Oh Crap! What Have We Done?

satire

May 12, 2017

OKLAHOMA CITY—According to bewildered and contrite legislators, a major budgetary mix-up this week inadvertently provided the state’s public schools with enough funding and resources to properly educate Oklahoma’s children in the upcoming fiscal year.

A spokesperson for Senate Pro Temp Mike Schulz’s office reported that as a result of a clerical error, $400 million earmarked for state testing vendors, turnpike repaving, tax breaks for the oil and gas industry, and future income tax cuts for Oklahoma’s millionaires was accidentally appropriated to the Department of Education for the upcoming fiscal year’s education funding formula. To compound matters, $160 million was mistakenly appropriated to provide Oklahoma teachers with an across-the-board $3,000 raise.

According to a source from Governor Fallin’s office, speaking under the condition of anonymity, “This money will likely be wasted by schools to increase teacher salaries, reduce class sizes, buy new textbooks, increase technology integration, offer more academic courses, and promote educational excellence”—an oversight that apologetic officials called a “major SNAFU.”

“Obviously, we did not intend for this to happen, and we are doing everything in our power to correct the situation and discipline whoever is responsible,” said one senior member of the House Budget and Appropriations committee while expressing remorse for the error. “I want to apologize to the people of Oklahoma. The last thing we wanted was for schools to upgrade their technology and lower student-to-teacher ratios in hopes of raising a generation of well-educated, ambitious, and skilled young Oklahomans.”

“That’s the type of irresponsible misspending that I’ve been focused on eliminating for my entire political career,” the representative added.

Former House Speaker Jeff Hickman told reporters from the Daily Oklahoman that “this kind of reckless decision-making would never have happened under my watch,” adding “I just don’t understand this new breed of Republican that prioritizes essential state services and schools over the fiscal well-being of corporations and millionaires.”

Hickman continued his rant: “This is an embarrassment to our state. Fortunately, we still have some leaders like Representative Mike Ritze doing things to shed a more positive light on Oklahoma conservatives. His idea of rounding up children of illegal immigrants and shipping them home is nothing short of brilliant and represents the type of creative budgeting we need more of in Oklahoma.”

Another embarrassed member of the Republican Platform Caucus angrily acknowledged the $400 million budget slip-up will “unfortunately” help schools statewide retain more qualified teachers as well as supply students with modernized classrooms and instructional materials. Struggling to control his frustration, the representative said he prayed the costly mistake would not result in allowing thousands of Oklahoma’s students to graduate with strong technology and higher order thinking skills.

Ironically, former State Senator Kyle Loveless (R-OKC) called for a full investigation into how the state’s schools were able to secure the necessary funds to adequately compensate teachers at the regional average. “Hell, if we weren’t wasting time and money on personal witch hunts against highly respected legislators, this kind of crap wouldn’t be going on right under our noses.”

Loveless updated his statement a few hours later: “Never mind, I don’t really give a s*!@ anymore.”

Jason Nelson, former state representative (and potential candidate for something in 2018), called into a local talk radio station so angry he could barely get his words out: “This careless mistake may result in fewer teachers retiring or leaving the state. It will have a highly deleterious effect on the growth of our state’s promising charter and virtual school movement just when we’re making real progress. It may also end up financing new teacher training programs and collaboration time, allowing educators to become more than just glorified babysitters. It is just outrageous!”

Nelson continued, “Now we are left with a situation where schools can attract talented professionals who really want to teach our children, which will, in turn, create smarter and more motivated students who wish to one day make a contribution to society. What kind of future is that for our state?”

Current House Minority Leader and 2018 Democratic Gubernatorial candidate, Scott Inman (Dist-94), smiled coyly and winked when asked about the budget snafu. “I just have no idea what might have happened. No idea whatsoever. It is just one of those things that happens when people are in a hurry to start their four-day weekend. I can say that when you play shell games long enough, it can be easy to lose track of the ball.”

Representative Inman was later seen giggling with colleagues and doing a cart-wheel on the fourth floor rotunda of the Capitol building.

During an impromptu press conference on Thursday afternoon, Governor Fallin stated, “I know I’ve talked about increasing revenues and helping out our schools for years but I assumed the legislature knew it was all just political pandering. It never occurred to me they might take me seriously. In all my years in government I have never seen such a shameful error.”

“Our appropriations process has gone horribly awry and I for one demand to know how it happened. I thought I was signing an additional tax cut for Oklahoma’s beleaguered upper class,” explained Fallin. “When I realized I had just signed a bill to appropriate more money to public schools, I was crushed.”

Senate Finance Vice-Chair, Josh Brecheen, echoed his fellow legislative leaders and vowed to do “everything in his power” to resolve the costly error that could lead to schools updating their curriculum to emphasize STEM initiatives and 21st century skills by providing students with instruction on how to use newly purchased computers and connect with the world outside of Oklahoma.

“Once these kids learn to read and think critically, you can never undo that,” Brecheen said. “In 20 years, we could be looking at a nightmare scenario in which vast segments of our populace are fully prepared to compete in the new global marketplace.” “It could take a whole generation to cancel out the effects of this error,” Brecheen added.

Congressional leaders also stressed that providing the state’s students with an adequate education that prepared them for college and 21st-century jobs could also have a devastating impact on the economy by creating a new class of citizens uninterested in working at Wal-Mart or settling for fast food meals.

“Politicians will be adversely affected as well,” Brecheen later remarked. “What will our state do if the next generation knows that all we care about is our own selfish interests and pandering to corporations, the religious right, and the wealthy elite? We will be creating a generation of young people able to think for themselves. Is that the future you want for Oklahoma? I certainly don’t.

In My America …

In my America …

Not all children are worthy of an education.

Therefore, we must resist the zealots who distort the truth and ignorantly proclaim

America is better for being a nation of immigrants.

After 240 years, it should be evident to us all.

If you are not white, European, and from a Judeo-Christian tradition,

you don’t belong here.

And thus,

we need to build more walls to keep you out.

I refuse to submit to the fallacy

diversity makes us stronger.

I believe this to my core:

Our country is dying from within.

I will not agree with the premise

your children deserve a free education

just because they are in our country.

It is the law of the land

and

we are a nation of laws.

I submit to you

the promise of Lady Liberty:

“Bring us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”

is outdated and from a bygone era in American history

I refuse to accept these words.

It is time to act …

******************************************************************************

It is time to act …

I refuse to accept these words

are outdated and from a bygone era in American history:

“Bring us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”

The promise of Lady Liberty.

I submit to you

we are a nation of laws

and

it is the law of the land.

Just because they are in our country,

your children deserve a free education.

I will not agree with the premise

our country is dying from within.

I believe this to my core:

Diversity makes us stronger

I refuse to submit to the fallacy

we need to build more walls to keep you out,

and that

you don’t belong here

if you are not white, European, and from a Judeo-Christian tradition.

After 240 years, it should be evident to us all,

America is better for being a nation of immigrants

Therefore, we must resist the zealots who distort the truth and ignorantly proclaim

Not all children are worthy of an education

In my America …

 

This palindrome poem is dedicated to Oklahoma State Representative Mike Ritze and fellow members of the Republican Platform Caucus.

Proposing to reduce our education budget by rounding up innocent children from our schools and deporting them is not an acceptable solution to our state’s budget problem, Mr. Ritze.  Not in my America, sir. Not now, not ever. Start over.

The 2017 Oklahoma Teacher Draft

April 30, 2017

Welcome to Tulsa’s News Channel 6 coverage of the 2017 teacher draft. We now take you to our chief education reporter, Roger Stone, to join the program in progress …

Good evening, Oklahoma. I’m Roger Stone.  I am pleased to be joined tonight by education analyst and professor, Dr. Paula Davis, from the University of Oklahoma School of Education.

Paula: Thank you, Roger. It’s shaping up to be a great night. This year’s crop of Oklahoma teaching prospects certainly looks strong on paper. Our state’s teaching schools have done a wonderful job preparing these candidates to be able to make an immediate contribution in the classroom. The draft room is really buzzing with anticipation.

Roger: You’re right, Paula. While the pool of candidates is down 30% from previous years, the quality of the remaining prospects is excellent. There is some depth at key positions like mathematics and special education. Yet, if previous trends hold true, these teachers will likely come off the board in the early rounds. It is going to be very competitive and I would not be surprised to see a lot of movement between schools.

Paula: Absolutely! Draft position has never been more important. I’m confident district human resource directors have been doing their homework and scouted these candidates carefully. I spoke with a group of them earlier and I can tell you they are anxious for a successful draft. It has been a difficult year for teachers in Oklahoma and schools are seeking to fill an unusually high number of teacher resignations and retirements this year.

Roger: Well, Paula, it looks like they’re ready to start down on the floor. Let’s go to Mike Sanders at the podium to announce our first pick.

Mike: Thanks, Roger and Paula. I have just received a text message from Dr. Deborah Gist, Superintendent of Tulsa Public Schools. They earned the top pick after winning a coin flip with Oklahoma City Public Schools. Norman Public Schools earned the third pick due to the potential loss of 2016 State Teacher of the Year Shawn Sheehan to a neighboring state next year.

With the top pick in the 2017 Oklahoma Teacher Draft, Tulsa Public Schools selects (pause) … mathematics teacher JAMES ABRAMS from Northeastern State University in Broken Arrow! (crowd applause)

Paula: No surprise there, Roger. James has been a coveted recruit for TPS since his earlier days as a student at Booker T. Washington High School. A lifelong Tulsan, Abrams had a 4.4 GPA and was a National Merit Semifinalist at BTW. At NSU, he graduated at the top of his class and is already certified in both intermediate and advanced mathematics. They will likely place James back at his Alma mater to replace retiring calculus teacher, Pam Nichols. He’s a very exciting pick!

Roger: James is impressive, Paula. I watched some film of him teaching a Calculus lesson on sine and cosine derivatives as a student teacher. It was mind-blowing stuff!

Hold on, wait a minute, Paula. I am getting an update in my earpiece. It appears that James may have already signed a contract earlier today with Bentonville Public Schools in Arkansas. Yes, it has now been confirmed that James sent the following tweet 15 minutes ago:

Paula: Wow, that’s a tough break for Tulsa Public Schools. Our sources report that Dr. Gist has already picked up the red emergency phone to Teach For America (TFA) headquarters. It looks like TPS will be looking for another short-term fix to fill its holes for next year. Too bad for them, but you can’t blame James. Ten thousand bucks a year is nothing to sneeze at for a young 22-year-old right out of college.

Roger: Ouch! That’s tough to swallow. Let’s go back to Mike on the floor. He appears ready to announce the next pick.

MikeWith the second pick in the 2017 Oklahoma Teacher Draft, Dr. Aurora Lora with Oklahoma Public Schools selects (pause) … special education teacher MADISON TURNER, from Oklahoma State University!

Paula: Oh, she is a special talent, Roger. I have watched a lot of film on this girl and she can flat-out teach. Not only does she have strong content knowledge, Madison possesses a skill set not typically seen in a young educator. She’s already a master at maintaining student engagement through effective questioning techniques, as well as scaffolding her instruction to make complex topics easier to understand for her students.

Roger: You are so right about that, Paula. I observed her at the recent teacher combine. On one set of questions, she registered an incredible wait time of 8.2 seconds, a record for a first-year teacher. The mock students threw every disruptive behavior they had at her and she never once got flustered or upset. She is one cool cucumber!

Oh no, not again. Our producers just received this text message from Madison’s agent, Andrea Turner in Chickasha, who also happens to be Madison’s mom.

Roger: That’s a solid punch to the gut of Dr. Lora and her administrative team in Oklahoma City. It looks like they will be filling out a few more emergency teaching certificates to fill their classrooms next year. Bad break for those kiddos with special needs.

Paula: Well, let’s see what happens with the next pick, Roger. Norman is a wonderful school district with a lot of positives that might lure a young teacher to the community. Back to Mike on the floor …

Mike: With the third pick in the 2017 Oklahoma Teacher Draft, Norman Public Schools selects science teacher JACKSON BLEVINS from the University of Oklahoma (loud applause).

Paula: Terrific selection, Roger. Jackson is the top science teacher in this year’s draft. He is highly versatile and can teach multiple high school subjects, from Biology to Chemistry and AP Physics. He also interned at Norman North High School this spring so he is familiar with the system. With a good summer of professional development, Jackson will be able to contribute on day one.

Roger: With the current shortage of science teachers, Norman really needed this pick, Paula. Blevins has all the intangibles: positive rapport with students, high enthusiasm, the ability to scramble his lessons on the move, and an innate feel for the game. I have also heard he loves the Norman area and is unlikely to move.

Mike: Roger, you might want to check your feed. Apparently, a Facebook friend of Jackson just reported he has pulled his name from the draft pool. The friend forwarded this conversation between Jackson and his dad from last night.

Roger: Incredible! Things sure happen quick with today’s social media.

Paula: I am blown away, guys. It is starting to look a lot like last year when so many of Oklahoma’s most promising young teachers took their game to surrounding states or chose other careers altogether. School administrators across the state will be scrambling once again to place high quality educators in their classrooms before the start of the 2017-2018 season.

Roger: No doubt about that, Paula. Until state leaders do something substantial to address the budget problems in Oklahoma, we can expect to see a lot more of this in the next few years. And, you know who the real losers in this scenario are, right?

Paula: I do, Roger. It’s the kids, along with the future prosperity of our state.

Roger: Yup. It will be tough to build the team back up. But if there’s anything I know about the teachers of Oklahoma, they will do everything in their power to protect kids and make it work one more year. I just hope they can keep it up. Maybe we’ll pick up some good talent in the later rounds.

Let’s go to a commercial break …

Nobody Does it Better

“Nobody does it better
Makes me feel sad for the rest
Nobody does it half as good as you
Baby, you’re the best”

~ Carly Simon, 1977

We have all become accustomed to politicians making bold claims and promises or using hyperbole and artful “fact selection” to bolster their image or reputation.

While there have been many politicians over the years who were gifted in the art of self-aggrandizing, our current President is arguably one of the best of all time. To channel another Carly Simon song, he’s so vain he probably thinks this blog is about him. Well, okay, I suppose he’d be partly right in this case.

Anyhow, I think if you were to ask President Trump, he would proudly trumpet (pun intended) that in nearly every important area: nobody knows more or does anything better than him.

According to the President, there is a long list of attributes and knowledge for which he is the preeminent figure on the planet. In a recent compilation of the president’s remarks from various speeches and television appearances, Trump claims that nobody

“… is stronger than he is, has better toys that he does, is better at the military than him, loves the Bible more, is better to people with disabilities, fights for veterans as much as he does, does as much for equality, is more pro-Israel, is more conservative than him, respects women more than he does, will be tougher on ISIS, has crowds as big, understands the horror of nuclear as well as he does, understands devaluation like him, understands the sale of uranium to Russia, and knows trade, taxes, the debt, infrastructure, the ‘rules of the game,’ H1B and H2B visas, politicians and the ‘system’ as well as he does.”

The president forgot to mention that nobody is quite as humble as he is, either.

While I choose not to waste valuable time dissecting the president’s list of self-proclaimed expertise, I do wonder if there might just be even one person still alive who survived the bombing of Hiroshima or the Fukushima or Chernobyl disasters and could understand the “horrors of nuclear” more than our president. I’m just writing out loud.

In all seriousness, this isn’t meant to be an exercise in Trump-bashing. Instead, I am using the president’s example to generalize about the proclivity of some people in positions of power to anoint themselves as experts or masters of special knowledge or skills when they really aren’t.

A commander-in-chief who never served a day in a combat zone or watched a fellow soldier die yet profess to be the top expert on the military is a dangerous man. But I digress.

This mindset of self-perpetuating arrogance displayed by Trump and others often leads to the misguided belief that “I alone can fix it.”

We have certainly seen this scenario play out in America over the past twenty years in the area of education reform.

Case in point:

  • We have billionaires influencing education policy who never taught in or even attended a public school.
  • We have policy makers who will accept the opinion of a conservative “think tank” without hesitation, while hastily dismissing the viewpoint of real educators in the field, calling us lazy and self-serving.
  • We have test vendors and profiteers driving the development of curriculum more than the actual teachers delivering it to children.
  • We have state leaders “taking over” local districts to run their schools instead of trusting (and resourcing) local school boards, citizens, and educators to make the needed improvements.
  • We have politicians who view standardized tests as a more accurate tool for measuring student achievement than the judgment of a teacher who spends 180 days with the child.

As a result, we now have teachers and schools jumping through hoops seemingly every year due to increased state and federal mandates, ever-changing academic standards, updated student assessments, changing evaluation models, new curricular programming, rapidly evolving technology expectations, and new yet unimproved professional development, all while facing more and more scrutiny on how they manage student behavior in their classroom.

And some wonder why we have a teacher shortage in America.

Here’s the truth.

Nobody understands education as well as the teachers and school administrators who work with kids every day.

Nobody.

The fact that anyone would try to dispute this point illustrates how far offline we have moved as a nation.

If you had a question about your health, would you ask your physician or call your state legislator? If you needed to develop a trust account for your aging parents, would you consult a tax attorney or email Bill Gates? If you were building a new home, would you get better advice from an architect or the creator of Legos? If you needed a car repair, would you solicit the opinion of a trained mechanic or the owner of the automobile dealership where the mechanic works?

It’s simple. The people closest to the action typically have a better understanding of the strengths and challenges of the organization. They’re also in the best position to actually fix things.

Don’t mistake my intent. I am not claiming that educators are perfect and without fault. There are many aspects of education in America that bear additional scrutiny and we, as professionals, must do a better job of policing our own and counseling teachers towards professional growth … or, failing that, towards the door to another occupation.

That said, the majority of our teachers are hard-working, motivated, conscientious, caring, and highly skilled practitioners. They should have a voice in the discussion about education reform because what they have to say is valuable.

They should have a voice because … 

Nobody knows better than teachers the importance of education in improving children’s lives.

Nobody knows better than teachers that children do not learn at the same pace and that effective teaching involves meeting the unique learning needs of each child.

Nobody understands better than teachers the real impact of hunger, poverty, neglect and abuse on the learning capacity of a child.

Nobody knows better than teachers how larger class sizes and fewer resources severely limit their ability to do their jobs.

Nobody knows better than teachers the sense of hopelessness one experiences while watching a student struggle when they are truly giving their best.

Nobody knows better than teachers which assessments are most effective in determining what a child knows and is able to do.

Nobody understands better than a teacher the passion and drive it takes to enable EVERY child in their classroom to succeed.

Nobody knows better than a teacher the negative effects that overemphasis on testing has had on our students and schools.

Nobody but the teacher cares more about the well-being of ALL kids in his or her class.

Nobody knows better than the teacher the importance of love, kindness, compassion, and resilience in the lives of kids.

Just imagine if education reform was pushed from the bottom up instead of the current, top-down model.  We certainly couldn’t do worse than the “experts” in charge now.

Nobody does it better, teachers. Baby, you’re the best!

Believe me. Lots of really terrific people say so.

The Wrong Medicine

If you brought your coughing baby to your small town doctor a hundred years ago, it’s quite possible he would have sent you down to the local apothecary to purchase a bottle of One Night Cough Syrup.

The Doc’s advice: “Just give your baby a half teaspoon of this elixir and he’ll be sleeping like a rock.”

He would not be kidding.

Take a look at the list of ingredients in this special cough syrup. While a mixture of alcohol, cannabis, chloroform, and morphine might not do much to cure your child’s cough, I suspect it might help everyone in the house get a little sleep. I can’t help but wonder how many children didn’t wake up in the morning after taking a dose of this stuff.

One Night Cough Syrup was the subject of a 1934 legal case in which the FDA ruled the drug’s “claims of its therapeutic properties” were misleading — because, you know, most of its main ingredients are highly addictive, harmful substances.

Of course, a few decades earlier, the doctor might have given you something else to soothe your toddler’s cough.

Yup! That’s Bayer’s Children’s Heroin.

Between 1890 and 1910, heroin was sold as a non-addictive substitute for morphine. It was also used to treat children suffering with congestion. I had no idea.

To treat your child’s painful toothache a hundred years ago, you might let them suck on one of these tasty cocaine drops for a few minutes. As the manufacturer claims, the relief would be nearly “instantaneous.” I imagine these were probably popular with people of all ages.

Have a kid suffering with asthma? Back in the day, you could actually buy some special cigarettes to help relieve your child’s asthma attacks.

While not as awful as the earlier medicines, the whole concept of having your child breathe in smoke to help them breathe seems horribly misleading. My chest hurts just thinking about it.

Today, it is beyond comprehension we would prescribe any of these remedies to any child, for any reason.

We are aghast when someone allows their thirsty child to get a drink of water from an outdoor water hose, let alone swallow a spoonful of highly-addictive narcotics to soothe a sore throat.

It makes me wonder how Americans a century from now will view some of the “prescriptions” we administer to today’s children to remedy perceived ailments.

Will they be like us and think, “What the hell were those people back then thinking?”

Since this is an education blog, I am going to segue this discussion to our nation’s addiction to the prescription of test-based accountability as the remedy for what ails America’s schools.

In 2001, President George Bush declared the American system of public schools dangerously “unhealthy.” To treat our nation’s schools, Bush put an entire generation of children and their schools on an expensive and distasteful pill called “No Child Left Behind.”

After fifteen years of the same bitter medicine of test, sort, rank, and punish, shouldn’t we begin to see some evidence that our nation’s schools are getting “healthier” and that our children are graduating better prepared for college and for leading productive lives?

Like author Alfie Kohn, I believe the last 15 years of test-based reforms have been based on “an exaggeration of the problem, a misdiagnosis of the causes, and a prescription that has caused more harm than good.”

In an attempt to cure our so-called “sick schools,” we have spent billions of dollars and completely disrupted our entire educational system. The federal government has usurped authority from local school boards with top-down mandates and micromanagement.

Schools have been closed, teachers have been fired, unions have been busted, and charter schools have proliferated across our country. States have spent a small fortune developing more rigorous standards, implementing new curriculum and instruction, and pushing additional testing in our schools.

In Oklahoma, we went even further by implementing Achieving Classroom Excellence (ACE) in 2006. This legislation required students to pass four of seven End of Instruction (EOI) tests to earn a high school diploma. Since 2012, thousands of Oklahoma students were denied a diploma based on their failure to pass one or more exams, despite earning sufficient grades and credits to have graduated otherwise. This medicine failed badly and had numerous harmful side effects. The legislation was rightly repealed last year.

The central question is what have we gotten for making our children swallow this awful medicine of standardized testing for the past 15 years?

Are the graduates of Class of 2017 in appreciably better academic health than the Class of 2002? And, isn’t the answer to this question vitally important in deciding what we do next?

What does the data tell us?

One respected measure of academic performance and college readiness is the ACT assessment.

The ACT is typically administered to high school juniors each year and measures academic readiness in four core subjects: Reading, English, Math, and Science. Students receive a score in each tested area as well as a composite score using all four results.

Certainly, the results of the nationally normed ACT will give us some indication as whether all of this work and stress over the past decade is bearing any fruit, right?

Prepare to be thoroughly underwhelmed.

Here are the average ACT composite scores for Oklahoma and the United States for the past ten years:

2006: OK 20.6  US 21.1

2007: OK 20.7  US 21.2

2008: OK 20.7  US 21.1

2009: OK 20.7  US 21.1

2010: OK 20.7  US 21.0

2011: OK 20.7  US 21.1

2012: OK 20.7  US 21.1

2013: OK 20.7  US 20.9

2014: OK 20.8  US 21.0

2015: OK 20.7  US 21.0

2016: OK 20.4 US 20.8

If you would prefer a visual, here is what this data would basically look like in line graph form (providing for normal statistical variation):

2006 ________________________________________________________ 2016

Impressive, huh?

The slightly lower ACT average for Oklahoma last year is likely attributable to the fact that the Oklahoma Department of Education afforded all juniors the opportunity to take the test for free, thereby increasing the number of students taking the assessment.

Anyway you look at this, the ACT scores in our state and nationwide reek of utter and complete stagnation.

Back to my original question.

At what point do parents, teachers, and administrators stand up and say “Enough is enough?” When do we begin to refuse to allow the removal of even one more dollar from our classrooms to continue to support this enormous exercise in futility.

How about now? Today.

The right number of standardized tests that we should be forcing down the throats of our children is precisely zero. The tests do not help our children, our teachers, or our parents. They have not improved education in America one bit.

The adverse side effects of lower student engagement, reduced emphasis on arts and music, demoralization of teachers, loss of valuable instruction time, and the stagnation of innovation in many of our schools far outweighs any perceived benefits of annual standardized testing.

Isn’t it way past time to end the nation’s failed experiment with test-driven education and begin transforming our schools to prepare students for success in the 21st century?

Our nation does not need great test takers. It needs thinkers, creators, problem solvers, communicators, and entrepreneurs.

We need a new prescription for America’s schools. It begins with a full review of the social and cultural factors which affect student achievement, most notably poverty, the breakdown of families, and systemic inequalities. It also involves a real discussion of what it means to be an educated person in the 21st century and a re-imagining of our schools toward that aim.

The alternative is to have our children continue swimming in this stagnant pond of test-based slime. A pond that causes too many to drown and leaves many more unprepared for the challenges of adulthood.

Just as morphine, cannabis, and chloroform were not the right medicine for ill children last century, standardized testing is not the remedy for our academically unhealthy students today.

It’s simple the wrong medicine. We need to stop subjecting our children to its side effects.

Hugging A Porcupine

He is ours.

He was ours when he arrived in kindergarten thirteen years ago – precocious, curious, and bursting with spirit. His blue plaid shirt brought out the tint of his eyes and his bountiful smile brought joy to those around him. He was smart, impish, naturally clever, and full of promise. He was five.

He was ours when learning became more challenging in second grade. When his emerging struggles with dyslexia and distractibility started to manifest themselves in emotional outbursts and disruptive behaviors. He was ours when he began to indiscriminately hit and kick other kids on the playground. He was ours when he drew an intricate picture of a prairie landscape in art class, amazing us all with his innate artistic talent. He was seven.

He was ours when he began testing the limits of acceptable classroom behavior. When his self-esteem began to slowly die and his personality turned increasingly stormy. He was ours when he intentionally punched his teacher in the arm in third grade and threw a book at another child’s head. When he curled up in a corner of the room, hyperventilated, cried, and said he was sorry. He was nine.

He was ours in fifth grade when his parents divorced and when he witnessed his 54-year-old grandmother die after an excruciating battle with cancer. We were there when his dad remarried and moved to California, the last time he’s seen his father. He was ours when his mother lost another job after showing up drunk at work. He was ours when the home he’d lived in all his life went through foreclosure and when his mother and he moved into a local shelter. He was ours when he started stealing and tormenting smaller kids at the bus stop. He was 11.

He was ours when his beautiful, infectious smile retired and the darkness began to encircle him.

He was ours when we had to reassure the other children in his seventh-grade class they were safe, despite his nearly constant threats.

He was ours when he stopped doing homework, when he stopped caring about his grades and when he started skipping school to play violent video games. He was ours when he tried his first cigarette, drank his first beer, popped his first pills, smoked his first joint, and became sexually active.  He was 14.

He was ours when he got suspended for fighting, for chronic disruptive behavior, for cussing out a teacher, for breaking a computer. He was ours when we couldn’t find his mom to pick him up on the day he said he was going to hurt himself after “taking out a few others.” When he told his counselor he wished he’d never been born.

He was ours when the police handcuffed him and delivered him to the local adolescent care center. He was 15.

He was ours six months later when his mom died of an overdose in the back seat of a drug dealer’s car. He was ours when he returned to school as a hollow shell of his previous self, nearly catatonic from his prescribed regimen of daily depression medications.

He was ours when a caring teacher decided to take a chance and bring him into her family’s home. When the color came back to his eyes. He was ours when he won the grand prize in the Philbrook Museum’s Young Artist contest. He was ours when he found a counselor he trusted, who took the time to listen and who was patient enough to peel through the many layers of anger and angst surrounding his soul to discover the sad, insecure, yet lovable boy inside.

He was ours when he recovered his smile again. When he joined a local church youth group and found meaning in his life. He was ours when a beautiful girl with deep blue eyes and an angel’s heart gave him a reason to love himself again. He was 17.

He will be ours when he walks across the stage next month at graduation. When he hugs his adoptive mom and dad and says,  “I love you. Thank you for saving my life.” He will be ours when he leaves our school in May to become the best version of what he can be.

This child is ours. He is smart and bright and kind and troubled and hurt and angry. For 13 years, he has struggled mightily to overcome trauma, despair, learning challenges, and a self-defeating mentality. He wrestled for most of his young life to keep himself balanced, to calm his inner demons, to make friends, to trust adults, to show compassion, to love himself, and to learn with any consistency.

To simply be a kid.

You see, he was always ours. He belongs to us as much as the star quarterback, the future Ivy League scholar, the homecoming queen, and the valedictorian. For much of his schooling, he was tough to love. We didn’t want to own him.

If you have been in education very long, especially in a larger district, you have met “him” or “her,” likely more than once. These children frustrate us, make us angry, and cause us to cry. They cause us to question our effectiveness as educators and the meaning and value of our work.

It hurts to get close to children like “him.” It’s like hugging a porcupine. But they are ours, and hugging porcupines is occasionally the most important part of our job.

A core belief I hold tightly is this: When children are in our schools, they are our kids. All. Of. Them. If a kid walks through the doors of our public school, we should see them, listen to them, push them, care for them, support and believe in them as if they are our own.

When we help these children survive and thrive – academically, socially, and emotionally – we are reminded of the beliefs and passion that power our work as educators. All kids can learn. We know how to teach them. Together, we have what it takes.

All the kids at our schools are “ours.” For some, we have but a brief opportunity to do the one thing – the RIGHT thing – to change the course of their life in a positive way. What an awesome privilege and frightening burden that is.

This much is certain. This boy is ours.

And when you take the chance to hug a porcupine like him, the reward will be yours.

Photo credit: http://www.healthforteens.co.uk/feelings/anger-management/

The Need to Play On

“They kept it up to the very end. Only the engulfing ocean had the power to drown them into silence. The band was playing ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee.’ I could hear it distinctly. The end was very close.” —Charlotte Collyer, Titanic survivor

What made them play on?

That is the question people ask most frequently to Steve Turner, the author of “The Band That Played On: The Extraordinary Story of the 8 Musicians Who Went Down with the Titanic.”

Why did the Titanic’s musicians continue to play on the deck even as the ship was going down? Were they told to do so by the Captain? Was it part of their job description? Did they think they would be saved?

According to Turner, the answer lies more in the composition and moral character of the orchestra, in particular, the band’s leader, violinist Wallace Hartley.

hartleyBy all accounts, Hartley was a highly principled person and a devout Christian. He’d recently been engaged to a young Christian girl, Maria Robinson, and they planned to marry after he’d completed a few trips on the Titanic. He was personable, cheerful and would always attend church when he was back on land.

Turner’s research for his book revealed two interesting comments that Hartley made to colleagues that shed some light on why he behaved as he did.

In explaining why he believed Hartley called his men together and began playing, even as the ship was sinking, musician John Carr related that Hartley has once told him,  “Music was a bigger weapon for stopping disorder than anything on earth. He knew the value of the weapon he had, and I think he proved his point.”

Another musician who had served under Hartley, Ellwand Moody, told a British newspaper; “I remember one day I asked him what he would do if he were ever on a sinking ship and he replied ‘I don’t think I would do better than play ‘Oh God Our Help in Ages Past’ or ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee’.”

So, according to Steve Turner, it appears almost certain that Wallace Hartley had contemplated being on a sinking ship and had already decided how he would respond. He believed that music could prevent panic and create calm. He had also chosen his final piece of music.

Which brings me to a few questions, starting with, “Why do I (and others) keep advocating about educational issues in Oklahoma?”

Are we, too, simply “playing music” to a frantic and distracted group of passengers on a sinking ship?

And how much longer can our state’s public education system stay afloat while “taking on water” the way it has for the past decade?

There is reason for despair. Even as a natural optimist, I feel it.

After the passage of ESSA in 2015, I am now resigned to accept the reality that test-based accountability will remain the predominant driver of school reform for the rest of my education career. That saddens me.

Even worse, the education of yet another generation of children will be stifled by an output-based system that seeks to rank and sort them – a process which seeks to strip them of their uniqueness in order to develop standard “widgets” for corporations to replace their retiring widgets.

The Oklahoma budget remains in shambles. Per pupil funding for Oklahoma’s children has dropped 27% in nine years and the hole will be deeper after this year. There appears to be no end in sight.

Most teachers and school support staff have not had a meaningful pay raise in a decade. Health care costs are exploding, further eroding the wages of teachers who carry their spouses and families on insurance.

Our state is hemorrhaging teachers to surrounding states and to other occupations. For the second year in a row, the state has been forced to issue over a thousand emergency teaching certificates to meet the burgeoning need for new educators. High quality educators are getting harder and harder to find. This scenario will get worse as more baby boomers exit the classroom over the next five years.

The 2016 state elections witnessed an influx of educators or pro-public education candidates running for state office. While we made some modest gains, these new voices are often drowned out in the current House and Senate.

State Question 779 offered hope for beleaguered teachers that we might be able to bypass a listless legislature and capitalize on the direct support of Oklahomans to pass a long overdue pay raise. It failed miserably at the polls. That one hurt.

The voucher wolves are wounded, yet are also emboldened by the election of a President and his subsequent appointment of a Secretary of Education who together are an anathema to the idea of free and equitable public education for all children in America. The push for public funding of separate and unequal private school education for wealthy Americans will undoubtedly accelerate in coming years.

Over 50 years after our nation declared a “war on poverty,” too many children are growing up in homes of despair, dysfunction, and destitution. When hungry and deprived children from poverty fail to achieve at the same level as their wealthier peers, teachers and schools are blamed. This fact is not soon to change.

There is a danger in doing this kind of blog that one can get all wrapped up in anger, frustration, and disillusionment. From time to time Often, I wonder why I should keep playing music as I watch other passengers board the lifeboats to get off the sinking ship.

But, it’s worth reminding myself from time to time why I care.

This vessel we call public education in America is worth saving.

American public schools are everything that we have to say about the hopes and fears and aspirations for our future. Only in America do we bring people from any and all backgrounds into the same school buildings. Only in America do we let you pursue whatever dream of a future you can conjure up in your mind.

We strive to provide every child, regardless of background and home life, at least one unrelated adult in his/her life who can provide good direction and model a healthy adult life. We guarantee that every child will have access to a place where every person is put in place to honor the needs of that child first and foremost – not profits, productivity, or the good of the institution.

American public schools collect everything there is to love and hate about our culture. American public schools openly display everything that is beautiful and everything that is broken about us as a people. Our flowers and our warts are on clear display for all to see.

Given all that, American public schools capture all that is random and chaotic and unpredictable about life. American public schools is the incubator of American values, morality, character, and human decency. They are democracy in action – messy, tumultuous, acrimonious, pessimistic, idealistic, inefficient, hopeful, dogmatic, ugly, glorious, optimistic, joyous, striving, triumphant, advancing, spirited, exhausting, reborn again and again and again.

As teachers, we know that we will leave a mark on the future, but we rarely know how. The events and special moments for which we build and plan vanish into our students’ pasts like a fleeting puff of wind, even as we discover that a few simple words you spoke decades ago have become a treasured guidepost in someone’s journey.

I believe in public education. While it as an expression of best and worse of our national character, it also represents our collective hope for a brighter and more prosperous future for our state and nation. A better America.

I believe there is nothing so incredible and so powerful as watching unique young people from diverse backgrounds learning side-by-side, finding their way to a greater understanding of themselves and each other, finding their path in the world, learning to be an integral part of this collective we call America, while retaining their uniqueness and special value.

Nothing else compares. Nothing.  American public schools will never be good enough for some in our society. We will never be a neatly manicured, efficiently unified system because America will never be that kind of country. That’s okay. It’s not a flaw; it’s what makes our nation special and worthy of emulation.

So, yes, maybe those of us who advocate for public education are simply “playing on” while the ship of public education begins to list and take on water.  Maybe it is a futile exercise, akin to rearranging the chairs on the ship while it sinks.

There may be a time in the not-so-distant future when I bid you all adieu and tell you, “Gentlemen, it’s been a privilege playing with you tonight,” while scurrying to capture a  seat on the lifeboat.

Yet, tonight is not that night. I have not yet “been drowned into silence” and (God willing) I hope I have many more songs in me yet to play.

I hope you do, too. Because it your music and what you do to nurture the lives of children every day that keep me going.

So, together, let’s keep playing our music, even if it is sometimes drowned out by a cacophony of negative voices and naysayers. The hell with them. Let’s play louder and maybe add some cowbell!