“I felt that if a man’s proposals met with approval, it should encourage him; if they met with opposition, it should make him fight back; but the real tragedy for him was to lift up his voice among the living and meet with no response neither approval nor opposition just as if he were left helpless in a boundless desert.”
Lu Hsun, Selected Stories

“No man ever got very high by pulling other people down. The intelligent merchant does not knock his competitors. The sensible worker does not work those who work with him. Don’t knock your friends. Don’t knock your enemies. Don’t knock yourself.”
Alfred Lord Tennyson

Before we get going here, I want to give a fair warning, today’s piece may make some of you angry. Or it may not. The words may strike a chord and make you uncomfortable, raising thoughts most of us are not ready to confront yet – conversations we are not yet ready to hold. Or you may just shake your head, call me a misguided fool – if you are feeling generous – and move on. It’s hard to predict how words will impact people. There are quite a few things that we should get pissed off about, that we just shrug and say, “That’s the way it’s always been.” and plenty that shouldn’t raise our hackles, but there we are bearing our fangs at each other.

There are days that I wish everyone would get mad at me and stop reading my words, freeing me to stop writing them and pursue another hobby. One that might be more impactful, like stamp collecting or building ships in bottles. But before I get too maudlin, I’ve delivered my disclaimer, so let us get rolling.

Education policy tends to quickly divide us into camps. No matter what the subject, lines get drawn and you get handed either a brown shirt or a blue shirt and a distinct set of talking points. Points that it’s best you don’t vary from and you certainly never acknowledge that the other team may have some valid points.

We also have a habit of  spending endless hours debating the same points over and over, like hamsters on a wheel. I’ve come to believe that the reason we spend endless time debating things like charter schools, large schools, magnet schools, alternative licensing programs, SEL – and the list could go on – is to avoid talking about the real difference-maker, poverty,

The unintended, or maybe it is the intended consequence, of our avoidance is that we continually make teaching a more and more untenable position. As a result, across the country, districts are facing an unprecedented decline in the number of people willing to become teachers under the current conditions.

We continue to allow teachers to whither on  the vine while we spend time distracted by debates over less impactful items. The latest distraction is the renewed Reading Wars, now renamed as the pursuit of applying science to the teaching of reading.

The war is far from new, but about a year ago “journalist” Emily Hanford wrote an article declaring that the high rate of kids failing to read at grade level – which is a whole another subject for another day – was due to the fact that the vast majority of teachers were teaching reading wrong. As a result, we had a crisis on our hands, “According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, more than six in 10 fourth-graders aren’t proficient readers. It has been this way since testing began. A third of kids can’t read at a basic level.” 

I don’t want to get sidetracked, or this will turn into a 4000-word piece, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out who said it – National Assessment of Educational Progress – and what they said – It has been this way since testing began – nothing quite justifies one’s existence like the discovering of a crisis. Just think, if testing hadn’t started, we’d be wandering in the desert with no idea if kids could read or not.

The gist of the argument made by Hanford, and her growing army of supporters, is that classroom instruction doesn’t focus enough on phonics and if we just focused on that, we would suddenly see huge swaths of kids begin to read. Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? Nobody  can argue with science,right? Unfortunately, I have a few caveats.

The first being, since 85% of this discussion is being held by people, not in the classroom, how do we know exactly how much of each element of instruction is being utilized? I’m married to a teacher and she bounces her lesson plans off of me, but I have no idea what actually happens in the classroom because its fluid and is oft adjusted based on student response. Way to often those outside of the classroom are making judgments on what happens in the classroom based on minimal experience. Recognizing good teaching is not as simple as  one might think.

An experienced teacher has a toolbox full of tools and utilizes each of them to the degree required by the responses of their students. Despite the currently popular narrative, few teachers are continually using the same strategy when it is failing to produce results.

It’s like when a plumber shows up at my house to fix my water heater, he doesn’t just bring one wrench. He brings a tool bag. There are probably a few tools he uses most of the time, but he’s prepared in the event he runs into things that are a little bit different and requires some different tools and strategies. It pays to be prepared and have options.

Here’s a fun game for you. Call up your plumber and tell him you’ve been doing some reading. Based on what you’ve read, and after observing some of his visit last month, you think he’s doing it all wrong and you have some suggestions. Let me know how that works out for you.

One of my biggest issues with the new phonics movement is their insistence that there is only one way to teach reading.They also but forth the idea that the science is settled. I’ve spent 54 years on this planet and I’ll testify in front of congress, that there is never just one way to do anything. There are ways that appear more “efficient” but even that is based on an individual definition of “efficient”. And nothing is ever “settled”.

Let’s visit our old friend irony again. We constantly preach to kids, “question everything” because we aspire to produce critical thinkers. Well apparently not the teaching of reading, because that subject has already been settled.

This argument that all of our woes will be healed if we just increase the use of phonics conveniently ignores one factor, that old elephant in the room poverty. Remember who told us about all the failing kids? That’s right the standardized test. At this point in the game, it’s accepted by most educated folks that standardized tests are better suited as indicators of socio-economic status as opposed to actually a measure of learning.

Yet phonics disciples would have me believe that if we would just focus on using methods of teaching that aligned with science, we’d overcome all those social issues impacting students. Kids would suddenly start saying things in class like,

“Mrs. Johnson I used to be hungry in the morning when I came to class, but now that you are using phonics, I don’t feel hungry anymore.”

“Mr. Jones, my parents arguing and general drunken behavior used to keep me up all night, but now I go to sleep at night with the sounds of phonics in my head and I don’t even hear them anymore.”

“Ms. Smith, my dad used to beat me every night but ever since you started using practices rooted in science he’s stopped.”

I continually struggle with the dichotomy that we have no problem accepting that if Marcus Mariotta doesn’t eat right before a game, or doesn’t get enough sleep, or is continually exposed to stressful situations, he’s not going to throw many touchdown passes. In fact, if he does throw one, we are quick to write it off as luck because it’s obvious that Marcus doesn’t look like himself.

Yet with students, all that gets thrown out the window, and we expect them to overcome the challenges of their home life and to compete at the same level as their peers that have the advantage of a nutritious diet, plenty of sleep, and a lack of exposure to trauma. Does that compute for you?

I’m convinced it’s because we can’t handle an honest conversation about poverty any more than we can handle one about race. Too much of our national myth is rooted in the individual’s ability to overcome their birth circumstances. Having that conversation would require an honest talk about wage inequity, universal health care, and affordable housing. Subjects most Americans don’t like to talk about.

Reality is a great deal different than the public narrative. Too many children are born into life circumstances that they are incapable of overcoming. Instead of looking to level the playing field, we as a society look for outliers that we can hold up as examples that anybody can overcome anything. We continually perpetuate the myth that America is a meritocracy and that through hard work, anything is possible. Which is frankly bullshit.  Meanwhile, the inequities of American life grow.

If you have doubts about what I’m saying when it comes to poverty’s impact on student outcomes, call me next time you have a job interview. We won’t feed you for 12 hours beforehand and I’ll keep you awake all night before your interview. We’ll see if you get the job.

Obviously, I am a huge proponent of education. I wouldn’t write 5000 words a month minimum about it if I didn’t see its inherint value, I’d start blogging about the Browns instead. But to continue to try and sell education as simply a vehicle to escape poverty is just not an accurate picture. And if we want to truly give future generations an opportunity to escape poverty we need to provide educational opportunities while we address the issues that impact student achievement outside the classroom.

I look at it this way, if I making a blanket and the only threads I have access to are gray, then I’m going to make a pretty dull blanket. Education gives me access and allows me to understand the usage of more colorful threads in order to make a more vivid blanket. Unfortunately, society still keeps too many of the really exquisite threads under lock and key. Education can’t grant me access to those threads, but it can guide me on their usage if the doors become unlocked. As a society, we need to be willing to try and unlock those doors.

Here’s another part of the equation, perhaps because it’s a profession made up mostly of women, we continually try to define teaching as a profession devoid of artistry, therefore devaluing it. We make the implied argument that if we teach people how to apply scientific principals, anybody can do the job. We can see the artistry of an attorney defending a client in the courtroom or writing a defining brief. The artistry in the skill of a surgeon performing open-heart surgery is readily recognized. Yet few will accept that teaching is both an art and a science.

I personally believe that if we recognized the artistry in teaching than we’d have to treat teachers as if they possed a skill set that was a limited commodity. We couldn’t just ignore their contributions and continue to unabatedly pursue our agendas. Furthermore, we’d have to address the issues of poverty because we’d have greater recognition and acknowledgemet the negative impact of our failure to act has on the profession. As it is, we can use teachers as our social change agents without giving them an iota of the support or compensation required. Thinking of teaching as a profession that anyone can do gives cover to ignore teacher attrition.

While we fail to act, students continue to be exposed to trauma at home, and as a result, bring trauma influenced behaviors to school. This produces an enviorment at school that if it was replicated at home, we wouldgive counsel to call the authorities. Teachers are stuck with such regularity and subject to such levels of stress, that they are not unlike battered spouses. But since they are teachers, it’s considered part of the job description and their tolerance of it an expectation.

It’s not just older kids getting physical either, they are struck by children in all grade levels. They are subject to daily destructive classroom disruptions. They face mental intimidation by unruly students. The district’s response is basically a shrug, and a promise to provide some future resources. Resources that never seem to arrive. Yet we are shocked and dismayed when they refuse to continue to blindly accept their circumstances and they quit.

Teachers retreat to their families and home, but even there is not a safe place. They are further assualted by messages that tell them they are undertrained, suffer from implied bias, unsympathetic, and led to believe that they are generally inadequate. If they would just get a little tougher, love these kids a little more, sacrifice a little more of their family’s time…it beats you down.

Why do we think teachers got into teaching in the first place? The elevated social status? The huge financial rewards? The easy work? The flexible schedules? They got into it to make a difference in children’s lives. It’s criminal that we fail to recognize that on a daily basis and continual assume the worst of them.

And what of the other children in the disrupted classroom? Most of those children show up every day, meet expectations, and try to learn. Who protects their rights? Who protects the rights of the 90% of kids who come to class every day and follow the rules, while we fight for the rights of the 10% who act out?

Apparently, when you choose to adhere to classroom expectations you also forfeit the right to a classroom free of disruption. Lest we forget, many of the 90% are also children that are exposed to trauma at home. So it’s not like they are devoid of critical needs. We say that all children are important, yet we allow classrooms to become an extension of what children face at home because of the inability to address the needs of a few. We unintentionally send a message that says you only matter if you draw negative attention.

I’ve long argued that the conversation shouldn’t be about where children receive the services they need but rather about how do we get them the services they require. If a child needs to be removed from the classroom for a brief period of time while they receive services that’ll prepare them for future success, how is that not better than being forced into a classroom where they regularly disrupt others’ learning and don’t receive required services?

On any given day a large number of MNPS classrooms are manned by substitutes – at best – or at worst, by already overworked teachers covering for peers. Many of these teacher absences are directly linked to problems derivative of a discipline policy that ain’t working for anybody but those looking to pad their resume. How is it more beneficial to a child to be warehoused in a room with a long term substitute as opposed to being home with little supervision?

Last week there was a great deal of public outcry about a 6-year-old that was arrested and put in restraints. Sadley, it’s not as uncommon as we’d like it to be, as the  FBI reports that 30K kids under the age of 10 have been arrested since 2013. Neither of those sentences should make people feel good. Nobody wants to arrest elementary school children. Nobody wants any child to feel the long arm of the law.

I must say though, as someone who has been put in cuffs before and knows first hand the mental impact, given the choice between putting my 7-year-old in handcuffs versus putting them in handcuffs at 17 or worse, putting them in the ground at 17, I’m choosing cuffs at 7 every time. It would make me extremely distraught to do so, but parenting ain’t about my comfort level.

Too many children are taught that actions don’t have consequences until they do. This is nothing new. For 20 years I’ve seen children’s behaviors dismissed as being the acts of children, until suddenly they are 17 0r 18 and being accountable for the actions for the first time in their life. Unfortunately in these incidents, accountability doesn’t come in the form of handcuffs and a couple of hours at the police station, but rather a lengthy jail sentence or worse a trip to the graveyard.

Since I up here on my soap box, this is as good a time as any to address another one of my least favorite canards, parents know best. No, they don’t always. Sorry if you don’t like that, but its the truth. The ability to procreate does not tranform you into a sage-like entity. This is another incident where painting with a broad brush gets you in trouble. The truth is, unfortunately, there are a lot of shitty parents. Probably more shitty parents than shitty teachers. Teachers chose to become teachers and prepare accordingly. The same can’t be said for every parent.

Parents ignore science on a regular basis. It kills me that advocates will campaign endlessly for teachers to be trained in the science of reading, yet remain strangely quiet on the parents who ignore science and refuse to ensure that their child is following doctor’s orders by taking their prescribed behavioral medications. A failure that directly impacts both the child and his classmates’ ability to learn.

What about the parent that repeatedly misses IEP meetings, not because they can’t attend but because they won’t, thus holding up the process of a student’s needs being adequately met. Again, a situation that directly impacts a student and their classmates’ ability to learn and it happens all too frequently.

While there are parents who by nature are not good parents, there are many who’s the ability to be actively involved is hindered by the impacts of poverty. It’s hard to be involved when you have to work two jobs to make ends meet. It’s hard to supply proper nutrition for your children when you can’t stay healthy yourself because you don’t have adequate health coverage. It’s hard to help your children with homework when you are under educated yourself. These are the conversations we should be having, how do we alleviate the effects of poverty through good governance policy. This is the area where advocates can have the most impact.

Instead, we continue to focus on shiny objects – charter schools, the science of reading, SEL, smaller high schools – while our failure to focus on the effects on poverty and kids’ exposure to trauma acts to our own detriment. We continually heap the responsibility of combating societal issues on schools that are neither equipped nor have the staff fully trained to adequately deal with these issues and the effects are starting to show as more and more teachers leave the profession.

Without quality teachers in front of students, none of the other stuff matters. You can have the most rigorous lesson plan but it won’t mean a thing if you have no one to execute it. You can have an awesome SEL program but if there is no one to administer it, it becomes moot. Whether a child goes to a charter school or a traditional school becomes meaningless if neither is fully staffed. When will we realize that teacher issues, are student issues.

To give you an example of that hamster wheel we are continually running on, I’d like to share a quote from 1998,

Yep, it could have been written last week in response to any one of the posts written about reading science. We have to navigate ourselves off the hamster wheel.

I’ll leave you with the words of Peter Smagorinsky, an educator, researcher, and theorist currently working at the University of Georgia, who in a paragraph sums up what I’ve been trying to say with this rambling missive, “Scapegoating teacher education while ignoring two greatest influences on reading: poverty and reading programs adopted to comply with standards and high-stakes testing. There is ample room to criticize teacher education, particularly focusing on the problems with credentialing and the flaws inherent in the accreditation process, but the current media urge to blame teacher education for either how reading is taught or the errors in how reading is taught distracts from some hard facts about measurable reading achievement: first, standardized testing of all kinds are more strongly correlated with socio-economic and out-of-school factors than either teacher, teaching, or school quality; and this blame-teacher-education narrative glosses over that almost all reading instruction in U.S. public schools are mandated by standards, high-stakes testing, and adopted reading programs regardless of what teachers learned in their certification program.”

The longer we fail to have the hard conversations about poverty and its effects on both student behavior and student learning,  the more we make the teaching profession unattractive, the more the profession becomes unattractive, and the more we fail to meet our fundamental commitment to students, that of putting a qualified teacher in front of each and every one of them. Not meeting that commitment is nothing short of a moral failure. One we can little afford to commit. It’s a whisper that is rapidly becoming a scream.





Categories: Education

14 replies

  1. “I must say, given the choice between putting my 7-year-old in handcuffs versus putting them in handcuffs at 17 or worse, putting them in the ground at 17, I’m choosing cuffs at 7 every time. ”

    I am not sure how we got to this point where teachers have so options and supports for discipline. Your article hits the issue as squarely on the head as I’ve read in a long time. Yet, the courts say “hands off”. Parents say “My child can do no wrong” – and after a few decades of this – here we are.

    For right now, today, the _best_ we can do in Nashville would be to evenly roll out Passage, and fill in those promised supports. But, as with all things strategic in this district, the roll-out never quite comes, and voters say “no to revenue” at the ballot box, killing our hopes.

  2. Take a look at the reading tests that students are having to take and performing poorly on (TN Ready, NAEP). You can be a perfect word reader and completely fail the test. They are measuring comprehension, not word-calling accuracy.

  3. I have taught for 30 years. I personally learned to read through phonics, my daughter learned to read a completely different way. I have taught both and see neither as a silver bullet. I agree with every word that you said. I applaud you for the courage to say it.

  4. I am not sure what your screed is about. Whether it is about poverty or reading or teacher woes or what. I do know we are like lobsters in a pot with the heat on medium. Admins and Ts alike mainly trying to make do as the heat gets higher. Can’t find Ts with experience? Figure out how to run a school with average experience of 3 years, compared to double or triple the experience just a decade ago. Can’t be honest about the discipline numbers? Find a way to make the thing work without referrals being able to stick. Can’t pass the reading tests? Here, try something new. It’s research based, I promise.

    Still I am puzzled by your screed because I don’t know what it points us toward, really. Just lobsters in the pot. What’s new?

  5. Let’s take a look of the most impoverished populated schools that are in priority status. Ironically, the priority status comes with little support and with curriculums that takes the autonomy out of the hands of teachers. Strategies such as small group, guided reading, and added supports that have proved success. The focus is reading…but what about STEAM areas since this is where most careers are. Wouldn’t STEAM careers help change the trajectory of poverty? The sad thing is that many schools are bleeding out teachers…but the majority are bleeding out in priority and/or schools with high poverty due to adversity of working in trauma….and teachers’ own battles with living in poverty, trying to make ends meet with two plus jobs. Its disheartening that we have become the haves and have nots. Thank you for pointing to the elephant in the room.

  6. All children learn differently and that is what made Reading Recovery so powerful. As a trained Reading Recovery teacher we learned to build relationships, be keen observers of what the child can do and build on it, and most importantly follow the child not a program. We should not squeeze children into one form of reading instruction like cookie dough but rather be given the freedom to know what works for our students and do what’s best for them.
    As far as discipline goes, I’ve experienced abuse at the hand of a Kindergarten student and my school was not properly equipped to provide adequate support. However at another location I previously worked they had an abundance of supports. This behavior that results from trauma and lack of discipline from home spans ALL schools in MNPS in all tiers. We have to address it and provide teachers and administrators proper support. Thank you for speaking up!

  7. The source article, and every comment, point directly to lack of funding, lack of supports. Yet, at the ballot box in August, less than 20% of Nashville voted for the Mayoral candidate committed to increasing funding. We spend a lot of energy rightly jumping up and down about the pain of dramatic under-funding. But, I can’t imagine how the picture begins to change until MNPS commits to the education of every child, and cools it with lotteries, shell games, and the “sorry, you lose again” letters home to taxpayers. In Williamson County (no charters no magnets), taxpayers went to the polls and voted in a sales tax increase on themselves to pay for improvements. As long as 40% of our kids leave zoned school tracks after 4th grade, public support is sure to remain low. But, fight on we must, of course.

  8. This district leaves thousands of potentially talented students in poverty unable to learn b/c it cannot discipline or manage a minority that bullies and is violent. Talented kids in poverty have to deal with barriers that talented students i middle or upper class never have to in that one of their biggest obstacles is the 10-15% of students who bully them or create violent environments and are left in the classroom b/c we want to “restore them” (without resources) or “save them” (with no real plan to do so). We need to take control of our classrooms from downtown bureaucrats who just want fewer referrals on a spreadsheet to pad their resume. Most of our students can learn just fine if given environments where it is possible.

  9. Amen, TC
    MNPS central office administrators have been guilty of chasing the reading silver bullet (aka federal grant money) for years!! Grants come with monitored requirements – meaning if teachers don’t
    follow the grant’s rules, the district are sanctioned. So once again, it is the teacher’s fault.

    What makes a good teacher? A good teacher is flexible, recognizes that students learn differently, and has developed and employs a bag of “tricks” that can address a variety of learner needs. Good teaching is not developed overnight / or even in two or three months. It tales years to hone the craft.

    On discipline? There has been too much outside interference on discipline. What sounds great on paper, like restorative practices, requires smaller classes, skilled leaders, and lots of practice before it makes a difference. Relationships matter.

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