Category Archives: Current Affairs

Fakes, Facts, and the Hardest Lessons to Teach

I was numbly scrolling through Facebook a recent morning when one of those infographic-ish memes appeared. Of course, since it was in my feed, it aligned with the political leanings that my clicks and likes had already communicated to the Facebook algorithms, and in my pre-coffee state I found myself hovering over the “share” button.

I had to pause, though. Even though I wanted (desperately) to believe that the political statement being made in the meme was true (hint: it had to do with golf trips and certain federal budget items), I wasn’t sure. I didn’t see any sources linked, I didn’t know who the creator of the meme was, and I didn’t want to spend a ton of time researching its veracity. I did anyway, and after about three minutes of research it turned out that this particular meme had its number off by about 100 times and misrepresented the nature of the budget in question. Darn those pesky alternative facts.

While I didn’t click “share,” that nugget of information, despite being proven false, is now lodged in the schema that I bring to political conversations in the near future. I will have to very intentionally not use it as I form my arguments to support my political positions. That will be hard, because meme-depth facts are what it seems most political conversations resort to anymore.

We hear plenty about Fake News nowadays. Fake News is to critical thinking what super-sized fast food is to our diet: It is convenient, appears to look more or less like it’s authentic counterpart, and satisfies a need. Yes, a flawed analogy if extended completely, but there are valid parallels about the long term health of both individuals and the community. In particular, a good parallel is that the amount of comparable effort it takes to systematically deconstruct and discount Fake News is as seemingly insurmountable as making seismic shifts to unhealthy diet habits. If the latter were easy, we’d all be fit and healthy; if the former were easy, Fake News would be a nonissue.

How do we teach “quick” critical thinking? How do we teach students to resist the temptation of our confirmation biases? How do we teach that facts aren’t established by clicks, shares, or re-tweets…and that our own opinions don’t trump facts just because our opinions are our own?

Forget Common Core. This is the great pedagogical challenge of the next phase of my career.


Image Source

Brave New World: Choice Among Alphas

In Aldous Huxley’s early-mid 20th century novel Brave New World, society is medically engineered into five rigid castes. At the top are the Alphas, the genetically and socially gifted; at the other end are the Epsilons, those beings human in form but relegated to work in service to the higher castes.

I used this novel in my Senior Lit and Comp class as one of the works we’d explore while understanding the basics of literary criticism. Brave New World was an excellent study in how to apply a Marxist literary perspective when examining a work of literature. This literary perspective involves looking both within and beyond the world of literature: through the “external” perspective, considering the novel (the physical book itself) as a product within a socio-economic system; through the “internal” perspective, considering the social and economic hierarchies within the story, highlighting the conflict between those who have economic or social power and those who lack it.

We currently seem to live in a world of hyperbole-turned-reality, so I’ll dip my toe in that water: The proposed repeal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (HR 610) is a systematic move to cement social castes maintained not by physical engineering as in Brave New World, but rather, by culling and sorting who is bestowed access to education. Where in the novel it benefits the higher castes to keep the lower castes physically controlled, in our world that control becomes control over access to information and education.

The purpose isn’t even hidden. HR 610 isn’t about serving all students: It states from the outset that it is only serving “eligible students,” which is openly defined in the bill as students whose parents elect to homeschool or send their child to a private school.

Further, under the guise of providing this “choice,” this bill undoes protections for disabled students as established in ESEA. It takes steps toward eliminating school lunch programs for low income students. It pretends that it is creating “choices in education.” When we look at who ends up with the power to choose, it is quite clear that this bill has zero interest in providing a free, quality education to all. If it did, the solution would be invest heavily in improving outcomes for all participants in the system, not just for those who want to get away from “those failing schools” through the power to choose one supposed option over another (even though there is growing evidence that non-public schools in the the choice model being proposed don’t actually serve kids better than traditional public schools).

Public education should be focused less on choices privileged adults are offered and more on equipping every young person with full access to ample choices upon becoming an adult. I want every graduate from my school to have the foundation from which he or she can choose virtually any path: university, work, trade school, family…and not feel locked out of any choice because of some action their guardian did or didn’t take when it came time to seek a supposed golden ticket (hollow promise).

Public education should be about empowering those who are born into situations which, for reasons beyond that little child’s control, place that child at a disadvantage in the face of societal systems constructed for the majority race, majority gender, and majority culture. The vision of the American Dream (a Dream never yet realized), with America as a place of opportunity, once included that those in the majority would use their collective power to ensure that those in the minority progress toward freedom from personal and institutional oppression…so that all those American promises remain possibilities.

Whether this bill dies a quick death or not, it is beyond clear that the potential for public education as a societal equalizer is a threat to those in power. HR 610 is not about helping all kids. Period.

Funding Gifted Education

I am one of three teachers in my school who teach in a self-contained Highly Capable (HC) classroom. We have a common math period, and when math class starts it’s a moment or two of scramble. Some of my students go to Mrs. Taylor’s. Some of Mrs. Taylor’s and Mrs. Fairchild’s come to me. Some of mine go to computers in the hall to work independently.

The three of us share one hour of paraeducator time that we use during math wherever we deem we most need the help. This year our paraeducator is working with the younger students.

A couple weeks ago I met with our program director and mentioned that next year our paraeducator would have at least six students in seventh grade math. No worries—she has worked with a small group of advanced students in seventh grade math before, and she actually prefers that assignment.

My administrator told me not to count on having any paraeducator time next year.

Now I’ve taught in the HC program in our district since 1989. We’ve always had help for math. After all, we have three teachers working with students on levels from grade three to grade seven or eight. Having one extra adult makes the groups manageable.

But next year there might not be enough money to make that possible. For the first time ever.

Trust me, I’m concerned about state funding for Highly Capable programs.

Eight years ago only 49% of the districts in the state of Washington had any programs at all for their gifted students, their Highly Capable programs. In those districts that actually had programs, most provided services just for students in grades three to five. Why those grades? Most districts didn’t do the testing to identify students until the end of second grade, so schools didn’t start services until third grade. And most districts (or the secondary schools in the districts) felt they offered enough variety at the secondary level that they didn’t need HC services past fifth grade.

During the 2008-2009 school year the legislature passed the Basic Education Act, and everything changed for HC education in Washington. HB 2261 stated that “for highly capable students, access to accelerated learning and enhanced instruction is access to a basic education”—and it said “the program for highly capable students … shall be categorical funding” (HB 2261, page 63, lines 21-23, and page 64, lines 2-4).

The legislature decreed that having an appropriate HC education was Basic Education for HC students! And the funding for HC students was to be treated the same way as the funding for ELL and LAP students. Hallelujah! All roads were now smooth!

Of course, we all know what an unfunded mandate is. Welcome to the world of gifted education.

Running the programs for half the districts in the state, and just a handful of grade levels at that, cost $43,471,005 in 2008-2009. The state allocation that year—before Highly Capable was required—was   $8,367,000. That means the state paid 19.2% of the cost of HC education that year.

By last year, 2015-16, the state allocated $10,001,000. The funds for HC have gone up about 19.5% since 2000-2009. But, remember, the number of grades served has more than quadrupled. And the number of districts receiving funds has doubled. The state increase in HC funds is laughably low.

Districts have started solving the lack of state funding by identifying fewer HC students. What’s wrong with identifying fewer students? The insidious problem is, the students who are less likely to get identified are students from low income groups, minorities, ELL students, dual-identified or twice-exceptional students (gifted and another identification—think HC with a 504 or IEP). Narrowing the focus, limiting the pool, becomes an equity issue, an issue addressed last week at the Equity Summit on Gifted Equity at the Robinson Center at the University of Washington. And we are back to making HC education look like an elitist program.

Sigh.

Every proposal, from the governor, the House, and the Senate, offers some improvement in HC allocation. The question is, do any of the proposals actually fully fund the costs of HC in the st
ate?

Trust me, my students desperately need the help they get. Not just in math. They deserve materials appropriate for their level in every subject, just like any other special needs group. They require teachers who are trained to meet not only their academic but their unique social and emotional needs. And their number one need must be met on a regular basis—quality time with their intellectual peers.

The state requires districts to treat HC students like they matter. Now the state has to provide the money for their education.

SB 5607: Weighted Per Pupil Funding Model

There’s an old saying “money won’t solve problems” but usually that’s said by someone who owns a house, has a car, and isn’t worried about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Washington State isn’t the worse at funding public education but it’s not part of the top ten in the country.
Needless to say, if the Washington State Legislature was fully funding education, we wouldn’t be in the midst of a lawsuit (see McCleary breakdown).

The recently released Senate Republican’s bill SB 5607 tries to address concerns about funding education by including a brief discussion of levies and an extensive description of weighted per pupil funding. I am not an expert in these matters but I think it’s important for all educators to try to engage with these issues.

A little bit of context:
First, in order to think about school funding it’s necessary to realize that levies are a significant factor. As Highline Public Schools explains it, “Levies are for learning. Bonds are for building.” Thus, levies include everything from staffing (teachers, instructional aids, nurses, librarians, etc.) to supplies like books, computer upgrades, athletics, and arts, depending on what a district has rolled into its levy. It is all this “stuff” that is usually used to calculate what a district pays out in their per pupil costs (have you seen this incredible map?!).

Hypothetically, a district’s funding looks something like this pie chart, but every district has a unique set of concerns exacerbated by its location (urban, rural, suburban), its economic stability (employment rates, etc.), and the needs of its students. Thus, some districts rely on roughly 20% of their budget coming from levies while others might rely on as much as 25%.

Second, when we say “per pupil expenditures” we basically mean how much money it “costs” to educate this child. This can include a gamut of things and–from what I understand–might include a portion of a teacher’s salary or costs for programs to mitigate special needs.

I took a dive into Part I: Weighted per Pupil Funding Model of SB 5607 and when I came up for air here are a few of the things that stood out to me. I figure a pros/cons list is one of the easiest ways to address this.

The Pros: A stated focus on equity.

  • In the setup of the case for equity is laid out explicitly. “The legislature further finds that the current system unfairly drives more money to wealthier districts, on a per pupil basis, for low-income, special education, and transitional bilingual students than to poor districts.” I appreciate this because while most classroom teachers understand inequity in education funding, it often seems like those who inform education policy do not.
  • The term “equity” and “inequities” are weaved throughout the document. This again stands out to me because often in education so much of this system is set around standards of fairness and equality when in fact we need equity. Some school districts or schools within a district need different allocations of funds so that students can be served.
  • As someone who teachers AP Language and Composition, word choice matters. I love that the stated objectives of this section of the budget is to provide ampleness, dependability, equity, and transparency.

The Cons: A heap of unanswered but important questions.

  • While the objectives are clearly stated, as I read through the budget I continue to ask myself is this budget really ample, dependable, equitable, and transparent? At times the numbers don’t seem to add up.
  • Where are the additional dollars for schools coming from? This isn’t clearly outlined.
  • How will districts and schools be held accountable for new money, including what are the accountability measures for ensuring money is spent where it is supposed to be?
  • Since it seems we are creating a new system, how will district personnel be trained in the new system?
  • Since the Senate budget calls for additional funding for special populations of students (ex. ELL, Special Education) can students be counted more than once? For example, will a student be counted as ELL + Poverty + Highly Capable? Is this in-line with the objectives of ample, dependable, equitable, and transparent?
  • Are there other special populations (no mention of foster kids anywhere) that are missing or will they be added later–if so, when and by whom?
  • What about equity within a school district? If the money goes to the district, but say most of the students with “additional funds” attend one or two schools, how will it be ensured that the money will follow them to that specific school?

There is much to consider in this budget proposal. I encourage you to do your own research, pose more questions for us to ponder, and read this clear, succinct analysis of SB 5607 released by the Equity in Education Coalition last week.

Right to Strike

The education funding bill from the Washington Senate, SB 5607, includes a section prohibiting teacher strikes.

When I heard about this provision, my first question was, “What does the right to strike have to do with an education budget?”

The answer, of course, is nothing. Look at the League of Education Voters’ comparison chart of four funding proposals side-by-side: the current state education funding levels, Governor Inslee’s Education Funding Proposal, the Majority Coalition Caucus Education Funding Proposal (SB 5607), and the House Democrat Education Funding Proposal (HB 1843). There is no mention of right to strike in any of the other proposals. That’s because having the right to strike has nothing to do with funding.

So I double checked. Was this Senate bill actually a funding bill? Of course it was. Up at the top of the bill, it says it was “referred to the Committee on Ways and Means.” It’s a bona fide budget bill.

Some senators decided that—on the way to rewriting how to fund education—they would also add this change in how teachers can protect themselves.

Take a minute to read the text of this section.

PART XI 2 PROHIBITING TEACHER STRIKES

NEW SECTION. Sec. 1101. The legislature finds that, like other state and local public employees, educational employees do not have a legally protected right to strike. No such right existed at common law, and none has been granted by statute. The legislature further finds, as have numerous trial court decisions and the Washington state attorney general in AGO 2006 No. 3, that any argument that a right to strike is implied by the absence of a provision in chapter 10 41.59 RCW is wrong. The legislature intends to provide greater clarity to parents and school districts by prohibiting strikes, work stoppages, or work slowdowns or other refusal to perform official duties.

NEW SECTION. Sec. 1102. A new section is added to chapter 41.59 RCW to read as follows:

Nothing contained in this chapter permits or grants any educational employee

  • the right to strike,
  • participate in work stoppages or work slowdowns,
  • or to otherwise refuse to perform his or her official duties.

(Highlighting and bullets are mine).

I don’t know about you, but when I read this section, my heart just stopped.

Right now I am in the middle of teaching about colonial America to my class of fifth graders. We talk about indentured servants who came to America. They paid for their passage by working for their masters for seven years. Essentially, for those seven years, they were the equivalent of slaves. They had no rights. If they were lucky, they had a good master. If they were unlucky, they didn’t. But they had no recourse. They were stuck for those seven years.

No right to strike? No work to contract? (That would definitely count as a work slowdown!) No saying no to evening work or early morning or after school meetings? (A principal could call those “official duties.”)

No effective way to make our voices heard?

I read that Senate bill passage and immediately felt like an indentured servant. Like I had traveled back in time to the 1600s.

No, thank you!

I find it interesting that the senators who wrote this bill said their intention in including this section was to “provide greater clarity to parents and school districts.” They act as if teachers’ strikes cause the greatest problems for parents and districts.

True, parents have it hard when teachers go on strike. Their children aren’t in school. They have to arrange childcare. I’ve been amazed, though, at the level of support many parents give striking teachers—perhaps because they know best what the teachers are doing in the classrooms with and for their children.

If the teachers are striking against their districts, I am sure their districts are deeply unhappy. But I guarantee the teachers are deeply unhappy too. Teachers don’t go on strike lightly. Whenever I read about districts out on strike, I think about how much time those teachers must have spent working through every other option to come to an agreement. I think about how they have struggled through other procedures, without success, to arrive at the difficult and taxing step of striking.

I don’t buy the legislature’s sly claim, though. My district has participated in two “strike” events in the 28 years I’ve lived in Washington. Neither time was our action aimed at our district.

Both times we protested against the legislature.

By the way, both times we walked out for a one-day strike, we had the support, not just of the parents in our district, but of our administration as well. After all, our district administrators were just as upset with the legislature as the teachers were!

I think the senators added this section to their budget to protect themselves! They are threatened by the media coverage when masses of teachers show up on the Capitol steps.

I say we need to keep showing up until we get the issues resolved. Because that’s our JOB. We are, after all, educators. We have an obligation to educate, not just the students in our classroom, but the adults who impact them. The school board. The public.

The legislature.

Because I went back to read the beginning of the Senate bill, I discovered this opening line: “GOAL. The goal of this act is to improve the educational outcomes for all students.”

That’s a great goal! We promise to stand right there next to you, senators, holding your feet to the fire, making sure you live up to that commitment.

SSB 5607: Budgets, Salary, and Bargaining

A notable change in SSB 5607, the Senate’s proposal around education funding, involves how money allocations to districts are determined.

As this summary describes, SSB 5607 swaps the prototypical school funding model (based on staff to student ratios, staff salary allocation levels, plus other allocation costs) for a straight per-pupil funding model. Under SSB 5607, per-student funding from all local, state, and federal sources must meet a minimum of $12,500, with augmentations for certain subgroups such as homeless students and special education students.

That then leaves the determination of teacher salaries to local bargaining: Part V, Section 501 of the bill (page 46 here) grants local districts the authority to determine the certificated salary schedules, and explicitly eliminates the statewide salary allocation model starting in 2018-19. There is also a direct prohibition against local salary schedules providing “salary increases based on a master’s or other advanced degree that is not in the subject area in which the individual teaches.” (Which, quite frankly, is ludicrous, as it appears to justify de-recognition of Masters Degrees in education…unless I am reading it incorrectly, which I hope I am.) Also worthy of noticing is the clear designation in Section 503 that no more than 80% of total district expenditures may go to salary and benefits. The same section also sets the minimum salary for full-time teachers at $45,000, a bump from the current bottom tier ($35,700) but well short of Governor Inslee’s proposed budget, which places base pay at over $54,000 once implemented.

In an apparent effort to recognize differences in cost of living throughout the state, Section 504 also creates provisions for a “housing allowance” to be provided, based on a “regional cost factor,” to certificated employees in districts with the assessed value of real-estate property exceeds the state average.

All of this gets accomplished by rolling back local levy authority to a lid of 10% and creating a state-wide property tax levy of $1.80 per $1000 of assessed value.

On the surface, base teacher pay is increased and a regional cost-of-living is ostensibly addressed positively, and collective bargaining of salary at the local level is maintained. Knowing these policymakers’ past positions on teacher compensation and collective bargaining rights, I can’t help but get the sense that I’m missing something…something big and ugly and destructive.

I am concerned that by providing some small details that seem to be positives, we are being distracted from this proposal’s ultimate failure to address the larger picture. The reshuffling of allocation models (back to per-student, which I think Washington abandoned a few decades ago) doesn’t make clear whether there is a net increase in overall school funding. There’s also that $12,500 per-student number, which makes it seem like an increase from the current per-student funding (which hovers shy of 10K), but includes all revenue sources local, state, and federal. To me, that’s a sneaky way of keeping the state-provided funding low, all the while imposing limits on local authority to raise much needed additional revenue.

I also worry that the gesture of locally bargaining salary schedules obscures the fact that locals will be bargaining over what ends up being a much smaller pot of resources, particularly given that hard cap of 80% mentioned above. Sure, we might get to bargain from a higher base ($45,000), but the result is that keeping class sizes reasonable and maintaining key services to kids will mean that while the bottom has been raised, the top of the schedule will likely have to be lowered. My prediction: the real effect will be lower average teacher salaries, higher average class sizes, and overworked education staff assistants who already face caseloads that are unmanageable. Maintaining local bargaining power is a plus, but it feels like a pacifying gesture toward unions, since bargaining over fewer resources is a huge step backward.

This is all incomprehensibly messy and complicated…not to mention political and emotional. There are a few premises that I can get behind, but what keeps me from being in support of this is that the numbers are simply too low and that from what I can find so far there is zero evidence that this proposal actually improves the overall funding climate for students in the state of Washington. In fact, it potentially serves very well to distract us from that larger climate.

Sadly, I have grown to have little faith that our policymakers actually want to build and preserve a high quality education system in our state. Of course they’ll all say they do: But in action via bills and budgets, it seems pretty clear to me that public education…and the stronger economic and social future it helps to lay a foundation for…is not a true priority. SSB 5607 appears to continue the trend of expecting results the state is unwilling to pay for.


Horse’s Mouth Resources un-mediated by any news-outlet or teacher-blogger interpretation:

  • SSB 5607…in it’s full glory. If you’re like me, these can make for challenging reading, but I believe it is important to look directly at the proposed language if we’re going to also use summaries and opinion pieces to help form our positions… kind of like in my classroom: I tell my students I’m okay with them reading the Sparknotes and online reviews, provided they ALSO read the full original text as well.
  • A non-partisan summary of the bill, with definitions of terms, as well as PRO and CON statements.

Image source

National Board Bonus and SB 5607

National Board Certification serves multiple purposes for teachers in Washington.  Like teachers in every state, the National Board Certification process provides a structure that teachers can use to analyze and reflect about their practice.  Unlike every state, in Washington, teachers can enroll and certify through the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards as a way to earn second tier certification, a requirement for thousands of teachers in our state.

The Washington State Senate just passed Senate Bill 5607 and this bill is now in the House. 5607 seeks to meet our state’s need to fully fund basic education.  Buried on page 51 and 52 of the bill is a provision that eliminates the state paid bonus and instead offers ,“ A school district board of directors may provide a bonus to a certificated instructional staff person who has attained certification from the national board for professional teaching standards.”   For the 6000 NBCTs in our state and the hundreds that are currently in process, this single sentence creates serious anxiety.  According to data provided by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, twenty four states do not offer any state level compensation for National Board Certification.  Of those twenty four states, fourteen have 1% or fewer NBCTs in their state.   For those states dedicating an annual bonus of $4000 or more, the percentage of NBCTs in the state rises dramatically.  In Washington, 15% of our teachers are NBCTs.  Two other states rival our percentage.  South Carolina offers a similar state wide bonus ($5000 per year) and 18% of their teachers are NBCTs.  North Carolina, 21% of their teachers are NBCTs, pairs National Board Certification with their state salary schedule. NBCTs receive 12% above base pay.   Simply put, states with higher stipends have a larger percentage of NBCTs.  

The removal of the state paid bonus will place pressure on local school districts to pay these stipends.  Yet, with lack of clarity around how schools will be funded, it becomes even more unclear how districts will be able to fund stipends.  Districts that allocate funds to replace the state stipend will inevitably find themselves with a larger proportion of NBCTs than districts that are unable.  This feature will create more inequality between districts, not less.  In areas with several school districts to choose from, NBCTs will likely consider whether they can afford to  remain in a district that cannot support a stipend.  Locally bargained stipends will create competition between districts for these accomplished teachers.  Simply put, the goal of lawmakers in our state should not be to create this level of competition between districts.

When I began my National Board journey in 2004, there was a small bonus associated with certification.  I was in my first five years of teaching and that bonus absolutely incentivized the large amount of work that the process presented.  When the bonus increased, more teachers sought certification.  These teachers have demonstrated that they:

  • Are committed to students and their learning
  • Know the subjects they teach and how to teach them to students
  • Are responsible for managing and monitoring student learning
  • Think systemically about their practice and learn from experience
  • Are members of learning communities*

These teachers ordered their financial lives around the promise that our lawmakers would honor their accomplishments.  If the goal is to retain quality teachers in the classroom, then perhaps the legislature should reconsider this provision in SB 5607.  

 

 

*The Five Core Propositions found at http://www.nbpts.org/five-core-propositions

Bully Culture

Next year I will be returning part time to the classroom after a two-year hiatus as a new-teacher induction mentor (plus other duties as assigned). I will be returning with new strategies and ideas I’ve amassed from being able to observe and coach so many colleagues. More than that, I’ll be returning with a new mission, so to speak.

Many people have claimed that the election of President Donald Trump has given validation and permission for aggressive, disrespectful, and bullying language and behavior. Schools all over the nation have cited an increase in behavior where individuals in positions of real or perceived power have exercised this power to oppress, humiliate, intimidate, or undermine those over whom they felt somehow superior or powerful.

These power dynamics have a history far deeper than the 2016 election cycle. While Trump’s election took many in my own little echo chamber people by surprise, if we deconstruct the segments of the electorate who supported Trump, level headed thinkers of all political persuasions can acknowledge that a fundamental sense of powerlessness drove at least some proportion of the population to see Trump’s bravado as a means for reclaiming power. Powerlessness of one group or another is unfortunately woven into the very fabric of our history, and it just so happens that the current cohort feeling powerless actually turned out to be powerful enough to buoy someone into office who spoke directly to that void.

Through my years as a teacher and coach, in nearly every instance that I’ve responded to bullying language or behavior, as I’ve engaged with the “bully,” I’ve learned about their deep sense of powerlessness in some place of their life. Generalizing from real examples here, but the 9th grade bully always picking on the scrawny kid eventually reveals to me that he is frustrated by his own inability to succeed in school; the 10th grade girl known for vicious online peer-evisceration ends up revealing that she feels she has no sense of personal power because of what her parents say about her and do to her.

This is no profound new idea. It is Interpersonal Dynamics 101 and in each child psychology textbook. Bullying behavior is often an attempt to fill some personal power void.

As I look at how schools have attempted to deal with bullying over the years, much has been focused on the “don’t bully, be kind” approach. That’s great, but it is only part of the answer. I think we need to also talk more openly about power and powerlessness.

That’s the great thing about being a literature teacher: Literature lets us study humanity as a third point, and in doing so we can better understand ourselves and our society. Every work of fiction I’ve ever taught (and in fact even much of the poetry and nonfiction) has clearly visible in it dynamics rooted in a differential of real or perceived power.

I will say that the events of our presidential election have rekindled my sense of urgency in helping students consider deeply the inequality of power that is so entrenched in our society that. My mission is to help adolescents peel away a fundamentally flawed assumption that we often make about ourselves, bias and our society: As Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald describe in the book Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, we assume that inequality and power differentials are simply an inevitable and unalterable law of nature, and that these differentials exist because of some deep truth about those who occupy different stations of power.

Through my teaching of literature, now more than ever I believe it will be important to examine how power and powerlessness contribute to a story’s central conflict so that perhaps we can better understand how it also exists as the core of nearly all of our society’s central conflicts. I believe it will be more important than ever to help my adolescent students explore where in their own lives and in our broader culture they are bestowed or refused power, even if they don’t necessarily recognize or want to acknowledge it (the very blind spot at the core of the book linked above).

I hope to help my students consider those stations where they have power how they use it, as well as how their sense of powerlessness ripples inward or outward toward other moments of their lives. I do think we’ve always lived in a bully culture. Like any pattern of human interaction, it has ebbed and flowed. We in public education have the opportunity to arm young people with the knowledge and skills to turn the tide.


Image Source: Wikimedia commons

School Choice

I’m getting a new student tomorrow. I haven’t met him yet, but I’ve met his discipline record, and it’s staggering. He’s packed more misbehavior into his short life than most of us commit in a lifetime. Not only that, but academically he’s at least three years below the rest of my class.

Before school I’m going to meet with my new student, along with his mom, the principal, the assistant principal, the dean of students, the school counselor, the learning support team and the para-educator who will work with him one-on-one throughout the entire school day. We’ll review his IEP and work with the behavior plan established at his old school in a way that fits the resources and capacity of ours.

How do I feel about my new student?

It would be easy to resent his arrival and fret over the possibility that he’ll disrupt the carefully constructed learning community that I’ve established. I could easily wonder “Why me?” and look for every opportunity to kick him out of the classroom, perhaps for good.

But I’m optimistic. I sincerely want the best for this little guy, and I honestly believe that my classroom will be the best place for him.  I want to work with my team to make this situation successful. I want desperately for him to look back in ten years and see his fourth grade year as a turning point.

And trust me, he will.

Coincidentally, our next Secretary of Education will spend tomorrow explaining herself to the Senate Education Committee. She’ll tell them about the wonderful things she’s done as a billionaire philanthropist in her home state of Michigan.

Most of those things involve pushing the agenda of school choice. School choice advocates want to increase the number of charter schools and they want parents to use vouchers to enroll their children in private schools using tax money that would otherwise have been used for a public school education.

Charter schools and vouchers can be great for those families who take advantage of them. Although many don’t, some charter schools outperform non-charter public schools serving the same population. Some private schools do, as well.

But not everyone gets to go to those charter schools and private schools. And sometimes those schools decide that certain students “aren’t a good fit” for their school. And those students get to go back to the regular public school, a school that has no choice but to accept that student and goes out of its way to accommodate him or her. The kids who do stay at those schools stand to benefit when the “misfits” leave. Their classrooms are quieter and there’s nobody slowing them down.

And if that wasn’t unfair enough, the charter schools and private schools then get to brag about how their schools are outperforming the nearby public schools. Even when they aren’t.

I wish Betsy DeVos (and her boss) nothing but the best. She is, after all, about to be running the federal department that oversees my profession. And he’s going to be president. But I want both of them to remember that public schools are not just the default choice for those waiting to be rescued. Public schools are, and always have been, thriving communities that enthusiastically and effectively serve every kid who happens to live nearby.

Including my new student.

Inslee’s Budget: Making an Investment

I was at a meeting when news started to spread that Governor Jay Inslee had released his budget plan. Of course, the thing that grabbed most people’s attention was the significant bump in pay for teachers. I noted, however, the difficult reality of his budget that our state has not yet come to terms with: In order to achieve the services we expect from public schools, we need to secure new revenue either through additional taxes or closing of loopholes. Inslee’s proposal includes four billion new dollars to be invested in public schools. Simply put, Inslee realizes that fixing our system means we can’t just shuffle line items within the current revenue structure.

In the real world, fixing things pretty much always costs money. Sometimes it even costs money you don’t yet have.

A couple of years ago on a Sunday afternoon in March, I was sitting in my living room, grading student essays. Suddenly, a sound like a fighter jet landing in my front yard started to shake my house, and then BOOM. This:

A freak spring windstorm leveled a swath of trees and structures in our neighborhood, and took an otherwise healthy (according to the arborist) 50-ft blue spruce and crashed it diagonally across the whole structure of our home. We have homeowners insurance, but between the deductible and some of what insurance didn’t cover, we didn’t have the money to fix it completely. Significant structural damage, eventual water damage from a poor patch job from the lowest-cost emergency board-up contractor, plus our roofing options being limited to the two plastic tarps I already owned and the one that the fire department donated to us to attempt to minimize water damage all made it clear that this fix was going to require something else than just making do with what we had.

Thankfully, we were able to access additional revenue, so to speak. Friends and family chipped in. I took on (yet another) side job to bring in a little cash. We sold some stuff from the garage. In the end, our house was back to normal almost a year later thanks to these additional resources (and a kind hearted roofer and generous arborist who charged us far less than they should have for work insurance couldn’t cover). The reality is that we were doing fine financially before and certainly accept criticism that we “should have” had more cash socked away for this particular breed of rainy day. The reality was that in the face of a clearly broken structure, “doing the best with what we had” wasn’t going to cut it. We will forever appreciate the people who were willing to give services, muscle, or money to help us fix our home.

I for one greatly appreciate Inslee for aiming so high and being realistic about what it will take to make progress toward strengthening public schools. New tests won’t do it. New requirements won’t do it. Furthering our love affair with accountability won’t do it. Simply demanding teachers to “do better with what they have” is not going to do it either. Fixes, in the real world, often require an investment beyond what we think we can absorb, and sometimes that investment requires more resources being added to the system.

And as for that meeting where word of the Governor’s budget was making the rounds? The reaction of teachers was positive and it had far less to do with more pay than it did with what our Governor’s budget was communicating: He was saying, pure and simple, I am willing to invest in you. 

That’s a good feeling.