WHO DO WE WANT THEM TO BE WHEN THEY GROW UP?

“The time has arrived when patience becomes a crime and mayhem appears garbed in a manner of virtue”
Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan of the Apes

 

I’m going to let you in on a little secret this morning. For some, it’ll be deeply disturbing. Others will nod and say, “About time you catch up to reality.”

Regardless, here it is, the chasm between what happens in the statehouse and what happens in the classroom is an ever-growing deep, and wide one. If we did a Vinn diagram between what happens in the classroom and what administrators, non-profit CEOs, and politicians think happens in the classroom, it would be a feature thin sliver of shared elements.

A decade ago, when I first started advocacy work,  I used to get emotionally worked up over every potential policy piece and initiative that came down the pike. I’d grab the pitchfork, light my torch, and be off to the rally.

Man, I used to get so frustrated when older heads would just smile and offer the sage advice of, “slow down, it’s all a pendulum. Swings one way then the other. Ain’t nothing we ain’t seen before.”

“But, but, but…” I’d sputter, “This is different! it’s about to become law! They are going to put an end to XYZ.”

They would just smile, and ask, “And how are they going to enforce that law? How are they going to possibly ensure everybody is following orders?”

It took me a while to get it, but I’m finally there.

Now just so we are clear here, I’m not downplaying the detrimental effects of funding law, teacher evaluation laws, or laws that target students because of their sexual orientation. Those continually serve to make the lives of students and teachers more difficult and warrant intense opposition. But as far as anything that prescribes to tell teachers what to teach, when to teach, or how to teach, I’m trying to take a more jaundiced approach, as much of that get’s mitigated by classroom teachers and individual school principals.

There is no shortage of proposals out there, including some that are already codified, that never make it to implementation or the classroom level.

Case in point, 6 years ago, the Tennessee General Assembly passed a law that all schools must annually be assigned a letter grade for their student achievements. The passage was accompanied by dire warnings and legitimate concerns, yet here we are, 6 years later and no school has been assigned a letter grade. Eventually, they may get around to it, but there is still time to make the argument against it. Sometimes you have to rely on the incompetence of bureaucrats to fight your fights.

I’m not arguing that fighting bad policy or legislation is not essential, but rather that while fighting, we don’t get caught up in all the hyperbole. That we keep the conversation as focused on policy and not individuals as much as possible, and that we never lose sight that an opportunity to mitigate during implementation always exists.

This weekend I read a piece from my favorite education writer Peter Greene, talking about the sudden tempest around a proposed Virginia policy to limit advanced math offerings to students only after 11th grade. The original coverage comes via Fox News, and if a reader goes searching for additional coverage, what they are likely to find is more coverage that is derived from the original coverage by Fox News – not exactly fair and unbiased. So it’s hard to get a read on what’s actually happening.

As Greene points out, the FOX coverage is geared towards creating outrage, and deliberately downplays “the fact that the task force is looking at a timeline that still has to go through “response from stakeholders” and “revise as needed” steps. So the current version is not necessarily the final word on this program; it’s a little early for advanced hand wringing.”

Greene goes on further to point out the problems with such a switch in offerings.

Equity is never enhanced by removing programs from public schools, because the wealthy will find a way to buy those programs, and only those who can’t afford to fork over the money will actually do without the program. You don’t get fairness on ice cream eating by banning ice cream from the cafeteria menu, because the rich will always find a way to get ice cream on their own. You get equity my making the special programs available to everyone, and making sure that everyone is prepared to take advantage of them.

I’d go a little further and add that it’s like a restaurant banning steak because only the rich people whose teeth are healthy enough to chew the meat due to fluoride in their water can enjoy the offering. The solution wouldn’t be to remove steak, but rather to have the community put fluoride in everybody’s water in order to strengthen their teeth and don’t expect the restaurant to address issues that should be out of their purview. It’s the restaurant’s responsibility to feed people by offering the best food possible. It’s the community’s responsibility to ensure that everybody can partake in the restaurant’s offerings.

For too long we’ve considered it a school’s responsibility to both educate kids and ensure that they were in a position to receive instruction, at the lowest cost possible. Not a winning combination.

Unfortunately, Greene flips the switch and uses the proposed policy as a means to create hyperbole on the other side. Any conservative concerns are dismissed, because…well because they are presented by conservatives. He follows the Virginia piece with one focused on Idaho creating an “indoctrination task force” that states the following.

“One of our primary goals with this task force is to give concerned citizens a voice regarding education in Idaho,” said Lt. Gov. McGeachin. “If you, your child, or someone close to you has information regarding problematic teachings on social justice, critical race theory, socialism, communism, or Marxism, please provide us with as much information as you are comfortable sharing.”

Concerning? Absolutely. But let’s not act like there are not real proposed changes to curriculum that warrant real conversations about those proposed changes. Let’s not pretend that how kids are taught in schools doesn’t alter society. I’d argue that integrated schools have done more to decrease the effects of racism than a thousand protest marches or a thousand pieces of legislation. Building authentic relationships with people that are different from you is a proven way to combat stereotypes.

Should any concerns be summarily dismissed because they come from people different from you? Equity isn’t achieved merely by changing who gets marginalized, though that seems to be a prevailing theory among many championing the cause of equity.

Greene goes on to write,

Note that it is still okay to teach about fascism. Hopefully teachers will be allowed to cover just enough communism so that they can talk about how this sort of widespread “cultural revolution” worked out for the Chinese. I’m also hoping that teachers will be free to discuss the relative merits of indoctrination versus an oppressive process of state-sanctioned surveillance and repression. 

There is more than a dog whistle or two embedded in that one paragraph. I certainly have more concerns about where we are going in the name of “equity” than he does, but is Greene wrong? If he’s wrong about this, is he wrong about everything? if I raise concerns here do I suddenly have to reject everything else he champions? Am I to feel betrayed because we don’t see eye to eye on this issue?

I don’t know if he’s wrong or right, but I do know that I don’t have to agree with him on every issue in order to find him a valuable source in order to form my opinions. I used to be amazed when I saw congenial social media exchanges between Greene and reform-friendly Andy Smarick. What’s he doing consorting with the enemy. It was an immature position and one I’ve strived to abandon. Though I’m not always as successful as I’d aspire to be.

That’s the problem with public conversations during the age of the internet, everything has become an either/or proposal. We argue for the ability to critically think, but whenever people from different backgrounds with different life experiences and expectations, proposes an idea that we don’t agree with it instantly becomes a bad idea or a misinformed one, When in reality it may just be an idea we don’t agree with.

Case in point. Over the last two weeks, I’ve spent a fair amount of time talking with people who are choosing not to get vaccinated. The popular narrative put forth is that these people are uneducated, selfish, and feel privileged. There has been a campaign to vilify them. And some of those that I have spoken with fall into that category, but others not so much.

Some have applied critical thinking to their decision and reached a conclusion that is different than mine. They have looked at the data and seen that they fall in a low-risk demographic. They are hesitant to introduce anything into their body they don’t feel has been adequately researched. When weighing the two options, they feel that for them, waiting on the vaccine is the more prudent risk. They continue to practice other protocols in order to protect themselves and others.

Are they wrong? I don’t know, but they certainly have reached a different conclusion than I.  They have different priorities and experiences than I, so that shouldn’t be surprising. Sometimes ideas are just different from ours, and not bad or good. As a society, we seem to be more welcoming of diversity in people than we do in thought. it’s ok for different people to reach different conclusions.

Here’s an example. Earlier in the year, the Tennessee Board of Education passed a decree that all LEA’s had to submit a plan to increase the diversity of their teaching staffs and commit to it. On the surface, it’s a welcome rule. Increased diversity is always important, especially if you live in an urban area where teacher and student bodies don’t share the same demographic representation. But when you dig a little deeper, there are some questions.

I was shocked to discover how many of Tennessee’s LEAs serve less than 5000 students. I would estimate at least a third of the state’s district fall into this category. Many of those smaller LEAs are rural and their minority population is as low as 2%. In other words, they may have less than 20 black kids in the whole school district through no fault of their own. While their student body can certainly benefit from a diverse staff, are we putting an undue burden on a district that is already struggling from underfunding? In this case, the answer to both questions could be “yes”.

We always assume that if somebody has a different opinion than ourselves, it’s because they are under-educated or lack of experience. How many times have I engaged in a conversation about race and privilege only to have the counter-argument be, you need to read Ibram X. Kendi.  My stock reply remains, why would you assume that I haven’t? Is the supposition that if we all read the same books, we’ll all come to the same conclusions. That’s an awful gray world, and I like mine in multi-color.

If we engage in a dialog, I assume that you have formed your idea through a combination of research, life experience, and critical thinking. That’s why I’m such a proponent of raising critical thinkers, not so you can reach the same conclusions, but rather so you can add more color to the conversation. Heck, my daughter already thinks I’m a dinosaur, but she’s bringing her own experiences into the equation, and as such her views will alter. I’m looking for her to bring a new perspective, not amplify mine.

I do have one big sore spot, that gets poked repeatedly these days. You start telling me that there is only one way to look at something or only one way to do something, or better yet, tell me, “the science is settled”, my hackles come up.

It’s like the “Science of Reading” debate that is currently blazing. It’s not so much that I disagree with the components of SOR, but rather its proponents’ instance on it being the only way to teach reading. There a number of respected researchers and educators that would disagree.

Unfortunately, we believe that in many cases, the cloak of science has been employed to elevate the stature of SOR work and to promote the certainty and force of its advocates’ preferred explanations for what reading is and how it should be taught (e.g., Gentry & Ouellette, 2019; Schwartz & Sparks, 2019). What we suggested in this article is that the SOR, when so used in the reading wars, is not science at all in its fullest sense. It neglects an entire domain that influences and shapes human experience. It does so with an unmitigated confidence that evidence from one side of a binary can establish a final truth and that such a truth creates a single prescription for all instruction. Taking that stance, however, is outside the pale of science and dismisses work that has both merit on its own terms and a critical role in advancing the aims motivating reading research and instruction.

Hmmm…perhaps it’s not so settled.

Here’s another news flash for you, none of us are immune from embracing bad ideas. Neither the color of our skin, nor our sexual orientation, nor our level of education, nor our level of wealth, serves to innoculate us from the danger of coming to the wrong conclusion. The trick is being willing to continually learn from different ideas, unencumbered by who’s presenting them, and evaluate them based on merit while recognizing that others bring a different lens to the table.  As Thomas Edison was fond of saying, “Just because something doesn’t do what you planned it to do doesn’t mean it’s useless.” We just have to be willing to alter where necessary.

In the realm of education, teachers are constantly conducting their own research and using it to fuel their own strategies. . They read many of the same studies as we do, but they also observe first hand what works with students, for themselves as well as colleagues. Anybody who has a teacher as a spouse can bear witness to the evenings filled with a cacophony of pings signifying incoming text messages from fellow teachers.

Sure some of those are about who did what to who, but most are about lesson plans, strategies, and other means to foster more students’ success. Anybody who thinks that teachers are just sitting around waiting for legislators, non-profit CEO’s or administrators to show them the path out of the wilderness is sadly mistaken. No teacher is waiting idly, while their students repeatedly fail. Though sometimes, it is our good intentions that tie their hands when it comes to making a meaningful difference.

I guess my message here today, is to focus on policy over personalities. And never forget, prescription doesn’t equal adherence. What happens in the classroom is often very different than what happens in the board room and the statehouse. And maybe that’s a good thing.

Oh…and as for Peter Greene…he’s still who I want to be when I grow up.

QUICK HITS

Time to show a little favoritism and brag on my kid’s middle school, William Henry Oliver. One of the benefits of writing my own blog is that at times I can make it personal. Want to brag on your own school, start your own blog.

This year, both the Valedictorian and Salidictorian for Overton High School are products of OMS. This year saw an increase in both math and reading scores for MAP.  Increased student voice with the navigator survey. The drama department presented a virtual offering that won rave reviews. The school presented a virtual Black History program incorporating both students and teachers.  Through strict COVID in-person protocols, consistently maintained 20 students or less in quarantine.

But there is more. Ten of our students will be attending the Mid-State Band competition. The recently completed Panorama survey shows improvement in every category with the largest increase being in school leadership. OMS also runs the largest after-school program for the 21st Century Grant I3Stem club each week. Yea, it’s been a hard year, but Oliver Middle School is still kicking butt. Grateful for all they’ve done for my family.

Word on the street is that the Tennessee General Assembly may be coming to a close, but they are far from down. Supposedly they are going to announce that they are re-opening “Education bills” as a way to facilitate a discussion on “Critical Race Theory”. The conversation should start on the Senate Floor around 4 and on the House Floor around 5. Should prove interesting.

The National Public Education Foundation has a piece up by Dr. James Arnold in which he shares some interesting facts about the big standardized test.

 I have often wondered how politicians can say with a straight face that every student deserves an individualized, personal education and that we are going to measure that education with a test that’s the same for everybody.  They really must believe it, though, because testing companies are raking in over $1.7 BILLION per year from states for mandated standardized testing. Costs per student vary from state to state, but the money totals are significant. Georgia spends about $14 per student on testing per year, Hawaii spends $105 and DC $114. (You can figure that disparity out.) That means Georgia spends over $25 million on mandated standardized tests each year.  That’s not just $14 per student, it also means about $209 per teacher and about $10900 per school that could be used for something – anything – else.  Whether the money comes from state coffers or from the USDOE, it’s all from taxpayers and provides useless information that teachers cannot use in the classroom to improve instruction.

Yikes!

On a closing note, I’m still trying to figure out why in the midst of a so-called ‘learning loss” crisis we are sacrificing weeks on instruction in order to test kids. Worse yet we are beating a drum for them to sacrifice vacation time after the most difficult year in memory in order to “catch up”. It seems to me that sacrificing testing would have been an easy way to supply more instructional time and preserve break time. Maybe there is some other goal in mind.

That’s it.

If you’ve got something you’d like me to highlight and share, send it on to Norinrad10@yahoo.com. Any wisdom or criticism you’d like to share is always welcome.

A huge shout out to all of you who’ve lent your financial support. I am eternally grateful for your generosity. It allows me to keep doing what I do and without you, I would have been forced to quit long ago. It is truly appreciated and keeps the bill collectors happy. Now more than ever your continued support is vital.

If you are interested, I’m now sharing posts via email through Substack. This is a new foray for me and an effort to increase coverage. ‘ll be offering free and paid subscriptions. Paid subscriptions will receive additional materials as they become available. We’ll see how it goes.

If you wish to join the rank of donors, you can still head over to Patreon and help a brother out. Or you can hit up my Venmo account which is Thomas-Weber-10. I don’t need much – even $5 would help – but if you think what I do has value, a little help is always greatly appreciated, especially this time of year when my contracted work is a little slow. Not begging, just saying.

 



Categories: Education

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