Dear Lane,

Below are a few excerpts from Lane Wright’s August 7th plea for help. Seems he experienced confusion over how teachers feel about standardized tests and school choice. He wrote in the form of an open letter to teachers, with a request for responses at the end, and I posted a few times in the response section of his article, but the more thorough reply disappeared while the short P.S. stuff remained. Here, I’ll try my best to redo my response, which I guess is good-it gives me a chance to flesh it out better than I could do at the crack of dawn in a hotel lobby.

To any reading this, please read Lane’s piece for yourself first.

Now before I begin, let me say that I totally understand Lane’s confusion. He’s not an educator. He just studies schools from the outside. But with his letter he does far more to show some respect for educators than you’d generally find in the test-driven, data fed, well-funded, never taught but somehow become an edu-authority, reform crowd… so kudos to Lane. Curiosity is an important intellectual trait and inquiry is a vital, foundational skill for learners to have.

Here are those excerpts from Lane’s letter:

Dear Teachers,

-I just read some of the results of a survey and I’m confused. The good people over at Educators for Excellence asked a bunch of you how you feel about accountability and school choice and the answers seem to contradict each other.

-Now let me first say that I’m not an educator. I’m more like a professional student of our public school systems. I love getting insights like the kinds found in this E4E survey. So please take this letter in the spirit I’m writing it. Help me understand better what you’re thinking.

-A majority of you said that looking at student growth from the beginning to the end of the school year was the “most valuable” thing when it comes to measuring how effective you are as a teacher. It’s also the most valuable thing for judging the quality of a school…

-But then I had to scratch my head when I noticed, near the bottom of the list, standardized tests. It was second to last with only 10 percent of you thinking it was a good way to measure a teacher’s effectiveness or a school’s quality.

What I know for sure is that teachers have a bigger impact on the success of kids than anything else at school. I also know you’re closest to the problems, and are in a unique position to find ways to solve them. So please, if you have a chance, write me back and let me know what you have in mind.

Sincerely,

Lane

Here is my response. Again, please go and read Lane’s piece yourself. I am only taking excerpts in order to guide my attempt to help him.

Dear Lane,

I responded to your article in the response section, in an attempt to address your confusion. I was wrapping up a short vacation, away from home, on hotel wifi with my first cup of coffee…That response disappeared! The other short follow-ups are still there, but maybe my tech skills have a two-cup fuel requirement . In looking back, though, “write me back” was your request. It may be that I need to do exactly that. I am sometimes a do it first and apologize later rather than ask permission sort.

It seems that “accountability” and “choice” are you areas of confusion, and I will try to get to them both.

You may note the quotes. I do not like waggly finger air quotes, but you can imagine them if you’d like because like “reform”: “accountability” and “choice” often aren’t what they pretend to be. 

On your first source of confusion, you write:

So here’s my question: How do you measure student growth without a standardized test? It kind of feels like you want to eat your accountability cake and have it too.”

Not sure anyone suggests “without a standardized test”, and that is a little like “straw manning” the debate. Far right hero Ben Shapiro (I’m a poet and didn’t know it!) does the same sort of thing when he suggests “So if that’s the case, (i.e. raising taxes on the most wealthy will help the economy) why not tax everybody at 100 percent and we can have massive growth from here to eternity?” That’s intentionally misrepresenting the other side’s position as an unreasonable extreme in order to undermine that position and avoid a better conversation. But I get that you’re just confused and not doing that-it just risks seeming that way with that wording.

But “growth”, now, is a great place to start!

Back in 2015 I responded to a call from Peter Cunningham at Education Post for inspiring hopes for 2016. Coincidentally I sent in this standardized test-related hope:

I hope the focus for student achievement will steer away from the impersonal and generic standardized testing obsession, and turn instead towards a more holistic preparation of citizens. Empowering/enriching education will no longer be limited to those making rules for other people’s children.

But more important part was the story of inspiration that came last on that particular article. It had to do with my daughter and a sudden and alarming illness that… had it happened to some other child?

I can’t tell you how serious it might have been.

If you know or have heard anything about PANS or PANDAS, or saw a recent 20/20 show about it , you might be aware of far less fortunate parents and children who suffer tremendously. I actually have cried reading stories about parents whose little angels change overnight, say the most frightening things about harming themselves or others, go through destructive rages… In one of the parent groups I’m in, I just yesterday saw a post from a mom who was reduced to no other choice but to admit her 11 year old to a psych ward. She was probably up all night, or maybe more than just a night. Her post included a pic of some comfort food in the space between the front seats of her car (hostess cupcakes and a coke) probably eaten while she sat in the parking lot of the hospital.

Ever surrendered one of your children to involuntary inpatient psych treatment, Lane? I have. Now imagine a career filled with hundreds or more children, many whose struggles may not be so severe, but are either evident just through observation or verified through unfortunate and tragic events.

But I won’t get too far into that here. I would bet the world that your children are blessed with great parents, and I am blessed with an amazing wife who was on top of our situation quickly, and by access to medical professionals who believed us and cooperated with a course of treatment (unlike many less fortunate families). But the really inspiring part of my story was about my school and especially my daughter’s teacher, and the most pertinent part of my response that disappeared from your article was about the toolbox this teacher and any great teacher needs to brings to the job.

It goes way beyond a spread sheet, test scores, and a HEDI effectiveness rating.

Boiled down to a concrete concept, think of “growth”, or development,  like a wagon wheel- but one that expands over time. The center, the core or the hub is the primal, innate, reflexive stuff and the spokes are the reaching out from the core of experiences and learning. In the earliest stages it’s hunger, discomfort, human contact and attention, touch, communication…Then it’s conversation, self-determination, curiosity, exploration… Every time those things are experienced or there is a new experience: spokes are sent out or reinforced, and the wheel grows because the learners “world” (capabilities and cognitive understandings) reaches out farther .

In reality the brain is constructing a network or a web, and the conceptual image should be undulating more like a cloud as it expands, but I want to keep it simple for now because part of your confusion has to do with accountability. Schools are being held accountable for helping learners roll as smoothly as they can through their world, into the future and on to the places they want to go.

So if teachers are expected to be the wheelwrights: have the wheelwrights done a quality job when your wheels are like tiny tricycle wheels with two spokes? For the sake of expediency we can even name those two spokes…uhmmm, let’s call them “MATH” and “ELA”, just for kicks. Will your wagon travel well on these? How about if your wagon wheels are even a normal 4 foot-ish size and have just those two spokes? Who is responsible for all those missing spokes, Lane? If teachers are to embrace their responsibility for only the two, and put their reputations and career on the line for standardized, testable outcomes on just those two, how can teachers trust the wheels will come with all those other spokes in place?

Trust me, capable learners and future citizens need those other spokes, and as a parent I want my own children and my students to have them.

We both know the reality, I think. I am not sure any teacher would suggest dropping standardized tests as a vital measure in the growth wheel, any more than any parent wants their child to have voids or weaknesses where the vital spokes of responsibility, empathy, communication skills, creativity, work ethic, collaboration, initiative… should be. Great teachers know this, and so may like the standardized tests, but not the use of them to abuse children or educators.

My daughter’s great teacher, myself as a teacher, most every teacher I know are accountable every day in every way in real time for all of the spokes whenever a need or a weakness is revealed. And it really seems that those comfortably riding around in gated and guarded communities, in fancy wagons rolling around on sweet wheels with lots of sturdy spokes, with children in “high performing” schools… neither want to share those communities or schools, nor admit that “high performing” “success” and “failure” are about far more than teachers, schools, grit, rigor, and standardized test scores.

As an aside:

Before my kids started refusing the tests I loved them for the information they provided. It didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know about my own children, but it’s nice to see shady test-metrics verify it, and results informed the academic priorities moving forward for my students. But it’s more about how tests became the measure instead of a measure. And it’s more about the demeaning and dismissing of people who actually exemplify the brass ring of critical thought so highly praised in education today (a.k.a. special interests that show up with concerns for short-lived “listening tours” that end because edu-fakers don’t like to be challenged, and white suburban moms who find out their child isn’t brilliant…you know, professionals and parents).

Hopefully that helps clear up the issue of why teachers like the tests but not so much for the brand of accountability being marketed by those who really don’t seem to be putting children first. At the very end I  might either do a “what can we do about that” or link you to part one of a series I am doing on that very topic. First, I need coffee.

Okay, I am back. On to “choice”.

From you:

As I mentioned earlier, accountability isn’t my only conundrum. You also seem to want it both ways when it comes to school choice. You say you support choice, but only when it doesn’t “drain resources” from other schools. Three-quarters of you said that was your biggest condition for accepting school choice.

How might that work, exactly? I’m not asking rhetorically—I really want to know.”

Great questions begging for that “better conversation”! Again, points for not being an educator, but thinking like one.

Unfortunately, “choice” is market speak-representing with words an ideal that is ephemeral at its worst and an inconsistent reality at its best. Like “American Exceptionalism”, which ranges in it’s execution from standing for the anthem to starting ill-conceived and undeclared wars, “choice” can mean a bunch of different things with varying degrees of honesty, although the sales pitch is almost unwavering:

  • Parents are entitled to…
  • Parents have a right to…
  • Your zip code shouldn’t…

These are just three ways the argument for “choice” may begin, but they all largely focus on the rights and entitlements of parents to choose an educational path and approach for their children, while what they really mean is that parents should have access to choose a different, and better school from a market of school options. Here again I feel your confusion, but that might be because you maybe haven’t been exposed much to the original educator-and-social-fabric-driven concept of choice, and have been infused instead with the gigged-economy, piece-it-out-for profit-and-efficiency concept. Like you are a “student of our public school systems”, I am a student of political rhetoric and policy shenanigans and idealistic political B.S. that camouflages hidden agendas.

My fire was lit when, at the age of 13, I saw an actor demean a true public servant in a presidential campaign debate. I don’t mean Trump and Clinton, who neither fit into either category satisfactorily. Reagan was the beginning of the end for both integrity and a real Democrat party. “Trickle down“, “plausible deniability“, “A Nation At Risk“… Don’t get me wrong, I never wanted to be a politician, but accountability starts there, and there is where the “blame schools and the public commons, but empower private enterprise and the rich to make us all better” mindset really took hold in both parties.

Teachers and parents who know better might understand the wagon wheel concept. Or have heard of “choice” and about the rights of parents, but know the stories of children pressured out of the choice school, parents compelled to sign non-disclosure agreements or contracts to participate in political rallies, the promotion to near celebrity status of characters like Michelle “Broomrider” Rhee, Capital Prep’s Steve “Cockroach” Perry, and Eva “The Martyr” Moskowitz…

Trust me, you aren’t the only one confused. It’s the same sort of thing when a hope and change president leaves you with little hope and no appreciable change, or when a non-educator with a lack of respect for critical thought, truth, teachers and parents gets put in charge of the education of an entire nation. Talk about confusion-eh?

But hey, I have what I think is a straight-forward question you might be able to help me with. Whenever I ask it, I am immediately accused of being white, teaching in a white school, having taught very few children of color, not being willing to put my child in a “failing” school, risking aligning myself against parents (sorta like the NAACP supposedly did when they took the position of wanting charters of more verifiable quality) …a bunch of things not even related to the question, but I never get an answer.

Do supposed “choice” schools benefit in performance and reputation by only enrolling the children of actively involved parents who value education enough to effectively seek out a “choice”?

Help me, if you would. I think the closest thing to a response I could respect came from Chris Stewart who said something like:

“I don’t care about the politics of choice I want better schools…”.

(Chris, if you read this and I’m getting it wrong please correct me. Just know that this is the kind of honest response and commitment to a real agenda I respect, so I am not trying to use this against your position. “Better schools” is a great position. How that needs to happen, and who deserves praise/criticism for what, might be where we diverge).

But towards a wrap-up: Where I, as a parent and a teacher start to back away from “choice” is when it becomes clear that not all parents and choices are welcome if they don’t promote/protect the “choice” narrative. I once posted a piece about a parent whose child struggled with the same condition my daughter did, and was being threatened, persecuted, almost prosecuted by the “high-performing” Florida charter her child was in because the school didn’t want to provide that child services.

A champion of parents rights and choice schools asked “Did you contact the school for their side, or just take the parents word on faith?” A fair standard if equitably applied.

But Lane, while you are one of the few who has attempted to do this honest sort of reach out-the stories of parents not served in their public schools (who fled to a charter that provided the support/programming that helped their children thrive), are used intentionally and ubiquitously. It’s the silence on “choice” inconsistencies, even if unintentional, that is the tell.

Teachers, like parents, know that it all starts with the child, the learner, and their needs. And if a student has a need, then their school should be empowered to provide for it. The choices for pathways and programming and resources and equipment should be available, not “accessible” (like the GOP “health care” vision). In their schools, provided by professionals, all supported by the community, all stakeholders held accountable…

It starts with the children and their needs. Any deflection from that is the real “dodge”, not questioning the lame diversionary system of reform through testing and choice being pushed.

I’ve got Dad stuff to do, and might do more later. For now, check this out and consider the facets of that wagon wheel as the framework for honest accountability and the starting point for a better conversation.

Sincerely,

Dan

 

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Teaching is to Serve Stubbornly (Part II)

In Part I I describe my general intent to stubbornly share about teaching. Certainly non-teachers looking to criticize have much to say about the job, and unfortunately it’s often crazy stuff: blaming teachers for everything from cultural disconnect to poverty to crime and incarceration… But with all of that muddying the tone, intent and potential of “reform”, it’s good idea for everyone to connect with what teachers actually do (instead of create a tiny box for the results to fit in for a non-teacher’s approval). If there’s more understanding of the limitations of the actual job as it is, and some agreement on what others could/should do, we can have some shared accountability for better outcomes for children.

Teachers aren’t entertainers, delivery workers, or just visitors

Teachers can’t just pop-in at lunch time with some Subway food , visit, give lessons in lunchroom etiquette, play “cool dad” for the kids and then leave.

“I will keep visiting and modeling lunchtime behavior for my kids, and for their classmates who can’t get enough of me (I’m the cool Dad, sorry if you’re not) when I join them.” (Chris Stewart, writing about his kids’ school lunch program)

I am not “cool dad” (no apologies necessary, not my aspiration). But one thing Chris Stewart does, in this article, is echo the concerns my wife, I and my daughters have had have about school lunches. It wasn’t that many years ago that Marguerite (Mrs. Lincoln) was the one making the delicious homemade mac-n-cheese-the kind that gets crusty on top and a little burnt around the edges; or those big breasts and thighs of that crispy-skinned chicken; or the moist chocolate cake with the peanut-butter frosting. Sure, the mashed potades were instant, but a butter pat and some warm gravy and blamma-lamma, baby! Mrs. Lincoln is still around, helps out when needed and at special events even though “retired”, and other cafeteria ladies have come and gone. One of her twin grandsons was in my third-grade homeroom and he’s since graduated.

But our pots and pans are also gathering dust, just like the ones Stewart saw in his dismal tour of some “central nutrition center” (how “big brother” is that?). Rarely graced by the purpose of culinary style or allowed the privilege of being put to real use by those who know better, the facilities have been essentially “reformed”. An outside entity tracking and judging food consumption, sales, credits and debts- in real time via nutrition and cost VAM formula type technology. Those pots and pans and spoons and spatulas, dusty or not,  are all present and accounted for- assigned a specific value. The food itself? Doled out in accordance to specific metrics to meet standards, and regulations. So many carbs, this many grains, that many proteins… all defined by gritty and rigorous high expectations.

All that effort and regulation and data…and yet still somehow having absolutely no freakin’ soul, and appearing like cheap, crappy, institutional food meant to meet some minimal standard while making it appear that people above the people who care enough to do the job are doing right by our kids. Way back in that mac-n-cheese when, lunch had real quality and a purpose, and our girls had to be given a limit on buying lunch. Once a week, unless something really special popped onto the menu.

But cafeteria reform sucked the soul out of what the lunch once was, so my kids have “opted out” of school lunch since…well, since about the time it was “reformed”.

That’s “reform” and “accountability”.

Real issues are ignored in the attempt of those atop to push a “proficiency” narrative, a testocracy, on those below. And teachers are being made to comply. So they can’t just drop in with the popular stuff and then leave, you know: r-u-n-n-o-f-t. 

And we shouldn’t want them to.

Good teachers don’t stop, judge, sort and leave. They stay and serve, and we need them to. What teachers do and what we need them for goes way beyond all the test stuff. As much as they want to deny it or sidestep it, the champions of reform admit it when they cry “cultural disconnect!” (regarding teacher perceptions of student behavior in the classroom, hallway…cafeteria?) and “prison pipeline!“. Clearly (and I agree) teachers need to welcome students, nurture students, connect with them on a personal level in order to get them to engage with the academics…and apparently teachers need to keep them out of jail.

I don’t think that means driving the getaway car, and I don’t know the internal mechanisms of the classroom vs criminal choice that happens in the mind, but could community, home and family figure into the formula? In Stewart’s article, there is a brief side-trip to judge the the failures of parents, the unseemly behavior of school children and the intolerable adults they’ll someday be.

“I’ve visited schools where the lunch period was an extension of other learning periods. It wasn’t a free-for-all. Some parents might fight me on this one, I know. I can hear the protests about how kids need to be kids, and how they need free-time to be wild, loud, and childish.Wherever you are working today, look at the co-worker who gets on your last nerve. That person had parents like the ones I just described.

I have waited years for this glimmer of understanding from warriors of reform that parents have power to actively raise children, just as they have a passive right to wait for a “school choice” to be offered.

And yet I feel no pleasure.

Because imagine far worse than some unseemly table manners (My stars, I do indeed believe I shall come down with the vapours!), or having some fun in the cafeteria at lunchtime. Lets talk parents who come into conference reeking of weed and asking how they can get to volunteer to help and come in sometime, because they “might get some learnin'”. Imagine thinking that it really would do them good, but there is absolutely no way you can add two stoned adults to your roster. Their child, whom we were conferencing on (back when lunches were still good) left their home when he got the chance, a few years ago (at 12 or 13, I think). He’s turning out to be a fine young man determined to make good choices.

He says I’m his favorite teacher (a label I’ll take over “cool dad” any day), but I care less about that than him being one of my tentative shared-success stories. “Shared” because many others besides me (teachers, staff members and students) have been there for him and cared, and I’m sure he feels it. But I wouldn’t say he’s out of the woods- I worry about some students as if they were my own kids and in some danger zone or something. Maybe I’ll stop worrying once I know he’s safely reached thirty years old. His older sister who remained in the home just got busted for another parole violation. She’s looking at some serious time.

Teachers never stop caring, and parents make all sorts of choices, every day.

It’s teachers, there in school, dealing with the repercussions of parent choices right along with the students. Now maybe I am disconnected in my low SES, white, rural, tiny district. It could be that poverty, drugs, crime and instability in family and residency are more of a country white thing. You know, not so much an urban issue. It could be that in the big cities (the original target of education reforms) bad teachers and their unions are the biggest problems children face.

I don’t know, and I know that I don’t know. That’s why I reach out and communicate. With school leaders, with teachers, with parents who thought they had “choice” until they were un-chosen, others involved… Anything I learn helps.

“You’re not an authority on my children, my community, or my history. You are an agent of the state and you’re employed by the single greatest threat to free thought and black liberation.” 

The first part is right on. The last part is a bit much but I respect him for the times when he actually comes out with his convictions and willingness to say things others in the reform camp will not:

“I care about the successful education of 8 million black students. Whether or not charter schools are “public” is immaterial.”

Like acknowledging of the influence of parents, there’s some pure honesty in this message. And it identifies the mission. I know that teaching and teachers can improve. I know that I can improve. I know that my union can do far more to activate the troops and press for positive change. I’d bet I’m not the only educator that would admit those things. Tap dancing around, engaging in pretending “choice” is a public construct just makes some reform advocates look silly, and I’ll take Stewart’s honesty over the dance.

 

Protect the Children

Protect the children from your incremental surrender and ignorance.

Invite them and their families into the schools you love and your children so enjoy as opposed to attacking their schools that are being left undermined and abandoned. Fight to have their neighborhoods safe, their families sheltered, their bellies full and their water clean. Use nonprofit millions- not to fund your agenda but to fund reading programs and become actively involved in a good food, great books and warm beds initiative that will help send more children ready to learn into the schools you are so eager to hold accountable (while you are so unwilling to share your own).

Do more than posture, preen and judge-otherwise you are worse than useless-you are an actual danger and the children need to be protected from you.