Welcome Back

Oh, that’s right I’m the one who’s been away.

Maybe when we got all enthused about the quote, “May we live in interesting times” we should have asked for a definition of “interesting”. Wishing that we might live in a time of fear, dueling expert opinions, uncertainty, and separation seems like a terrible thing to wish on anybody, especially ourselves.

So, where have I been? In the past few weeks I’ve probably started at least 4 different blogs.  I always name them by the date of the first draft and include a version number.  On several I’ve gotten as far as Version 3.2 but none seemed to earn the desired “final”.  The relevance of each seems to have been eclipsed by the “headline of the day” … some these even dealt with education.  These included thoughts that seem to have been prepared by the writers at Saturday Night Live and dealt with the day to day struggles of folks trying to implement what has euphemistically been termed “remote learning”. How can you write a helpful (I think I really mean “serious”) blog/essay about the problems caused for teachers when they can no longer give “zeros” for uncompleted work?  Or how about responding to experts suggesting that we will need to address the coming preschool gap and regression in reading skills of kindergartners?

And just as I was approaching what might have been the “final” on another piece, the governor of New York announced the formation of a partnership with the Gates Foundation to “reimagine “ what education might looks like now that we’re accepted (or at least he has) that we might not need school buildings anymore.  Given the track record of the Gates Foundation with investments in the such initiatives as the Common Core, the portfolio approach to district organization, value added evaluations of teachers, etc. (BTW, for a complete list of the reform “successes” I’d encourage you to read Jan Resseger ‘s post from today)   Inviting Gates and other tech experts from around the country to design a new system of education seems eerily similar to expecting a real estate developer to design responses to the COVID-19 pandemic (cue the fiddle music and clips of burning buildings!).

I recall when our kids were younger and we were traveling we played a family game.  The first one who spotted and correctly identified roadkill would get a point.  We went so far as to develop a business plan for the sale of the “Dead Animal Game” (complete with reusable stickers of the most commonly seen animals) at highway rest stop stores.  Stuck here in the house I found myself wondering if we shouldn’t be thinking about a “dead society” game. Social distancing seems to be formalizing a trend that has been underway for some time now… separation.  To paraphrase Charles Eisenstein, we have been seeing, for what might be decades now, the separation of people from one another, the separation of people from our institutions, and the separation of people from our planet and its health.

So why this piece?  I want to emphasize that, as we look at our slice of the world, education, it is critical that we learn from our experience these past months.  While we have been spending large amounts of time and money on “reforming schools, we have paid far too little attention to one of the most valuable (perhaps THE most valuable) outcomes of our system to public education… CONNECTION.  One of my connections is a young man who teaches high school English. The most important thing that I can share about him is that I wish my kids had experienced him when they were in school.  He writes today about “connections”.  It would be folly for me to offer the Cliff Notes version of his post.  So, here is something I’ve never done before… here is the complete piece that he shared today as well as the link to his site. Be well.

Latest post from Write on Fight On

I’ve been trying to be optimistic and hopeful and dare I say– a little funny– to help lighten the mood. Writing to you has offered me a welcome distraction from the biblical story we’re currently starring in. And I hope reading my posts has done the same for you.

But I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you this week marks the one year passing of one of my students. A student who sat in the second row, first seat of my literature class.

Beside their seating arrangement, general GPA in my class, and their enjoyment of school cafeteria soups (one of the few conversations I had with them)–I didn’t know much about them.

My failure to connect to them still shakes me to this day. It was only after the student’s death that I realized I had to take responsibility for my failings and do a better job connecting to my students.

So this past school year I made it a daily practice to greet every student at the door. I addressed them by name, asked them how their day was going, followed by “The Question of the Day”.

The “QOTD” ranged from: questions about what we were currently reading in class, or “would you rather” questions– would you rather lose or sight or lose your memories?, or philosophical questions–“What 3 things are needed for a rich life?”.

Like the baseball player who, after he hits a homerun, points to the sky, remembering his deceased grandmother, the question of the day was my way of remembering the student who liked soup.

And even though I’m teaching from my living room these days, I still pose “The Question of the Day” to my students.

Personal connections are the most important self-improvement tool in the human toolbox. 

Psychology is ripe with studies explaining the extraordinary benefits of human connection (lower rates of anxiety and depression, stronger immune system, higher rates of self-esteem and empathy).

The word of 2020 so far might be “essential.”

Essential workers. Essential testing. “Buy only the essentials.” Essentially, no one knows what’s going on.

No doubt we’re swimming in a scary soup, Italian Canceled Wedding or Lobster Risk, but one thing is certain– connection is essential.

As psychologist Dr. Emma Seppala explains, “the truth is that a sense of social connection is one of our fundamental human needs.”

Look connecting is not easy. It takes courage and the fear of rejection is real. (You may have rejected my soup jokes). And right now, in the spring time of 2020, social connection is much more difficult.

So how can we connect? Here are 3 ways:

  1. Take a free virtual class ( I’m currently taking “The Science of Well-Being” at Yale University. Yeah, that’s right I’m an Ivy Leaguer.)
  2. Zoomwith a friend or relative but do more than just talk. Play a game, watch a movie together, knit a potholder, make a soup.
  3. Drive to a relative’s or friend’s house, honk like you’re snarled in rush hour traffic until they come outside. And have a car-side conversation.

I understand, connecting is scary but we all need to connect. We are social creatures. Interconnection is how we, both physically and emotionally, survive.

This earthy communion of sharing our stories is how we lift each others spirits. And our anxiety, our lonesomeness, our sadness will continue unless we break-free of our self-imposed isolation and connect.

Connection is essential.

Connection will get us through a pandemic.

Or a literature class drier than a saltine cracker.

Be well,

Jay

PS: I’ll be thinking of you–2nd row, 1st seat, soup enthusiast–a little more this week.

PSS: I want to thank anyone who reads this blog. You’re connecting to me. Which means a lot. And though we may not be physically connecting we’re emotionally connecting. And emotional connections go a long way right now.

 

 

Oh no! Not “what if” again.

As I wrote recently, Covid-19 demands a number of responses.  First among these is the expression of our admiration and gratitude to all of those folks whose selfless efforts and often heroic efforts seek to help us survive what just a few months ago was unthinkable.  Not too far down on that list are the nation’s educators who in the space of a few short weeks (often much less) have been able to provide our kids and their families with food, emotional support and, for many, brand new ways of experiencing education.

In addition to being thankful and, as we reflect on the many stories and the growing list of resources available to bring school to our kids and their families, I see another possible response.  What if the disruption in the normal schooling routine presents us with a challenge and an opportunity?

Not too long ago, a Gallup poll revealed that as kids move through our system of schooling, there is a precipitous drop in their engagement in the process… a drop from approximately 80% engagement in 4th grade to less that 40% by 11thgrade.  Equally, and perhaps even more alarming, is the data that show that our kids are experiencing unprecedented levels of stress, anxiety and depression.

As I’ve been reflecting on these frightening statistics, I recalled a parenting response I used to hear as a kid.  Responding to one of my youthful misdeeds, my mother would suggest (often quite forcefully) … “Go to your room. Sit there and think about what you’ve done.” Might not this time of Covid-19 be calling us to so the same? What have we done?  How did we get here?  Is this where we want to be? What really matters?  What if our kids have needs that we are not meeting in our current culture and in our schools?

How did we get here?

In 1893, The National Education Association convened a group primarily composed of educators to deal with a divide in opinion about the purpose of education, which until that time, had been divided into two forms of schooling.  One was the continuation of what was considered a classical education and served primarily the wealthy and a second form which was primarily vocational or life skill based.  The conclusion and recommendation of the group, known as the Committee of Ten, was that there should be more options and that schooling should be organized into eight years of elementary schooling and four years of high school.  Beyond that structural recommendation, the group also recommended the subjects which should be taught and in what sequence.  Most people today are surprised to learn that the organization of our system of schools and what the core learning should were determined in 1893 and have changed very little for more than a hundred years.

Russell Ackoff, in his lifetime a highly regarded political economist, offered the following: ”There is a difference between doing things right and doing the right thing.  Trying to do things right is about efficiency.  Doing the right thing is about effectiveness.  Trying the do the wrong thing “righter” actually makes things “wronger.” On a deep level many of us are recognizing that we have spent far too much time working on the wrong thing in our schools.  We have spent the past thirty years on a quest for greater academic achievement… achievement as envisioned by the Committee of Ten… achievement defined as standards of learning which continue to focus our attention of isolated subjects, on large scale standardized assessments, and on false gods of efficiency and accountability.   We have spent years now and have subjected kids and their teachers to efforts to do the wrong things right.

This is the challenge of the pandemic and education.  We have to provide our kids with the best learning opportunities that we can create.  But we have to recognize that this is a temporary fix at best.  We have to do more.  Our kids, disengaged and emotionally hurting need us to do more.  We are called to do more.  We have to create a space in each of our schools and districts where creative educators can think about what learning should and shouldn’t look like when we return to our buildings.  Why wouldn’t we use this time when schools are not in session to find the time to explore if the right thing is to return to school as we’ve known it?

  • What if all the stuff that we learned in school and all the stuff that we’ve packed into the curriculum is really not the right stuff? (Think Kodachrome, Paul Simon)
  • What if the way we have “done school” has been contributing to both the loss of curiosity and engagement among our kids (and sometimes our teachers) and the increase in reported cases of stress, anxiety and depression?
  • What if much of the work we are creating now is a living example of trying to do things right rather than taking the time to determine what is the right thing? What if the tragedy of Covid-19 is presenting us with the time to question the difference between schooling and learning?
  • What if we have inadvertently demanded that parents re-create schooling in their homes?
  • What would this time of homeschooling look like if we focused on home learning enabling learning beyond the overloaded curriculum that has become a part of our children’s schooling experience?
  • What if we thought of school not as a journey with an end (graduation) but as a time when we learn how to become learners? What would the important things or skills be that we would need to become successful lifelong learners?
  • What if all the stuff that we learned in school and all the stuff that we’ve packed into the curriculum is really not the right stuff? (Think Paul Simon again)
  • What if much of the work we are creating is a living example of trying to do things right rather than taking the time to determine what is the right thing?

This is the challenge of the pandemic and education.  We should provide our kids with the best learning opportunities that we can create while they are home.  But we have to recognize that this is a temporary fix at best.  And we should recognize that we have to do more.  Our kids, disengaged and emotionally hurting, need us to do more.  We are called to do more.  We have to recognize that more math, more language arts, more chemistry, etc. regardless of the delivery method, is not what our kids need right now.  They need us… us as creators of circles of safety… us as empathizers, us as connectors, us as caring adults who are here for them. And we need one another. As we minister to the needs of our children, we must be intentional about finding support for one another and, perhaps equally important, for ourselves.

Answering the questions

As we try, as we will inevitably do, to build a new future and adapt to the “new normal” which will evolve as the tragedy of Covid-19 morphs into the next phase of our lives,  can we remember that life begins again when we consider the possibility that there may be a different way?  Surely we can consider that the Committee of Ten, no matter how brilliant they were, did not predict the learning needs of our time.  This is a time that begs us to ask ourselves “What matters?”  Could we try to ask that about learning? We have to create a space in each of our schools and districts where creative educators can think about what learning should and shouldn’t look like when we return to our buildings.  What would happen if we use this time when schools are not in session to invite and support small teams to explore if the right thing is to return to school as we’ve known it?

What would happen if school/district leaders assembled through invitation working groups to develop and answer their own set of “what if” questions?   In most schools and districts that I have visited, it was not hard to identify educators who would be honored by this opportunity. What if the starting point for such groups was the development of a “what matters” statement…  in each school and in each district?  What would our schools look like and be like for kids and adults if providing opportunities for kids to learn “how to be” was more important than test scores and seat time? What would schools and learning look like if, in addition to providing a place that met the social needs of kids to interact with caring adults and one another, there were also multiple opportunities for learning beyond the walls of the building that counted for credit and transcripts? What would schools look like if zip code or district boundaries didn’t limit the access to advanced courses, experiential learning, performance-based credit, etc.?

It’s not often that the universe dumps such an incredible opportunity in our laps.  In a way infinitely more painful than any of us could have imagined just a few months ago we are being given the opportunity to move beyond the thinking of The Committee of Ten, beyond the thinking of the 1890’s. We are being given the opportunity to bring kids back, whenever that occurs, not to schooling but to learning…not to what mattered in the 1890’s, the 1950’s… not to what mattered to the writers of A Nation at Risk… not to the designers of the test and punish reforms of NCLB but to what matters in 2020 and beyond.

Shouldn’t we/couldn’t we at least try? How can we help one another?

Oh no! Not “what if” again.

moat-img_1356-1

Gary Larson, The FarSide Gallery

As I wrote recently in a blog piece, Covid-19 demands a number of responses.  First among these is the expression of our admiration and gratitude to all of those folks whose selfless and often heroic efforts seek to help us survive what just a few months ago was unthinkable.  Not too far down on that list are the nation’s educators who in the space of a few short weeks (often much less) have been able to provide our kids and their families with food, emotional support and, for many, brand new ways of experiencing education.

In addition to being thankful and, as we reflect on the many stories and the growing list of resources available to bring school to our kids and their families, I see another possible response.  What if the disruption in the normal schooling routine presents us with a challenge and an opportunity?

Not too long ago, a Gallup poll revealed that as kids move through our system of schooling, there is a precipitous drop in their engagement in the process… a drop from approximately 80% engagement in 4th grade to less that 40% by 11thgrade.  Equally, and perhaps even more alarming, is the data that show that our kids are experiencing unprecedented levels of stress, anxiety and depression.

As I’ve been reflecting on these frightening statistics, I recalled a parenting response I used to hear as a kid.  Responding to one of my youthful misdeeds, my mother would suggest (often quite forcefully) … “Go to your room. Sit there and think about what you’ve done.” Might not this time of Covid-19 be calling us to so the same? What have we done?  How did we get here?  Is this where we want to be? What really matters?  What if our kids have needs that we are not meeting in our current culture and in our schools?

How did we get here?

In 1893, the National Education Association convened a group primarily composed of educators to deal with a divide in opinion about the purpose of education, which until that time, had been structured around two forms of schooling.  One was the continuation of what was considered a classical education and served primarily the wealthy, and a second form which was primarily vocational or life skill based.  The conclusion and recommendation of the group, known as the Committee of Ten, was that there should be more options and that schooling should be organized into eight years of elementary schooling and four years of high school.  Beyond that structural recommendation, the group also recommended the subjects which should be taught and in what sequence.  Most people today are surprised to learn that the organization of our system of schools and what the core learning should were determined in 1893 and have changed very little for more than a hundred years.

Russell Ackoff, in his lifetime a highly regarded political economist, offered the following: ”There is a difference between doing things right and doing the right thing.  Trying to do things right is about efficiency.  Doing the right thing is about effectiveness.  Trying the do the wrong thing “righter” actually makes things “wronger.”

On a deep level many of us are recognizing that we have spent far too much time working on the wrong thing in our schools.  We have spent the past thirty years on a quest for greater academic achievement… achievement as envisioned by the Committee of Ten… achievement defined as standards of learning which continue to focus our attention of isolated subjects, on large scale standardized assessments, and on the false gods of efficiency and accountability.   We have spent years now and have subjected kids and their teachers to efforts to do the wrong things right.

  • What if all the stuff that we learned in school and all the stuff that we’ve packed into the curriculum is really not the right stuff? (Think Kodachrome, Paul Simon)
  • What if the way we have “done school” has been contributing to both the loss of curiosity and engagement among our kids (and sometimes our teachers) and the increase in reported cases of stress, anxiety and depression?
  • What if much of the work we are creating now is a living example of trying to do things right rather than taking the time to determine what is the right thing? What if the tragedy of Covid-19 is presenting us with the time to question the difference between schooling and learning?What if we have inadvertently demanded that parents re-create schooling in their homes?
  • What would this time of homeschooling look like if we focused on home learning enabling learning beyond the overloaded curriculum that has become a part of our children’s schooling experience?
  • What if we thought of school not as a journey with an end (graduation) but as a time when we learn how to become learners? What would the important things or skills be that we would need to become successful lifelong learners?
  • What if all the stuff that we learned in school and all the stuff that we’ve packed into the curriculum is really not the right stuff? (Think Paul Simon again)
  • What if much of the work we are creating is a living example of trying to do things right rather than taking the time to determine what the right thing is?

This is the challenge of the pandemic and education.  We have to provide our kids with the best learning opportunities that we can create while they are home.  But we have to recognize that this is a temporary fix at best.  We have to do more.  Our kids, disengaged and emotionally hurting, need us to do more.  We are called to do more.  We have to create a space in each of our schools and districts where creative educators can think about what learning should and shouldn’t look like when we return to our buildings.  Why wouldn’t we use this time when schools are not in session to find the time and create small teams to explore if the right thing is to return to school as we’ve known it?

As we try, as we will inevitably do, to build a new future and adapt to the “new normal” which will evolve as the tragedy of Covid-19 morphs into the next phase of our lives,  can we remember that life begins again when we consider the possibility that there may be a different way?  Surely we can consider that the Committee of Ten, no matter how brilliant they were, did not predict the learning needs of our time.  This is a time that begs us to ask ourselves “What matters?” Could we try to ask that about learning?

Be well

A Reflection…

Good morning

As some of you know, some years ago my family and I belonged to a Franciscan community where I served a director of the lay community (those folks who were not members of a religious order) and director of several of our retreat programs.  The retreat programs were known as “searches” based on the notion that we are all, in some way, searching for ways to become our better selves.  Hold that thought.

By now, you may be thinking “that’s nice” but where’s this going.  Bear with me.

I’m including a link to  a blog post by Jan Resseger.  I became acquainted with Jan several years ago.  We have developed a wonderful professional and personal connection.  I value her work and would highly recommend it to anyone who is trying to make sense of the deterioration of many of our most important institutions.  She has dedicated much of her thinking and writing to issues of equity and approaches issues relating to education more from an institutional and social good context than from one focusing on teaching and learning.

In the accompanying post, Jan focuses on the ways in which a number of very wealthy folks are seeking to undo big government, including what they term “government” schools or, more accurately, the system of public education.  Their reach is extensive and their operation, formidable.  In this piece, Jan connects the dots (she is a very accomplished researcher) with a short version of Ravich’s recently released book, Slaying Goliath).

OK, hellava intro, eh?  Here’s my request.  I’ve dedicated this week to reading/listening to some pretty diverse thinkers (Charles Eisenstein , Father Richard Rohr,  Umair Haque ). I’d be lying if I said that I have connected all the dots among these very different thinkers.  But here’s my searching question at this point.  Is a system of public education, especially one which focuses so much on schooling and so reluctantly on learning, a critical public good for a healthy society?  Do our efforts to bring about a new focus (student centered, focus on learning, discovering how to be, etc.) require the continuation of a system of public education? Are there really any options?

Charles Eisenstein is a fascinating person.  I’ve shared with some of you my experience with him at what he termed “a gathering”.  It’s from him that I’ve stolen the term “Age of Separation”… a time when we are increasingly separate from one another, from our institutions, and even from our planet.  He got on the public radar with his book, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible. We seem pretty far removed from that world at this point and the continuation of schooling as we know doesn’t seem to hold the answer. Is it legitimate to expect education to help move us in such a direction?  If so, what must we do to schooling to make that possible?

Richard Rohr offers that we have two lives… a first life in which we seek to affirm who we are and a second one in which we seek to affirm and grow to become who we wish to be.  He suggests that too many of us live in only the first half of our possible lives. I sense that our educational system is stuck in its first life and, in the absence of a clear sense of purpose, Jan points out that we are turning over the direction of the second life to the ideology of the very wealthy.

Is this a conversation worth having?  Your thoughts, reflections, comments would be helpful.

Be well.  Thanks for indulging my “search”.

Rich

 

 

Do We Need a Eulogy for Schooling?

 

I’ve been sitting on this for too long.

I’m watching our country slip away,

…away from the story I was taught to believe.

I’m watching rich people make decisions

…make decisions more about what good for them than what’s good for not so rich people.

 

I’m not a fan. I’m also not blameless.

 

I’ve abused the environment

I’ve discriminated against and been discriminated against

I’ve selfishly hung on to things I could have easily shared

I’ve watched violence become normal

…normal on TV, normal in the movies, normal in our lives

I’ve watched active shooter drills in schools, traumatizing too many kids to make others feel safer.

 

I haven’t done enough.

Enough of not doing enough!

I want to do more than I’ve done.

 

I believe in kids and teachers

I know about schools.

I should speak up.

Who am I to say this?

I went to school… a long time

I worked in schools… lots of them

I visited schools… big schools, small schools, native American nation schools, charter schools,  private schools, schools in America, schools in Canada, schools in Germany

People hired me to fix schools

…They made a mistake.  They wanted to fix schools.  They needed to fix “schooling”.

 

So…

What if we don’t need to fix schools?

What if we need to fix learning?

What if we don’t need to teach content?

What if we need to make thinking matter more?

 

What if we’ve been doing the wrong thing for too long?

…spending too much time on trying to do it “righter”?

What if we’re in a hole that we don’t recognize because it seems like home?

…home where we are comfortable.

 

What if, a long time ago, our community leaders, long since dead, decided to educate kids in a place called school because school sounded familiar?

…There was so much to know

…There was so much to teach

…They thought they needed workers more than thinkers.

It got even harder as the population grew and there was more to teach.

They needed order.

…They created a curriculum.

…They choose to organize the content into discrete subjects.

…They chose to move kids between these subjects every 40 minutes.

…They chose to group and educate kids by age.

 

They ignored most of what we knew about learning

 

And we went to their schools.

Many of us learned in their schools.

I learned to “do” school.

In my school we read one paragraph per kid.

I learned to count the kids and paragraphs ‘til my turn.

…I read “well”

…I learned to memorize

…I learned to take tests

Some time in college I learned to think

We didn’t know as much about thinking, learning, engagement, belonging.

…We do now.

How could we/should we act now if these things matter more?

 

What if we stopped allowing educational reformers to make gods of data and large-scale assessments?

What if we refused to allow kids to identify their own self-worth by their test scores?

What if we made learning more important than grading?

What if we stopped allowing people with little or no experience in schools and education to determine what is wrong with teachers?

What if we stopped private and corporate greed from treating kids like commodities, markets, and profit centers?

What if we stopped allowing politicians to label schools as “failing” when they have, for generations, failed to address the poverty in the areas where these schools are located?

What if we acknowledged that, in this time of fake news, climate change denial, social media, YouTube, & Snapchat, etc. schooling as it was designed over 100 years ago and as we experienced it may be dead for an increasing number of kids?

 

But

…I hear it’s too hard to change the system

…I hear “my district won’t allow it”

…I hear it’s the state’s fault, the parents’ fault, the kids’ fault

I’ve heard this from many good, caring teachers and administrators.

I’ve heard enough about why we “can’t”

Because what I’m really hearing is “I won’t”

What if we can’t afford “I won’t” anymore?

What if we can’t continue to ignore what we know?

…that kids “buy” teachers…they don’t buy content

…that kids learn in many different ways

…that they shouldn’t “fail” if/because they don’t learn in rows, in boxes, from texts, from teachers at the same rate as their peers. This is about adult convenience and efficiency, not learning

…That they shouldn’t be suffering from anxiety and depression or committing suicide in record numbers!

What would happen if we rediscovered how kids learn and created space where this could happen… for all kids, not just those who “fit”?

What if what kids really need is not more reform, more test scores?  What if what they really need is us?  Us, not as teachers of content but us as guides, as thinkers, as learners, as risk-takers, as creators of safe spaces for curiosity and exploration?

If we were starting a new school today what “schooling” practices would we abandon?  What “learning” practices would we do more of? What if we didn’t wait for a new school?  

Be well.

Take a Moment…

I’m going to connect a couple of pretty disparate events.  The connection seems pretty clear to me.  So does a response.  I hope that it will be for you as well.

I’ll begin with part of what Jan Resseger shared last week in her blog post, ” Why We Should Talk About Opportunity Gaps Instead of Acjievement Gaps”

Last week, the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) devoted its  newsletter to exploring the meaning of the words we use to describe and compare educational attainment. NEPC reports that according to a web search, “use of the phrase ‘achievement gap’ has been trending downward in the past decade and a half.  However, searches of ‘opportunity gap’ have shown only a slight uptick.” NEPC’s newsletter wonders: “Will 2020 be the year of acknowledging opportunity gaps?”

What is the difference between “achievement gap” and “opportunity gap?” Does it matter what words we use to describe educational inequality?

Researchers at the National Education Policy Center believe it matters because the words we use expose how we think, and reflexively the words we use also shape how we think: “When educators, policymakers, and parents emphasize the ‘achievement gap,’ they’re focusing on results like disparate dropout rates and test scores, without specifying the causes. They are, often unintentionally, placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of the children themselves. Listeners adopt the toxic presumption that root causes lie with the children and their families (and I would add “teachers). In truth, outcome gaps are driven by input gaps—opportunity gaps—that are linked to our societal neglect of poverty, concentrated poverty, and racism.”

NEPC’s newsletter emphasizes how the focus on achievement gaps has affected the thinking of teachers and why this needs to change: “(P)lacing blame on children and families is pervasive.”

NOTE:  I would add that current focus on achievement has also included teachers in the toxic presumption of root causes.

My second experience involves Chinese buffets (yup, really).  I’m a big fan.  I have a pretty set routine when I go there.  I work my way through my favorite dishes and usually finish the meal with a final trip for ice cream.  My usual dining partner loves fortune cookies so I’m in the habit leaving mine to her … never breaking open the packaging or the cookie to read what ever nonsense the fortune cookie writer (there’s a career for you) thought might alter the course of my life.  This week, however, my usual dining partner was unavailable but, craving comfort food, I stopped in.  After my usual march through sushi, salt and pepper squid, green beans, etc., I decided to pass on the ice cream.  Waiting for my waitress to return with my change, I found myself drawn to the lone fortune cookie.  What the heck? Why Not? I could use a laugh.

I got a laugh.  So did the customers seated around me wondering what the heck was going on with the old guy with white hair, laughing there all by himself.

Screen Shot 2020-02-02 at 4.17.38 PM

Susan Scott (in her book, Fierce Conversations) wrote about her elementary school daughter’s excitement when she shared that she had had an ‘apostrophe’ at school that day… really meaning ‘epiphany’.

My epiphany was equally exciting.  I realized that when Russell Ackoff and the fortune cookie writers are on the same page, you’d better pay attention!

The Connection

The right thing isn’t Achievement Gaps.  We don’t need more data from mandated assessments to tell us that some kids are “learning” and some aren’t (and the ones who do come from wealthier homes). The right thing is Opportunity Gaps.  But it’s not just Opportunity Gaps that exist in impoverished neighborhoods and schools struggling to continue their programs in art, music, extra-curriculars, etc.

It’s also the gaps we create ourselves.

Wait? What?  That we create? What gaps do we create?

OK, this is where it gets challenging.  What if we, in “doing school” as we have for years as students and more years as teachers, administrators, etc., are actually limiting opportunities? And what if we don’t have to become sign carrying activists that seek to publicly engage folks in changing local, state, or federal policies to insure greater opportunities for more kids? What if we can begin to address the issue of opportunity gaps right in our own school?

Ken Robinson, in one of his highly acclaimed and frequently viewed TED Talks, shares how schools as most of us experience(d) them were designed around the factory model – i.e., they were designed to accomplish their goals with efficiency.  One of the ways in which that efficiency could be accomplished was by grouping kids by age or, as Robinson so eloquently phrased it, by their date of manufacture.  But we know that in any class of age grouped kids, there is significant variance in readiness… readiness to play well together, readiness to get along with peers, readiness to read, etc.  They persist in being different from one another.  It’s precisely in these differences and our response to them that we can engage in closing the opportunity gap.

A few Examples

A second grader is struggling to read.  OMG, what will happen if he/she gets to third grade and still can’t read well enough?  How will they read the books that we use for social studies, math, and geography?  Let’s get them some extra help.  Oh but wait, that extra help has to happen during a non-academic class… so we’ll just use the art or music periods.  Opportunity missed.

An 8th grader is great in math.  We’ll start her in Algebra.  Her friend seems to find math a struggle so we’ll keep him in regular math.  Too bad he can’t be in the advanced math track in high school now. Opportunity missed.

Parents are concerned that their pre-schooler doesn’t seem to be understanding her letters as fast as her sister did.  Good thing we have pre-school screening.  We’ll get her some extra help right away.  Maybe we can get her some additional support if we classify her with a minor learning challenge.  Oops, very few kids ever get de-classified once in the program AND the gap between that child and his/her peers actually widens! Lots of opportunities missed.

We want out kids to have 21st Century skills.  We want them to be inquisitive. We want them to be good questioners. We want them to be able to discern truth from falsehoods. We want then to independent learners. We want them to develop good social emotional dispositions. But wait, our most recent state assessment results were lower than last year’s.  We need a new reading program to help fix that.  That’s right just followed the scripted lesson plans.  “Wish I had time to answer your question, young lady. But I’ve got this stuff to cover before the supervisor stops by.”  Opportunity missed.

You get the idea.  We are depriving kids on a daily basis of opportunities to make choices, to choose how to learn, to explore with caring adults how they want to be… how they should be.  We’re creating opportunity gaps unconsciously.  We are doing this with rich kids, middle class kids and poor kids alike.

If opportunity matters, what policies, practices, procedures are in place in your school that are counterproductive?  When’s the last time that you and your colleagues talked about this?  When’s the last time that you and your colleagues asked if, based on things that are supported or not supported, you really value being intentional about providing opportunities and closing the opportunity gaps that exist in your school?

Zhao expanding funnel 2

Modified from Jung Zhao…

Shouldn’t we each take a moment to consider the opportunities we offer to kids… to one another?    Shouldn’t we take a moment and ask ourselves what opportunities were important to us?  Shouldn’t we take a moment to consider what opportunities are important to our kids and what our kids need?

Why don’t we do this more?  What would happen if we did? If you did?  If opportunity matters shouldn’t we at least try harder?

Maybe we should all read more fortune cookies!

Be well.

And Now For Something Completely Different…

Right before Christmas I had an apostrophe.  You may remember that Susan Scott in her book, Fierce Conversations, recounted a time when her elementary school daughter came home and shared that she had an ‘apostrophe’ at school that day.  After a couple of puzzled moments and some clarifying questions, she realized that her daughter had meant an ‘epiphany’.  So this morning I had one of those.

I was diligently reading my daily Medium suggestions which, as usual, contained an essay by Umair Haque.  I’m going to take a break from my own thoughts here and share a few snippets from Haque’s piece.  You may like (I hesitate to use the word “enjoy”) to read his entire piece (a 4 minute read according to Medium’s editors). You can access it here.

Imagine for a moment that you lived in a country with falling life expectancy. Where the young would never retire — and the elderly were often abandoned. Where kids overdosed en masse on drugs, to epidemic proportions — when they weren’t busy shooting each other at school. Where people died for a lack of basic medicine that costs pennies to produce — like insulin — because monopolies have jacked up the price to unaffordability. Where the economy, the social contract, the way of life, had turned predatory — and making a buck off the suffering and misery of your neighbour was not just acceptable, but the necessary price of survival.

You don’t have to imagine very hard. That country is of course America. And yet, almost never do you or I see these issues discussed — in any serious, thoughtful, or considered way. What does “serious, thoughtful, and considered” mean? Take the example. How about a conversation like this?

“Well, the Swiss model of healthcare is a mixture of private and public. People buy insurance on markets — but those markets are carefully regulated, in terms of what insurers must offer, and how much profit they can earn. And people get a subsidy the poorer they are to buy insurance from society. It’s a good system, objectively speaking — people are healthy, happy, and prosperous.”

“Wow. Why don’t we try that here? It seems like an intelligent compromise between private and public — an organizational model that’s been proven in the real world.”

But I have never seen the above discussion once in my adult life. Not anything vaguely resembling it. Thoughtful, considered, serious. Discussions rich in history. Informed by global comparison. Sharpened with pragmatism. Ready to take on the great challenges of a profoundly broken society.”

Regardless of your reaction to the dire descriptions that Haque offers, it’s hard to dispute his assertion that the conversations he suggests are rarely a part of our discourse.  As many of us experienced the gatherings of families during this holiday season, I imagine not a few of us recall being told (or even suggested ourselves) that we should avoid any discussions of religion or politics.  Don’t even think about asking Uncle Bill what he thinks about impeachment!

What if our current poverty of meaningful discourse and growing levels of polarization stem directly from our lack of skill, practice, experience or willingness needed to deal somewhat comfortably with critical issues?  How many of us recall any instances in our school experiences in which we were encouraged or coached to discuss things that really mattered to us?   I can personally recall numerous attempts by fellow students (not me of course) to try to distract a teacher from the day’s lesson only to be told… “There’s not time for that now. We’re working on quadratic equations, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, conjugating German verbs, etc.”

And here’s a question I’ll come back to in a moment.  How many of us recall succumbing to the annual epidemic of “senioritis”?

Something in our hearts told us there was something more… something of greater importance than the fourth year of math, than of one more year of trudging through the anthology of American Lit, of weighing advanced physics versus another study hall.

What if we abandoned senior year as we know it? What if we organized senior year around the question “What Matters?”  Not what matters in Advanced Physics or American Lit but what matters when you have to function as an “almost adult”?

What if we dedicated senior year to the transition to adulthood?  What if we dedicated senior year to learning how to have difficult conversations? What if we dedicated senior year to exploring how change takes place? What if we dedicated senior year to learning how to move from an age of separation to an age of empathy?   Or why society seems to be characterized more by anger than kindness? Or why we aren’t sure that graduating from college with loads of debt matters any more? Or why we have a Department of Defense but not one of peace? Or why in the richest country in the world, there are homeless people in our community? Or why insulin now costs $500 per dose?

What if senior year became the culmination of 12 years of learning, of testing beliefs, of forming new beliefs?

Couldn’t we/shouldn’t we at least try?

Be well.