Friday, June 9, 2023

The Care of Humans

We have had a rough couple of weeks here, weeks that have provided ample opportunity to reflect on medical care. 

We talk about it in the abstract as if it's all a science, as if we can just give people a test, then just read the cut-and-dried results and then go to a book where we just cross-check those results on some chart that tells us that if the doctors do X then that will totally fix Y. 

But care of actual humans in the actual world doesn't look much like that. There are assorted tests to try and they give results which suggest a variety of possible issues that in turn suggest some possible responses. Add to those the moving target that is your own observation. Anyone who has had a loved one go through serious health issues knows the drill-- one minute you're thinking, "You know, this doesn't seem so bad. I bet we could go on down this road for a long time" and then ten minutes later it's "Oh, hell--I don't know if we can manage this for the rest of today." And on top of that, you add the fact that this is a loved one, a person you care about, and so all of what appears to be true bumps up against what you want to be true. 

Lord knows you want it to be easy, or at least clear, but you are dealing with the care of humans, and so you get occasional glimpses of clarity and certainty, just before the fog rolls in again.

Everyone is interested in reducing the care of humans to simple, scientific, evidence-based, rock-certain clarity. The humans there on the ground want it because God damn it this is hard to sort out when you're talking about the life and health and comfort of someone you love. The policy clowns in the clouds want it because they want to set their policies in stone, their procedures in concrete, because complexity and nuance is just tiresome and hard to sell. The bureaucrats in charge want it because it's just easier to run a business with fewer messy human variables in play. 

The best parts of the system are the places where you encounter someone who is bucking the system, ignoring the system, or has somehow negotiated a corner in the system where they can act like a human being who is dealing with human beings. Thank heaven we've encountered all of these in the past few weeks.

I get the desire for clarity and certainty when dealing with the care of humans. Lord, I get it. But that is not how the care of humans works. You find trained professionals, and you listen to their judgment, and then you fold that in with your own personal judgment, which includes your own knowledge of the specifics of the situation. You don't jettison any attempts to grab a picture of reality and fill in the blank with feelings and desires, but when you grab some reality, it is not facts alone that will tell you what exactly to do next. And then you move forward and just kind of keep your eyes and ears open.

Am I supposed to be writing about education? Okay, then.

You can't reduce education to settled cut and dried science, to some program where a teacher just looks at some numbers generated in order to have solid data, and then goes through the specific actions that will move the data needle in the required direction. You can't measure a human's educational progress in any way that reduces it to clear, simple, actionable data. You can't reduce the process of teaching to a clear, simple procedure that the teacher must simply follow "with fidelity" in order to get the required result out of every single student in the room. 

You cannot come up with policies, procedures and systems that eliminate all the human messiness and nuance from the educational process. But education in this country has suffered immeasurably at the hands of people who want to try, whose dream is schools that can be managed by screen and classrooms in which neither the humanity of the teacher nor of the students interferes with the smooth operation of the education machine. Let's stare at these high stakes tests scores, they say, as if staring at the toenail of an elephant will give you the complete picture of the animal itself. \

The care of humans, from the hospital to the classroom to the simple interaction with them in work and family, must be conducted in a human way by human beings. To treat humanity like a bug instead of a feature, to try to eliminate the human element is, by definition, dehumanizing, and dehumanized care of humans is Not A Good Thing. 

Yes, the human care of humans is messy and complicated and often results in debates and discussions that never reach a clear and perfectly settled conclusion. But a system that is perfectly clear, perfectly settled, perfectly flowing like a perfect machine is also perfectly inhuman, and that is no way to live. 

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Twelve Education Activist Groups (Including Moms For Liberty) Make Southern Poverty Extremist List

The Southern Poverty Law Center has issued its "Year in Hate and Extremism" report for 2022, and some familiar names from the world of "parental rights" are on the list. It's some kind of new world when activism in the public education space can get you this kind of attention. 

SPLC frames the rise of these groups as a "reemergence of the attack on inclusive schools" and position the current culture war panic in the long history of such panics.

The attacks following the Brown decision were not the beginning of the so-called parental rights movement, and it certainly was not the end. Going back to the 1920s, the U.S. has witnessed ebbs and flows of white, cisgender, heterosexual groups battling public education.

Regardless of the time period, most attacks against public education have been reactionary and rooted in racism, from the fight against integration after Brown v. Board, to the so-called school choice movement, to the latest attacks on inclusive education.

Segregationist parents did not relent and side-stepped Brown v. Board through self-titled “school choice” that made it possible for parents who were allowed to maintain their racist values by sending their children to private Christian academies. Some 3,500 white, racially discriminatory church-based schools sprung up in the wake of Brown v Board. However, when the tax-exempt status of these “segregation academies” were revoked by the court in 1971 and then upheld by former President Jimmy Carter’s IRS, parents claimed government infringement and violation of their parental rights to make decisions about their children's education.

This was not the first or last time claims of government overreach would be used as a protestation by these groups. It has become a common theme in iterations of anti-student inclusion groups over the decades.

SPLC says that 2022 saw the filing of 84 "anti-student inclusion bills"

Moms for Liberty

This is the inclusion that made headlines, and the report gets into some detail with the group's activities, noting "Like the mothers of massive resistance before them, Moms for Liberty is ready to fight tooth and nail to preserve the unseen but understood caste system existing in their public schools and communities."

Moms for America

M4A could have been M4L-- after all, they've been around for almost twenty years without ever getting quite the traction that M4L got within weeks. They do have some star power attached, like Kevin Sorbo's wife and Rebecca Fredrichs. But they don't quite draw the press attention for their full-throated opposition to "CRT". They helped support the Stop The Steal rally on January 6, and they hang out at CPAC. Their last high-profile action was--well, remember the People's Convoy that was going to circle DC and really show somebody something? M4A had a purple truck in that

Army of Parents

Army of Parents is based in Loudon County, VA, which has been the hot spot for lots of school controversy (that's the place where the bathroom sexual assault was misrepresented as a transgender issue and not handled particularly well by the district). Elicia Brans, a co-founder who was activated by COVID concerns (no masks, open schools), has charged Loudon Love Warriors with threatening her. Co-founder Erin Roselle Poe told The Federalist "We've got to get the evil out of the schools."

Courage is a Habit

"Actionable tools & strategies for parents to defend their children from indoctrination in K-12." This group will help you "win the war against indoctrination." Their website warns about critical race theorists and "child mutilation advocates," as well as SEL, school counselors, and vulgar books. The group is headed by Alvin Lui, a "political refugee from California" who hangs out with the Parents Defending Education crowd and does plenty of media.

Education First Alliance

North Carolina group that set up a whistleblower program to "help fight woke indoctrination." President Sloan Rachmuth is an "entrepreneur-turned-journalist and activist"--she's also a coms professional. Anti-indoctrination, anti-naughty books, anti-trans. Rachmuth also heads Pen and Shield, a nonprofit newsroom. 

Education Veritas

"Education NOT Indoctrination." Atlanta-based group opposing "obsession with race, equity over merit, unpatriotic attitudes, hyper-sexualization" in pursuit of "pure, non-political education." Also, "teach history, not hate." Don't want "Anti-white CRT" or "sexual orientation nonsense." They appear to be aimed at private schools in particular. Links to explainers from Prager U. It's not really clear what they've done or who they are.

No Left Turn In Education

Launched by Elena Fishbein, a doctor of social work from Gladwyne, one of the uber-rich Philadelphia suburbs who got upset when her child's school adopted some culturally sensitive programming in the wake of the George Floyd murder. They've been linked to violent school board protests and toxic rhetoric and hollered loudly when the Department of Justice suggested school board opponents might want to tone it down a bit. "Black bigotry towards whites" is a "very real problem," she said. You can see lots more of their rhetoric here

Parents Against Critical Theory (PACT)

More from Loudon County. Led by Scott Mineo, Third Way studied the group and found "inflammatory tone" and made up baloney, QAnon style. 

Mineo also claimed in the press and on his website that teaching CRT is explicitly “anti-white,” that CRT is “poison,” and that the CRT “lifecycle” is “infiltration, transformation, and indoctrination.”

They were very busy in the election that got Virginia Youngkin as a governor.

Parents Defending Education

Everybody who looks at this outfit finds the same thing-- a group of seasoned right wing political operatives pretending to be a grass roots organization. 

Parents Rights In Education

Against "destructive polarization." Concerned about "viewpoint discrimination, comprehensive sexuality education, radical gender ideology" etc. The head honcho is Suzanne Gallagher, a previous chair of the Oregon GOP (who was forced to step down) and "sales and marketing expert." Worried about sexual indoctrination in schools, including the claim that teachers are using porn as a teaching aid

Purple for Parents Indiana

In Indiana, Purple for Parents is Jennifer McWilliams, a former teachers aid who quit over SEL programming and went on the right wing victim circuit (I have her story here). The Purples started in Arizona as a response to Red for Ed and as an offshoot of a Patriot group. They've also cropped up in North Carolina. Meanwhile, the main group's Facebook page wants you to know that June is "Groomer Awareness Month."

Parents Involved in Education

Founded in 2000 as a South Carolina group, now gone national, this is one of the older groups. Their mission: "to end the U.S. Department of Education and all federal education mandates." ("Parental rights come from God--not the government.) With an advisory board that includes Sandra Stotsky, Joy Pullman, Michelle Malkin, and Christel Swasey, these folks are heavily anti-Common Core. Sheri Few, the head honcho, ran for Congress in 2017 with what The Root called “a series of ads that might be the most racist, homophobic and craziest campaign ever.” She's also a producer of their film, "Truth and Lies in American Education" which is aimed at the more current panics like America and racism, gender stuff, and the fear that public schools are teaching socialism. Agenda 21!! Special appearance by Kevin Sorbo's wife! It's the true story of young mother April Few, who is converted from skepticism about the Big Plot. She is Sheri Few's daughter-in-law

That's the list. 

We could ask why these and not some others (why, in particular, only the Indiana wing of Purple for Parents). There's a wide range here, from well-financed full size groups to what appear to be one or two-person operations, from experienced comms professionals to amateur goofballs. 

But they all have a few things in common, like a long twisty path of interlocking connections with each other and other groups. But mostly they all share a powerful desire to recapture schools for parents--but only certain right kinds of parents. And they now each have a spot on the SPLC map

Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Hess: "Is School Choice an ‘Attack’ on Public Education?"

Rick Hess (American Enterprise Institute) is one of those occupants of the reformy camp that I take seriously, even when I think he's wrong. So when he raises the question of whether or not school choice is an "attack" on public education, I think it's a question worth talking about, because I think the answer is a little bit complicated. So let me walk through his recent piece on that very question bit by bit. 

After an intro suggesting that opposition to choice expansion flows directly from the pandemic while ascribing choice to a shadowy cabal flows from teachers unions, Hess gets to his point, which is that seeing choice as an anti-public school is "misleading and misguided."

Hess puts choice in the context of a century's worth of public school fixer-uppers, "a barrage of reforms." He offers a list--"compulsory attendance, district consolidation, larger schools, smaller schools, magnet schools, standards, test-based accountability, merit pay, and more."

Some of these ideas were good. Some weren’t. But in hindsight, it’s pretty clear that they weren’t “attacks” on public education; rather, they were attempts to improve it.

I disagree. Some of these ideas were offered with sincere hope for the best. But I'm going to single out the standards movement and test-based accountability for special recognition here.

If you weren't teaching during the rise of No Child Left Behind, Common Core, and Race To The Top, I'm not sure if I can really capture for you the dawning sense of horror, frustration and futility among teachers at the time. 

Word came down that new regulations required us to get test scores up-- a little bit per year for starters, then ramping up to an impossible climb, until somehow every single student would be above average. If not, there would be penalties, maybe the complete dismantling and rebuilding of the district, perhaps as a privately-run charter school. "This is not possible," educators said. "All will learn all," replied the Powers That Be. "Don't you believe that students can learn? And which child do you propose to leave behind." 

Then there were the tests themselves. Not very good, and with results coming back with so little detail--and so very late in the game--that they were less than no help at all. "Well, if we just teach the standards, the tests scores will follow," said some optimistic educators. That didn't happen. Schools rejiggered curriculum, pulled students away from untested material like art and recess so that they could be double-whammied with test prep.

"Maybe Obama will fix it," we hoped. He did not. He doubled down. And 2014--the year for 100%--came closer and closer, the year when anyone dealing with educational reality knew that every district in the country would be either a) failing or B) cheating. 

And through those years, one at a time or in small groups, teachers arrived at an unpleasant conclusion.

They are setting us up for failure. They want us to fail.

Why would they want that? The rhetoric had already been around on the far right, back all the way to Milton Friedman and on through his intellectual spawn-- public education should be dismantled. There was a new push for vouchers and especially charter schools, and that coincided with rising noise about "failing" public schools. There was very little "let's expand the educational ecosystem" and an awful lot of "we must help students escape failing public schools." The constant refrain of "school choice will force public schools to improve because competition" was also an omnipresent crock, a slap in the face to educators who were already working their butts off and resented the suggestion that they were either incompetent or lazy. And that thread runs all the way up guys like Christopher Rufo arguing that to get to universals school choice, you have to get to universal distrust of public schools.

Maybe school choice wasn't in and of itself an attack on public education, but it certainly seemed as if attacking public education was a means of promoting school choice. 

I have no doubt that there are people who believe that education would work better if handled by the free market (I think their belief is magical, misguided and wrong, but I do believe it's sincere). I believe there are technocrats who believe that standards, tests and data would improve education (ditto). 

But to be a public school educator on the receiving end of all this (and more) absolutely felt like an attack. The irony is that when reformsters eventually figured out that the attack-filled rhetoric wasn't helping and they dialed it back, the attacks themselves had become more real. 

But let's get back to Hess.

Public education can encompass a lot of approaches, and it can be organized in many different ways. Rather than blindly insist that “defending public schooling” requires clinging to outdated policies from decades (or centuries) past, we would do better to clarify principles, examine particulars, and then debate proposals.

All of this language is doing a lot of work, but as far as it goes, Hess and I probably agree more than we disagree. But the disagree part comes in the very next paragraph.

Indeed, the pandemic was a stark reminder that there are lots of ways to deliver schooling, including innovations such as learning pods, microschools, virtual tutors, and education savings accounts.

Learning pods and microschools are okay if you're wealthy. As policy ideas in the vein of the DeVosian, "Well, your voucher may not be enough to get into a good private school, but you can always start a microschool," they suck. I don't think there are more than a hundred people in the country who came out of the pandemic thinking virtual education is a great idea. And education savings accounts are just vouchers with extra super-powers and porcine lip gloss. And none of these are really new ideas. They also all suffer from the same issue, which is the notion that any school choice system must be done free market style. We can do a great choice system without the free market at all (but that's a post for another day).

Hess identifies one of the issues as the fuzziness of the word "public." On this point, I think he gets some things wrong.

Choice opponents assert that public schools are “public” because they’re funded by public tax dollars.

No, that's choicers. It's been part of the charter school argument that charter schools are public schools because they are funded with public dollars. This pro-public ed writer (I'm not anti-choice, but I am anti-most-of-the-versions-of-choice-with-which-we've-been-presented) would say that public schools are public because they the public funds them, owns them, and operates them via representatives. Furthermore, they are public schools because they have a responsibility to the public to serve all students.

You can argue, as Hess and others do, that districts regularly hire outside firms to handle certain functions and occasionally outsource the teaching of certain students with exceptional special needs. But in all those cases, the responsibility for the management of those outside contracts rests with the public school district. A charter or private voucher-fed school carries no such responsibility. A public school district cannot, as can charters and voucher schools may, simply show parents the door and say, "Good luck. Your child is not our problem." Do all public systems meet that responsibility as well as they ought to? Absolutely not. But at least the responsibility exists. A parent who thinks the public system is short-changing their child can (and often will) sue the district. They have no such option in a choice system, as such systems are currently conceived.

Hess is correct in calling public education "a pretty expansive category." But it hinges on far more than whose money is being used. 

In fact, I'd argue that it is the responsibility portion that is the big difference in the brand of choice being pushed by many these days. Our public system is based, however imperfectly, on the notion that we bear a collective responsibility for educating the young. Modern choice, particularly the current version sold under the culture warrior parental right brand, is about saying that getting a child an education is the responsibility of the parents, and that's it. Yes, many choicers are also trying to privatize the ownership and provision of education, but it is the privatizing of responsibility for a child's education that is perhaps the most profound and fundamental shift.

More importantly, simply calling something “public” doesn’t make it a good thing. While the phrase “public schooling” is suffused with happy notions of inclusivity and fairness, “public” isn’t a magic word.

Ain't it that truth. Public education has a wide variety of issues--though some of those are the direct result of reformster attempts to "fix" things (see above re: standards and testing). But I've never argued that I'm against modern school choice and ed reform because public schools are perfect the way they are and everything else sucks. My most fundamental issue is that public schools have some serious issues, and modern ed reform and school choice don't solve any of them (yes, that is also another long post). They just weaken public school's ability to work on them while blowing through a giant pile of taxpayer money.

The point isn’t to play word games but to understand that things are less clear-cut than defenders of the status quo are prone to acknowledge. There are many ways to provide and serve the aims of public education.

After all these decades in the ed biz, I'm inclined to assert, repeatedly, that everything in education is less clear-cut that the vast majority of people acknowledge. Some folks on my side of the aisle are quick to infer nefarious and/or greedy motives when, sincere ideology is sufficient explanation (much as some folks in the choice camp assume that the only reason someone would stick up for public ed is because she's on the union payroll). Some choicers are simply ignorant of how any of this school stuff works. Some are up against a particularly dysfunctional local version of public education. Some are anti-democrats for whom this is just one issue of many, one more way in which the government steals their money to spend it on Those People. Some want to recapture education for a particularly conservative version of christianist religion. Some want to social engineer their way to a more efficient society. Some are serious people, and some are not. 

In short, the choicer and reformster camp contains a great variety of individuals.

Are some of those individuals interested promoting school choice as a way of making public education better? Is it possible to make public education better by incorporating some choice ideas? I believe that latter is true, and I swear I'm going to post about it in the not too distant future, and as for the former, well... yes, but. 

But for all the variety in the choicer camp, they mostly adhere to two flawed premises-- that a choice landscape should rest on a bedrock of free market mechanics and that the resulting system shouldn't cost a cent more than the current one. As long as we start with those premises, school choice must be a zero sum game, and even if all the people who have spent the past four decades trying to tear public ed down so that choice will look better--even if all those people shut up, the zero sum game feature seems guaranteed to turn school choice into an attack on public education. 

Sunday, June 4, 2023

ICYMI: Still Here Edition (6/4)

We are going through some challenging times here, so while regular readers may have noticed output slowing down a bit, we're still at it. Just handling a lot of other things as well. But I still have some reading for you from the last week.

Yes, it was last week, but still read Nancy Flanagan doing what she does best--connecting the larger issues to her personal experience.

Arkansas librarians sue to block new law that could jail them over explicit books

NBC news with one more episode in the ongoing attempt to criminalize books (while pretending that the internet doesn't exist).

Florida Superintendent Pointedly Addresses Board Members Who Want Him Fired, and More

The indispensable Mercedes Schneider has the tale of a Florida superintendent who shot right back at the conservative board members after his job (that would include the one who freaked out over the Disney movie being shown in class).

Hundreds gather at Florida school board meeting over Disney movie controversy: 'Your policies are not protecting us from anything'

Speaking of that Disney panic, a few students and parents had a few hours' worth of things to say about that fiasco. (USA Today)

Sue Kingery Woltanski looks at Florida's spending priorities in the quest to teach more reading. 

Oklahoma’s disastrous war on ‘woke’ teachers offers valuable lesson for Kansas

An editorial in the Kansas City Star about Oklahoma's dangerous dudebro education honcho Ryan Walters and his crusade against public school teachers.

Majority of teachers in new survey say arming educators would make students less safe

Well, at least someone asked. The Hill's coverage of the poll results. Next up: do astronmers think the sun will rise in the east tomorrow?

Woman Behind Ban Of Amanda Gorman’s Poem Only Read Excerpts

Speaking of completely unsurprising things...

2 Portland teachers recognized for ‘educational excellence,’ receive 1 year of paid housing

Speaking of interesting ways to reward teacher excellence-- how about having your mortgage paid for a year?

Pittsburgh Public Schools announce remote learning days due to heat

Your reminder that the end of COVID (or at least the end of reacting to it) does not mean the end of figuring out this whole distance learning thing.

Inside the Christian legal campaign to return prayer to public schools

Sixty years of this! Linda Wertheimer at Hechinger looks at how the attempt to put overt Christian prayer back in school is going.

Why Do We Tolerate This?

Ziad Munson is one more person in Pennsylvania asking why we give cyber charters so much taxpayer money when they do such a lousy job.

Florida’s new voucher law allows private schools to boost revenue

Yeah, it's not just Iowa. Florida's private schools are also using vouchers as a means of boosting tuition prices and making more money. This is the Jeffrey Solochek reporting for the Tampa Bay Times (warning--paywall).

The revolt of the Christian home-schoolers

Peter Jamison in the Washington Post with an interesting (and at times scary) story about how some homeschooled kids grew up to be public school parents.

Chicago promised students would do better after closing 50 schools. That didn’t happen.

Part of a WBEZ/Chicago Sun Times story package about the 50 closed schools from a decade ago. Promises were made. Promises were not kept. Almost like neo-liberals didn't know what they were talking about.

“The Right to Read” is Horse Manure

Yes, the Science of Reading crowd now has their own movie to help promote their ideas. Thomas Ultican has some information about that movie (spoiler alert: he is unimpressed).

More problems in Ohio for public education, as legislators take time to intimidate districts fighting vouchers, but not to actually fund public schools. Jan Resseger has been paying attention.


I live near geese, so I know exactly what Gregory Sampson is talking about here. It's more Florida shenanigans.

T C Weber takes a look at Penny Schwinn on her way out the door. Tennessee gets another education honcho; good luck to her.

Teacher workloads keep growing in South Carolina

South Carolina teachers are doing more and more. Are they getting paid more and more? Do you have to ask? Paul Bowers takes a look.

India drops the periodic table, Pythagorean theorem and evolution from school textbooks

So, maybe things could be worse?

Enfield mourns loss of longtime high school teacher Dr. Frank Taylor

The passing of one of my major professional inspirations, who was also my uncle.

Over at Forbes this week, a look at more research showing all the ways that cyber charters fail their students, and a look at Anya Kamenetz's book about the pandemic year

As always, I recommend you sign up for my free substack and stay caught up on all my stuff. For free.

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Shepherds, Not Engineers

Russell Barkley is a psychologist who has done a lot of work and writing in the area of ADHD. I was unfamiliar with him and his work, and I still don't know much, but I stumbled across a video of Barkley speaking, and it really resonated for me. I'll embed it at the end of this post, because the delivery is better than my transcript will be. 

I'm not sure what the occasion is, but his audience appears to be parents. And to one side is a slide saying "You are a shepherd, not an engineer."

He credits grandparents with knowing this and claims that today's parents "don't seem to" and I'm not going to get into that, because it's the "this" that matters:

You do not get to design your children.

Nature would never have permitted that to happen. Evolution would not have allowed a generation of a species to be so influenced by the previous generation. It hasn't happened and it doesn't happen and it especially doesn't happen in children. 

You do not design your children.

He cites things like the Mozart effect as a typically North American view that more more more must be better. Stimulation matters, but only up to a certain threshold "which 98% of you have already met." After that-- well, "you just don't have that kind of power."

So, what we have learned in the last twenty years of research in neuroimaging, behavior genetics, developmental psychology, neuropsychology, can be boiled down to this phrase:

Your child is born with more than 400 psychological traits that will emerge as they mature, and they have nothing to do with you. 

So the idea that you are going to engineer personalities and IQs and academic achievement skills and all these other things just isn't true. 

Your child is not a blank slate on which you get to write.

...The better view is that your child is a genetic mosaic of your extended family. Which means this is a unique combination of the traits that run in your family line.

I like the shepherd view. You are a shepherd. You don't design the sheep. The engineering view makes you responsible for everything--everything that goes right and everything that goes wrong. This is why parents come to us with such guilt. More guilt than we've ever seen in prior generations. Because parents today believe that it's all about them, and what they do, and if they don't get it right, or if their child has a disability, they've done something wrong when in fact the opposite is true. This has nothing to do with your particular brand of parenting.

So I would rather you would stop thinking of yourself as an engineer, and step back and say "I am a shepherd to a unique individual." Shepherds are powerful people. They pick the pastures in which the sheep will graze and develop and grow. They determine whether they're appropriately nourished. They determine whether they're protected from harm. The environment is important but it doesn't design the sheep. No shepherd is going to turn a sheep into a dog. Ain't gonna happen. And yet that is what we see parents trying to do, all the time. 

He sees special importance in this view for parents of children with special needs. Then he moves on.

That comes with it a profoundly freeing view of parenting, because what it means is although it's important to be a shepherd, recognizing that this is a unique individual before you allows you to enjoy the show. So open a bottle of chardonnay, kick off your slippers, sit back, and watch what takes place. Because you don't get to determine this. Enjoy the show. It doesn't last that long--they are gone before you know it.

Let them grow, let them prosper, please design appropriate environments around them, but you don't get to design them. 

He cites an author whose name I can't pick out saying that the big influences on your child's life are the community in which they live--peers, other adults, schools, resources, etc-- followed by genetics.

There's a tricky balance here; I suspect many choice fans and culture warriors would say they are just being shepherds by trying to manage their children's environment. And for some, I'd bet that is true.

But we have a lot of folks out there with the engineer view. What the Don't Say Gay and book banning  crowd except people who believe in the engineer model, who believe that as the owners of their children, they alone have the right to engineer that child to their preferred specifications. Anti-LGBTQ persons are persons who believe that LGBTQ persons exist only because somebody engineered them to be that way. "If my child doesn't turn out exactly as I engineered her to," the reasoning, "it must be because somebody else snuck in there with other engineering, and not because my child grew up as a unique mosaic of hundreds of human characteristics." Some sneaky evil engineer snuck in there and engineered my sheep into a dog.

Education has also been plagued by would-be engineers, techno crats who insisted that if we just run all young humans through such and such a program (delivered with fidelity), then every young human will emerge from the program with the exact skill and knowledge that we want to engineer them with. Sometimes we add the term "science" as if science has a special power to let us engineer young humans to our desired specifications. 

So much education reform has been built around the engineer model (we've even got folks trying to call teachers "learning engineers"), the technocratic designs that will yield the "product" that we want, complete with measurements and numbers and engineering stuff (but 400 characteristics and hundreds areas of learning are too hard, so let's just chop it down to a math and reading test). But that's not how human beings work.

People are not machines. They don't need engineers; they need shepherds to keep an eye on them, keep them safe, surround them with good stuff, guide them in a general direction. You can't engineer a person to be exactly what you want, and if you can let go of that desire, I'd argue that people will generally turn out to be something far more rich and deep and interesting then they ever would have been if you'd actually been able to engineer what you thought you wanted. 

Sunday, May 28, 2023

ICYMI: Memorial Day Weekend 2023 Edition (5/28)

Facebook showed me the pictures I took on Memorial Day 2020. I had missed the usual observances, the marching down our main street for the morning parade, and so I went up and took pictures of the empty park, the empty street. Man, that was a crappy year. Tomorrow we'll be back to normalish. Glad to be there. In the meantime, here's some reading from the week.

Teacher Stress Is Not Inevitable

Ar EdWeek. The subheading is "But first we need to stop making teachers the Band-Aids for systemic inequalities." So you know they're at least partly on the right track.

The Building Boom Continues Despite A Loss Of Students

Carl Petersen in LA reminds us that charters are as much about real estate as education. Lots of capacity being built, even as demand shrinks.

The Big Shill: Jon Keller and Keri Rodrigues Conjure Some Sunday Morning Hocus Pocus

Maurice Cunningham blogs about more antics of the National Parents Union, aka the Walton-Koch Reformster Astroturf Office.

Objection to sexual, LGBTQ content propels spike in book challenges

The Washington Post did some research and number crunching around the issues of book banning, and the results show some stunning facts about the anti-book movement.

The Proposed Ohio House Bill 103 Would Politicize K-12 Public School Social Studies Standards and Fail to Prepare Our Children for Democratic Citizenship

Jan Resseger looks at a bill that promises to make a mess out of social studies in Ohio. 

Many transgender health bills came from a handful of far-right interest groups, AP finds

Surprise, surprise. Most of these bills are coming from the same place (like voucher bills, etc)

Mindful AI: Crafting prompts to mitigate the bias in generative AI

AI has a bias problem (always has). Here Kieran Snyder at Textio talks about how that problem could be addressed (and offers some charts showing how bad and subtle it is). 

How to Fight the Right’s Moral Panic Over Parental Rights

Jennifer Berkshire at The Nation writes about how some folks are successfully defeating the moral panic that is choking on its own too-much.

‘Culture wars’ candidates for Oregon school boards mostly lost

The Oregonian reports on the less-than-super showing of the anti-LGBTQ, anti-book crowd.

Male teachers are dying out in the education system. Here's why — and how to bring them back

From KSL in Utah, a look at the problem with, and need for, male teachers. How could Utah (or any other state) do better?

One state just became a national leader on child care. Here’s how they did it.

It's Vermont. Rachel Cohen has the story at Vox. 

Wes Moore calls out politicians who ‘ban books and muzzle educators’

Politico looks at the Maryland governor who decided to take a culture war stand.

Thomas Ultican's review of the Alexandra Robbins book I already told you to go buy, but if you want further convincing...

Juggling Glass Cups, Plastic Balls, and Ghosts

Yolanda Wheelington talks about one model for helping break down work-life balance for teachers, and why some teachers stay. 

Why Do Science of Reading Advocates Accept Unscientific Third-Grade Retention?

Nancy Bailey has some actual science regarding the retention of third graders, and she wants to know why certain science fans don't pay attention.

U.S. mothers labor force participation rate

It's up. Way up. This Axios piece offers a little context, some interpretation, and a graph.

The Last Daze of School

Gregory Sampson's piece took me right back to those final days of the year. 

McSweeney's, with a great piece by Ashley Ingle. Fun times. 

Over at Forbes, I took a look at Annie Abrams excellent book about AP courses. Plus, a new working paper that shows one more problem with cyber charters. 

Join me on substack, and my stuff will just magically appear in your email inbox, free of charge.

Friday, May 26, 2023

FL: The Prequel To Moms For Liberty Is Resurrecting Itself

The Florida group that pitched itself as a conservative alternative the state school board association was an operation that featured many of Florida's busiest reformster activists. And it also featured some names now known for their work with Moms For Liberty. And this isn't just ancient history--the group is getting started up again.

The Florida Coalition of School Board Members Begins

Back in 2015 (right at the beginning of the year, because these grass roots things always organically begin at the start of the calendar year), four supporters of school choice decided it was time to bid adieu to the Florida School Board Association. They were unhappy with the actions of FSBA, particularly a lawsuit filed against the state's new voucher program. They set out to become a "financially responsible," grassroots group that supports school choice options including charter school and local control of education issues. ExcelinEd, Jeb Bush's reformster group, wrote a glowing profile under the headline "Choice for school board members comes to Florida.They guessed that they would have 40 or 50 members "right out of the gate," but they started out with just four:

Erika Donalds, (Collier County School Board), Jeff Bergosh, (Escambia County School Board), Shawn Frost, (Indian River County School Board), and Bridget Ziegler, (Sarasota County School Board). The articles of incorporation for the group are missing Donalds and instead include Linda Costello. Bergosh was the group's first president. Their first registered agent was Shawn Frost; his home address was given as the organization's address.

Out of the swamp it comes

Frost told a reporter that the group believed that FSBA dues should not be used for a lawsuit (they weren't). Said Ziegler, the coalition would rather see that money go to a classroom. 

The group was never going to meet that estimate of 40 or 50 members, but the handful of members were all well-connected major players. Other names that would be associated with the group include Rebecca Negron, Erik Robinson, and Anne Corcoran. Also, Tina Descovich. 

This is going to take some space, but understanding who these folks are really helps to clarify what kind of operation this is. And that matters because they are intending to relaunch--maybe even go national.

So who are these folks? Here are some of the names that turn up by surfing the wayback machine through old web pages for FCSBM as board members, some of who just pass through briefly.

Jeff Bergosh

The first President. Government contractor. Moved on to become county commissioner in 2016, and has stayed with the gig ever since. And he blogs. 

Nancy Stacy

A board member with a combative style, who was publicly accused of bullying a former ally. She also caught flack for some social media posts, like saying whores can't be victims of rape or "Set Bill Cosby free says this Mama Bear with sons."

Linda Costello

In 2012, the 63 year old grandma beat an incumbent for a school board seat in Volusia County. She believes in "God, greatness and going the extra mile." Husband Fred was a former mayor and a legislator; in 2016, when he decided to run again, she decided to step away from the school board post. Fred was on the Education Appropriations Committee and believed that “Education is the number one economic development tool.”

Anne Corcoran

She's married to Richard Corcoran, formerly a pro-privatization leading legislator, then transformed into a pro-privatization Education Commissioner. Then he got in trouble for bid-rigging and resigned. Then DeSantis put him in charge of New College, the liberal Florida college that DeSantis intends to turn into the Hillsdale of the South. Anne herself has been busy launching a charter school; her brother-n-law is a charter school lobbyist.

Rebecca Negron

Married to Joe Negron, a Florida senator who helped write the tax credit scholarship voucher bill. Lost a 2016 bid for Florida's 18th congressional district. Lost her school board seat in 2018 after spending a reported quarter million on the race

Eric Robinson

"The Prince of Dark Money," former GOP party chair, and the guy who lost a school board race even though he outspent his opponent $222K to $32K, and subject of more than a few investigations and allegations. 

Jason Fischer

Briefly a board member. Electrical engineer, Rotarian. Veteran. Ran successfully for the state house, started to run for Congress, and then dropped out to clear a path for Aaron Bean and instead ran for-- Duval County property assessor. With Ron DeSantis's endorsement. And then, just this week, he dropped out of that race. Gonna try for Congress again? Who knows, but clearly school boarding was not his big passion.

Erika Donalds

Donalds is a Tea Partier who used to be an investment banker in New York. Now she is a well-connected player in Florida.  She founded Parents' Rights of Choice for Kids (Parents ROCK). Her husband Byron Donalds is the legislator who gave Florida the law that says all textbooks must be "balanced" and that any taxpayer can challenge course content. Donalds is buds with Patty Levesque, the woman who has been Jeb Bush's right-hand woman on ed reform. 

Donalds landed a seat on the Florida Constitution Revision Commission, from which she helped launch Amendment 8, a three piece amendment that would have added civic education, term limits for school board members, and-- oh, yeah-- also a part that eviscerated school boards and allowed charters to do an end run around local voters so they could pick the taxpayers' pockets. Among her many groups was School Choice Movement, started concurrently with the DeSantis administration. In 2018, she was displaying the logo of the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity on her Collier 912 Freedom Council website. 

And she's the CEO of Optima Ed, a private ed biz that offers school management and works with a variety of partners, including Step Up For Students, the outfit that manages the money fueling school vouchers--and that outfit is chaired by John Kirtley, who reportedly runs DeVos-funded PACS  (included American Federation for Children) and who allegedly provided support for the FCSBM. Optima Ed also operates a chain of Hillsdale-powered charter schools; little wonder that she threw her weight behind Amendment 8's provision that charters be approved by the state and not local school boards.

I could call Donalds the face of charter schools in Florida, but Bridget Ziegler already did. There is a whole book to be written about Florida politicians married to women who are making money in the charter school biz.

Shawn Frost

Shawn Frost is this guy:

This particular Facebook post has since been removed, but it seems to capture Frost's special je ne sais quoi. I can personally attest to his feisty engagement style on social media. And lots of other folks have screen shots. He's pretty awful.

In 2014, Frost went after a seat on the  Indian River County School Board. Not just any seat--the seat of the then-head of FSBA. He wanted this seat, badly enough to leave his wife and children back in their home at Vero Beach, FL (the one he would use for FSCBM incorporation), and move into a room above his parents' garage to meet the residency requirements (all of this was hashed out in court, ultimately in Frost's favor).

Shawn Frost graduated from Eastern Oregon University in 2006 with a BS in Experimental Psychology and a minor in philosophy. Then he picked up an MBA from Florida's Nova Southeastern University (website text- "Prepare To Dominate") and then he taught high school science for just two years at Sebastian River High School, a high-rated IBS school. There he did things like "leveraged personal network to create 'wow factor' learning experiences" and "conducted customer focus groups and survey research on student motivators and created a 'meritocracy based' incentives program." And then he got out of the classroom and back into corporate marketing work. He's also a senior strategy consultant with MVP Strategy and Policy, a group that specializes in helping with school board races. Frost once taught a class based on The Art of War. I find no evidence that he was TFA, but he certainly fits the profile, and he does love to say that he was a classroom teacher (without mentioning that his "career" lasted two years. Frost has been (according to Facebook) a marine, a science teacher, and a senior project manager at EFront, a software learning management system. And according to that ExcelinEd piece,, he works with business start-ups.

How did this guy win a school board race for a district in which he didn't actually live? 

With some pricey help. Here's how the Indian River Guardian reported on the race:

Frost, a newcomer to local politics with some questionable residency qualifications, (See: Frost says he is living in garage apartment at his father’s house in District 1), defeated Brombach 54 percent to 46 percent. In addition to being helped by local, though nationally funded, attacks on Brombach, Frost was helped by a flood of additional attack mailers, all paid for by the Florida Federation for Children. More outside help came from individual contributors to Frost’s campaign. Some two thirds of the direct contributions to Frost’s campaign were from out-of-state donors. In the reporting period ending August 18, Frost raised $6,340, $5,500 from out of state contributors, including several described as “venture capitalists.”

By later in August, he had pulled $20K from the American Federation of Children, the group that, in 2014, was still being run by Betsy DeVos, was tied closely to ALEC, and was funding reformy candidates left and right. Well, actually, only right. 

Then came the launch of FCSBM. In 2017, Frost announced that he would not seek another term on the school board-- because he has bigger targets in mind-- he wanted to be appointed to the state Board of Education.

That didn't happen, but Frost kept plugging away. He ran for vice-chair of the Florida GOP at the same time that Christian Ziegler (husband of Bridget) ran for chair. Ziegler won; Frost did not. He kept pushing the same issues. He was the campaign manager for the 2020 Congressional run of Erika Donalds' husband. 

And as of 2021, he has a new slice of his consulting/PR/etc firm-- Logos To Eyeballs Media, filing in March of 2021 with an address that appears to be a residence in Vero Beach. The website is, at present, just a front page with dead tabs. Must be doing okay, though, because during his run for the vice-chair spot, Frost pledged that through the company he was "committing to provide $335,000 in support for Republican outreach to youth, minorities and religious voters." Not sure where that project stands. Surely it wasn't just a campaign promise.

“I serve a big God and am blessed to be in a position to give back, but it really isn’t giving back because all of the money is God’s, all of the titles and power are God’s, all of the glory should go to God,” he said.

“I am fortunate to have a front-row seat to history and simply want to do my part to serve my Country, the Free State of Florida, and the Republican Party. I work for free, I work for God, and I always have enough.”

Depending on which account one reads, either Frost or Donalds was the driving force behind FCSBM. But for the next chapter, Frost appears to be taking the lead. And we'll get to that in a bit.

What about those other two members?

Bridget Ziegler. Ziegler squeaked out a victory for Sarasota School Board in 2018. Ron DeSantis thinks she's swell. And she's married to Christian Ziegler, who decided in mid-2022 not to run for re-election to a county commissioner seat because he'll be busy helping his wife and DeSantis each run their own campaigns (that and new rules that would have made it harder for him to win).

Christian Ziegler told the Washington Post that he has been "trying for 20- and 30-year old females involved with the Republican Party, and it was a heavy lift to get that demographic. But now Moms for Liberty has done it for me." That was in October of 2021, when Ziegler's involvement had gone quiet; Tim Craig at WaPo reported that Ziegler's wife was "loosely" connected to Moms For Livberty--not that she was a co-founder of this group that emerged to accomplish just what Ziegler had long searched for a tool to accomplish.

Christian Ziegler's Microtargeted Media ("We do digital and go after people on their phones") was a big player in the 2020 Florida race, on the ground for Trump and other GOP candidates. He pulled in $300K from a Trump-related PAC. He was once a Heritage Foundation Fellow. He's buddies with Corey Lewandowski. He appears to be behind the Protect Wyoming Values PAC (a Trump anti-Liz Cheney proxy), Governor Kristi Noem's election integrity website, and a bunch of other conservative Trump-backing websites. He was at Trump's January 6 rally.

And in February, after had been "effectively... campaigning for the job for years," Christian Ziegler was elected Florida's GOP party chair. Meanwhile, Bridget Ziegler is helping the right-wing Leadership Institute train school board candidates nationally.

Tina Descovitch ran for Brevard County School Board in 2016, with a signature issue of her opposition to Common Core. Descovitch ran on two decades in business and a degree in Communications, as well as serving on the executive staff of a US Army Commanding General. She won that election overwhelmingly, taking 48% of the vote in a primary election field of four. Then she lost in 2020. She stayed active in local school politics; after a big dustup over LGBTQ+ policy in Brevard County, she was mailed an envelope full of poop.

While Ziegler often mentions founding FCSBM in her public facing bio material, she's left it off her LinkedIn. It's not clear when she departed the group. In 2018, she had succeeded Donalds and Frost as president of the board. 2018 is also the first year that Descovich is listed as a board member.

In November of 2018, Jeffrey Solochek (a dynamite Florida education reporter) at the Tampa Bay Times asked "Whither the Florida Coalition of School Board Members?" Don't worry, emailed Erika Donalds (who with Frost and Negron was now out of the school board biz)-- Tina Descovich is going to be the new chief, the group's going to do cool stuff, new slate of members,we'll be back with a hot new website soon. "New members, new energy — exciting times."

Then in 2019, the board listing page is 404, though in that year they appear to have handed out some "fighting for kids" awards to folks like Senator Manny Diaz and Byron Donalds. By 2020, the entire website is dark. 

The group had had a good run, with plenty of lobbying and advocacy and connecting with legislators over their conservative goals for education. But for whatever reason (perhaps the requirement that one be an elected school board member to belong), they had run out of steam.

And on May 20, 2020, Descovich (as president) and Ziegler file for voluntary dissolution of the group. 

About that Moms For Liberty Origin Story

The standard origin story of Moms for Liberty is that right on January 1, 2021, two moms just kind of got together-- Tiffany Justice from Vero Beach, and Tina Descovich. Just two moms, upset about masking, gathered around the kitchen table. Hey, maybe they could fund raise by selling t-shirts!

That's not the actual origin story. The story is that Ziegler and Descovich spent a few years in a faux grass roots organization with typical right-wing goals for education (more vouchers, local control, etc), working side by side with a bunch of well-connected GOP activists. When that group folded, a few months later, Descovich, Ziegler and Justice started working on a new right-wing activism project that would not require members to stay elected to school board positions. 

Nobody picks up on this. Ziegler was successfully memory-holed. Justice and Descovich are presented as moms or, at most, former school board members-- never as seasoned GOP activists who had just finished their time on another similar right-tilted education activism group. It's no wonder they were able to hit the ground running and become a well-connected oft-promoted group--they were not starting from scratch.

The coalition is not done--they wanted to go national

There is still more to the story of the Florida Coalition of School Board Members. 

First, in 2021, the coalition attempted to go national as the Conservative School Board Member Coalition

The left has enjoyed its monopoly in education for too long at the national level and now a familiar voice in Florida has entered the national conversation. FCSBM went dark so that we could focus on other conservative causes, but the conditions created by this current administration DEMAND that we band together and share the 7+ years of experience we have with our Conservative brothers and sisters around the country.

The group filed in September of 2021 as a Florida Domestic Non-profit Corporation, with Shawn Frost as its registered agent at a Vero Beach address. Frost is listed as president, with Joe Arnold and Eric Robinson as directors. 

There's a website address listed on their promo page, but don't bother--there's nothing there. The couple of pages for the CSBMC are hosted on the website of Shawn Frost's Logos To Eyeballs website (which is in turn hosted by Kartra). The pitch promises free membership for the rest of 2022 if you sign up before CPAC Orlando ends. The application form is still live-ish. There are supposed to be videos, one featuring "our first round table discussion" with "School Board Member Bridget Ziegler and Former School Board Members Tina Descovich and Tiffany Justice." It's not there. Neither is the welcome video from the organization's president-- Shawn Frost, "President, Conservative School Board Member Coalition, former Chairman and Board Member of Indian River County , Florida, School Board, Past President Florida Coalition of School Board Members (FCSBM)"

Core values? Parental rights are sovereign. Teacher historically accurate founding of America. No racism (aka no crt). Fiscal transparency and accountability. Individual members control where their dues go. 

The group has an address, but for mail only ("We have minimal staff as fiscal conservatives"). There's a phone number, but USPhoneBook reverse lookup finds no such number. The group touts endorsements from Joe Arnold, Eric Robinson, Erika Donalds, and Shawn Frost. 

However, CSBMC seems to have experienced a failure to launch. But Frost wasn't ready to give up yet.

Trying it one more time--back to Florida

In December of 2022, Frost filed again--this time it was the Florida Conservative Coalition of School Board Members. Frost is the registered agent; the three board members are Jill Woolbright, Jessie Thompson, and April Carney. Nobody is listed as president. 

Carney was the DeSantis-endorsed candidate in Duval, and a Frost client in the 2022 campaign that saw the accusation that she had been at the capital on January 6. Woolbright is a school board member who called the sheriff to file a criminal complaint over a book; she lost in 2022. Thompson was endorsed by many GOP right wingers, including Byron Daniels and DeSantis.She ran an anti-indoctrination campaign.

FCCSBM drew some press for its "relaunch" announcing Thompson as president after an organizational convention in February. Marked as a "political consultant" that the coalition will work with, Frost promised a softer version in the relaunch:

“One thing that’s different is that we are not attacking the FSBA, we don’t ask our members to decide between the two,” said Frost, a former CEO and past president of the Coalition. “We just want to support growing our members’ leadership abilities and connections so that they can stand together and fight for our shared core values.”

And Donalds was also on hand to cheer the group on while also providing some of the training at that first meeting:

“I love that they are unapologetically conservative and put it right there in the name,” said Donalds, who led the collective bargaining training. “I’m excited to see what this group accomplishes.”

Carey noted that "it was just so obvious that there is a need for a place to get professional development without the spin and indoctrination found in other groups. Among my friends here at FCCSBM, we can be ourselves."

In February, they announced an intention to hold more events in March and April. They don't have a website (they've got an address hosted by kartra, but nothing there), but they do have a Facebook page, currently with six posts. From those we can see that the group has five or six members, that they attended the DeSantis Freedom Blueprint Summit, that they once got their picture taken with Manny Diaz, and that they got some training on "education freedom" from Erika Donalds and John Kirtley--all of that posted on April 28. 

Their Twitter presence (@FCSBM-- "Leading Better and Standing Together) is a bit busier, with 338 followers--but that's the legacy account of the original group and nothing has been posted there since September 2019. 

It's always possible that FCCSBM is just doing all sorts of stuff under the radar, but they haven't had a stirred a single online ripple since their big launch. 

That's it for now

That's a lot of story, and if nothing else, it captures how much the right-wing privatizer community is so intertwined with itself. The same folks, over and over. More chapters to come, I'm sure, starting with the one in which we see if Candidate DeSantis is the wind beneath their wings or the millstone around their neck. After all, education privatization was welded onto another governor with Presidential dreams, and that didn't end well. Stay tuned.

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Good night, Mr. Big

This is not about education. It's about our dog.

My wife brought home Mr. Big (the name was a result of her Sex and The City love) before we were married. He was fresh out of a litter of eight, and there are few things cuter than a chocolate lab puppy.

She already had a pet rabbit, the most cantankerous creature God ever put on Earth. It did not approve of the new addition, and was not shy about it. Big did not care. This would turn out to be a pattern, a piece of his fundamental nature.

Big did not have a single angry unkind bone in his body. In thirteen years, I never saw him lose his temper, run out of patience, or take offense (or a hint) from other persons or creatures that did not like him. In all his life, Big never met someone with anything less than certainty that this person or beast was his new best friend. Big was mostly interested in people, not other dogs. It is possible he did not actually speak Dog, which would explain when another dog barked "Come over here so I can chew your face off before I kick your butt," Big's reply was, "Of course I would like to be your best friend."

When he moved into this house, still younger than two (important because, until they turn two-ish, labs are nuts) we were reluctant to crate him, and so he chewed up baseboards and table legs until we accepted that he actually needed a place to lie and calm down. Once he got a little older, he became more free rangey around the house--though he absolutely refused to go down the steps into the basement. We assume there is some monster down there that only he was aware of.

Outside he liked to do the usual lab things. Run. Fetch a tennis ball. Our yard backs up on the river and he liked to swim in there, though not always at times convenient for his humans. I played lots of catch with him in the back yard and I learned to always position myself between him and the water. There's a bike trail nearby and he would enjoy long walks on that, including side trips to do things like trying to climb a rock wall in order to fetch a ten-foot stick. Big loved a good stick, enjoyed the process of finding its center of gravity so that he could carry it in his mouth without tipping over, liked to chew it to smithereens.

After a few years he developed a problem with his knee, causing it to just come unhinged (we called it "poodle knee") and has to have an operation that involved sticking a piece of titanium in there. It helped, and it was cool to have a bionic dog, but it put limits on just how much romping he could do without needing some extra rest and recovery time.

Big was mostly a quiet dog. He had a particular plaintive whine when he needed to go outside (we called it The Poop Song), and a bark for "Hey, I bet you wanna be my friend." He was absolutely the worst guard dog in history. When we had our occasional mouse incursion (as old houses do), we imagined that he just happily greeted the tiny dogs and told them where the food was.

He was never a particularly selective eater. Any food was fine. He also liked kleenex. One time he ate a huge portion of a toilet paper twelve pack; this resulted in some extra-special renditions of The Poop Song. He also liked popcorn and would sit patiently at hand any time I made some, waiting for the inevitable spillage.

When the babies arrived, he was puzzled by the tininess of the new humans, but otherwise took it in stride. They learned to protect their food from him, and he learned to hang around them when they had food. He couldn't really get interested in the things they did to pass the time, but he was happy to sit near them, and they grew up being gentle and kind with him. Also, he found that their little socks made an excellent snack, and if unguarded, he would slurp them up; they would later re-emerge from one end or the other. 

He was not a super mooshy dog. Not one for licking (unless you tasted like something delicious), but would gladly sit up against you or rest his head on you. And if you sat on the floor he would gladly try to squeeze his 95 pound bulk onto your lap. If his water bowl was empty, he would come toss it toward you. "This thing is broken--can you fix it?" He had a tongue too large for his head, and it would wander. My wife and I were remembering how, when she had put lotion on her legs, he would casually wander by and the tongue, seemingly of its own volition, would slip out and take a taste of her lotiony leg.

These last several years he has been my retirement buddy. Sometimes he would sit in whatever room I was working in. When the weather allowed the front door to be opened to just the screen, he loved to watch door-o-vision and whatever was passing by, or sit on the back porch for back-door-o-vision, which was mostly birds and bunnies (which he was never inclined to chase). He appreciated my singing and my willingness to narrate for his benefit whatever I was doing.

As I sit here typing this, the kids in bed and my wife at rehearsal, a part of my brain is still tuned toward listening for his footfall as he pads from one end of the house to the other to switch channels or to come check on me. A part of me is still expecting the slurpy slurpy slurp of him getting some water. And when I cam downstairs from tucking the boys in, a part of me expected him to be waiting at the bottom of the stairs to see me and get his after-bedtime snacks. 

But of course he wasn't there. He's had a rough year. I built him a ramp so that he could more easily get in and out of the house, but it was still hard. A couple of months ago he had a bad 12 hours when he couldn't get up at all, then he rallied, and we got some medication that seemed to help. But a few days ago, his stomach rejected everything. He lay on the floor whining--very unlike him--and then for 48 hours, he couldn't get without help, his legs wobbly and uncooperative. He stopped eating. We made an appointment with the vet.

Our vet is an old friend (through theater, because this is a small town) and we talked it through. I went through something similar with my previous dog; that time I simply couldn't bring myself to stop Trying Things until the poor dog was miserable, and I have to carry some blame for making him suffer so that I could feel better, or at least not feel guilty about having "given up on him." Dogs, my vet friend explained at the time, will fool you because they don't complain and whine about how hard everything is. They just keep going until they can't. Big's decline wasn't quite so sudden, but it's still hard not to see that he is still himself, so maybe if we just did this, or that, or something.

You want to keep him around longer, and you can--it's just a matter of how much you can bear to make him pay to do it.

I don't judge anybody's decisions about how to handle this final stage of a pet's life. It's a huge and impossible choice, and you do the best you can. The best we thought we could do today was release Big from the body that was failing him so badly.

He was a good dog, a kind, loyal, loving, patient, and joyful dog. I learned things from him (go hard, be present, eat all the snacks, stay close to your people). He was, in the hokey, old-fashioned sense, a good and stouthearted companion. 

He left this world gently and gracefully, his lady friend and man friend with him till the end. We cried. Afterwards, we still cried. Then we got in the car and cried in the car. We drove to a mall, walked around, bought some swim trunks for the boys, got some lunch, and then headed home so we could pick the boys up from school. And as God is my witness, as we drove home, my wife, gazing out her window, said, "Look, there's a rainbow." And there was.