Beware the pipeline that really isn’t

I saw this as I enjoyed my morning coffee:

ARNEArne Duncan@arneduncan Jul 27Indiana working to reduce school suspensions and expulsions & challenge school to prison pipeline.

My first thought, after reading the article, was that it was nice to see something besides smug, non-educator references to “white suburban moms” and pontificating about what schools for the little people need to be doing to their children. My next thought was that we all should want to reduce suspensions and expulsions.

I also wondered when policy makers would speak out publicly against the highly praised and profiled charter school leaders that use exclusion/expulsion/ suspension (or “counseling out”) as a method to reach for great test scores and graduation rates.

But then a thought occurred to me: Boy, there sure has been an effort made to hammer that talking point; that “school to prison pipeline” thing, like: “If you go to school, you’re probably going to prison, ‘cuz they’ve made a pipeline for that, you know.”

Think of Ben Carson’s (I won’t put “Dr.” in front of it for this) suggestion that there is a prison to gay pipeline-which he wisely apologized forbut seriously…where do these people come from and who puts them on the stage and in the public eye?

The “school-to-prison” thing is simply more diversionary-if-not-ignorance narrative. Trying to overwhelm the public consciousness with so much silliness that a false causal relationship is accepted. Of course school is always a better place for students who might consider criminal activity as a good use of their time, but I wonder what inspires them to consider it to begin with, to take on that sort of values-system, and if it really is school that taught them and sent them on their way to that.

I’m sure we could better support schools in this crime prevention endeavor (as well as the 1,000 other things we expect them to fix for us), but it will take support-not the scapegoating type of reform inspired by current ed-administrations at the federal and the state level. Maybe there is are more essential moral and supportive elements eroding in society fostering a poverty-broken home to prison pipeline.

Maybe clever/lazy/cowardly politicians would rather blame and shame public schools and put them at the head of that “pipeline” in their narratives vs supporting them in and thanking them for acting as intervention and rescue. Our leaders are certainly wanting in their willingness to attack the conditions truly at the front end of that pipeline.

How do you encourage your child to read more?

How do you encourage your child to read more?

It is neither one simple thing, nor is it a mystery. It is a mindset, a values system, a lifestyle. My wife and I have probably spent a good deal of cumulative time trying to make sure we are punctual with pickup and return of borrowed books from the various local libraries in our area. Our three girls love books and we as a family own more than we know what to do with. In fact are looking to organize book giveaways to help reduce our stock somewhat (which is likely to get replenished-truth be told)-I have forever struggled with parting ways with my books. I would rather build extra shelves.

It truly beats arcades, shopping malls, closed door bedrooms or living room couches with endless hours of video games. And it has brought me to a day where I am blessed with a bright, articulate, critical-thinking and deeply thoughtful family of three young girls and a beautiful wife. I guess you could presume that valuing literacy and literature weren’t the critical components-but if I think of other people and other families who demonstrate living by example (vs dictating a method from afar)…reading and the value of reading; encouraging that value in their own children and in students-if they are teachers…this is a consistent characteristic.

So, as a good place to start from: how do you encourage your child to read?

Read in front of them. Read to them. Watch them read. Ask them about what they have read or are reading. Don’t pester them, you need to value their understanding and their take on it-not hold them accountable to your own. What do they get from it and what impressions did they get? What connections do they make or can you help them make? Conversations that show you care about what they unpacked from the book is more important than showing that your mission is more important. That would be valuing yourself.

Listen to them read to you. Read together. Practice reading together passing the book back and forth and taking turns. When they are a little older, do “book talks” and shared readings.

When they are tiny, read with them on your lap, reclined in a chair and with your child in the spot between your arm and your side, with your child’s head just under your shoulder and the book where you can both see.

When they are toddlers, point to the words that sound really familiar-the ones used frequently when you speak. Point to the parts of the illustration that go with those words. Point to and name familiar and interesting things in the illustrations and ask them “Where is the …. “ to have them point it out. Incorporate silly voices for the characters, sound effects, a little “theater”…

Have bookshelves full of books- various books. Magazines too-have a magazine subscription or two if you can afford to (Highlights, National Geographic for kids, etc) and if you can’t afford subscriptions-get issues second-hand to keep around… Limit t.v. time and video game time.

Listen to a wide variety of music. Tell stories, sing songs, and expect “lights out” by 8:30…but stretch it ‘til 9 if they are sneaking in some extra reading quietly.

Buy books as gifts. Sometimes, even a nice one. Maybe brand new, maybe a little old and musty, but with a great artsy hard cover. Frequent book barns and garage sales and look for hidden treasures.

And write. The power to see that you too can put great things down to be read is even more inspiration to read yourself, then to read more, then write….

The selective and convenient use of VAM

There is no excuse for giving up on the obligation to help children learn.

Poverty is no excuse. Having difficult and disruptive students is not an excuse. That more children are struggling with abandonment, separation and divorce is not an excuse either. None of these things are excuses for not helping a child, any child, to learn.

Chronic transiency as parents are chased out by or choose to run away from late rents and bill collectors is not an excuse.  Poor pre-natal care, chronic hunger and poor nutrition are not excuses. Substance abuse, addiction, neglect…none of these is an excuse. When violent “M-rated” video games outnumber books in the home, and when hours connected to a screen outside of school outnumber hours connected to positive human influences; not an excuse. When there is rarely a role model or guardian available to support the completion of academic work or transmit the intrinsic value of academic goals…yep, you guessed it: not an excuse.

As a teacher, there is no choosing to ignore the mission you accepted. Poverty is not an excuse teachers can use to “opt out” of helping all children to learn. The impacts and consequences of poverty and/or conditions of a student’s home life do not free a teacher from the obligation to teach. As a school, when you are challenged by a high percentage of students facing these challenges-you have no excuses, and shouldn’t. It is your job to help children make progress.

So how do we as a society demonstrate our dedication to joining with and supporting teachers in making academic and life outcomes more equitable for all students? When there is an immeasurable amount of data demonstrating that the factors and conditions already described (plus too many more to describe) can have negative impacts on developing bodies, brains, academic achievement and life outcomes, how do we measure and define the value a teacher and a school bring to the lives of these learners-despite the challenges…You know, make sure the profession isn’t “opting out”?

With tests!

Oh, and accountability and consequences.

I know, I know…the unwilling naysayers out there; the overpaid and overprotected unionized teachers out there enjoying their due process and tenure protections that a growing class of indentured servants doesn’t have; the supposed professional teachers reluctant to listen to interested politicians, business managers, television personalities and private school profiteers that look to redirect public dollars to a privately managed education market of “choices”…These wet blankets complain that a snapshot summative test, an extended, seated and silent moment in time isn’t a fair measure to use when there are so many other influences on student performance- and when careers could be ended unfairly.

Well then…We add more tests and collect more data! That is adding value…Value ADDED Measures, it’s called by those number-minded folks-or so it has been said. The more numbers you use to define humans the more valuable those numbers become.

We give them tests that are made for their grade level, but are written at sometimes two or more grade levels above their “zone of proximal development” (or ZPD), and we are told it’s okay because results are normative and comparisons are made between “like peers”-a cohort that shares numerous characteristics (age, grade level, marital status in the home…).

So how does inclusion of a myriad of data justify an evaluative and possibly firing correlation, but the myriad approach of influences over outcomes and who should also be accountable is avoided in favor of the “no excuses for schools and teachers” approach? How can we abide by a scope of accountability for student outcomes that is limited to one factor, the teacher, and absolve anyone else from addressing the other factors?

It has to do with who can be held responsible, and who refuses to be held responsible. It has to do with two classes of people: 1) a working class, educated profession that consistently and daily steps up to the plate to try whatever they can to make a difference, (while being historically left out of the development of standards and accountability design process); and 2) another class of people, well connected to money and politics but disconnected from the profession, that can see a path to profit while protecting themselves.

But there is no excuse for giving up on the obligation to help children learn, for anybody-especially those connected to or have chosen to connect themselves to the endeavor professionally or politically.

The scope of reform, especially if VAM is to serve as methods validation, needs to be widened. The narrative needs to reach beyond the immaturity of all of the additional things teachers need to be held responsible for, and mirror common-core critical thinking: include the leveraging of this new breed of education non-profits to impact and reform social and economic policy; support families, homes and communities, in order to support equitable student outcomes.

So when writing, sharing, propagating, supporting, and liking all of the angles on how to improve teachers, shame teachers, replace teachers (and make no mistake, I have met a few whose value I question but the reform narrative has had a perseverant focus on teachers and unions): don’t be dismissive of what I read is “the inevitable Finland comparison”…Maybe instead ask why comparison to China, India, and Singapore comes up so often, but Finland does not.

For truly VAMMY data and measures, widen that scope to the many other factors influencing outcomes and equity and share the accountability burden with those responsible for those social/economic conditions. The lead voices of reform should use connections, money, and influence to make policy makers know that there will be consequences for them as well;that there shall no longer be quarter held in the revolving door between political appointments, corporations, non-profits, and the selective and convenient use of VAM.

A response to those worried about accountability

The Advocate seems worried that accountability will be less pointed and driven-mostly because those unions got involved, I guess. You know unions, those organizations that advocate for workers. Anyway, here is a link to their article and my response (below and on their site)

It could be that what happened to the Broad consensus on accountability was that people began to realize it was market-driven as opposed to a well thought out and honestly researched effort towards equity (in opportunity and outcomes). Tests and reams of data don’t mend market-broken homes and families, hire overworked or unemployed parents at a wage that supports a family, or fill the bookshelves and bellies of the children that most often raise our concerns regarding inequitable outcomes. Since when did the loudest voices in reform of anything push for simply measure-and-blame? Since there was lots of money to be made on quantifying the damage done and using power and influence to place blame elsewhere. Imagine if all we were willing to spend money on was thermometers, sphygmometers, and stethoscopes …but we wanted to blame and fire doctors for the failing health of patients. Simplistic? Think about who runs this country and how: big pharma hawks prescription meds for everything from high cholesterol to “restless legs” to limp…well, you know. Yet, where is the investment in prevention? WalMarts, greasy fast food and online ed, ya’ll. It’s cheap, great for the market, and we already know where tomorrow’s leaders will come from. Their children will own those things you buy. They must have had highly effective teachers.


The Real “Gap” is an Integrity Gap

My great grandmother, Ada (Burgess) McConnell taught in a one room school house in Summer Hill, N.Y. Her son (My grandfather Halsey McConnell) served in the army during W.W.II. My grandmother (Lucille) was a woman of faith and family. Her neighbors, her church, all of them and all of us were among her primary concerns.

I remember them all well.

Ada lived to be 96 years old and was always a gracious and clever woman. When I was a young boy, she was adept at keeping me busy looking for four leaf clovers, swatting flies for a penny a piece, or going through photos from long ago-telling me about the people and places in them. She never stopped being a teacher. My grandmother was determined to get us to church. I can recall a few different head pastors in the church, many of the “regulars”and while it wasn’t the most favorite place for a boy to be on a beautiful Sunday morning, that country church was part of my childhood. Sunday church in Sempronius often came with an after church stop at the general store for a candy bar-possibly a slight detour to the rod and gun club for their chicken barbecue. Grandma was good at getting us to church on time, no matter how we attempted to thwart her. She had a comb at the ready. Tissues and grandma-spit were the wet wipes “back in the day”. I remember thinking one time that getting my church clothes dirty would be my ticket to unsupervised outdoor country trouble instead of church.

I had underestimated my grandmother.

From the depths of the house, fashion from the 50’s showed up. Probably having once belonged to my own father or Uncle Denny (his younger brother), the clothes were close enough to my size to get me redressed, far enough away from current trends and my size to get me beat up if I had been going to school instead.

My grandfather was practical and wise about the world, while still being inappropriate in the most awesome ways. If you could have combined W.C. fields, Groucho Marx and Archie Bunker, you would end up with someone like my grandfather. He lived to a respectable age, but it’s likely that lifestyle changes might have added another decade to that life. If I close my eyes and imagine him, it’s with a beer in his hand. A cheap beer. In his other hand is a cigar that was smoked down about halfway, but gone out long ago and more of a placeholder in his mouth to be possibly re-lit at some point, but maybe not as well. Chewed down, black and soggy on the end, I sometimes catch myself wondering why he didn’t just chew tobacco, but then I remember that he simply chewed his cigars.Sometimes there were car rides after the kids came back from church with Grandma, where my grandfather and my father would take the front seat, me and my younger brother would be in the backseat. The trip would often be a long and winding circuit to Moravia to pick up a 12 pack, maybe a watermelon and a Sunday paper, sometimes other things. Often the trip back would stick to the back roads: taking us up behind Fillmore Glenn State Park on an indirect course home.

Dad and Gramp handing back empty cans, us boys handing up the refills.

My grandfather would drive casually, left elbow out the rolled-down window concealing the beer held just out of sight in his left hand. Right hand on the steering wheel somewhere between 12 and 1 o’clock and that cigar/pacifier in between his index and middle finger when it wasn’t in his mouth. Sometimes we’d go by the birthplace of Millard Fillmore. Sometimes we’d stop and see Charlie Peak, who sold discount shoes. Sometimes we’d go by the Summer Hill nudist camp, and my grandfather would say “Keep your eyes open boys-you might see something!” He was the best kind of wise-ass you could ever want to know. He really was laughing with you, not at you.

Gramp used to tell stories about his time in Europe while he was in the army. The German soldiers captured, he said, were decent guys-just doing what they had to do. The officers now, they were the Nazi’s, the arrogant bastards. You could tell they thought they were smarter than you. Not that smart I guess now, were you? The soldiers would try to run to be on the work detail Gramp was guarding. They liked him so much that Gramp could grab a nap and they would work and wake him if an officer was approaching, and he had to tell those prisoners to not be so enthusiastic about running to be on his detail or the  They were, Gramp said, happy to have been captured. Their treatment and conditions as prisoners of the Americans were far better than the conditions they had been in.

Dad tells stories about Gramp. About how when Gramp was a boy the local law was a constable. An honest to goodness man on a horse who would patrol the area, staying the night at one family’s house or another as he made his rounds. Gramp dumped wood-stove ashes in the constable’s boots one time while the constable slept. Another time, skipping school to go pheasant hunting, Gramp encountered the constable. They made an agreement that if Gramp laid low and didn’t get caught, the constable wouldn’t tell. When Gramp returned from the war, that same constable picked Gramp up at the train station. He had moved up from the horse and now had a car. The constable took Gramp out for a drink before delivering him home.

This was a time when it wasn’t who you know, or how high you could climb above them and/or others-it was about how you treat the people you know.

My experiences as a child were interesting, most of the places I spent time at, the things I saw/did, the people I hung around…they are the things you hear about kids today (kids who struggle with the responsibilities of the school day) and shake your head in disapproval. I cannot ever remember a time when my parents were together, but I never once remember seeing them argue, or even have unkind words. I lived with my mother, had bookshelves full of books, family gatherings, lots of cousins to play with…I had this variety of questionable experiences and more within the context of a family of people who were all there for each other, any time, all the time, no matter what. My models were those of responsibilities first, informed by a wide array of people who had little in terms of material wealth but a vast amount of character and integrity, and usually a very colorful vocabulary. Somehow, I seem to have turned out okay.

What has happened in our country that makes it so difficult for people to succeed and why are public schools suddenly being held responsible for citizens’ failure to thrive?

The version of reform being forced upon our system of public education is only advancing the lack of integrity we have seen advancing upon our society. Reality TV portrays a path to success that includes the lowest of low behaviors: the promotion of self-indulgence, greed and dishonesty as the path to success.

I should not even know who Honey- Boo-Boo is.

Or the Kardashians.

Nor should the name Carlos Danger mean a thing.

Lloyd Blankfein and Goldie Hawn get top billing at an Education Nation event, Diane Ravitch is invited to watch the spectacle from the audience.

Is it really schools that need to be reformed?

Is our problem really an achievement gap, or an integrity gap?

Ray Kinsella, the cornfield, and farts in the breeze

Ray Kinsella didn’t just sit on the porch of his Iowa farmhouse shouting at that damn failing cornfield and demanding it start spitting out baseball legends. Our policy makers are failing in their responsibility to “build it”, choosing instead to scapegoat, allow education to be guided by a market-mentality and non-educators. 

“Jobs of tomorrow” is like a fart in the breeze. Smells bad the very first moment, then the farter can shrug and say “woopsie” as it disappears. When does economic and policy reform, sustaining real jobs, and public ed become more important than state of the art nuclear war machines, monitoring and controlling the population?

What is good for students is good for us all

Good for students: Proven, research based approaches to economic equity and school readiness

  • “Grit and Rigor” are not educationally magic words that make developmentally inappropriate and wrong-headed approaches suddenly work.
  • Treating annual testing as top priority in the education-as-vehicle-to-equity approach to civil rights, and limiting the scope of the critical lens to teachers and unions is either transparently intentional and diversionary- or unintentionally ignorant.
  • To be an educator in this modern time and to not realize that the changing world requires changing approaches in how we prepare young people for that world is dangerous-to yourself and others.

YES our kids need to increasingly be able to grasp more and be able to do more than they once had to, but a large part of why they are not already isn’t because schools are failing or we’re not identifying “bad teachers”-it’s what we’re failing to do collectively. It’s what we allow to happen, and it’s even what we sometimes willingly participate in. To do the “long story short” (out of character for me, I know): our society is failing on the front end to prepare the number of capable learner/leaders it once did- and instead is focused on the priority of manufacturing mindless consumers and capable future workers on the back end. We are failing to hold our leaders truly accountable, rein in our markets and our own participation in them, and to teach our kids true character and responsibility. We’re failing to identify models/examples of the kind of people we want our children to grow up to be.

Little bodies are being poisoned by cheap garbage food, their minds poisoned by smut, and instead of focusing on those endemic and chronic dangers we are driven to serve numbers in various complicated formulas or scores on various standardized tests that supposedly signify value. But more proficiency on standardized tests of academic skills requires brains that process and perform more proficiently, which requires a foundation of healthy habits and cognitive experiences that will support that proficiency.

That means focus on positive cognitive engagement from birth, maybe even before (I would sing to my wife’s belly, and purely anecdotal evidence leads me to believe “You are my sunshine” worked magic on my daughter when she was little). Great books in every home; parents freed from low-wage servitude enough to participate and support academic and emotional development; social networks and experiences away from televisions and gaming screens…

Making these the standards we shoot for would be a difficult goal, for sure- and potentially costly to the garbage dealers, smut peddlers and testing corporations (as well as PACs, non-profits and politicians feeding at their trough).

But entering into this reform battle is true grit, and it’s not just good for students-it’s good for us all.