I’m a Loser, Baby. So Why Don’t You Kill Me?

I decided right away, when Donald Trump Jr. made his inane remark about ‘loser teachers’ spreading socialism, that I wasn’t going to respond in any tangible way. A serious eye-roll perhaps, or a brief snort. I knew there would be reactions—memes, blogs and columns and snarky tweets, digital photo frames spelling out ‘LOSER’ in red —to wallow in. No need to add to the clutter of pointless, short-term outrage.

After all, the guy’s a moron. Crafting a snarky response for just another forgettable disgrace in the daily parade of verbal horrors would be too easy.

So I waited for the spate of blogs.  I’ve read a at least a dozen pieces written by earnest, irate teachers who work so hard, don’t get enough money or recognition, and are tired of this shit.

Of course, those teachers DO work so hard. Of course, they’re doing a good job, making a difference, changing lives 24/7 for $40K a year, barely able to feed their families and driving 14-year old Cavaliers. It’s outrageous that the President’s feckless son calls them ‘losers,’ for their effort to instill a little lukewarm democracy in their classrooms.

Then I read a piece on Education Week from a teacher blogger making the same case: We have a right, even a duty, to imbue our students with basic principles of citizenship outlined in our constitution. What was most noteworthy about this blog was the number of comments—90, the last time I looked. I blogged at Education Week for nine years, and I never had 90 (angry, accusatory, trolling) comments. EdWeek is a pretty staid place, protected by a paywall, but these were bot-worthy, name-calling anti-teacher, anti-public education comments, posted at a sober website where educators go to discuss policy.

My friend Ken Jackson, who teaches at Wayne State University made this point:

Is this merely an ugly Trumpism or is it something all of us– including those in education — have internalized? Does the remark point to something much more problematic about our collective attitude towards teaching? And when I say “our” I mean, again, those in education.

Ken points out that teaching is only one skill he is supposed to bring to the academy—research and administration are valued as much as, perhaps more, than the act of teaching:

My sense of responsibility towards students is greater than it has ever been. When I see traditional age students, I don’t see a random collection of young people, I see my daughter. And I give the kids in my charge what I would want her to have. That is considerable.

We have made — at all levels of education — getting out of the classroom the GOAL, not the end. Staying in the classroom is to lose.

Check the newspapers: Tom Watkins, Amber Arellano, Tonya Allen, Doug Ross — these are our “education” stars and gurus. People pay THEM to talk and write about education. What do they have in common? They have never seen the inside of a classroom.

Don’t blame “Jr.” — He is us.

Another friend, Cossondra George, teaches math in a tiny town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She expressed her disgust with Trump Jr.’s remark and got pushback from local Trump supporters who try to assure her that Jr. didn’t mean ALL teachers or HER, specifically—’just the ones who are willfully trying to push a Socialist agenda and using education as a platform, a misuse of power.”

Cossondra’s response was so powerful that I’m quoting her verbatim here:

 I don’t want to live in a society where we don’t all work together for the good of the all–where we don’t offer education and healthcare to our most vulnerable people, where we don’t have police, fire, ambulance protections. if that means that sometimes, some of my tax dollars support a program I’m not in favor of, that’s a risk I’m willing to take. I don’t see how a sane person can think people should be able to choose whether or not to pay taxes. If people don’t choose to, what happens to schools, hospitals, roads, fire departments, etc.?

There is just a huge concern about respect for teachers and public education today. When a ‘trusted’ speaker bashes educators so blatantly, that ‘trickles down’. How many students now feel empowered to be disrespectful to their ‘loser teachers’ because some arrogant ass that has most likely NEVER spent a single day in a public school classroom, makes that kind of remark at a campaign rally for our sitting president?

Remember—she lives in a small town, where her students and their parents will be bumping into her in the produce aisle. I admire her courage.

I’ve now seen many, many similar conversations on social media. This is a big deal. A thoughtful piece in the Washington Post brought it home:

In a stadium filled with people chanting “USA, USA,” the son of the president of the United States called for hostility toward teachers because of their so-called political leanings. This is a message you would expect in an authoritarian regime, not at a rally for the U.S. president.

By working daily with young people, teachers are the stewards of the future. Whether Democratic or Republican, liberal or conservative, right, left, center, blue or red — seeing and reinforcing the value of a teacher should be a national pillar that rises high above partisan politics and cheap applause.

Throughout history, schools and teachers have always been among the first to be targeted by authoritarian regimes and extremists. Independent thinking, creativity, compassion and curiosity are threats to dogmatic beliefs and rule.

I was wrong. We need to pay attention, every day. Thanks, teachers, for speaking out. You may be the first line of defense.


Blackface and Other Ugly Truths. Not Just a Southern Thing.

I have lived in Michigan all my life. I never thought of myself as a Yankee until I started working for an education nonprofit based in the South and quickly picked up that nickname–as well as a reputation for being on the side of teachers’ unions (guilty), and outspoken in a way that was downright unladylike. Nobody ever said ‘Bless your heart’ to me.

In fact, it’s easy for folks who don’t live in the South to feel a little smug about being on the right side of the War Between the States, even though it happened more than 150 years ago. Northern educators are fond of pointing out that the lowest-achieving states tend to cluster across the south-eastern tier of the United States.

We are seldom encouraged, however, as teachers, to think about the range of historical and economic streams—or the policy wars—that led to such disparate outcomes. Worse, we’re not pressed to ask what we can do to address and support equity and justice nationwide in an economy that is increasingly global. We get let off the hook sometimes.

The recent outrage over Ralph Northam’s yearbook photo, and his fumbling response, is a case in point. As Teju Cole points out in a New Yorker podcast, white men of a certain age grew up in a deeply racist culture, and not much has changed since then. Since Reconstruction, blackface and minstrelsy have been used to belittle black Americans. We are nowhere close to reconciling our national shame over deep-seated scars of injustice.

The difference with Northam—what separates him from other political leaders who went to school in the 1980s– is that Northam got caught. And once caught, seemed to have no idea how to express shame, humbly ask for forgiveness, admit that he needs to be educated about his failures, past and present, use his own guilt to lead people in a new direction– and so on.

It’s not the call of non-Virginians, of course, but I think Ralph Northam should resign, even though by most accounts, he’s been a good governor. I also thought my previous governor, Rick Snyder, should resign in disgrace over decisions that led to poisoning the water in Flint, then withholding the truth from the citizens of Michigan. Somehow, however, white men of a certain age can survive insulting—or poisoning—black people. If that’s not insidious racism, I don’t know what is.

There’s been some recent conversation about the biased and inaccurate teaching of history and social studies, in the South particularly, which strikes me as just another way to point fingers at schools, rather than acknowledging that schools are a stage where society plays out its deepest values and goals.

Teachers in the North and the South have chronically bungled the topic of slavery, for starters, but it goes deeper than that. Schools are also a stage where assumptions and taboos and unexamined but common practices play out.

I personally have been warned by an administrator not to ‘focus’ on the African roots of the music my students were marinating in, for example, because parents might not like it. Teachers in all parts of the country tangle daily with politically incorrect ideas and forbidden issues—and not just in Civics class. You’d be surprised what first graders ‘know’ and want to share with their little friends.

Recently, a retired teacher buddy asked me if I remembered ‘slave sales’ being a part of Spirit Week at my school. My friend had been tracking a FB page where adults who went to high school together were lamenting the fact that the ‘fun’ things they did (including a ‘slave sale’ assembly) were now banned. Political correctness run amok was the consensus, among the dozens of commenters. It was all in fun. Wasn’t it? The teachers participated, after all, and the school allowed it. Even worse, there were black and white photos shared, including someone in a KKK hood, and a person in a noose.

A female classmate had called the commenters out, saying this is horrible now and was horrible then. She posted a link on hidden biases, asking folks to turn the conversation toward an examination of why this was considered OK behavior.  This led to a lot of irritated mansplaining and rationalizing and attempts to call HER out. (Who is she, anyway? I don’t remember her.)

Talk about discouraging.

The worst thing for me was that I did remember a ‘slave auction’ at my middle school, in the late 70s or early 80s. It had been a tradition there for years, as a fundraiser for something—the cheerleaders were offered up ‘for sale’ and did the bidding of their ‘owners’ for a day. The auction was shut down when a group of boys pooled their money to buy a cheerleader, then brought out a saddle and put it on her. The principal stepped into the mix (finally) and that was the end of ‘slave’ auctions.

So–let’s not get on our high horses about better behavior in any part of the country.

In the New Yorker podcast, Teju Cole was asked if the Northam affair might be a national tipping point, in our awareness, disapproval and extinguishing of racist behaviors. No, he said. We have no idea what conciliation or reparations look like. We’re currently living with the backlash against a black President. The best we can hope for is incremental growth toward equity.

Is Teju Cole right?  DfVv5LRVAAIyP_F

Third Grade Flunk Laws–and (Un)intended Consequences

Like many states, Michigan has a Third Grade Mandatory Retention law for students who are not reading at grade level in the statewide assessments. And like most states, the law is riddled with exceptions, loopholes and what you might call pre-existing conditions. In other words, well-connected parents who don’t want their child who struggles with reading to fail the third grade will be able to wiggle out of it. If you’re poor or attending a ‘failing’ school, you’re pretty much toast if your reading skills (or test-taking skills) are subpar–when you’re eight years old.

Much of the critique around ‘3rd grade flunk’ legislation centers on the damage done to kids by being forced to repeat a grade, the financial burden on schools as they are compelled to provide an additional year of instruction to large segments of their elementary population, and the complete lack of proof that these laws work. If our goal is higher rates of genuine literacy, rather than punishing schools and vulnerable students, there are better ways to get there.

We could begin by noting that Finland, a perennial head-of-list country when it comes to international comparisons of literacy accomplishment, does not begin formal reading instruction until students are seven years of age—roughly second grade—because they believe that’s when a majority of students are developmentally ready to handle the complex intellectual tasks of phonemic awareness, decoding and making meaning of the symbols on the page. By age nine—4th grade—Finnish students are ahead of ours, even though our 4th graders have been subjected to formal reading instruction for five years at that point.

There’s something seriously wrong here.

Now we are witnessing the other consequences of the Third Grade Threat—pushing inappropriate instruction down to kindergarten, as anxious districts fear that students who are not reading at grade level (a murky goal, to begin with) will embarrass the district when letters go out to parents of third graders who are supposed to be retained. Because it’s the law.

Who’s to blame when students lag behind (arbitrary) literacy benchmarks, for whatever reason, from learning in a second language, an identified disability or merely being a late-bloomer? Teachers, of course.

Early on, much of the angst was directed at ‘those districts’—the ones where high numbers of students lived in poverty, the districts where 40% of kids weren’t reading at grade level, and teachers were presumed to be less-than (an absolute fallacy, by the way). But the dread over having to face public wrath around flunking 8-year olds has spread to alpha districts.

A disgruntled kindergarten teacher in Ann Arbor shared a memo that was sent to KDG teachers in Ann Arbor two days ago. It appears, in its entirety, including misspellings and grammatical errors, below. Ann Arbor is a large, well-regarded district with a diverse population that includes children from well-educated families as well as pockets of poverty. Most of its schools are highly ranked by the State Department of Education, and a couple of its neighborhood schools post test scores lower than the state average.

But Ann Arbor kindergarten teachers, it seems, are now part of a get-tough literacy accountability pipeline, where their personal beliefs about how children learn emphatically do not matter, and their coaches and administrators are taking them to task, including a ominously worded reminder that their instruction could and will be observed at any time.

They are reminded that ‘large’ numbers of kids—kindergartners, remember, three years before the hatchet falls—are failing.  And the boss wants to know why. In writing. Including a response to the question of how teachers are ‘demonstrating rigor’ in their ELA instruction.

It’s a crackdown, all right: ‘Student progress begins and ends with you. We cannot let borderline students get a pass.’

If this is happening in Ann Arbor—not a perfect district, but one that has demonstrated some progressive ideas and academic successes—how has this law negatively impacted reading instruction in other districts?

Are these unintended consequences? Or is this what the Third Grade Flunk law was supposed to do all along—wrest control of reading instruction from professional teachers?

Memo of February 6 to kindergarten teachers in Ann Arbor (italics are mine):

“Good afternoon K teachers,

I hope that you all had a wonderful day off and stayed off of the slippery roads. The purpose of this email is to get the conversation started with you all ASAP and for us to better understand where are (sic) K students are and how we are going to ensure their success. In hopes for us to get the full picture of what we need to look at there are several questions and items that we need more information from you by Friday, February 8, 2019. (Note: email sent February 6.)

  1. Please share with XX and I your reading groups (specifically name of students, days/times you meet with them and for how long). When we read them, these schedules should reflect at least 4-5 days a week with your lowest (below grade level) readers and fewer days for those at or above target. Please note that we may pop in during the time you give to see how a few friends are doing.
  2. Please provide XX and I with a hard copy of your most current benchmark assessment that helped you to determine reading groups.
  3. Questions that require honest answers…

How many of your kids be ready to read for 1st grade teachers at a level “E” by the beginning of next year? Please list them.

What literacy supports and strategies have you been offering students and families that go beyond the classroom?

What do you believe is your responsibility to students in the area of ELA?

This year we had a very LARGE number of students falling significantly below grade level.
What was the underlying cause for this last year? 
What have you changed about your practice this year so that this does not happen again?
How are you demonstrating rigor with in your ELA practice?

As we dive into how our youngest and brightest look at this point, we must also remember that our personal views and opinions around developmental appropriateness may not match what the district is asking you to achieve. Nonetheless, each of you is still responsible for meeting and achieving the grade level outcomes set out by the district. Please remember that student progress and success begins and ends with you.

In addition, growth data is dependent on the level of success student have. As you go into the next round of evaluations do you have the evidence and data that will accurately demonstrate the appropriate reading growth. This year we will not be using “the standard error of deviation”, either students have made the necessary growth or they have not. With the NEW THIRD GRADE READING LAW we can not let borderline kids get a pass. These student will have to securely demonstrate success. (Caps not in original email.)

Thank you in advance for you thoughtful responses and speediness in getting this information to us. We will be setting up a mandatory meeting to discuss these points further for sometime next week. We will have XX join us as our Literacy Expert.




Defining ‘High-Quality’ Curriculum

photo-1514339013457-0fcf969367dfHey, remember when Bill Gates and his disciples were pushing the Common Core and every day there was another info piece published in Ed World saying, emphatically and even snippily, that these were STANDARDS, not a CURRICULUM?

Remember those assurances that a national consensus on standards and reliable, aligned assessments evaluating student mastery of those core standards were merely a conceptual framework–the beginning and the end of their Grand Master National Make-Schools-Better plan. Remember when they claimed school districts and individual teachers were free to craft their own curricula? Because teachers knew the kids (duh) and how best to teach them to reach those standards–providing students continued to do well on the tests, of course.

Well, that was then. The headline now is ‘Gates Giving Millions to Train Teachers on High-Quality Curriculum,’ closing the instructional cycle: Standards—Curriculum—Assessments.

Grantees will work to improve how teachers are taught to use and modify existing series that are well aligned to state learning standards.

So–teachers won’t be using hand-selected materials or instructional activities they find relevant or engaging to their students’ lives. They won’t have the authority to ditch packaged materials that don’t work for their kids and create something that does. They will merely be trained—my least favorite word, when it comes to authentic teaching—to ‘use existing series.’  Series pre-approved by Gates and constructed by off-site by textbook writers. Whoopee.

You could see it coming, with the surfeit of dismissive articles on how teachers rely on Pinterest to create their lessons and wouldn’t know rich, rigorous curriculum if it dropped from the sky. This underlying disdain for teachers is often masked by chipper sentences like this one:

Expecting teachers to be expert pedagogues and instructional designers is one of the ways in which we push the job far beyond the capabilities of mere mortals.

I went to ed school a long time ago, but I left with the conviction that my job would be centered on creation of a relevant curriculum for my students and the pedagogical skill to deliver that curriculum. If teaching is not pedagogy and instructional design, what is it that teachers are supposed to be doing?

I do—unlike some of my colleagues—see the value of a loosely framed set of disciplinary standards to follow VOLUNTARILY, especially early in a teaching career. It helps to know how to sequence core learning objectives (some old-school language from the 70s that still applies). It helps to have a toolkit full of strategies to teach those objectives. What helps most is friendly, talented colleagues who provide running support when things don’t go well—another way to teach a key concept or go-to materials that aren’t in ‘the series.’

Sometimes, I think all the hand-wringing around teachers being unable to select, organize and teach a coherent curriculum comes mostly from those who are worried that teachers might choose learning materials and goals that they don’t agree with. It’s true that teachers have a lot to do, day in and day out, but taking their most critical responsibilities away from them means stripping them of what it means to be a teacher, turning them into technicians, record-keepers and disciplinarians enforcing work they don’t believe in. It’s demeaning.

I also don’t believe this is about Gates and Company making more money. It’s about control over a once-creative, socially essential occupational field.

A few years ago, I applied to become a ‘model lesson’ designer in a project launched by my State Department of Education. The money was not impressive, but the work was done over two weeks at a beautiful resort in northern Michigan, and several of my teacher colleagues were participating. The idea was to design exemplary lessons around topics and skills in the state grade-level curriculum standards (pre-Common Core). These lessons would then be available for all teachers in Michigan to use, to enhance their curriculum.

The work was done using a nationally familiar model of lesson design. Thousands of teachers across the country have read the book and undergone the training. Because this workshop was organized in a hurry (had to spend that grant money!) the sponsoring organization didn’t have a trainer available. Instead, they sent out two teachers to deliver the training and help us write the units.

These teachers were flat-out great. Both knew the lesson design process and material well but were pragmatic in assuring us that the ‘gourmet’ lessons we were designing were not the stuff of everyday teaching. They were ambitious and creative and used technology (one of the requirements) that lots of teachers didn’t have access to. A couple days in, there was a discussion about how the Department expected these lessons to be used.

One of the teachers leading the workshop admitted that he didn’t believe ANY lesson could be used, wholesale, by another teacher.  You might find a great idea or strategy, he said—but any smart teacher will tweak and modify. Tweaking and modifying are what teaching is. And creating your own lessons, custom-tailored to the kids in front of you—that’s what great teaching is.

There was applause when he said this, but the Department folks at the back of the room, scrolling through their phones, looked uneasy. The two teachers were gone in two days, replaced by a woman from the sponsoring organization, who made us discard the work we’d done already as ‘drafts’ and start over. To my knowledge, the lessons were never used.

So much for ‘high-quality’ curriculum. It’s hard to see how the millions Gates is dropping on this project will end up benefiting real kids. There is no such thing as a sure-fire, teacher-proof lesson. The person in front of the room always matters more.

Photo: Thammie Cascales

What Are We Supposed to Learn from the Covington Catholic High School Boys?

Maybe you don’t want to read another gush of outrage over those kids who tried—and failed—to humiliate Omaha tribal elder Nathan Phillips. I’ve seen at least two dozen full-scale editorial pieces, in the mainstream and alternative media, plus many more posted on social media with one of the many shaky iPhone videos and a few choice insults in the comments.

Perhaps you have decided that the news cycle for MAGA Boy and the persistently drumming Native American elder has run its course. Maybe you called or emailed the school in Kentucky to express your displeasure. Make a few comments on social media posts—and considering that the event is now over, it goes into the ‘Old Outrages’ file, along with the Hitler-salute Youth in Baraboo, Wisconsin, and the Stanford swimmer who got away with rape, pretty much. Not to mention Michael Brown, Tamar Rice, et al..

Perhaps there are just too many outrages to keep burning, burning, burning all the time. It’s exhausting. But maybe that’s the problem—we get angry, or sad, or sickened by all signs and signals that there’s something really appalling happening in this country. And we feel powerless to do more than comment.
More than that, we’re not really sure who or what to blame. We don’t know how to fix this.

Is this about a spoiled and entitled generation of kids? Is it about Catholic schools, sending teenaged boys on a mission to publicly protest a woman’s right to have control over her own body? Who thought that was a good idea? Or is it really about the adults—a response I’ve heard from many educators—and their failure to step in and stop the reprehensible behavior of the boys in their charge, to point out their disrespect, to yank them back?

I think the fact that virtually all the boys in the video were wearing MAGA hats answers that last question. Clearly, that was acceptable gear for a visit to the nation’s capital. They got off the bus with those baseball caps, their cell phones to document their manly actions, and their inclination to rumble.

The thing is—and I’m not the first to point this out—we’ve seen boys like this before. Boys like this have been part of our history, from Birmingham to Wounded Knee to Charlottesville. They sit in corner offices, the halls of power and the highest court in the nation.  To boys like this, life is a game of winners and losers. They want to be winners, to come out on top. And white boys think they have the advantage there.

The question now is not who’s most to blame— or whether the boys even understood the political and philosophical differences between the Black Hebrew Israelites, who were also protesting, and the cause of the Indigenous Peoples March.  Doubtful.

The question we need to be asking is what this incident represents about us, as a nation. What will we do next, how can this be mended, what does it mean to be ‘great?’

Perhaps the most on-point and frightening thing I’ve read came from Nathan Phillips himself:

Phillips said he recalled “the looks in these young men’s faces … I mean, if you go back and look at the lynchings that was done (in America) …and you’d see the faces on the people … The glee and the hatred in their faces, that’s what these faces looked like.”

So–let’s stop talking about this incident as proof that Catholic schools are missing the moral mark, or that teenagers are clueless jerks who don’t know their own history, or that parents need to take a firm hand and stop defending their kids (instead of hiring PR firms to clean up the mess).

This is about a malevolence sweeping across our country. We’re all involved here. This is about racism, in all its filthy and sordid flavors, shapes and forms.

It’s just more evidence that demons we thought had been tamped down, again and again, are on the loose once more. Ethnocentrism, xenophobia, and white nationalism, parading around in red hats. The cracks in our democracy widening. A new sense of who the natural winners and losers are—who ‘deserves’ to come out on top.

In one of the videos, Nathan Phillips says:

 “Let’s make America great. Let’s do that.”  After an exchange about “stolen land” one young person responds to Phillips’ group by saying, “And y’all stole it from the aboriginals. … Land gets stolen. That’s how it works. It’s the way of the world.”

There you have it. Not sure who told this kid that stealing property was the way of the world, but if this is what young men attending a school that purports to inculcate strong moral character believe, we’re in terrible trouble.  White teachers and parents need to take a good look at not only what happens on school trips, but in the curriculum, the athletic fields, at the dinner table and every other place that our kids look for role models and guidance. Because they ARE looking.

That doesn’t mean I’ve let these kids off the hook. I haven’t. Only this: if you were relieved that YOUR children/students/community would never behave like this, look at what’s coming down the pike.

 Decide for yourself what is causing this upsurge in hate and ugliness.

Nathan Phillips gets the last word:
Phillips said the students who derided him Friday were motivated by fear of different people. 

“The Black Israelites, they were saying some harsh things, but some of it was true, too,” Phillips said. “These young, white American kids who were being taught in their Catholic school, their doctrine, their truth, and when they found out there’s more truth out there than what they’re being taught, they were offended, they were insulted, they were scared, and that’s how they responded. One thing that I was taught in my Marine Corp training is that a scared man will kill you. And that’s what these boys were. They were scared.”


How to Teach Virtue? Start with a Charter School.

Yes. The title is sarcasm.

But the idea must be acknowledged. It sprang from the mind of one of most venerable Famous Educators, a hoary pillar of the never-ending education reform movement, Chester E. Finn, known to his fellow reformistas as ‘Checker.’ Checker is currently paterfamilias of the Thomas Fordham Institute group, one of whom, Michael Petrilli, recently suggested that the education reform movement has been so successful in accomplishing its goals that it was currently fading into media obscurity. As if.

I have never been a fan of Finn’s approach to school reform. (Click here, for example.) Finn, whose teaching career spanned one full year, is one of those private-school, private-colleges, wordsmithy edu-pundits who look down—way down—on fully public education, seeing it as a hopeless tax-funded entitlement program for subpar youth.

My favorite example of this comes from his book, Troublemaker, a very readable sort-of autobiography where he positions himself as an education policy rebel—a ‘gadfly’– poking at sacred public education cows. He talks about the difficulties he had teaching high school as a newbie, and blames them on the lack of a good syllabus. Because in working with ‘tough’ kids, with ‘few prospects,’ a rigidly defined curriculum rich with the classical canon is your ace in the hole as a novice teacher.  (Sarcasm again. Sorry. There’s something about Finn’s George Willesque writing that brings out the snark.)

Finn now writes the occasional op-ed at Flypaper (get it?), tutting about mistakes made by those who persist in defending public education and don’t see issues his way. His most recent one is ‘Rekindling moral education: A worthy challenge for schools of choice.’  If you’d like a get a flavor of Finn’s erudition and moral rectitude, you can read it, but I’ll summarize for you:

The nation is going to heck in a handbasket, and it’s time for schools to get on the stick and start teaching some values moral certainties, because ‘we’ are observing ‘an excess of selfishness, cheating, laziness, and willingness to be a burden on others.’

He (Finn) has read two excellent essays, comparing the views of Aristotle, Kant and Rousseau (a long-time favorite target for Finn), and thinks we could benefit from high-quality, philosophy-driven moral instruction in our schools, the kind of instruction that private and especially religious schools have always embraced.

In fact, it’s an ‘obligation’ for schools of choice to embark on this, right away. Regular public schools, which Finn has taken to calling ‘compulsory-education schools,’ however, shouldn’t even bother. They’re faceless bureaucracies, after all, and they dare not offend their ‘common’ constituencies by trying to ‘habituate certain values.’ Finn puts ‘Blaine Amendments’ in quotes, lamenting the fact that religion has been shut out of public education. Charter schools, on the other hand—well, there may be some ‘workarounds.’

Finn finishes the column with some high-flown blah-blah about teaching the Categorical Imperative to school-of-choice kindergarteners–trusting that TFA corps members could develop the curriculum, no doubt, doing their bit to hold back the ‘debased and unworthy society’ that’s coming down the pike.

Well. Speaking as a long-time compulsory-attendance schoolteacher, I can testify that character education has always been a part of public schooling. In fact, the foundation of most school discipline practice, K-12—from simple classroom rules, morning meetings and honor councils all the way to formal programs like Restorative Justice and (God help us) Canter’s Assertive Discipline—has been established to shape the character and behavior of students. The idea that public schools shy away from defining morally correct behavior and overlook genuine offenses is ludicrous.

In fact, if there is a societal force moving against teaching truth and justice in public schools, it might be our own legislatures. Here in Michigan, it took 18 public ‘listen and learn’ sessions to overturn right-wing edits to the state’s social studies standards:  People discovered references of the government’s role in guaranteeing freedom of religion, freedom of expression and freedom of press had been struck. So were references to the Underground Railroad, women’s rights activists and the suffrage movement as well as emerging civil rights of immigrants and the LGBTQ community.

As I was reading Finn’s rapturous description of parochial schools and their long-time commitment to the inculcation of virtue, I thought about Brett Kavanaugh’s calendar of debauchery and phony, spitting outrage when his entitlement was threatened. Religious-based schools do indeed have the freedom to teach their preferred principles and models—and parents have the prerogative to pay for the privilege of having their kids attend school with similarly well-connected families—but none of that is a guarantee that Catholic schoolboys adopt a higher standard of moral behavior in adulthood.

It’s Checker Finn’s titular assertion that charter schools are the perfect place for character education to get a good toehold on changing society that’s most absurd. Perhaps Checker Finn hasn’t been following the endless (and I do mean endless) stories of charter corruption. Charter schools have been around long enough to have posted some solid evidence about their efficacy and outcomes—when Finn mentions that some of them have used their commitment to personal merit as a ‘brand,’ he does so without apparent irony.

Perhaps he hasn’t seen the videos, or understood that the adorable children in ‘Waiting for Superman’ have not been ‘saved’ from the debased and unworthy world he fears. If Checker Finn were to show up in my town, he couldn’t have a conversation with the ‘visionary’ charter school founder here, because he’s in prison for financial malfeasance, although he’s still collecting rent from his personal school of choice. Moral rectitude, indeed.

I don’t disagree with Checker Finn’s take that the world has grown colder, and less worried about honesty and integrity.  But I think there’s another reason why. It has to do with role models, not school governance models.


My Thing for Elizabeth Warren

I often remind myself that my grandmother was 30 years old before she got the chance to vote. In my 20s, advocating for the ERA to pass (spoiler alert: it didn’t), I asked my grandmother if she considered herself a suffragette, back in the day. Was she champing at the bit, wondering when women would achieve parity with men?

Not exactly. She was happy to have the vote—and used it faithfully, right up until she died at 103, to vote mainly for Republicans, because her brother was a Republican and advised her to do so. But although she was a remarkably independent and self-sufficient woman, for her times, she was not a banner-waving feminist in her 20s.

My grandmother worked, full-time, after leaving school in the 8th grade, in 1904. She lived with her parents, her older married sister and then alone, throughout her 20s. She bought a car with her savings, before she even knew how to drive, getting one of her other (also Republican) brothers to teach her. She didn’t marry until 33, after everyone had given up on her prospects. She was an old maid–until she eloped to Chicago with a 40-something cigar maker.

She was, however, civic-minded, participating in troop support during WW I, reading a daily newspaper and contributing to many charitable causes. She supported herself and her only daughter throughout the worst of the Depression, working at a grocery store after her husband died. She was never anywhere close to well-off, and her grandchildren made fun of her string-saving and vegetable-scrap soup-making. The family joke was that she put one chocolate chip in each cookie.

I think my deep love and respect for my grandma’s persistence in getting on with her life, no matter what, has something to do with my thing for Elizabeth Warren. I remember the big digital display at the Democratic Convention in 2016, when Hillary Clinton ‘cracked the glass ceiling,’ thinking that it was one thing to have finally nominated a woman. But another to actually get her elected.

I liked Clinton well enough (although I voted for Bernie in the primary), seeing her as the best-prepared candidate in American history.  But I did not identify with her or find her story compelling. She was the cool, confident girl at the top of the class who didn’t make mistakes. She was calculating, and shrewd. In retrospect, those are excellent qualities in a president—and I’d give up a lot to have her in the White House now. Perhaps her role in history is to have cracked the ceiling so others can take the escalator, although I’m certain that’s not what she was aiming for.

Elizabeth Warren, on the other hand, is relatable. For me, anyway. Her family was undeniably working class, prone to working-class prejudices (her mother’s ethnic background, for example), and frequently broke. Her brothers all joined the military, a common career plan for the guys who graduated from my blue-collar high school in the sixties. She dropped out of college at 19 to marry, then quickly regretted it and figured out how to get that degree, after all. She went to law school as a young mother. Whatever notoriety and accomplishments Elizabeth Warren has earned, they all belong squarely to her.

But–is relatable a valuable trait? How do we pick a candidate for president?  David Leonhardt has some good advice on that, in the NY Times today: 

First, think for yourself. Don’t try to figure out what kind of candidate some other hypothetical voter — a swing voter, say — is likely to want. Think about which candidate excites you.

The strongest presidential candidates usually are more than the sum of their demographic traits and résumé lines. In the 2016 primaries, Donald Trump sure didn’t seem like the most electable Republican candidate — but he won. In 2008, a first-term African-American senator with the middle name Hussein didn’t seem like the most electable Democrat — but he won. If you find someone who legitimately excites you this year, there’s a very good chance that candidate will also excite other voters.

Leonhardt’s second piece of advice:  The Democrats should choose a candidate who understands the appeal of economic populism right now.


Aside from climate change, I think the rapidly expanding gap between the haves and the have-nots is the most critical issue in the United States today. It undergirds other major issues—racism, health care, education, housing and infrastructure, the well-being of the citizenry. And there’s nobody running for POTUS who understands better just how much—and in what ways– the middle class, working class and those in genuine poverty have been screwed by our economic policies and growing inequity than Elizabeth Warren. It’s her life’s work.

I remember clearly the first time I saw Elizabeth Warren on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart.  It was in 2009. She was clearly nervous—she says she threw up backstage—and very much the rattle-on, didactic professor. I learned, from her few minutes on TV, just who was responsible for the financial collapse that had negated my puny investments, and which Wall Street lawyers had been put in charge of ‘fixing’ the economy. She was blunt and bold. She ought to run for Congress, I thought.

I read her book, and was impressed. And I started following her career, beginning with her brainchild, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and its struggle to get established, with Obama ultimately deciding she wouldn’t have enough ‘support’ to be its first Director. She’s been speaking out for working families and populist economic values for a decade now, proposing solutions and identifying roadblocks to equity. She’s also routinely been underestimated.

Warren’s enormously popular in her own state. She even called out Hillary Clinton’s two-faced senatorial voting record on financial issues—a pretty gutsy thing to do. Later, once Clinton won the nomination, she supported her—as a team player, another role that winning politicians are compelled to play in a highly partisan system like ours. And now—she’s supporting the Green New Deal, working cooperatively with some of the most progressive new politicians in Washington.

So—just what is it that is preventing right-thinking Americans for backing Warren’s candidacy for President? Maybe it’s the fact that only 52% of Americans say they would feel comfortable with a woman president.  In Atlantic Monthly, Peter Beinart, after dissecting Warren’s flirtation with identifying her genetic heritage and her policy views, says this:

All this ignores the harsh truth that when women politicians—especially women politicians who embrace a feminist agenda—overtly seek power, many American men, and some American women, react with “moral outrage.” They may not express that outrage in explicitly gendered terms, just as they may not express their anxiety about a black candidate in explicitly racial terms. They may instead cite DNA testing or hidden emails or San Francisco’s cultural liberalism. Or they may simply say they find the candidate’s mannerisms off-putting. The media’s role is to dig deeper: to interpret these specific discomforts in light of the deeper discomfort that Americans again and again express with ambitious women.

The media, and those who don’t do that deeper digging can always find a reason here or there to pillory a candidate like Warren—something she said about charter schools 20 years ago, a discomfort with her earnest, opposite-of-aloof personality, or nailing her for challenging Trump’s disparaging label of ‘Pocahontas.’

I fully understand Tribal leaders’ irate clarification: being Native American is not a matter of DNA testing, but cultural identification. But I also understood Warren’s urge to tell her family story. Cross-cultural mixing is the story of America—and as recently as a generation or two ago, many a family’s unity was destroyed by prejudice and intolerance against those with different skin color, religion, ethnic background or class. Although it may have backfired, I thought it was Warren’s story to tell, her grievance to address. And, in the end, not really a big enough deal to knock her off the list of prospective national leaders.

After the 2016 election, I volunteered to go on a ‘listening tour’ for my county’s Democratic party. I went with a partner, and we knocked on doors of voters who were identified as independents and those who did not vote in the previous November. We asked what their most important local, state and national issues were—and what qualities their ideal candidates would have. It was fascinating.

We only found person who admitted to voting for Trump, here in a state that pushed him over the edge. Instead, people talked about how much they disliked Hillary Clinton, going all the way back to her tenure as First Lady, where she was ‘pushy’ and Not Elected President. Yeah, she was broadly experienced and smart, blah-blah—but they just did not like her. They couldn’t relate to her. Plus, they said, she was a liar. Many of them proudly told us (strangers, remember, who knocked on their door, and asked completely different questions) they didn’t vote for anybody as President.

All of this makes convinces me that we need to change the way we talk about women in politics:

 For the last two years, women have been standing up. We marched. We phone-banked. We canvassed. We fund-raised. And most importantly, we spoke up. We said, “Me too!”  We said, “I’ll run!” We said, “Enough!” And finally, we had an outcome that wasn’t soul-crushing. After two years of suffering through a relationship with our abusive country and thinking nothing was going to change, we had a reason to celebrate instead of mourn.

So naturally, the internet could not let it stand.

Amen. It’s time to look as seriously at women running for President as we do men. To see their gaffes as just that: gaffes. To investigate their background experiences, expertise and deeply held principles. To stop trying to find that one disqualifying incident or irritating characteristic. To see them as genuine leaders and professionals, with warts and strengths. If there’s anything that 2016 taught us, it’s that Americans have a tolerance for obvious warts, if they see something else they like.

My grandmother never raised a ruckus about not being able to vote because it never occurred to her that her gender had been systematically suppressed. Things just were as they were—men made political decisions and women fried eggs.  Change, like a woman in the White House—let alone a woman who genuinely came from blue-collar roots—would have been unthinkable. In 1920, Grandma was just happy to get the vote.

But a whole century has passed. It’s time for someone like Elizabeth Warren to be President. There are others—in fact, Warren is only one of my top five candidates. But all of them bring something new and energizing to the table. Let’s make change in 2020.9947-full