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.

 

I’m frightened. Are you?

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

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

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

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

America and “I-ness”

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

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

“I-ness” and education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What our kids don’t need… more trauma

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

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

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

The Implications…

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

The Next Steps…Imagining our way to the future

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

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

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

PLZ I DON’T LIKE THIS…

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

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

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

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

PLZ I DON’T LIKE THIS…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so ends Simon’s home-school day…

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

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

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

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

Coming themes:

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

They never ask the right question…

The Little Prince, Antoine De Saint-Exupery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wait!What?

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

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

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

Be well.

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

Getting To How…

Ace Ladder Aug 14 - 2In recent posts I’ve focused on the opportunities offered by COVID-19 for making significant changes in education. For the next few posts, we’ll be concentrating on one of the most vexing issues involved in altering deeply entrenched systems. I deliberately used “we” here because for these posts this blog will serve as a forum for several highly regarded colleagues.  While misuse of social media platforms has been getting a lot of negative (and in my view, well-deserved) attention recently, this collaboration with three highly regarded educators (known among one another as The 4 Amigos) continues to demonstrate the possibilities of connection. I’ve included brief bios of each of us at the end of this post.

As a starter I’d like to reiterate a few thoughts about why we must consider options to simply recreating the experiences that our students had prior to the disruption of the pandemic.

Recent Gallup polls suggest that the engagement level of students here in the US, drops from almost 80% in 4th grade to less than 40% by grade 11.  Why would we recreate experiences that were accompanied by such precipitous drops in engagement the longer students attend school?

Recent studies in the NY Times report dramatic increases in pre-adolescent and adolescent stress, anxiety, and depression.  Youth suicides (pre-pandemic) have never been higher. Why would we recreate experiences that contributed to these dramatic decreases in the social emotional health of our children?

The organization and separation of content in use today has remained largely unchanged since it was designed by the Committee of Ten in 1893.  Why would we recreate a series of experiences based on content silos disconnected from one another and increasingly separate from real life?

Perhaps most significantly, why would schooling continue to organize teaching and learning in ways totally at odds with our current knowledge and understanding of learning and the human brain?

Pandemic as Portal

What we know is that schools, as they have reopened,  barely resemble the schools we knew. We are seeing the beginnings of parental responses to these options in a national movement known as “pandemic pods” or microschools. This movement is one response to what we have described as the “pandemic portal”… the opening of a doorway to what could be.

As I’ve shared here previously, to take advantage of this opportunity, we need to move beyond expending energy on the recreation of yesterday’s schools, beyond debating why change, and focus on how to create the structures and cultures we need.  This series will focus on that how.

We will begin with the seat of learning, the brain, and how learning can/must change with our new awareness. We hope that you will join us on this exploration, that you will share your successes and stumbles, that you will create for one another and for our children the circles of support and safety where change is possible.

Be well

Our Team…Biographies:

Dr. Susan Clayton – Susan began her teaching career in 1969 in a high school in Port Alberni, British Columbia, Canada. She taught Physical Education with the explicit intent to change how PE was taught to young women in high school. In 1987 Susan went back to school (while working full time) to acquire a Master’s degree in School Counselling. She worked as an elementary school counsellor for 10 years. During this time she was President of the British Columbia School Counsellors’ Association for 3 years.  Susan then went ‘to the Board Office’ as the coordinator for teacher professional development. In 1999 Susan returned to university (while working full time) to acquire a doctorate in Educational Leadership. She was a Faculty Associate for 3 years for Simon Fraser University (Vancouver BC) where she worked with pre-service teachers. She retired from school systems in 2003 and formed her consulting company, working first for Grant Wiggins and for the past 14 years as an independent. Much of Susan’s work has been in brain based learning in Singapore. She continues to serve as an online coach for Harvard’s Visible Thinking course.

Tom Welch – Tom has been a high school English and French teacher and was named Kentucky Teacher of the Year.  HE worked at the Kentucky Department of Education as their sweeping Education Reform Act was initiated.  With that background he was asked to become the first principal of a new public high school in his home district.  Among the unique things he implemented there were a model where the 3 administrators taught a class every day, and he also developed a program so that every graduating senior received her/his US Passport at commencement.  Following his school career, Tom returned to the Kentucky Dept of Ed as “Director of Seeding Innovation” where he continued to oversee and encourage a number of forward-looking programs.  His subsequent consulting career has taken him all over the country and in the midst of a busy “retirement” he continues to work as a “connectivist” for the Univ of KY’s NextGen Learning Initiative.

Cameron Jones – Cam Jones collaborates in the development of learning experiences with children from kindergarten to high school, and adults; with industry partners from music to aerospace, the skilled trades to apiarists, urban farmers to food banks, filmmakers to politicians. Cam’s leadership is thoughtful and responsive, oriented towards understanding needs in the development of creative possibilities. Cam’s thinking begins with listening to people and reading voraciously: and then wondering about how the world should be and taking the first steps in that direction, encouraging others to join me from wherever they are.  Cam is the Leader of Experiential Learning in Ottawa, Canada.

Rich TenEyck – Rich began his teaching career in 1964 at St. Joseph’s High School. He was named a Fulbright international exchange teacher and taught for a year in a German middle school. Returning from Germany, Rich continued his teaching career while exploring and leading innovative responses to student learnng needs.  Rich has served in various administrative positions, retiring as a district superintendent where he successfully introduced and spearheaded the use of interest based bargaining in the district’s labor negotiations.  Rich failed retirement and accepted an invitation to serve as an Assistant Commissioner in the NJ Department of Education, overseeing the Department’s offices for Standards and Assessment, Innovative Programs, and Career/Tecnical Education.   Failing retirement once again, Rich joined the International Center for Leadership in Education and the Successful Practices Network where he served as national and international consultant, focusing on leadership, culture, and learner engagement. Enjoying his family and the exoloration of coastal waters, Rich obviously continues to fail retirement.

Image – Gary Larson – Far Side Gallery

A Confederacy of Dunces or…

Why can’t we say concentration camps? Why do we accept the inability of our elected legislators to react positively to the needs of a failing nation? Why do we tolerate descriptions of ethnic groups other than “real” Americans as vermin and animals? Why do we have “police” with no identification breaking up peaceful demonstrations and carting people away in unmarked vans? Why can’t we say the word fascism?

This, more than any other post that I’ve shared, has the potential to significantly reduce my following.  While this piece is not directly about education, schooling, etc., it is pointedly about learning… my learning as I’ve sought background for things that I had only studied about in my undergraduate course work in international relations.  I hope you will consider the importance and possibility of our learning as we all experience things here in the US that we had only read about taking place in other countries.

Background  #1

I was raised to believe that the health of a society is reflected the way it deals with its weakest members – most commonly understood as its youngest, oldest and poorest. By that standard we are a failing society… a society seduced by the mythical story of the American Dream, a society that has accepted the notion of Social Darwinism, labeling those for whom “the Dream” proved elusive as lazy drains on the nation’s wealth and a society one that has encouraged the naming by “real” Americans of blacks, Mexicans, immigrants, etc. as dangerous “others”.

Background #2:

While I find Donald Trump to be a reprehensible human being and an embarrassment, it’s clear that not everyone shares this view.  So, while I would love to see a new president elected this fall, what I’ll be sharing here is less about him than about the failure of 30+ years of governing by both political parties. In many ways, Donald Trump represents the logical consequence of legislative self-interest, lack of understanding of the logical consequences of free market capitalism, voter apathy, and a society increasingly characterized by separation… separation from one another, separation (and distrust of) our institutions, separation even from our planet?.There has been “a Trump” in every transition from democracy to authoritarianism.

Why am I writing this? 

Earlier today, on Facebook I posted a copy of a tweet that had been written by Charlotte Clymer, a member of one of the “casket teams” that handle and transfer the remains of fallen soldiers returning to the US after being killed in combat. It was heart wrenching.  It crystalized for me thoughts that have been increasingly difficult to put aside. How have we come to this and what, exactly is “this”? As I’ve learned over the years, I do better asking questions than offering facile answers.  

So it’s not surprising that I was struck by a question: What are the options when things around you seem to be unraveling? And unraveling faster and faster. My knee jerk reaction was that we were moving through uncharted waters. That’s pretty unnerving, especially when the pace seems to be accelerating. But what if the waters aren’t “uncharted”? What if they’re leading to something known, something predictable? What if we’re in the process of repeating stories that have been told before?  Stories that have ended badly?  Revolutions in Europe and South America didn’t happen overnight.  There were conditions.  There were signs and there were steps along the way.  Steps and conditions that sometimes were missed and sometimes welcomed.

Why now? The answer is clear and getting clearer.  For too many people the past 30 years have not been good.  They have not been good for those of us who look at our society with expectations that the poor, weak, and downtrodden will be cared for.  They have also not been good for people who may not share that expectation but who have watched their wages stagnate, their pensions disappear, their medical/pharmaceutical costs drive them into bankruptcy, the cost of educating their kids leading to mountains of debt and the need for multiple jobs just to make ends meet. 

As the availability of these basic human needs has diminished, people’s responses have varied… with one common thread… there must be someone to blame for their particular troubles.  We appear to have gone “all in” on this response.  

As the disenchantment with the difficulty of gaining “our share” of the American Dream grew, so did the expressions of our disenchantment, leaning most recently on increasing levels of  anger and violence. And through it all, the institution that we depend on for truth and accurate information has become increasingly partisan, occupied as they are with either defending or criticizing Trump (pick your network) and, far too often, being less than courageous in the process.  

But the process of blame continues and has escalated now into threat.  We have graduated into the acceptance of terms such as  “others”, “vermin’, “animals”, criminals”. We built walls to protect us from some.  We put others in camps.  We sent members of a new national police force (ICE) to conduct raids at their homes and places of work. The labels have implied greater threats and the need for greater retaliation.  In recent weeks, in the service of “law and order” we have seen the increased presence of armed militia and the expansion of the idea of “others” to include ethnicity, skin tone and anyone who disagrees.  

The last living judge from the Nuremberg Trials has called the collection of immigrants and their families, the separation of children from their parents, the housing of these humans in cages  “human right violations”.  During this entire time our mainstream, corporate news services have consistently struggled with the use of words such as concentration, camps, cages, fascism, etc. And we grew increasingly accepting  of ICE raids, protests, armed groups with uniforms and no identification, unmarked vans with protestors placed in them as necessary to preserve law and order and, ultimately, our democracy.  

And still we have not added words like tyranny, authoritarianism, fascism to our conversations about “what’s next”.  

Why did I decide to write this dark piece? Because we are closer to the edge than we’ve ever been. Some wonder if turning around is even an option.  I’m becoming one of those people.  I review my reading from college, books like the Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism.  I revisit my undergraduate thesis on the fall of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Hitler and Nazi Germany. I see frightening parallels.  I see us continually demonizing and calling for the elimination of the those we label as “other”… the blacks, the Muslims, the socialists, the police.  I hear our president identifying himself and his policies as the “only way to greatness”.  I remember the others who used that language.  

When I taught in Germany, I learned that very few of my students ever asked their fathers , “What did you do in the war, daddy?”  I don’t want to hear that question from my grandchildren and have to answer that I stood by and watched… watched as a slow descent into authoritarianism accelerated and the ideals of democracy were lost to repression and silence while I did nothing.

I was far too silent in the 60’s when I should have been challenging the decisions that brought us into and kept us in Vietnam.  I was too busy trying to raise and support a family.  I was far too silent when our black leaders tried to help us understand that slavery hadn’t ever really ended.  Later when I saw people around me losing their pensions, borrowing crazy amounts of money for their kids’ college education, I had a good job, a secure pension, and no student loans.  In short, I was living the American Dream which was becoming increasingly unattainable for a growing number of people. 

In my recent readings I re-encountered the quote by Pastor Matin Neimoller as circulated by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum…

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out Because I was not a trade unionists.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.

I do not want to have to say this to my grandchildren. This is not only about the election of one man. This is about the rejection of separation. This is about the need for connections and relationships. This is about recognizing that the rich, older, white men who control our government and its policies will not speak for us.  Much like the children we teach, we must learn to find and use our own voices.  

Want some resources?

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century, Timothy Snyder

From Publisher’s Notes…In On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, Timothy Snyder provides a stark warning for the future of American democracy. Too easily are we ignoring the ways in which tyranny starts to eat away at democracy. As our political system faces new threats – not unlike those faced by democracies in the 20th century – we must look to the past to safeguard our future.

“America Was Already a Failed State. It’s About to Become an Authoritarian One” Haque

Umair Haque – From Amazon Notes…Umair Haque is one of the world’s leading thinkers. A member of the Thinkers50, the authoritative ranking of the globe’s top management experts, he has published two books through Harvard Business Publishing, where he also authored Harvard Business Review’s top blog for several years, on subjects including economics, leadership, innovation, finance, and careers. Umair has held senior positions in finance and strategy, and holds degrees from McGill University and London Business School. 

https://eand.co/america-was-already-a-failed-state-its-about-to-become-an-authoritarian-one-3f6b25cef863

Be well.

Time for Big Questions

thinker-28741_1280One thing that the combination of retirement and a pandemic does is provide lots of reading/thinking time.  Every once in a while, this combination results in a “flash of the blindingly obvious”.  This morning was one of those times.

If you’re an educator, parent or politician it’s been hard to avoid the discussions, opinions, etc. about what to do with schools when confronted with the traditional time of school opening. This morning I was reading a post  by Diane Ravitch in which she summarized a post by Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education. Burris, in speaking strongly in support of the reopening of schools in New York City, cites several studies that report on the effectiveness of remote learning.  The studies cited by Burris report the loss of learning in terms of school days lost – i.e., in one study (CREDO, 2015) student learning in math was the equivalent of receiving 180 fewer days of learning in math and 72 fewer days in reading.  In a 2019 study of Pennsylvania online schools, students in such “schools” lost the equivalent of 106 days of learning in reading and 118 days in math.

I know we love metrics and place great faith in their usefulness, but WTF?  What kind of days were lost? Were they days with a great teacher, a mediocre teacher… maybe days when there was a long-term substitute in the class?  But more important than the accuracy of days lost… Is this what education of our children has become after nearly three decades of school reform? Is this what our world needs … a world that is struggling to accept the reality of climate change, a world struggling to determine whose lives really matter, a world struggling to determine what an acceptable number of student/teacher deaths is to justify reopening schools, a world struggling with dramatic spikes in pre-adolescent and adolescent stress, anxiety, depression and suicide?  Why are we locked into a system of schooling that was designed over 120 years ago?

Wait! What?  Are you suggesting that we need to change the purpose, focus and structure of our schools… maybe even change the very notions of schools and schooling? That’s exactly what I’m suggesting.  We’re part way there.  Right now we have gotten a “free pass” on testing. Right now we have kids learning at home. We have kids in virtual “classrooms”. We have kids in mixed age learning pods organized by parents. We have kids attending school 2-3 days per week or, maybe not at all. Is getting “back to normal” the best we can do?… not because normal was so great but because it was familiar?

A while back I shared a story about a fellow student in one of my graduate classes who upon hearing about an assignment that the professor had given, asked the man if the material would be on a test.  The professor paused, looked thoughtfully at the student and then said softly, “Son, I’ve seen your future.  It doesn’t work.”  Our future isn’t working.  Whether  our future is as described by Charles Eisenstein – The More Beautiful…] – the continued commitment to a story that no longer works for too many – i.e., the continuation of an Age of Separation — or as described by  Umair Haque … a continuation of the reliance on self-interest, the continued absence of relationships and the continued abuse of life/life forms that we feel are inferior to ours, there is one common theme… it isn’t working for too many of us or for our planet.

What if the way to a future that “works” involved an exploration of connectedness rather than the acquisition of knowledge in discrete and separate content domains? What would happen if we educated for wisdom rather than for information?  What if we focused not only on learning about our world but also on learning how to make our world better? If the Committee of Ten (1893) were reconvened today to once again revisit the purpose and organization of Schooling, and if they found truth in the words of Charles and Umair, what experiences might they suggest for our kids? If the pandemic is actually a portal to a new kind of learning experience, a new structure for what has been “schooling”, what might we be doing?

What would experiences for learning look like? Would they always take place in a school building? Would learning continue to be delivered from the heads of teachers or the pages of textbooks to the heads of students?  We have watched much, if not all, of what we’ve known as school be turned upside down in a matter of months. What if this is the best chance we’ve had in our lifetimes to move from separation to connectedness?

Last year we witnessed the courage of teachers throughout the country who elected to speak up about the learning conditions too many states and communities had inflicted on their parents, teachers and students.  They spoke up on issues of class size, access to mental health services, compensation.  They got attention. They made a difference.

Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan theologian and biblical scholar suggests that we have two stages of our lives.  In the first of these we spend our time defining our identity and, not infrequently, defending it.  But there is a second stage to living.  It’s the exploration of who and how we can be… who and how we can “become”. Rohr suggests that, too frequently, we become mired in Stage One, missing the opportunity to learn, to connect, to become.  These stages exist not only for individuals but for institutions, societies and nations as well.

Daily we are experiencing in real time the reality that staying in Stage One and defending what our schools have become isn’t working for too many students and their teachers.

Shouldn’t we at least try?

Coming next time…What can I do?

Be well.