Enemies Accumulate… often more than friends… and they’re louder too.


Spoiler Alert: I recall an incident in grad school in which one of the students (who regularly sought ways to minimize his own work load in the class) got on the last nerve of the prof. He looked the student in the eye and quietly said, ”I’ve seen your future. It doesn’t work.”

This is about seeing a future for our system of public education and the signs that it is not working for too many kids. The current infatuation with school choice in all of its iterations is less a result of the huge influx in philanthropic money than it is confluence of that money with the responsive chord it strikes with many adults whose school memories are not positive.

This post has grown in length and complexity. You might want to take a moment to fetch a glass or two of your favorite adult beverage before settling in. I apologize… not for the length, but for not making it better. I think it was Benjamin Franklin who, in response to criticism about something he had written, quipped, “If I had had more time, I could have made it shorter.” Contrary to Franklin’s experience, I have taken more time and it’s still not better.


Walt Kelly Poster – First Earth Day – 1970

It’s hard to keep current with the field of teaching and learning without being confronted by the latest utterances about the wisdom or folly of the school choice movement. I realized while writing my last post about the problems caused by building meaningful decisions about the future of our children on the quicksand-foundation of grades and grading policies that there is a connection between that topic and others which affect how parents look at schools and school choice.

In that post, I shared how our use of inconsistent systems for evaluating and reporting student progress colors the school experiences for far too many students, creates a quicksand- like foundation for often substantial financial awards, and subtly erodes confidence in our schools. This post continues the theme of the growing cost of further inaction.

For those of us who work or have worked with students in schools, it should come as no great surprise that some kids didn’t like school. For those of you who know me, you will also not be surprised that I connect this lack of excitement about school to the quality of the relationships that kids experienced there… sometimes these poor relationships were with other kids and, too frequently, they involved their teachers.

Kids grow up (at least they age) and as they do they bring their memories and conclusions with them. If they didn’t much care for school as students, they are not very likely to like them more as adults. In my opinion we’ve paid too little attention to this dynamic.

For the majority of time that I’ve spent working in and around schools (over 50 years now) this dynamic didn’t matter too much. Kids passed through schools. Teachers taught them. Some liked it. Some didn’t. It didn’t much change the way things worked. Kids still came to school. Teachers still taught them. Some attended private schools. Some were home schooled. But the vast majority of the nation’s students attended a school that was a part of the public school system. In too many instances, schools were places that kids came to watch adults work hard.

The seeds of educational “reform”…

As the dynamic of school and student opinions about it continued, the number of students who didn’t like school increased faster than the death rate of that same group – i.e., the group of adults who did not recall their school experiences with any degree of fondness accumulated new members. For years these members remained a fairly non-threatening group. They were happy enough just to leave their unhappy school days behind them and get on with life. Then the ground shifted.

The Russians launched the first satellite and the world order was threatened. Not folks to shy away from using blame to deflect any responsibility for their own role, politicians looked for scapegoats. Where do kids learn (or, in this case, not learn) the science necessary to win the space race? Why schools, of course. Those places that many of the politicians didn’t much like as students.

Additional seeds of concern were sown with the release of a document originally intended to call into question the continued viability of the federal Department of Education. The report, A Nation At Risk, painted a dismal picture of American students’ academic performance. The report resulted in barrels of ink being used to feed the articles seeking blame and forecasting imminent doom. Far less ink was expended on articles which challenged the accuracy of the report’s data and conclusions.

Fast forward to the most important stuff for us… Four important developments for consideration

  1. The increasing attention to the performance of U.S. students on national and intentional tests revealed the size of the potential market that education presented to businesses.
  2. The realization by libertarian political groups that education (although receiving little financial support from federal sources) represented a relatively defenseless target for the advancement of a their smaller government agenda.

Note: This blog was trolled at one point by a writer who, in comments extolling the failure of schools and the advantages of parental choice, used the term “government schools” in place of public school throughout his/her comments.

  1. The Supreme Court decision, Citizens United, enabled those with deep pockets and a political agenda to capture the attention of those whose school memories of experiences were unpleasant. Groups such as ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), or those that could envision the financial rewards of a “market-driven” system of education, added dissatisfaction with school to their opportunities to promote a budding charter/choice movement.

Note: While traveling the country working with schools, I noted that in all four of the states in which I was working in 2014-15, each had introduced legislation for a revision in teacher evaluation. Although denying any connection to ALEC, the governor in my own state introduced legislation that was remarkably similar to that in the four states in which I was working. Coincidence? Not likely.

  1. Proving that politicians do, indeed, have a sense of irony, they passed a comprehensive, narrowly focused education bill, No Child Left Behind, which left millions of children behind.

Note: Coming under attack for the folly of this disastrous piece of legislation, politicians attempted to salvage the public’s perception of their collective sense of humor and irony, if not intelligence, by crafting the Every Student Succeeds Act.

So what’s this all got to do with me?

This is a question which in various forms has been heard in schools and faculty rooms throughout the entire course of the reform movement. The cultures we have created and/or allowed to continue in our schools have a huge component of individual teacher independence. While recent federal legislation and required state responses have greatly limited the content that should/must be covered in our classrooms, how the teachers conduct their classrooms varies greatly and remains largely at the discretion of the individual teacher. The focus of the vast majority of American educators has been to do the best they can for the kids that are in their classrooms, frequently tuning out all of the noise around reform and getting involved only when the changes threaten either their comfort or the well-being of their students. We are traditionally late to respond. While the years of large scale assessment were regularly thought by educators to be harmful to students, especially in the younger grades, it was the introduction of test data into the teacher evaluation process that caused the kind of large scale reaction that powered the opt-out movement.

Without realizing it, however, this penchant for continuing to “do school” as we have come to know it, to find comfort in it, and to “stay above the fray” feeds the growing base of choice advocates. Parents whose school experiences were less than satisfactory (at best) or downright unhappy (at worst) find themselves with the opportunity to give their kids a different (and, in their minds, more positive) experience. Add to that the sanctity of individual choice and you have a pretty neat argument for the extension of that “right” to the “right” of individual families to choose the school that might be right for their children.

The Result…

Public schools in our country are in a fight for sustainability. The system as we know is under assault. We do not have the luxury of sitting and watching from our classrooms.

  1. We have well funded efforts to privatize and monetize our system of education.
  2. We have a significant number of adults whose experiences as students with the public school system were less than satisfactory and whose loyalty to that system is colored by such experiences.
  3. As discussions about what constitutes the “common good” are characterized by polarization and lack of consensus, the commitment to a system of that is based on an acceptance of a “common” good is waning.
  4. Concurrent with these factors, is the reality that school as we experienced it is not a sustainable financial model. It is a model based on a predictable increase in annual costs funded primarily via local, state or federal funds at a time when an increasing number of American citizens are accepting the idea that all taxes are bad.

A call to action…

We cannot do school as usual. We are beginning to see a significant increase in initiatives that are seeking ways to offer greater numbers of students promises of more engaging and relevant learning experiences and to reinvent the ways in which we approach the learning process, both for students and for adults. These are a beginning but are scattered, and do not represent the experiences that the majority of U.S. students are having in our schools.

I may have shared an observation relating to choices. As a superintendent I was sometimes asked by younger colleagues, “What can I do to prepare myself so that I can be considered for a promotional job opportunity?” I responded that, confronted with the choice between candidates/options, there were really only two questions that an interviewer had to answer…

QUESTION #1 – “Why should I hire this person? or

QUESTION #2 – “How can I not hire this person?”

When I found myself asking the second question, I knew I had made my choice.

Thus, these two seemingly simple questions have profound implications for our choices and the implications of these two questions are no less profound when the options involved the choices involved in selecting schools for our children. The deliberations facing parents can be summarized by them: Why should I choose this school for my children? How can I not choose the school for my children?

During my time as an ‘SOB from out of town with slides’ (the informal definition of a consultant), I visited a lot of schools and met a lot of educators. In the vast majority of cases, the assembled talent in the meetings and presentations represented more talent than could be found almost anywhere else in the community. But we’ve wasted it. We’ve locked it up in 40’ x 40’ rooms and largely kept it isolated from any real decisions about learning, especially those which might occur beyond the walls of the individual classroom.

Because that’s how we experienced school as students, we accepted this and the culture it helped to create as “normal” just as we accepted that some kids thrive, some kids, do OK and some just “aren’t made for school”.

We can no longer depend on the occasional visionary leader to drive the kinds of changes that will insure that all students have experiences that result in kids and their parents see Question #2 as the only question.

It is time for all of us who work in schools to be relentless in the pursuit of the culture which yields “How can I not send my child to that school?” as the only question. This means that we can no longer accept  the fact that not all members of our staff own the responsibility for developing the kinds of relationships that build affiliation, own the responsibility for facilitating learning experiences that truly engage children in the learning process, own the responsibility not only for what happens with the students we guide in our classrooms but also for what happens with the students who are in the classroom with the adult who has checked out.

I see this as a moral issue, but that’s just me. Regardless of your feelings about that aspect of the situation, we cannot continue to think that a system is OK and will get positive answers to Question #2 when, according the Gallup research, it sees a drop in student engagement from 80% (in 4th grade) to less that 50% by 11th grade.

Next Time on Rethinking Learning …Where Do We Begin?

This is doable. It is well within our capacity as educators. It begins with a first step. Do we want people in our schools and in our communities, our area to ask only Question #2? In the next post, I’ll offer approaches that I have seen firsthand. But first, a flipped blog moment.… For those of you who want to continue this exploration, I’d like you do the following between now and next week:

  1. Get a copy of your school/district mission statement and at least one from another school and/or district?
  2. For yours, make a quick list of the key points in the statement – see example below.
  3. For yours, make a quick list of policies and practices that reflect – i.e., intentional actions that make real/support – the key points of the statement
  4. For yours, make a short list of policies and practices that seem at odds with the statements.

Example – sample mission statement

XXX School recognizes that each child is an individual; that all children are creative; that all children need to succeed. Therefore, Community School respects the individual needs of children; fosters a caring and creative environment; and emphasizes the social, emotional, physical, intellectual development of each child.

Key points:

  • Children are individuals
  • Children are creative
  • Children need to succeed
  • School culture and personnel respect individual needs
  • School culture and personnel foster caring and creative environment
  • School emphasizes social, emotional, physical, intellectual development of each child

What would positive, intentional practices look like for each bullet?

What practices might be at odds with any/all of the key points?

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