Raise Them Right

This appeared first in The Cortland Standard

It’s graduation season, and I’m watching the second of my three daughters spread her wings. Is she ready?

As a teacher, I’m all too familiar with “college and career ready” propaganda, but as a parent I feel that’s a limiting construct. I want my daughters reality-ready. I want them  readied within themselves to meet head-on the world that actually is, not the one someone else defines. I want them to have high expectations of themselves-not aspire to anyone else’s. Above all, I hope for their approach to be “what can I bring to the world to make it a better place” not “what can I get out of the world for me”. Think about it: aim to make the world better for those around you, and the world around you becomes a better place. In my mind, that’s how they’ll fly-this graduating daughter and my other two. Actually, they already fly pretty well in that regard, so I am excited to see what comes next.

In addition to graduation season, it is high-season for political theater. This brings into sharp focus some contrasts between a self-interested bipartisan establishment, their mainstream news apologists, and my “what value should I try to bring to the world” mindset. It seems that the “do for others” approach is radical; far left; even (gasp) socialist!Is “being your brother’s keeper” radical now? I am proud to be raising daughters smarter than that, I just wish politicians were as well. All I have to say is watch out world, here they come.

Teaching to Combat Systemic Injustice

A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic

The concept  behind the proposition is that when a name and a face can be attached to an injustice, oppression, disease, death… the argument against those negative forces becomes more powerful, personal and visceral. A story can be told about the individual. You can find ways to connect to the person and can relate to their suffering. It could be you or someone you love after all. But as teachers, how do we get our students to understand and identify greater injustices, not just the individual ones-whether they be ones weighing on they themselves or those close to them? How do we prepare today’s children and soon-to-be citizens to grapple with today’s notions that are likely be tomorrow’s problems?

When casualties reach into the millions, real understanding tends to disappear. Maybe numbers like that cognitively become labeled as some ephemeral generic mass instead of being understood as revelatory of a significantly greater issue. For example, one child suffering from exposure to lead in their environment can have tragic consequences, and that tragedy hits us in our heart when we see the face or know the name. But it’s difficult to imagine tens of thousands or more!

Lead causes irreversible damage to a developing brain, so it is especially harmful to children 5 or younger. Symptoms include developmental delays, dyslexia and behavioral problems. Thus lead exposure adds one more serious adversity to the multiple challenges associated with urban poverty, including nutritional deficiencies, reduced access to quality medical care, community violence and poor-performing public schools. (Washington Post, March 7, 2018)

Maybe it’s hard to believe that our leaders here in the land of the free and home of the brave could perpetrate or allow such things on that scale. I mean, so many people being injured, impaired intentionally or through negligence or apathy-advanced societies wouldn’t allow such things, right? Is that the sort of American Exceptionalism™ they want to lay claim to? You do have to wonder why, in what is more or less a two-party duopoly, neither the righteously proud pro-life party nor a supposed party-of-the-working class would address this sort of glaring, life-destroying oppression.

While so many here at home suffer, they instead cooperate in spending tens of billions of American dollars overseas- funding siege war campaigns, and supporting rebel groups seeking to overthrow leaders of sovereign nations (with no formal declaration of war, and despite both the campaign declarations of pre-President Trump and the unpopularity of endless war amongst the population).

Education should aim for better than test proficiency

A sound, basic public education needs to prepare students to grapple with deeper questions once the world becomes theirs. In addition, as part of an increased focus on civics and civic engagement, educators have a responsibility to help students be fully informed about the mechanisms of the government and condition of the world they will inherit in order for them to make the smartest decisions about how to protect their best interests. But back to the essential question:

Today’s leaders wouldn’t act out of such self interested inhumanity as to shirk their obligations to future generations, would they?

Well, do you remember Michelle Wolf’s White House Correspondents Dinner performance-the one that had all the right-wing nancy-boys and Fox News snowflakes rethinking their brave stance on the first amendment (brave at least when it comes to the rights of speed-talking morons like Ben Shapiro to go to college campuses to show off how offensive and smug he’s willing to be). So many people wrongly interpreted Wolf’s comments to be about Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her appearance, when in fact they were aimed at her aversion to the truth. I couldn’t honestly believe there was that much ignorance or hearing impairment in pundit-land, but then I heard a comment on an alternative news source that basically pointed out how no one is even mentioning the last words Wolf spoke as she stepped away from the mic:

Flint still doesn’t have clean water.

So hell yeah, the powerful could, would and do allow atrocities on a massive scale.

Not only do they allow it, they are sometimes supportive and/or complicit and our leaders on both sides of the aisle are exhibit A in that particular shit show. They understand how to perpetuate and brush systemic injustice aside when it  benefits them and their wealthy and powerful allies. Of course individual cases are highlighted for slogans, rallies and all-around exploitation of a political agenda, but mass inequity, injustice and inhumanity are topics to be avoided.

Mainstream media news outlets are no better, allowing for the powerful suctioning away of greater truths to create a vacuum that is then filled with the latest in-the-moment palace intrigue, drama and distraction. The show put on rarely allows for reflection, because just when you lift your head above the waves to snatch a breath, the next wave of bullshit hits.

Our students need to be prepared in a way that only shows bias towards verified truths, not partisan ones.

Being “political” doesn’t have to be the same as being partisan if your continual mission is seeking the truth on any side of an issue and finding a way to engage the issues and others on those issues, putting your thoughts and findings into words. So listening, hearing, analyzing and discussing events and issues all need to be a part of the civic engagement of students. But having them think well means teachers standing in front of them need to also think well. And getting there requires practice.

Think Justice Kavanaugh was simply a hapless and pleasant virgin pray-boy who went to Yale, maybe had a couple beers once in a while, went to church on Sundays and then was suddenly attacked out of the blue by schemers, connivers and rabble-rousers on the left?

Think Chuck Grassley’s sense of justice and decorum was so offended that he just became angered at the behavior coming from the Democrats? Maybe he is just a recent player in politics and is unfamiliar with the game?

Think Lindsey Graham just forgot about defending the sanctity of higher office which he so proudly spoke up for and stood by when hunting down Bill Clinton for an adulterous (but consensual) relationship?

Think that Mitch McConnell repeatedly reaches back to the 1800’s to defend his open obstructionism of Merrick Garland’s appointment to the Supreme Court because he is a purist when it comes to history and tradition in regards to nominations?

Then you have definitely been infected by the right.

Alternatively, do you think that any of the crusty, dusty old establishment leaders on the left really feel bad about tilting the Supreme Court to the right, allowing for a defensive fortification of well-moneyed and corporate influence over policy?

Then you have been infected by the fake left. Probably a more dangerous condition because you’ve been tricked into believing you are “left” when you’re actually just left-ish of where crazy-right is. You might not even be on the side of the activated true-left. Those willing to spend their time speaking truth to power, or even a little time in jail for doing so.

You know, those advocates of “mob rule”

Now the Republicans are running around afraid, talking about the threat of “mob rule”. These rich white men whose pockets get well-lined by other rich white men are shameless hypocrites, not patriots. They have no honor because their political positions  and loyalty are taken out of convenience and to match the agenda of the day. I won’t even comment on morality because elevating their understanding of morals would require a trip to meet them in Bizarro World where they live by some strange code of moral convenience and equivalence.

For example, referring to concerned citizens exercising their first amendment rights as a “mob” intentionally loses the human and familiar face. This makes you forget that Christine Ford could very well have been or be your own daughter, mother, wife, sister… Somebody you care about brushed aside does not inspire you to spontaneously join a “mob”, but instead it lights a fire under you in regards to a specific issue and for a cause near and dear to you. The freedoms of this nation and it’s citizens have been hard won by the masses inspired in this manner, not through the masses obediently complying with the wishes of the fewest and the wealthiest. The arrogance of Chuck Grassley, the staged bluster of Lindsey Graham, and the desperation of Mitch McConnell begs for this kind of response to these elite, privileged old men.

The ineptitude of the leaders on that fake left have only made that mob’s presence and it’s voice that much more necessary. Once upon a time they were called patriots, and their presence reveals the tyranny and cowardice of leaders.

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.

 

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.

When will that better conversation begin?

Granted, I cannot be allowed to tell anyone what parents of color trapped in under-served, under-resourced urban neighborhoods and schools should choose for their children. My country-white ass can’t cash that check if I try to write it because my account comes up pretty empty in that area.

Also, as I have said time and time again: I am one-hundred-percent behind parent choice.That means parents have the power, and are the first line of defense, and offense. I respect  and expect that power.

But that also means those shouting along with me about parents and their rights can’t suddenly shrivel and flip-flop and/or wail when parents who know better resist “reform” based on high-stakes tests; or when someone points out the downsides to test obsession. The pressure felt in a system that reduces human value to numbers is not something made up. Suicides really have happened because of that pressure. It isn’t “fake news”, and if anyone is disrespecting and demeaning the loss families and friends have felt it’s you if  to try and pull a “switcheroo” and pretend that protecting children from that type of emotional and intellectual assault is an attack on standards, or expectations, or is promoting “lousy education”, or is “dodging accountability”…?

That’s you protecting the pressure cooker, not children.

If you cannot even honestly address a point of view that doesn’t align with your agenda, then you don’t even have a high horse to be scolded off of. You’re not having any “better conversation”, you’re just stomping through that smelly stuff your horse left behind. I am more than willing to admit that there are bad teachers out there. I have known some, and am even willing to admit that I am not as good as I want to be, because my goal is to get better every day. I am more than willing to admit my union comes up short, at times, in effectively making education better for children-but you probably wouldn’t like my version of making my union better. It would me a little less political coffee klatsch and a little more teamsters.

But ask “Do charter schools benefit from their selective enrollment practices?”, or point out that test obsession can come with consequences?

Wow…is that the sound of the sky falling, or just some people crying as if it is?

In the same way that I am not going to tell other parents what to choose and how, or even try to pretend to know their situations and motivations, as a parent and someone who chose teaching as a career, (not a stepping-stone box to check on a resume aimed at business, consultancy and/or politics)  I also am not going to:

  • let entrepreneurs or “seed investors” or non-educators define what people need to know about education and/or teaching.
  • let a school board member with an ax to grind and eager to spout their view that teachers and unions are responsible for a “prison pipeline” go unchallenged.
  • let public relations and communications wrap an evasive horseshit sandwich in a pretty wrapper without pulling some of that paper away to deal with what’s really inside.

So please: I come ready to openly address the downsides of education as is, and if you come willing to address what’s really inside that smelly thing all wrapped up pretty that you’ve been hired to sell? Well then we’ll be ready for that better conversation.

It’s true, I support education reform

Public Education Needs to be Reformed

It’s true, I am in favor of school reform. We need school reform because times have changed and are changing-and it isn’t all good. Changing so much, in fact, that public education needs now to be thought of as more than a mere step-up to opportunities in life but also as the bulwark against the offensive forces depriving us of opportunities to truly thrive. A recent New York Times article describes the economic decay eating our nation from the middle out:

Younger households have borne the brunt of the slowdown. Those headed by people aged 30 through 44 are more likely to be lower income — and less likely to be middle income — than in 2000

These are our parents, our families, our neighborhoods. The jobs, the income, the opportunities waiting for high school graduates, college graduates, and young people looking to start families and lives and join these communities…those things that once strengthened and stabilized our nation and its economy…they just aren’t there the way they once were. The problem is that the public sector, used, abused and abandoned by the buyer-owners of policy, have been scapegoated for the conditions created by financial and political shenanigans of those buyer-owners. The scapegoats aren’t so much “public” as in parents and families (needed as a force to win over and then turn upon their own neighbors, schools, those just under-and-over class compared to them…). The culprit pointed to was the public sector worker with any amount of job security, social and financial stability, or likelihood for advancement.

Those apparently became only for the wealthiest and/or those connected to policy. People who began to revolve in and out of corporate advisement, political appointment, and “non-profit” advocacy regardless of their experience, performance or content/clarity of their message.

So education reform was launched and flown by these forces-less experienced in education or interested in educating citizens; more interested in training future citizens for survival in and compliance with the currently destructive system.

A truer reform effort, different than the current one grounded in a campaign of misdirection and misinformation, will be one that doesn’t just toss about words like “school choice” or “teacher quality” when it plays well in snips and snaps. It will be about more than a collection of arrogant and privileged non-educators playing education expert-partnering with policymakers to avoid the real issues and replace those issues with tests and data. True reform will come after a deepening of the debate regarding what those terms (and others used in current reform’s dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge[i]  style talking points) mean for who-and what efforts need to be made to move us forward on a better path.

Regarding a better path:

First off, let’s be honest: if you fail to get adequately educated your outcomes are less likely to be desirable. Surprised? I hope not, but current education reform narratives are built on this understood truth as if it’s some new epiphany limited to those who are behind the school reform campaign. Their evidence that schools are failing include a long semi-legitimate list (remember, I believe reform needs to happen but we need to replace theater with thought): that so many more young people are struggling in school; that so many are failing in school; that so many leave high school and attempt college unprepared; that so many drop out or are expelled; that test scores aren’t what they should be…it goes on and on.

The reform campaign, while likely to produce improved outcomes (“survival”?) for some, was initiated under an umbrella of blame that is not convincing. Sure we can all be better, should want to be better, but the propaganda can get a little outrageous-and it must be kinda fun too. I’m sorry, but there’s a twisted part of me that wants to travel back in time and be a fly on the wall for the conversations that rocketed Rhee from lousy teacher for a few years to nationally renowned teacher humiliat-er  and education expert. For those who can reach back to the classics and make this connection, I am going to give reform-think a shot:

The only reasons Charlie Bucket made it to the final round was that he was a disconnected white child of privilege, and because Willy Wonka ran a shoddy, narrow vision failure factory (and was himself an overprotected failure…probably a pervert too), and all his products were wrapped in shiny packages but contained little real quality. Actually, Charlie didn’t really earn that factory…he was just given it because Willie didn’t want to hold him to a higher standard!

What many reform advocates avoid is a discussion about the undeniably correlated factors that 1) impact a learner’s ability to take advantage of opportunities and in concentration can place hurdles in the path of a school’s academic mission-turning it towards a more social one; and 2) encourage market forces to undermine the goal of having a truly educated citizenry, turning the goal of public education towards feeding the free-market furnace. It didn’t take long for reform narratives to shift to “the most important in school factor…”

But of course. That’s like an arsonist avoiding responsibility by saying the most important in home factor in preventing fires is a fire extinguisher. The market seeks to undermine, blame and maximize economic and social control.

Under Obama, the privatizers—led by Bill Gates and the Walton family—have opened a huge area of government to an industry led more by entrepreneurs than teaching professionals

While this did come from Alternet, I wouldn’t categorize it as just typical Alternet alarmist-speak. The folks involved in test-based accountability and common standards are pretty much on the record salivating over the opportunities available in the edu-product market-especially those available once citizens are compelled to comply with common standards, becoming a large population of standardized consumers.

What do you suppose education reformers and our leaders intend for the world our children are growing up in to? Is it a “civil right”-is it right at all, for us to demand, test and punish a growing number to ensure that a few more will merely survive?

Can we do better with a refocused brand of reform for all of us?

[i] Patches O’Houlihan, dodgeball legend

Let’s keep “choice” honest

Instead of repeating the words choice and accountability as if they are stand alone solutions and suggesting that the most important results are linked to fudge-able stats (test scores, graduation rates…) we should be demanding real educational accountability- for honesty; for integrity; for the good of all children, not just the ones with parents equipped to participate in the “choice” market.

And while those streaking across our public commons with their shiny, well-funded behinds hanging out, waving a banner saying “Me saying ‘accountability’ proves how much I care about the poors” can appear honest-we never really get into HOW the exemplar supposed stellar performing charter schools achieve their results.

This should also be part of the conversation.

Now I am fully in favor of parental right to choose. My wife and I  spent a lot of our time chasing down choices that according to regulations should have been available, and then got told it depends on whether a school can afford to or wants to provide them. When alternative choices or settings exist, parents should be free to choose them but better questions would be:

  1. Why are our traditional schools not empowered to bring Al Shanker’s original vision for locally controlled, professionally driven charters to life within the public school system?
  2. Why all the praise for the opaque, privately controlled, selective charters who are held up for comparisons to disrespected and underfunded traditional schools?

A prime example is Success Academy’s Eva Moskowitz who has been clear and proud about how she keeps some students out, gets rid of others, refused to sign standard preK contracts for funding then claims that holding her to them hurts children.

“If they backfilled older grades, [Moskowitz] said, the incoming students’ lower relative academic preparation would adversely affect the schools’ other students.”

Traditional, truly public schools are not free to operate this way and their doors are open to any student coming to them regardless of their readiness to learn. They don’t filter their enrollments to artificially stroke and protect their testing and graduation stats (ala’ Moskowitz). They plow ahead, underfunded and over-mandated, trying to meet the needs of a mixed group of students that include top students and peers needing maximum support. It’s not just disingenuous to disparage obligation and prop up artifice-it’s shameful.

And yet every time a pro-choicer wants to prove the value of “choice”, Moskowitz’s “high performing” Success Academy is held up like a beacon with little examination of how she and the school is allowed to operate in order to make protecting those results first (putting students second). Not only is she more than willing to defend how the school filters in and pushes out students, she is shameless in her self-promotion, willing to  empty her schools of staff and students to lobby in the streets for her private, selective enterprise during school time! 

AND she had the nerve to call it a civics field trip or something. But who wrote that lesson plan?

“An option was not presented. The schools assigned everyone with a job, so you were either going to be an instructional coach or a bus captain,” one teacher explained. “They weren’t really asking us if that’s what we wanted to do. They were telling us that that’s what we were going to do instead of teaching for the day.”

Can you imagine the Education Post articles that would have been written if local schools had done this in order to push for and end to the ongoing failure of the Governor to meet public school funding obligations?

I do believe high quality choice means honest choice through valid comparison of earned (not manufactured) results that include test scores but go beyond.

Maybe the NAACP has some ideas on how to make this happen. Some way where we can have honest choices and valid comparisons instead of transparent campaigns to undermine schools that belong to the public.

Be cautious, not bold, for our children

November 16th, 2016

Dear President Elect Trump,

First, let me say congratulations. I am not surprised by the outcome the way many are-especially those whiners in the so-called mainstream media. Clearly they are out of touch with Main Street America, but that was pretty obvious the moment they started getting their knickers in a twist over the immense popularity of Bernie Sanders and going out of their way to put a forensics team onto anything you’ve ever said or done-all while ignoring the entrenched establishment connecting lobbyists, policymakers and media outlets. Don’t get me wrong, I think you come off like a jackass when you promise to cover the legal fees of a violent Trump fan willing to assault a protester. The Tic-Tac and “move on her like a bitch” stuff deserves to be hammered hard (don’t get excited, that’s not sexual euphemism) because it’s crass, misogynist, and adolescent in all the worst ways-especially coming from a guy old enough to be my dad and more so considering my perspective: an actual adult man with three beautiful daughters. Don’t get excited-it’ll never happen. In the end, the campaign behind us was a perfect storm: a combination of the ineptitude of the DNC and your ability to play the crowd and the media. You are a true showman, bold-and-beyond, so again-congratulations.

Next, I want to address the issue of education. There is a lot of curiosity regarding how things will go moving forward. I think you should focus less on abolishing the common core standards, and more on:

  1. Reducing federal pressures on and intrusions into the minutiae of how schools prepare their students for the world that is.
  2. Moving away from the exclusionary test-driven rigged system that sheltered, elite and arrogant Democrats say readies students for “college and career”-with zero honesty about what that really does in terms of protecting them in their establishment bubble over addressing student needs.
  3. Ensuring more equity in opportunity for students between less affluent and more affluent districts. The opportunities to be exposed to a wider variety of enriching experiences from an early age is what prepares young learners and then motivates them to excel as they grow and seek out more opportunities on their own.

Your comments on bringing control back to the local level are encouraging-breaking free of the Chicago edu-mob and promoting some honest educators with understanding of what children need and how they learn would be a great step forward. But don’t get too loosey-goosey with it (again, don’t get excited, go for the tic-tacs and start grabbing at anything down-low and within reach, I just mean don’t go too “slash-and-burn”). Some fed oversight into overall common expectations isn’t bad, but those expectations should be based on developmentally appropriate standards and respecting the fact that while teachers should be evaluated-children also need to come to school prepared to learn and freed of much of the physical, psychological and emotional baggage more of them are bringing to school these days. Standardized tests won’t hug or feed these kids, or read to them or help with homework, but stable homes and present parents will. This country is failing these folks at the community and family level by not having jobs and incomes that keep communities and families stable. Stability in these areas is a more powerful booster than any temporary teacher whose claim to fame is firing a real educator on T.V... oops. Please don’t take that wrong, firing people on T.V. might work as a vicarious thrill-I’m just saying I hope that the Michelle Rhee thing is just a rumor when it comes to how we raise and educate children. It’s one thing to inspire tall buildings labeled with giant gold letters-another to rise inexplicably from not good at a job to judging how others do it-could be part of that self-important, image-over-substance “education reform” establishment, I guess.

Let me wrap this up by telling you I did not vote for you, but I felt no remorse at Clinton’s loss (I didn’t vote for her either). The nation has suffered under pretend progressives and while the party I almost never vote with has won-I am keeping an open mind and a hopeful heart. I hope you will do the same.

Sincerely,

Dan McConnell

P.S. I hope you got the letter my daughter wrote you last year and took some of it’s advice to heart. Be a little more cautious and a little less “bold” when it comes to how you model true leadership. I have my own children as well as those I teach to think about.

Pinto Owners are People

They’re kinda ugly-the Pintos, that is. And it’s been a long while since one has rolled off the factory floor-thirty years or more? So you have to imagine if one is still being driven it has left much rubber, many years, and many miles behind. It’s the type of car Jay Leno probably does not have in his warehouse-of-cars collection-nestled between one of the McLarens and a Jaguar (I now know its pronounced Jeg’-yoo-ahh…but maybe that’s only on the other side of the pond).

But should we pass judgment on a car that might be good enough to get someone to work and back, to get their kids to school and yet is not good enough to make it into the Leno collection? When you see a Pinto parked in a neighborhood in decline, or in front of a home that looks as if it’s in disrepair; or if you see a family piling into or out of one (rust around the wheel wells and a bungee cord holding down the hatch-back trunk, maybe even a piece of cardboard duck-taped over the space where a window used to be), cigarette dangling from the mouth of the man climbing into the driver’s seat with a fistful of scratch-off lottery tickets in one hand; four kids, all looking a little unwashed, squeezing and climbing into a backseat that has room for only three…No-you shouldn’t pass judgement.

While knee-jerk judgments might be made about people who spend money on smokes and scratch-offs while their kids skip breakfast entirely, eat bagel bites and boxed mac and cheese for dinner, and hope the “free and reduced” will fill the hunger and nutrition gaps…it is the impact (not the details) of living in poverty that needs to be considered-not how you feel about the people living in poverty and the choices they make. We can’t pass judgment on the decisions people make because they have to, or feel like they have to.

We should, though, counsel those who ignore forces feeding into poverty, and those who dismiss the impacts of poverty-especially if they do it to suit an agenda. I will call them the swollen ticks on the ass of society, for want of a better term. Take, for example, Walmart. Lauded for the willingness to employ, for its profits, and for the founding family’s willingness to support the undermining of public education, the corporation is often overlooked in terms of its genius business model. They have found a way to have taxpayers subsidize their fabulous profits as well as their mission to create more poor people and keep them poor. Their wages are so low that workers often need food stamps to survive. That absolves Walmart of the guilt that would gnaw at your average non-nightstalker because: “Hey…the taxpayers will help feed their babies!” The good news is that you can get real cheap stuff at Walmart-which makes keeping people poor less of a burden on your soul, I guess.

Do nightstalkers have souls? I guess that’s writing for another day.

Where it becomes suspicious, even dangerous, is when the approach to things like education reform is formed and framed carefully by those who live comfortably distanced from poverty. This means they are unfamiliar to any practical degree with the jobs and situations they comment on, and are also protected from the agenda they promote. So while some applaud, for example, Campbell Brown’s efforts to highlight an imagined army of pervert teachers using tenure to protect their sicko inclinations as well as their professional ineptitude, I view it with a mixture of caution, regret, and a pinch of sympathy. This approach is the mac and cheese of the privileged; their cheap-n-easy go-to. That’s all they have because they can’t/won’t and don’t want to do the real work; because they don’t really know what it’s like to have your choices limited to “this” car and “that” food; because they make their money within the very system benefiting from poverty to begin with! If education reformers were to participate in a more truthful and comprehensive examination of what is behind the “reform” movement, and why reform is really needed; if they committed themselves to finding a cure: they’d be undermining their purpose (which is avoiding those cure-conversations and focusing instead on an efficient and marketable prescription-thereby protecting the system that is and pays them to protect it).

But in time, strategies that lean in to profit and away from people are exposed. Consider this description of how Ford negatively impacted their own reputation with their private take on customers:

Much of the negative sentiment toward Ford was in response to their use of an economic risk-benefit decision making analysis which found that the cost of a recall would outweigh the value of the lives it would save.

So for the same reason you cannot pass judgement on the Pinto family, you can’t justify judgement on the nightstalkers. It’s economic risk-benefit. It’s what they know. They move from one unsuspecting endeavor to the next, and as one host is bled out or fails, they are promoted to/shifted to/ pop up in another opportune location with a formula, a sure-fire plan, a consulting position and some talking points to buttress their value… It’s like soulless immortality in a way-and the ultimate in job security. But sooner or later, people who know better find out.

 

And Pinto owners are people.