BALTIMORE: A HARBINGER OF THE FUTURE

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11112This week I watched the events of Baltimore unfold on my television, and I read the comments on social media. I can honestly say none of it surprised me. Even when Jeanne Allen jumped in with her tweet claiming charter schools could save society, I wasn’t shocked. I’m still waiting for Teach for America to identify and capitalize on their “champion of the uprising.” And let’s be honest, it is an uprising. The people of Baltimore are not reacting to an individual act, but a national epidemic.

 

You can only disfranchise and separate people for so long before they get angry. People will only express themselves peacefully if they feel they are being heard and their needs addressed. If the perception is different, eventually that frustration is going to erupt in violence. That’s not a matter of a wrong way or a right way to behave; that’s just a fact of life. Unfortunately, we are creating a society that is so fractured that we can not begin to understand the experiences of our own fellow citizens, which causes us to put our value judgments on their behavior instead of being able empathize and find a solution.

 

Allen is not the first charter proponent to argue that type of school doesn’t matter, that we should be focusing on “good schools” not “type.” Choice proponents have repeatedly argued that not all schools are a good “fit” for all kids and that we should all get to choose the right school for our child. That all sounds good, but what that translates to is a stratified system only focusing on the measurable and eventually leading to a segregated society. One that because of a lack of shared experiences, results in people putting their needs in front of society’s needs.

 

We see the violence erupt in Baltimore, and it seems like a foreign country because we have no concept of what other people’s day-to-day lives look like. We see a grocery store burn, and we never take into account that the owner, due to patrons living in a food desert, may have been price gouging the community for years. We just assume that community members can go to another store with better prices if the grocer was over charging them. For some, that’s not an option. A friend who lived in a food desert once told me their local fast food place never offered specials. They didn’t have to. Their patrons didn’t have the ability to shop anywhere else.

 

In his recent book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, Robert Putnam uses individual stories of children he went to school with in the 1950s and compares them to stories from the kids of today. He doesn’t paint the 1950s as an idyllic time, but instead shows how all kids went to school side-by-side and developed an understanding of the challenges each faced. That doesn’t hold true today. Between choice and charter schools we’ve created a system where like kids go to school with like kids. Students can graduate knowing how to read and write above grade level but not know a single child who lives in poverty or a single wealthy child. The diversity that is offered, because we give lip service to its importance, comes attached with phrases like, “controlled diversity” and “managed demographics.” The true meaning of those phrases is segregation, and it’s a potentially devastating problem.

 

One of the reasons my family made a home in the neighborhood where we live is because of its diversity. I wanted my children to grow up in an environment where they are exposed to all kinds of people with all kinds of lifestyles. They don’t have to like everybody, but they need to make their judgments based on experience and knowledge, not supposition. I wanted my children exposed to “unmanaged demographics.”

 

They attend a school that is 70% English Learners (EL) and 90% of its students live in poverty. It’s also a damn good school, though test scores don’t necessarily reflect that quality. My wife and I believe that this well-rounded education is essential to who my children will be as adults. However, the proliferation of charter schools in my neighborhood has begun to peel off high performing students from public schools. This leads to a higher population of English Learners in public schools, and an increased focus on programs that address their needs, potentially resulting in fewer programs for non-EL students.

 

We put so much emphasis on annual standardized tests that if the school doesn’t double down on addressing the needs of its increasing EL population, it risks being labeled a failure. Currently an edict has been issued in our school zone that all new teachers must be EL-certified in order to be hired. On paper that sounds good, but what about that 5-star teacher who moves from a rural district and wants to teach at a local school but may not be EL-certified? What gets sacrificed with the increased focus on English Learners, and does it force non-EL parents to make hard decisions about where to send their children? The push for “choice” could have the affect of robbing many parents of their “choice”.

 

This same scenario plays out with special education students. The result, whether intentional or not, is a more segregated school. A former head of TFA Nashville, Shandi Dowell, once told me that children of color are not in the classroom to be social experiences for white children. When she said it, I bought into it, but now I’m calling bullshit. How is that adult white person ever going to be able to watch the news, like the scene unfolding in Baltimore, and even begin to understand the root of the anger if they’ve never had that cultural experience? How can a person of color make their needs understood if they’ve never interacted with a white population? If we can’t empathize with each other, how can we even begin to address our societal issues? Our public schools have always given us a reasonably safe place for children to start conducting these experiments, but adults are now actively stealing those avenues away from us in the name of “choice.”

 

One of the most telling statistics from the recent CREDO study on the performance of urban charters was the disparity in the results for black, Hispanic, and white children. In math, black children gained the equivalent of 36 additional days of learning and Hispanics gained 22, while white children lost 36 days. In reading, it was blacks 26 days and Hispanics 6, but white children lost 14 days. To my untrained eyes, that is very disturbing because it would indicate to me that something very race-specific is transpiring; this is further evidence of the segregation of children in our schools. Unless different children from different races, and economic classes, truly have different abilities to learn and I don’t subscribe to that for one second. If charter schools were truly beneficial, they’d be beneficial to all, not just certain sub-groups. They would take all kids not just the ones who’s parents are involved enough to get them enrolled.

A recent study out of Stanford illustrates the benefits of students attending a diverse school that incorporates social emotional learning. Per the study “By attending to these needs as well as academic content, schools can foster trust, safety, and community among students and adults in the school; change students’ beliefs about education and themselves as learners; reduce the threat of stereotypes and biases about students’ potential and ability; and enable students to cultivate skills that render education meaningful and relevant.” Think about the ramifications of that and how students who graduated from such a school will be very well prepared to search for solutions to the issues that we as a country face.

 

It has long been my position that schools are vital in the shaping of tomorrow’s citizens. The immeasurable is every bit as important as the measurable. While turning out a literate society is certainly important, what is the good if people don’t know how to apply those skills? Charter and choice proponents apparently don’t share this view. They are focused on schools that generate high test scores or are compatible with individual kids to the point of being willing to close schools that don’t generate the desired stats or that do more to make adults look good than to prepare children for the future. They appear willing to create separate educational systems that further divide us in order to justify numbers that show no correlation with future success, meanwhile giving us less and less common ground in which to find solutions to our social challenges.

 

As long as we continue to implement policies that allow us to separate individual members of our society from each other, scenes like this week’s will continue to play out more and more. Until we address the growing inequality in our country, we will continue to see further uprisings. Investing in our public education system is a good place to start. We need to recognize that education is not just about passing tests, but learning to be good citizens. Education is as much about the collective as it is the individual. We need to stop believing when people tell us that the type of school doesn’t matter and start believing in our public educational system. Or else, we will see more and more disenfranchised people, more and more inequality, and a continued rising anger. Teachers and schools cannot solve every problem but they can give us the foundation to find our own solutions.

 

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What standards could and should mean.

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a1Coaching Little League baseball for 4-to-6-year-olds has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I confess that during the first month of games, I harbored a constant desire to get in my car and go home. The kids were all incredibly sweet, but on my team they were all closer to 4 than 6, and I’m not sure how many of them were even pre-disposed to play baseball. In the beginning, they would wear their gloves on their head, pick blades of grass, play in the dirt, wrestle with each other – anything but play baseball. One even told me, as he lay in the outfield, “I don’t even like baseball!” I wasn’t quite sure how to respond to that.

To compound matters, the league we were in didn’t make allowances for 4-year-olds. The expectations were that teams, no matter what their experience level, would play the game of baseball by the rules of baseball. Three strikes and you were out. Players tuck in their shirts Bases are regulation distances away from each other, and players are expected to make the throws and catches to put runners out. It all seemed a little insane to me, and the first games were a demonstration of this insanity. We lost our first four games by an average score of 16 to 0. It was a little disheartening, and I was beginning to question whether this was even an appropriate activity for a 4-to-6-year-old.

Then something crazy happened. The kids got better. We scored our first run. Then we had a game that ended in a score of 2 to 2, easily one of the most exciting things I’ve ever been involved in. As thrilling as any Yankees/Red Sox game. This past weekend, we won our first game. It has been amazing to watch these children develop. It’s something that hasn’t just happened for one or two children either. The whole team is progressing, each child at his or her own pace. Some making greater growth than others, but all showing growth.

Through this process, I’ve gotten a little insight into how standards can and should function. I admit that I’ve always been a little skeptical of how expectations can affect educational outcomes, perhaps because they’ve always been presented to me as a zero sum game. The Common Core State Standards were developed so that all children could be measured by a common stick across the country. To my eyes as a parent, these were meant to dictate at what level a child should be performing, with little accounting for any kind of outside variables. The results from the testing of these standards would allow us to rank children, teachers, and schools.

For example, teachers are to have high expectations of a child, and if that child does not meet those standards, then they, their teachers, and their whole school are labeled failures. There is no room for taking into consideration any kind of individual or unique challenges. Everybody is expected to reach proficiency at the same pace. Furthermore, just expecting a child to succeed is supposed to be enough and what is presently preventing mastery is not symptomatic of poverty or development, but merely low expectations.

What my Little League team has demonstrated is something different. There is an expectation that everyone will attempt to perform to a certain standard, but if a child should fall short, we attempt to coach and correct in a manner that recognizes the challenges of each child. The child who is just turned 4 is not expected to show the same ability as a child who is nearly 6. Some of the children are obviously more athletically inclined than others, but that doesn’t mean all aren’t capable of growth. That growth is what is important, and it does not look the same in all children. As coaches, we try to celebrate that growth in whatever form it takes and no matter how miniscule it may appear.

An educator friend of mine explained standards to me this way. When you go to a doctor, he has a list of guidelines that you should adhere to in order to be considered healthy. The doctor, however, doesn’t just recite those and send you on your way with a proclamation of healthy or unhealthy. He takes those guidelines and compares them with your lifestyle, family history, past medical history, and any other factors he can glean from you. Sometimes you may not be exactly healthy, but you are getting as close as you possibly can to adhering to those guidelines and so he recognizes that and offers praise. That’s what teachers do with children, expectations, and standards. They treat the child as a doctor would a patient and get them as close to those standards as possible. Sometimes that means a 100 percent and sometimes it might be a little less.

We have a kid on the team who can’t hold on to the bat. Every time he swings, he lets go and the bat gets flung. It’s a dangerous action and one that needs correction. The umpire has warned that if he continues to do this, he’ll be considered out. Yesterday, he struck out three times, but managed to hold on to the bat each time. We celebrated that accomplishment each time as if he’d gotten a hit. Overall, he failed to meet the expectation of getting a hit, but what he accomplished made the attainment of the expectation a possibility in the future. In my eyes, that’s trending towards healthy.

I’ve also seen firsthand the role outside variables play on a kid’s performance. Two weeks ago, we had a game that started on a Tuesday night at 6:45. The kids had already had a full day, and the last thing they were focused on was baseball. The game itself was an unmitigated disaster, but should in no way be considered reflective of these kids’ abilities. The kids were tired and that need took precedent over applying themselves to baseball. Despite what education reformers might argue, tired kids, whether mentally or physically, do not make focused learners. I’ve learned the same holds true for hungry kids and kids who have to go potty. Meet those pressing needs and suddenly, you’ve got better ball players on your hands. Crazy, I know, but I suspect the same holds true for students.

Yesterday, my own son’s mother was participating in a half marathon. So we were up at 5:00 a.m. to see her off and then cheer her on for the next two hours. When my son’s baseball game time arrived at noon, to say he was spent was an understatement. He’d had enough, and baseball was the last thing on his mind. It took a little cajoling, but he played. It was not his best game, but afterwards we celebrated his efforts. I praised him for the plays he made. In my eyes, though, the most important thing I did was recognize his challenges and praise him for overcoming those to take the field. I didn’t offer him excuses, but recognized the difficulties and his ability to face them.

It is my observation that in the never-ending argument about the role of poverty in education, it’s always presented as an either/or argument. Either the student overcomes the challenges, or the challenges are used as excuses. Either the teacher and the school overcome the challenges, or else they dismiss the challenges as excuses. I wonder how often we acknowledge the fact that just showing up to get in the game is worthy of a celebration on its own for a kid who has many difficulties at home. Instead, the expectation is that the child will show up and hit the mark every day, completely ignoring what might have happened outside the classroom, or else the term failure be evoked.

The majority of the kids on my Little League team will not master the skills to play baseball at the expected level this year.  I believe they will continue to progress towards that standard though. More importantly, I think they will develop an appreciation for the complexities of the game of baseball. They will learn that you can fail at a task a multitude of times before mastering it. That’s not called being a failure, but rather, being a student. Hopefully, they will learn the joy that comes with growth when a task that once seemed impossible becomes rote. I hope that they will begin to understand that not everybody is capable of performing at the same level, but we are all capable of doing our best. And sometimes our best may not be good enough, and that’s all right, too, as long as we truly worked as hard as we could.

Funny thing is, I realize these hopes are no different than what I hope my children are receiving from their school. Currently kids are being tested ad nauseam, but are the results accurately measuring the child as a student? Are they showing to what degree the child embraces the beauty of learning? Are they instilling the realization that sometimes you may fall short, but if you are in the game there is always the potential to get a hit? Are they opening the child’s mind to all the beauty and mystery that the world has to offer, or are they closing their minds to anything that is not measurable? These are the standards and expectations that I want my children held to, and I seem to get the best measure of those by talking to my children’s teachers. I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned through my son’s baseball experience is that standards are important, but only if applied as an expectation and not a value judgment.

Standards should be set and applied by  parents, teachers, administrators and even communities and just like I don’t require a standardized test to evaluate my players skill level, I think the aforementioned can tell you how close their children are to reaching the standards without relying on a singular high stakes test as well.  Some may argue that the kids on my team are stuck on a failing baseball team. Maybe, if you just measure by wins and losses. But should Little League baseball, or for that matter, life itself, only be measured by wins and losses?

 

Vouchers for All!

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lawnmowingIt’s April in Tennessee, so that must mean that once again we are embroiled in a battle to beat back vouchers. One year I wish Punxsutawney Phil would come out of his hole, and, instead of telling us there’d be 6 more weeks of winter, he’d tell us there’d be no voucher battle for this year. Vouchers are another one of those arguments that don’t seem to be predicated on any kind of empirical evidence. It just sounds like a great idea on the surface, and there are special interest folks already lined up to make donations in case a legislator is willing to support the legislation – therefore, here we go again. The past two years, the legislation has failed to pass a vouchers bill. This year, however, things are looking a little glum, and I’m a little frightened by that.

It seems that when legislators get up and scream, “Kids are stuck in a failing school!” they are forgetting something: we are a democracy and public education is in the Constitution. That means those failing schools are kinda on us. Think about it this way: it’s like letting your yard get so overgrown that your kids can’t play in it, and then you walk outside and declare, “This yard is a disgrace, and it is an injustice that my kids don’t have a great yard to play in.” Vouchers are akin to giving your kids five dollars so they can go play in a nicer yard down the road instead of cleaning up your yard. What you are saying is, “I am not responsible for my yard, and I certainly don’t intend to take care of it.” Vouchers are an admission of failure. It’s an unacceptable failure because the last time I checked, America wasn’t working too hard, wasn’t physically laid up, nor had a drinking problem. America needs to get out and clean up its yard. If the lawn mower or weed eater is broken, then fix it or invest in a new one.

You can see where the voucher issue would give me qualms. Then I read Peter Greene’s recent piece debunking the silly idea that the education funding required by the Constitution is really like money in a backpack. I know it wasn’t Peter’s intention, or maybe it was, but it set off a light bulb. What if we grew this whole voucher concept? What if everybody got a backpack full of money? Need to go into a nursing home? Here’s a backpack of money. Don’t like your fire department? Here’s a backpack. The possibilities are endless.

A couple of weeks ago, I was looking at crime statistics. It seems my neighborhood has more crime than the wealthier neighborhoods. Now applying my new found clarity, I’m starting to wonder why I should be stuck in a failing neighborhood. (Disclaimer for my neighbors: I don’t think our neighborhood is failing, but if you apply metrics that are used to measure schools, some might think we are.) I want my backpack. If my neighbors and I were given a voucher, we could go out and either hire the rich folks’ police department or entice them to come open up in our neighborhood. We wouldn’t be trapped, depending on that overstressed government police force; we’d have one dedicated to just our needs. Think how fantastic that would be.

Let’s look at other services. How about the zoning department? Right now, zoning is run out of an office downtown. Do they even know my neighborhood or understand our needs? I don’t know, but those rich neighborhoods are looking pretty nice. They never seem to get payday loan places and used car lots setting up in their neighborhood. Give me a backpack, and my neighbors and I could invite our own zoning department into the neighborhood. I know, some in the neighborhood might not agree with our vision, but nobody’s forcing them to use our zoning department. If they are happy with the city’s zoning department, they are more than welcome to keep right on using it.

I’m telling you, the possibilities for vouchers are endless. This could be a real game changer. There is no reason why the kids should get all the benefits. After all, what have they done for this country? So what if they are the future. We are the present. We are the ones who have fought in wars and paid taxes. Why should we be stuck in failing neighborhoods while others benefit? I say the time has come for vouchers for everyone!

With our public schools, people may argue that there is a flipside. We could do an honest evaluation of our schools. We could commit to fully and equitably funding them. We could commit to applying best practices that are backed by research and evidence. That would take recognizing the vital role that our public school system plays in shaping our children’s future. It would take many of us, both as citizens and businesses, committing to supply both financial and human resources. We might have to do a little volunteering.

In other words, we’d need to go out to the shed and pull out that lawn mower that we didn’t maintain. We’d have to remove the blade and sharpen it, change the spark plugs, change the oil, and maybe tweak a few things. It’s possible that we might need to invest in a new weed eater to help with the maintenance. I would reject the idea of overinvesting in the newest, brightest, shiny one. The one we’ve been using, with a few updates, will likely serve us best. Remember, we’d need to buy, not rent, our tools. That yard will need regular maintenance. I don’t know, but this is sounding like a lot of work! It might be easier to just give the kids five bucks and let them go play in a yard down the road.

Giving the kids five bucks, though, isn’t going to really solve the problem. First of all, my yard is still a wreck. Second of all, I’m not sure how far away those clean yards are. I may have to get in the car and drive the kids there. That’s starting to sound like work, too. Thirdly, I’m not sure five bucks is enough to gain them entry to the yard. What if that homeowner wants ten? What if, at first, they decide five is good, but all of a sudden they have a bunch of kids who want to play in their yard, so they jack it up to ten? Those damn private interests are always looking to make money. Lastly, what if that homeowner doesn’t have the same standards as I do, and my kids pick up all kinds of bad habits while playing in that yard? After all, the kids are not going to be right here in my yard where my neighbors and I can keep an eye on them. That could be problematic.

Maybe this backpack idea isn’t such a great one. Maybe the people saying we need to go out to the shed and do the maintenance have a point. That backpack idea sure was attractive for a minute though. Why does there always have to be unintended consequences? I guess I’ll talk to you later. If you need me, I’ll be out mowing the lawn.