Sunday, June 26, 2022

ICYMI: SCOTUS Gets Their Chainsaw Edition (6/26)

Well, that was a week. The berobed conservative activists just took to chewing through all sorts of law in ways that seem to suggest that the chewing will not be over any time soon. There were no big surprises this week, but that doesn't lessen the impact.

So let's start with some reading about Carson and various thoughts about the possible fallout.

The Supreme Court Just Forced Maine to Fund Religious Education. It Won’t Stop There.

Mark Joseph Stern at Slate puts it in the context of the "radical theory" that the establishment clause is not worth the paper its written on.

Blue Cereal Education takes a look at the relevant decisions that got us here. Plus a reading list.

How Supreme Court ruling lays groundwork for religious charter schools

Kevin Welner guests at The Answer Sheet (Washington Post) to break down how this gets us closer to a religious school free for all. Well, maybe not all.

No wonder Christian nationalists wanted these justices on the Supreme Court

Also at the Washington Post. If you want someone who's just pissed, here's Jennifer Rubin to call the reasoning "perverse"

The Hammer That Breaks The Church State Wall Has Hit Public Education Once Again. What Parts Of Our School System Will It Bring Down?

That wordy title courtesy of me, over at

All right. Let's move on to other issues, shall we?

In Wisconsin, a school board goes off the rails when it decides to toss out a book about Japanese internment. 

Federal judge to rule on attempt to block Florida law targeting 'woke’ lessons

Politico looks at an attempt to head off Ron DeSantis's anti "woke" rule.

Student initiates shenanigans from his home via social media. What are the rules for the school? A recent state supreme court decision offers a tiny bit of guidance.

Consulting firm will get $450,000 to help new Philly superintendent

Chalkbeat asks the question, "If you are hiring a high-cost new superintendent to run your district, should you also spend almost half a million bucks to hire someone to help him do his job?" They do not even get into the checkered Tennessee past of the consultant being hired.

A 30th anniversary look at a case that took Jesus prayers out of official school events, as a reminder that they're about to undo that one, too.

North Carolina is trying hard to pitch a lousy merit pay system. Justin Parmenter has found some documents about the people who have been hired to PR the heck out of that bad idea.

An Elite Christian College Has Become The Latest Battleground In America’s Culture Wars

Johnathan Cohn writes about a huge LGBTQ flap at an elite Christian college. A good reminder that such colleges are more complicated than you may think. Bonus: the college is Calvin College, the alma mater of Betsy DeVos.

Teacher Tom is here to make this point again--do not panic over sales pitches tied to the Learning Loss boogieman

Provincialism, Ways of Being, and the Failure of Democracy

Paul Thomas doing what he does best--tying together a host of ideas and perspectives to show us something bigger.

While we're discussing old issues that haven't actually been resolved, Nancy Bailey would like to remind us about the dismal state of recess in US schools.

Doug Mastriano’s Rootin’ Tootin’ School Shootin’ Prevention Plan in PA

Heaven help us, but in PA we have what may be the worst MAGAfied gubernatorial candidate in the country. He has many, many bad ideas, but Steven Singer would like to talk about just one--arming everyone in schools to stop gun violence.

Betsy DeVos is gone from DC, but her terrible national voucher plan now lives on. From me at

This Local Teacher Played Trombone in Zero Gravity for Science

Well, we need something pleasant, so here's a music teacher playing trombone in zero Gs (but, I would hope, four Fs). Plus, chance composition. 

Saturday, June 25, 2022

A Transformational Art Project

This morning I made a brief appearance at a small but very special occasion. So I want to brag on my old school.

The woman in the photo is Rachelle Surrena, an art teacher at my old high school. Earlier this school year, she had a bit of an inspiration-- create a community-based mural to become a major piece of public art in our community. 

That may not be a big deal for those of you who life in big cities where public art is all over the place, but here we have only a handful of such things. 

She secured grant money. She rallied her high school art students, and with them settled on an idea to do something related to local culture and history. The class invited local historians to come speak to them; that's where I came in because I have written the book, literally, on the history of local musical groups. The students visited the local historical society, studied up on several ideas, came across an image they liked, and designed the project.

I'll tell you more about the image in the mural in a bit. 

There are several things to be amazed by. A mural project is about 50% artistry and 50% technical stuff. The students created the image, and then their teacher, with assistance from other teachers and resource people, figured out how to create the actual physical thing. Break the image into 48 three foot by three foot squares of a sort of poly fabric. Get the squares broken down into a sort of color by number scheme. Attach the finished squares to the wall.

The reach that Surrena put into this project is extraordinary, particularly when you consider that she married a local guy, but is not native to this small town. The local community theater, the Chamber of Commerce, city government, a charitable foundation, teachers, students all the way down to kindergartners-- and not only did she extend the reach of the project to the entire community, but she kept the students at the center of it throughout. If you could see more closely, you would find that the mural carries, subtly, the signatures of so many people who worked on it in some way. But it's the students who drove the bus--and that's so powerful.

Two students spoke today at the dedication, and I've read what some others had to say, and this has been a transformational project for them. They have learned about art, but also about teamwork and cooperation and coordinating the pieces of a large project and about their own community, That last part really resonates with me. For my years of teaching, I had students do a local history project based on primary sources, and the effect of learning community history is huge here in this little place where so many of our students come up thinking, "Well, I'm just from some dumb tiny nothing town." It's not that they learn that earth-changing things happened here, but that they see richness and roots and humanity in this place that belongs to them.

Add to that the public nature of this. The mural is on the side of our local community theater, in a well-traveled alley, across from a municipal parking lot. It will be seen . It will lend richness and beauty to what has always been a plain brick wall.

Add to that the recovered history that is there in that image. Let me tell you about the group represented here.

The late 19th/early 20th century was the heyday of town bands. In our county there were between 15-20 during that period. Only one of them was formed by Black musicians.

They were called the Sheepskin Band (a not-uncommon name in band history, referring to the material used for their drum head), and they were a small fife and drum corps. They were considered an important part of the local scene. They played concerts in the park, were hired for political rallies, appeared in regular parades. In 1910, local leaders promoted the Old Home Week with postcards adorned with pictures of local celebrities; the Sheepskin Band was on one of those postcards with the image that was adapted for this mural.

The band stopped functioning for a while because the house where the instruments were stored burned down. The local newspaper editor James Borland organized a drive to raise the money so that the band could be revived for the 1925 Old Home Week, and the newspaper promoted that fund drive relentlessly. The leader of the group was Wes Law, the bass drummer (famed, the newspaper said, for his double-drag over-the-top style), and there was concern in 1925 that Wes was getting too old and frail for the job. But Law told Borland, "I'm going to play if it kills me."

Wes Law passed away in 1932, and the band ended soon after. It's not an uncommon pattern with community groups in that period, particularly those that depend on a single person for leadership. Of the many bands in the county at the time, only one remains.

I don't want to idealize the Sheepskin Band's place in the community. They were beloved and respected, but they were also separate from the rest of the musical community, and they were largely lost to memory except for hobbyist-historians like me.

But they deserve to be remembered, and now they are a huge mural on the side of an important downtown building.

I presented a historical summary of the group this morning, having devoted my local newspaper column to that history a few months ago. The crowd gathered in the alley was a great representation of the community, including officials, teachers, families of the students, and descendants of the original Sheepskin Band members, several of whom shared with me that they had no idea that their grandparents and great-uncles had been in a big deal band back in the day. Lots of folks took pictures of the plaque with the mural; lots of folks took their pictures in front of the mural itself.

I have to emphasize this again--this was a student project, facilitated by a committed educator who dreamy big, inspired her students, and cleared a path for them to succeed. And unlike many student projects that have no life or reach outside the classroom, this both affected and was affected by the community. These students learned about their community, and they made it better. They found something, made art out of it, and put that art out in the world, and in the process strengthened the ties that hold that world together. 

I mean, damn-- I never miss teaching more than I do at moments like this. I never feel prouder of students and educators than at moments like this. Rachelle Surrena and her students and all the people who helped make this real are all my heroes right now. This is the real educational deal.

Friday, June 24, 2022

No, It's Worse

Warning: this is not a post about education.

If you are of a Certain Age, you may look at the overturning of Roe as a return to an earlier day. "We've been here before," you may be thinking. "Clean and safe abortions for the wealthy, unsafe back alley abortions for the poor, and horrifying DIY attempts by the truly desperate." 

And that would be bad enough, but what we're looking at now is so much worse.

It's not just that 21st century anti-abortion bills are so much stricter than the old school ones, kicking in mere weeks after conception based on a fictional "heartbeat" and allowing no exceptions for rape or incest.

No, the new scary part is that we now live in a time of unprecedented surveillance. Amazon and Facebook know you're pregnant before you do. Your every move is tracked, your every online search recorded. That period tracker on your phone? That digital record of everything you buy in the store? Health data. Friend lists. Location data. Will that be protected, sold or subpoenaed

On top of all the information captured about you, anti-abortion legislatures are figuring out how to extend their reach. Make it illegal to travel out of state to get an abortion. That cool Texas trick of giving everyone else the private right of action, so that if someone even thinks you've gotten an abortion, they can personally sue you and everyone who might have helped you in any way.

And will all of that reach create more pressure for medical professionals to stay away from anything having at all to do with a fetus? Will the kind of care needed for miscarriages and threatening issues like ectopic pregnancies or fetal defects that threaten the woman's life-- will any of that be available. Our mortality rate for pregnant women (particularly Black ones) is already embarrassing. This will not help.

States could team mandatory pregnancy with some kind of support. States that want to ban abortion could team that ban up with an aggressive program of great pre- and post-natal care, free delivery services, parental leave, infant care, free diapers, free formula. But the states that are first in the abortion ban parade are also the ones with the highest infant mortality rate

It's almost as if this is not at all about the babies.

All of this is why today's reversal is not just about abortion or pregnancy, but about autonomy and--surprise--privacy, because states are ready to absolutely trample the privacy and autonomy of any woman who even looks like she might be pregnant. A state cannot enforce abortion bans without inflicting the grossest and most extreme invasions of privacy (countdown to vaginal inspection to determine if there was a fetus in there previously). 

So don't turn your clock back fifty years, because we aren't going backwards. We're going forward into a future that is worse than what we saw decades ago. 

PA: Fighting Common Sense Charter Regulations (And Ducking Responsibility)

 Governor Tom Wolf has been trying to fix some of the most broken parts of Pennsylvania's lousy charter school law

The regulation changes were not exactly radical. Here's the state's brief summary:

The regulation establishes a minimum standard for charter school, regional charter school, and cyber charter school applications; better ensures The regulation establishes a minimum standard for charter school, regional charter school, and cyber charter school applications; better ensures non-discriminatory student enrollment policies as required by the CSL; clarifies that charter and cyber charter school boards of trustees are subject to the Public Official and Employee Ethics Act; requires standard fiscal management and auditing practices; details the tuition payment redirection process for charter schools entities and school districts; and a clarifies that charter schools, cyber charter schools, and regional charter schools must comply with section 1724-A of the CSL related to the provision of health care benefits.

None of the proposed regulations are more stringent than federal regs. Most of them are similar to rules in other states. Publish the non-discrimination rules for student selection that you're following. Submit to an audit now and again. Hold your board members to the same ethical standards as every other public official and employee in Pennsylvania. 

Who could possibly oppose that?

You know who-- the charter industry and their fine GOP friends in Harrisburg. But after the new regs cleared the Independent Regulatory Review Commission, the GOP Senators threw a last minute block, trying a procedural resolution to protect the poor, oppressed charter schools of Pennsylvania. 

But the absolute money quote comes from Senate Education Chairman Scott Martin, who after decrying that following the same rules as any other public school would be "punitive" for charters, offered this sad plea:

This will rob students of future learning opportunities and send vulnerable students back to school districts that are ill-equipped to meet their needs.

Ill-equipped? Ill-equipped??! Goodness, but if there were only someone with power, like elected representatives of the taxpayers of the state--even one who was, say, in charge of a committee all about education in the state--then maybe that person could make sure that the school districts were well-equipped!

Are Pennsylvania schools ill-equipped? Well, hell, that's not the legislature's problem. Just their opportunity. 

This little showboat of a resolution will be vetoed by the governor, at which point the GOP will need to muster a 2/3rds majority in both chambers, which they can't. So this gesture is theater to please the donors. Throwing in the chance to deny legislative responsibility for public education in Pennsylvania is just a bonus they throw in for free. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

It's Okay To Stink

I just read another essay by another educator who was not comfortable with the idea of a student saying she was bad at a school subject.

I see this thread from time to time, this insistence on denying that students are bad at something. "No, you just weren't taught that well" or "Your teacher lacked the right tools" or "You are the victim of too-low expectations" or "You just needed more opportunities to master the material and concepts." Sometimes these ideas make it all the way into policy: if you are a teacher of a Certain Age, you may well remember sitting in a PD session in which you were told earnestly that "All can learn all." 

No. Some students are bad at some things. This should not come as a surprise; all human beings are bad at something.

Part of it is simple time management and the choices we make. I could probably become good at conversational Chines, but my personal judgment is that, given the limited utility or interest it would hold for me, I'm not willing to invest the amount of time that would be involved--particularly because investing that time in learning Chinese would take time away from other things that I am committed to being Not Bad at. 

We have a finite number of hours to invest, and we all make choices about how to invest them. It's a weird brand of age-ism to imagine that students do not make similar choices. I don't believe in lazy students, but I absolutely believe in students who will sit in your class and make a rational decision that they do not want to invest the kind of time in your subject that judge would be necessary. That's the kind of classroom negotiation I found myself involved in-- not "how can I stoke fires of passion in you so you'll get off your lazy ass" but "how can I convince you that I can, in less time than you think, provide you with some skills and knowledge that has more utility than you imagine."

Part of it (at least at the high school level, where I taught) is that due to some combination of wiring, experience, aptitude, inclination, and other mysteries of human development, people have certain skills, even as they don't have certain other skills. 

I had a couple of friends who could use a free half hour to learn yet another instrument. I also had a friend who practiced his instrument daily, for an hour or more, and never did actually get particularly good at it. I banged my head against Algebra II for a year, and simply couldn't grasp it. One of my adult summer jobs was working at a catalog store call center, and I was empirically, objectively, and anecdotally bad at it

Part of it is speed. Some students just get there so much faster than others. Which takes us right back to the matter of making decisions of what to invest time in. Students are mostly figuring on getting out of school at age 18; you've got till then, and if it's going to take more time than that, well, you can't have it. 

Some of the resistance to allowing students to say "I'm bad at the maths" is that such evaluations are often based on lousy data. Lousy data includes things like the Big Standardized Test all the way down to the ability to look around the room and realize that everyone is whipping through the work way faster than you are which is problematic because A) everyone gets to their own destination at their own time in their own way and B) we have an unfortunate tendency in our culture to associate "swift" with "good." 

Lousy data can also include the voice of an important person in your life who keeps telling you you're lousy at this, that, or anything. (Ask any teacher--the worst parent-guardian conferences are not the ones where you are compelled to defend yourself against the guardian, but those where you feel compelled to defend the student against that guardian.)

So I completely agree with the impulse to deny the "I'm bad at maths" statement because it's based on bad data. And any bad data that the students are allowing to shape their self-image absolutely must be debunked.

But in the urge to dispel the cloud of low self-esteem we perceive hanging over the child, teachers need to be hugely careful to avoid toxic positivity and happy gaslighting. Again, if you went through teacher school at a certain time, you may have been taught to never flat out respond to a student by saying, "You're wrong." But sometimes they are, and trying to pretend that they aren't, exactly, really, just makes them wonder if either you or they are crazy. 

By all means, make sure that you're talking about what you're really talking about. Don't say "I stink at grammar" when it's more accurate to say "I bombed the last test." But recognize that, first of all, bombing the last six tests might reveal a significant pattern, and second, telling a student, "You're not a good judge of your own strengths and weaknesses, and your insights about yourself are invalid," is not a particularly affirming message. 

How to untie this whole knot

The root of the problem here is not that Pat thinks "I'm no good at writing." The problem is the oft-unspoken subtext which adds up to "I'm no good at writing and that just proves that I'm a worthless human being destined live in a van down by the river where I eat cat food off a hot plate until I die alone and unloved."

It's not the conclusion about their capabilities that needs to be challenged; it's the implications being attached.

We bump up against this a million different ways. When prepping my students for peer reviewing of writing, I had to repeatedly emphasize that "this paragraph is unclear" is not synonymous with "you are ugly and stupid and have no right to take up space on the planet" because students are reluctant both to take criticism and to give it. I worked hard to establish some critical distance--the writing is something you do, not who you are. 

It's useful to be able to identify your weaknesses. You can learn techniques for working around them, for strengthening them, even for avoiding situations where they will be a liability. But it's very not useful to see them as an immutable blot on your own character and worth as a human being. 

It is okay to be bad at something. It is exceptionally human to be bad at something.

Viewing a particular weakness as a significant flaw is part and parcel of the idea that every student in school the same race at the same time to the same finish line. They are not. In fact, part of the point of becoming an educated person is figuring out what trail you' want to follow, and part of figuring that out is assessing your own strengths and weaknesses.

It's okay for a person to be bad at something, and it's okay for a student to know it and say it. It's not okay to view that weaknesses as a character flaw that's etched in titanium. Students aren't there to all fit into the same mold, but to create a mold of their very own. 

Every successful journey starts with a realistic understanding of where you are. The response to "I stink at math," doesn't need to be, "Oh, no, honey, you don't." It can be instead, "Yeah, you're an awesome person, but you kind of do. Now, what can we do about that." 

Sunday, June 19, 2022

ICYMI: Juneteenth, Jazz and Family Reunion Edition (6/19)

Crazy busy weekend here. Town has a blues and barbecue festival going on, and my extended family is gathering for our first annual June Is Way Easier For Getting Together Than December Thing. So dig into this week's reading list, but don't look for me anywhere on line today.

I worked at a No Excuses charter and here's what I know

From back in May, this piece from a former KIPP teacher does a good job of breaking down the problems with the No Excuses approach.

Caught in the culture wars, teachers are being forced from their jobs

Well, this is discouraging. The Washington Post ran some analysis and found like 160 teachers who have lost their jobs in the culture wars.

Deseret News has the news that plenty of teachers already suspected.

In Word In Black, Jesse Hagopian talks about the need to fight back against the "CRT" panic and other laws pushing teachers not to teach the whole truth.

Nancy Flanagan asks if maybe something else is the driving force behind all this ruckus.

This is New Jersey, but expect more of this baloney in the months ahead. 

Charter schools' influence on Pennsylvania politics

They have lobbyists and money and they know how to work both. From the Bucks County Courrier Times. 

Edelblut's past helps explain his destructive policies

Frank Edelblut is the anti-public ed chief of New Hampshire's education system. This piece in Seacoast online looks at some of his connections in the past that illuminate his positions in the present.

5 myths about education gag orders

PEN America with a quick explainer that debunks some of the common arguments for teacher gag laws.

NC Charter School Mandate, “Skirts for Girls as Fragile Vessels,” a No-No.

The indispensable Mercedes Schneider takes a deeper look at the decision against the North Carolina charter school's dress code. (I also wrote about this decision over at

McSweeney's bats clean-up again this week, God bless them.

Over at this week, I also wrote about Education and the Politicizing of Everything (and how that gets in the way of actual solutions, as well as thinking about why Not Bad Is Not Good Enough

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Does USED Have a Real Teacher Plan?

Earlier this month, Education Secretary Cardona issued a statement about USED's plan to "supprt and elevate" the teaching profession, to "recruit, prepare, and retain great teachers." In other words, take some federal action to reverse the Great Teacher Exodus. Is there anything useful there, or is it just some federal smoke-blowing? Welll.....

When Cardona first pitched the plan (during an address at the Bank College of New York), he led with a description of the problem that sort of gets it. 

A great teacher in every classroom is one of the most important resources we can give our children to recover from this pandemic and thrive. Yet, even before the pandemic, many states and communities experienced shortages in qualified teachers, including in critical areas such as special education, bilingual education, career and technical education, and science, technology, engineering, and math education. The pandemic has only served to make these shortages worse—falling hardest on students in underserved communities. It’s not only our responsibility but our commitment at the Department of Education to encourage, invest in, and lift up teachers across America. The future of our country and our children’s futures depend on it.

"Lift up" is a great rhetorical beat, and "support" is a lovely word. But teaching is a field where broad rhetoric has to be turned into specific, concrete actions (eg "Today I will teach pronouns" is not an actual plan). So what have we got here.

Cardona brings the receipts for the argument that teacher pay is too low. 20% less than other college-educated workers. In 38 states, teachers who are head of four person household qualify for two or more government benefits. But this is not something the feds can fix, so "President Biden and Secretary Cardona have called on states and districts to increase teacher salaries" is a nice idea, but of no real practical use. My wife's local is currently in contract negotiations; pretty sure "the President said you should give us a raise," is not going to get them anywhere.

The "fact sheet" for this release includes ideas such as using Title I and IDEA funds to boost teacher salaries. Not sure how that plays out on a local level.

Cardona proposes to "invest in a strong and diverse teacher pipeline" which is a nice idea, and there is apparently some money to do... something. $132 million for Teaching Quality Partnerships, which is supposed to make teacher prep programs better, except that you can only improve programs that exist and dropping enrollment has led, at least in my neck of the woods, to program cut backs. We've lost actual capacity in the pipeline, and that will have to be built back somehow, but that can't happen if there is no demand. 

Cardona also calls for a $350 lump of money for the Education Innovation and Research Program to give it "a new charge to improve teacher recruitment and retention." This is not particularly encouraging; the old charge for the program is "create, develop, implement, replicate, or take to scale entrepreneurial, evidence-based, field-initiated innovations to improve student achievement and attainment for high-need students" and then evaluate them--the "entrepreneurial" tells is this is some more neo-liberal "the private sector can do it better" baloney. 

Other "strategies" sound pretty fluffy. "Supporting teachers in earning initial or additional certification in high-demand areas" could mean anything from paying their bills to sending them a weekly "attagirl" email. Also, the specific high-need areas listed are special ed and bilingual education instead of, say, everything.

Or "supporting teachers by providing them and students with the resources they need to succeed, including mentoring for early career teachers, high-quality curricular materials, and providing students with access to guidance counselors, social workers, nurses, mental health professionals, and other specialists." These are some good items (though "high-quality curricular materials" could mean anything), but how to provide them? Federal grants to hire some of these positions? 

Or "creating opportunities for teacher advancement and leadership, including participating in distributive leadership models," which is okay, I guess. Not as cool as that new representative engagement council for parents' groups that includes even the astro-turfy National Parents Union. 

There's one good, concrete idea on the list-- helping teachers pay off their student loans.

The fact sheet mostly lists an assortment of grant programs, thereby underlining one major detail here, which is that USED isn't so much proposing new initiatives and ideas as much as they're just trying to get Congress to inject some more money into the programs that already exist. On the one hand, I see how that might be an easier sell; on the other hand, if the existing programs were providing great solutions already, we wouldn't be where we are now.

Look, I'm delighted to have a secretary of education who is not openly or passive-aggressively hostile to public education and the teachers who work there. That may be a low bar to clear, but we don't clear it very often, so hooray for that. And I have always had some serious doubts about what can be done on the federal level that will actually help out on the classroom level. 

So my expectations are low. But teachers are kind of up against it at the moment, and a nothingburger of "We're going to do some more supportive stuff kind of like we've been doing all along, only maybe with more money." It's nice that Cardona notices and makes some of the right noises, but the plan doesn't really rise to the level opf specific, concrete actions that can help.