I’m frightened. Are you?

I’m frightened for us as a society. I’m frightened for the world my grandkids will experience.  I’m frightened of who we’ve become… a nation of self-interested acquirers.  We’ve become what the Greeks called “idiots”.

In classical Greece, this was a term of the greatest derision.  They were “Private people…People consumed with self-interest.”  There was an understanding that democratic societies dominated by “idiots” could not survive.  Their argument went like this… a society whose people are only concerned with themselves can’t look out for any kind of common good or shared interest. Such a society would lapse into poverty and then, violence. 

Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Garrett (2020) in their book entitled The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How WE Can Do It Again, using evidence about economics, politics, society and culture, make a case that the U.S. has gone through periods of:

  • ‘I-ness’ (self-centeredness) – 1870s to 1890s
  • ‘We-ness’ (concern for others) – 1900 to 1970s and back to the present period of
  • Excessive ‘I-ness’ – late 1970s to the present.

America and “I-ness”

People only concerned with themselves can’t look out for any kind of common wealth or shared interest.  Want proof? While generally associated with more conservative economic thinking and policies, the development of  excessive ‘I-ness’, has spanned years of control by both major political parties. And, during this same span of years, we have seen an increasing reluctance to invest in social needs and/or institutions while experiencing a significant loss of jobs, increasing personal debt,  increasing costs for health care, prescription drugs, and a declining life expectancy.   There are numerous signs that our infrastructure is in trouble (roads, public lands, transportation system, etc.) and the pandemic has highlighted the ways in which issues of equity (or lack thereof) have affected our concerns for public safety, our institutions, and our faith in government.

A recent study showed that since 1970, the wages of 90% of our citizens have remained almost totally flat while the incomes of the top 1% have increased 700 times their former value.  This  development has, in many ways, strengthened the “I-ness” focus.  It has validated our fears that we actually live in a world dominated by scarcity.  In this culture, my needs are in competition with the needs of others… we’ve internalized that there’s not enough to go around.  Not enough jobs, not enough basic elements (food, shelter, clothing, etc.).  I have to get mine and your needs are in competition with mine.  In this situation “I-ness” is understandable, even predictable.

“I-ness” and education

Investment in education offers a particularly clear and troubling example. Our investment in our schools has yet to return to even the dramatically reduced levels associated with the Great Recession of 2008.  Let’s see… taxes vs. the education of our children.  Ah, lower taxes win! Self-interest wins! Idiocy wins.

I know, I’m sure this description would have been easier to read if the Greeks hadn’t chosen the word “idiot”; however, watching the collective performance of our elected leaders it’s hard not to wonder if perhaps the Greeks got it right.

Here’s a sobering reality.  Lapsing into poverty is no longer just a possibility for many of our citizens. It is a reality.  A Pew Research Center report shows that “as of 2015, middle-income households have become the minority.”  Other studies reveal that 75% of Americans can’t raise $500 for an emergency.  By 2014 80% of us lived paycheck to paycheck.  What does this shrinking share of the American Dream lead to?  It leads to selfishness.  It leads to “I-ness”.  

This is not the world I want for my grandkids or for the kids who we see each day in our schools (or in our Zoom calls).  How are we responding?  I’ve heard shouting matches, I’ve seen politization of kids’ and teachers’ lives, I seen/heard debates about who should get vaccines first.  And there is still the ever-present ranting about taxes and the cost of schooling. In the meantime, kids are moving into and back out of schools so frequently that the best investment might now be in the installation of revolving doors.

As I was reflecting on whether or not to write this negative a post, I was “gifted” a post  by Jan Resseger.  Regular followers will know that I admire Jan’s work and her commitment to equitable access to quality public education for each and every child in America. In her post, Jan cited the work of Steve Nelson, the former head of school of a private, progressive school, the Calhoun School in Manhattan. In a recent post , “Measuring the Wrong Things”,  Nelson warned of the problems in federally mandated standardized tests… a bigger issue now that President Biden has reneged on his campaign promise to halt their use.

In contrast to most critics of the nation’s standardized testing commitment, in his post, Nelson offers a different perspective…

Education reformers and so-called policy “experts” are constantly collecting and analyzing data. Many of these experts are, not surprisingly, economists. It’s not for nothing that economics is sometimes called “the dismal science.” The hostile takeover of education by non-educators is filled with intelligent sounding phrases: “evidence-based,” “data driven,” “metrics and accountability.” At every level of schooling, mountains of data are collected to inform “best practices” based on the alleged cause and effect implications of data-based instruction and the feedback gleaned from tests. 

…Throughout education, an increasingly rigid, closed loop of assessment is systematically making schools worse: Define things children should know or be able to do at a certain age; design a curriculum to instruct them in what you’ve decided they should know; set benchmarks; develop tests to see if they have learned what you initially defined; rinse and repeat.

…These behaviors (pressing academic work on young children) are a direct result of measuring the wrong thing (test scores). If we measured the right things (social development, curiosity, empathy, imagination and confidence), we would engage in a whole different set of education behaviors (play, socialization, arts programs, open-ended discovery). (Italics mine)

After more than 20 years of reading, observing, teaching and presiding over a school, I’m convinced that this simple statement — “Measure the wrong things and you’ll get the wrong behaviors” — is at the root of what ails education, from cradle to grave. Measuring the wrong thing (standardized scores of 4th graders) drives the wrong behaviors (lots of test prep and dull direct instruction). In later school years, measuring the wrong thing (SAT and other standardized test scores, grade point averages, class rank) continues to invite the wrong behaviors (gaming the system, too much unnecessary homework, suppression of curiosity, risk-aversion, high stress).

Measuring the right things is more complicated and less profitable. But if we measured the things that we should truly value (creativity, joy, physical and emotional health, self-confidence, humor, compassion, integrity, originality, skepticism, critical capacities), we would engage in a very different set of behaviors (reading for pleasure, boisterous discussions, group projects, painting, discovery, daydreaming, recess, music, cooperation rather than competition).

As Nelson wrote in his opening, he was tempted to write this in ALL CAPS.  The educational policies that have determined the learning experiences of our children have been created by “American Idiots”… in the truest sense of the Greek.  The entire standards and assessment business has been extremely profitable for a small number of companies.  At what cost to our children?  How about the disappearance of arts programming, the increase in test-related remediation and test preparation, the increase in technology infrastructure required to administer the large-scale assessments… assessments billed as critical to the identification and guidance of instruction for children (while results are frequently not available to teachers until the fall of the subsequent year)!

What our kids don’t need… more trauma

We are right to be frightened.  Our kids have been living with varying degrees of trauma since last March.  I use the “t” word advisedly.  Diane Ravitch shared a letter to the feds from a NY school board in New York State (Port Washington Union Free School District on Long Island) captures the situation more eloquently than I can…

The pandemic has caused our country’s children immense psychological harm and stress. Children are best served by face-to-face interactions and connections with teachers. staff. and know students, in a school building setting. Our school buildings are our children’s ecosystem, and for many, it’s their primary source of emotional and social support, (not to mention food and nutrition and sometimes even clothing). Last March. all of that was taken from them. literally overnight. Sadly. to this very day. many schoolchildren nationwide. including in New York State, have yet to return to in-person instruction, and even for those who have returned. in-person instruction is often not full time and is plagued by constant quarantines of both students and staff. 

This is a common tale. And how have we spent our time? As the school board letter demonstrates, we continue to argue whether or not large-scale assessments should be given this year… tests which cost millions and are better predictors of socio-economic status than learning.   We project the degree of “learning loss” being suffered by  our kids. We struggle with  what kind of grading policy should we be using.  Did you know…Prior to COVID our students were experiencing record high incidences of stress, anxiety, and depression?  And that was before the pandemic.  

The Implications…

We cannot hope to return to school the way it was before the pandemic and expect different results.  And we need different results.  We have ample proof that entrusting the direction, focus, and experiences of schooling, as the majority of our kids experience it, to the latest round of American Idiots and expecting different results is lunacy.  Whether we do this as individual parents, as educators, or as policy makers, we cannot continue our current path.  We cannot depend on those who created the way our kids experience school to offer different solutions. 

The Next Steps…Imagining our way to the future

 A look at the “seen” and the “unseen” realities of our experiences… a paraphrase from Untamed by Glennon Doyle 

I believe that there are two orders of things: There is the seen order unfolding in front of us every day in our schools, on our streets and in the news. In this visible order, there is contention about where our kids should be learning… remotely at home, in-person in school, a mix of both options (hybrid). There is contention about what to do with “learning loss”, etc.  We see our children experiencing and suffering from increased trauma.  We see kids failing and disengaged.  We see kids without the resources necessary to participate in remote schooling. We see increasing violence in our streets, We call this order of things reality. This is “the way things are.”

“It’s all we can see because it’s all some of us have ever seen. Yet something inside us rejects it. We know instinctively: This is not the intended order of things. This is not how things are meant to be. We know that there is a better, truer, wilder way. That better way is the unseen order inside us. It is the vision we carry in our imagination about a truer, more beautiful world—”

PLZ I DON’T LIKE THIS…

 Intro… This is the introduction to a series of posts.  These posts have been developed in response to a number of conversations that have occurred during the past year and will deal with where we are and where we are going – i.e., direction and our need to assess where we are going to go both now and in a post-COVID environment. 

As regular followers will have noticed, posts during the pandemic time have focused to some extent on how to manage the challenges of various forms of schooling that have emerged as temporary solutions to a situation beyond our experience.  The major focus continues to be the opportunity presented by this turning upside down of our schooling experiences to rethink learning and the role we can play in this process.

The story shared below describes the experiences of a child in our current iteration of schooling.  The choice of words here (“schooling”) is deliberate.  The vast majority of the experiences being provided to our children right now are still designed to resemble as closely as possible the experiences that our children have had in schools. Initially, this was understandable as, for many, the changes were made literally overnight.  As almost a year has now past, we are still struggling to reopen our school and to return the experiences of kids and educators to some semblance of “normal”.  Making changes during this time has been akin to trying to change a tire on a moving car.

Spoiler alert: Previously posted pieces as well as those in progress have as their foundation the recognition that prior to COVID disruptions our system of schooling was due for an update.  Designed to respond to the needs of the industrial revolution more than a hundred years ago, our educators and our children participate in a system that no longer meets the needs of our times, our children and our society.  This series continues an exploration of ways in which we might encourage and support efforts to move education beyond the misguided reform efforts of the past 30+ years.

PLZ I DON’T LIKE THIS…

“This message was typed by a nine-year-old child, over and over again. In capitals and with relentless economy. An unmistakable SOS.”

This is the opening line from an essay, “The Home School Curriculum”,  that appeared this week in Lockdown Sceptics, a British site where the focus seems to be captured by the site name.  Where was the child and what was happening to her? She was at home. In her Geography class. On Microsoft Teams.

Her plea was captured in another article that appeared in the socially conservative British blog, The Conservative Woman.   It it the author outlined what a day at school is now like for a nine-year-old boy called Simon.  I’ve reproduced a large portion of the article in this post.

Recently, we had the opportuity to host 3 of our granddaughters who were in a remote learning week with a loss of home internet service. They were with us for 4 days. They each had what I’ll call “Simon moments”… moments of disconnect, moments of quiet rebellion, moments of confusion and moments of deep involvement.

“The cruel reality of online ‘school’ in a 12th floor flat”

Simon begins his school day by sliding the couple of feet from his bed to his computer – so the Conservative Woman article begins. We are not told that he gets dressed. Nor even that he goes to the bathroom. He turns on the screen, watches a few YouTube videos, then logs on to Microsoft Teams and registers for his first class of the day by typing ‘Hi Miss’ into the chatbox.

Has Simon woken up yet? Has he looked out of his window? Has he spoken? Or has he moved seamlessly between a dream land and a virtual land without traversing any real land at all?

…Simon’s first lesson of the home-school day is Science. His teacher sends through a document, which the class is expected to download. It is a multiple-choice questionnaire, and they have 30 minutes to complete it. If the children need help, which most of them do, they must type a question into the chatbox. The teacher tries to answer as many questions as he can, but there is not much time and there are many technical difficulties. At the end of the 30 minutes, Simon has not received any answers to his chatbox queries and has guessed at four out of the 20 questions. Next week, he may be told whether his guesses were correct. Or not. Either way, it does not matter.

We make a mistake if we focus on what Simon has not learnt during his Science lesson. He has not learnt much about the make-up of plant cells – that is true, and inevitable. But he has learnt something, of far wider relevance. He has learnt that it does not matter. Whatever is being taught does not matter – how could it, plucked from an already abstract National Curriculum, suspended onto a slide that appears, out of nowhere and in no context, on a screen in your bedroom on the 12th floor. But Simon also learns that whether or not he understands what is being taught does not matter, and whether or not he completes the teacher’s task does not matter. None of it matters, which Simon learns quickly and well.

The lesson that things do not matter is not easily taught, especially not to a nine-year-old. Its demoralising effect goes against the native energy of youth. It must be carefully and doggedly instilled if it is to take. Simon’s Science lesson has been effective in instilling it.

Simon’s next class is Geography. There is a long time spent in waiting for everyone to log on. Some never do. Then there is more time spent in waiting for the teacher to solve problems with her technology. Finally, she manages to share a screen image of the Earth with its various layers – crust, mantle, core. The task is to name each layer. Simon waits for others to write their answers first, and copies them. Many of the children ask for help. The teacher mutes herself for everyone so that she can speak individually to one of them. The others wait in silence. Or type PLZ I DON’T LIKE THIS, over and over again. By the time the teacher returns, the class is at an end.

Simon’s Geography lesson is the cruellest one of all, the most painful for the children to sit through. In the context of their general remoteness, from the world, from each other, even from themselves, their teacher’s switching off their audio-link gives them the experience of an even greater remoteness. Of the outer reaches of remoteness. Of an isolation within what is an already aching isolation. Simon and the other children are not just left alone in their Geography lesson. They are switched off. Shut out.

Simon’s Geography lesson teaches him little or nothing about the Earth’s layers. Of course it doesn’t – confined to the 12th floor, what can the Earth’s layers really mean to Simon? What it does teach him is his radical aloneness, via a practical experiment in the sudden and total severance of his last thin thread of human contact.

Lunch, for Simon, is a sandwich in front of the screen, watching clips of Premier League highlights.

Then it is time for P.E. Simon is sent a video of someone doing star-jumps. He is expected to copy them in his room. But there is no room in Simon’s room. His efforts to recreate a star are hindered by the nearness of his bed to his desk and of his desk to the door.

Next to Simon’s efforts to make like a star in a bedroom too cramped for his arms and legs to extend, the sublime skills of his favourite Premier League stars shine brighter and more tantalisingly than ever before. Vicarious physicality effortlessly carries the day.

Simon quickly abandons his P.E. class, but not before he has learnt its valuable lesson: the literal and leaden limits of the physical. Simon’s P.E. class teaches him to despise his body, with its physical limits, its non-sublimity. A lump of meat in a meat space. Apt for nothing at all.

The final lesson of Simon’s home-school day is Drama. Simon used to love Drama, the article tells us. He used to enjoy doing acting exercises with his friends. Now, he is sent scenes from the National Theatre, which he does not understand at all. He watches funny videos of his own choosing instead.

Simon’s Drama class should be cancelled; you cannot do acting exercises with your friends on Microsoft Teams. But it is not cancelled. Instead, something is substituted for the collaborative inventiveness that Simon has so enjoyed about Drama: a heavy dose of the National Theatre, utterly uninteresting to Simon and his classmates, and inevitably leading them to turn on something more entertaining.

And the lesson of Simon’s home-school Drama class is thereby imparted: imaginative collaboration is exchangeable with personal entertainment; active creativity, replaceable by passive consumption. How long will Simon’s enthusiasm for acting exercises survive this lesson in lazy amusement?

And so ends Simon’s home-school day…

Dr Sinead Murphy is a Research Associate in Philosophy at Newcastle University.

Simon is frightened.  When you read his story you can almost feel his fright.  You don’t have to live “across the pond” to be a frightened child today.  Trauma surrounds us. We know that trauma greatly affects the learning of adults and children alike.  We know that our kids are being shuffled in and out of school. They’re hearing about parents of friends, their teachers, maybe their own parents being stricken with COVID. They’re reading or hearing about rising death tolls.  They wonder if they’re “spreaders”… If they might make their mom or dad sick. And we continue to measure their learning and describe it with traditional testing and grading practices.  We have the hubris to use terms like “learning loss”.

I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to have spent almost 30 years as a classroom teacher.  In that time I’ve seen countless examples of teachers who made great sacrifices in their work with children.  Too frequently, they were under-resourced, too frequently blamed for student performance scores far more influenced by our continued reluctance to deal with poverty than by the limitations or commitment of their teachers and, more recently, vilified for their concerns for their own health and safety.

Our kids are not problems to be solved!  They are young, vulnerable and learning how to make sense of the world… learning about their place in that world. It is our calling to help our children learn “how to be” in their world.  Now, perhaps more than any time  in our lifetimes, it is critical that we provide those most deeply involved in the process of learning, our teachers and our learners with the voice necessary to ensure that we carefully (as in “full of care”) evaluate the experiences of our children so that we can identify and act on the things that we should start doing immediately,  the things that we should continue doing and the things we must stop doing immediately.  Do you wonder what the kids would put on such a list?

Coming themes:

  • Measure the Wrong Things and you’ll get the Wrong Behaviors – the unintended consequences of grades and assessments
  • What if opportunities were not limited by Zip Code – What does Jeff Bezos have to teach us about learning
  • The Development of the American Idiot – when self-interest trumps social investment
  • Learning Loss – Let’s create a bogus problem and then sell “fixes”

They never ask the right question…

The Little Prince, Antoine De Saint-Exupery

IMG_3580-3As regular readers may recall I’ve recently been able to experience what the internet has long promised to be… a means of bringing people together in ways that inspire deep, caring, and nurturing relationships.  Through an odd combination of networking experiences, the “4 Friends” has become such a mini-community.  One unanticipated outcome of this coming together is the recent opportunity to move our weekly “how to save the world and one another” chats to a live radio format.  Oh, did I forget to mention that 2 of the 4 Friends reside on Canada (one in BC and one in Ottawa)? Or that the remaining two live in NJ and Chicago? 

In preparing for our initial radio broadcast, one of the Friends (Tom/Chicago) suggested that we build our chats around the wisdom around The Little Prince, his favorite book.  And so it begins.  It begins with the title of this piece and the relationship between the quality of questions and the usefulness of answers.  

In thinking about the idea of asking “the right question”, I was reminded of a letter I shared in a recent post.  I posted it on Facebook as well and have lost track of the number of times that it has been shared.  The author is Theresa Thayer Snyder, a former superintendent of schools from New York State.  Her letter is entitled, “What Shall We Do About the Children?”

I am writing today about the children of this pandemic. After a lifetime of working among the young, I feel compelled to address the concerns that are being expressed by so many of my peers about the deficits the children will demonstrate when they finally return to school. My goodness, what a disconcerting thing to be concerned about in the face of a pandemic which is affecting millions of people around the country and the world. It speaks to one of my biggest fears for the children when they return. In our determination to “catch them up,” I fear that we will lose who they are and what they have learned during this unprecedented era. What on earth are we trying to catch them up on? The models no longer apply, the benchmarks are no longer valid, the trend analyses have been interrupted. We must not forget that those arbitrary measures were established by people, not ordained by God. We can make those invalid measures as obsolete as a crank up telephone! They simply do not apply. 

When the children return to school, they will have returned with a new history that we will need to help them identify and make sense of. When the children return to school, we will need to listen to them. Let their stories be told. They have endured a year that has no parallel in modern times. There is no assessment that applies to who they are or what they have learned. Remember, their brains did not go into hibernation during this year. Their brains may not have been focused on traditional school material, but they did not stop either. Their brains may have been focused on where their next meal is coming from, or how to care for a younger sibling, or how to deal with missing grandma, or how it feels to have to surrender a beloved pet, or how to deal with death. Our job is to welcome them back and help them write that history…

“What Shall We Do About the Children?”… The Little Prince would be proud.

Moving from The Little Prince to the hallowed halls of Harvard and thinking of the importance of questions, I was reminded of the beautiful  commencement address  by Dr. James Ryan in 2016. At that time, he was the Dean of the Graduate School of Education at Harvard. I’ve included the short version of this and hope you’ll find the time to look at it.  It’s one of the best written and best delivered commencement addresses I’ve heard (and in more than 40 years of working in schools I’ve heard a bunch).

In his address, Dr. Ryan speaks of the need to learn how to ask good questions and shares his sense of such questions.  As he concludes his talk, Dr. Ryan adds what he called “the bonus question”. It is taken from a poem by Raymond Carver titled “late Fragments”… His question… “Did you get what you wanted out of life…even so…?”

Ryan follows the revelation of this question with the following summary thoughts…

Did you get what what you wanted out of life… even so? 

The “even so” part this to me captures perfectly the recognition of the pain and disappointment that inevitably make up a full life but also the hope that life, even so, offers the possibility of joy and contentment. My claim is that if you regularly ask: wait, what, I wonder, couldn’t we at least, how can I help, and what really matters, when it comes time to ask yourself “And did you get what you wanted out of life, even so,” your answer will be “I did.”

… And what did you want? To call myself beloved, to feel beloved on this earth

…When I read these lines it’s hard for me not to think about students. We spend a lot of time here and elsewhere thinking about we might improve student performance…yet I can’t help but think that schools and, indeed, the world would be better places if student didn’t just simply perform well but also felt beloved, beloved by their teachers and by their classmates.  

I can add little to the eloquence of the words of Theresa Thayer-Snyder or James Ryan.  What I can do is ask us to look at Ryan’s questions and to blend them with Theresa’s tenderness and ask the questions that Ryan suggests.

  • Wait! What …Wait! What do we mean by “What shall we do with the children?
  • I wonder…I wonder what would happen if we didn’t expect to finish the curriculum and prepare kids for state tests?  What would happen if we didn’t even use the curriculum?  What would happen if the experience of the pandemic became the curriculum?
  • Couldn’t we at least …Couldn’t we at least think about the things that we really don’t need to do? Couldn’t we at least abandon grades for this semester? this year?  Couldn’t we find time to talk about what matters?
  • How can I/we help …How can we help those families who are struggling? Those kids who have lost family members? Those kids who want to draw instead of doing math?
  • What really matters …What really matters?  The strength and resilience of our kids? The state test score? The completion of all assignments? That all kids feel wanted and beloved?

As I conclude this reflection, I’m reminded of an encounter I had some time ago with Tom Sergiovanni.  For those of you approaching my age, you might recall that name.  If you’re approaching my age and have been a part of an administrative preparation program, you’re almost certain to recall it. Sergiovanni wrote the text books on supervision and evaluation that most of us had to buy.  

Several friends and I had organized a professional conference for school leaders. We engaged Dr. Sergiovanni as one of the keynote speakers and took advantage of the opportunity to pick his brain by hosting him for dinner on the night before the conference.  Before we could even begin the obligatory display of gratitude for his presence, he held up his hand and said, “Before we begin I’d like to share something. If I could get all of my earlier books out of libraries throughout the country, I’d burn them. I believe now that everything I’ve written about supervision and evaluation was wrong!”

Wait!What?

“My focus in those works was on the process and mechanics of supervision/evaluation.  It is not about that. It was never about that. It’s about community and relationships.” Dinner was interesting.

In the face of the pandemic and all that we are learning about remote learning, about caring for our learners, about caring for ourselves, etc., what should happen if much of what we’ve been doing for the past 30+ years in the name of school reform and school improvement is wrong? I maintain that it is and so I’ll add three more questions from yesterday’s blog to those of Dr. Ryan and invite you to spend a bit of time with them.

  • What should we stop doing in our schools and in our classrooms,
  • What should we keep doing? and
  • What should we start doing? 

Be well.

Resources: Cover Image: The Little Prince, Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

The Three Question Challenge

This is the shortest piece I’ve ever placed on this site.  In some ways it’s a lead-in to a larger piece that I’ve been working on for a while now.  In that piece I’ll explore in greater detail the benefits of using this incredibly challenging time to ask three critical questions based on our experiences as school leaders, teachers and parents and to find a safe way to educate our children: 

  1. What should we keep doing?
  2. What should we stop doing?
  3. What should we start doing?

One of the things we should stop doing and stop doing right now is the administration of large scale annual assessments across grade levels as a means of gauging student learning. This is wrong on two counts.  From a purely mechanical perspective, there is no way to administer these assessments fairly to kids who are in school, kids who aren’t in school, kids who have functioning internet access, kids who don’t have such access, etc.  But more importantly this time gives us the chance to look at what we wish to measure and what we actually measure with such assessments. What I’ll repeat here is what many of us know… Make no mistake, this is only marginally related to concern for student learning.  This is, rather, a continuation of the “reformer mindset” that seeks to bring business practices described as efficient (read less expensive) and free-market (read for-profit privatization and “charterization” of our system of public education) into the fabric of our educational system.

In her blog today, Jan Resseger reports on the pressure being applied by various educational organizations on the federal Department of Education to once again release states from the obligation to administer the annual large scale assessments.   Jan, as noted in earlier pieces, is a meticulous researcher and tireless advocate for the commitment to a system of public education.  Rather they are intended to call attention to the folly of US DE policy that equates the results of large scale assessments with desired student learning. 

Make no mistake, this is textbook example of Ackoff’s assertion about the difference between trying to do things right and doing the right thing.  The right thing involves finding ways to assess not student memorization or test-prep enhanced scores but genuine student learning… an outcome which has never been measured in the history of large-scale, standardized testing.Trying to do large scale assessment right in this time of pandemic only serves to highlight the problems that have been evident pre-COVID. It’s time to stop doing this!  It’s time to stop raising the ugly specter of “learning loss”. It’s time to keep building the relationships that many teachers and their kids have worked so hard to enhance when their contact is largely limited to Zoom calls.  It’s time to recognize that, as much as any time in our history, this is a time when kids are constantly learning. We and our kids are learning how to make sense of isolation, learning how to maintain relationships, learning how to process and understand why their lives have changed so much, learning how to understand how government works or why it doesn’t.  It’s time for us to start recognizing that these are legitimate (and critical) outcomes for education.  It’s time we stop thinking in terms of achievement and achievement gaps and start thinking and acting on opportunity and opportunity gaps.

Since the beginning of the so-called reform movement the engagement level of our kids has steadily declined while during this same time the reported rates of stress, anxiety and depression have dramatically risen.  The pandemic has opened a portal to new possibilities.  Many teachers and students have had experiences never before imagined.  We need to keep these!  Many of us long for the comfort of what was.  We need to recognize that ‘what was’ was not serving our kids all that well.  We need to stop wishing for the past.  We need to stop thinking of education as a way we pour measurable (and largely disconnected from life) knowledge (think Algebra II) into the heads of students. We need to start following our hearts and start focusing more intensely on the love of kids that brought us to teaching.

If you were to start a 3 question list based on learning from the pandemic experience, what would be the most important ones in each category?

Be well

More Students Than Ever got F’s First Term…

We’re staring at an opportunity. Will we take it?

Last week I read a post shared by Diane Ravitch on her blog.  In her post, Ravitch reprinted a letter written in response to growing media coverage of calls for increased testing to assess the reported growing “learning gap” resulting from the reliance on remote learning during the pandemic.  You can read the entire post here .

Dear Friends and Colleagues:

I am writing today about the children of this pandemic. After a lifetime of working among the young, I feel compelled to address the concerns that are being expressed by so many of my peers about the deficits the children will demonstrate when they finally return to school. My goodness, what a disconcerting thing to be concerned about in the face of a pandemic which is affecting millions of people around the country and the world. It speaks to one of my biggest fears for the children when they return. In our determination to “catch them up,” I fear that we will lose who they are and what they have learned during this unprecedented era. What on earth are we trying to catch them up on? The models no longer apply, the benchmarks are no longer valid, the trend analyses have been interrupted. We must not forget that those arbitrary measures were established by people, not ordained by God. We can make those invalid measures as obsolete as a crank up telephone! They simply do not apply. 

When the children return to school, they will have returned with a new history that we will need to help them identify and make sense of. When the children return to school, we will need to listen to them. Let their stories be told. They have endured a year that has no parallel in modern times. There is no assessment that applies to who they are or what they have learned. Remember, their brains did not go into hibernation during this year. Their brains may not have been focused on traditional school material, but they did not stop either. Their brains may have been focused on where their next meal is coming from, or how to care for a younger sibling, or how to deal with missing grandma, or how it feels to have to surrender a beloved pet, or how to deal with death. Our job is to welcome them back and help them write that history…

Teresa Thayer Snyder, former superintendent  Voorheesville district in upstate New York.

This letter went viral in no time.  It was posted on Facebook, shared and reposted countless times.  Contrast it with a  headline that appeared recently in EdWeek, “Should Schools Be Giving So Many Failing Grades This year?”

This Year?  This year? What about ANY year? 

As Teresa points out about kids trying to cope with the pandemic… “Remember, their brains did not go into hibernation during this year. Their brains may not have been focused on traditional school material, but they did not stop either. Their brains may have been focused on where their next meal is coming from, or how to care for a younger sibling, or how to deal with missing grandma, or how it feels to have to surrender a beloved pet, or how to deal with death.”

Is this the only year that many kids wonder where their next meal is coming from?  Is this the first/only year they’ve had to care for a younger sibling?  Is this the only year that they’ve had to deal with a missing grandma or losing a beloved pet?  If grades aren’t appropriate in the year of the pandemic, why are they any more appropriate in other years?  

What do we know about the origins of grading in the U.S.?

The first record of grading reaches back to 1785 when the President of Yale University implemented a four level system of labeling the learning of Yale students.  Grades didn’t make their way into the public school system until much later.  When they did, they also relied on a system of ratings that mirrored that of Yale.  I was surprised to learn that the practice of grading and using letters to denote the level of learning became popular as the enrollment of public schools grew dramatically in the 1930’s and 40’s.  The use was primarily one of adult convenience – i.e., the efficiency of recording letter/number grades instead of individual narratives for each child that emphasized the kind of standardization that served the growing need for equally trained workers.

What grading wasn’t and still isn’t…

At no time during the last two centuries has grading been used to measure actual student learning, unless one considers the recall of largely unrelated information to be learning. While we have moved from an agricultural economy to an industrial economy to a tech based economy, the practice and the form of grading have remained largely unchanged and continue to serve adult needs – i.e., facilitation of grouping decisions, standardized transcripts, easier admissions screening, etc.  The irony of this history is that, as we have become increasingly aware of the intensely personal nature of learning, we have continued to use (and frequently lament) the continued use of a system first introduced in 1785 while, at the same time, we are becoming increasingly distrustful of the integrity and usefulness of the system.

Why is grading still used?

moat-img_1356-1Why do we have a continued commitment to a practice that seems to have little to recommend it beyond the maintenance of something that we’ve experienced as students and that we inherited with little apparent option as we entered teaching.  

The answer is simple and the remedy complex.  Change is hard.  There are significant forces which we have developed to protect us from the uncertainty of change.  We gravitate to and seek to maintain the familiar.

Change is hard for us when it conflicts with our beliefs.  But how are our beliefs formed, maintained or even strengthened? 

Recent studies have revealed that our beliefs are formed, maintained and strengthened by bias.  Brian McLaren, Jacqui Lewis and Richard Rohr explore this in their  podcast  “Why Can’t We See”.  It’s a discussion of the role of bias in the way we both see the world and react to it. It turns out that change is hard for all of us to the extent that such change bangs head on into a belief that we hold… and many of our beliefs are, in fact, a bias or are a result of bias.  Bias, is a non-reflective belief – i.e., non-reflective in the sense that it is a belief held or formed prior to examination. 

Here are a few of the biases that are formative in our beliefs about our response to grading.  This list offers a look at several of the 13 biases that the podcast hosts cite as formative in our  observations and actions. This is NOT about grading per se but about the way we respond to ideas that challenge our beliefs about grading and the role grading plays in our professional lives.  

Confirmation bias: The human brain welcomes information that confirms what it already thinks and resists information that disturbs or contradicts what it already thinks and resists information that disturbs or contradicts what it already thinks.

Complexity bias: The human brain prefers a simple lie to a complex truth. 

Community bias: The human brain finds it very hard for you to see something your group doesn’t want you to see. In other words, we put tribe over truth. 

Competency bias: Our brains prefer to think of ourselves as above average. As a result, we are incompetent at knowing how incompetent or competent we really are.

Conspiracy bias: When we feel shame, we are especially vulnerable to stories that cast us as victims of an evil conspiracy by some enemy or other. In other words, our brains like stories in which we’re either the hero or the victim but never the villain. 

Comfort, or complacency, or convenience bias: Our brains welcome data that allows us to relax and be happy, and our brains reject data that requires us to adjust, work, or inconvenience ourselves.

As you reflect on these biases, I’d encourage you to recall your introduction to grading.  For most of us this began sometime around age 5 or so and was directly related to how our parents reacted to the first report of our performance as students.  

“Richie is doing really well.  He’s actually a bit ahead of most of his classmates”… parent swells with pride, Richie gets praise (maybe even a quarter). Richie and his parents begin their love affair with competency bias.  Fast forward to entering the teaching profession.  Richie get a grade book.  He may or may not have gotten much instruction in its use unless you were in my school where I was told…  “Fill up the little boxes with numbers. Parents can’t/won’t argue with averages calculated with lots of numbers.”  By now the other biases are kicking in big time.  For most of us who continued we developed (or we hoped we did) a reputation of competency.  Whatever we were doing, there was only risk involved in doing something different.  Why risk my reputation as a competent teacher by challenging the practices of the community? 

Why, in the face of the most emotional and disruptive times we have experienced in our lives, do we persist in needing to give students grades?  In her letter, Teresa Thayer Snyder offers…

In our determination to “catch them (the students) up,” I fear that we will lose who they are and what they have learned during this unprecedented era. What on earth are we trying to catch them up on? The models no longer apply, the benchmarks are no longer valid, the trend analyses have been interrupted. We must not forget that those arbitrary measures were established by people, not ordained by God (Italics mine).We can make those invalid measures as obsolete as a crank up telephone!

When we are in a comfortable place it’s not hard to see how our biases work to keep us there.  There is little to be comfortable about as we struggle with helping our kids, our families, our friends navigate a path through the COVID world.  

Homework!

As we explore what we have learned in this terrible pandemic, we might ask the following questions.  What policies, practices, procedures have proven counterproductive during the pandemic? Are they also problematic in the pre-and post-pandemic time?

For our purposes in this essay, consider the following…

Consider the possibility of eliminating grades in your classes, in your department or in your buildings.  Which of the biases listed above have you awoken? What would you need in order to move beyond limitations imposed by that bias?

Cartoon courtesy of Gary Larson, FarSide Gallery

What Matters

The following piece appeared on Diane Ravitch’s blog this morning.

Teresa Thayer Snyder was superintendent of the Voorheesville district in upstate New York. She wrote this wise and insightful essay on her Facebook page. A friend sent it to me.

Dear Friends and Colleagues:

I am writing today about the children of this pandemic. After a lifetime of working among the young, I feel compelled to address the concerns that are being expressed by so many of my peers about the deficits the children will demonstrate when they finally return to school. My goodness, what a disconcerting thing to be concerned about in the face of a pandemic which is affecting millions of people around the country and the world. It speaks to one of my biggest fears for the children when they return. In our determination to “catch them up,” I fear that we will lose who they are and what they have learned during this unprecedented era. What on earth are we trying to catch them up on? The models no longer apply, the benchmarks are no longer valid, the trend analyses have been interrupted. We must not forget that those arbitrary measures were established by people, not ordained by God. We can make those invalid measures as obsolete as a crank up telephone! They simply do not apply.

When the children return to school, they will have returned with a new history that we will need to help them identify and make sense of. When the children return to school, we will need to listen to them. Let their stories be told. They have endured a year that has no parallel in modern times. There is no assessment that applies to who they are or what they have learned. Remember, their brains did not go into hibernation during this year. Their brains may not have been focused on traditional school material, but they did not stop either. Their brains may have been focused on where their next meal is coming from, or how to care for a younger sibling, or how to deal with missing grandma, or how it feels to have to surrender a beloved pet, or how to deal with death. Our job is to welcome them back and help them write that history.

I sincerely plead with my colleagues, to surrender the artificial constructs that measure achievement and greet the children where they are, not where we think they “should be.” Greet them with art supplies and writing materials, and music and dance and so many other avenues to help them express what has happened to them in their lives during this horrific year. Greet them with stories and books that will help them make sense of an upside-down world. They missed you. They did not miss the test prep. They did not miss the worksheets. They did not miss the reading groups. They did not miss the homework. They missed you.

Resist the pressure from whatever ‘powers that be’ who are in a hurry to “fix” kids and make up for the “lost” time. The time was not lost, it was invested in surviving an historic period of time in their lives—in our lives. The children do not need to be fixed. They are not broken. They need to be heard. They need be given as many tools as we can provide to nurture resilience and help them adjust to a post pandemic world.

Being a teacher is an essential connection between what is and what can be. Please, let what can be demonstrate that our children have so much to share about the world they live in and in helping them make sense of what, for all of us has been unimaginable. This will help them– and us– achieve a lot more than can be measured by any assessment tool ever devised. Peace to all who work with the children!

What Really Matters? …What Would Happen If?

What if we used this terrible time to explore and to rethink ideas which have now outlived their usefulnes? What if we harnessed the drive of our own best thinkers to do this?

Note #1: This is a guide, not a detailed step-by-step cookbook.  As we prepared this “how to” part of our series, we quickly realized that it could easily evolve into a book… a book no one had the time (or perhaps even the inclination) to read.  So, for whom is this guide intended?  Based on the readership history of this blog, it is likely that readers will include school/district leaders, formal and informal school leaders, as well as teachers seeking something more than a return to “normal”.  We assume a recognition that (a) the current response to schooling is unsustainable and (b) there is a readiness, or at least openness, to  do more than return to a system that was not serving far too many learners.

Note #2: I can think of no better introduction to a piece about changing the way we educate and prepare ourselves and our students for our time and its unique demands than the commencement address offered by Dr. James Ryan to the 2016 graduates of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.   I urge you to take a few minutes to enjoy Dr. Ryan’s remarks.  As you think about how to approach reimagining the way we support learning for both our adults and our students we hope you’ll be guided by Dr. Ryan’s thoughts.

Note #3: While I am the lead writer – i.e., blame all editing on me — a number of folks have contributed countless hours of reflection, discussion and on-the-ground work in schools to the process described here.  Tom Welch, Dr. Susan Clayton, Cameron Jones make up 3/4 of the 4 Amigos… an on-line collaboration that has brought together educators from Canada (Susan and Cam) and long time consulting colleagues  (Tom and I).  No acknowledgement would be complete, however, without our thanks to the work of Modern Learners, The Big Question Institute, and Will Richardson.

Context

Just as learning rarely occurs at desired levels when learning experiences are organized on a “one size fits all” approach, this is not a “one size fits all” formula for change.  It is an approach that will look a bit different in each place.  It is, however, based on several key ideas. 

We also recognize that not every school/district is ready for the comprehensive “best of all worlds” approach explored here. What we have learned in our work with schools throughout the country is that most “whole school reforms” and/or school transformations fail.  They fail, most frequently  because the leaders have forgotten that not everyone is at the same level of readiness at the same time.  

The reality is that some folks are almost always ready and willing to leap into the unknown.  Others will move, but only after they’ve seen the the first group land safely.  Some will claw the ground to remain where they are and where they are comfortable.  Our intent here is to (1) encourage people to think comprehensively and (2) focus guidance on those who driven to moving beyond the status quo.

Our thinking is based on an acceptance of the opportunity presented by the pandemic.  Clearly, and in spite of the promotion by tech companies of the wonders of personalized, remote learning opportunities, the experience of all participants…teachers, parents and kids… has played to mixed reviews at best. Reports from districts and schools throughout the country have revealed a series of concerns based on shifting conditions including concerns for the heath of children, concerns for child care, concerns for the health of adults, learning losses by kids (especially those with limited access to technology), and concerns of parents ranging from frustration with technology and juggling multiple children and hardware to the impact on their employment and family income. No one has come forward to speak to the benefits of continuing the current approaches.  Finding what’s next represents a daunting challenge for educators, made infinitely more complex by the almost daily crises that must addressed just to remain open.  

Our focus here is on those who are ready and is based on the presence of safe spaces…spaces where ideas can be explored and risks can be taken. The outline for action that follows rests on the foundation of relationships and common beliefs.  Moving to steps beyond these two critical foundations prematurely will both speed up the process  and most likely insure its failure.

Our approach is to acknowledge that the time remaining in the school year is NOT the time to ask for volunteers to add another task, opportunity, or responsibility to a life which, even without significant addition, is not sustainable.

This process is not about providing answers. If the answers were readily available, they would have been adopted by now.   It is about asking questions — asking bigger and better questions.  This is definitely NOT a whole school or whole district change initiative.  This is a process the offers the freedom to explore options which may then be tried by the “explorers” in the school/district.

The questions we use draw heavily on the work of Dr. James Ryan (see above). Our core question is… What if we used this terrible time to explore …to rethink ideas which have now outlived their usefulness?  What if we harnessed the drive of our best thinkers to do this?  Your work will involve an exploration of these and other BIG questions.

Preliminary work –  Not a task for the faint of heart

While it is tempting to believe that the work described in this  guide can begin immediately, the reality is that the conditions for success – i.e., quality of professional  relationships and safe spaces for exploration – are developed over time and are an intentional consequences of the patterns of communication and interaction that have been nurtured within your organization.  They are based on cultures of mutual trust and respect.

Recruit an “Explorers” Team…

Our goal is to recruit a team whose sole purpose will be to design a framework in which learning, not schooling, is the primary focus and to consider what might be possible if we did not make the return to normal our goal for post-pandemic schooling?  The work will involve reconciling the conflicts present in the following charts.  Bothslides come from a TED Talk presented by Will Richardson.  He explores the conditions which educators identify as the those present when powerful learning occurs with the conditions which are absent from their lists, but most fequently present in schooling.   What would happen if your “Explorers Team” began their work exploring the implications of these findings for your school?

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So who are we inviting? What are our expectations?

Just as we can’t assume that all readers of this blog are at a place in which this process is a “good fit”, not all members of an organization will find this guide comfortable or practical.  Rest assured, however, that in every organization we have ever visited, there is a cadre of change-ready folks.  An invitation may be their first exposure to the notion of organizational possibilities. We strongly recommend the use of an open, inclusive invitation process.  

Note: For those in collective bargaining states the following may be useful. (others may skip this section).

 In states and/or districts in which employee unions or recognized culture influencers exist, we recommend that the very first step in the invitation process is a preliminary opportunity for such folks to be involved as early in the process as possible.  

One of the most useful tools I have encountered in the development of productive conversations and practices is the process known as “interest-based” or “integrative” bargaining.  For those facing predictable opposition  we would strongly recommend the exploration of these approaches.  You can explore an introduction to the concepts  here.  

https://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/interest-based_bargaining

Timing –

The first step in the process is to provide the space for people to focus without distraction. Translated into action, this means that the work of imagining the successor to the COVID experience cannot be an additional task added to the overburdened lives of those already overwhelmed by the demands of the COVID response.  Meaningful exploration of what learning and education can be/should be must take place not only in a safe space but with the time and commitment such a task requires. 

Given the limitations of staff availability and the work conditions imposed by the pandemic, we are suggesting a process that take places once the school current school year has concluded. 

The invitation – a critical step, a relationship enhancing process 

Invitation – talking points
  • I/we need your help.  
  • It’s clear that we will not be able to continue our current responses for educating our students in the post-COVID time and trying to recapture what school was prior to COVID ignores too many pieces that weren’t working.  
  • We are being handed a once-in-a-lifetime offer.  It’s an offer that shouldn’t wasted.  
  • We’re creating a team to explore the future of learning in our school/district. 
  • We’re setting aside 2 weeks for you and this small team of colleagues to focus nothing but that work.
  • This is an invitation to dream, to explore, to imagine – i.e.,  design the learning for the future.
  • We hope you’ll be interested in helping us explore and begin a move from our COVID responses to something entirely different… to something that places the learner at the center of everything we do, to something that expands learning to both inside the school and beyond.

What is the starting point?

Our starting point is the exposure of the “exploring” team to a scope of possible futures.  We begin with questions – BIG questions that quickly establish that the possibilities are virtually limitless.  

What if we didn’t make the return to normal our goal for post-pandemic schooling?  

What do we know about how we learn? How kids learn? Do the experiences we offer our students reflect this? What could we try?

Goal – to expose the explorers team to a scope of possible futures… to begin with questions.  It is not our intent that all of the following questions will have to be addressed.  Nor is it our intent that the group will recommend whole school change.  The purpose is to help the team focus on (1) what a post-COVID learning culture might enable (2) what learning for both adults and students could look like, and (3) encourage a few brave souls to explore these ideas themselves and with their students.

The questions that follow provide the opportunity for rich discussion as well as the exploration of possible futures.  In reviewing them we noted that, while important, they seem somewhat disconnected.  What connections do you see when you look at them?  How might you use them to begin or enhance team conversations about next steps?

One of my approaches is to use them as prompts for Dr. Ryan’s 5 questions (Wait- What?; I wonder (why/if); Couldn’t we at least?; How Can I help?: What Matters?).  They are an especially powerful tool to avoid the charm of leaping to quick fix xolutions. 

  • What if we crafted spaces and approaches to incorporate what we now know about the ways in which the brain works? Do we know how the brain works… what new neuroscience has revealed about learning?  
    • Wait…what? You mean that we might change our approach if we better understand the ways in which the brain and learning are connected?
    • I wonder why we continue to build/use a classroom structure with age-based cohorts.
    • Couldn’t we try to use some other organzing structure that’s better suited to how kids learn?
    • I wonder how we could help teachers better understand the brain-learning connection?
    • Is learning what matters or is it the preservation of structure that ae familiar?
  • What if we crafted a “new” normal for our teachers and for our learners?
  • What does it mean to be educated in a world in which it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell fact from fiction? 
  • Is education the successful acquisition of facts?
  • What place should the acquisition of dispositions have in the experiences of learners?  Dispositions such as courage, compassion, curiosity, kindness, generosity?
  • Does being/becoming educated include an understanding of the context in which we find ourselves? — i.e., what is our current understanding of history?… how does understanding the context for our existence help us make better choices?
  • Is science best learned not as concrete, fixed, factual knowledge but as what we currently understand about the world around us?
  • What constitutes literacy? – Is it a functional skill… the ability to understand and express?
  • What if we did not make the return to normal our goal for post-pandemic schooling?  
  • What if we used this terrible time to explore, to rethink ideas which have now outlived their usefulness?  
  • What if we crafted spaces to incorporate what we now know about the ways the brain works? 
  • How do we honor the all-consuming challenge of trying to create safe meaningful opportunities for learning that address the needs of all involved in the process of educating our children… education leaders, teachers, parents, learners and all those involved  supporting this work?

Conclusion – 

The complexity of re-imagining schooling cannot be exaggerated.  Those of us working in education have been trained both by professional teacher preparation programs and our experiences as students and teachers.  We understand how schools work.  We take comfort in the familiarity and pride in our ability to be acknowledged for doing school so well.  Successful – i.e., durable – systems develop wonderful mechanisms of self-defense.  While often a strength, in times of rapid change, the durability of the system is often a liability.   

There is a growing body of evidence that reveals that the durability of our system has become a liability.  Even prior to the COVID, there was a growing sense that schooling as we knew and know it was no longer serving the needs of our young people.  Our experiences at the end of the last school year and at the beginning of this new one have highlighted the flaws in our system.  

This is not about achievement scores, COVID slides, or teacher accountability.  This is about hanging on to outdated ideas about how and where learning takes place, about how we (both children and adults) learn, about the very purpose of education or seizing the opportunity of this moment to better help our kids learn how to learn, learn how to do, and learn how to be.  Our national response to COVID has been mixed at best.  Let’s not allow the same conclusion to be drawn about the education of our children.

Thank you.  Be well.

Marching Backwards Into the Future…

Intro… This is the most unusual piece I’ve posted since I began this blog.  It actually began as a simple post about the implications of our approaches to restarting schooling in the time of COVID and our apparent inability to find a national consensus around what’s good for society. 

During the time that I was writing and editing, I found myself reading an increasing number articles reporting the growing suspension of in-person and the growing dissatisfaction by parents and teachers with the various iterations of hybrid instruction.  

On of the pieces I encountered that provided an exceptional description of the our current reality and the challenges we face moving to a post-COVID system of education is an article written by Erike Christakis and published recently in The Atlantic entitled “School Wasn’t So Great Before COVID Either” here.  I have found nothing better to explain the need avoid the seduction of a “return to normal”. I urge you to read it.  

And so, armed with the growing disenchantment by educators, families, and policy makers with the various forms of remote instruction, I decided to resurrect and update a piece from late last Spring about alternatives to simply transitioning from the various full and partial remote approaches back to schooling as we knew it pre-COVID.  The current situation seemed to demand a more detailed exploration and description of options that have been conspicuously absent from our conversations about “what’s next”. 

Voila… the need for a more detailed piece… too long for a single post and now offered as a two part essay.   The second piece will offer a proposal  for moving beyond a simple return to the past.  I hope you’ll stay with me for Part 2.  It will be posted within two days of this piece.  Be well.

One of my habits is to begin the day with a scan of the news (a sure fire way to insure that I will not suffer from any undue bouts of optimism).  Giving into the internet age, I use a news aggregator app called Flipboard to organize articles from a variety of sources.  The algorithm used by Flipboard offers me more pieces in areas that I seem to read most frequently… no surprise that my options includes a large number of articles focused on education in the time the pandemic.

What has become clear from the many articles that I’ve read?  Without a doubt both my own memory and the articles that I read reveal that this is the single most challenging time for teachers, schools leaders, and students that any of us have experienced.  The challenges reported on daily basis make our experiences implementing the so-called reforms of the past 30+ years seem like a walk in the park.

Never before have educators students and their families been placed in such stressful and challenging times.  Never before have we been faced with decisions (on an almost daily basis) that have life and death consequences.  Anyone involved in the education of our young people longs for the familiarity and comfort of the “normal”.  

If we are teachers we long for the comfort of lesson plans, fixed curriculum, having all of our kids in the classroom with us.  Instead we are faced with the very real possibility that whatever the instruction design of our school was today, it might be totally different tomorrow, whoever was with us in class today might be scheduled for remote learning tomorrow.

If we are parents, we long for the routine around getting our kids on the school bus, having fixed and predictable schedules for work and home, having schools lives and home lives organized around neat, tidy schedules. Instead we are faced with learning new terms like “Zoom”, recalling what we wished we had learned about math, juggling schedules so that each kid has needed computer time and access.  

If you’re a kid, the time you enjoyed the most, your social interactions with friends, has been taken from you.  You have no idea if you’ll have sports teams or extracurricular activities. You hear how, the remote or hybrid learning options you won’t be prepared for the next level of your classes.  Instead more and more students are learning that their schools are being closed to any form of in-person learning.  They’re told that seeing our friends outside of school is considered a risk.  They have no idea how college applications will be processed or what will happen to their plans after high school. 

Prior to COVID, a growing number of educators were beginning to realize that our system of schooling (largely unchanged in over 100 years) was not meeting the needs of far too many of our young people.  This created an entire industry around the conversion of schools to a business model of operation.  Free-market options (choice, charters, vouchers) were promoted as “the” answer. Concurrent with the proliferation of these “solutions” we learned that we “needed” more rigorous and common standards, accompanied by the the promotion of large scale (and very expensive) assessments and the use of data analytics.  The winners in this age of reform?  Publishers, tech companies and assessments businesses.  Who were conspicuously absent in benefiting from these “reforms”?  Students and teachers!  

At a time when we should be helping our kids and ourselves learn how to learn, learn how to do and, perhaps most importantly, learn how to be, we’ve seen the landscape of education dominated test scores, growing opportunity gaps, siloed instruction, declining access to higher education and drastic increases in pre-adolescent and adolescent stress, anxiety, depression and suicide with only sporadic inclusion of social-emotional learning experiences. 

In the aforementioned essay which, “School Wasn’t So Great Before COVID Either”. Erika Christakis provides an excellent summary of the ways in which pre-COVID schooling was ignoring the advances in neuroscience and has been focusing increasing attention on the need to raise student scores on federally mandated large-scale assessments. 

“Experts across the educational and ideological spectrums agree that a curriculum rich in literature, civics, history, and the arts is essential for strong reading, critical-thinking, and writing skills. But schools have—quite irrationally—abandoned this breadth in favor of stripped-down programs focused on narrow testing metrics. Five years after the shift to high-stakes testing under the No Child Left Behind Act, which was signed in 2002, a survey of a national sample of school districts found that nearly two-thirds of school districts had dramatically increased language-arts or math time while almost half had reduced time spent on social studies, science, art, music, physical education, lunch, or recess. “Special” classes, such as music—as well as periods like recess, physical education, and even lunch—provide children with important opportunities for emotional growth and independent learning. For many children, they are what make school bearable.”

And so here we are…. Caught in longing for the familiar …Longing to return to a system of schooling that was increasingly recognized as in its dying stage. Here we are…marching backwards into the future.   

For almost 15 years I worked with schools and school systems around the country that had been  labeled as “troubled” or “failing”.  The beginning of our support process involved interviews with students, teachers, administrators an, sometimes, parents.  These interviews had, with very few exceptions, one theme in common… the analysis of their struggles were almost always “other directed”… if only the parents were more involved, if only the students would work harder, if only the administrators/teachers/local board of education would do their job…  

The acceptance of the notion that meaningful change would begin with an honest effort to look inwards was rarely the initial explanation for their problems or the direction for needed change.  In that context what you will encounter in part two of this piece is based on a willingness to begin with a look inwards… a look at the things we can actually control.  The proposed course of action is built upon a growing  readiness of the need for something more than simply a return to what was.

A call to action

We have no idea when COVID will end.  We have no idea what life will be like when it does. We are unbelievably stressed.  We long to once again resume our backwards march into an unknown future.  But there can/will be no return to normal.  

So here is our call to action.. our focus for Part 2.  What would happen if we chose not to return to normal? What would happen if we imagined learning differently than what was? Would schools look and act like schools?  Would content still be organized in discrete silos with little connection to other knowledge or to the way things really work? What might be different?  What could be different? What should be different?

Our call to action is a call to ask and answer the questions… 

“What Really Matters?

“What Would Happen If?” 

See you soon 

A COVID Thanksgiving

Given as I am to understatement, I’m finding this to be an unusual Thanksgiving.  We’ve spent more time in the past week or so thinking and talking about just how we might maintain the warmth and love of this time than we have creating the shopping lists for the “Big Meal”.  One of the things that I’ve noticed is that I’m spending far more time than usual actually thinking about the things I should be thankful for.  

Cloistered away in our home (and actually thinking about being thankful that we have a home), I realized how often in my life I let the preparations for the celebration overshadow the meaning of the celebration.  Today, I was working on a post for next week and, at some point (God only knows how long it was before I realized that I “had gone away”), I returned to the present.  Still recovering from my mental detour, I realized I had been thinking of Thanksgiving, but not about the missed family gathering or the annual carving disaster. I realized that I had been thinking of people… people who have blessed my life with their presence.  People that might not know how much I’ve appreciated the gifts they’ve shared with me.

I thought of how many Thanksgiving dinners I’ve shared with others.  I thought of the blessing that we offer before trying to remember in which direction we should start passing the many dishes.  I realized that I couldn’t recall a dinner in which we each took the time to share with those around the table why we are blessed by their presence in our lives.  I know that Thanksgiving is not a holiday we normally associate with resolutions but I resolved not to let another year pass without telling those around me how much their presence means to me… how important they are.  It’ll work this year.  We only have a few people around the table and I love them all!

Patting myself on the back for being such a sensitive, caring soul (even if it took me over 6 decades to wake up), it dawned on me that, more than usual, we are , in this time of COVID, surrounded by examples of people doing things for us that we should be thankful for.  People who are often invisible to us as they deliver the mail, who pick up our trash and recyclables, people whose job makes it difficult to safely social distance, people who risk their lives and the lives of their families by continuing to care for us.

As we approach this special day, I want to offer a special thank you to all those educators who are working at home and in our schools trying to offer our children a safe way to learn in times they have never prepared for.  I spent over 25 years in the classroom. I spent additional time as an administrator.  While I had to make an occasional decision about whether or not to close school due to snow, never was I faced with the need to make potentially life and death decisions on an almost daily basis.   Never was I asked I asked to offer learning experiences to kids I could not see and who couldn’t see me. Never was I asked to forget almost all I had learned about teaching and implement a whole new way of teaching that might change on weekly basis.

 You will be mentioned in our Thanksgiving prayer. Thank you.

Thinking beyond elections

Like many of us, we’ve spent the recent weeks trying to absorb what will happen on the day of, and those following, the election.  Will the election have a clear winner? Will the election results be contested? Will recent appointments to the Surpreme Court play a role? Is it possile that we are living in one of those rare moments that become chapters in tomorrow’s history books?  This morning I saw this quote from Winston Churchill in a post by Dane Ravitch. Isolated as we are from the familiar it’s easy to lose sight of what really matters. Churchill’s quote seems like a pretty stark reminder.

The foundation of all democracy is that the people have the right to vote. To deprive them of that right is to make a mockery of all the high-sounding phrases which are so often used. At the bottom of all the tributes paid to democracy is the little man, walking into the little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper — no amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of that point.

As I reflected on these words, I recalled a podcast we recently listened to.  In it, the participants, in seeking a response to the question, “Why Can’t We See”, explored the concept of bias and how our biases influence how we absorb (accept/reject) information.  In discussing this, one of the participants quoted a Latin phrase… “What is received is received in the manner of the receiver.” – i.e., our experiences shape our willingness/ability to receive new ideas.  

Since I am “tuned” to education and learning, here’s how I heard Churchill…

With apologies to Winston…

The foundation of all education  is that children have the right to learn. To deprive them of that right is to make a mockery of all the high-sounding phrases which are so often used. At the bottom of all the tributes paid to education is the little child, walking into the classroom, needing the tools for learning and making  sense of the world around them — no amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of that point.

In the midst of uncertainty surrounding learning in the pandemic world, what matters is not recreating the schools we remember. What matters is the creation of learning opportunities for each and every child, regardless of age, income, zip code…. “no amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possible diminish the importance of that point.”

Be well.