda and water. The four-piece band started playing and the students started pulling their chairs up to listen.

The tour guide—a retired band director—unpacked his trombone and played a few choruses, and the kids applauded wildly. The band made comments between tunes, explaining how they played from memory and lead sheet, and what made certain songs ‘the blues.’ They took questions from the students.

Then they asked if any of the students wanted to sit in. One of my percussionists (let’s call him Scott Ego) volunteered, and had the experience of playing drums with four grizzled, legit jazz musicians on Rush Street in Chicago, at age 13.

After the trip was over, we always surveyed students about what they learned. Hands-down, the pizza lunch with jazz was their favorite thing; the comments were filled with respect and information. 

What are the kids on the Detroit Symphony field trip learning?

Maybe that adults are using them and their teachers to politicize a harmless incident.

Keep Your Hands Off My Curriculum

There is a certain irony, I realize, in a music teacher writing a piece called ‘Keep Your Hands Off My Curriculum.’ Music education is generally one of those areas that Moms for Faux Liberty types ignore (unless—and this comes from personal experience—it’s critiquing the tunes chosen by the marching band whose entire existence, to some people, hinges on supporting football players).

Who cares what they’re learning? It’s just music! There’s a lot wrong with that assumption, beginning with the universality of music—as human beings, we’re swimming in it—but first, I want to talk about all everyday curriculum, across the K-12 spectrum–and who controls it.

My pitch here is about the individual teacher voice in selecting materials and designing lessons for students, and it’s based on two fundamental teacher competencies: *
1. Knowing your students well, and being committed to their learning.

2. Having deep and always-growing knowledge and pedagogical expertise in the subjects and developmental levels you teach.

The second of these is something that can and should be continuously improved, across a teaching career. It’s the point (if not the actual outcome) of what we call professional development.

The first, however, depends on the individual teacher’s character and temperament, their belief that all students have a right to learn.

Now—I’m not opposed to standards or other common agreements, whatever each state or district calls them, the big buckets of what students should learn and when. Broad standards can organize and sequence curriculum; outlining disciplinary essentials and giving all educators a framework for what students should know and be able to do, at the end of their schooling, is undeniably important.

What I’m saying is that site-specific agreements– what all 9th graders in the district should read, for example, or how to teach the life cycle of a butterfly–ought to be made by those on the front lines. The ones who know the kids, and are committed to their learning.

This idea ought to be glaringly self-evident—to educators, to parents, even to Joe Lunchbucket who watches Fox News. Kids who live in Flint, Michigan may need to know and be able to do different things than kids who live in Dallas—or Anchorage. Who is best positioned to choose engaging materials, develop concepts, deliver instruction, lead discussions and check for learning?

Certainly not Chris Rufo, who seems to be everywhere these days, merrily inserting his personal beliefs into college syllabi and waging gleeful war on beleaguered K-12 public schoolteachers trying dutifully to teach things, it must be noted, prescribed by others.

It was the linked article on Rufo—and this piece–that inspired this blog. The story is about an Ohio administrator who interrupts a teacher reading Dr. Seuss’s The Sneetches during a recording session intended for an NPR podcast.  A third grader makes a very astute comment; the teacher (Mandy Robek) continues reading, but the admin (Amanda Beeman) shuts that whole thing down:    

“It’s almost like what happened back then, how people were treated … Like, disrespected … Like, white people disrespected Black people…,” a third grade student is heard saying on the podcast.

Robek keeps on reading, but it’s shortly after this student’s comment is made on the podcast that Beeman interrupts the reading.  

“I just don’t think that this is going to be the discussion that we wanted around economics,” Beeman said on the podcast. “So I’m sorry. We’re going to cut this one off.”

(NPR reporter) Beras tried to tell Beeman that “The Sneetches” is about preferences, open markets and economic loss, but Beeman replied, “I just don’t think it might be appropriate for the third-grade class and for them to have a discussion around it.”

I actually have some empathy for the administrator. She’s totally wrong—kudos to the teacher and the reporter for choosing the book and understanding the relevance of the child’s comment—but I’m sure Beeman envisioned her job security disappearing in a wave of rabid, sign-waving Moms for Control Over Everything at the next school board meeting, and panicked.

But that’s the point here: Educators need to be prepared to defend their curricular choices, with passion, conviction, and carefully considered rationales. Rolling over for the likes of Chris Rufo, the Hillsdale crowd, and dark-money funded and fully politicized organizations who wish to take down public education is not professional behavior.

Once they control what gets said and read in the classroom, the next target will be public libraries. All publicly funded services, the things that build healthy civilization and make diverse communities strong, will be on the chopping block. Ironically, this is about what the Sneetches were trying to teach the kids in Ohio: preferences, open markets and economic loss. What students learn, even in 3rd grade, matters, it seems.

This is a huge issue, wrestling over curriculum and parents’ desires, and it’s been part of public education since the very beginning. No matter how many standards are imposed, or school board meetings disrupted, however, the most critical aspect of instruction remains the individual teacher’s understanding of what is useful and important for the students in their care, and their personal knowledge and skill in delivering those things. 

Here’s a story:

In 2008, I was e-mentoring some first-year teachers in an alternative-entry program (in other words, not traditionally trained). They were white teachers, assigned to an all-Black district in eastern North Carolina, country that was once endless tobacco fields. Most of them came from elite universities, and all were laboring under the misconception that they were ‘giving back’ to society. A lot of their conversations were about raising the bar, making a difference, blah blah blah.

It was also the Fall of 2008, when Obama was closing in on the presidency. Students in the school were wild with excitement. One of my mentees, teaching Civics and Government, kept sending me long emails pouring out his concern over the ‘unprofessional’ teachers–the ones who had been there for years. They allowed students to disregard the official curriculum! They spent classroom time talking about this miracle that was about to happen, even letting students campaign. Unethical!

He, of course, maintained that he was sticking to standards and remaining neutral about the race. After all, the students would be taking statewide exams next spring, and he wanted them to score well.  He went so far as talking to the principal about his concerns.

I tried to suggest that he was teaching during events that could make history—and incorporating real life into lessons made them more meaningful. I asked if he had conversations with his veteran colleagues, about why they thought abandoning the prescribed curriculum was sometimes okay. Our dialogue got more and more strained, until he basically stopped communicating with me.

This young man had always considered himself an outstanding scholar in the social sciences. His lesson designs (debates, short-writes, small-group discussions, film clips) weren’t bad at all, especially for a newbie. He had some ideas about how to be a good teacher, and passion for the subject matter. What he was missing was knowledge of students and commitment to their learning. When the principal had a pep assembly to celebrate Obama’s victory, he was disgusted. For a public school, this is totally wrong! he wrote.

I have thought of him often—I’m fairly sure he’s not teaching any more. Which is too bad. Because being a master at custom-tailoring worthy curriculum to the students in front of you is a skill that takes time and confidence. It really cannot be outsourced.

* If you sat for National Board Certification, these principles will look familiar. If they resonate with you, check out the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards’ Five Core Propositions. Good stuff.

Genuine Education Leadership

There’s yet another thread on Twitter today re: ‘rewarding’ teachers by allowing them to wear jeans on specified Fridays vs. giving them permission to go to lunch (with their students, of course) five minutes early. I have an entire bookcase filled with volumes dedicated to the topic of leadership in schools, but somehow, these casual conversations on social media better reflect what’s really happening than all the blah-blah about Reframing, Maximum Impact, Inspiration, Grit or–God help us–What Works.

The thing is—the success (however you measure success) of a school is almost entirely dependent on the people who work there, and their interactions. There are other factors, of course—resources, the surrounding community, thinking about values—but the best framework for doing right by kids comes from good people who like working together.

I’ve worked under dysfunctional principals, as part of a collegial staff, where teachers rose to mentor and support each other, deftly bypassing administrative snits and roadblocks. I’ve worked with great superintendents, gifted managers—and the occasional evil, ego-bound admin—but I am here to say that the real juice in school-based leadership comes from adults who care about kids and get along well.

Leadership emerges from respect, friendship and trust.

Not from someone with a title based on distributing perks—as we have witnessed this week as the leaderless party nominally in power tries to elect a Speaker of the House. Maybe we’ll see Kevin McCarthy offering Republicans the opportunity to wear jeans on Friday, or go to the Congressional cafeteria early. Ha.

My friend John Spencer thinks the ability to manage is an essential piece of being a real leader:

If a leader focuses solely on new ideas and new initiatives, they run the risk of confusing novelty for innovation. There’s no consistency or sustainability. People miss critical details. Often, the leader is so busy leading, they are unable to step back and maintain what’s already working.

Managing requires the unflattering role of maintenance. Maintenance can feel like drudgery. It can seem inconvenient. It’s a humble part of leadership that often goes unnoticed.

But maintenance is vital. A new bridge can connect people across a city. An unmaintained bridge can be deadly. The best principals I know will say, “I’m not much of a manager,” but they empower teachers to self-manage. They proactively step aside and provide the tools and resources that empower teachers. And in the end, empowered teachers empower students.

One thing John mentions really resonates with me: the inability of a formal leader to step back and maintain what’s already working. I’ve never been in a school—as a teacher, professional development presenter or classroom volunteer—that didn’t have some good aspects, things that needed to be maintained.

I’ve been in schools in deep poverty, the schools that public education vultures can’t wait to shut down, where the building is crumbling, and the playground is literally dangerous. I visited a school where there was one LCD projector in the building, bolted to the library ceiling, and a teacher stood on a table with a broomstick to operate it.

Those teachers—were genuine leaders. They knew the serious limitations they were working with, and kept going despite the environment there. I was merely a person who shared some Powerpoint slides. There were already good things happening in that building, courtesy of the people there. Professional development was superfluous, and they knew it.

Now—there are books about servant leadership and distributed leadership that aim for utilizing expertise rather than following a template for success. I’ve spent the last two decades trying to find a formula for teacher leadership that isn’t about giving someone more work and a small stipend, then labeling them a leader, whether their colleagues consider them leadership material or not. There is an endless parade of articles and commentary from teachers bemoaning the fact that they’re not at the table—they’re on the menu, happy to get a five-minute head start to lunch.

We’re still a long way from normalizing the respect, friendship and trust that are the basis of functional school communities, tailored to the kids they serve.

The issues media believes will dominate public education in 2023 are policy-related: Absenteeism. Mandated retention. Accountability (read: test score fluctuations). Educator shortages. Transparency for charters and vouchers. Funding, funding, funding. And of course, COVID and other viral menaces.

It strikes me that—once again—listening to those who have formed their own communities and informally recognize the leaders among them will have the most success in curbing absenteeism, bringing new, fully qualified teachers into the profession, putting the focus on real learning rather than meaningless data chases, and pushing back—from their own experience—against bad policy.

I’d like to share one illustration, a story from one of those trusted and respected veteran teachers, newly retired, about a favorite lesson that he could no longer teach. Read it—it’s a great piece, and he asks a lot of timely and relevant questions. He also says this:

The conundrum for a public high school social studies teacher teaching about the January 6 insurrection is not to sacrifice one’s credibility while also not pushing one’s own political beliefs on students. 

I had an advantage that other teachers trying to thread this needle may not have. I enjoyed the support of colleagues, administrators, students, and parents. You may be a high school teacher working in a less generous environment — one in which local and state politicians have trained their sights on teaching history. You have my thanks and deserve the thanks of all our fellow citizens for your dogged, noble work on behalf of American democracy.

That dogged, noble work? Let’s call it what it is: leadership.

Back to Basics

Here in the Mitten State, our very good governor, Gretchen Whitmer, is running against a political novice whose qualifications seem to be that she resembles the current governor and that she used to host a right-wing TV show: GOP gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon defended blackface, called hijabs oppressive garments, and amplified racist remarks and conspiracy theories during her two years hosting a daily TV show on the far-right media network Real America’s Voice.

Not a nice person, but she is attractive. Stephen Colbert called her ‘Kirkland Gretchen Whitmer’ and followed up with several substantively awful but amusing things she’s said and done. I have been intrigued by her rehearsed talking points (which you can practically see her mentally retrieving), especially the blah-blah she’s been spouting about public schools.

She’s gone full-tilt Youngkin, of course, with the ‘grooming’ and ‘pornography’ accusations, kindergartners being shown how to have sex and pumping up scary nonsense about transgender athletes (the MI HS Athletic Association says there have been 10 documented cases of transgender athletes in the past five years, hardly a trend, let alone a crisis of ‘unfairness’).

But she’s also been talking—repeatedly—about taking public school curriculum ‘back to basics.’  She is clear about what this involves: reading, writing and arithmetic. All the rest is, in her opinion, unimportant, and the reason that our test scores have gone down in Michigan.

Dixon’s four daughters attend private schools. Now, I am a great believer in parents’ rights—the kind that let well-heeled parents send their kids to any school they choose, because of their religious beliefs, the kind of programming they want, or because they think public schools are where the unwashed send their unfortunate children.

If you can afford private school, fine. You go. Just don’t use that as an excuse to cheese out on public education, using deceptive language and–let’s tell it like it is–big fat lies.

As it happens, I know exactly where Tudor Dixon lives—I grew up in that town, and remember factory after factory, places where our dads worked, shutting down in the 1970s and 80s. I know the schools there—I graduated from one of them. People I know and love teach there, and put their trust in public education. My social media stream is awash in photos of their children in those very schools: fall carnivals, Friday night games, and student-of-the-month certificates.

Those are the schools that Tudor Dixon wants to ‘go back to basics’—a term that seems to be evergreen.

“Frankly, our schools have lost their way,” Dixon said, announcing the first of her policies. “Somewhere along the way, radical political activists decided that our schools are laboratories for their social experiments, and our children are their lab rats. And we’re saying enough is enough.”

Well. Veteran political activists teachers may remember other back-to-basics agendas, through the years. Here’s one definition:

Back-to-Basics Movement– During the late 1970s and early 1980s, a perceived decline in the quality of education, as evidenced by declining scores on standardized tests and attributed to students’ choice of so many electives considered to be “soft” academically, led to a back-to-basics movement. Proponents urged more emphasis on basic subjects, particularly reading, writing, and arithmetic, but also science, history, geography, and grammar. They wanted schools not only to teach content but also to help children learn to work hard. They wanted the schools to demand more orderly and disciplined student behavior. They wanted the authority of the teacher to be reasserted, and they desired a more structured teaching style. Finally, back-to-basics advocates often wanted the schools to return to the teaching of basic morality and, in particular, the virtue of patriotism. In many ways, the back-to-basics movement was a reaction against the personal freedom movement of the 1970s, which emphasized drug use and sexual freedom, symbolized by the culture of the “hippies.”

I was there, in the classroom, when a recession in the early 80s triggered a slice-n-dice on the enriched curriculum we were building, in the name of going back to ‘essentials’ which didn’t include music or art. I remember waves of ‘back to basics’ under certain other—Republican—governors, including a proposal to create ‘value schools’ where public school kids would get a ‘basic’ education for less than $5000/per pupil.

Back to Basics has always been code language for ‘spend less money on public education and those kids.’ (Preferably, a lot less.) It’s always been Betsy DeVos’s core mission, and of course Dixon’s campaign is being largely financed by DeVos.

Back to Basics is also a vague and empty idea. Aside from literacy and numeracy, it’s hard to define just what is meant by a ‘basic’ education. The least children need? Foundational principles—and then you’re on your own?

We’ve already stripped comprehensive social studies education and—God help us—recess from the elementary curriculum. Now, apparently, we’re taking interesting books out of the library and relegating active classes to sit-and-get. What else can we yank, because it’s not basic?

Did you notice the definition of the movement in the late 70s was driven by ‘declining scores on standardized tests’? Michigan was the first state to introduce mandated, statewide assessments in the 1970s—the MEAP—so it’s worth asking how those new, baseline scores were declining.

There was a dip in SAT and ACT scores in the 1960s as the first baby-boomers went off to college, and established a new and much larger testing pool. But it’s taken decades and lots of laws to put every student under the testing microscope—is this all so we can take away things that make school fun and joyful?

Back to basics. See it for the propaganda it is.

Election Denial Blah-blah Goes to Local Schoolteachers

Two years ago, at this time, there was a national conversation speculating about what would happen if Donald Trump lost the 2020 election. Barton Gellman, in a much-discussed piece in Atlantic Magazine, posed several scenarios of what might occur if Trump refused to concede.

Gellman was more than prescient, but it all seemed faintly ridiculous at the time. The article quotes Joe Biden, who suggests that Trump might be briskly escorted from the White House if he was refusing to leave, providing us with a mental picture of two big dudes in dark suits and earpieces, frog-marching Trump out of front portico. Bye-bye.

The reality, of course, has become so, so much worse. And it’s still with us. Growing, even.

A majority of Republican nominees on the ballot this November for the House, Senate and key statewide offices — 291 in all — have denied or questionedthe outcome of the last presidential election, according to a Washington Post analysis. Although some are running in heavily Democratic areas and are expected to lose, most of the election deniers nominated are likely to win: Of the nearly 300 on the ballot, 171 are running for safely Republican seats. Another 48 will appear on the ballot in tightly contested races.

There’s been a steady drumbeat of concern—the collapse of our faith in free and fair elections means the collapse of American democracy. This election could go horribly wrong.

But—like Gellman’s and others’ warnings in 2020, it’s hard to wrap your head around the idea that one party would blithely destroy 250 years of confidence in voting as the democratic means to access political power.

Republican candidates are talking about overturning an election held nearly two years ago that every audit has concluded was fair, transparent and free of systemic fraud. These conclusions include a Michigan Senate Republican report and an analysis by conservative Republican legal experts.

As a Democratic candidate for local office—the County Commission—it’s disconcerting to see that election denial has filtered down to local politics. Several statewide and congressional candidates are deniers or skeptics, but suggesting that local elections were deliberately corrupted is a new wrinkle.

For the past few months, the County Commission has been hearing from local election deniers during public commentary. It’s a lot of the same people, showing up again and again, repeating stuff they found ‘doing their own research.’ And now, they’re organizing—meeting with the sheriff, calling themselves ‘Patriots.’

Even worse—one of their ringleaders emailed 251 County employees and 336 educators with the following message:

Hi to 336 Leelanau County Educators:

 I’m forwarding this message to you that I sent to the Leelanau County Commissioners on October 4, 2022.  I got all of your email addresses as directed from the Leelanau County Government website. I have been attending all the Leelanau County Board Meetings since March, and have given the Commissioners [plus all other listed government leaders (262 total)] 13 Flyers showing the massive voter fraud in the 2020 election, which you can read on my [ ] website.  I know that you all are very concerned about protecting children.  With that in mind, Founding Father Thomas Paine said: “To take away (voting) is to reduce a man to slavery.”  I’m also concerned about adults marketing the false foundation ‘LGBTQIA+’ to children.

There was lots more, including crazypants attachments, but you get the picture: Election denier (and gay-basher) gets access to all public employees to spew baloney.

It’s one thing for the County Commission to patiently listen to yet another election denier direct them to a random website or to consider the Sheriff’s role in secure elections. It’s another for a local crank to disrupt the work of teaching children about civic values and their personal worth.

Really—teaching is hard enough without having to be harassed by election deniers.

Deniers locally seem to be fixated on Dominion machines, and the need for hand counting paper ballots. The county already uses paper ballots, which are always available for hand counting. Our voting jurisdictions are small—a couple thousand voters, at most. Any race can be (and often is) re-counted by hand. As a candidate who won by a single vote in the primary, I’m all for ‘trust but verify’ in local elections.

And plaudits to Dominion for fighting back:

Dominion’s $1.3 billion lawsuit against Trump lawyer Sidney Powell, who was a leading figure in pushing the lies that the voting machines were rigged, is also moving forward, although in March she asked a federal judge to dismiss the case against her, saying that “no reasonable person would conclude that [her] statements were truly statements of fact.” On September 28, a federal judge dismissed her countersuit, in which Powell claimed Dominion was suing her “to punish and make an example of her.”

You can’t vandalize fairly run, democratic elections without damaging communities.

A significant majority of Americans see Trump and the MAGA movement as a threat to democracy. Those folks need to act in November.

Vote.

What Parents Really Want from Schools

Remember Peter Meijer (pronounced MY-er, national news jockeys)?
He was the freshman Congressman from Western Michigan with the golden name and the conscience—the one who voted to impeach Trump, post-January 6, as a freshman in the House of Representatives. I say he was a congressman, because he was primaried in August.

The guy who’s running on the Republican ticket in Meijer’s former western Michigan district, John Gibbs, recently said this:

Folks, did you ever think that one day in America, we’d have to worry about schools putting obscene books in their libraries? This is simply insane–we must stop the madness. Voters overwhelmingly oppose sexually explicit books in public school libraries.

Well—folks. I’m not worried about obscene or sexually explicit books in public school libraries. Because there is no madness, no insanity, no pornography in school libraries.

Teachers and school leaders also overwhelmingly oppose sexually explicit books in school libraries. The word we use is ‘inappropriate’—materials are selected by trained school media specialists, who know inappropriate when they see it.

The entire slate of MI Republicans running for statewide or national office, not just Gibbs, is hell-bent on insisting that schools have become (in the past two years) hotbeds of sexual orientation and gender identity transformation, not to mention racial tension and guilt-inducement. They are led in this effort by the Republican candidate for Governor, Tudor Dixon.  

What Tudor wants to accomplish is very simple and common sense. She wants to get radical sex and gender theory out of our schools, remove classroom instruction of sexual orientation and gender identity for grades K-3, make sure gender specific sports remain gender specific given biological differences in boys vs. girls and post all curriculum online for parents to see and be involved in their child’s education. Every child deserves a world class education and parents should be in charge of it.

So let’s break this down.

Radical sex and gender theory? (Not a part of the curriculum in any school I’ve been in.)

Classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity for the littles? (Likewise—nope, nope.)

Gender specific sports? (The Michigan High School Athletic Association has a policy adopted in 2012 that determines post-season tournament eligibility for transgender athletes on a case-by-case basis. The group received and approved 10 applications in the past five years—so this is hardly a burning statewide issue.)

Post all curriculum online? (Sure. Most districts post their standards framework—what gets taught, when– and public high schools in Michigan have adapted the Michigan Merit Curriculum.)

Every child deserves a world class education and parents should be in charge of it. (Right out of the Glenn Youngkin playbook, a statement like this, which is mostly true, really resonates.)

But here’s the truth (from 32 years of classroom experience): What bubbles up in classroom discussions and playgrounds is what’s on the minds of the kids in that classroom. This starts early, in Tudor Dixon’s forbidden zone, grades K-3—like this story about the boy who chose a ‘Frozen’ backpack.

Kids are curious and they’re paying attention to what their parents and their screens (and their friends, and their older siblings) are telling them. I taught music and math, two subjects you’d think were pretty straightforward and controversy-free, but can testify that anytime you get a cluster of kids together, provocative issues emerge.

When politicians say ‘post curriculum online’ and ‘parents should be in charge’ they’re missing the reality of classroom instruction: It’s universally messy and unpredictable, even when it’s highly effective and led by expert teachers. You just don’t know what ideas kids will bring to the classroom.

I think what Dixon wants is to catch teachers talking about Forbidden Subjects raised by students, encouraging parents to be alarmed and dissatisfied. Her campaign is unable to flesh out her policies, however—this article is well worth the read, for examples.

Parents absolutely have the right to have input into their child’s public education—but not the education of all children in that school. As a music teacher, parent control over curriculum is particularly challenging during the December holidays. But all teachers, school leaders and school board members have dealt with decision-making around curriculum, instruction and assessment. It’s our job.

To suggest that parents are shut out, or have no say, is just not true. To construct legislation designed to thwart ‘forbidden’ subjects and practices is 100% political, and often funded by outsider groups. Because the reality, in poll after poll after poll, is that public school parents are generally satisfied with their children’s schools.

Personally, I have observed parents protest any number of school policies at local school board meetings. Perennially dicey topics? Sex education. ‘New’ math (defined, roughly, as a math program that parents find different from the math program they had in school). Pay-to-play sports (anything about sports will draw a crowd, actually). Your district may vary.

So what do parents really want? Here’s my unscientific, no-data-just-observation take: 

  • A basic education—reading, writing, math, science, civics—that pushes children to learn essential skills for living and working in a democracy.
  • Teachers and school employees who understand and care about their child.
  • Childcare—a nurturing place for their kids to be while parents have other responsibilities.
  • A decrease in the emphasis on data and competition engendered by annual standardized testing.
  • Safety—healthy practices, secure premises.
  • A measure of happiness—all parents want their kids to be happy, and all of them have to learn that happiness cannot be mandated or arranged by schools, although classroom practices can help.
  • Programming that addresses their child’s unique needs—take your pick: Art, physical education, a library, music, learning about technology, extra-curriculars like sports, drama, leadership opportunities, and so on.
  • Friends.

Peter Meijer (whose name is universally known across Michigan) used a different spelling of his name while in high school to protect his identity.  I am guessing his parents, who could afford any kind of education, wanted the same things for him—a good education, a measure of happiness, programming that helped him realize his goals and dreams. Friends.

Watch out for craven candidates who want to trash public education. They’re not ‘concerned’ or ‘for Liberty’—they’re vandals.

How to Make More Teachers

We need more teachers.

Good teachers. Well-trained and seasoned teachers. Teachers who are in it for the long haul.

Many of the articles floating around about the teacher shortage focus on data—What percentage of teachers really quit, when the data is impenetrably murky at best? And how does that compare with other professions?

In other words, how bad is it? Really?

These articles often miss the truth: Some districts will get through the teacher shortage OK. And most districts will suffer on a sliding scale of disruption and frustration, from calling on teachers to give up their prep time to putting unqualified bodies in classrooms for a whole year, sometimes even expecting the real teachers to keep an eye on the newbies.

The shortage will look different everyplace, but one point is universal: it’s not getting better.

Teachers are not just retiring and leaving for good. They’re part of the great occupational heave happening because of the COVID pandemic—people looking for better jobs, demanding more pay, in a tight labor market.

Public schools are now competing to hire smart and dedicated young people who want to be professionally paid and supported, especially in their early careers. When you’ve got student loans, higher starting pay is a big deal. And loan forgiveness if you teach for a specified number of years might make a huge difference.

Before anybody starts telling us how to make more teachers, as fast and cheaply as possible, to prevent “learning loss,” we should think about Peter Green’s cynical but spot-on assessment of the underlying goals of folks pushing for a New Concept of who can teach:

Once you’ve filled classrooms with untrained non-professionals, you can cut pay like a hot knife through cheap margarine. It’s really a two-fer–you both erode the power of teachers unions and your Teacher Lite staff cost you less, boosting your profit margin for the education-flavored business that you started to grab some of those sweet, sweet tax dollars. And as an added bonus, filling up public schools with a Teacher Lite staff means you can keep taxes low (why hand over your hard-earned money just to educate Those Peoples’ children). 

Several states (and Florida springs to mind here) almost seem to be competing for the best ways to reduce public school teacher quality, thus reducing public school quality in the process. In addition to offering full-time, teacher-of-record jobs to folks without college degrees, they’re trying to brainwash the ones they already have by offering them $700 to be, well, voluntarily indoctrinated about another New Concept around what the Founders really meant in the Constitution.

Attention MUST turn to an overhaul of how we recruit, train and sustain a teaching force.

All three are important—and have been so for decades. We’ve been talking about improving the teacher force, from selection of candidates to effective professional learning, for decades. As Ann Lutz Fernandez notes, in an outstanding piece at the Hechinger Report, there is a surfeit of bad ideas for re-building the teacher workforce, and not enough coherent, over-time plans to put well-prepared teachers into classrooms, and keep them there.

I have worked on a number of projects to assist beginning teachers using alternative routes into teaching. And while there are problems, there’s something to be said for teaching as a second (or fourth) career,with the right candidates and pre-conceptions, and the right professional learning.

That professional learning has to include a college degree, and field experience. Many high-profile charters advertise the percentage of students who are accepted into colleges. There’s been a longtime push to mandate challenging, college-prep courses at public high schools, and send larger numbers of students to post-secondary education.

Teachers need to be credentialed to demand respect from the education community, plain and simple, no matter what Ron DeSantis says. It’s past 50 years since bachelors degrees were the required norm for teachers in all states. Backing away from that is egregiously foolish—and almost certainly politically motivated.

If we were serious about making more *good* teachers, we’d need two core resources: money and time. Money to effect a significant nationwide boost in salaries, loan forgiveness programs, student teaching stipends, scholarships, plus the development of more alternate-entry and Masters in Teaching programs that include both coursework and an authentic, mentored student teaching experience.

This would also take time—but it absolutely could be done. Would-be teachers should have to invest some skin in the game—not because traditionally trained teachers had to jump through hoops, but because teaching involves commitment to an important mission. Done well, it’s professional work. We can argue about teacher preparation programs, but nobody should be going into a classroom, alone, without training and support. It’s bad for everyone—teachers, communities and especially kids.

What are we going to do in the meantime?

Alternative routes have sprung up all over the country, some unworthy, others better. All are stopgaps, but some of those teachers will continue to grow and excel in the classroom. And I agree with Michael Rice, MI State Superintendent of Schools:    

“If the question is whether we have a teacher that is certified through (an alternative route) or have Mikey from the curb teaching a child — a person who has no experience whatsoever and is simply an adult substituting in a classroom for a long period of time because there isn’t a math teacher, there isn’t a social studies teacher, there isn’t a science teacher — the teacher that is developed through an alternative route program or expedited program is going to be preferable.”

It’s worth mentioning that this shortage has been visible, coming down the road, for years. The pandemic and that great occupational upheaval have merely brought it into focus.

It’s past time to get the teacher pipeline under control. This will take good policy.

Amusing Ourselves into Educational Oblivion

A great new piece in the NY Times from Ezra Klein starts with Marshall McLuhan and his iconic quote: The medium is the message. Content—facts, analysis, opinion—is often secondary to the way it is presented.  McLuhan was prescient, of course—can you imagine what he would have made of Donald Trump?—but only in retrospect do we see just how deeply and comprehensively his remark has come to fruition.

Klein moves on to discuss my favorite education thinker—Neil Postman—and his terrific 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. The publisher’s note is a succinct descriptor: a prophetic look at what happens when politics, journalism, education, and even religion become subject to the demands of entertainment.

As it happens, education, religion, journalism and politics are the things I am most interested in, my personal passions. And I’ve seen all of them changing in alarming ways, to fit the attention spans and expectations of immediate gratification that technological change has shaped.

Americans, of course, think they are immune to this. Klein says:

Americans are capitalists, and we believe nothing if not that if a choice is freely made, that grants it a presumption against critique. That is one reason it’s so hard to talk about how we are changed by the mediums we use.

 I heard Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist who’s been collecting data on how social media harms teenagers, say, bluntly, “People talk about how to tweak it — oh, let’s hide the like counters. Well, Instagram tried — but let me say this very clearly: There is no way, no tweak, no architectural change that will make it OK for teenage girls to post photos of themselves, while they’re going through puberty, for strangers or others to rate publicly.”

What struck me about Haidt’s comment is how rarely I hear anything structured that way. He’s arguing three things. First, that the way Instagram works is changing how teenagers think. It is supercharging their need for approval of how they look and what they say and what they’re doing, making it both always available and never enough. Second, that it is the fault of the platform — that it is intrinsic to how Instagram is designed, not just to how it is used. And third, that it’s bad. That even if many people use it and enjoy it and make it through the gantlet just fine, it’s still bad. It is a mold we should not want our children to pass through.

Bingo.

Why don’t we have the foresight to just say no to attractive technologies that are harmful to children’s—or even adults’—development and emotional well-being? They’re addictive. And remember what Frances Haugen told us about Facebook: They knew it was harmful to young women especially. But they buried that knowledge in pursuit of profit.

In an election season, candidates are seldom lauded for their creative policy ideas and expertise, let alone their character and integrity. Instead, we have Boots vs. Flip-Flops elections, like the Presidential contest in 2004 where a bona fide war hero was taken down by deceptive media, leaving the term ‘swiftboating’ behind, in the political lexicon.

Kind of makes you long for the days of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, where folks took picnic baskets for refreshment, and each candidate spoke, uninterrupted, for a total of 90 minutes. Tens of thousands of people attended. And there were no sound bites, memes, re-runs or cable news analysis. The medium—each man, speaking his ideas—was the message.

Fast-forward to 2022, where the MI GOP nominee for Governor, one Tudor Dixon, was described by the co-chair of her party as a ‘younger, smarter and hotter’ version of the current Governor, Gretchen Whitmer. (Plus that Trump Seal of Approval, of course.)

Ms. Dixon seems to be the candidate Republicans thought had the best chance of winning: someone who looks a lot like the current governor, but is a relatively blank slate, having never held elected office. Clearly, this isn’t about making good public policy, or the kind of leadership we need. But it illustrates the degree to which the medium—and Dixon has a history in media–is more important than the message.  

Often, the most entertaining and outlandish candidate wins. Viewers routinely say that the loudest and most aggressive candidate on the debate stage ‘won,’ quality of arguments be damned. But– who wins in the 2022 midterm elections really matters.

If people in your household or family circle are heading back to school this month, what media-savvy Tudor Dixon says about public education matters, too: Among Dixon’s education priorities are requiring teachers to put all curriculum and teaching materials online for parents to review, banning transgender girls from playing on girls’ sports teams, and criminalizing taking minors to drag shows

Much of this is education-media theatre, fed by stoking fear and anger, aimed toward winning elections. The terms and assertions dominating what should be policy discussions about how to shape a community asset—public education—have been, to put it politely, invented.

Fights at school board meetings and public arguments about cherished young adult novels are probably more entertaining than the pedestrian work of stretching public dollars and finding a special ed teacher in August. Boring meetings seldom draw camera crews, and don’t offer the possibility of a mic being stuck in your face.

But there is a role for order and rules and civil discourse. Every teacher in the country understands this.

Zero Tolerance for School-based Threats

In the early 2000s, my middle school spent a couple of years plagued by bomb threats. This was around the time when the shock and awe of Columbine were still percolating in the minds of educators. Threats were taken seriously, always.

And so we would find ourselves being bused to the HS Auditorium, or scurrying out to wait in the snowy parking lot so students could go home early, right after the kindergarten runs. Teachers, of course, were free to re-enter the building, but students had to abandon lunches and calculators. The police were involved. Students were warned in assemblies about the Serious Consequences of getting caught—and that they would indeed get caught, one day. And so on.

It would be quiet for a few weeks and then—someone would scrawl a threatening note on the bathroom wall, about a bomb in a locker. And the day was over. Again.

The teachers weren’t in the inner loop of communication as administrators set about finding culprits, but eventually they nabbed someone, and punishments were meted out, and we didn’t have bomb threats for a good long while. There was never an explosive, of course—but the deadliest school bombing massacre in American history occurred 95 years ago in Bath, Michigan, so we’re careful about bombs around here.

Worth noting: The Bath School Bomber was a disgruntled school board member, upset over school taxes, who also killed the Superintendent.

The school massacre that happened last fall in Oxford, Michigan has yielded a copycat effect, with:

…more than 100 students in Michigan accused of threatening schools in the days and weeks after a terrifying shooting rampage at Oxford High School left four students dead and seven people injured. Scores of schools were forced to shut down, while police and sheriff’s departments were overwhelmed as officers raced to investigate each case.  

Ingham County Sheriff Scott Wriggelsworth said his officers investigate about two school threats a month. “A lot of times, (a threat) means throwing every resource we have at it. We had school threats on consecutive days, and we had 19 officers on it,” he said. “A lot of times it comes out that it’s a seventh-grader who didn’t want to go to school, but by the time we figure that out, we’ve spent 24 hours investigating.”

Exactly.

And that’s what makes this such an intractable problem: Kids do stupid things. How do we deal with that?

Will they do stupid things again if they’re not severely punished the first time? Should they be banished from the school district forever? Sent to Juvie for making an empty threat? Made to pay for their behavior via community service?

The rules are ever-evolving. And for every fan of Restorative Justice, there’s someone else who’s sick of being steamrollered for insisting on strict classroom discipline.

Matching the punishment to the crime is not always simple. It seems to me that hunting and murdering other human beings ought to put you behind bars. But not even that is a guarantee.  

No matter who’s doing the sentencing, there are equivocating factors, including the age and intent of the perpetrator, the level of violence employed or implied, and the political environment of the place where youthful threats are made.

After a credible threat—bombs, shooters, you name it—the focus is often on who could have or should have anticipated the danger (and how to punish them). Who was negligent before or during the terror? Who must pay to find justice for victims?

Here are the questions I’d like answered, instead:

What could have been done to mitigate this situation, before it ever happened? Why do so many students immediately attempt copycat threats? What is there about living in this nation, going to school here, that makes students attracted to aggression, even bloodshed?

With a shooting, we can look at access to lethal weapons. But how do we prevent the urge to cause chaos, to get attention, to seek revenge? To harm other human beings?

If you think I’m suggesting that this job should fall into the laps of teachers, think again.

Teachers need both clear policy and honed human judgment to effectively teach young people. But neither of those is enough to prevent the forces that are pushing students to some very bad decisions involving weapons.

Solving these problems won’t happen with Zero Tolerance policies either, no matter how tough that language sounds to communities.  

We all live in this overheated country. We all see what happens to communities when a whole classroom is mowed down, or an ordinary supermarket becomes a place of terror. We all witness violence in what should be safe community spaces.

It’s everyone’s problem.