How Do You Like Them Apples?

If you are active in Oklahoma education policy discussions on social media, you are likely a follower of the Oklahoma Parents and Educators for Public Education Facebook Group, started by Edmond parent and public education champion, Angela Clark Little.

Last week, prior to the defeat of House Bill 1054, a critically important piece of legislation which would have allowed our state to avoid devastating budget cuts, provide raises for teachers and state employees, and restore the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income workers, Angela posted the following admonition on the group page.

“The admin of this group decided that with this vote being so important, anyone who votes no today will automatically be disqualified for an 🍎 in 2018. No exceptions.

The “apples” Angela refers to in her statement are “awarded” by the group to specific legislators who have demonstrated through word and action they are supportive of public education and teachers in our state. The intent of the label is to clearly identify those in the Oklahoma House and Senate whom the group should support with our endorsements, donations, and eventually, our votes.

In case you missed it, here are the final results from Wednesday’s important up or down vote:

First of all, I would be remiss in not acknowledging the 71% of House members who saw this bill as what it was – a last-ditch, best-chance opportunity to avoid serious cuts to state agencies while fulfilling a pledge to state workers for a long overdue pay raise – and voted YES. It is also worth noting that NONE of the Senate 🍎’s voted against the revenue raising measure that unfortunately failed in the House this week.

At the same time, as a result of their NO votes on HB 1054 last Wednesday, it is now apparent we have a few spoiled apples in the House barrel.

How ’bout them apples?

Relative to disgraced former House Minority Leader and political hypocrite, Scott Inman, one of his colleagues in the House, Rep. Roger Ford (HD 95), summed up Inman’s pathetic NO vote better than I ever could:

“… the coward that snuck in the back door, gave another representative a thumbs down motion to vote for him and immediately walked out the back door. To that young man, everything I learned about you this past year has turned out to be true. You took great joy at throwing stones at others, while you yourself (sic) was living in a glass house. To say I’m disappointed is an understatement.”

Rep. Ford was definitely on a roll in his FB post, adding:

“To the republicans and democrats still so wrapped up in your party, that you didn’t see those sweet faces today, you know the ones hoping you would fight for them. Well congratulations to you. You are officially a politician, instead of a human being.”

While I am certain each of the other representatives has his reasons for withholding support of this legislation, the reality is it was the best deal on the table for Oklahoma’s beleaguered service agencies and public education. No plan will ever be perfect and able to satisfy everyone. Other than filling the budget hole from the rainy day and other one-time funds coupled with across-the-board funding cuts, there is not another viable plan that can garner the 3/4 super-majority needed to pass revenue bills.

But, hey, at least we avoided draconian tax increases on the oil and gas industry, right? Passage of this legislation was predicted to cost the O&G industry about 2.6 million in higher gross production taxes in FY-18 and $13 million in FY-19. Again, just to remind everyone, the projected portion of this revenue bill that would have directly impacted O&G over the next two fiscal years was $15.6 million out of a total of $595 million — a measly 2.6% of the total. 

It appears that being literally faced with hundreds of O&G supporters bused into the Capitol on Wednesday to fill the galleries along with the potential loss of important campaign donations, too many of our House members were willing to give up their apple.

Case in point: Representatives McBride and Rogers both voted yes on a previous version of the bill which did not include the Gross Production Tax. When the GPT was added, their votes turned sour.

It appears that oil and apples don’t mix.

Oh, and that $3,000 pay raise for teachers promised by some after the defeat of State Question 779 last November? I guess that’s likely to be added to the ever-growing pile of broken promises made to educators over the past decade.

With the failure of HB 1054, there is no consensus on what happens next. The path forward is very uncertain, though without new revenues being added to the pot, it appears certain that additional cuts to agencies and schools are on the horizon.

And reported by David Blatt at the Oklahoma Policy Institute (OPI), “House and Senate leadership are intensely divided on how to proceed, and there are acute conflicts between the parties and within the caucuses in the House especially. The clock is ticking louder as the December 1st effective date rapidly approaches for agency cuts — which include termination of the ADvantage waiver for individuals with severe disabilities, 9 percent rate cuts for most Medicaid providers, and elimination or stark reduction of outpatient services for those with mental illness and addiction.”

It doesn’t look good, especially as we look into the next legislative session when we will start with at least a $500M hole to fill. As Rep. Kyle Hilbert, R-Depew, argued during debate on Wednesday, “The cuts we’ll have to make out of special session won’t be terrible, but the cuts we’ll have to make next summer will be brutal.”

In short, it might be a bad season for apples next year.

Of course, in 2018, Oklahomans will once again have the opportunity to clean the legislature of this bad fruit.

But, really, and I ask this with all due earnest. Will we?

Will we still remember these names 12 months from now?

Will we recall how we felt after suffering this stinging disappointment?

Will we even still care or will we have moved to other distractions?

Speaking for myself, I pledge to not forget. I hope I am not alone.

Here’s what I hope our message is for each of the legislators who decided to vote NO last week when it mattered most for us.

We know who you are and we have your number.

How do you like them apples?

In Pursuit of Woozles

There’s a delightful old story about Winnie the Pooh and Piglet where they are hunting a Woozle.

As some of us well know, having read these classic Winnie-the-Pooh stories as children, Woozles are rather cunning creatures. They have an affinity to honey and are hard to identify by their tracks. Some of them inhabit the East Pole. And sometimes tracks on the ground may lead to a Woozle, but sometimes they don’t. It’s all rather complicated and serious, this business with the Woozles (and Heffalumps), and you really should read more about it in the books.

“Tracks,” said Piglet. “Paw-marks.” He gave a little squeak of excitement. “Oh, Pooh! Do you think it’s a–a–a Woozle?”

“It may be,” said Pooh. “Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t. You never can tell with paw-marks.”

The story “In Which Pooh and Piglet Go Hunting and Nearly Catch a Woozle” appears in the third chapter of A.A. Milne’s original “Winnie-the-Pooh” novel.

In that story, Pooh finds tracks around a spinney of larch trees and begins to follow them. Piglet runs after Pooh and joins the hunt. The tracks seem to go around the spinney and soon Pooh and Piglet notice that there’s a new set of tracks alongside the first; another Woozle, perhaps!

As they brave onwards, they find that a third set of tracks has appeared next to the other two (might be a Wizzle), then a fourth (another Wizzle). Just imagine: two Woozles AND two Wizzles. It’s quite an adventure for Pooh and Piglet.

We know how this story ends, of course. Christopher Robin arrives to explain that they’ve been following their own tracks. This rather depresses Pooh for a moment, but Christopher Robin cheers Pooh up, as friends do, and it’s nearly lunch time anyway so all’s well.

 

As a metaphor, Pooh and Piglet tracking themselves in the snow thinking they are following a Woozle is similar to the modern-day expression, “chasing your tail”  – the condition of being busy doing a lot of things but actually achieving very little.

It is difficult to think of a better analogy for the modern test-based accountability system which has driven American school reform initiatives for the past three decades than “Chasing a Woozle.”

We have expended tremendous time and resources with very little to show for our efforts.

We all remember the publicity around the push for national common core academic standards (CCSS). The goal of the CCSS initiative was to establish consistent educational standards across the states as well as ensure that students graduating from high school are prepared to enter credit-bearing courses at two or four-year college programs or to enter the workforce (“college- and career-ready”).

Since their release of the CCSS in 2010, forty-two of the fifty states have adopted the standards as their own. Oklahoma was one of the eight states (joining Texas, Virginia, Alaska, Nebraska, Indiana, South Carolina, and Minnesota) which chose to develop their own college- and career-ready standards.

Our newly standards were initially titled: Oklahoma’s Incredible, Super Duper Rigorous, World Class, Grade A, Best Standards EVER. While that has a nice ring to it, the resulting acronym (OISDRWCGABSE) was deemed too long and shortened to simply the Oklahoma Academic Standards (OAS).

As you know, our state also developed spectacular new assessments which, we are told, when combined with the new, more difficult academic standards, will reduce the achievement gap and ensure all future Oklahoma students are ready to compete in the fast-changing 21st century workforce.

Of course they will.

“Oh, Pooh! Do you think it’s a–a–a Woozle?”

Every student in America graduating from high school today has experienced nothing but the test, rank, and punish system spawned by NCLB in 2001. So, surely after nearly two decades of efforts and billions of dollars spent on new standards and “better” assessments, our country will have found the elusive Woozles of lowered achievement gaps and higher college readiness percentages by now.

Uh, nope. Still no Woozles.

Recently released results from the 2017 ACT, the nation’s most widely used college admission test, highlight in detail the persistent achievement gaps between students who face disadvantages and those who don’t.

“Scores from the ACT show that just 9 percent of students in the class of 2017 who came from low-income families, whose parents did not go to college, and who identify as black, Hispanic, American Indian or Pacific Islander are strongly ready for college.

But the readiness rate for students with none of those demographic characteristics was six times as high, 54 percent, according to data released Thursday.

‘That kind of shocked us,’ ACT chief executive Marten Roorda said. ‘We knew it was bad, but we didn’t know it was this bad.’

We didn’t know it was this bad, really, Marten? Where have you been for the last 15 years?

Despite two decades of test-based reforms, the ACT results seem to show the BILLIONS of dollars we have spent chasing test scores has been essentially for naught!

Isn’t it time for a modern-day Christopher Robin to emerge from the woods to tell us we’ve spent a generation walking in circles?

Subjecting millions of American children to a regime of test, rank, sort and punish has simply turned many of our public schools— particularly in urban areas— into joyless, drill-and-kill test factories completely disassociated from real learning and the development of meaningful employment skills.

“Fanaticism consists of redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim.” ~George Santayana

We have lost sight of the true aim of public education. By focusing so narrowly on test-based measures, we ignore the myriad and diverse ways that children learn, grow, and develop.

Instead of redoubling our efforts on the futile and meaningless chase for higher test scores, how about we abandon those failed efforts and try something different?

At some point, don’t we need to acknowledge that standardized tests are far from meaningful measures of the potential of young human beings, because these unique children are far from standardized. They never will be, nor should we want them to be.

As Charles Murray wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “What we need is an educational system that brings children with all combinations of assets and deficits to adulthood having identified things they enjoy doing and having learned how to do them well.”

It is time to change our thinking, as well as our approaches for educating the wide variety of children who attend our schools, now and in the future.

Instead of continuing the fruitless pursuit of the Woozles surrounding test-based accountability, let’s gather to consider these broad questions:

  1. What does it mean to be an educated person in the 21st century?
  2. How will this definition continue to change throughout the lifetimes of children in school today?
  3. What does “career-ready” really mean for students projected to graduate from school in 2030 and beyond?
  4. What should be the central purpose of our public education system?
  5. How do we redesign and/or re-image our education system to better meet the needs (and address the strengths) of ALL students?

Of course, these are no easy answers to these questions. Tough problems are rarely solved with simple solutions. Yet, taking our attention off our own footprints in the snow might lead us to a new path. A journey which will recognize our collective strengths while confronting our own inadequacies as schools and education professionals.

It has to be better than spending any more time walking aimlessly in the woods, following footprints that lead to nowhere new.

Nevertheless, She Persisted

Earlier this year, US Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell unintentionally gave rise to a new rally cry for women’s rights activists.

While attempting to defend his actions in shutting down Senator Elizabeth Warren’s speech against the appointment of Senator Jeff Sessions to the Attorney General position in the Trump administration, McConnell explained: “Senator Warren was giving a lengthy speech. She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

As you might expect, this quote quickly went viral on social media.

This phrase could also serve as an apothegm for generations of undervalued and under-regarded female teachers in America.

As we celebrate another Labor Day this year, we must continue to persist in acknowledging the vital role women play in educating the future of America and commit ourselves to lifting all women up economically.

We must persist in reminding policymakers we must end the era of trying to educate our children on the cheap by exploiting a workforce of devoted, highly educated women.

We must persist in changing the false perception among some that teaching is just a step above babysitting, especially in the earlier grades. Spend a day in a kindergarten classroom – you will be quickly enlightened to the folly of this narrative.

Is it a coincidence that teaching, a mostly female profession, is often perceived as low to mid-skill work, confers little social status, and pays poorly?

We know as many as 76% of public school teachers are women, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Earlier grade levels are even more dominated by female teachers — 87% of primary school teachers are women. The gender makeup of teachers begins to even out in high school, as 42% of high school teachers are male, but the majority are still women.

The same survey also reveals that as much as 56% of these female teachers had a master’s or higher degree.

Considering teaching’s legacy as “women’s work” (read: underpaid, unskilled, and disrespected), and the ways that has influenced how schools today are structured — as well as who makes decisions, and how teachers are undervalued — it’s a wonder that we don’t have more of a teacher shortage than we currently do.

A major change in the past few decades is that, as the number of variety of jobs open to women working outside the home has increased, more teachers are now able to leave the profession for greener pastures; in fact, an estimated 40-50% of teachers leave in their first five years.

The lack of trust many have for teachers is also a product of the school system’s roots. While teachers around the turn of the century were highly educated compared to other workers, having usually completed high school — and often post-secondary training — at a time when most jobs didn’t require more than cursory schooling, they were not allowed to dictate curriculum or methods.

Today’s teachers, who hold Master’s degrees and regularly complete required professional development, have many mandates and relatively little input when it comes to what and how they teach.

And, of course, lack of compensation has always been an issue in teaching and continues to this day.

Well into the 1950s, teaching was one of the few professions open to women. The fact that it was a labor force largely made up of women, who ostensibly were not providing for a family, allowed many to justify the low pay despite the fact that most of these teachers could not afford to support even themselves alone as the cost of living rose.

Historically, women were also thought to be suited to teaching because they were seen as born nurturers, naturally inclined to keep their students and the good of the school as their first priority.

Therein lies the crux of the issue – that women are expected to do the job out of love for children and/or biology.  This mentality still informs how we think about teachers in the present. Just as mothers are not supposed to complain about their children or the hard work of parenting, teachers are not supposed to complain about their jobs. They do it for the children, right?

Therefore, when teachers protest poor pay, inadequate working conditions or excessive top-down mandates  – especially if they threaten to strike or hold a rally at the State Capitol, teachers are criticized as “selfish” or said to be “punishing” our students.

Teaching isn’t charity work. It’s a job. But because it is a profession dominated by women, and teaching is often viewed as a caretaking role, some view teachers who stand up for their labor rights as selfish. And some still view the profession itself as unworthy of the value and support it’s always deserved.

But it should never be viewed as selfish or unacceptable for professionals to advocate for better working conditions and fair pay for themselves.

When teaching is seen as “women’s work,” it is disrespected and undervalued. There are many problems in our education system, and like other problems — unequal access, institutional racism — the deliberate undervaluing of an entire profession viewed as one belonging to women is not one that can be solved with a new academic standards, curriculum, or more standardized testing.

Sure, the rights of female teachers have come a long way since school leaders dictated things like when they could visit ice cream stores or get married.  However, efforts must continue to ensure all teachers are appropriately respected and compensated for the hard work they do.

For the sake of our schools and our children, we need to persist in valuing our teachers, just as we need to value women’s leadership and advocacy, and work to undo decades of educational policy built on a foundation of sexism.

And, as teachers have learned, this may routinely call for lengthy speeches, violating a few rules from time to time,  ignoring warnings to “quiet down,” avoiding explanations for why advocacy is hurting “our cause,” and persisting, nevertheless.

A Simple Request

Dear Friend,

I have a simple request. I am in the midst of a moral dilemma and could use your reassurance. My conscience has been bothering me for a while and this problem does not seem to be going away on its own.

Please hear me out.

This week, two five-year-old boys will enter kindergarten at a local elementary school. Regrettably, that is about all they will have in common.

Months before the first boy was born, his fragile brain and body were exposed to a toxic daily brew of lead, nicotine, carbon monoxide, alcohol, and THC through his mother’s bloodstream. Due to his mother’s food insecurity, his nourishment in the womb was derived primarily from high calorie fast food and sugary snacks. His mother’s only visit to a doctor prior to his birth was at six months, just two weeks before he was born prematurely at three pounds, nine ounces. The boy spent two additional weeks on an incubator at the hospital to allow his lungs to develop and his small body to add weight.

For the first year of this boy’s life, he was largely confined to a car seat or small playpen a few feet from a television in the corner of his mother’s small section 8 apartment. His mother was only 17-years-old when he arrived and she had already dropped out of high school. His father has no idea he even exists. After the first few weeks, the boy was rarely held or cuddled. His mother worked irregular hours at a local convenience store in order to pay the rent and he was left with neighbors or one of his mom’s “revolving-door” boyfriends for long periods of time. The boy obtained most of his daily subsistence through government-supplied baby formula or sugary fruit drinks from a bottle balanced on a pillow in his crib. He grew accustomed to loud, startling noises: the rumbling exhaust and stereo sounds of neighborhood cars, the angry curses of adults, occasional gunshots and screams from the streets, and the blaring of televisions and stereo speakers through the thin walls of his mother’s apartment. The boy got very good at crying himself to sleep.

This boy celebrated his fifth birthday in a DHS shelter after being removed from his mother’s custody due to a third report of abuse and neglect. When he was brought to the hospital, his blood sample contained dangerous levels of methamphetamine. He had already spent nine months of his short life in transient shelters and therapeutic foster homes. His most recent placement lasted only two weeks due to his volatile and destructive behaviors. He spends most of his days watching television or playing games on the computer in the shelter. Out of survival, the boy has become an accomplished liar and thief. He is angry and mean to other children. He also goes to sleep hungry most nights.

He will arrive at kindergarten next week having never traveled outside his city; having never played a board game with an adult; having never ridden a bike; having never visited a museum; having never attended preschool; having not yet learned his letters and numbers; having never gone to church; having never had a sibling or best friend; having never swam in a pool; having never been on a T-ball team; having never read a book, and having never been told “I love you” by anyone who really mattered.

In contrast, the second boy was born full-term, healthy and strong at over eight pounds. His body was nourished throughout his mother’s pregnancy through a regular intake of nutritious foods and prenatal vitamins. His first year of life was filled with love and laughter. This boy was doted on constantly by his stay-at-home mother, his devoted father, and a large group of family friends and extended family. He was routinely soothed, hugged, kissed, smiled at, sang to, read with, and loved on by his parents and grandparents. His large suburban home is quiet, secure, and filled with happy sounds. His young body and mind are enriched daily by high quality foods, fun physical activity, soothing music, and calming voices.

This boy celebrated his fifth birthday at Disneyland with his parents and older siblings. In his first few years, he has traveled to the Florida coast to play in the ocean; to Washington, D.C. to visit the monuments, and to New York City to watch a Yankees game. This was in addition to numerous weekend trips to his family’s lake house for camping and boating. He cannot recall ever going to sleep hungry or feeling unsafe or unloved.

This boy will arrive at kindergarten next week having already learned to write his entire alphabet and a few simple sentences; knowing how to add and subtract numbers; knowing how to pray; knowing how to play simple tunes on a piano; knowing how to ski down the bunny slope; having visited the zoo, the public library and every museum in his town; having a half-dozen close friends, and having been told “I love you” every single night of his life by the most important people in his world.

These two boys are from backgrounds as different as can be. One will come to school self-confident, trusting of adults, and fully ready to learn. By the end of kindergarten, some of the words he will hear adults use when describing him are “gifted,” “bright,” “beautiful,” and a “joy to teach.”

The other boy will come to school desperate for love and attention but lacking the skills to be socially and academic successful. The words he will hear to describe him are “lazy,” “delayed,” “mischievous,” “lacking attention,” and “dishonest.”

Yet, at the end of kindergarten we will expect both boys to be well-behaved, get along with others, and to love learning.

We both know that won’t happen with the way things are now.

So, my friend, here is where you come in. I need to hear your soothing words.

A lot of people tell me I should do more to help. But I really don’t want to. So, I am asking you to let me off the hook. This situation is NOT my problem. While it is sad and unfortunate, I cannot be expected to try to fix every ill of society.

I can’t serve as a parent for every child. Some kids are just born lucky; others not so much. That’s just life.

So, please reassure me that this unloved child will be just fine. Tell me he just needs to move beyond his past, stop making excuses, and work on developing a growth mindset. If he would toughen up a little, get a little grit, learn to behave himself, and buckle down and get to work, he can do just as well in school as anyone else. You agree with me, don’t you?

I need you to remind me again this nation was founded on the ideal of equal opportunity for all, NOT equal outcomes. Hard work and responsible living matters. It’s not my job to make life fair. If we started giving extra help to all poor families, that would be the same as socialism, right? That’s not what our Founding Fathers had in mind when they wrote our Constitution.

I need to hear how helping these children now will create an entitlement mentality for another generation. How this boy will grow up expecting more and more handouts from me. How he will just become dependent on the government and not want to work for a living.

Please whisper in my ear that is perfectly okay that the wealthiest 1% of Americans possess 40% of the nation’s wealth and that this group’s wealth is greater than the bottom 90% of our citizens. Tell me it is fine that 95% of the income growth since 2009 has gone to the top one percent of Americans. Tell me there is nothing wrong with the net worth of the nation’s 400 wealthiest individuals exceeding the net worth of half of all American households. Remind me it is capitalism at its best when the average employee needs to work more than a month to earn what the average CEO earns in an hour. That’s all good, right?

Here’s the truth – I don’t want this to be MY problem.

I have tried to help for decades but it never seems to be enough. Why are “these” people so needy and greedy? It’s time to let me off the hook and just let everyone fight for what they get.

Why should wealthy people have to suffer to help people who make bad life decisions? These are natural consequences for poor behavior. Kids will always suffer for the irresponsible decisions of their parents. Who am I to intervene?

I have too many bills to pay as it is. I have a huge military to run. I have dozens of other nations around the world to send money to. I need to promote economic growth by giving out tax breaks and incentives to corporations and wealthy people. Plus, my economists tell me the money will eventually trickle down to those on the bottom if we just let the system work. I just need to get out of the way.

Let’s be real. I honestly don’t have any more money. I am already deeply in debt and the people certainly don’t want to pay more of their hard-earned wages to do what seems necessary to solve this complex problem.

People just need to get off my back.

Say it with me. He’s not my problem. He’s NOT my problem. HE‘S NOT MY PROBLEM!

There. I feel better now. Thank you for helping to ease my conscience. It’s going to be okay. I can sleep soundly now.

Yours truly,

AMERICA

Consciously Ignorant

It’s been said that real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance. I suppose that makes me pretty knowledgeable. I am quick to admit that I am ignorant on far more topics than I will ever be able to claim expertise.

After 56 years traveling through space on this big blue ball with billions of other human beings, I have come to recognize my personal world view and relatively minuscule life experiences can inadvertently cloud my understanding of how and what other people might think.

Just ask my wife.

None of us will ever see the world exactly alike because no two of us have seen and experienced the same things in the same way.

For that reason, I strive to keep my mind open to new ideas and perspectives. I read and study opposing points of view to be informed rather than merely opinionated. I am careful with my words and thoughts so as to not offend out of ignorance.

On those few occasions when I have been confronted by someone for behaving in a manner that is perceived as rude or even potentially racist, I will typically respond with a comment along the lines of: “You may be right. If I said something to insult or offend you, it was not my intent. I apologize. So that I can better understand your point of view, can you help me understand why my words or actions upset you?”

While saying something like this does help to defuse the situation and make our future conversation more positive, my true intent is to learn from the other person.

So, where am I going with this?

As I read an article in this morning’s Tulsa World reflecting on this past weekend’s ugly events in Charlottesville, Virginia, I was struck by a comment made by a Tulsa teacher, Nate Morris.

Speaking to an audience of about a hundred at a vigil at John Hope Reconciliation Park on Saturday, Morris told audience members to not be swayed by images telling them that’s what racism looks like. It’s more complicated than that, he said.

“While racism donned hoods, waved Nazi flags and ultimately killed someone in Virginia, it can appear in many forms.”

“Racism, systemic racism, implicit biases, these things don’t just look like hoods and capes and flags and fire. They exist in the statement of, ‘Oh you teach where? That must be really hard. I’d never send my kids there,’ or, ‘no, I’ve never been to that part of town. It’s too dangerous.’

He might be right.

While I don’t know where the lines between overt racism and bias and just sheer ignorance are drawn, I had not typically viewed comments like these as potentially harmful. But I understand how they can be interpreted differently by someone viewing them from the other direction.

I regret to say I am guilty of making comments similar to this, even after teaching two years in a Tulsa middle school twenty years ago. Particularly in light of my previous experience working with students from poverty, I know I need to be more conscious of the implications of my thoughts and words.

We all do.

When we talk about the challenges of teaching in urban schools, are we referring to the challenge of educating children from generational poverty in under-resourced communities, or are making inferences about children and their families based on their color, race, or ethnicity?

How often do we make faulty judgments about kids based on gross generalizations: “Asian children are good at math,” “black children are athletic,” “boys are better at science and STEM subjects than girls,” or, even worse, “certain groups of children are lazy?”

We can also falsely ascribe certain harmful characteristics to the parents of children in urban schools – that they are inattentive and lazy, don’t value education, have poor parenting skills, are substance abusers, or don’t care what their kids are doing.

We also unfairly label urban schools collectively as chaotic, dangerous, or dysfunctional – even when many are doing an exemplary job taking care of their students.

A good number of us really don’t understand what it is like to grow up, or to be a parent, or to teach under some of these very complex and challenging conditions. We have also become comfortable in our society rejecting anything we do not understand.

A long history of psycho-social research details the human tendency to imagine our own social and cultural groups as diverse while we imagine “the others,” people belonging to a social or cultural group with which we are less familiar, as being, for all intents and purposes, all the same. Then all it takes are one or two examples to validate or confirm our bias and we deem it true.

And, yes, we often do it out of ignorance. That doesn’t make it okay. The recipe for perpetual ignorance is to be satisfied with one’s opinions and content only with our own knowledge. We are responsible to society to do something to make ourselves less ignorant and better informed.

So, no matter where we stand on our ignorance about race, ethnicity, gender…etc., we can ALL move forward. And, in my humble opinion, if we are to stay united as a free nation, we MUST move forward.

Let me share an imperfect comparison.

In psychology, there is learning model called the four stages of competence, which details the psychological states of people involved in progressing from incompetence to competence in a skill.

The lowest level of achieving competence is stage one, which is unconsciously incompetent (“I don’t know that I don’t know it.”)

This progresses to stage two, consciously incompetent (I am now aware of what I don’t know), then stage three, consciously competent (I can do the “task” but have to think about it), and finally stage four, unconsciously competent (It’s second nature. I can do it and don’t even think about it. Examples include throwing a football, riding a bike or tying your shoes.)

Adapting this model for my personal ignorance about racial issues, I hope that I have matured my way to stage three, consciously competent or perhaps consciously ignorant. I work hard to be unbiased and not judge others based on physical characteristics and life circumstances.

But I will always have room to grow. The capacity to think without racial or ethnic bias interfering with my opinions may never be as easy as riding a bike or tying my shoes, though I wish it was.

When interacting with people from different backgrounds, I may always have to consciously think about what I say and how I say it.

Being consciously ignorant means I know what racism and bigotry and hatred look like. Therefore, I have no excuse for racist or intolerant behavior on my part. In more colorful terms, if I choose to be a pig, I will be keenly aware of my own stench.

It is also important to note – particularly in light of this weekend’s event in Virginia – that this mentality extends to what I choose NOT to say as well. Because silence in the face of bigotry and intolerance is sometimes just as damning.

Let’s not try to fool each other. Racism is alive and well in America. To say otherwise would be ignorant of reality. Sometimes it is subtle and unintentional like the examples cited above. Other times it reveals itself as a group of white men parading swastikas, burning torches, and making Nazi hand symbols. Anyhow it reveals itself, it is a stain on our nation.

The actions and attitudes of white supremacists in Virginia last weekend is repulsive and cannot be condoned. Bigotry and racism are an anathema to the words and intent of our Declaration of Independence: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Here’s something I am not ignorant about – racism has no place in America. In any direction. It never has and never will.

I don’t mind differences of opinion. I do mind hate.

I can’t always change others but I can change myself. In that respect, I REFUSE to allow anyone’s ignorance, hate, drama, or negativity stop me from being the best person I can be.

Including my own.

Growing Your Heart

It is mid-August and you have arrived for the first day of teacher professional development.

You are so excited!

There are only three days until a new class of students enters your classroom for the first time. You look forward to the start of a new school year. You can’t wait to see the kids’ smiles, learn their names and personalities, and guide them through another year of learning and discovery.

You have spent your summer immersed in personal growth: reading books, planning with colleagues, and taking classes to enhance your skills as an educator. You have spent many hours organizing and preparing your classroom. Your bulletin boards are finished, your first week of lessons and learning activities are ready to go, and your room is as clean as a whistle.

You are ready and excited for the first day of school. You think to yourself, “This is going to be a fantastic year. I just know it!”

But then … as you prepare your seating charts for the first day of school, you notice something on your class list.

A name.

In the blink of an eye, the easy spirit of optimism and confidence you felt in your heart just moments ago is replaced by a growing uneasiness in the pit of your stomach.

You have THAT KID.

You know the kid I’m talking about.

He is legendary among his former teachers.

He is that kid who knows exactly which of our buttons to push and seems to take great delight in pushing them!

He is that kid who can seemingly pluck anything from the air and turn it into something. He can take the smallest slight, real or imagined, and turn it into a war.

You have heard his name a hundred names, seen him acting out in the hallways and on the playground, and heard the stories from other teachers in the staff lounge.

You remember consoling your friend when she came to you last April exasperated, with tears in her eyes, and desperation in her voice.

And now he is yours.

THAT KID!

“Why me?” you ask yourself. You are frustrated because your plans for a great year have just been derailed by a ten-year-old.

It’s not fair, right?

Sure, it is. Here’s why.

It’s easy to love the kids who love you back. The ones who hug you when they come to your room, scribble “best teacher ever” on their papers, bring you treats and handwritten cards, and just float through your class following all of the rules and brightening your day with their smile.

It takes a bigger than average heart to love the student who blatantly disrespects you, shows no regard for your rules, and seems to hate your guts.

As teacher Nick Ferroni once wrote: “Children who are loved come to school to learn. Those who aren’t, come to school to be loved.And the reality is the kids who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving ways.

We know difficult kids are usually masking multiple layers of hurt. They have learned to defend themselves against feeling pain by erecting emotional walls of protection. Because these kids are unable to articulate the source of their angst and discomfort, these children desperately need patient, determined, and affectionate adults with thick skin who refuse to take offensive behavior personally.

We also know that it sometimes just takes one caring adult to make a difference. And this year, that adult might be YOU.

As I wrote a few months ago, the opportunity to positively impact these children’s lives is both an awesome privilege and frightening burden. And hugging porcupines is occasionally the most important part of our job.

THIS kid really does need you.

I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers for addressing children with significant behavior issues. There are no simple solutions.

All I can say is to do your best to grow your heart. Pray for strength and patience and compassion. Seek the assistance of colleagues, your school leaders, and behavior specialists. Work hard to maintain positive communications with the child’s parent or guardian. With the child, be consistently gracious and kind, supportive and encouraging, even during the stormiest days.

Meet him at the door on the first day of school and tell him “I’m going to love you and there’s nothing you can do about it.” Then prove it to him with your actions.

It won’t be easy, but did anyone ever tell you it would be?

If you are a teacher, bless you for the love and devotion you will give all the children in your classes this year.

You are a difference maker and are helping to make our world a better place. THAT kid may never thank you for all you will do for them this year, but I can.

Thank you! Have a great year!

The Good Old Days?

Do you remember when American public schools were widely regarded as the best in the world?

You know, the golden era of education when academic standards were high, all third graders loved to read, middle school students were motivated and engaged, and children graduated from high school ready for work or college? The good old days when educators were respected and treated as professionals?

Nope? Me neither.

Well, in case you missed it, a prominent magazine has published yet another blistering indictment of public education in America.

“In recent years, parents have cried in dismay that their children could not read out loud, could not spell, could not write clearly,” while “employers have said that mechanics could not read simple directions. Many a college has blamed high schools for passing on students…who could not read adequately to study college subjects; high schools have had to give remedial reading instruction to boys and girls who did not learn to read properly in elementary schools…”

Pretty depressing, isn’t it?

That is until you consider that there are not many educators alive today who were in the classroom back when this devastating critique of our education system was written.

It was published in Life Magazine on May 24, 1954, over 63 years ago. The title of the article was “Why Can’t My Child Read?

In his eleven-page feature, journalist John Hersey provides a summary of findings from the Citizens School Study Council, a committee assembled by citizens of Fairfield, Connecticut. The group was commissioned to study the challenges associated with teaching children to read three generations ago. It is posted HERE on Google books.

It is an interesting jaunt down memory lane.

I was intrigued to discover that even in 1954, adults were growing increasingly concerned with children’s preoccupation with the “cult of entertainment,” though back then it revolved around children’s growing access to comic books, “picture” books, “slick magazines,” and, of course, TELEVISION, which Hersey refers to “the enemy!

That didn’t realize how good they had it. Today, we’re dealing with the fact that many students carry the equivalent of a television in their hands, 24/7!

Hersey also delves into some of the same debates about teaching and learning we are still engaged in today: whole child education, the role of standard textbooks (often unrelated to children’s real world experiences), sight-reading vs. phonetics, the respective roles of teachers and parents, and the challenges of teaching across ability levels.

Of course, the narrative about failing schools is one teachers continue to hear as it echoes from one generation to the next.

In 1957, after the successful launch of a Soviet spacecraft into Earth’s orbit, we had our first “Sputnik moment.” The term Sputnik moment is now defined as the moment when a country or a society realizes that it needs to catch up with apparent technological and scientific developments made by some other country, in other words a “wake up” call of significant urgency.

Yet, a generation after Sputnik, American schools were ostensibly still playing catch-up.

In 1983, The Reagan administration’s ominously titled “A Nation at Risk” reported to Americans that our schools were getting worse, test scores were falling, millions of Americans were illiterate, and our teachers weren’t educated enough or paid enough. In fact, education in America was so awful that the reports author’s compared it to being attacked by an enemy power.

“If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. … We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.”

Then, in 1994, President Bill Clinton used the narrative of substandard schools to push for his Goals 2000 – Educate America Act, to “provide resources to states and communities to ensure that all students reach their full potential.”

In 2001, President George W. Bush took aim on America’s schools and sought to bring his “Texas miracle” on education to Washington as the “education president.”  Bush and Senator Ted Kennedy famously got together and enacted No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2002, laying the groundwork for federal testing and accountability which still dominates the educational scene today.

A few years later, after the release of international tests scores of 15-year-olds in 2009, highlighting the so-called poor performance of American students, President Obama and his education secretary Arne Duncan hearkened back to 1957, calling the PISA report our generation’s “Sputnik moment” and a “serious wake-up call.

And, of course, the performance of American public schools in 2017 continues to be lower than a snake’s belly in a wagon rut. Just ask our current President and his education secretary.

So, how do we defend such an argument when people have been saying exactly the same things about America’s dysfunctional education system since before most of us were born, before the Civil Rights movement, before computers, before space travel, and before cell phones, the Internet, and social media?

For over sixty years now, pundits and policy makers have been throwing up their hands about schools on the decline, about students who could barely read and write, about how we’re now being beaten by China and Estonia and whoever else. It all leads to an obvious question.

When exactly were the “good old days” when it comes to public education in America?

Was it during the long, disgraceful era of segregated schools when children of color were provided a “separate but equal” education that was far from equal? Was it back in 1960 when only 40% of white adults and 23% of black adults had a high school diploma and only 3% of black Americans had a college degree? Was it during the time we pulled children with special needs out of regular schools and educated them in classrooms or portable buildings on the other side of the school, or in a different building altogether, or not at all? Was it when we held children back regardless of their age or life experiences. When we refused to provide specialized programs to educate children who didn’t speak English as a first language? Was it when wealthy communities exploited the system to appropriate significantly more resources and funding for their schools than those communities and students on the other side of the tracks?

Here’s the truth. If you are looking to find the golden age of public education in America – one that strives to serve all children equitably – you’re looking at it.

It is far from perfect, but public education is better than it has ever been.

We live in a time when all children regardless of race, national origin, religion, gender, income level, sexual orientation, or disability are promised a free and appropriate public education. When a large number of children from poverty are offered a seat in the same classroom as their affluent peers. When children from struggling families are afforded at least two decent meals each day and often provided clothing, health and dental care, free eye glasses, and counseling services. When children with special needs are provided an education tailored to meet their individual needs, including life skills training, specialized communication supports, occupational therapy, and inclusion with same-age peers.

We live in a time when the goal of public education is to provide EVERY child with the skills, knowledge, and support necessary to overcome the burdens of his or her life and find their unique purpose in the world.

Again, I am not naive. We have many significant challenges in public education today. Yet, I have never worked in a school where the bulk of my fellow educators were not consistently focused on getting better and improving the outcomes for children.

In America, we will always have children who excel in school and those who struggle, and a whole bunch of other kids in the middle. We will always have great schools, a few under-performing ones, and a whole bunch in between. We will always have some parents who are full partners in their children’s education, a few who are completely detached, and a large majority in the middle. And, yes, we will always have some teachers who are absolute rock stars, a few that are not so great, and a whole bunch of good ones in the middle.

And we will hopefully work together and strive to do the very best we can. Because kids are worth it.

I will close by sharing one last paragraph from Hersey’s 1954 article that is as accurate today as it was then:

“Our public schools have done a heroic job during a period of enormous expansion and in the face of ever-tightening budgets, to maintain standards in teaching. The seriousness of purpose, the selflessness, and the integrity of public school teachers are manifest.”

Nostalgia’s a funny thing.

It’s fun to remember the past. But we need to remember it as it really was. Not the way some wish it had been.