We Are Just Trying to Protect Our Own

At least three times in the past week, I’ve heard some variant of this statement:

I’ve noticed that those who are community-spirited and positive about life have become even more so, reaching out to organize helping systems and cheer people up—and those who are naturally whiny, critical and self-involved have now gone into overdrive.

It’s mostly true. Crisis brings out not just true strength of character, but leadership. Crisis also alerts you to who you wouldn’t want to be stuck with in, say, a bomb shelter.

Crisis has also laid bare the vast and growing distance between those whose primary goals center around more for me and mine—and those who mind the community.

If you’re an educator, you’re familiar with that gap. Maybe you work in a stressed school where lack of qualified staff, supplies and leadership is an ongoing predicament, while well-outfitted schools 25 miles down the road are passing out Chromebooks like peppermints to kids already connected at home. Or maybe your work life is a series of conversations with parents who want special treatment—for their child only.

One education professor I know calls this belief—that some kids are inherently more worthy of educational perks than others— ‘deservingness.’  There are other words: Privilege. Entitlement.

Since the founding of the nation, we have wrestled with the tension between mythic rugged individualism, Ayn Rand-style, making it ‘on your own’—and the reality that we’re all on this big national boat together, capitalizing (deliberate word choice) on the contributions of our forebearers.

And now—we have the horror of Florida Governor DeSantis shutting out citizens from states that are particularly hard-hit with COVID-19, by setting up checkpoints on the highway. The implication is that Florida, a state which used its beaches as commercial draws, spreading the contagion across the Eastern Seaboard, is now closing its doors to those seeking to escape that very illness.

They’re closing the gates to Florida—the federally built highways into a place with over seven million second homes. It all feels kind of medieval—pulling up the drawbridge, standing at the ramparts. Too bad about the taxes you pay on your winter getaway! See you next year, maybe. Now turn around.

I live in a county of twenty-two thousand residents, where the average age is about 55.  That’s right. Old folks. Retirees. The gap between rich and poor here is remarkable.

While the county (surrounded by Lake Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay, with other beautiful inland lakes) has the highest average real estate prices in the state, there are in-county schools where virtually all the children receive free and reduced lunch. There are tribal lands—the Grand Traverse Band in my county. We have no hospitals but rely on a good regional hospital in the next county over.

If there were an influx of refugees from overwhelmed downstate hospitals, we’d be screwed. Rich and poor alike, we’d be competing for scarce resources and scarce medical care. All the entitlement of wealth, the second home and fat bank account, couldn’t secure us a hospital bed, private room and ventilator.

This is what scares people around the country—the raw, indiscriminate nature of the virus. Like the folks in this article on Door County, in Wisconsin, very similar to the place where I live, urging people to stay in their winter homes: We’re just trying to protect our own.

What about Newport, Rhode Island—or Martha’s Vineyard, where the year-round service workers who depend on wealthy part-timers’ business to stay afloat are ambivalent (to say the least) about their early arrival? Here’s what one of my favorite novelists said:

Geraldine Brooks, who has made her home on the island since 2006 and raised her two sons there, has had enough of the stay-away sentiment. She posted on an online forum, “Just asking fellow islanders: where is this marvelous community that has enough beds, enough respirators, enough masks, enough nurses? The lifeboats from the Titanic left half full and didn’t go back for fear of being swamped. This feels like that.”

One of Brooks’s novels, ‘Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague’, set in 1666 and based on a real incident, describes a remote mining village in England, where the bubonic plague is systemically killing village residents. It’s clear she’s wrestled with the morality of pandemics.

It’s hard to argue with people who are moving out of a dangerous situation into a place where the virus seems less prevalent. Like the people in remote areas, worried about sharing whatever safety and resources they have, they’re just trying to protect their own.

It’s also hard to argue with people who will do almost anything to get a better deal for their children—including filing a false residency so their child could attend a good public school.

If there’s one lesson we could all learn from this disaster, it’s that we’re all in the same boat, like it or not. Mind the community.
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When Crisis Presents an Opportunity: How about a National Teacher Plan?

Remember Katrina? Remember when schools were closed and the students who went to public schools in NOLA fled, a diaspora, as the city tried to clean up and rebuild and restore?

My friend Jill Saia, who was teaching in Baton Rouge at the time, described days where batches of new students would appear, shell-shocked and sad, and teachers welcomed and made room for them. They didn’t have enough chairs or textbooks–or toothbrushes–but kids sat on the countertops and teachers bought pencils with their own money. Going to school was normal, and however imperfectly, those children were invited into functioning schools and classrooms for a bit of healing normality.

It certainly was one of those ‘Every Crisis is an Opportunity’ moments.

Unfortunately, we know what happened. Wipe out a school system (and, not coincidentally, remove a large number of its poorest and least protected students) and you’ve got yourself the opportunity to let the market create a profitable, PR-driven system of charters. We’ve spent the last 10 years arguing about the all-charter NOLA system, while those students’ schools open, then close.

It’s become abundantly clear that nothing will be the same after the COVID-19 pandemic abates: the economy, the obviously failed American approach to health care and pandemics, our goals in electing political leaders. And, of course, education.

Glass-half-full people (a subset of the population that includes a lot of teachers) have been proposing ways to make society better after we’re back on our feet. From their—healthy—perspective, the only way to see this global catastrophe as a moment that could have a silver-lining backside is to tap into our capacity to change, to make things better. Otherwise, we’re just surviving.

As Ali Velshi said:
We can take this moment to change the policies that have failed us…why not be the first generation that fixes wealth disparity, and income inequality, and universal healthcare, and poverty, and homelessness, and racial economic inequality?

Not to mention education.

My friend Mary Tedrow and I have been discussing this.  Mary spent many years as an award-winning teacher in Virginia, and she also has serious policy chops. Mary said:

I want to go on record. When Trump was elected, I said, “He is going to burn everything to the ground, so we’d better be ready to build an education system that makes sense.” So. The fires are raging. How can we come together to replace the test-and-punish, top-down system with one where reform happens close to students, because teachers are well-trained, work collaboratively, and are free to make informed decisions on how to extend student capabilities to the maximum? When there is a leadership vacuum, leaders step in. What is first on our agenda?

WE NEED A NATIONAL TEACHER PLAN. And we need teachers to help draft it. Here are some of our rough-draft ideas.

  • First step: Get rid of mandated standardized tests at any point in 2020. (Should be easy–everyone agrees that the tests will tell us nothing, and we now have permission.) And then, lay the groundwork to demonstrate, clearly, that tests have never told us more than who the haves and have-nots were. The 2021 tests will only tell us who got supplementary instruction during the school hiatus—let’s scrap those, too. Instead, let’s focus on assessment expertise for teachers, who can use appropriate tools to do what assessment is supposed to do: Tell us what our students know so we can tailor our instruction appropriately, and give our students useful feedback.
  • Second step: Focus on actual student needs instead of comparative, tested common standards. When kids return–in the fall, or whenever–the learning inequities, always present, will be endemic. There will be kids who had zero instruction, and kids whose teachers and parents did yeoman work to keep them moving forward. Let’s stop comparing them–forever. Let’s look, district by district, at where kids are, and start there in rebuilding our instructional models and curricula. Let’s use existing standards only voluntarily as broad frameworks—suggestions, possibilities– to guide custom-tailored learning.
  • Third step: Let’s understand that technology–something that always should have been considered an interesting tool of highly varying quality in instruction–will never take the place of face to face instruction, and stop pretending that online schools are the answer to educating our people. We have data to show us that students in online schools do not do well. And we are currently running a national experiment in online learning which has already yielded gargantuan problems and revealed the resource chasm between well-off children and the poor. Let’s value and re-invest in bricks and mortar schools.
  • Fourth step: Repurpose the testing dollars for teacher education, given the current shortages. All preK-2 teachers should be reading specialists, for starters. We can extend and improve field experiences. We can increase teacher pay and make teacher education more attractive. We can open schools of ed that are cutting-edge models of teacher education and provide a full ride to teacher candidates who then agree to work where they are needed. The answer is not making it easier to get into the classroom—it’s selecting good candidates and giving them in-depth training and experiences.
  • Fifth step: Re-think grading as ‘normal’ required practice. There’s been a national brouhaha over directives to not grade on-line assignments. Not just because no access to the necessary tools and bandwidth cripples some students—but because teachers wonder how to ‘make’ students do the work without a grade hanging over their head. It’s a great question to ponder. If students are only working to get a grade, what does that say about the motivational underpinnings of learning in America? There are plenty of ways, absent grades, to provide feedback, encouragement and additional instruction to students. And for all the aspects of education that currently hinge on grades—who gets into what college, who gets to be valedictorian, who’s on the honor roll—maybe they all need to be re-thought, as well.

There are five, just off the tops of our heads.  Would you like to propose another? Would you like to participate in a conversation about our educator-sourced National Teacher Plan? Here’s the page where the conversation is just starting to bubble up: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1355753381300151/

 

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Lessons in Educational Leadership from a Real-life Pandemic Crisis

My favorite teacher-blogger, Peter Green @ Curmudgucation had a good piece today. He writes about how school leaders often forget or ignore their core values and beliefs once they become focused on being managers:

A manager’s job– and not just the management of a school, but any manager– is to create the system, environment and supports that get his people to do their very best work. When it rains, it’s the manager’s job to hold an umbrella over his people. When the wind starts blowing tree limbs across the landscape, it’s the manager’s job to stand before the storm and bat the debris away. And when the Folks at the Top start sending down stupid directives, it’s a manager’s job to protect his people the best he possibly can.

Does your principal / superintendent / department chair /boss evidence those behaviors? Mine neither.

Although there are courageous administrators and titled leaders who do stand up to idiotic and counterproductive directives from above, they are infrequent. The best most teachers can hope for is a good Joe (or JoAnn) who doesn’t revel in their power–and understands or looks the other way when rules are bent or sidestepped for good cause.

It has long been my sincere belief that when teachers and school leaders get on the same page, vis-à-vis monolithic policies (like uniform core standards, high-stakes testing, or 3rd grade retention for struggling readers) we will be able to push back mountains. When practice wisdom and skilled educational leadership join hands, the results will be transformative. When, of course.

Which is why it’s been so interesting to watch how school leaders have responded to statewide school closings, a completely unprecedented event. In a nearby district, while students were sent home from school indefinitely on Friday, teachers were ordered to report to work this week. For older and more vulnerable teachers, this was risky. For teachers at home with their own young children, it meant having to find also-risky child care, pronto.

This is an area where there are frequent snow and ice days, and teachers aren’t generally required to come in when driving to school is dangerous. ‘Act of God’ days are written into all our contracts. Why would a district require teachers to report?

Because someone, in Central Office, was afraid that teachers were going to get a vacation. Or get paid for hanging out in their pajamas, watching the news. Someone who wanted to be in control. To manage.

Having the school open at set times so teachers could pick up needed items? Yes, of course. And there was precious little time to meet and get input from teachers—the ones who know their students best—about how to handle a long period of social distancing, while keeping kids connected to school.

Maybe the first on-line instruction should be a building-wide faculty meeting, hosted by the school administrator, for that conversation: What are the best things we can do for our students, right now? What’s the appropriate platform, appropriate activities, appropriate…educational philosophy for school in the time of coronavirus? How do we want to handle this, together?

A virtual meeting like that would be a great—revealing—exercise in what it means to lead, to create the system and supports for an entirely unanticipated circumstance. There are plenty of administrators who think using technology is a matter of familiarity with a program—and hence, someone else’s responsibility. (There were plenty of professors in my graduate work, 10 years ago, who resisted using online discussion tools, preferring to meet in person once a week, rather than post interesting questions, responses and observations as we did the readings. What that usually boiled down to was discomfort in a) using the program and b) not being the resident expert.)

One of the most fascinating things we’ve seen in this crisis is just WHO has stepped up with ideas that make sense, made tough (often unpopular) decisions, grabbed the viral bull by the horns. Governors, working in partnership with regional colleagues. Senators and Representatives. Some State Education Superintendents (like mine) are doing the right thing and demanding a waiver on testing.

There is leadership out there.

But the leadership I’ve seen today that has flat-out humbled me is coming from classroom teachers, who are sharing their plans, ideas and expertise with complete strangers. Want to know how to use a particular learning management platform? Someone is available to teach it to you, even though they’re new to the tool themselves.  Want to join a discussion on the advisability of trying to stick to a schedule and standards? There’s someone who wants to talk about that, too. There are new friends and ideas you never thought of, everywhere. Want an idea that someone just tried for the first time—with success? It’s there for the taking.

Educational leadership is more than supporting and protecting people. It’s unleashing the creativity and generosity of those people. It’s believing in their integrity, their willingness to go above and beyond when the chips are down.

Late this afternoon, I heard that the teachers in the nearby district were no longer required to report for duty this week. Someone got a leadership clue.

And on we go.

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Once Again Teachers are First Responders

Thursday night, at 11:00 p.m., Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer ordered the closing of all K-12 public schools in the state, for at least three weeks, beginning on Monday. As of two hours ago, twelve states and numerous large urban districts have ordered shutdowns.

Good for them. I know that without COVID-19 testing, we’re flying blind, and the effects of school shutdowns may be negligible. But taking action—and responsibility—is what leaders do.

I was asleep and didn’t learn about the school shutdown until Friday morning.  Newscasters, parents and community leaders were all weighing in on how this would impact our daily lives. Teachers, on the other hand, were plotting to get to school early enough to get to the copy machine before the paper and toner ran out.

It’s not that teachers were caught by surprise. On-line chatter over the past month has been all about Will Technology Save Us? (no) and Is it Better for Kids to be at Home or School? Teachers are pragmatists. We have to be.

But this is another instance of teachers being foot soldiers, this time in a desperate war being directed by hideously incompetent generals, bent on hiding the terrible news of early defeats. Teachers are like those firefighters in Kirkland, Washington who came to transport extremely ill nursing home residents to the hospital, without gloves and masks. Just doing our jobs, just following directions.

Thank you to the hundreds of thousands of teachers who organized take-home packets and figured out how to get coursework online, even if they didn’t have a clue about how to do it before last week.  And thank you to those who pointed out, with considerable asperity, how incredibly inequitable virtual instruction will be, but went ahead and made plans to do it anyway. Thanks to all who sent home food or arranged for food pickup—or even made a single call to a single household, to make sure an adult was home.

Nobody knows how to do this well. Nobody. But schools and teachers are still trying.

Keeping a functional learning community together is job #1.  Meaning: every child, K-12, who is out of school involuntarily, knows for sure that the adults who have been his/her teachers, playground supervisors or joke-around buddies in the hallway, still care. Staying connected and checking in matter much more than reviewing fractions or watching a dissection video.

This may sound really wimpy and imprecise and touchy-feely to reformers and learning measurement types. And it doesn’t mean that teachers should abandon all attempts to build skills or (for lack of a better phrase) deliver content. Only this: the most important skills a child needs right now are empathy, curiosity and self-direction, kindness and civic engagement.

A child—either kindergartener or jaded teenager—who can discern truth from lies, identify gaslighting, find engaging and worthwhile things to read or watch, and be willing to help his/her family or community at an appropriate level will be learning plenty in the new few weeks.

The old ‘guide on the side’ idea applies here, in spades—teachers who have contact with students need not put on their lab coats and shoot dramatic videos. What they can do is help kids unleash and pursue their own discipline-based interests. They can stay in touch. They can listen.

Teachers have been describing their struggles and fears—whether to prepare for time away or push to get their state or district to close, NOW—eloquently. They are wondering whether they will see their students again, and when. One teacher described yesterday as ‘surreal.’ There is lots of black humor, and also lots of tears.

They are wondering if this global pandemic will be a turning point in our national understanding of how we are—and will forever be—global citizens. Will this experience finally bring the United States into line with other first-world countries in strengthening the safety net and providing universal health care? Teachers—first responders, in so many ways– want to know.

From a teacher in New York City (who believes she must remain anonymous):

Many teachers and staff feel like guinea pigs and disposable right now during a global pandemic because our society didn’t have protections and a safety net for young people in poverty, in this failed healthcare system. We teachers know this every day as we go teach and do our jobs and serve young people, which I love doing and which has been my calling since I was six. Teachers do everything, and this is yet another case where everything we do isn’t enough, AND we are expected to carry the burden for a larger society that won’t carry the burden.

Stay safe. Stay in touch. Wash your hands, teachers. We see you.

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The Virus that Ate My Field Trip

For more than a dozen years, I took my 8th grade bands on an extensive field trip, near the end of the school year. The trips were always out-of-state (or out of the country), involving two or three nights in a hotel, plus a symphony performance, cultural experiences like museums, university-based skills clinics, plays and musicals, a formal, white-tablecloth dinner out–and someplace for my students to play a concert.

We selected the destination (Chicago, Cleveland, Toronto, St. Louis, Washington D.C.) in the fall, and raised funds all year. Lots of parents paid to chaperone. The destination became a kind of instructional theme—we studied the blues in our Chicago years, and all-American composers and patriotic music in the D.C. year.

Nothing I’ve done since has ever been a worthier use of instructional time, or a better learning experience, than taking 135, more or less, 13/14-year olds and perhaps 25 parents out in the wider world for a musical adventure. Playing in a Chicago jazz club (at 2:00 p.m., with pitchers of Coke), wandering the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, putting on a concert for veterans in St. Louis, the Phantom of the Opera in Toronto—all good.

The Band Boosters made sure, financially, that everyone went—and one year, we took a virus along with us.

It was some kind of norovirus, according to the local health department, which got into the act after we returned, contacted by a worried mother who thought perhaps her child had been poisoned. But no. All 164 people on the trip got to experience the rapid spread of a virulent virus, up close and personal.

We weren’t 30 minutes out of town, when Bus B (the second of four motor coaches) radioed that one of my flute players was vomiting in the bus bathroom. Her brother had been sick the night before. She said she ‘felt better now.’

My assistant principal was on the trip (on Bus B) and he thought we’d be OK. He isolated her, lying down on the back seat of the bus. Nobody wanted to lose an hour by turning back, and she begged us not to make her go home.

We’d left school around 7:00 p.m. The plan was to drive through the night (approximately a 12-hour drive), have breakfast, then play a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial the next morning, followed by time to explore the Vietnam Memorial, before checking into the Washington Hilton in the afternoon to dress for a seafood dinner at the Baltimore Harbor, followed by a Symphony concert in the evening.

Of course, even though the bus lights were turned out at 10:00 p.m. and students instructed to snooze or at least rest, that didn’t happen. Kids were keyed up (musician joke). They ate snacks and goofed around and lowered their resistance right to the ground. The concert in the morning was the only thing that went really well all day. I have a great photo of the three bands together, in red, white and blue T-shirts, playing their hearts out, with Lincoln benignly watching them from the shadows behind.

By the time the buses arrived at the Baltimore Harbor, a couple dozen Bus B kids were sick. In the grass, in the water. And—during dinner—in the bushes outside the restaurant. My assistant principal offered to take all the sick kids back to the hotel (an hour away). The bus driver got lost and ended up driving aimlessly around Washington D.C. as students were violently ill, an experience my AP described as similar to being in a Fellini movie.

Meanwhile, back in Baltimore, kids who’d felt fine during dinner were rushing up the aisle at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall to despoil the bathrooms there. We did another triage on the three remaining buses. At that point—before anyone had been confined to a hotel room—all the sick people were Bus B students and parents. But by the next morning, the virus had spread to Bus C. At this point, perhaps 50 people were ill, both students and parents.

For the next couple of days, as more people got sick (and some recovered), the field trip became improvisatory. We took healthy kids outdoors, to the Mall, for games and walks. Our bus drivers bravely took those who were well on driving tours to see the White House, Ford’s Theatre, Arlington Cemetery and monuments. Half the chaperones stayed at the hotel and tended the sick.

We cancelled whole-group, ticketed activities in favor of hanging out, on buses or outdoors. The weather was beautiful, which really helped, and we were in Washington D.C. after all. It was a better solution than putting dozens of actively queasy kids on buses to share their symptoms all the way to Michigan.

The hotel and its staffers were incredibly nice. They brought trays of ginger ale to infested rooms. They offered free long-distance phone calls to kids who wanted to contact their moms—this was in 1998, before kids had cell phones. I was carrying a cell—’for emergencies’– but it worked only sporadically in reaching Michigan. I had to call a couple of parents of seriously ill kids, as well. Chaperones kidded: First the Reagan shooting, and now this—but I have strongly positive feelings about the so-called Hinckley Hilton, to this day.

By the 4th day, close to 100 people were sick or had been sick. While it was a nasty bug, it passed through (sorry) expeditiously. Most people were asymptomatic after 24 hours or so, moving into the ‘limp dishrag’ phase of the disease. We decided to stop on the way home, as planned (and paid for), to see Luray Caverns.

I hadn’t been in favor of seeing the caverns initially—not really a cultural thing—but the stop was a godsend. It was something to do together, and the caves were strangely beautiful. Even though there were a few sick kids who opted to stay on Bus D while we toured underground, it felt like we had survived something together, as a group.

Observation: the disease spread predictably. While everyone on Bus B eventually fell ill, and most of Bus C did, about half of Bus D was affected and only one person on Bus A got sick (and she was the mother of a boy who was riding on Bus B). Kids were housed four to a room—and roommates rode the same bus. If you were in the room with a sick person, you got sick.

Pretty much textbook for viral transmission. Which is why you have to feel sorry for the people who were innocently caught on a cruise ship with the corona virus.

Once we were home, most parents were just glad to coddle their kids who had lived through an intense illness without them and listen sympathetically to their horror stories. There was underground conversation about the decisions we made, I know (and I was very happy that the assistant principal had been on the trip, to deal with the more out-there accusations). There were unkind things said about the girl who was ill first. But we got through it.

At the Honors Assembly at the end of the year, students and parents presented me with a hand-painted bucket labeled ‘Washington, DC, 1998,’ which drew lots of laughs.

But—I have to say that surviving a cluster virus with a large group of students is no laughing matter. As the COVID-19 epidemic rolls across the country, there will be lots of low-information speculation on what schools and teachers should have done differently, no matter what decision is made.

This is where campaigning against public education becomes a public health issue. For some kids, school may well be the safest place to be, virus or no virus. We need to trust our schools and teachers to do their best. We need to hope for better information from our government. This will, I fear, soon become a matter of ultimate concern.

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Public Education: a Love Story

This is a very personal story.

There are a thousand reasons to admire and support public education—beginning with the idea itself: a free, high-quality public good, offered to all children, a societal building block. There are community schools, with wraparound services and creative magnet schools to nurture special talents and interests. There are new pilot programs and old-faithful heritage programs and Friday night lights. There are special services for kids with a range of disabilities. No one can be turned away. It’s all good.

When the neighborhood is sinking rapidly, businesses leaving and families fleeing, there is good old Oak Avenue Elementary, its playground and parking lot fenced and gated—but still open. Public schools are often the safest places for children, where they can be warm, fed, and cared for, and read a story. Public education may be messed up and threatened these days, in the land of the free, but its noble genesis and its persistence make it one of our best ideas.

This, however, is MY story, the reason why I will defend public schools until my last breath.

My allegiance to public education came first from my dad, who—ironically—received nearly all of his formal education in a Christian school. Not a Catholic school (they’re two different things, where I come from)—a Betsy DeVos-type, all-white Christian school, in western Michigan.

This was a long time ago—in the 1920s and 1930s. My grandparents, who had five children and not much money, scrimped and sacrificed so their children could go to school with the children of other Dutch immigrants, a school with rigid discipline, and very specific expectations.

My grandparents had no compunctions about a school where the children of Italian and Polish immigrants–likely Roman Catholic–or children with dark skin weren’t welcome, a school that used the Bible as text and began each day with prayer. No school dances. No movies downtown. No getting out of your church clothes on Sunday afternoons because you were going to church again on Sunday evening. Better-off families expected to offer Christian schoolteachers a nice chicken dinner on pre-arranged Sundays.

My dad transferred to the public high school in 9th grade and dropped out at the beginning of his senior year, going to work full time and never returning to school. He’d skipped a grade in elementary school, so he was barely 16. It wasn’t a big secret around our house—he claimed he left school because he found it too easy and boring, and he didn’t like being bossed around. My mother used to say that he was the smartest person she knew, and also the touchiest—so perhaps it was true.

My cousins went to Christian school. My brother, sister and I went to public school. When I was in kindergarten, my grandparents offered to pay tuition for me to go to Christian school, but my parents were adamant: their kids were going to public school.

My mother, also from a Dutch immigrant family, went to public school. There was some tension between the two families, centered mostly around who was holier and more upright. It seemed as though letting your children ‘mix’ with God knows who in public schools was irresponsible. Dangerous.

Eventually, my folks moved us to the less prosperous outskirts of town, where there was a K-8 school but no high school. They joined a committee to raise local bond monies to build a high school. I remember my mother canvassing the neighborhood, encouraging neighbors to vote yes, so my baby boomer posse, riding our bikes on the new sidewalks, could have our own neighborhood high school.

I graduated from that high school—with its beautiful auditorium, two gymnasiums, a bowl stadium and a courtyard—in its seventh graduating class. My mom was active in the PTA, and my dad ran the chains beside the field at football games.

My mother also spearheaded a drive called ‘Dollars for Scholars’ which provided no-interest loans to graduates who went on to post-secondary education. Although neither of my parents went to college or saw a college degree as necessary or even desirable–they thought I should go to beauty school–they co-signed when I took out a loan to supplement the scholarships I got from Central Michigan University. Two hundred dollars—a figure that seems ludicrous now, but was the extent of my college borrowing, easily paid back on my generous $9050 salary when I got a teaching job.

It was my teachers who were adamant—I had to go to college. My band teacher, especially, convinced me that I had talent and smarts and belonged on campus, away from home.

Throughout my K-16 career, and even my graduate degree—all in public schools and universities—I got a good, comprehensive education. Most of my teachers, in the 1950s and 1960s, were caring and enthusiastic—and the ones who weren’t taught me other lessons. A small fraction of my HS classmates was college-bound, but that didn’t mean our teachers weren’t demanding. They were. I went to a blue-collar high school, but I was well-prepared for college work. And all of us were educated to be productive citizens—basic skills, a work ethic and the requirements of civic engagement.

At the university, I don’t remember a single graduate assistant teaching any of my classes; my professors were degreed and tenured, and generally worth paying attention to. Friends who went to more prestigious universities joked about undergraduate classes being taught by unqualified, green TAs, while their famous professors were remote, standing in front of massive lecture halls. That was not my experience.

Those were different times, however, and I went through K-16 as part of a huge same-age, post-war bubble. But I clearly remember decades when public education was respected and affordable, and K-12 schools were the center of tens of thousands of communities across the nation.

So what happened?

Jan Resseger says:

If you haven’t been paying such close attention to the education wars, you might not realize that policy around education and the public schools has for two decades been the locus of experimentation with the power and reach of billionaire philanthropists seizing a giant public sector institution from the professionals who have been running the schools for generations. The billionaires’ idea has been that strategic investment by data wonks and venture philanthropists can turn around school achievement among poor children.

There have always been students in our schools for whom English is a second language. There are chronically under-resourced schools, as well as serious inequities between schools for white children and those in neighborhoods where black and brown children live. There have been failed busing schemes and teacher shortages and Why Johnny Can’t Read. We’ve been tinkering with the structural problems in public education since Horace Mann. Everybody thinks they know how to ‘fix’ public schools.

But only recently has the general public been subjected to abject crapola like this: Public Schools are Teaching Our Children to Hate America. (Short version: Well-known and well-funded education gadfly blames American students’ lack of skills and knowledge on a single NY Times supplement.)

I hate to use the phrase ‘War on Public Schools’–but here we are. We may be losing the war, too, as parents choose ‘new and different and heavily advertised’ over repairing and refurbishing a foundational institution once functional, even beautiful. We have ample evidence of the destruction.

Still. I owe who and what I am to public education—and know the same is true for the thousands of students I taught, and the millions who are learning in classrooms, well-equipped or derelict, as I write this.

Love your public schools, and they will reward you.

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Women Read. Women Write. Women Vote.

One of the more extraordinary end-of-2019 retrospective/resolution columns was Leonard Pitts’s announcement of his decision to read only female authors in 2020. Pitts, a self-proclaimed avid reader, realized, a couple years back, that he’d read 48 books that year—and only one of them was written by a woman.

What made the piece memorable was not Pitts’s determination to read more women writers; it was his utter surprise, having done the math, at his gendered reading habits. I am a huge fan of Leonard Pitts and his writing—and reading this passage made me admire him and his work even more:

Without realizing it, I had been filtering female authors out of my reading list. It was a jolting discovery for an avowed feminist, but it reminded me how insidious biases can be. And that, for as much as people love to proclaim their absolute lack of prejudice, what they usually mean is that they do not go around thinking mean thoughts about racial, religious or gender Others. Which is well and fine, except that our most powerful and consequential prejudices tend to be the ones we carry without even knowing we do. They lead us to assumptions we make without realizing we’ve made them, actions we take without quite knowing why.

I have written often about the fact that 75 to 80 percent of the PK-12 teacher workforce is female but most of the social media thought leaders, titled administrators and researchers, not to mention go-to education authors and speakers, are male.  

I’ve been on school hiring committees, conference panels, and all kinds of planning teams where the Pitts principle—unconscious filtering of female names and work done by women—prevailed. It’s not as if the men I was working with were overtly sexist. Most of them, like Pitts, wanted to be seen as supportive and unbiased. They had absolute confidence in their ability to be evenhanded and equitable.  Yet, they instinctively reached for the male writer, idea, speaker or candidate—without really thinking any more about it.

Their reasons are predictable. He’s my favorite author. The male candidate has more experience. I’d like to program music written by women, but choosing high-quality literature is more important. I really like the way Guy X speaks—he’s hilarious, and our audience needs to end the day on a light note. I think the parents would prefer that we hire a man (from a principal, on hiring a high school band teacher).

Want to wade ankle-deep in well-meant but ultimately misogynist commentary on the biggest contest in America right now? Check out the Twitter pushback on the burst of enthusiasm for Elizabeth Warren’s breakout performance at the Democratic debate on Wednesday night. Yes, Warren kicked butt, proved she could stand up to puffed-ego men, and had the best answers. But, but… guys—other guys, not me of course, maybe guys in Wisconsin?—won’t vote for her.

Okay, dude.

But I digress. This is a blog about who we read, who inspires us, whose unique voices and perspectives change our world view—or simply entertain us. Leonard Pitts promised to share his revelatory moments (and also was flooded with recommendations of women writers he absolutely needed to read). His commitment made me wonder:

What if an organized group of people made a similar, conscious commitment? I’m only watching movies directed by women this year. I will only choose female physicians for the rest of my life. I will only vote for women candidates.

Does the gender of an author—or speaker, leader or candidate—matter? Aren’t we past all that? Unfortunately, nope. As Brittany Cooper writes in a superb piece on identity politics: Wanting a woman to rise to the top of an almost all-male pack is not a position that needs defending.

Wanting women to be represented in the Oscars, or in major book awards, on conductors’ podiums or in corner offices everywhere is not a position that needs defending, either. We can all get behind free, non-restricted speech for women, and elevating women’s ideas and creativity. Even if it’s just one man’s personal reading list. Thanks, Leonard Pitts, for putting your money where your mouth and library card are.

We are escaping the cold Michigan winter for a few more days, hiding out in an historic neighborhood in Phoenix. I have read 18 books in 2020, so far. Nine by men, nine by women, mostly fiction. I’ve especially liked ‘The Nickel Boys’ by Colson Whitehead and ‘Olive, Again’ by Elizabeth Strout. I seldom think about an author’s gender, and because I enjoy multiple genres, I usually get a good mix without trying.

My professional library, on the other hand—some 200 books on education-related topics—is heavily male. I know because I counted one time. There are reasons, again—many of the books were not chosen by me (someone else’s pick for a course or book chat), many education classics are written by men because the history of education was dominated by male thinking and goals, and, well, you have to have Dewey on your shelf. Thank goodness for Diane Ravitch.

Pitts says reading unfamiliar authors will push him to examine his assumptions:

How many times have I argued that rooting out ingrained biases requires a willingness to venture beyond your comfort zones? In getting out of your comfort zones, you expand them, a process that is ultimately less about abandoning old friends than discovering new ones. 

I guess the question is whether we really want to explore those biases and comfort zones. Isn’t that what education is ultimately supposed to do?

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Getting Rid of Gym Class

In 2006, Michigan established a ‘merit curriculum’—a set of HS graduation requirements for every student in MI. There was a lot of fanfare around this standardizing and toughening up, with everyone from the governor to local representatives crowing about rigor and high expectations. Here’s the official blurb:

A high school diploma in Michigan will soon say a lot more about the graduate whose name it bears. It will tell employers that our students have mastered the reading, writing, and math skills required for success in the workplace. It will tell college and university admissions officers and career and technical schools the student is ready for the rigors of post-secondary education. It will tell the world — Michigan is committed to having the best-educated workforce.

Many large, suburban high schools in Michigan already had similar graduation requirements—four math credits, four ELA credits, three science and three specific social studies credits, plus two credits in a foreign language and one apiece in the arts, physical education and health, plus an online or technology class. Other schools, especially smaller and rural schools, were compelled to re-jigger their master schedules, course sequences and staffing.

When state legislatures start tinkering with professional work that used to be the strict purview of school districts and their on-site leadership, weird things happen. One of the big shockwaves of the Merit Curriculum was: Everybody takes algebra! Not only regular old, used-to-be-9th-grade algebra, but also Algebra II. Because that was the ticket to the best-educated workforce, evidently.

Schools pointed out that there was a stratum of students who might benefit from math courses other than algebra—personal finance, practical statistics or career-focused math—but the legislature responded with snotty remarks about teachers not believing their students could do higher math, soft bigotry, low expectations, weak math teaching and so on.

Other districts sighed and divided their Algebra I content into two-year sequences (same stuff, just slower) for kids who would have otherwise been scheduled into Practical Math. Some shifted from semesters to trimesters, so if a freshman failed the first trimester of Algebra, they could take it again in the same year.

And—needless to say—teachers rolled their eyes and did what they always do: adjusted. The Merit Curriculum was just another Big Education Idea that sounded good—success in the workplace!—and it was their job to move kids forward.

Because the Merit Curriculum has now been around for 14 years, it has been tweaked, amended and fine-tuned by districts and the Department of Ed. Now, the legislature wants to have another go; they’re suggesting that maybe Physical Education is negotiable.

The proposed bill also eliminates the arts credit requirement, the foreign language requirements, and Algebra II. The bill’s sponsor—a Republican—sounds just like the educators who warned, back in 2006, that the MC was going to overturn a lot of carefully calibrated, school-based curriculum development and, you know, meeting of student needs. Here’s what Jon Bumstead, the bill’s principal sponsor said:

“Lansing politicians and bureaucrats have decided that all children must fit into the same mold,” adding that Lansing laws take away local control of education and “micromanage” districts. 

“Michigan does not trust our teachers, principals and superintendents to use their knowledge and expertise to teach our children,” he said. 

Bingo.

But the education community pointed all that out fourteen years ago, and the legislature decided they knew better.

Most of the linked article discusses the benefits of the Physical Education and Health requirement—fitness and weight control, knowledge about opioid abuse, depression and suicide prevention. Advocates make the strongest possible case for retaining the P.E. requirements—life and death.

The article’s headline calls physical education ‘gym’—but I know P.E. teachers have worked hard to get past a ‘throw out the balls’ stereotype and focus on personal fitness and critical health issues. What they do is very important.

But pitting disciplines against each other is an old education policy trick. The more requirements imposed, the less freedom students have to select courses that interest them–and the fewer electives offered.

It’s a delicate balance—adding a two-year foreign language requirement meant an immediate shortage of those teachers, while adding any new requirements made it increasingly difficult for kids to take choir or orchestra or a visual arts sequence for four years. Students with high-speed internet connections at home could knock off their tech requirement in the summer; students without tech capacity lost another hour of electives at school, using the computers there. Career and vocational classes suffered—and soon, there were shortages of entry-level technical and industrial workers.

This core argument—how to best prepare students for the future, given the resources available—is evergreen. The Committee of Ten (ten men, of course) sketched it out in 1892, and 25 years later, the Commission on Reorganizing Secondary Education found it necessary to develop new seven Cardinal Principles.

And we’ve been fighting about these questions ever since.

At the heart of the issue are our longstanding mental models of educational scarcity and standardization. We don’t have enough hours in the day, or the resources to offer all that students might find interesting or important, once they get to high school. We are more than wiling to take choice out of teenagers’ hands or demand a ‘higher bar’ so ‘diplomas mean something’—a rhetorical statement if there ever was one. We’re also worried about our personal educational turf.

Should HS students be required to take Physical Education? Don’t ask me. My opinion is biased.

Maybe we should ask students what they think they need, and let them refine their personal education plans, year by year. It’s another planning nightmare, but it might tell us something about what our students find worthwhile.

At the very least, this is work that belongs to a school and its professional staff. Not the legislature.

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The Effective Classroom. Do You Know It When You See It?

Over the past couple of days, there’s been a flurry of pushback against this tweet from Tom Rath: Classrooms are such an overlooked part of the sitting epidemic. We need to blow up our thinking about the best ways for kids and adults to learn in groups. We simply learn better when we move more.

Daniel Pink responded: Offices are adopting standing desks & walking meetings. But classrooms still make students sit all day. To improve, consider:

  • Regular breaks to stand & stretch
  • Small-group activities that require moving to switch desks
  • More open space & adjustable desks.

Most of the tweetback looks like this: Obviously, these guys have never seen MY tiny classroom and/or the crappy 1960s-style desks that my students are compelled to use, let alone the crumbling concrete square that we call the playground. Some teacher feedback is defensive: MY students take brain breaks every 45 minutes, to stretch and oxygenate! There’s a lot of cynicism: More open space! Adjustable desks! As if! Hahahahahhaha!

There’s an underlying sense that once again, schools and teachers are being painted as 19th century anachronisms, unwilling to change in response to new ‘thinking’ (whose thinking?) about learning. It’s our fault, somehow, that education is ‘stuck’ in an ‘industrial model’ of straight rows and straight content delivery, and could really benefit by…I don’t know? Switching desks every 20 minutes? Walkabout lessons?

What’s missing from this discussion is a clear idea of what it is, exactly, that teachers are trying to do. If the ultimate goal is keeping kids continuously bubbling and bursting with creativity, well then it really might be a good idea (if we could afford it, which we can’t) to seat each 7-yr old on a bouncy ball and let ‘er rip. As any parent who’s ever hosted a birthday party knows, lots of movement is just the ticket for creative thinking and youthful innovation.

What drives me nuts is anybody’s blanket assumption that they can look at a classroom and evaluate what’s happening there on the basis of how adjustable the desks are or how often the students get out of them. It’s amazingly difficult to assess lesson effectiveness or the quality of student learning just by mere observation. Here’s an example.

When I was in graduate school, in Dr. Mary Kennedy’s seminar on teaching practice at Michigan State University, she showed us three unedited videos of teaching from a long-term research project she’d conducted, then turned into a book, Inside Teaching: How Classroom Life Undermines Reform.

The first video was a young woman teaching a small group of high school boys wearing navy blazers and ties. She was conducting a Q & A session, reading questions from a prepared list, about a novel that the whole class read. She stood at the front of the room, calling on boys seated in semi-circle around her, one at a time. Most of their answers were a phrase or sentence. There were no disagreements, and no interaction between students, all of whom seemed prepared for the lesson, if not excited about it.

The second video featured a male teacher with a big mustache in a Hawaiian shirt. The students were middle schoolers, and were working in clusters of 5-6 on some kind of science investigation, using a single microscope per group. He was circulating, pointing at their lab reports—you sure about the answer on number five?—and occasionally snapping his fingers at an off-task student or pulling kids who had left their tables back to work. The room was noisy, because the groups were close together, and there were bursts of laughter. At one point, the teacher clapped his hands, which caused the room to settle. He asked them to reconsider one of the slides they were looking at, with new information he provided, asking “Does that change your conclusion?”. The noise level to rose again, as they turned back to re-examine their work.

In the third video, the students were upper elementary age, seated at tables, and were following set routines.  Class! the teacher called out. Yes? they responded. The routines were repeated, with the teacher calling explicit directions: Turn to your right-side partner! Talk about the definition! Write your answer! Class! Yes? Eyes up here! Raise your hand if you chose A! Turn to your left-side partner! Read your answers! Use the word in a sentence. Eyes up here! Say the word! Say it again!

After watching all three videos, Kennedy asked us: Who’s the best teacher? Who’s the worst?

It was an interesting discussion. The seminar was composed of graduate-level folks with different work experiences in education, and from different nations. When Kennedy asked to identify the best teacher, best learning, in our humble opinions, there was a completely mixed response.

Many of the foreign students found the second video appalling. (Note to the anti-sitting crowd: it was the only video where students were on their feet or moving or speaking their own thoughts.) Some found the third video, where students repeated chants and actions led by a teacher, to be rote and mechanical, while others found it intriguing—could you really get kids to behave in lockstep like that? There was mixed opinion on the first video—lots of classroom teachers finding it ‘unrealistic’ and ‘flat’ while others thought it an ideal model.

The correct answer to the question is, of course: We have no idea which video snippet represents the ‘best’ (or worst) teaching or classroom model, or whether students in that classroom learned anything worthwhile, or applicable to their lives.

We don’t know what the teachers were hoping to accomplish, either: What were their learning goals? Why were those goals relevant and critical in the learning cycle? Why did they choose that particular delivery model, and how was it appropriate for those learning goals?

Maybe the most important missing piece of information: We don’t know the students. We don’t know what they brought to the lesson, what it’s like to teach them, day in and day out, what their prospects and potential look like. Only someone who’s spent some time with them and cares about their learning is able to assess their growth and needs. Someone who knows the context and can exercise judgment.

So maybe it’s not really ‘time to blow up our thinking about the best way for kids and adults to learn in groups.’ Maybe adjustable desks or strolling lessons won’t change anything.

But don’t expect non-educators to stop tweeting about it.

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The Soft Bigotry of Hard Grading

Whoever wrote the phrase ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’ back in the early days of the Bush (W) administration, was a genius. In one nifty sound bite, the blame for the so-called achievement gap was placed squarely on the shoulders of educators, those barrel-bottom, unimaginative civil servants slogging along in low-paying careers.

Not only were veteran teachers unable to conceive of their students’ success (presumably, getting into a competitive-admissions college)—they were also bigots, kind of. Perhaps they hadn’t read 25 books on racism, been hooked on The Wire, or stayed for two grueling years in a no-excuses charter before heading off to Goldman Sachs. They were just stuck in those dead-end teaching jobs.

Early in the ‘reform’ days—a couple decades ago—Disruptor types were prone to proclaiming that high expectations for all students were, in fact, a positive disruption to what they assumed was the low and unimaginative level of teaching practice endemic in public education. Especially in schools filled with kids who took home backpacks full of peanut butter and whole wheat crackers every Friday.

If only teachers had faith in their students, cracking the academic whip and believing they could someday rise above their circumstances and excel—well, then things would be different. What we needed was new—high and rigorous—standards, better aligned curricula, more sorting-out data. We needed ‘choice’ to remove kids from low-expectations government schools.

And of course, better teachers, teachers who embodied these great expectations and were willing to rip up unacceptable assignments. Even if it made kids cry.

The ‘low expectations’ trope became a thing. The 74 was still printing pieces about it, 18 years later, using phrases like ‘complacency is also still alive and well’ and ‘having teachers who were confident that their students would complete college made a real difference in their college attainment.’

The 74’s suggestions for improvement? You won’t be surprised: higher standards, more testing and raising the cutoff scores, rigorous curriculum—and better teachers, the kind who expected more. Nary a mention of better health care, better jobs with higher wages, better childcare options, better support networks for people in poverty. Or less racism.

When I read that Fordham was releasing a new report entitled Great Expectations: The Impact of Rigorous Grading Practices on Student Achievement, I assumed it would be more of the same: a screed against ‘grade inflation’ that urged teachers to use the threat of bad grades as ‘motivator’ in getting kids to Learn More (and score better on high-stakes tests, quantitative ‘proof’ of learning).

Turns out I was right.  Here’s the first paragraph of the introductory summary:
We know from previous survey research that teachers who hold high expectations for all of their students significantly increase the odds that those young people will go on to complete high school and college. One indicator of teachers’ expectations is their approach to grading—specifically, whether they subject students to more or less rigorous grading practices. Unfortunately, “grade inflation” is pervasive in U.S. high schools, as evidenced by rising GPAs even as SAT scores and other measures of academic performance have held stable or fallen. The result is that a “good” grade is no longer a clear marker of knowledge and skills.

Here’s how my 30-odd years’ worth of grading some 5000 students (at least 35K individual grades) squares with the statement above:

  • High expectations are a good thing, all right—but they are not commensurate with giving more unsatisfactory marks. In fact, being a ‘tough grader’ often means that the teacher is not meeting a substantial chunk of kids where they are, then moving them forward. The easiest thing in the world is giving a low or failing grade and blaming it on the student. The hard thing is figuring out how to help that child achieve at the level he’s capable of.
  • The longer I taught, the higher my expectations were, as I learned what students at different developmental levels were able to do—but that was not reflected in the grades I gave. I assumed it was because I had become a better teacher and was getting better results as my teacher tool bag filled. I could see with my own eyes that I had underestimated what my students could learn and apply, if they chose to work at it.
  • I seriously doubt that teachers’ expectations—as defined here by more rigorous grading– have much, if any, impact on kids’ completing college, or even high school. A teacher who encourages a student to think big, to push herself, to reach for the stars and so on, may indeed have a long-term positive effect on a student, especially one with self-doubts. Setting students on a path to higher education and life success is a long-term, K-12 project, one that can’t be accomplished by teachers alone and certainly not by dropping the grading scale a few points to teach them a lesson.
  • Grades aren’t real, although the argument can be made that they’re more real than a standardized test score (which the report also uses to make the claim that ‘raising the bar’ has a salutary effect on student outcomes). No matter how schools try to standardize grading, the human judgment factor creeps in. As it should. Students see their grades as something ‘given’ by the teacher, no matter how many times teachers insist that grades are ‘earned’ and can be accurately, precisely, mathematically granted.*
  • Grade inflation isn’t real either. I am always amused by disgruntled edu-grouches who insist that Harvard, say, is awash in grade inflation. When an institution turns away 94.6% of the students who have the temerity to apply, why are we shocked when the crème de la crème who are admitted get all A’s?
  • If we were doing our jobs better, by Fordham’s metrics—following rigorous standards, choosing engaging and challenging curricula, assessing frequently—wouldn’t the desired outcome be better grades?
  • The worst kind of grading practice is the bell curve. Curving grades has gone out of fashion, but you still see its aftereffects in reports like this that bemoan the overly high percentage of students whose work is deemed good or superior. If you’ve ever had a class filled with go-getters (and I’ve had many), you’ll know it’s possible to teach to the highest standards and have every child in the class performing at a high level. Someone does NOT have to fail. What the researchers here seem to be endorsing is a curve where students in high-poverty schools are not compared with their peers, but with kids in advantaged schools—then taking the top-scoring kids down a peg or two, for their own good.
  • Bad grades don’t motivate most kids to try harder, although this seems to be the sweeping conclusion of the report, which studied 8th and 9th Algebra students in North Carolina. The researchers noted that students in advantaged schools were more likely to make gains when receiving a lower grade. There are lots of charts and graphs showing how teachers who give lower grades initially cause an uptick in standardized assessment scores eventually. This is more likely to happen if that teacher went to a ‘selective’ college or is an experienced veteran teacher, by the way. As for the poor students who go to rural or urban schools—well, they get good grades that don’t reflect what they’ve really learned. Therefore, maybe we should give them lower grades, too, as an early reality check.
  • I repeat: bad grades don’t usually motivate kids, unless there’s someone at home checking up on them, they plan on going to college and care about their GPA. In that case, a lower grade may serve as a heads-up that more effort may be necessary. Do 8th grade Algebra students and students in advantaged schools where most kids are college bound fit into that category? Yes.

Students who do well in school also know how to study effectively– or seek extra help when something is difficult for them. They’re not as likely to think that the tough-grading Algebra teacher doesn’t like them, or that they’ve finally found a subject they can’t successfully master. Lots of previous successes have given them the confidence to pursue a challenging subject.

What struck me about the report was the facile conclusion that a subset of (higher-achieving) students was motivated by a lower-than-expected grade into learning more.

Extrapolating that into a declaration that tougher grading would lead to higher achievement is giving way to much credence to a cranky-pants theory, the one where a kick in the pants is what kids these days really need.

 

*In my 30+ year career, I taught math for two years. Prior to that, I collected various data to develop and tweak a defensible grading process for teaching instrumental and vocal music. Music is a challenging discipline in which to assess using hard numbers, trust me; I envied my math teacher friends whose grades were always clean, clear percentages. Then I taught math and discovered—eh, you can juke the stats in math, too, through assignment weighting, partner quizzes (recommended by our math series), late assignment policies, re-takes, homework evaluation policies—and so much more. Grading—in any subject or level– is not science. Never has been.

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