Saturday, November 27, 2021

Romanticizing Anxiety

I'm working my way through Judson Brewer's book Unwinding Anxiety, and at one point he addresses the ways in which we justify and even seek out anxiety.

The sciency basis is a paper from 1908 by Yerkes and Dodson that has become enshrined as the Yerkes-Dodson Curve or even the Yerkes-Dodson Law. Yerkes-Dodson posit a sort of bell curve for stress, where more stress and anxiety and pressure drive better performance, until they don't and instead start to make things worse. This seems like it makes sense. But does it? 

These are not human people

Bewer says no. In fact, he says that decades later when papers supporting the Yerkes-Dodson curve were actually subjected to review and replication (that replication thing continues to be an issue in social science papers--see also the marshmallow test) and found that only 4% of the papers held up. Instead, the data mostly shows a linear negative correlation between stress and performance. The more stressed you are, the worse you do. Period.


Talking to his book editor about this research, Brewer heard a striking observation from her:

People romanticize their anxiety and/or stress. They wear it like a badge of honor, without which they would be a lesser person, or worse, lose a sense of purpose. To many, stress equals success. As she put it, "If you are stressed, you are making a contribution. If you're not stressed, you're a loser."

We can count the many, many ways this plays out in our lives ("If I'm not stressed, I'm not doing as much as I could be doing"), and what is someone who's overly addicted to drama is not a person who's convinced that stress and anxiety are signs that life is going well? But part of what struck me about these observations is how it all plays out in a classroom. 

Because boy can I relate to the ways in which we think our job is to "push" students, to inflict stress and anxiety upon them the better to spur their growth. Pressure is needed to make diamonds, or some such sentiment. And so we'd set out to put students through a pressure cooker.

Well, some of them. The pressure cookers are usually just for the honors students, the high achievers, partly because "they can take it" and also because their high-achieving parents shared the romanticized notion of anxiety. We knew better than to try putting the lower-achieving students through the pressure cooker because we knew (or we found out the hard way) that they'd buckle or just quit. And that should have spurred insights. I wrote years ago that every teacher should be bad at something, because there is no stress like the stress of knowing that you're going to be required to do something that you can't do well. And your brain goes through all sorts of contortions to deal with that. 

I got smarter as I went. Some of it was simple procedural tricks, like teasing coming attractions well ahead of time ("There's a paper about this topic coming up in a week or so") so that things didn't come as a surprise or shock. Some of it involved changing tone and approach, from "This is going to really separate the wheat from the chaff" to "This may look scary, but you are capable people, I'm not going to give you more than you can handle, and I am going to get you through this successfully." 

Some of it I couldn't control. Some of my colleagues used me as the Boogie Man ("You just wait till you get in his class!") and my juniors loved to try to scare sophomores ("Oh, man, this will be the hardest class ever!"), but by halfway through the year, we would inevitably have the "This really isn't so bad" conversation. And high school students have learned from adults how to humblebrag about how much stress they're carrying. 

But teachers don't have to romanticize anxiety, don't have to buy into the notion that their job is to pressurize students, don't have to jump on the "We build grit by putting them through the pressure cooker" train. 

As we know from a hundred different pieces, when it comes to pressure and stress and anxiety, schools are cranked up to 11 right now. So this may be an excellent time to shed any remaining romantic notions about how anxiety is good for you and makes you better at whatever it is you do. 

I'm not arguing that schools would be better if we never asked students to do anything hard, ever, and we reduced their stress levels by requiring them to do nothing, ever (nor am I convinced that doing so would actually reduce stress, but that's another conversation). Pursuing the mission of education--to help students grow and learn and better understand themselves and figure out how to be fully human in the world--that comes with some stress and anxiety built in. But if your classroom approach is based on the notion that you need to crank up the stress and anxiety in order to make your students "better," maybe don't. If you're a policy person and your whole raft of policy ideas is built on the premise that schools are all about applying pressure and creating stress in order to promote learning, the research is not on your side.

I'm pretty sure an anxiety-free school is not possible (just as anxiety-free life is unlikely), but there is no need to deliberately pile on more. Instead, focus on building strength and providing support. I'm a firm believer that the solution to the problem of Hard Things In Life is not to try to avoid all hard things, but to develop strength and confidence in dealing with those things when they come. That's where classroom focus should be.


Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Slamming Teachers

Here's something that just popped up on my Twitter feed. Honestly, I could have picked any of a few dozen others, but I went with this one because it was fresh, and yet widely loved.

I have a hard time envisioning the worldview that these kind of cracks rest upon. The assumptions here. Does she imagine that in this world, schools are entirely staffed with people who simply don't give a shit about teaching but went to school for it and took the job because it's so easy? In this world in which nobody working in education cares about education, how did anyone ever get educated? I know some of these folks like to throw around claims about huge percentages of people graduating from school while being illiterate and innumerate, but  really-- all the people you know who can read and write and figure were just some kind of fluke? They taught themselves, somehow, while their terrible lazy incompetent teachers were taking a nap?

The pandemic hammering of teachers and schools just goes on and on. Some of it is fed by people saying Truly Dumb Things, like Terry McAuliffe (himself no real friend of public education) saying that parents should have no say in their kids' education. Some of it is fed by people not saying the smart things, something along the lines of, "I hear your concern, and while 'critical race theory' isn't really the right name for what you're concerned about, let me talk with you about why we try to address issues of equity and race, how we try to do it, and how we are trying to get better at it." 

I get that parents are ragged after the pandemic-so-far, back when schools had nothing but bad choices so there would always be a vocally enraged minority. And I really get that the batch of last-minute cancellations happening is a PITA. 

But the incessant hammering on teachers teachers teachers. It's teacher's fault that schools were closed (not parents or policy makers or legitimate concerns about health during a frickin' pandemic that has, in fact, killed a really huge number of people). Teachers aren't properly embracing the One True Way to teach reading because they are all lazy and stupid and just suck. Also, if you cross our vaguely drawn line in the curricular sand, we will fire you!

Honestly, there are lots of reasons to believe that many people, even the majority of people, support educators and public schools. But for any teacher who spends any time on social media or taking in traditional media, it's impossible not to feel waves and waves of hatred directed at you.

Yes, everybody's angry these days. But it's worth remembering that the states that have forbidden teachers unions are, in fact, the bottom of the educational heap. That most of the states that have enacted some sort of teacher gag laws so that they'll "just teach reading and math" are not particularly awesome in the education department. That teachers chose to get the training, chose to enter this profession, choose to do the best they can for their students. And they can choose to do something else.

I don't know what the point of crap like the above tweet is supposed to be. Well, no--in some cases I do. Some of these folks are the same old crowd of folks who want to see public education shut down, so that the market can be opened and so that they don't have to pay taxes to educate Those Peoples' Children. Mind you, there are plenty of people out there with a sincere belief in the power of the free market and a sincere belief that education should be part of that marketeering approach. But it is possible to belief that without holding and expressing a raw hatred and contempt for people who are trying to work in and with the public system that serves the vast majority of students in this country. No, the people who keep hammering teachers are on a different level.

Maybe the hatred is the point? Maybe they're blowing off angry steam? Maybe, like many folks who have fallen too far down a Righteous Crusade tunnel, they believe that at some point the public ed teachers will crack and cry out, "Okay, you got us! It's all a giant scam!" Or maybe they just want public school teachers to break down and go away (in which case, they appear to be having some success). 

I truly don't know. But it's all tiring and tiresome. I've written before about facing the public's indifference to public education, but facing this level of hostility, from elected leaders, from education "experts," from people who have enough of a following to shape the conversation in useful ways--it's a tough lift, and a waste of energy that could be put to better use. 

The fact is, teachers and schools took up the cause of teaching reading and writing (and history and science and art and music and a whole other parts of human experience) years and years and years ago, and will continue to take up that cause years after the current mob moves on to its next target. But it would be great if a few other people decided to take up that cause with them, or at least stop throwing stones at those who are actually trying to do the work.

Room To Grow

One of the odd, bad assumptions of much discussion and policy of school staff is the premise that people emerge from teacher or administrator school fully formed, all their virtues and flaws set in cement. Somehow that 22 year old newby will be essentially then same person at age 55.

An item in this morning's newspaper reminded me of one of my earliest bosses. He was hired, as administrators often are, to correct for the failings of his predecessor. In this case, his predecessor was seen as a little--well, a lot--lax. And so he hit the ground with boots on, whip ready to crack. 

He was harsh. He demanded compliance, that everyone fall in line. He was a prick. For the strong teachers, he simply puffed his chest bigger and tried to roll over them. For teachers who were struggling or dealing with issues, he worked on the theory that they needed a good, swift kick in the ass. Or maybe several. He was not loved; one of my colleagues said that if the boss was dead, they wouldn't cross the street to piss on his grave. 

But things happened. He dealt with a physical problem and learned what it was like to be weak. He tried his hand at community theater and learned what it was like to be someone who needed tp take direction from someone with a greater applicable skill set than your own. He found new, better, ways to do his job and work with people. He's the only boss I ever had who involved staff in hiring interviews and actually listened to them. By the time he was a superintendent, he was hosting twenty-some staff members in his home while they served as the search committee for a new principal. 

Does his work in his later years make up for the swath of destruction of his early years? I don't know that it's possible to make that kind of computation. Would it have been better for the universe if he'd been fired two years in and gone down some other path? I don't think we can know that, either. I just know that one of my fundamental beliefs is that growth is good. 

This should not be a radical notion in education, a field that is predicated on the notion of growth and change. The whole point and purpose is to aid small humans in growth and learning. So why would that not be part of the model for staff?

Yet numerous reforms and disruptions and management approaches are built around the idea that teachers are in a permanent state, their virtues and failings locked in amber. Give them a strict curriculum, scope and sequence, with materials that are tight, even scripted, so that their flaws can be kept away from students! But this just substitutes the flaws of the program developers for the flaws of the teachers--and those flaws in the material will never grow. 

We suffered for years under policies aimed to weed out Bad Teachers, a hopeless task. For one thing, it's not a solid metric--there's no doubt that I was a great teacher for some students, and a lousy one for others. Meanwhile, I may have disagreed with the approach of the guy next door, but he was undeniably the right guy at the right time for certain students. For another thing, it changes daily. There were times in my career that I was definitely not great; that's true of every teacher because teachers Go Through Stuff, too. 

We ought to have systems built around helping teachers learn and grow and strengthen as teachers; instead we get dump professional development sessions selected to help meet some state mandate or to satisfy the notions of administrators. The entire evaluation system ought to be built around helping teachers identify areas for growth and finding ways to help that; instead we get punitive cookie-cutter checklists. 

Ans instead of schools organized around a supportive community of educators, we get buildings where you're thrown into your own room, and your personal professional growth hangs on the luck of the draw-- which other teachers happen to have the same planning period or lunch shift that you do? There have been hundreds of proposals of the Let's Do It Like Doctors variety, where part of the job of master teachers becomes the nurturing and assistance of younger teachers. It's how it should be--but it would involve time and that means money, and when it comes to spending money in ways that quickly make schools work better (e.g. increase staff size in order to reduce class size), we just can't manage it somehow. 

Would a focus on growth help everyone? Doubtful. The worst boss I ever had was not only bad at his job, but steadfastly refused to learn and grow at all. The refusal or inability to learn and grow is top of my list of Reasons To Fire someone. 

And to be fair, teachers themselves can be resistant to all of this. It's hard to embrace new stuff, particularly if it means looking back over your shoulder and thinking, "Well, I certainly could have done a better job for those students." It's also hard if you're at your limit, juggling two dozen balls and someone says, "Let me just switch this tennis ball for a cantaloupe." Part of giving teachers room to grow also means giving them room to breathe (see above discussion of $$).

Learning and growing and changing is the most natural, most human process, and yet somehow we organize schools around the premise that teachers and administrators don't do that. Certainly not in any deliberate or mindful way. I've read several pleas that we make post-pandemic schooling more human. Leaving room to grow would be one way to do that. 


Monday, November 22, 2021

Why Are We Still Listening To EdReports

 Feathers were ruffled recently with the news that both Fountas & Pinnell and Lucy Calkins both got "failing marks" for reading programs from EdReports. Some flappery broke out on Twitter, and there was wringing of hands around and about, but any time an EdReports rating comes out, I think we have to answer one important question.

Who cares?

EdReports was launched in early 2014. Politico actually covered the event, dubbing EdReports "Consumer Reports for the Common Core." Which is a good hint at where we're headed. EdReports was launched with a hefty $3 million in funding from the Gates Foundation and the Helmsley Trust. Education First, a thinky tank/consulting firm that had teamed up with the Fordham Institute to promote the core, "incubated" them (Education First's website even has a big thank you from EdReports' executive director). The executive director is Eric Hirsch, previously a big wig at the New Teacher Center (they sell teacher induction) and the Center for Teaching Quality (spoiler alert-- quality comes with the Core). Their board chair is still Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College and one of the ten board members of Microsoft.

EduReports uses a gated review system-- you have to get past Gateway 1 before they'll even look at your Gateway 2 stuff, and so on. To their credit, they use a lot of teachers as reviewers of materials, but less to their credit, they lean heavily on a rubric system, which is the kind of system that negates the expertise of whoever you're using to do the reviewing. But there are scores and numbers and specifics and it's all far more rigorous than some of the "research" we see pitched into the education arena..

However, there's a major problem. Everything keeps coming back to the phrase "alignment to the standards." Which standards? Well, EdReports is pretty coy about that these days, but their history makes it plenty clear that the standards they've always held dear are the Common Core. 

This was supposed to be one of the benefits of nationally adopted standards--the marketplace of textbooks could be organized around those standards and some nice group could rate texts on how well they were aligned so that shopping would be a breeze and the market would favor the Core-aligned materials. The idea behind EdReports was to help boost alignment to the Core, and not to provide more fodder for the reading wars. And asking "Is it aligned to a set of standards that have been widely disavowed by everyone" is not the same as asking "Is it any good?"

Yet here we are. A dozen outlets have run "Fountas and Pinnell publish bad reading books" while nobody has run a "Why are we still checking to see if textbooks are aligned to the Standards That Dare Not Speak Their Name?"

I'm not going to jump into the reading wars today. I'm in no mood to fling my body between the Science of Reading army and the fans of F&P at the moment. But I am going to suggest that that discussion needs to be held on its own merits and not an EdReports Common Core check. 


Write A Note To Your Hero

h/t to @theJLV, who reminded me this morning of something I've long advocated, but haven't brought up around here since 2014. And this year seems like the perfect time.

I write a weekly column in our local newspaper, and since I started, I've made it a tradition, every year as we head into Thanksgiving, to encourage readers to write a note to a hero.

I mean get out a piece of paper and a pen, and write a short note to a person who is a hero to you.

Now that we're swimming in negativity, and teachers and other essential workers are being clobbered by plunging morale, it's a perfect time to inject something positive into the world. If you value certain qualities, certain actions, then reinforce them. If you think the world is a better place because a certain person makes certain choices, write them a note to say so.

Yes, I know people are a complex mess, and that a person you admire for doing A might also be a person who you believe really needs to stop doing Y. We often let that hold us back because we don't want to seem to encourage Y, but that's backwards. If you want more A, praise the A.

And do it for yourself, because you don't have forever. When my long-time teaching partner retired, I almost didn't send a note. "I can just include it with a present at her retirement party in August." But the party never happened, because she did not make it through the summer. I had sent the note; on my phone, I still have my last text message from her, responding to that note I sent. 

Emails and phone calls are nice, but there is nothing like a solid physical note, a piece of paper that your hero can take out and hold, a note that they can happen across by accident and be reminded that they made a positive impression on someone in the world. Which in turn strengthens the good parts of the world. 

We are swimming in toxic negativity, in criticism of everyone and everything, and I am not arguing for trying to counter that with toxic positivity or toxic ignoring-unpleasant-realities, but man-- can't we just make it a point to tell someone something nice about themselves? Can't we just surprise someone with an indication that we noticed them making a positive contribution to the world?

And if it seems like I'm pushing this a bit hard, it's because you can't imagine how many people argue, "Well, I can't do that because---"

So here's the deal. Just write a short note. Start is "Dear [name]; You are my hero because--" then say why. Don't try to qualify it with an "even though" or a "but." A sentence or two is plenty. 

Since we're here talking about education, I'd suggest sending it to a teacher who is a hero of yours, because teachers have gone from heroes to  "evil creatures who singlehandedly screwed up everyone's education" in about six months, and if there's a teacher who mattered to you, I guarantee they'd love to hear about it right now. 

Telling people they Did Good is not something you ever regret--certainly not as often as you end up regretting NOT telling somebody until its too late. Let them know. Lift them up. We don't all get to be Adele, but we can all send someone a note. 


A Tale Of Research And Social Distancing

A recent article in Wired is both fascinating and scary if you are in a school with lousy ventilation and a modicum of social distancing.

The fascinating part may be fascinating only to those of us who find research stuff fascinating. But "The sixty-year-old scientific screwup that helped COVID kill" is about one of those little things that worms its way into acceptance as conventional wisdom in a particular field, but nobody really knows why, exactly. 

In this case, the item in question was "5 microns," the supposed dividing line that marks the difference between an airborne illness (one that can float about for large distances) and droplets, which are supposed to succumb rapidly to gravity. The 6 feet of social distance are in our pandemic repertoire because COVID is supposed to be droplet-spread.

I'll give you the bad news here-- that dividing line doesn't actually hold up upon inspection, and therefor  in a place that's not aggressively ventilated, six feet of social distancing aren't necessarily enough. Of course, if you've got your vaccination and your booster shot, you're in good shape. Go get your shots, if you can.

The story of how a couple of researchers worked out where "5 microns" comes for is a great tale of how research can be a challenge, unpeeling not just layers of research and writing, but shifting attitudes about the scholars who created them. 

Sunday, November 21, 2021

ICYMI: New Pandemic High Edition (11/21)

Well, my county has hit its highest COVID numbers since the whole thing started. Now, for us that's still under 200 with rare mortality, but it's still not encouraging. And still plenty of people with their "well, it's my choice" crap about vaccination. Thanksgiving's looking great. For no particular reason, there's a long list this week, just in case you need more reading to tide you through the holiday. 

The book bans will continue until patriotism improves

Don Moynihan runs a pretty good little substack. This post connects a lot of the current culture war panic dots.

Burning Books is Un-American

Paul Thomas offered this op-ed to newspaper across South Carolina; one more good reminder of how wrong book bans are.

Parents coming for mental health programs next

NBC looks at the emerging trend on the list of educational programs that certain parents would like to see the manager about

The teachers here are not okay

A first-person piece at Chalkbeat looks at the many crises that Louisiana teachers have been hit with.

What rational parents must do to combat education conspiracies

Andre Perry at the Hechinger Report looks at how to push back against the culture war attacks on schools

Why there hasn't been a mass exodus of teachers

Has the Great Resignation extended to teaching? There are plenty of anecdotes and stories, but I've been wondering if we aren't just seeing a version of shark attack summer, where something is going on as it always has, but we're just paying more attention? I'm still not sure, but Rebecca Klein has a good story to address the question.

Want to rethink education? It's time to take back kindergarten!

Nancy Bailey points out that now would be a great time to make kindergarten kindergarten again.

4 Reasons to ditch academic preschools

Janet Lansbury offers four great reasons to avoid this assault on littles

Unmasking Moms for Liberty

Olivia Little at Media Matters has a good look at where, exactly, the Moms are coming from.

Toward a more inclusive Williamson County

The good news is that Moms For Liberty is not the only group organizing in Williamson County, Tennessee. Andy Spears has the story.

Authentic Voices

Dad Gone Wild gets all radical and actually listens to what teachers have to say about the current state of affairs.

Lessons of youth activism, climate change, and climate justice

Jose Luis Vilson has some reflections on all three, from a summit he attended.

The art of twisting good things into monsters

Teacher Totter looks at some current vocabulary-- equity, fidelity, critical race theory, etc--and shows how school districts turn them into disaster. One of those painfully funny kind of posts.

I'm a Teacher, and I can't live like this

Ellen Dahlke has a piece that isn't just one more "I Give Up" post, but a look at the toll on teachers that comes from making them act as ad hoc mental health professionals.

How teaching is like blowing leaves and snow

Blue Cereal Education has a two-fer; how is teaching like blowing leaves, and how is it like blowing snow? 

Presidential Timber

Grumpy Old Teacher offers some observations about Ron "Gonna Run For The White House" DeSantis and some of his great ideas in Florida.

Appreciating the Public Schools we take for granted

Jan Resseger offers a Thanksgiving-ready reflection on the many ways in which we should be appreciative of our public schools.

That Old Time Religion Saves The World

Nancy Flanagan offers some meditation about the natures and uses of religion in troubled times. 

And finally-- I didn't post anything to Forbes.com this week, but I did turn up over at the Progressive, responding to Arne Duncan's ideas about how we can bring everybody together over education.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Introducing the Public Education Hostility Index

Here at the Curmudgucation Institute, we have always realized that we are lacking one thing that every good thinky tank and Institute and Foundation has--reports. So we finally buckled down and created the American Public Education State Hostility Index (APESHI). This report now has its very own website.

The goal was to address the question, "Which states are the most hostile to public education right now?" To answer that question, we picked some factors to consider, like funding and state leadership and gag laws, assigned states numerical ratings, and added all the numbers together. Critics might argue that we have just assigned a bunch of numbers to subjective value judgments, but A) as far as I can tell, that's how the game is often played and B) they're numbers, so, you know, science.

Much of the rankings worked out to be pretty close together, though Florida's unsurprising domination of the field was unchallenged. So there is very little difference between 10th place Idaho and 11th place South Carolina. But it's still a handy tool for discussion. The full spreadsheet is available on the site; feel free to let me know in the comments where I missed something. 

I'll share some results here. The top ten Most Hostile states, in order, with scores, so you can see the ties

Florida (55)

Arizona (48)

Louisiana (43)

North Carolina (43)

Arkansas (39)

Ohio (39)

Oklahoma (39)

Indiana (38)

Georgia (35)

Idaho (35)

And the nine least hostile states, according to the rankings

Wyoming (16)

North Dakota (15)

Maryland (14)

New York (14)

New Jersey (12)

Vermont (10)

Hawaii (9)

Alaska (8)

Massachusetts (7)

If you don't see your state at the top or the bottom, the list of all 50 is right here.

There are some limitations to the Index. For one, I did not try to factor in COVID response, which was just too noisy and local for me to sort out effectively. And while including economic factors, I did not get into the heavy math of contextualizing salary issues, which may account for Hawaii and Alaska scoring relatively well, even though they are ultra-expensive states in which to live.

The Institute expects to make this an annual exercise, and situations on the ground change fairly quickly. Feedback is appreciated. I prefer to think of the Index as the beginning of a conversation rather than the end of it. 

The full PEHI website is located here.


Thursday, November 18, 2021

NH Teacher Bounty: Gov Denounces, Moms for Liberty Double Down

New Hampshire instituted a gag order on teachers that could strip them of their licenses for teaching the wrong thing, and Moms for Liberty jumped in by putting a bounty on the heads of teachers whose broke the law. It has been a good-sized flap, as well it should have been. 

Governor Chris Sununu has come out pretty clearly on the matter.

“The Governor condemns the tweet referencing ‘bounties’ and any sort of financial incentive is wholly inappropriate and has no place,” Sununu's spokesperson, Ben Vihstadt, said in an email.

Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, whose education credentials (if not his wealth) are on par with Betsy DeVos's, wasn't exactly condemning the M4L tweet. Asked for his two cents:

“I would encourage people to be very careful on social media," he said in an interview. “There’s a lot of rhetoric on social media that is not helpful or constructive.”

Which translates roughly to, "Dammit, Karen, don't say the quiet part out loud-- you'll queer the whole pitch."

But neither a philosophical nor realpolitik scolding convinced Rachel Goldsmith, New Hampshire's M4L chief, to back off, other than now referring to the bounty as an "incentive."

Goldsmith said if public schools had been doing the job in the first place, none of this would be necessary.

“We are parents tired of public school systems failing our children. This incentive will encourage teachers, parents, and students to find and replace bad curriculum. We just want the school boards and teachers unions to stop pushing alphabet soup (CRT/DEI/SEL) and start teaching kids to read. Manchester SD is graduating only 20 percent of kids reading at grade level,” Goldsmith said.


Goldsmith is also part of the Free State Project, once serving as executive director. The Free State Project is an initiative to bring a bunch of Libertarians to New Hampshire in hopes of essentially taking over the state and establishing a Libertarian paradise in which the government does pretty much nothing (you can learn more about them here, or in the book A Libertarian Walks Into A Bear). So perhaps Goldsmith's outrage over teachers doing indoctrinatin' is related to her feelings that public schools shouldn't really exist at all. 

At any rate, it's safe to say that M4L NH will not be backing off any time soon, no matter how inappropriate the governor thinks this is.

GOP House Proposed Parents Bill of Rights.

 The GOP is ready to do some serious pandering, as the critical race theory panic continues to metastasize. Here comes Kevin McCarthy with an announcement:

Over the past nearly two years, we have seen a troubling trend take root in the Democrat Party. Their elected officials want to take power away from parents and hand over more control to politicians and teachers unions to dictate what our children should be taught in classrooms.

McCarthy goes on the fold in school closings and the DOJ's "targeting" of parents "at the behest of an interest group." And also, Terry McAullife's ill-considered quote about parents not having a say (which McCarthy attributes to a "prominent official in the Democratic Party").


So McCarthy, Virginia Foxx, Julia Letlow, Burgess Owens, and Jim Banks have a proposed solution-- the Parents Bill of Rights. 

The bullet point version of the bill lists five rights-- the right to know what's being taught, the right to be heard, the right to see school budget and spending, the right to protect their child's privacy, and the right to be updated on any violent activity at school. Most of which seems... kind of redundant, giving parents rights that they already have.

But maybe the actual bill reads a little better. (Spoiler alert: it does not. It is far worse.).

The bill seeks to amend various sections of the Education and Secondary Education Act by adding some requirements. These are perhaps best summarized by the "Notice of Rights" paragraph, which lists the rights that parents must be informed they now have under this act:

A) The right to review the curriculum of their child's school (already exists). But there is also an "all instructional materials" requirement for parents, which is nuts-- but it includes the right to see and inspect all those materials including "any survey, analysis, or evaluation." Which--wait! Does that mean the Big Standardized Test, the SAT, and any other test must be available for inspection? One problem with these transparency laws is that they run smack into copyright laws protecting all sorts of proprietary material belonging to testing and instructional materials companies. "Pearson on Line 1 for you, Representative McCarthy!"

B) The right to know if the State alters the State's challenging academic standards (does this mean State's don't have to notify anyone if they change standards that aren't challenging).

C) The right to meet with each teacher of their child not less than twice during each school year. Okay, are there schools out there somewhere where parents are being denied the chance to meet with a teacher even twice? On the one hand, this represents a huge amount of time. On the other hand, most teachers can tell you a story about ghost parental units who could not be convinced to even answer e-mails. So once again, a solution in search of a problem.

D) The right to review the budget, including all revenues and expenditures. I'm unaware of states that don't already allow this. 

E) The right to a list of the books and other reading materials contained in the library of their child's school. Does your school not have an electronic card catalog, or even an old-school paper one? Or is the requirement to have it on a list form that you carry home? Because I figure doing an electronic search for books with naughty words or titles from that List of Naughty Books you're looking at would be easier in electronic form.

F) The right to address the school board of a local educational agency. Again, I know some boards can be cranky about this, but are there boards that refuse public comment without getting in trouble? Are there states that don't have sunshine laws forbidding private meetings? And will we be acknowledging that this right does not include the right to make threats, follow members to their cars and homes, or just speak up at any moment of the meeting you feel the mood strike you? The details say that expression should be in a "lawful and appropriate manner," so I guess we're covered.

G) The right to information about violent activity in their child's school. The actual language notes that names of minors can't be released when communicating this.  Again, I am unclear exactly what problem this is meant to address.

H) The right to information about any plans to eliminate gifted and talented programs in the child's school. So, even if their child isn't in the program?

There are also some amendments offered to FERPA and PPRA saying that the school can't act as a parent in giving consent under the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), and parents must be given a chance to opt out. Also, no educational agency or "authorized representative" of the agency can sell student information. Sounds swell, but just in case you're worried that this would hamstring all the education-flavored businesses handling this stuff, a later clause allows that data collected for "legitimate educational purpose," so the test manufacturers are still free to do whatever.

Look, there's no question that some local school boards hunker down and deal with difficulty by stonewalling and misbehaving. Lucky for us these folks have to stand for election. But the bill is mostly a combination of redundant requirements and solutions in search of a problem (well, other than the problem of how to keep getting Republicans elected). It's a staggering level of federal intrusion into local business, particularly coming from the Party of Small Government.

There's are also levels of irony here. For one, the voucher programs that the GOP loves so well (e.g. Betsy DeVos's Education Freedom Scholarships) champion schools that don't have to do any of these things--and often strongly resist any pressure to make them do any of these things. The other is that the GOP is still trying to brand itself as the Parent's Party, despite its opposition to paid family leave, medicare for all, and a variety of other measures that would actually help parents (like. say. addressing the US's shameful maternal mortality rate). But why actually do something when you can instead float some doomed symbolic legislation that doesn't actually do anything, let alone something useful. 


Monday, November 15, 2021

History is a conversation

History is a conversation, not a declaration, and anyone who says, "This is the Only One True Way to understand this event," is not doing history, but something else.

It is ironic that in all this fretting about how history is taught, students generally consider history to be the most pointless class they're asked to sit through. But we humans are hardwired to do history (even if we have trouble imagining that history didn't start when we were born). Let me use the analogy I used to use with my students.

Saturday night, at a big party, Pat and Sam have a big public fight, break up, stomp out of the party separately. Roughly five seconds later, the conversations start. What exactly happened? What caused it? What explains why it happened? Who's responsible for what happened? Which part of what we're hearing is reliable, which is second- or third-hand, and which is just stuff someone made up? What changed because it happened? How will this affect the way people act on Monday? What is the True Story of what happened?

There will be so many different answers to these questions. Pat's answers. Sam's answers. Their different sets of friends. People who have known them for a long time. It's possible that all these people will reach some sort of consensus about what happened; possible, but unlikely. And in the meantime, new tidbits may ripple through the conversation ("Did you know that Pat's folks were talking about divorce when the fight happened?" "Did you hear that Sam was developing a substance abuse problem?") New information will cause folks to re-evaluate information in retrospect. 

And if, for some reason, the Great Saturday Night Breakup Fight turns out to be a big enough deal that it sticks in people's memory (because part of the Conversation of History is "Does this thing merit being remembered and mulled over?"), as the various participants and witnesses age and learn and grow, they acquire new perspective. Fifteen years later, Pat may look back and think, "Yeah, I was just an ass back then," or Sam may look back and think, "Yeah, I just wasn't ready to talk about what I really wanted." The event may, over time, have harsh repercussions and harden into a bitter, angry turning point, or over time Pat and Sam may end up friends who remember it warmly as a small blip in their relationship. Turns out figuring out how to fit the chapter into a larger story is its own conversation. And some results may be unexpected; some stranger at the party may have seen the fight and determined that they would avoid any such event in their own life. Someone else may have seen something that every other observer missed.

Human beings are complex, and the ways in which we bump into each other are also complex and rich and, most importantly for this analogy, multi-dimensional, so that the conversation about a moment in human existence is never, ever settled. 

But, oh, how we love to settle it. We decide that This is the One True Story of What Happened, and (particularly if we use that story to help define ourselves) we may fight like hell against any different information, any different interpretations, any new perspectives. As much as we humans are driven to create a map of the world, we are equally driven to keep people from messing with it once it's built. We want the feeling of solid, settled history under our feet. We hate feeling it shift and tilt and move under us, and yet, we are doomed to either feel that shift or to expend a huge amount of energy to convince ourselves (and anyone who will listen) that it isn't shifting, that it shouldn't shift, that if it IS shifting that's because Nefarious Persons are messing with it with ill intent.

History is never settled. People who insist that schools should "just teach the facts" are arguing that we should take a steak, cut off the fat and the meat, wash off the juices, and let students lick the bone. It's like telling literature teachers that they should "just teach the words," but not the sentences they form. 

There's so much more to it, and that so much more is a conversation, a debate, a discussion, a search for other information, other perspectives. Ideologues and children are not very good at that kind of history, but it's the only kind worth doing. We are limited human beings, hemmed in by time and space and experience. We can never view any moment, any event, any slice of human experience in 360 degrees and infinite time, so we try and stretch the best we can. It's hard and one of those "strive toward a star you will never reach" things, but that's no excuse to try to reduce rich human history to a single simple story by denying the full depth and breadth of the thing. 

Education is about learning to become our best selves, to grasp what it is to be fully human in the world, and that means grappling with history--too big to hold in human hands or see with human eyes. A debate about whose One Single Truth should be taught is missing the point. Trying to reduce history (or education) to something small and simple is to cut away the important parts; we owe our students more than that. 

Speaking Of Indoctrination

The Board of Directors was excited when we arrived at the doctor's office because there, on the edge of the reception window, was a row of small figurines.

"Look! Paw Patrol!" they said happily. 

The thing is, we don't watch Paw Patrol. We barely watch tv at all, and what we watch is streamed ad free. And yet somehow, we know Paw Patrol. I've been through this before. My older children also rarely watched tv, and yet they knew who the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were. 

If you want to talk about indoctrinating children, let's talk about the hugely effective world of marketing. So effective that products leak through to children who don't even directly engage with the product or the typical marketing channels. Let's talk about how much money Coke, Pepsi, and the US Army spend to make themselves omnipresent in schools all across the country. Or even how parents themselves often slide into letting their kiddos get in on the latest cool cultural thing (just how many children watched the ultra-violent Squid Games). 

What all of these various indoctrinatin' influences have in common is that they are massive, well-financed, and coordinated so that the influence is coming at children (and adults, for that matter) from a hundred different directions, including both old media and new. 

Perhaps that's why folks who worry about indoctrination in schools like to imagine this vast web of communist teachers all connected and coordinated, a notion that is, to anyone who has actually worked with teachers, hilarious. Teachers did not agree on which candidate to support for President, or much of any other office. I suspect you'd be hard pressed to find a school building in this country in which all the staff agree on vaccinations or masking. And there is not a union local president in this country who would forcefully argue that union leadership is not at all like herding cats.

But sure-- some folks should go ahead and rail against a massive indoctrination conspiracy where none exists, while at the same time ignoring the ways a giant marketing machine tells your kids what they need to eat and drink and watch and buy to be happy. 

Sunday, November 14, 2021

ICYMI: Good News Edition (11/14)

Happy to let you know that the twins have both tested negative for the Corona Pirates after their exposure to a positive classmate earlier this week. So that's a win. Now here's your reading for the week.

Learning Loss or Learning Found

A great real teacher view of the whole Learning Loss flap, by Sharon Murchie.

Stop Telling Students, "You Belong!"

At Education Week, Greg Walton offers an explanation for why telling students they belong might actually do more harm than good.

Teaching critical race theory is about liberating all of us

Rann Miller at The Progressive makes the case for having CRT influence your school's curriculum, and it starts with the most jaw-dropping quote you've read in a while.

"Helping kids of color to feel they belong has a negative effect on white, Christian, or conservative kids,” Mary Beeman, the campaign manager for a Republican school board candidate in Connecticut, said in October.

I'm a Teacher and I Feel Like I'm Failing My Students

Thomas Rademacher with one more piece about the morale problem eating at the heart of education these days.

Play is the most rigorous curriculum known to humankind

Teacher Tom with some insights about what is the best lesson for the littles.

Censorship and Book Burning: A Reader

Paul Thomas has assembled a batch of links to the most current raft of book banning stories in the US. Not encouraging, but handy.

Lost in the Hoarders' Closet

A very short post at Notes from the Educational Trenches, but an intriguing image nonetheless.

New Report Illuminates Constitutional Crisis in North Carolina's underfunded schools

In NC, there's been a battle going on between the courts, which want the state to live up to their constitutional mandate to fully fund education, and the legislature, which would rather not. Justin Parmenter looks at a new report that shows just how bad the situation has become.

Universal Preschool Cookie-cutter Pressure

Nancy Bailey takes a look at how early childhood education, including and especially Head Start, has turned into bad news for education and the littles.

How Edgenuity Ruined My Education

The indispensable Mercedes Schneider turns her blog over to one of her seniors, who has a few words to share about one brand of distance learning.

I'm adding a new feature this week which I suppose we can call "Stuff I Published Other Places" which is partly for my own benefit because I lose track of things. 

This week over at Forbes.com, I put up Charter Schools Fight for Their Right To Discriminate, which looks at two different charters--one in California and the other in Massachusetts, that are working hard to avoid being open to all students in their communities. Also this week was New Hampshire and Moms for Liberty Put Bounty On Teachers' Heads, which is about exactly that--M4L is backing the state's new gag law with a cash reward for the first person who manages to use the law to end some teacher's career. 


Thursday, November 11, 2021

Current Pandemic Update (11/21)

So I was going to tell you how things are going in this neck of the woods. We get so many updates from major cities, I've figured all along that we might as well have updates from rural NW PA, an area that seemed, 20 months ago, to be well-positioned to weather this storm.

I was going to tell you that local schools are back to having spot outages. A class sent home to quarantine here, a building closed for a week there. Meanwhile, sports and dances and the usual stuff are going on semi-normally. Lets of things in the community are up and running again, some with huge amounts of caution and mitigation, and some not so much.

I was going to tell you that the already-thin substitute ranks are down to near-nothing. That when teachers miss, the dominoes fall all over the building trying to fill the gaps. That school bus routes are disrupted by that shortage (which, like the substitute thinning, has been coming for years). That school staff is getting covid. One known death so far. That school districts are dealing with it mostly by denying any responsibility ("You can't prove you contracted that at school") and, as a corollary to that, are requiring teachers to use their own sick days if they get the 'rona. 

I was going to talk about how the notification and tracking business is only marginally less ad hoc than last year, that we're still depending on the honor system and the word getting passed somehow by someone. 

The court just ruled that the state's department of health mask mandate for schools is void, but the final word is being held up for appeal, so districts are trying to get out the word that nothing has changed yet. Child vaccinations are under way, as are boosters (I've had mine; my wife, as a teacher, got one as soon as they were out). Just before they were supposed to get their boosters, my brother and sister-in-law were nailed by a breakthrough case of what the twins call the Corona Pirates; it was not fun, but they are fine. Pretty much everyone knows someone who has gotten either an unvaxxed or breakthrough case. Anecdotally, breakthrough is clearly less miserable.  

I was going to talk about how there's a sense that there's less above-ground discussion of the situation, but lots of undercurrent. No daily counts in the paper any more. Actually data remains hard to come by. Word is that the hospital is packed, mostly with unvaccinated cases.

I was going to talk about how that it all still remains concerning to we three children of my parents, who are in their mid-eighties and facing some of the challenges that come with being so well-seasoned, but are at least well-vaxxed. And how I also worry about my former colleagues and my wife, who are still leaping into this mess every day.

I was going to talk about all that today, and was prepping that very piece, when I got word that my two four-year-old boys apparently spent a day at pre-school earlier this week playing with another child who has since tested positive for covid. I certainly wish that things had worked out so that we got that information before we all went out to celebrate my mother's 88th birthday. Lots of levels of vaccination and masking and the power of youth suggest that we are probably all clear, but one never knows for certain, and I still have vivid memories of when Baby A's early brush with RSV earned us a life-flight trip to Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh. So now we'll spend some time anxiously monitoring every sneeze and cough and change in the already-normally-prolific river of snot and worrying about their ability to self-report symptoms. 

So I'm in a mood, and if you come at me with some of your bodily medical autonomy bluster or rantings about how wearing a small piece of cloth is an unacceptable intrusion on your liberty or how vaccinations are an unheard-of level of imposition on freedom or your Joe Rogan-style internet "research" or schools should be open because all children don't ever get it-- well, I'm generally pretty good at listening to folks with a wide variety of ideas, but I'm just tired and out of patience with your bullshit. 


[Update: Thanks to everyone who reached out to express concern. The twins were tested and cleared. My patience, however, remains at the same low level.]

PA: How's "Twenty Strong Men" vs. School Board Guy Doing?

Steve Lynch is a QAnon-quoting, insurrection-joining, Patriot Party-supporting, fully-Trumpified fitnes trainer who, you may recall, made a splash while running for Northampton County executive. He made a national splash by suggesting that the solution to all these Very Naughty School Boards was to take "twenty strong men" into the school board meeting and command the board to either resign or be put out.  

I'm going in with twenty strong men and I'm gonna give them an option--they can leave or they can be removed.

I wrote about him back in August. I am happy to report that Lynch lost his election bid. He lost it hard, by a margin of 8,000 votes in a 67,000 vote race. Though as one member of the public points out, it's discouraging that he go even 29,000 votes at all.

Lynch accepted his defeat with grace and dignity and respect for the democratic process he deeply loves. Ha! No, just kidding. He's not handling it well at all. 

Lynch and his supporters have been hanging out at the courthouse with the aim of monitoring the official ballot processing. That's because Lynch is pretty sure that skullduggery. Here's a Facebook video in which Lynch complains, among other things, that election integrity is "nonexistent." He's also in favor of throwing out votes that don't "follow the rules." He's also angry at people who do no research who didn't look at candidate's records. "How many of you voted for that other guy because you heard 'ooh, that Steve Lynch--he's an insurrectionist." Which, oddly enough, is actually his record. Also, he throws around some numbers about the votes that he thinks is wrong and says, "I don't know if this is some kind of liberal Common Core math," so that's funny. His point is that the election was fixed and corrupt, and in another post, he responds to people who think he's out of line:

This is for some of you knuckleheads that say "there's no proof of what you're saying that's going on inside this canvassing..." Newsflash, your county government that is run by this corrupt Administration won't let you do those things! This should be streamed in HD video at close proximity at every table that has canvassers so that We the People can see every ballot that they're going through. But they aren't letting you do that so we're exposing everything for you as it's happening. Until you're willing to get off your lazy rear end and get down to the courthouse to look at it for yourself keep your mouth shut! You are speaking out of pure ignorance and no one's interested in your opinion because it holds absolutely no water! We the People are so done with your blatant disregard to getting to the truth! Facts over feelings!

It's a nice portrayal of small time Trumpism. We represent You People, but also, you suck because you won't come down and support us. And you're ignorant. But We the People are done with You People. Also, facts matter more than feelings, unless they are facts we don't like and feelings that are ours, in which case my feeling that the facts of the election are wrong are what matter, you stupid lazy people that I represent.

I'm not just here for the schadenfreude. Lynch is a small demonstration of the challenge of dealing with Trumpism. First, it's clearly not conservatism, though it likes to pretend to be. Second, it is about taking power. Taking power through an election is the first resort, but if that doesn't work, just keep pushing for other routes, all the way to gathering twenty strong men and just taking it by force. Don't imagine that guys with Lynch can ever be convinced by facts or reality or well-reasoned arguments. 



Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Maybe Everyone Doesn't Think Schools Suck

Does it seem as if the Anti crowd-- the one demanding that schools re-open, that masks be discarded, that discussions of race be shut down, that the unions are trying to indoctrinate children, that school board members need to be intimidated--does it seem as if they are a large group, a rising wave that represents the majority?

Maybe not.

A new Axios-Ipsos poll indicates that US adults mostly think that local schools have done a good job with this mess.












There's not really a lot of surprise here. It has always been a routine finding that people think their own schools are just fine, while it's that darn national system that's in trouble. Years and years and years of insistence has convinced people that US schools are failing, but that continued drumbeat can't quite drown out their actual experience with their own school.

Same thing here. Note that non-parents have less confidence in how schools managed the pandemic than actual parents. Even two thirds of the Republicans show some support for how schools have handled the pandemess. Though it's also worth noting that the support is mostly lukewarm.

There were other results not included in the chart that are also worth noting.

The biggest opinion break came down to age, with respondents older than 65 the most supportive (78% good) and those under 30 the least supportive (62% good).

If I were a political strategist, I would look at that wide band of lukewarm support and see folks that could be moved. I would imagine that if I made a large enough, loud enough noise, I could herd them in the direction of my choosing. I would see a block of people who could be lost by a boneheaded move by a public school--either a real one, or a carefully amplified one.

So this survey (which like all surveys must be taken with a block of salt) is both good news and a cautionary piece of information. 

Sunday, November 7, 2021

ICYMI: Project Time Edition (11/7)

 Here at the Institute we have a project brewing, and it's taking some actual time to prepare. But I still collected some reading for you this week.

Why my book has been removed from school shelves

An LA Times op-ed from Christopher Noxon, author of Good Trouble: Lessons from the Civil Rights Playbook, which has drawn some attention in Virginia for being about, you know, Black stuff. 

Loraine Superintendent deemed a hero

A fairly encouraging story in a dreary week, not the least because here's a superintendent who regularly drives the school bus.

Moms for Liberty- Williamson County is a hell of conspiracy theories and petty complaints

There's a new blogger in Tennessee, and he went and signed himself up as a member of MFL so he could see what he could see on the inside. Turns out it's not encouraging.

The demoralization of the American teacher

I'm not agreeing with all of this piece by Shane Trotter in Quillette, but it's still a good read with some worthwhile observations.

Self-care versus Sustainable Leadership

You should be reading Nancy Flanagan regularly anyway, but I'll just keep recommending her stuff. 

Virginia was not about education...but Democrats need to be.

Mitchell Robinson at Eclectablog directs some righteous anger at the Democrats and their continued failure to stand up for public ed.

Youngkin's campaign was about something sinister

Jan Resseger offers an analysis of the ugly subtext of the new governor's campaign

When should racism be taught in schools

CBS actually caught so much grief over this terrible headline that they have since changed it. But the article that comes with it is a pretty good look at CRT panic.

PA school funding on trial

Later this week, a trial will kick off challenging Pennsylvania's lousy funding system. This is a good explainer of what the big deal is.

Anti-Hillary group rebranded as anti-CRT group

CNBC has the story of 1776 PAC, which turns out to be an old anti group with a new mission.

This is a story about milk, but also about what happens when the press doesn't do its job.

This is a great piece from Parker Molloy, spinning off the CNN coverage of milk prices this weekend (don't worry--if you missed that mess, the article brings you up to speed) but also about what happens when the press lets people go on being angry about things that haven't actually happened.


Wednesday, November 3, 2021

More Rough Days Ahead For Public Ed

The post-mortems are rolling in this morning. Some mild suggestions like this one from Ross Douthat: "Democrats probably need a new way to talk about progressive ideology and education." Some chortling Twitter feeds about how CRT panic is a winning issue.

However you parse it, it seems reasonable to assume that a whole bunch of GOP politicos have, in the wake of the Virginia governor's election, will conclude that a winning strategy is to treat public education as a punching bag. Filled with indoctrinators! Naughty books! Race stuff! A bunch of commie lesbians turning your kids trans! A scam to make the unions rich! And, of course, they suck at educating children!

We'll hear it all from various candidates for the next three years because, as of right now, it appears to work. There are, of course, alternative explanations (e.g. Virginia has, 11 out of 12 times, elected a governor from the party out of national power). But this seems like a simple one, and it's easy to do, and the ground troops are already in place in the form of a hundred anti-CRT/masks/vax/closed schools groups. Brandishing the dirty book can be the 21st century's wave the bloody shirt. I'm afraid we're in for three years (at least) of calls for banning books and regulating teacher speech.

It will also look like a winning strategy because Democrats haven't a clue how to push back. 

This is more than the usual on-brand Democrat fecklessness. Democrats will have a hard time pushing back because it has been almost a generation since they actively attempted to defend public education. 

What's remarkable about the infamous A Nation at Risk" report is not how thin it is--though it is thin. Here's Tamim Ansary writing about it in 2007:

Naturally, I assumed this bible of school reform was a scientific research study full of charts and data that proved something. Yet when I finally looked it up, I found a thirty-page political document issued by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, a group convened by Ronald Reagan's secretary of education, Terrell Bell.

The report was a hatchet job, and yet no Democrats piped up to defend public education. Democrats helped sell No Child Left Behind as a bipartisan slice of baloney. Obama and both Clintons pushed the neoliberal notion that public education needed to be busted up and sold for parts. Democrats have enthusiastically joined in the various attempts to turn the manufactured assertion that "US public schools are failing" into conventional wisdom, a thing that everyone says even though they have no actual proof. 

So there's a certain ironic justice, a bitter karma, that Democrats suddenly find themselves facing a political punch in the face because they don't have the language, the background, the knowledge, the experience to simply defend public education. When the left-right d├ętente to "reform" education broke up and the right determined they could just go on by themselves, the Democratic establishment couldn't figure out how to pivot, and now they're caught flatfooted, out of touch with real parents with real concerns, and clueless about what public education really needs. I suppose I should feel some schadenfreude over watching people take a beating because they can't figure out how to take a convincing stand against things like book banning and attacks on public education. Except...

Except it's public education that's going to get beaten up. Fox and OAN and assorted privatizers will double down on the idea that parents just can't trust the schools or the people in them and teachers, who are already staggering through Year 3 of One Damn Thing After Another, will be further dragged around the block by people whose only interest in education is how many votes they get from punching it, followed by privatizers and choicers who will, correctly, see this as an excellent opportunity to pursue their own goals. 

I suspect it's going to be brutal. We might describe it by saying that if any foreign power leveled this kind of attack against a valuable public institution, we'd call it an act of war. But while these political firestorms rage, teachers and parents will still, somehow, be trying to educate and raise children in the midst, and my heart goes out to all of them. I can only hope that some politicians will actually see value in stepping up as champions for public education and buck the prevailing political winds. 


Replying to Moms for Liberty: What about These Books?

 This exchange turned up on my Twitter feed.


 I'm going to try to answer this question, because I think it's a legitimate one. 

Caveats first. Yes, the MFL tweet is kind of a non-sequitor. And yes, there are plenty of reasons to suspect that Moms for Liberty is a group at least as interested in being political players as they are in safeguarding children (e.g. this outburst at one of their events). But I'll engage with anyone who appears to be making a good faith effort to discuss issues. Also, I'm a parent, and I get the kind of gut-level nervousness that comes with entrusting your child to people who may or may not share your values. So I'm going to attempt a serious answer to what may or may not be a serious ask.

This is my reply to Moms for Liberty.










What should a parent who finds "these books" in the school library do?

Step one, in all times you're dealing with a school, is to assume good intent. Start with the assumption that the school is staffed and run by people who value children and helping them grow to be their best selves, who went into education because they did, in fact, want to teach children. If you start out with the assumption that public schools are actually a sinister conspiracy to indoctrinate children or an elaborate scam being run to fill the coffers of teachers unions, it will be hard to find any basis to move forward. 

Also, assuming ill will and searching for gotcha's will lead you to make absurd accusations. If you assume evil intent and the whole purpose of your search is to "catch them" being evil, you might as well withdraw your child and enroll in some private school now. But in general I believe that it is always better to search for understanding rather than confirmation of your already-formed beliefs, in part because you will always find confirmation, whether it's there or not.

Next. Have friends or people you trust outside your bubble with whom to check your work. I have to believe that if the lady who objected to the sexy seahorse book had turned to someone outside the group and asked if she was really seeing something objectionable or not, someone would have told her to calm down. 

If you are certain in your heart that you do not want your child exposed to a certain book, you should next check the chain of command in your local district. Probably the most common mistake made by parents with a school complaint is addressing that complaint to someone who has no power to address the complaint. So who oversees book acquisition for your school library? Is there a procedure in place to challenge a book? What the circumstances under which a child goes to the library--with a particular class, or during a study hall, or barely ever (some students go a long time without ever seeing the inside of a library)? If your circulation system is computerized, is there a way to monitor what your child checks out? Are some books in the library kept in the back room and available only on request (school libraries do this for a variety of reasons)?  Can you file a request with the librarian that your child not be allowed to have access to certain books? 

When you identify the people involved, talk to them. Make yourself available for a human conversation (e-mail and texting often lead to misunderstandings of tone in charged conversations). Share your concerns, and listen to their response. If you are unhappy with the outcome, then move up through the chain of command. 

Please note: all of the above is in reference to access to one of "these books" for your own child. When you want to ban access to the book for all students in the school, we're entering a whole new conversation. You do not like it when you feel that the school is substituting their judgment for your own parental judgment; how should your neighbors feel when you insist on substituting your own judgment for theirs?

What we've seen so far on the lists of "these books" range from books that probably cross the line for a lot of folks to books that are primarily objectionable to racists. The demands to get rid of books (e.g. I Am Rosa Parks) that are simply an accurate portrayal of historical events in which white folks did not handle themselves very well are not supportable. I'm willing to listen to someone's explanation of why they are bad for children, but I honestly cannot imagine what a good explanation would be. Some of these may very well make some children sad. It's not clear to me why that is a bad thing.

The list of "these books" has become really broad and wide, with some of it way into Chinese Communist re-education camp territory, and the longer this wrangling goes, the more conservatives are twisting themselves into pretzels trying to not look racist while still backing racist book bans. Since the new governor of Virginia won a campaign by attacking a major novel by arguably the greatest American author in recent history, I'm not confident that this is going to end any time soon.

The thing is--banning a book is huge, huge deal. Having it pulled from a school library in an attempt to keep it away from students is a huge, huge deal. Not only that, but it doesn't work. The good people of Boston banned Huckleberry Finn (too much friendliness between a white boy and a Black man), and they turned it into a best seller. I guarantee you that the books that have turned up on these current banning lists are now being sought out by the students MFL wanted to protect.

I see a huge irony in your current movement. Many of your folks are also anti-vax and anti-mask, arguing that simply letting students be exposed to the virus will not be a problem because natural immunity and their own strength will protect them. And yet when it comes to "these books," the approach is to prevent exposure at all costs. 

I taught high school and middle school English for 39 years. Students mostly grow up to be the people their parents set them up to be. Sometimes that means they grow up and hold onto their parents' values every step of the way. Sometimes they grow up and their experience leads them to move away from their parents' values because they see a world that does not match what their parents described. But books from the school library rarely, if ever, have a role in that process.

So I guess the last big step I'd offer is to trust your children. Talk to them about the books in question. If you have raised them well, with a string foundation in morals and decency, nothing they see in a book that they found in the school library is going to suddenly alter their world view. And if you have tried to raise them with a stunted, fragile worldview, nothing you can do will keep that from being shattered by the world at some point. 

As with many issues in the country, involving politicians who care far less about student well-being than about identifying an issue that can win them some votes--well, those folks are not going to help. Unfortunately, they're about to be all over this, and that's not going to help anybody. 

Monday, November 1, 2021

Classroom Management Secrets

This question has popped up a couple of times on my screen lately:

Which is the more essential classroom skill set - subject matter and pedagogical expertise OR the ability to “manage” behavioral issues?

It's a trick question. The ability to "manage" a classroom is rooted in subject matter and pedagogical expertise.

If you have ever wrangled toddlers, you probably know this simple trick--always be moving toward something. When I'm out and about with the Board of Directors, it's a losing proposition to say, "Okay, time to stop jumping off that log." It is never time to stop jumping off that log, and saying that it is simply opens a whole debate about when, if ever, such an imaginary time could actually come to pass. Instead, the winning proposition is, "Okay, let's go look at fire trucks." Do that, and log jumping will end on its own.

In other words, always be moving toward something rather than away from something.

In teacher school, this concept is expressed as "Focus on what you want them to do, not what you want them to not do." 

This makes many layers of sense. For one, the direction to stop doing something is always a step or two removed from your actual objective. Presumably you want students to "stop talking" for some reason, so why not move directly to the main thing you actually want-- look at this diagram or finish writing your sentences or tell me how this widget should be adjusted. So ask for that. "I'm not going to start class until everyone is quiet," is not the threat that you think it is.

But being able to move toward something requires you to have a firm grasp of what you want to move toward. Everyone has their favorite teaching metaphors; one of mine is thinking of teaching as helping students navigate a large territory, covered with forest and ponds and hills and any number of features. A teacher is a guide to that territory, and the better you know the territory, the better you can serve as a guide. You have to know what's there, the many ways to get from one point to another, and the various pitfalls that one might encounter. 

What are you trying to teach, why are you trying to teach it, and how are you trying to teach it. Know the answers and push forward, keeping your eye on the target just like a driver keeps their eyes on the road. 

It's not an easy balance to maintain. Push forward too fast and students are left behind. Too slowly, and they get bored waiting for you. Either way, issues will develop.

Really, classroom management is not like organizing activities for some strange alien race. Young humans have low tolerance for the same things as grown humans. Wasted time. Pointless activities. Demands for compliance for compliance's sake. Disrespect. These things draw out the contrary behavior in grown humans; why should young humans be any different? 

Yes, there is a world of classroom management techniques that are worth knowing. But everything is rooted in Knowing What The Hell You're Doing, both in your grasp of content and your lesson design. This is why tying teachers to a script or a tightly defined program is a recipe for chaos, and that's why so many schools that do such tying team it up with a heavily enforced demand for student compliance, a heavy-handed attempt to beat down the problems that they have asked for in their instructional design.

Deep content knowledge. Sound instructional design. Respect. Those three pillars undergird the whole business of classroom management. They look different depending on the teacher and the students, but without any one of them, you'll simply be trying to right the structure with a patchwork of classroom management techniques and compliance demands.