Republican leaders ’take shelter behind hypocrisy’

This first appeared as a letter to the editor in the Syracuse Post Standard. It can be seen online here.

For the Republican Party, religion seems more about branding, less about belief. Passing time brings less doubt. Make no mistake, I’ve been a political junkie since the day I turned 13 plus one week. That night, I watched 6-foot-something of Bryll Cream and B.S. say, “There you go again.” It was a smug, rehearsed response to another man’s observation that Republicans would gut social programs. The former would go on, as president, to pursue that exact agenda. The latter would go on to build houses for the homeless, bring medical care to the sick in impoverished nations, and serve to this day as an actual example of grace and morality.

I’ve also spent a considerable amount of time in church, though I could do with more — only for the fact that it could make me a better son. But there’s no religion I know of that allows you to take shelter behind hypocrisy and still claim the moral high ground. Sen. Mitch McConnell should just come out and say, “I am going to blame the Democrats for obstructing if I don’t get my way, and then I will proudly refuse to cooperate with anything they want to do. Amen.” Now their standard-bearer is either an embarrassment to silently endure, or champion they are ashamed to claim.

The true struggle, though? Overcoming the complicity of Democrat leaders. They have somehow turned “lesser evil” into an art form. No wonder new blood within their ranks has both sides worried.

Some Socialism is Bad

Do you think crony capitalism, oligarchy disguised as two-party rule, and trickle-down economics is destroying stable employment opportunities and families, and that now more children come to school not prepared to learn? You may have noticed the changing students, and families. Some teachers are lucky to teach in wealthy districts or may work in schools that engineer their enrollment, and therefore see little or none of this. But most know that kids are coming with needs far deeper and more often now healing has to come before teaching.

Some socialism is bad. The type that allows the government (aka Wall St & corporations) and super wealthy to skip out on debts, evade taxes, buy policy and politicians, bail out big banks, maintain a revolving door between these criminal enterprises and Washington, fund endless war and terrorist organizations who will be temporary allies but future enemies…bad socialism for sure. The type that supports the working class and families that are the producers/consumers and lifeblood of the economy and nation? Good.

The system that is has not earned the right to judge me, my students, my own children or my school with tests that determine how well we can all be hammered into their failing system.

Time to Fight

Why should educators, as professionals, be expected to willingly participate in the destruction of society-in the end making their jobs as educators even more difficult? The demands of so-called “education reform” that ignore childhood-development norms lead to practices that further that destruction.

To begin with, it’s not good pedagogy, and regardless of how much “grit and rigor” and “raised bars” rhetoric you infuse it with, it does more harm than good. No matter how many new-fangled games and technological gadgets are inserted into the daily school routine, there is no making up for the losses we suffer when our strategies move away from the foundational practices that were once the norm, and we need to vigorously fight back as a profession to insist on the respect we deserve for the value we have always brought and still bring.

A little preachy maybe, but to give a simple example of where we can be led or pushed astray:

Have you caught yourself wondering why student handwriting looks so terrible these days?

Maybe it’s because finger-paintin’ and clay-squeezin’ are now things of a distant kindergarten past. Students spend less time developing the hand strength, muscle-memory and fine-motor coordination that once led to good, legible handwriting. But Common Core, and “college and career-ready” demands mean that efforts in instruction and accountability target skills that demonstrate proficiency on standardized tests rather than some antiquated concept of handwriting and its importance.

Thinking gets delivered digitally these days anyways, and figuring that the loss of hand strength and dexterity would make it hard to hold a book and turn pages-let alone grip a pencil: we need to inject more software, screens and keyboards into the classroom  to redesign that ancient paradigm of kids writing with pencils and reading actual books and whatnot.

See how technology can fill the gaps where humanity once was?

But (you might ask) if the strength, dexterity and coordination to grip a pencil and make it write with one hand isn’t there, how can we realistically expect our little learners being whipped over our raised bars to use both hands, find and hold that home row, and execute the equivalent of tickling the QWERTY ivories to express their thoughts in writing?

Don’t sweat it. We can start formal keyboarding instruction in the primary years. Where to fit it into the school day, or how we can  expect classroom teachers being pounded into HEDI scale slots (who may or may not be typists themselves) to eke out time in the day to teach typing are questions we needn’t bother with. There are plenty of software programs available that can lead students through typing lessons. No teacher required-just give them a laptop, a pair of headphones, and let the hunting and pecking begin!

I’m being a bit snarky here, but my point is that what should be a primarily human endeavor (i.e., helping our youngest learners mature and grow into capable young citizens) is being dehumanized by that thing called “reform” and all the gadgetry (in hardware, software, approaches and assessments) that has ensued.  The demand for data to feed the reform monster has led to participation in and compliance with programs and practices that will efficiently generate that data and this pushes us further from the societal goals that build and strengthen an informed citizenry, and towards serving economic interests that care little about the realities faced in the schools and classrooms of our neediest communities.

We are being driven to place artificial, statistical value on human beings, and it’s no wonder that the consequences include us now having to spend more and more time on social/emotional/psychological issues- to instituting anti-bullying and social media awareness programs, teaching character education in school because outside of school there’s less character to be found. We are scrambling to find ways to insert more humanity wherever and whenever we can.

 I have written in the past about what education reform has looked like, what it apparently means to those who have imposed it upon the children of others and those who serve them, and what it really should mean-what it needs to mean, if we are going to reclaim our educational souls and reverse this societal decay. The demand that more and more data be produced, that this data be statistically normed so that it can take the place of individual children and what we know about their needs, and that we call this “value added” exemplifies where we have been misled.  

I would argue that the more time we spend pouring in this way over spreadsheets and assessment data, the more technology and gadgets we put between us and young learners, the less time we spend looking at and connecting with the actual children right there in front of us. That’s where dedicated teachers demonstrate real value and true values,  when and where value is needed most.

The Real “War on Christmas”

This appeared in the Opinion section of the Cortland Standard on December 19th, 2018.

As the season of giving arrives and resolutions time approaches, I think we should reflect on the nation’s potential better-self and plan to reach for it. We only blind ourselves with a limiting “presently great America” myth and deny the need for any change at our own peril. Can we possibly be better? Of course we can. We can always be better. An example of where we risk failure is in allowing the “war on Christmas” myth to live rent free in our minds without questioning it. In this modern age, no snowflakes should melt over this make believe war any more than virgins should be sacrificed to the volcano gods. We should be smarter than that.

I was never made to believe that the most important thing about Christmas was my right to deck halls, be jolly or say “Merry Christmas”.  I just do those things. I was especially  never made to believe others had to do what I do or say what I say. If demonstrations  of  spirit or belief are valued, I was made to believe that works of grace and good will are available all around us to either do ourselves or see others doing. Do them when you can if you want. Take comfort in knowing others do them when you see it happening.

But if you buy into some made up “war”, you’ve already lost a battle.  If you look the other way when you see a piece of the real war on Christmas being waged against refugees at our border (while raging over decorations, salutations or songs), you risk losing that war.

Four steps to better education reform (Introduction to MEGA)

This will be the first installment of several in a “Better Education Reform” series. As I continue, I will be linking to associated definitions and explanations between installments, and at the end will include a glossary for some of the more colloquial-type terms I use. I try to tone it down a little, but hey-I can only water it down so much.

Introduction:

America needs to be better at educating its citizens. I say this for a couple of reasons. Mainly, the disparity in outcomes in our population is concerning-especially when that disparity is linked to race, gender and socioeconomic status.  It suggests either systemic ineffectiveness, intent, and possibly both. Secondly, the political mechanisms that drive this disparity are almost wholly owned and operated by the most privileged class and their nearly as privileged agents. This has led to a situation where the vehicle we call democracy is like some eyesore the losers next door park on the lawn and tear up and down the street in at all hours. We can’t really deny democracy exists, I mean it’s parked right there. But it’s right to wonder if it works, worry about how safe it is and what might happen to us, our property and our children with those losers behind the wheel. Seriously- all they ever do is a crappy touch-up with some spray cans and tint the windows so you can’t see what the $#%& is going on inside of it!

Donald Trump is that eyesore. Who the hell knows what goes on in his head? And our “elected” leaders and the system preserving them are driving him around. But guess what? Trump is the president. That doesn’t happen absent a decline in the character, practical intelligence, and moral commitment in the citizenry and the system. And those things-character, practical intelligence, depend on an effective comprehensive education. A real education.

That’s quite different than schooling, which uses the sterile and dehumanizing language of industry (e.g. standards, tests, achievement, proficiency…) and is focused on the task-mastering of academic skills-an approach that supports control of the masses below by the few above. Real education reform should be an honest effort, and provide much more in terms of a foundation of soft skills and a content of character that allow a person to pursue, communicate, exercise their civic duties and responsibilities, connect effectively with the world, achieve, adapt, cooperate…Basically, education imparts the qualities that shape the person who applies the academic skills acquired through schooling.

By acknowledging, legislating and working through this more comprehensive approach to education, and a more shared accountability for the components that are required, the nation can improve outcomes for traditionally underachieving groups.

Part 1: the four steps

One of the primary roadblocks to better outcomes is the bipartisan cooperation in refusing to do what is right. In other words there is a lack of the political will to do right in our leaders. I will get more deeply into practical intelligence, quality, comprehensive education, and political will in just a bit. I’ll also address the concepts of systemic ineffectiveness and intent-“intent” meaning that some of the ineffectiveness might be purposeful and used by those in power to suppress those with less in order to preserve an inequitable system.

But first things first.

The key to better education reform, more equitable outcomes and reaching for that effective, comprehensive education is informing, preparing and activating the citizenry. Once that happens, education and reform can be freed from the tightly defined box constructed by and for the wealthy and powerful establishment who ironically use it as a tool of suppression. That paradigm of suppression has led to stagnant or unimpressive societal and academic improvements. Changing the paradigm and making education great again (that’s MEGA, folks- I’ll trademark it and begin making the red hats soon) won’t be easy, but here are the four things I suggest to get us moving in the MEGA direction towards improving outcomes:

Four steps to MEGA:

1) Admit that accountability is shared for education outcomes, between policymakers, community, families and schools. Have mechanisms for measurement, evaluation and accountability that are collaboratively created by these stakeholders and keep all stakeholders involved and accountable.

2) Apply electoral and non-electoral leverage strategically to affect policy and distribute resources based  on needs. That means targeting policymakers, communities, families, and schools with transparency, honesty and a purpose that is learner and future-focused.

3) Shift the stale paradigm for how schooling works and how outcomes are defined, and provide real opportunities to pursue both collective priorities (public education should serve the public, the same way public spaces, utilities and services do) and individual goals. This is a shift from the current impersonal demands for a standardized version of “proficiency”.

4) Effectively advocate not just for the literal lives of children, but their quality of life as well. The key word being “effectively”.

Next, “The four steps explained”.

Holding Schools Accountable

While sorting through some old, old stuff, I came across a hard copy of this. I think it predated flash drives, I’m not really sure. Thank god I have a beautiful young typist that will ask for little more than a burger and maybe a few bucks. About 16 years ago, I think it was, and yet it could be today. 

 

National Standards:

Holding Schools Accountable

by

Daniel McConnell, Jr.

State University of New York

Cortland, 2002

 

Introduction

            While on the surface educational standards appear to be merely a logical move to provide cohesive instruction, the forces behind their origin and the pairing of standards with a call for “accountability” reveal other motives. Historically, the United States has taken great efforts to achieve and maintain a dominant world presence, much through advances in military technology (which are closely linked to the math and science fields). Most notably since the launch of Sputnik in 1957, when the former USSR beat the United States into space, policy makers have demanded that schools prepare students to be an active part in the US- led future. When “A Nation At Risk” was published in 1983, warning of pending failure in the competitive world market, the cry for school reform was renewed with a focus on curriculum standards, and accountability for schools not demonstrating student achievement of those standards. While doing this, policy makers ignore their own accountability in helping to nurture capable students and productive future citizens.

Background

            “Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world.” (A Nation At Risk, 1983)

After a brief statement of educational philosophy, A Nation At Risk begins with this ominous warning. It does not warn against a pending invasion by a foreign power, or a nuclear attack, or even an anonymous biological threat. The threat, it seems, is economic: based on the ability of the US to compete and profit (to a greater degree than other nations of the world) in the global market. But the insinuation, if it could even be considered as subtle as that, is that the threat is just as dire: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” (p.1). The tone of A Nation demonstrates a shift in perspective regarding the nature of America’s “world leader” role, and the responsibilities of schools to support that role. Once in the business of promoting the rights of citizens by educating those citizens to exercise them in a responsible manner, schools have gradually found their role shifting from responsibility to protect the nation from tyranny to supporting the near-tyrannical forces of a corporate driven system. This system places monetary profit and domination of the world market high on the priority list, while subjugating the needs and desires of present and future citizens (i.e. the students themselves). With current US policy funded, advised and driven largely by leaders in the corporate world, legislation tends to favor the already wealthy and powerful minority at the cost of the less wealthy majority of Americans. This legislation includes the educational standards, and the standards-based reform movement that began largely as a result of A Nation At Risk. While staying competitive in the fields of math and science (which are cornerstones of the tech market and essential in maintaining military dominance) is important for the economic health of the nation, current efforts to impose standards and high-stakes standardized tests should be closely evaluated to determine whose needs they truly serve.

The History of Reform: Sputnik and the Science Scare

“Unless future generations appreciate the role of science in modern society and understand the conditions under which science thrives”, he (Dr. Elmer Hutchisson, Director of the American Institute of Physics) said, “our way of life is, I am certain, doomed to rapid extinction.” (New York Times, Oct. 8, 1957)

America’s public school system has, since its inception, been a source of hope and a focus of criticism. It has been given the responsibility for shaping society at times, blamed for not doing so (or doing so in a misguided fashion) at other times. One time from our not so distant history that many believed revealed a weakness in our education system was in 1957, the year Russia launched the first space vehicle, Sputnik. At a time when the nations of the world were just beginning to consider the possibilities of space exploration, and most believed that the US would lead the way with its Vanguard program, the Soviets caught the world off guard when it launched a satellite weighing eight times that of the one the US intended to launch. The possibility that the Soviets had outmatched the United States in its ability to not only launch a satellite, but to launch a significantly heavier one gave rise to two fears: 1) the capitalist beacon of hope that was the US was technologically inferior to the other world power- the communist threat that was the USSR, and 2) If the Soviets could launch a satellite into space, they could launch a nuclear missile that could reach the United States.

Dr. Elmer Hutchisson, director of the American Institute of Physics at the time Sputnik was launched, gave the statement at the beginning of this section. In addition to the accusations from others that the Eisenhower administration was under-funding satellite research, Dr. Hutchisson added a warning about the science education students were receiving

 ..the United States must distinguish carefully between ‘highly accumulative’             scientific knowledge that can be taught by rigorous discipline and the namby-                pamby kind of learning’ that seeks to protect children against inhibition of their              individuality or their laziness

According to James Rutherford, former director of Project 2061, the American Association for Advancement of Science’s program for revamping K-12 science education, the efforts to improve science curriculum and training throughout the educational system began shortly after Sputnik, but then halted after the United States put the first man on the moon (Harvard Educational Letter: Research Online, Sept/Oct, 1998).

Not surprisingly, this article states, results from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS, 1997) showed that US students scored lower than half of the students in other developed countries by the eighth grade, and “dead last” by the final year of secondary school. Despite the call for creation of standards across subject areas by the first President Bush in 1989, America’s schools are still having difficulty meeting the high expectations implicit in the new standardized assessments.

The Confounds Regarding Success in Reaching the Standards

“The average grade for all the standards he [L. Lerner] appraised is C-minus…In fact, we can only be confident from this analysis that six of our fifty states have first-rate science standards.” (The Fordham Foundation, 1998)

While students are apparently not performing as well as those calling for standards and accountability suggest they should, other influences confounding those goals exist. Once source blocking student success is the standards themselves. Vague and/or poorly written for many states, teachers with standards that are not clear are left unsure of what to teach and how best to teach it. Another source of poor student performance is the “baggage” that students bring to school with them. An issue highly stressed in the current reform movement is the “achievement gap” between the high and low socioeconomic groups.

Schools have been called upon to reduce this gap, with the hope that it can be eliminated, but research shows what teachers know: students that come from stable, nurturing and supporting homes are more likely to succeed academically (Pianta, 2002). Instead of pushing policy that would enable lower class families to lead more enriched lives, devoting more time to bestowing the school readiness skills that are associated with future success for students, policy makers choose to make schools the repair shops- charged with fixing the damage done to the family unit by corporate-centered policy.

That the standards themselves need fixing is an ongoing issue. With individual states being responsible for their own, variance in style and quality of those standards is to be expected, and so then is variance in what is taught and how students perform. The Fordham Foundation is one organization involved in the education reform movement, and in 1998 they published a report on the progress states were making in their effort to write science standards. An excerpt from that report reads like a scolding:

            “Among the thirty-six jurisdictions with elementary/secondary science standards fit  for appraisal, he found six that deserve “A” grades and seven that earn “B’s”. Good grades for more than a third of the states! Yet that sounds good mostly because our expectations in such matters have fallen so low. Here’s another way to look at the  results: Dr. Lerner conferred nine failing grades and seven “D’s”: three more than won honors. Seven states earned “C’s.” (New York was among the “C’s”)”

This repost goes through each of the thirty-six states evaluated and thoroughly analyzes the quality and substance of the standards the state has developed for science, as well as the examples of properly achieving them. Without arguing the foundation’s qualifications to do so, one could suggest that the nation’s leaders have given little support for this monumental task, merely directives. If, after all, a standardized result were the expectation, then a more centralized and standard approach would be the best from the beginning. Rather than having fifty different sets of standards and exemplars with the hopes of reaching a similar achievement goal, one set for all to follow would be a more sensible approach.

In addition to standards that provide little help in reaching lofty new goals, administration officials have lumped in a healthy scoop of criticism- as well as a call for “accountability”. Unfortunately, they overlook their own accountability in helping students reach their true potential, and fail to notice that very early in A Nation At Risk, the authors admit as much:

            “That we have compromised this commitment is, upon reflecting, hardly surprising, given the multitude of often conflicting demands we have placed on our nation’s schools and  colleges. They are routinely called on to provide solutions to personal, social, and political problems that the home and other institutions either will not or cannot resolve. We must understand that these demands on our schools and colleges often exact an educational cost as well as a financial one.” (p.6)

Rather  than overhaul policy that has served the desires of the wealthy few (campaign finance, corporate reform, foreign trade initiatives) at the expense of working families, the finger has been pointed in another direction. More recently, the attack has turned ugly: Following in his father’s school reform footsteps, President George W. Bush has lent his straightforward approach to the reform movement. Consider his words as he addresses the audience at the signing of the Education Bill in Hamilton, Ohio (Jan. 8, 2002):

            “If we’ve learned anything over the last generations, money alone doesn’t make a good  school. It certainly helps. But as John mentioned, we’ve spent billions of dollars with lousy results. So now it’s time to spend billions of dollars and get good results.

The message from The White House seems clear (if not unsettling): a lot of money has been wasted, and now it’s time to all the public school system to the carpet and make it do its job. But what does the president mean by “lousy results” and “billions of dollars”? The “No Child Left Behind Act” fact sheet released by The White House on the day of its signing by the President conveniently arranges the reform position in a problem/solution format. In regards to money spent and the results that have gone unrealized, it says:

 -Since the original Elementary and Early Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was                    signed into law in 1965, the federal government has spent more than $130 billion               to improve public schools.

 -Unfortunately, this investment in education has not reduced the achievement                     gap between the well-off and lower-income students or between minority and                     non-minority students (p.2).

The evidence is neatly laid out, but goes unexamined. Although $130 billion sounds like a lot of money, if you do the math and divide it across the years it was spent, it comes to a mere pittance when matched against other national budgeting priorities. Thirty-seven years passed while that $130 billion was spent, which raised two interesting questions: 1) If The White House wants to insist that this amount of money spent on the public school system should have been sufficient to close the achievement gap between the well-off and lower-income students, then why have they failed to consider some other source for failure in closing this gap other than schools- mainly, some function of the inequitable class system which creates “well-off” and “lower-income” students? And 2) With military spending far outpacing any developed country in the world many times greater than the money allocated to public schools (not to mention the hundreds of billions being allocated into new “homeland security” measures) how can the White House justify this indignant attitude of having spent “billions of dollars with lousy results”? If the future of our country was to truly be invested in and protected, it would be reflected in a national budget that better funded schools, and made it possible for struggling families to spend more time at home building the skills and experiences that foster school success.

The Issue Of Accountability

“You know, a huge percentage of children in poverty can’t read at grade level. That’s not right in America.” (George W. Bush)

According to New York University’s Edward Wolff, and expert on the wealth gap, a wealth tax starting at one-twentieth of one percent on net worths of $1 million, and rising to one percent on the super rich, would yield about $50 billion per year. Imagine earmarking this for, say, the education of poor kids.

As a teacher, I can accept that I am responsible for helping my students achieve the educational standards set for my students. It is, after all, my job. I resent, though, the treatment of my profession as if it were some magical machine that can turn the star-bellied sneeches and the ones with no stars upon thars (apologies to Dr. Seuss) into standardized products with equal potential and opportunity. Children come to my classroom from vastly different homes and those differences manifest themselves in all sorts of measures of behavior and achievement. It is a difficult thing to do, and has historically come with its own drawbacks, but I think the best way is to treat children as individuals- helping children meet their own goals to the best of their abilities. True, a sound set of standards that reinforce necessary basic skills is needed. But we have to avoid turning students into numbers within a statistical framework, and expect them to become “standardized”. Human beings, with their wide variety in desires, abilities and learning styles- not to mention home environments, just don’t work that way. Children are coming to school every morning from all sorts of family situations and it is reflected in what they are ready to do. At the end of the day, they go back to that home again. The connections are logical, even without hard evidence. More stable homes generally display stability across economic resources and family configuration. Families with two parents making a decent living wage have more time to be involved and supportive, have some history with and/or appreciation for education, and pass these values on to their children. They often are less stressed by the demands felt by lower income families who may not have the time to spend fostering the “readiness” skills (mostly communication, listening, and language skills). which are valuable to students (and the teachers who have them in their classes). Despite this, teachers must accept the responsibility for helping all children meet tough academic goals, with the expectations and demands continually rising.

Conclusion

While teachers, on the one hand, must accept accountability for their results, there is only avoidance of accountability from those imposing standards upon schools and students. District report cards outlining in detail how schools perform on high-stakes standardized tests appear in huge spreads in local newspapers. How our elected officials are voting on specific legislation and specifically whose agenda is being forwarded on Capitol Hill is information that requires extensive searching and investigation to uncover. Having clearly acknowledged the achievement gap between classes, our elected officials have chosen to avoid the issue of inequity in wealth and resources (including a parents’ ability to spend quality time with their children) between the classes. Instead, “leaders” have chosen to subject the public schools to accountability for making up for this inequity. But if a standardized product is expected, then the materials that go into making that product must be standardized, as well.

The demand for standardization needs to be turned around and slid back across the table to the policy makers of America. If they will spend the time and resources to close the gap between the classes, they may see the achievement gap start to close, as well.

References

Harvard Educational Letter: Research Online (Sept/Oct, 1998). From Sputnik to TIMSS: Reforms in Science Education Make Headway Despite Setbacks. More time is needed for widespread classroom changes, By Naomi Freundlich. (http://www.edletter.org/past/issues/1998-so/sputnik.shtml)

Lawrence S. Lerner (March, 1998) An appraisal of science standards in 36 states. Fordham Report; Vol 2, 4

National Commission on Excellence in Education (1983). A nation at risk: The imperatives for educational reform. Washington DC: U.S. Department of Education

Pianta, Robert (2002). School readiness: A focus on children, families, communities and schools. Educational Research Service, Arlington, VA.

Schmeck, Harlold M. (October, 1957). Nation is warned to stress science. Times looks back: Sputnik. The New York Times learning network. (http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/specials/sputnik/sput-15.html)

The White House (January 8, 2002). Remarks by the president at education bill signing. Office of the Press Secretary (Boston, Massachusetts). Hamilton High School Hamilton, OH.

The White House (April 4, 2002). Fact sheet: No child left behind. (On-line). (http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2002/01/20020108.html)

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.