To “CRT” or not to “CRT”

Note: Summer is usually a more relaxing time of year for both educators and parents.  While still not a “normal” time, we return to a time when kids are supposed to be at home (as opposed to our forced remote learning experience) and we are supposed to be able to sit down a bit and catch up on overdue relaxation.  I want to take a bit of this precious time and share with you several posts that have made a deep impression, both as an educator and as a parent. As I’ve shared in this space previously, Dr. James Ryan offered in his commencement  speech in 2016 (Harvard Graduate School of Education) that one of the most critical questions we can ask is “What Matters?”  As you read this post, I urge you to do so with that question in mind. What we choose to offer to our kids as learning experiences reflects our understanding of the purpose of education.  It’s a question which must be answered first and which deserves far more time than we’re allotting.

This  piece is from one of my favorite people.  If you’ve been following my work, you’ve undoubtedly read of my admiration for Jan Resseger. Jan is a gifted writer, a thorough researcher and am inspirational person.  In this piece Jan, too, suggests the need for reflection on the purpose question.  

Each of her blog pieces begins with this banner…

“That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy. Our chronic refusal as a nation to guarantee that right for all children…. is rooted in a kind of moral blindness, or at least a failure of moral imagination…. It is a failure which threatens our future as a nation of citizens called to a common purpose… tied to one another by a common bond.” —Senator Paul Wellstone — March 31, 2000

She lives this belief much as Nancy Flanagan suggests for each of us.  Here is Jan’s post .  In it, Jan looks at the controversy surrounding the ways in which the history of our country (and, by extension, that of other countries as well) can be communicated to our children. Using her exceptional research skills, Jan has provided food for reflection on what has become a “flash point” for discussions about what learning experiences and opportunities might look like in a democratic country.

The History of Public Education Demonstrates the Importance of Understanding the Implications of Racism

Posted on July 21, 2021 by janresseger

Conservative legislatures and state boards of education across the states are trying to prohibit what they call the teaching of “critical race theory,” which these far-right ideologues are redefining as any ideas that might make white Americans uncomfortable.  At the same time, on Monday, the NY Times featured an article about a tragic violation of our nation’s declared values of equality and justice for all—the century long mandate that American Indian children be enrolled in U.S. government-run boarding schools. Children were taken forcibly from their families and communities and sent, often far away, to boarding schools designed to force them to assimilate into the American dominant culture.

In a stunning history, Education for Extinction, David Wallace Adams describes the establishment in the 1870s of mandatory boarding schools for American Indian children and the philosophy of education that defined their purpose: “The word was civilization. European and American societies were civilized; Indians on the other hand, were savages… Indians must be taught the knowledge, values, mores, and habits of Christian civilization… The first priority was to provide the Indian child with the rudiments of an academic education….  Second, Indians needed to be individualized… In the philanthropic mind Indians were savages mainly because tribal life placed a higher value on the tribal community than individual interests… Education should facilitate individualization in two ways. First, it should teach young Indians how to work… But teaching Indians how to work was not enough. In the end, they must be inculcated with the values and beliefs of possessive individualism. They must come to respect the importance of private property… and they must come to realize that the accumulation of personal wealth is a moral obligation… The third aim of Indian education was Christianization.” (Education for Extinction, pp. 12-23)

The Boarding Schools’ purpose was forcing assimilation. Students were punished for using their primary languages and forced to speak English. They were given “American” names. This week’s NY Times story describes Dzabahe, a young Navajo girl renamed “Bessie Smith” by her boarding school: “The last day Dzabahe remembers praying in the way of her ancestors was on the morning in the 1950s when she was taken to the boarding school… Within hours of arriving at the school, she was told not to speak her own Navajo language. The leather skirt her mother had sewn for her and the beaded moccasins were taken away and bundled in plastic, like garbage. She was given a dress to wear and her long hair was cut—something that is taboo in Navajo culture.  Before she was sent to the dormitory, one more thing was taken: her name.”

The boarding schools for American Indian children represent one example of the ways the United States contradicted its founding promise that all are created equal and all are worthy of liberty and justice  In his profound book, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935, James D. Anderson begins by acknowledging the blindness, bias, and misunderstandings that have defined the project of expanding the meaning of equal education for our nation’s children: “The history of American education abounds with themes that represent the inextricable ties between citizenship in a democratic society and popular education. It is crucial for an understanding of American educational history, however, to recognize that within American democracy there have been classes of oppressed people and that there have been essential relationships between popular education and the politics of oppression. Both schooling for democratic citizenship and schooling for second-class citizenship have been basic traditions in American education.

These opposing traditions were not, as some would explain, the difference between the mainstream of American education and some aberrations or isolated alternatives. Rather, both were fundamental American conceptions of society and progress, occupied the same time and space, were fostered by the same governments, and usually were embraced by the same leaders.”(The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935, p. 1)

American Indian boarding schools are now a thing of the past, but today we have a lot of work to do before we can move forward to address injustices.  We must find a way to understand the truth of our history in spite of today’s ideologues who insist that what Anderson calls “the politics of oppression” never existed and certainly does not operate today. In a powerful new book, Scripting the Moves: Culture & Control in a ‘No-Excuses’ Charter School, Vanderbilt University ethnologist Joannne Golann dissects the biases she uncovered in her 18 month study of the culture of one of today’s no-excuses charter schools, which she identifies with a pseudonym, “Dream Academy.”  Although Dream Academy’s staff believe they are imparting social capital and so-called “middle class values” to their mostly African American students, Golann’s research demonstrates that the no-excuses school inculcates in children a very different understanding of their social place and their rights than the sense of entitlement possessed by more privileged children. “(W)e can interpret the rigid behavioral scripts employed by no-excuses schools as in line with a long history of managing poor youth of color through social control, surveillance, and punishments. The poor have long been viewed as intractable, in need of guidance and reform.” (p. 14)

Golann continues: “Instead of putting the onus on schools and teachers to provide the extra supports to help all students achieve, the no-excuses philosophy was reinterpreted in the context of the school’s behavioral script to mean, as reflected in… (a) teacher’s words, ‘holding students responsible for their character and their actions and their education.’ This perspective attributes the failures of urban schools to low-income Black and Latino children who are seen as lacking the right attitudes and values (like hard work, diligence, personal responsibility) to be successful and sees success as holding these children to tighter expectations.” (p. 40) “As students learned to adhere to the school’s demanding scripts in order to gain privileges, they developed what I call a sense of earning… A sense of earning, however, contrasts with a sense of entitlement, which sociologist Annette Lareau has identified as a middle-class mindset…  Schools… cater to middle-class White families, positioning them as ‘consumers’ whose needs ought to be attended to rather than ‘beneficiaries’ who should be grateful for the privilege of attending the school.” (p. 46)

In a profound 1998 book, Common Schools: Uncommon Identities, Walter Feinberg, professor emeritus of educational philosophy at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, considers the urgent importance of a critical approach to the teaching of the nation’s history: “To be an American, that is, to submit to the nation’s laws, is different than to identify oneself as an American and to participate in the public will formations that determine the direction of national action and inaction. This identification is active and requires an engagement with interpretations of events that comprise the American story. That there is an ‘American story’ means not that there is one official understanding of the American experience but, rather, that those who are telling their versions of the story are doing so in order to contribute to better decision making on the part of the American nation and that they understand that they are part of those decisions. The concept is really ‘Americans’ stories’…  This means, among other things, that students must learn about the various meanings that people from different backgrounds might give to different events. They need to address these differences in ways that promote continuing discussion…  (T)he common school must be involved in teaching students both to speak from the knowledge that their cultural identity provides and, as audience, to hear the voices of others… It is within and across this medley of difference that the common school continues the dialogue begun during the American Revolution about the nature of national unity and the character of national identity.” (Common Schools: Uncommon Identities, pp. 232-245) (emphasis in the original)

In a recent letter, 135 academic and professional organizations protest the far right attacks on public schools’ teaching honestly about the racism in American history.  They conclude: “Suppressing or watering down discussion of ‘divisive concepts’ in educational institutions deprives students of opportunities to discuss and foster solutions to social division and injustice. Legislation cannot erase ‘concepts’ or history; it can, however, diminish educators’ ability to help students address facts in an honest and open environment capable of nourishing intellectual exploration.”

My Thoughts…

Throwing boulders vs. throwing pebbles.  For quite a while now (longer than I care to admit) I’ve been privileged to work with teams of people engaged by school districts to bring about large-scale change (usually defined by a rise in test scores).  Our hopes and plans were bigger than our skills.  This work might be described as trying to throw boulders in the ocean, hoping that there would be a tsunami of change.  Our recent conversations have been based on more modest ambitions… using pebbles instead of boulders and hoping for ripples of change. Our learning…people are attached to and value the familiar.  Moving away from the familiar, whether this is offered to parents or educators, is a steep hill to climb.  One of my epiphanies in this process was the rediscovery of the power of beliefs. in a conversation several years ago, I was asked what I believed about kid learning.  I was offered these two slides and asked (1) to reflect on my beliefs about them and (2) how these were reflected in my practice.   What would  slides look like if the questions asked were “What do you believe is the purpose of education?”  

Missing the routine of school?  Here’s a homework assignment… Using these slides as a framework, create two slides about the purpose of education.  

Screen Shot 2017-05-08 at 9.12.26 AMScreen Shot 2017-05-08 at 9.11.55 AM

This is a Time for a Deep Breath…

 

 Note: Summer is usually a more relaxing time of year for both educators and parents.  While still not a “normal” time, we return to a time when kids are supposed to be at home (as opposed to our forced remote learning experience) and we are supposed to be able to sit down a bit and catch up on overdue relaxation.  I want to take a bit of this precious time and share with you several posts that have made a deep impression, both as an educator and as a parent. As I’ve shared in this space previously, Dr. James Ryan offered in his commencement  speech  in 2016 (Harvard Graduate School of Education) that one of the most critical questions we can ask is “What Matters?”  As you read the next few posts, I urge you to do so with that question in mind. 

We Are A Country Without A Purpose…

Wait! What?  “A Country Without a Purpose”?   What if we are finding ourselves on the edge of a time which is no less unsettling than the time of the Revolution, the Civil Way, the Great Depression?  What if we are where we are because we have grown to value quick, politically expedient decisions rather than careful analysis of complex problems?  What if, as Peter Drucker and Russell Ackoff suggested, there is a significant difference between trying to so things right and doing the right thing.  What if we have fallen into the Drucker/Ackoff trap of trying to do the wrong things better rather than actually trying to ascertain what the “right thing” is?

A quick example… During the time that I served as an assistant commissioner in the NJ Department of Education, we were heavily involved in the implementation of the Core Curriculum Content Standards as well as the development of specifications for the state’s large-scale assessment designed to measure the level of student achievement of these standards.  Who applied the greatest pressure to insure the development of “tough” standards and through assessments?  The state’s teachers?  No.  It was the state’s Chamber of Commerce.  Why the Chamber?  Because the Chamber and its membership had concluded that the major function  – i.e., purpose — of school was the development of a well-trained workforce.  People who knew better (or who should have known better) didn’t challenge this “purpose”.  For almost 30 years now we have been “chasing” the test scores.  Those of who spent time in schools during this time, will have no problem identifying the programs, policies and procedures designed to do test- focused “achievement” better.  Only recently, in the time of the pandemic, have we seen the beginning of serious discussion/reflection about the problems created by trying to do the wrong thing righter.  Drucker and Ackoff would be proud.  Millions of students and their teachers, not so much. It’s time to get serious about defining the right thing that we want to our kids and the learning.

Wait! What?  Why am I asking this question right now?  Why am I asking it in a blog that focuses almost all posts on things related to education and learning?

Frequent readers may recall that, occasionally, I’ll suggest that it might be helpful to get a glass or two of your favorite adult beverage to make the post easier to digest.  This time, while I’m offering the same suggestion, it’s for a very different reason.

Since “retirement” I’ve gotten into the habit of beginning each day with a scan of the things that have magically appeared in my inbox overnight. My interests are pretty eclectic and include a number of education-oriented blogs as well as the scan of major news outlets. 

Recently, my scan I encountered two “big question” pieces.  They resonated with me as I hope they will with you.  They seemed to “beg” for thinking time. Hence the adult beverage suggestion.  The pieces that I’ll be sharing are not so much shocking as they are food for reflection.  I hope you’ll take my suggestion and read each of them.  This post will focus on the first piece by Nancy Flanagan.  It appeared in the  daily blog of the Network for Public Education and is used with her permission.

Context

At the beginning of our first response to the pandemic I wrote several pieces that urged educators to avoid the “let’s get back to normal” urge and use the time we had been given to reflect on what learning could be.  My timing was horrible.  I neglected to acknowledge the all-consuming nature of the process of trying to juggle the realities of school in “survival” mode.  We saw firsthand the sometimes competing purposes of school – child (and educator) safety, child care, student achievement, family support (food and social services), access to technology.  The purpose often varies depending on the day, the access to technology,  or the family… all aimed at trying to do what have always done as right as possible. Nancy writes that we have reached a point in the discussions about schools, schooling, educational funding, success or failure of the American system of public schools etc. where we can no longer sidestep a serious discussion/analysis/reflection about the purpose of education in our country. 

Nancy Flanagan is a retired teacher and a long-lasting blogger. Sometimes she looks at the big picture, and sometimes the nitty gritty. Reposted with permission.

I could write a blog every week on all the Big Important Things that nobody pays attention to in public education. But then—that would make me a philosopher and not a teacher.

Right now, we really need deep thinkers, visionaries, those dedicated to clarifying our mission in public ed, trying to prevent dumpster fires, rather than putting them out, which is now a fair part of teachers’ work.

Instead, we have shallow, attention-seeking chatterheads lighting fires, then sprinting away—looking at you, Mike Petrilli and Tucker Carlson, and all  the ‘Concerned Moms’ who don’t want their children to, you know, feel bad about the facts of American history.

In fact, when you look at the sweep of schooling in America—going back to Horace Mann—there is no one overriding set of principles upon which public education has firmly rested for two centuries. Mann promoted a free, secular education, open to all children—the local academic melting pot that would lift an unruly, barely civilized nation into democratic greatness.

And what a magnificent idea that was—probably the last inspiring, visionary plan to educate the citizenry. Except, of course, for all the people who were left out, or given scraps and hand-me-downs. Or weren’t even considered citizens. Not so great for them, and they were building the nation, too.

There’s always been lofty rhetoric about public education. And the reality has always been far more complicated and far less effective at achieving whatever it is public ed is supposed to achieve.

And that’s the rub. What are we trying to accomplish, in our public education system? What’s our purpose? What are our overarching goals? What’s our product? (bold, italics mine)

It’s a great question to ask in a new-teacher interview: What’s your philosophy of education?

Back in the 1970s, I got that question a couple of times (and had an answer—it was part of my undergraduate education as a prospective teacher, that pedagogy coursework everyone denigrates).

Today, the interview questions are pragmatic—test scores, standards, deliverables—but there is real value in figuring out what’s most important to teach, what your students need. What you believe. What the country needs, even.

On July 7, Joe Biden tweeted this: The fact is 12 years of education is no longer enough to compete in the 21st Century. That’s why my Build Back Better Agenda will guarantee four additional years of public education for every person in America – two years of pre-school and two years of free community college.

Well, I’m all for free preschool and community college. You go, Joe. They’re only pieces of the comprehensive, coherent plan we need, but the education community is accustomed to working with (and around) bits-and-pieces ed policy. We’ll take positive fragments, any day.

Jennifer Berkshire had an interesting response to Biden’s tweet: Biden’s insistence on defining education solely in economic terms is so discouraging. IMO, this is a big part of why public education is as precarious as it is right now. Not only does it put the blame for being economically *noncompetitive* onto individuals themselves, but it leaves out the essential role that schools play in a democracy.

Bingo. Which comes first—the random policy promise, or the philosophy?

Berkshire and her co-writer Jack Schneider, an education historian, wrote this in an excellent piece in The Nation:

Our schools can’t fix the problems of poverty, and parts of the Biden administration seem to know that. But until education policy breaks free from this framing of the purpose of school, it will remain difficult to recognize what our schools can do. At a time when voting rights are increasingly being restricted, when we continue to debate the value of Black lives, and when we can’t agree on basic facts, public education has an essential role to play. We don’t have public schools in this country so that young people can compete for advantage against each other—or so that the private sector can reduce the costs of training labor. Instead, we tax ourselves to pay for universal K-12 education because public schools are the bulwark of a diverse, democratic society.

And—voila!—there we are, back to Horace Mann. The mission of public education is an educated, engaged citizenry. Open to absolutely everyone. Too bad we routinely lose sight of this core purpose, a defined public good.

If you want to read an excellent synopsis of how our national (non)philosophy of education has morphed and evaporated, over the decades, I recommend Consuming the Public School, by David Labaree:

We ask schools to promote equality while preserving privilege, so we perpetuate a system that is too busy balancing opposites to promote student learning. We focus on making the system inclusive at one level and exclusive at the next, in order to make sure that it meets demands for both access and advantage.

Does this sound like a system that just puts out emergent fires with policy band-aids—or a system grounded in principles of democratic equality? Other countries have overhauled their education systems after having a national conversation about what public education should be focused on. Why can’t we?

Oh, right. It’s political. 

While large scale change discussions have become highly politicized, what would happen if we each asked and answered the question with which Nancy ends her post…

What would your belief statement about public education look like?

My thoughts…

What would happen if each teacher, each administrator asked, answered and acted on such a question?  Would the whole system change?  After years of working with schools around the country on ways to help them implement large scale change, I no longer believe that meaningful change happens that way.  I believe it happens one person at a time, one teacher in one classroom decides what she/he believes about learning, about the purpose of education, about the importance of building a classroom culture caring and empathy.  Too many of us have sat by for too long trying to implement the ideas of others… ideas which have equated a child’s learning and development by scores on an annual state test (tests which have done far more to enrich test developers than they have to improve student learning), ideas which have stolen precious time and opportunities to build and nurture the critical  relationships with our students that are so important  to learning.  It hasn’t worked.  It won’t work. 

What if we each defined and acted on our beliefs about children and their development?  Couldn’t/shouldn’t we at least try? It’s tempting to be offended by the implication that we as teachers, administrators, parents don’t act on our beliefs about the basic goodness of children and our responsibilities for nurturing them.  Of course we do. We also work in organizations that seek to do what we are doing  even better… and many of us recognize that this involves the development of practices, policies, and procedures which are aimed at efficiency  and convenience…  doing things “righter” is not the same as doing the right thing.  

Be well…

Using Our Kids As Political Pawns… Shame on Us

Note: We are seeing a dramatic growth in rhetoric around the term “Critical Race Theory”.  While the number and intensity of media reports continues to increase, little time has been devoted to clarifying the term and its implications.  This has left many of us searching for understanding. Recently, Jan Resseger offered information intended to provide both context and clarity.  As usual, Jan has crafted a resource-rich explanation, one that shines an interesting and (to many of us) distressing spotlight on the continued politicization of schools, and even worse, our kids.   After a brief introduction and to save readers the need to follow a number of links I have, with Jan’s permission, reprinted her entire post.

Every time I think that the win all costs strategies that seem to consume our elected officials have gone about as far as they can go, I’m confronted with yet another example of my own naivety.  Each time I think that adults must be above turning our kids into pawns in the process of gaining power, the folks in state and federal government demonstrate the at I apparently just fell off the turnip truck.

In spite of the number of opportunities these folks have given me to understand that winning at all costs is what matters, I’m shaken by the latest politician defined crisis focusing on Critical Race Theory.  I have an image of politician operatives sitting around a table where one of them exclaims excitedly, “i’ve got it. Let’s take a concept, redefine into something else and then get people enraged about our definition.” 

Think that’s an exaggeration?  Try this from one of the architects of the CRT rebellion…

“We have successfully frozen their brand—critical race theory—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions…. Its connotations are all negative to most middle-class Americans, including racial minorities, who see the world as ‘creative’ rather than ‘critical,’ ‘individual’ rather than ‘racial,’ ‘practical’ rather than ‘theoretical.’  Strung together, the phrase ‘critical race theory’ connotes hostile, academic, divisive, race-obsessed, poisonous, elitist, anti-American.”

And who wrote this?

Jan Resseger, in her post, shared the following:

Christopher Rufo, a 36-year-old documentary filmmaker and media opportunist from Seattle: “Rufo has played a key role in the national debate, defining diversity trainings and other programs as critical race theory, putting out examples that legislators and others then cite…. He continues to appear regularly on Fox News to discuss the issue and often offers strategic advice over how to win the political fight. In March, he wrote on Twitter that his goal was to conflate any number of topics into a new bucket called critical race theory. ‘We have successfully frozen their brand—critical race theory—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions.”

The New Yorker‘s Benjamin Wallace-Wells describes Rufo’s strategy to redefine critical race theory: 

“He thought that the phrase was a better description of what conservatives were opposing, but it also seemed like a promising political weapon.”  Wallace-Wells quotes Rufo: “Its connotations are all negative to most middle-class Americans, including racial minorities, who see the world as ‘creative’ rather than ‘critical,’ ‘individual’ rather than ‘racial,’ ‘practical’ rather than ‘theoretical.’  Strung together, the phrase ‘critical race theory’ connotes hostile, academic, divisive, race-obsessed, poisonous, elitist, anti-American.”

How Is Far-Right Propaganda about Critical Race Theory Undermining Society and Our Children’s Education?

Posted on June 23, 2021 by janresseger

The news is flooded with hysteria about something called “critical race theory.” I am being told that the anti-bias and anti-racism programs I participated in at work were terrifying experiences that threatened who I am and undermined my patriotism—even though I don’t remember those workshops as threatening my identity at all. Legislatures across the country are passing laws to punish educators who teach honestly about slavery, the abuses of Jim Crow, and boarding schools that tried to force American Indian children to deny their culture. This post will address three simple and related questions: What did the term “critical race theory” mean in the past? What is it that fear-mongering extremists have folded together to change the original meaning of “critical race theory” into something supposedly terrifying? How is today’s hysteria about critical race theory undermining our children’s education?

What did “critical race theory” used to mean before extremists manipulated it this year in the right-wing press? 

Many people have thought about racism basically as personal bias or prejudice. But critical race theory is an academic concept that addresses much more systemic institutional and structural racism. The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss explains: “Critical race theory is a decades-old academic framework that holds that racism is systemic, embedded in government policies and laws that are evident in any serious examination of American history. Critics say that racism is the work of individual bad actors, and, they say, teachers are improperly injecting race in the classroom.”

National Education Policy Center Fellow Shaun Harper at the University of Southern California provides a more technical definition of “critical race theory”: “Individual actions (both intentional and unconscious) that engender marginalization and inflict varying degrees of harm on minoritized persons; structures that determine and cyclically remanufacture racial inequity; and institutional norms that sustain white privilege and permit the ongoing subordination of minoritized persons.”

In Education Week, Janel George adds: “Like many academic theories, Critical Race Theory is complex and constantly evolving. However, it can be characterized by a few tenets which challenge many traditional understandings of race and racial inequality. The Human Genome Project found that humans share 99.9 percent of the same genetic makeup, despite our different appearances. Critical race theory recognizes that our ideas of racial difference—which run counter to this scientific evidence—have been socially constructed. It acknowledges how that social construction of race has shaped America and how systems and institutions can do the bulk of replicating racial inequality.”

Emeritus education professor at the University of Wisconsin, former president of the American Educational Research Association, and author of the widely respected textbook, The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children, Gloria Ladson-Billings, responds to the current hysteria by emphasizing the importance of addressing institutional racism that affects children at school: “Curricula that largely exclude the history and lived experiences of Americans of color are the norm. Deficit-oriented instruction often characterizes students of color as failures if a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for them. Standardized-test scores from assessments detached from what students learn in the classroom are widely used to confirm narratives about the ineducability of children of color.”

Here are just two examples of structural racism.  In his book,  The Color of Law,  Richard Rothstein traces government policies and laws that have perpetuated racially segregated housing—zoning for segregation, the choice of sites for public housing, legally protected mortgage and insurance redlining, and racial bias in the approval of Veterans Administration and FHA loans. In  Schoolhouse Burning , Derek Black examines the explicit efforts of the post-Reconstruction state legislatures across the former Confederacy to segregate and underfund schools for Black children.  Later he describes the decades of legal work by the NAACP’s Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall to undo structural school segregation by race. What then followed after Brown v. Board of Education were efforts to stop school integration in court cases like Milliken v. Bradley that blocked school busing across suburban jurisdictional boundaries.

How Have Extremists Transformed and Politicized the Meaning of “Critical Race Theory”?

The Washington Post’s Laura Meckler and Josh Dawsey identify Christopher Rufo, a 36-year-old documentary filmmaker and media opportunist from Seattle: “Rufo has played a key role in the national debate, defining diversity trainings and other programs as critical race theory, putting out examples that legislators and others then cite…. He continues to appear regularly on Fox News to discuss the issue and often offers strategic advice over how to win the political fight. In March, he wrote on Twitter that his goal was to conflate any number of topics into a new bucket called critical race theory. ‘We have successfully frozen their brand—critical race theory—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions.’”

The New Yorker’s Benjamin Wallace-Wells describes Rufo’s strategy to redefine critical race theory:  “He thought that the phrase was a better description of what conservatives were opposing, but it also seemed like a promising political weapon.”  Wallace-Wells quotes Rufo: “Its connotations are all negative to most middle-class Americans, including racial minorities, who see the world as ‘creative’ rather than ‘critical,’ ‘individual’ rather than ‘racial,’ ‘practical’ rather than ‘theoretical.’  Strung together, the phrase ‘critical race theory’ connotes hostile, academic, divisive, race-obsessed, poisonous, elitist, anti-American.”

Finally NBC News has identified No Right Turn in Education, a radical-right parents group whose mission is to undermine honest teaching about American history at school: “When the Gladwyne Elementary School in the suburbs of Philadelphia decided to teach students about the concepts of racism, privilege and justice during the last week of classes, Elana Yaron Fishbein, a mother of two students in the school, sprang into action. Fishbein, a former social worker, sent a letter to the superintendent calling the lessons a ‘plan to indoctrinate the children into the ‘woke’ culture’  She said the superintendent never responded, though the district later said that the lesson plans were age-appropriate and did not shame students and that parents were allowed to opt out. Fishbein said other white parents in the district attacked her on Facebook when she shared the letter. So Fishbein moved her children to private school and started a group to advocate against anti-racist teaching. She called it No Left Turn in Education… Fishbein’s endeavor received a significant boost in September, when she appeared on Tucker Carlson’s prime-time Fox News show. By the next day, No Left Turn’s Facebook page had shot up from fewer than 200 followers to over 30,000. The group now has 30 chapters in 23 states, a rapid expansion Fishbein credits to Carlson’s show.”

How Have America’s Educators Been Responding to the Current Hysteria?

The editors of Rethinking Schools magazine worry about the rash of laws coming from far-right state legislatures, laws intended to prevent teaching about today’s injustices and their history beginning in slavery and threading through American history: “Lawmakers in a growing number of states are attempting to pass legislation that would require teachers to lie to students about the past and present… To put it another way, in 2021, when children look around at the vast inequalities apparent in every corner of their daily lives—where the wealth of a typical white family is 10 times that of a typical Black family, where a Black person is three times as likely to die in childbirth as a white person, and where African Americans are five times as likely to be in prison as their white counterparts—and ask, ‘Why? Why is it like this?’ that child’s teacher would be prohibited from answering their student’s earnest and urgent question. These laws peddle in bait-and-switch tactics, using the language of anti-discrimination to mask their perpetuation of a discriminatory and unjust status quo… By banning educators from teaching about these realities, lawmakers seek to deny young people the right to understand—and so effectively act upon—the world they’ve been bequeathed.”

David Blight, the Sterling Professor of History at Yale University, looks for hard work to focus on teaching the truth without blaming: “Once again, Americans find themselves at war over their history—what it is, who owns it, how it should be interpreted and taught… History wars follow patterns. The subjects at their core usually carry visceral meaning for large swaths of the public. The disputes quickly invoke curricula, creeping into school boards and state legislatures with increasing stakes… History is politics by other means, and we who care about it have to fight this war better and more strategically ourselves… We need to teach the history of slavery and racism every day, but not through a forest of white guilt or by thrusting the idea of ‘white privilege’ onto working-class people who have very little privilege. Instead, we need to tell more precise stories, stories that do not feed right-wing conspiracists a language that they are waiting to seize, remix and inject back into the body politic as a poison… Historians must write and speak up in the clearest language, in prose our grandmothers can read. We need history that can get us marching but also render us awed by how much there is to learn. Slavery, as personal experience and national trial, is a harrowing human tragedy, and like all great tragedies it leaves us chastened by knowledge, not locked within sin or redemption alone.”

This post intentionally quotes current coverage of this issue from several sources and perspectives.  I hope you will follow the links and read some of the source material.

Thank you for taking the time to explore this critical issue. As always your comments and thoughts are welcomed.  Be well.

A Graduate Course in Leadership…

Leadership is about creating the space where great things can happen.

Recently, I received an email from my friend Eric.  In it he shares…

We did it here at FRS!   We survived hopefully the most challenging school years in recent history.

I am exhausted!   This end of year was particularly challenging bidding farewell to two incredible FRS teachers who will never be replaced. This in combination. With several families who have been with me there for the last 14 years. I don’t like good byes Rich.

Eric is currently a principal at a nearby elementary school.  Over the time I’ve been sharing thoughts via this blog, I’ve frequently written about leadership.  In his email, Eric shared a letter he received from a parent whose children have attended the school where Eric is principal.  This letter captures so beautifully and eloquently the meaning of leadership that I asked Eric for permission to share it here.  

 

June 18, 2021

Dear Mr. Fxxxxx

For almost an entire year, I have rolled these words around in my head, wondering how I could possibly satisfactorily put into words what your leadership at has meant to our family

Eleven years ago Ava walked through those doors and six years later William took the baton and followed his sister’s footsteps. I’m sure our family’s elementary school years were no more or less remarkable than any other student that has made their way through the halls of FRS. What has been remarkable, every step of the way, though – has been your incredible leadership style, and the connection I’ve personally personally witnessed you make with every single child and their family who has been in your care along the way. It is unmatched by any educator or administrator I’ve ever encountered, and there is simply no way I, or any of us, could ever thank you in a big enough way to match your service.

I could refer to specific incidents like the time I watched you pull a child from the bus line to help clean his shoe because you noticed they had stepped in… er “something” on his way to school (lol). You could’ve sent him off to the side to handle it on his own, or sent him to another staffer to deal with it but you didn’t. YOU handled it, and you did so kindly and discreetly, and made that child’s day a little bit better by starting him off right. I could feel pages and pages of the countless interactions I have witnessed between you and students, you and parents, you and staffer. It has all been a pleasure to witness, not just because people like you make the world better in general, but because as a parent, sometimes it’s hard at school in the morning… Sometimes “just because” but sometimes it’s because in my kids’ school careers (so far) we’ve witnessed horrors like Sandy Hook or just went through natural disasters like Superstorm Sandy and then… Well, a global pandemic. Yet somehow you’ve managed to create a safe haven for my children to come to and feel loved, and seen, and safe. It’s my personal philosophy that children can only learn effectively when they feel safe and loved, and that’s exactly what you’ve delivered again and again and again.

In our house, the Tooth Fairy brings gold coins because, we all know, fairies deal and gold!Fairies are magical, just as childhood should always be filled with magic. Please take this “gold” coin. Keep it in your pocket or in your desk or on the shelf or a coin jar. Wherever you put it, please let it serve as a reminder that YOU are a keeper of magic . You keep magic alive in the halls of FRS, and my family will forever be grateful to you for that and so very much more.

As our family sadly says goodbye to FRS, please know that we will always look back on our years here with nothing but pure fondness. Thank you thank you thank you for everything.  Your ever-presence will be sorely missed by this mom.

Wishing you all the best                                          Screen Shot 2021-06-19 at 1.02.59 PM

Melanie and family

Be well.

US Department of Education Inks Contract with Wharton and Harvard Business Schools to Prepare Teachers and Manage “Failing” Schools!

 

Just kidding… I hope.   Watching the legislatures of more than 30 states move to privatize their public school systems via increased choice, charter and voucher options further increases our commitment to treating the education of our children more like a business and makes such a partnership seem almost inevitable.

NOTE:  This post will offer observations (and possible insight) into the growth of charter and voucher programs.  In the interest of full disclosure, while serving as an Assistant Commissioner in the NJ Department of Education, one of my responsibilities was to oversee the approval, evaluation and, sometimes, closure of charter schools.

I’d like to apologize for my “disappearance” for the past few weeks and suggest that you get a glass or two of your favorite adult beverage. This one is long!

In addition to struggling with the hacking of my email account, I’ve been struggling with finding a way to connect two seemingly disparate ideas. In the first of these, our small team, the Four Amigos1, has been engaged during our weekly chats with growing disappointment and appropriate response to the apparent loss of opportunity that the pandemic has presented – i.e., the opportunity to revisit the way we think about learning and schooling. This has been all the more troubling because it seemed that we were seeing an increase in discussions about the ways we might use the experiences of the last 18 months to unlearn what we know about schooling and rediscover what we know about the learning.

The second issue is one I’ve steered clear of in previous blogs… the increasingly obvious and planned assault on our system of public education.  Over the time I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve worked pretty hard to shy away from political statements.  But I need to highlight here something that has been happening and which cries out for our attention..  Depending on where you reside, you will be more or less familiar with the significant push to increase choice options for parents.  What has been less clear and what has received minimal attention in the media is the dramatic increase in such efforts and the source of the financial support for them. 

Critical Concerns

  • What these choice, charter and voucher policies have in common is that they are all funded by allowing the aid that is received by public schools to follow the child to their new school, in many cases significantly decreasing the amount of funding remaining for the public schools. Bruce Baker is Professor in the Rutgers’ Graduate School of Education.  His recent research focuses on state aid allocation policies and practices.  His findings referenced here  focus on the impact of a the diversion of state aid dollars to various choice options… 

 This is not intended as a criticism of charter schools. In my time as Assistant Commissioner as well as a national consultant, I visited a number of charter schools.  Some were exceptional, many were not. 

  • Charter schools and/or voucher, tax credit or scholarship programs have been around for a while, but what we are witnessing is an unprecedented influx of private money in local school board elections and the creation and lobbying efforts by so called “AstroTurf” lobbying groups… groups with names that imply parent leadership, parent participation as well as the right to choose, at public expense, schools other than those in the public system. Closer investigation reveals minimal participation or direction by parents, often providing a kind of anonymity for ultra-conservative or libertarian libertarian billionaires.  The climate of uncertainty about how and when schools will be open and what type of instruction will be provided when schools are open, has left many parents and community members unsettled and concerned.
  • Although originally designed and promoted as “laboratory schools” … schools that would improve learning by being unhindered by bureaucracy or stifled by regulation, a large percentage of the charters and charter school chains are, de facto, for-profit enterprises. 
  • The federal government has devoted millions of dollars to charter program seeding and support. Recent reports revealed that a huge portion of that funding went to charter schools that never opened or have closed. Regular readers of this blog will recognize the name of Jan Resseger.  Jan is an exceptionally talented researcher and writer who works tirelessly in support of the maintenance of a viable and equitable system of public education.    Here , Jan details how the Federal Charter Schools Program has enabled the academic and fiscal abuses by for-profit charter operators. 

The Real Danger of Privatization – an economic theory on life-support

 While many of us have been blessed with education, careers, and standards of living that are more than adequate to ensure our survival,  we are becoming increasingly confronted by inconvenient truths about the lives of too many of our fellow citizens.  While we are regularly exposed to media, politician, and pundit praise for the accomplishments of our country, the reality of many challenges such pictures.  While we continue to canonize the American system of free enterprise, we currently live in the poorest rich country among industrialized countries.  We have the highest education costs, the highest health care costs, the shortest lifespans, the highest incarceration rates. Are we now to believe that the folks that brought us to this would be the ideal designers and providers of education for our kids?

Don’t like the measures I chose to highlight?  How about what has already been done to our kids?  Look at the public investment in education since the Great Depression of 2008.  The majority of states, primarily those whose elected leaders self-identify as fiscally conservative or libertarian, have yet to restore school funding by their state to levels prior to 2008! 

In an article  which appeared in the NY Times Magazine prior to COVID, the writer shared data that indicated we were  in a time when the incidence of pre-adolescent stress, anxiety, depression and even suicide had never been higher! Has our focus during the past 30 years of educational reform been on increasing counseling services, improving social and emotional health?  It has not.  In fact, since the Great Recession of 2008, the majority of states have not yet returned school spending to pre-recession levels.  This before the increase in such issues connected to the pandemic.

While our kids were suffering in increasing numbers,  we “enjoyed” the great accountability movement… the improvement of education by adopting the practices of business … Hours and hours of state and federally mandated tests, a whole new market for test prep materials, rewritten standards-based textbooks, student data available for sale, attacks on the skills and commitment of teachers., etc., etc., etc.  Education has become business, indeed BIG business…Billions are spent annually to design and administer large-scale state-wide assessments.  Billions are spent on the purchase of technology required to take the tests. Billions are spent both publicly and privately to purchase test prep materials and tutoring services. And now, we see the hijacking of research promoting  the benefits of individually tailored learning experiences with the press for “personalized” learning… a term most frequently used to justify the purchase of computer delivered and paced software which is anything but “personalized”.  The great business model direction has turned our kids into commodities… commodities whose data can be used to target ads, determine Facebook feeds, and distance them even further from the connection so important to their development as functioning adults.  Less personal contact under the guise of “personalized” learning? To be identified by their test scores?  Is this what we want for our kids?  As parents? As educators?

What to do

I’ve spent a lot of time in schools.  I spend a lot of time listening to the experiences of families, kids, and educators.  This is not a solely a red or a blue issue.  The changes and conditions that I have shared here have occurred during the administrations of both Democrats and Republicans.  One of the Greek philosophers once said that the health of a society is measured by the way it treats its weakest members, the very young and the very old.  We’re not doing well on either right now. 

What to do now is to get involved.  Know what is happening in your schools/in your state 

  • Go to a board meeting. See how many topics deal with kids and their learning?  How many items are really about adult convenience, management, compliance?  Look at your school’s mission statement and ask what specific experiences they provide to make the mission a reality. 
  • Contact legislators… local, state, and federal. Affirm that it is the right of parents to have their kids attend the school of their choice.  Affirm as well that it is not the right of parents to have the costs of these choice decisions paid by government nor it is appropriate to have the costs of such choices reduce the ability of the public schools to offer equitable to all students regardless of socio-economic status, race, gender, or disability.
  • Work to reduce the impact of billionaire philanthropists can have on social policies which reflect their individual agendas more than the good of our children. See here  For background on the mixed blessings of the rise of philanthropy in the past two decades.

Summary

  • I am not a fan of the current version of education… a test and punish culture driven for the past 30+ years by federal programs such as NCLB, Race to the Top, Every Child Succeeds, etc.  I am, however, a huge fan of a system of taxpayer supported public education. 
  • Our current system of public education (and only recently the content of that system) is under attack for ideological and political reasons which have little or nothing to do with improving the lives of children.
  • The attack on public education is a part of a much larger campaign to reduce the size of government and to move many, if not all, public services to private enterprise.
  • This has become an ideological struggle guided to a large extent by significant amount of philanthropic dollars offers by billionaires who have never set foot in a public school.
  • Education in the US has become a huge business and source of income for a limited number of large corporations. In the process of developing these sources of income, our children have become both commodities and consumers… commodities whose data has huge value and consumers of large-scale assessments, as well as of test-prep materials and services.
  • Early experiences with alternatives to traditional public schooling – i.e., vouchers, tax-free scholarships, charter school programs — have produced mixed results at best and have significantly limited the programming for students remaining in the traditional public schools.
  • The experience with the pandemic version of education has encouraged criticism of district responses to both safety and learning. The concept of “learning loss” has been promoted as yet another “failure” of the public school system. 

Normally this would be the place for a kind of motivational paragraph… one that moves the reader to action.  If you’ve read this far, you don’t need such a closing.  What you may need is time to reflect and a place to express your reactions… a time to reflect on individual responsibilities when it has become clear that something very important to us has been or is being threatened. It is also a time for action … a time to speak with friends, local school leaders and politicians, representatives in state government and let them know that big money and big business should not be architects of the education our kids should receive. This is about grownups behaving badly… needing to be right, needing to win, and treating the children of this generation as pawns in a game in which there will be no winners.   

Thank you for your continued support of my writing. Be well.   

 1Some time ago, while participating in Will Richardson’s on-line community, Modern Learners, I had the good fortune to develop relationships with three very talented colleagues (two us were from the US while two resided and worked in Canada).   We found common ground in the realization that, as committed as we all are to the concept of publicly funded education for all, education in each of our countries had become more about schooling than about learning. Distressed by this realization, we decided to see what we could do to bring the focus back the learner.  Our areas of interest and expertise are as diverse as our experiences.  For two years now we have met weekly to support our mutual growth and to offer our learning to others. 

How Do We Help Kids Learn How to Be …?

When We Are Struggling To Find The Answer As Adults?

Note: This is “a thought essay”.  It began with my reflections on finding a thread between helping kids learn unschooling rules photo“how to be” and our apparent inability to determine who we want to be as a culture/society. The background to this can be found in Clark Aldrich’s book, Unschooling Rules: 55 Ways to Unlearn What We Know About Schools and Rediscover Education. Aldrich suggests that there are 3 types of learning that make up the purpose of school: Helping kids Learn How to Learn; Helping kids Learn How to Do; and, Helping kids Learn How to Be. In this reflection, I’m focusing on the “how to be” purpose.

Prior to the national election in 2016, I had shared with some friends that I thought that the election might be a struggle for the soul of the country.  In the years since, I’ve heard the phrase numerous times.  As we watch the news and listen to the pundits opine, we are watching the “battle” lines harden for what might be the true struggle for our soul.  Each issue becomes a battle ground for a belief system.  The lines between ideas seem to be growing more clear and more rigid as we struggle with who it is we want to be.  As adults it’s challenging to make sense of the information coming at us from TV, social media, competing news outlets, etc.

Last night, PBS New Hour devoted one of its segments to a case being heard by the US Supreme Court in which the justices will determine whether or not a school has the right to discipline a student for language used on social media.  The case involved the emotional response of a 14 year old girl who was unsuccessful in her bid to be a cheerleader.

Folks, this is the world we are leaving for our children… a world with a climate in crisis, with a pandemic which continues to kill thousands, with doubts about the behavior of law enforcement, with rising tensions among the world’s nuclear powers, with Congress struggling to manipulate voting systems to maximize party gains, etc. and the Supreme Court is hearing whether a teenage girl has the right to give the finger to school authorities on Snapchat. 

How do we begin to help kids navigate a course through this minefield of opinions and behaviors? We can’t afford not to.

A Beginning:A

Who is it that we want to be?

What matters to us?

 After 30+ years of failed “reform” programs we have pretty definitive proof that lawmakers and policy wonks cannot be the “definers”. 

I recently saw an article about the need to test the reading development of students in relation to the benchmark of third grade reading performance.  The article described a proposal under consideration in one state to make retention a mandatory practice for kids who fall below “the standard”.  Such thinking is brought to you by the same folks who created the “test and punish” culture that has characterized educating our children since the implementation of No Child Left Behind and who think that having our kids take large-scale assessments this year to quantify the amount of so-called pandemic learning loss is critical.

What if where we are is a result of our own unintentional laziness?  What if we have left the definition of who we want to be to the wrong people?  What would happen if we recaptured our ownership of what is important in the development of our children?  Try this on for size.

What would happen if we made a list of the ways we want our children to be?  What would be on your list.  Here’s a quick shot at mine:

Caring, empathetic, kind, compassionate, thoughtful, reflective, curious, independent, open-minded, involved

You might note that none of these require that kids be grouped by age, or that they learn to read by third grade, or that they learn a fixed curriculum (especially one that was developed in the 1890’s), or that learning be organized into separate silos, rarely connected to real-world situations.

 Would it surprise you to learn that in the majority of schools that I visited while consulting in districts throughout the country, the exposure to experiences designed to foster emphasis on these traits/dispositions was most frequently dependent on the mindset of the individual teacher? 

What does our current approach (largely accidental exposure) say about the value we place on helping generations develop the dispositions and direction that lead to emotionally healthy and contributing lives? What if we didn’t leave the focus on the “ways to be” to luck of the draw in the scheduling process?  It would certainly require a different approach.

Some time ago I read that the health of a society is revealed in how it treats its most vulnerable… the youngest and oldest.  We’re not healthy.  We rank at embarrassingly low levels among wealthy nations in the percentage of folks living in poverty, in the percentage of citizens incarcerated, in opportunities for early childhood learning, in affordable health care, in the number of long-term care patients who have died of COVID related complication without the comfort of loved ones who have been forbidden from visiting those who lay dying. 

Is this who we want to be?  Is this who we are training our children to become? Have we inadvertently trained our children to become the adults that continue to behave so poorly?  What would happen if we took your list (or mine) of desirable dispositions and examined the degree to which the policies, procedures, and practices of our school either support or inhibit their development? 

We love grades.  We must.  We continue to use them. We spend hours refining the systems we use – i.e., should weReport Card use letters or numbers? Should a 65 be a “D” or an “F” or maybe a “D – “, should we give “zeros”?  Why do we use a system that encourages kids to “game” it, to select courses more on GPA implications than by interest, to avoid the risks of exploration?

Here’s a less comfortable grading question. Suppose we were asked to assign a grade to the notion of helping kids learn “how to be”.  What grade should we give our “efforts” …or, wait, maybe we should use our “achievement” instead of effort? How do we do as individual educators? How do we do as a school or district? 

It’s not unlikely that your district or school’s mission statement makes reference to good citizenship or contributing/productive member of society.  How many PD sessions or faculty meetings have been devoted to test scores, increasing the rigor of our offerings or increasing school attendance?  How many have been devoted to how we can help kids develop empathy, curiosity, reflective thinking? 

Look around.  We’re not seeing ourselves at our best.  The response of teachers nationwide during the pandemic has demonstrated how committed so many are to the well-being of our kids.  All indications are that our kids need more than us finding better ways to teach what politicians think is important.  In our hearts we know that our lives, the lives of our kids, and of our communities can so much richer if we can acknowledge that helping our kids learn “how to be” cannot continue to be an accidental outcome of education.

Be well.

It’s Time To Make a Change -Part 1

It’s not time to make a change 

Just relax, take it slowly 

You’re still young, that’s your fault 

There’s so much you have to go through 

Find a girl, settle down 

If you want you can marry 

Look at me, I am old, but I’m happy

 

All the times that I’ve cried 

Keeping all the things I knew inside 

It’s hard, but it’s harder to ignore it 

If they were right I’d agree 

But it’s them they know, not me 

Now there’s a way 

And I know that I have to go away 

I know I have to go

 

Father and Son

YUSUF/ CAT STEVENS

Note:

This post is the first of two written in response to increasing frustration expressed by teachers, school leaders, students and parents that returning to pre-pandemic “schooling” is unacceptable while recognizing that whole school or whole district changes are unlikely even when things return to “normal”. The experiences of the learners and the adults are calling our for change but those most affected feel powerless to bring it about.  

I’ve always been a fan of Cat Stevens and the exchange between a father and son seemed to capture the tension that exists when two people see the world very differently or, in this case, when teachers and kids see the world very differently than those who might have the power to make change.

In recognition of the unlikelihood of large scale change and the implications of that, we are offering an approach for those whose hearts cry out for something better… an approach which doesn’t require that we physically “leave” but which might allow us to “find a way”.  

The purpose of this approach is to offer support for those educators who are finding significant dissonance between why they were drawn to teaching and the emptiness of/frustrations with the experiences they are having.

It is an action-oriented guide .. one that requires a personal and individualized commitment… one that speaks to the minds and hearts of teachers and school leaders who know that there is a better way for our kids to learn and that it can’t wait until all are ready.

As you read this post and the accompanying action guide you will note the use of both “I” and “we” in the text.  This is a reflection of a first for this blog… a collaboration co-authors/co-designers.

Several years ago, I joined Modern Learners, an on-line community focusing on the need to respond to the frustrating experiences that our kids and their teachers were having in many schools. 

As a result of my interactions with others within the Modern Learners community, I connected with several other educators who shared my interest in changing the focus of education from what we’ll term “schooling” to learning… the kind of learning that isn’t about credit for time spent in class or compliance with rules established more for adult convenience than for genuine learning.

The result of this connection was the formation of a group, called “the Four Friends”.… a team of like-minded educators from here in the US and Canada interested in an exploration of how we might help teachers, school leaders, parents,  and kids experience something more than “schooling”… something that had learning as its center.  

Dr. Katie Martin is the author of “Learner-Centered Innovation and VP of Leadership and Learning at Altitude Learning”. She teaches in the graduate school of Education at High Tech High.

In her recent post, Challenging the Status Quo to Rewrite New School Rules, she writes…

In 1999, the US Women’s Soccer team wanted to play in the NFL stadiums like the men’s teams.  FIFA, the governing futbol association said no. Women’s teams had not traditionally made enough money and the belief was that they would never sell enough tickets to make it profitable.  

Despite the lack of support from the top, the US Women’s National set out to accomplish what no one thought possible. The 1999 Women’s Team took it upon themselves to visit schools and talk to kids. They visited soccer fields and got fans excited about the World Cup. This group of committed women knew what they were capable of and believed in their vision and their team. They worked together to make their vision a reality and challenged the status quo. As a result of their determination, in 1999, the US Women’s team played at the Rosebowl Stadium in Pasadena which was attended by 90,000 people- the largest crowd ever to attend a women’s sporting event in history. It was also the most-watched soccer game in the US to date including any Men’s World Cup matches. 

In her new book, Wolfpack, Abby Wambach asserts, “There were suddenly new rules to the game– written by those women– but only because  a bunch of badass visionaries had the courage to break the old ones.” 

Dr. Martin notes that this was not a book about soccer… “It was about the courage of these women and those that followed them to challenge the status quo and redefine the rules.” She applauds those who have had the courage to challenge the status quo.  She notes that she feels the same way when she walks into schools and see educators who have had the courage to stand up and challenge the status quo in order to create what kids today not only need but deserve. 

We know that the status quo is strong and is alive in many aspects of our lives. Fighting for something new and different is not always easy. Not fighting for what we believe in is even harder. 

What If There Were New School Rules?

Dr. Martin suggests that “…when we challenge the status quo, it means we can find new ways to meet the needs of our students, families, and learning communities despite the norms and the ways things have always been done.”  She continues…The pandemic “has helped many of us reject the fact that students need to be sorted, ranked, and managed and challenging long-held assumptions about intelligence, curriculum, and ultimately learning.”  In such schools/classrooms, the focus is on learning and what people need… not rules, and compliance.  Martin notes that “The status quo makes it easy to sort and rank. The status quo maintains hierarchy. The status quo feels safe.” 

Martin reminds us that when the compliance-driven model is all you know… all you have experienced, it’s hard to imagine that kids can function outside of such an environment.

In “Leadership for Deeper Learning”, Richardson, Batheon, and McLeod share students’ perspectives of school and one student comment especially addressed this.

“I  think it’s a whole paradigm shift, like a whole new cultural norm. For many years kids were seen and not heard. It’s as if we don’t have a voice until we are part of the real world. But we are part of the real world. We are living in it with new technology and social media and things which give young people a place to voice their opinion. I think it’s a new generation and we deserve to be heard. We should be heard and I think that is hard for some people to understand.”

We should all reflect on this high school student’s perspective and realize that if our schools don’t value the students we serve and make them feel seen and welcome, we will never be able to grow them.

Design for Learners and Learning

Martin emphasizes the importance of knowing what you want and designing to get it.

In what is increasing referred to as the “deform” culture, we have defined around standards and assessments, not learners, not around learning beyond the preparation for the state assessments.  As mentioned at the beginning of this post, this is the introduction to a “how to” white paper.  It is designed around the the thoughts expressed by a number of participants in our discussions… “I’m ready to change. My school, my superintendent, my principal, my team isn’t.  What do I do to create the learning my heart know is possible?”  

We invite to to read and, more importantly, to take the opportunity to interact with the Action Guide paper we’ve provided.  We also invite you to interact with us using the email links.  

Dr. Susan Clayton,                        claytonsiusan64@gmail.com

Cameron Jones,                            cameron.jones@ocdsb.ca

Tom Welch,                                    twelchky@gmail.com

Rich TenEyck,                                rteneyck42@comcast.net

Education’s Next “Big Lie” 

“The development of the Common Core State Standards is a success story of meaningful, state-led change to help all students succeed.

Statement appearing on the site www.corestandards.org

 

For more than 20 years now, we have been told that a major component of the “standards movement” was the creation and use of large-scale assessments required by federal funding programs. These were sold as a critical source of information about how much our kids are learning.  While the reliability, validity and usefulness of the large scale assessments required by No Child Left Behind and its successor, Race To the Top, have been refuted almost unanimously by assessment specialists without challenge, the research has been clear.  These annual tests are far more reliable predictors of family wealth than as tools for helping teachers better respond to student needs.

Educators have known this and have frequently tried to alert us to the misunderstanding and the misuse of these tests. What has happened as a result?  These teachers and school leaders have been vilified.  They have been described as lazy, casual about the failure of their students, and opponents of accountability.  And who are the loudest critics of these educators?  No surprise there.  It’s the test companies, the publishers of test prep materials, and politicians for whom school bashing is low-hanging fruit and who have rarely set foot inside a school except for a photo op. 

This is a multi-billion dollar business folks… a multi-billion dollar business that sees the pandemic as a perfect opportunity to solidify their hold on the educational establishment.  And how are they seeking to do this.  Simple. Two words. Learning Loss!  We need to continue these tests.  We need to measure exactly how much our children have lost during the pandemic response to schooling.  BTW…It will surprise almost no one that students who take the same science test in September that they took in May, score significantly lower.  Summer learning loss?  

But what if the tests required by various pieces of federal legislation never really tested learning at all.  What if they tested recall of the many isolated and disconnected facts that were championed under the “Success Story” of the core curriculum standards? What if the tests provide almost no insight into the real learning needs of kids… not the recall of information easily found in mere minutes on Google, but the development of a set of contemporary skills which includes creativity, curiosity, critical thinking, entrepreneurship, collaboration, communication, growth mindset, global competence, and a host of skills with different names (Duckworth and Yeager, 2015; Zhao et al. 2019). 

And none of this even considers a new dimension of the big lie of learning loss…  The reality that our kids have suffered and are suffering through the worst disruption of “normal” most of them have ever experienced.  Their social worlds have been turned upside down, the contact with their friends disrupted, their schooling moving between remote, in-person, hybrid experiences… often with almost no notice.  But more than that… say that again… more than that, they have heard or watched the impact of COVID on their families and loved ones.  They may have lost friends, relatives, perhaps even parents. And our response… Let’s measure learning loss and, oh yeah, let’s use a test that no one believes in.  

That can’t be our response.  Couldn’t we at least contact our elected representative (both state and federal) and join the many organizations who have asked for the elimination of tests?  Thank you.  Be well.

 

Are students really falling behind?

Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some porttion of the poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good. What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take everyone on Earth to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second or hundredth gale.

One of the most claming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul.

“You Were Made For This” – Clarissa Pinkola Estes

 

As if parents and teachers haven’t had enough to deal with during the past year, they can now worry about how much their children and their students have fallen behind while juggling remote, hybrid and in-person instruction.  It’s as if the folks sharing this “critical” information have been living on a different planet for the past year.  While kids and the adults in their lives have been busy juggling internet connectivity, learning how to “Zoom”, learning and unlearning frequently changing school schedules,  and the stresses of trying to protect one another from the scary “positive” COVID result, some presumably well-intended policy wonks have been working to protect the profits of the testing industry by lobbying aggressively for a repeat of the annual ritual of state assessments.  How else, they argue, will we be able to know just how much our kids haven’t learned? Subjecting kids who have been worried about the their own safety, the safety of their families and their friends, their college applications, their loss, for many,  of virtually all extra-curricular activities and interactions to the stress of meaningless test prep lessons and hours of testing would in most professions be termed as malpractice.

As regular followers of this blog know, a major focus of a number of posts has been the opportunity presented by the year-long disruption in traditional schooling to resist the call to “return to normal schooling” and to use the opportunity presented by the disruption of the “normal” to address long-standing shortcomings of our system of education.  You may also recall that I have had the opportunity to collaborate with a small team of educators from both the US and Canada in the exploration of options.  

One of team members (Cam Jones) collaborated with his Canadian colleagues to address the specific issue of “Learning loss”.  Yes, even the Canadians can’t avoid the reach of the testing industry and its policy supporters. Rather than subject you to another version of that message, I’m taking the opportunity to share an article (below) written by this small team. Let me introduce the folks with whom you’ll be spending the next few minutes.

Laurence De Meayer is a retired Superintendent of Education and a Professional Learning Advisor for the Ontario Principals Council, Cameron Jones is a Leader of Experiential Learning for the Ottowa-Carleton School District, Hazel Mason is a retired Superintendent of Education and a Community Director for the Modern Learners Community.

Are Students Really Falling Behind

When claims are made about children falling behind in school, we need to ask what it is they are falling behind in? Young people are accomplishing incredible things during the pandemic – many of which are self-directed and required deep personal learning. Learning they did not do in school.

The Pandemic has given all of us an opportunity to pause and think about the world we want moving forward. It is clear that some things need to change. Working and learning from home will become part of the new normal. 

Underpinning the fear that students are falling behind is the belief that traditional teaching methods can be effectively transferred to online formats.  Students, parents and teachers are finding that is not the case. Instead, the people doing the most work in this situation are teachers, and families are getting a glimpse at how out of step the current curriculum truly is.  Online classrooms experiencing the most success are those which have included students in the planning of the learning experiences. Topics are connected to current world issues and students are given voice and choice on how to demonstrate their learning. The inquiry process is central to pursuing essential and relevant questions.

Students have long discovered facts and information are available on demand, anytime, anywhere, with the devices that they carry in their pockets. If they don’t know something they google it and learn what they need to know. The absurdity of continuing with traditional pedagogical strategies based on a set curriculum has only been further accentuated for students, teachers and parents. Our children need to become informed problem solvers. The exponential growth of information has made the use of a static curriculum irrelevant. Students will learn “the basics” under the guidance of a teacher as they work to answer their questions – teaching them how to learn. 

 It is becoming widely acknowledged that traditional schooling is not developing the skills and dispositions that will set students up for personal and professional success in the context of modern societal and economic complexities.  The World Economic Forum, the OECD, Microsoft, C21, and many other corporate and academic think tanks have identified the need for an educational transformation that focuses less on rote learning and more on critical thinking and adaptability – skills that are more important for success in the future.  This requires a wholesale shift in curriculum, pedagogy, learning environments and assessment practices. Online learning can effectively facilitate this shift if teachers are empowered to step outside of the norm and do things differently

Deeper learning requires a more inquiry-based model driven by students’ interests and passions. With this approach, the teacher does not need to know all of the answers connected to the learning.  Teachers and students co-create learning objectives  and  teachers help the students to develop learning strategies and strengthen their inquiry (and related) skills.  Students assume much more responsibility and agency in the learning process.  One  benefit of this shift is a decrease in the workload of the teacher.  In the traditional model the teacher does most of the work and learning.   

Rediscovering an Essential Truth

What we learn in school began with curiosity and wonder, and yet schooling removes these elements and replaces them with a series of disconnected facts.  With the focus on the challenges and constraints of schooling in the era of COVID-19 overwhelmingly concerned with learning loss and learning gaps related to what is known, we have lost sight of an essential truth: learning is a natural development of individual experience. When children explore what conditions support human life on earth in pursuit of creating those same conditions in Space, they are asking essential questions that focus their learning, and they know it.  Asked if building a long term colony on the Moon perpetuates the human race or starts a new one, one high school Biology student responded, “Isn’t this question basically our entire course?”  The question that arises is, do children have the capacity for such an undertaking? Or is there something they need to know first? 

Beyond the Walls of School

What are 10-year-olds capable of doing?  Focussed on their social enterprise, one grade 4 class is “working towards hope” by selling masks to raise money in support of local food banks. The students are determined that their business model should include a carbon neutral impact on the earth. They discuss decisions they’ll make, including the cost-benefit of adding to their carbon footprint. A recent conversation in the class determined that a print job was unnecessary due to the cost of purchasing a carbon offset. Not only are these children illustrating 21st Century dispositions, they are learning math in a context absent from rote memorization and worksheets. Subjects become a tool with a purpose rather than a collection of disconnected skills and knowledge.  Students are learning math in the very ways it is used beyond the walls of school. 

Authentic Learning 

Authentic learning spotlights links to the world beyond school, and reveals “a more integrated picture of society” (as Hackett, Mant, and Orfod called for in the G&M in November). Learning  must be integrated and interdependent, reaching beyond the classroom, school and community.  So, when students collaborate to write a newspaper, and determine an audience that includes communities and schools beyond their own, around the globe, the purpose and skills of writing to communicate take on a different emphasis. 

Our Kids Can Thrive

The “generational catastrophe” of “learning loss” is being reported as a foregone conclusion. From a different perspective, with a broader definition of learning, children are thriving. Many of the challenges students experience as a result of schooling have very little to do with learning. Instead, in an effort to standardize education, and rank order children, we have relied on tools that tell us very little about the individual. We are focussed on statistics that obscure the learner in favour of averages.  The average has no place in the development of a human being. The danger of the average is in its use of predetermining ability and conflating it with capacity, having never engaged in a conversation with the child. This is not learning.  We are failing to ask essential questions while being distracted by shallow understandings. Our children deserve better.  Before we focus on what has been lost, we owe it to children around the globe to see all the learning that has happened despite the pandemic.

A Time Of Critical Import

We have reached a time of critical importance for improving the learning experiences of students and the methods to enhance it. Rather than focussing on learning-loss or gaps we need to reimagine schools that focus on learning for our children. As Mitch Resnick writes in his  book Lifelong Kindergarten (The MIT Press) “We want kids to experience the challenges and joys of turning their own ideas into projects.”  Whether in the creation of colonies on the moon, social enterprises aimed at solving injustices, or publications that seek readers around the globe, we have hardly begun to challenge the capacity of our children; there is no better time than now to challenge our assumptions about what our students are capable of. 

We have begun to take some important steps forward. Insights from some of the above mentioned organizations and academics have started to take root in classrooms, curriculum and policy.  The Ontario kindergarten curriculum and the revised K-12 curriculum in British Columbia are shining examples. Concern about online learning could be the long-awaited catalyst to creating a new, more effective, more humane educational system.  As has been argued widely by the likes of thinkers such as Pasi Sahlberg and William Doyle, Sugata Mitra, and Mitch Resnick, this quality of learning should be emphasized for children K – 12 and beyond. 

If the Words of our Canadian friends strike a responsive chord and you would like to learn more about the options being suggested by those not involved in profits associated with the “education industry”, I would highly recommend 

The changes we need: Education post COVID‐19, Yong Zhao, Journal of Educational Change 

https://doi.org/10.1007/s10833-021-09417-3 

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—”