Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Clinton vs. Trump: One Teacher's Perspective

I have a lot to say about this election cycle, but I had no intention of doing so here unless the two major candidates put forth an education policy proposal worth noting (either good or bad). That day has come. This piece concerns the education policy proposals of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Below is a description of what this piece is not about. If those are the things you want to rant about, you can move along to a different blustery blogger babe.
This blog post is not about…
  • convincing die-hard Trump voters to vote for someone else. (Notice that I used the term “die-hard.” I’ve given up on them, but I am definitely trying to convert people on the fence or who are on the verge of checking out of the process entirely.) Those die-hard folks have made it clear that nothing Mr. Trump says or does (no matter how childish, ill-informed, or downright inhumane) will change their minds or even give them pause. Nothing shames them. I do not respect the very narrow brand of patriotism to which they subscribe, and I can tell you this: they care nothing for my opinions and have no intention of listening to them in any serious or thoughtful way.
  • defending Hillary Clinton against attacks concerning her alleged dishonesty or corruption. No amount of demonstrable bipartisan evidence of a lack of criminality regarding election fraud, Benghazi, emails, or Vince Foster will convince those folks that the conspiracies they see do not exist. Many people have decided that they are going to think poorly of her on those issues no matter what the truth is, and this indicates an emotional prejudice that facts cannot penetrate. I am not nominating her (or any other political leader) for sainthood any time soon, but I know who the dangerously deceptive and corrupt candidate is in this election, and it’s not her.
  • explaining the education platforms of every single candidate for president. I would never support any Libertarian Party candidate because of that party’s longstanding opposition to the very existence of public education. I do not support any Green Party candidate because that party has, over the course of the past two decades, shifted focus on their key issues so many times as to be vertigo-inducing. I vote based on issues, and I have no idea what Green Party members truly believe other than “not them.” Not voting, for me, is not an option because this is America, someone has to steer the ship, and not voting (although your right), to me, shows a lack of understanding concerning how serious this election is and a lack of civic responsibility.
So now that I’ve started off things with a bang, you may disagree with me on any or all of that. Great. You’re an American and get to think for yourself—and so do I. As with all my previous posts, I will back up my argument with authoritative links to verify my evidence, and I will say exactly what I believe is true.
Now, let’s get to policy. Discussing policy is tricky because, if you don’t love the stuff like I do (and hardly anyone does), it can be tedious. Thus, we need a frame with which to view it. My husband has been obsessed with the text, The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 21st Century Politics with an 18th Century Brain, by George Lakoff, so let’s use that. Lakoff proposes that we can break down all policy (public, corporate, office, even family policies) into two categories: policies created out of respect for Authority and policies created out of respect for Empathy.
Policy Based on Authority
In this framework, people are born essentially “bad” and “out of control” and need competent Authority to show them the right path in life. Therefore, the role of government is to control citizens in a way that guides them to do “good.” Authority understands what is good and evil and can keep us in line with the good; this is fair to everyone because there are clear good behaviors and clear bad behaviors. To be the Authority, one must be good, and self-discipline demonstrates goodness.

Obedience to Authority leads to freedom. Because we are following Authority, we are self-disciplined enough to be entrusted with freedom. Disobedience requires punishment; those who need punishing are acting with evil intent and are not self-disciplined. The good will thrive, and the bad will not. Discipline is a sign of morality; success is a sign of morality.
In education, we have seen the influence of Authority-based policy with a law like the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2002. NCLB started with President Bush and Congress informing schools of what was “good” and “right.” Schools that were viewed as “successful” were self-disciplined and followed the guidance of Authority. Test scores proved a school’s discipline and, thus, morality. Poor test scores indicated that a school had strayed from the disciplined and correct path, so those schools were punished to bring them back into line.

Schools that continually “failed” were stripped of supports sometimes to the point of elimination (i.e., firing everyone) because they must be bad and must contain bad staff to receive those scores.  NCLB provided clear “success” guidelines. Authority-based policies are fundamentally about reward and punishment.
Policy Based on Empathy
In this framework, we view democracy as the result of caring about our fellow citizens. We have a government that intentionally protects individual freedoms for everyone because we empathize with others and want to make sure that everyone has the same necessities for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Therefore, with Empathy, the role of government is to protect citizens and to empower them. Caring for others involves not just kindness and consideration but also responsibility and strength. To care for others is to accept one’s responsibility for them, and leaders must be strong to care for the people in their charge.
In education, schools systems provide care and empathy, but they do this through responsibility and strength.
  • They take responsibility and care for students by providing safe buildings, nurturing classrooms, and caring staff.
  • They empower students by providing a challenging curriculum, educated and resourceful teachers, and relevant technology and programs.
In contrast with the Authority-driven NCLB, the Race to the Top (RTTT) initiative focused more (but not entirely) on Empathy. The Common Core State Standards  (CCSS) that grounded that initiative are reflective of a system that cares for its students. CCSS intentionally gave teachers a great deal of latitude in how to implement those standards in the classroom to maximize that respect for the individual learner. With that empowerment, the CCSS demonstrated a respect for teachers and their ability to tailor instruction for students (respect for teachers as professionals—imagine that).

By writing the standards in a way that is broader (and thus more flexible) than previous state standards, the CCSS empower students to have more choice and voice in learning, challenge them to learn at higher standards, and hold the education system responsible for providing appropriate instruction based on student needs. Importantly, unlike nearly every Authority-based federal education proposal, RTTT provided actual money to states who signed on to the requirements, thus demonstrating an Empathy-inspired sense of federal responsibility to put its money where its mouth is.
Authority does also play a role in RTTT. Because of the RTTT requirement of using the PARCC or Smarter Balanced assessments to measure progress, schools still comply with a standardized assessment of academic progress that Authority views as valid and “good,” regardless of whether it actually is. These scores are not the “be all, end all” for schools to the extent that they were under NCLB (at least not yet), but they are still a major focus for schools and, in states like mine, they are—unfortunately, and to our collective shame—a requirement for high school graduation.

Note the fundamental conflict of enforcing student-centered, Empathy-based instruction with an Authority-based assessment. It would be very difficult to prove the value of those non-standardized instructional practices (which are absolutely the ethical approach with students) with a standardized assessment. The two are in natural conflict, and therein lies our biggest conundrum in education policy today.
That last paragraph may have clued you in to the fact that I lean heavily toward the Empathy side. I am all about standards and expectations (and defend them all the time), but I do not believe in one set of rules for all learners, and I do not believe that any standardized assessment has earned the right to be a graduation requirement or to be the focus of curriculum and instruction.

The very word “standardized” means “one size fits all,” and that is a bullet to the heart of individual learner needs. You cannot serve both of those masters at the same time, and thus one has to choose. I choose meeting individual learner needs and leave the standardized test notion to people whose limited understanding of learning means they only see the world from a “pass/fail” perspective (e.g., myopic government officials who make this stuff a graduation requirement without any proof that these assessments actually show what students know, understand, and are able to do).
Hillary Clinton on Education
So how do Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump fit into all of this? On Hillary Clinton’s website, you will find that she leans toward the Empathy side. She provides written explanations of her ideas, and some of the key tenets of her education stance include
  • expanding early child education programs,
  • making college debt-free,
  • expanding technology use in schools,
  • repairing crumbling school facilities, and
  • creating new forms of training and professional development for teachers.
Each of these ideas empowers students by providing them with greater opportunities and resources.
In the area of protection, Clinton’s education policy also
  • explains the connection between a strong economy and education,
  • requires a tougher approach to sexual assault on college campuses, and
  • reforms school discipline policies that unwittingly foster a school-to-prison pipeline effect.
Each of these ideas protects students by ensuring their physical safety and shows the sense of responsibility she believes the government has toward children. Empathy. Protection. Empowerment. Responsibility. This is how a guiding philosophy like Empathy takes shape in the form of policy.
That said, I don’t kid myself that she has no Authority in her. Clinton was active both during her Arkansas years and during her husband’s presidency in promoting the Standards Movement, the initiative that led us to instructional standards and standardized testing in the first place. But those pieces are no longer the focus of her platform, and that in and of itself is very interesting. Like her speech at the Democratic National Convention, her stated policy proposals suggest a sensitivity to the fact that few parents (voters) believe in the standardized testing paradigm in which we have abused (yes, I said abused) kids for the past 15 years. Her focus now is on protecting and empowering students, and she accepts the federal government’s responsibility in that regard. Nonetheless, Authority will certainly be a part of actual policy (Authority typically makes its big move further down the legislative road, when crafting regulations to fit policy), and finding the right balance of that will be crucial.
Donald Trump on Education
One of the reasons I haven’t written about these issues before is because Mr. Trump has been quite vague on the issue of education. He has no written education proposal, but on a video on his website, he lists these items as his education priorities:
  • Education decisions must be made at the local level.
  • Common Core must go.
Note that he provides this information in a video clip that is less than a minute long and provides no details about either of these positions. So analyzing what he really means is a challenge. About two weeks ago, however, he gave the closest thing to an education policy speech he has given so far while campaigning. In that speech, he added the following elements:
  • He proposed spending $20 billion in federal government block grants (i.e., vouchers) so that children in low-income areas can attend private schools (although states would not be required to use the money for that purpose).
  • He proposed promoting the growth of charter schools.
This information demonstrates that Mr. Trump clearly falls on the Authority side of education policy. Public schools are “bad,” so to fix them, students should be given the money to leave them (vouchers), businesses should be hired to run them (charter schools), and local education agencies should make the decisions surrounding them (the abolishment of national standards like the CCSS and the $20 billion in discretionary federal monies to states). The abandonment of public schools inherent in these ideas shows that he believes that federal money and authority should follow the reward-and-punishment mentality. I have a problem with that.
For decades now, advocates of Authority-based education policy have fixated on two ideas that, although advocated by people with good intentions, have some sinister roots and consequences.
1.     Vouchers: Proponents of school vouchers argue that public schools are a mess, private schools are great, and thus public money should involve a “choice” component so that parents can take their tax dollars and apply them to whatever school they like (public or private). These proponents believe that all private schools are better than all public schools despite all evidence to the contrary (see this study commissioned by Mr. Vouchers himself, George W. Bush, that embarrassingly disproved his theory about public vs. private education). Under the veil of “choice,” vouchers seek to abandon public responsibility for education and give public money to private entities without requiring them to meet any public standards of accountability.
2.    Charter schools: Proponents of charter schools believe that private companies would do a better job of managing schools than governments do. Parents, in turn, often perceive any charter school as better than any regular public school and clamor for their kids to attend them despite the clear evidence to the contrary (see this analysis of the ongoing charter school data spin-doctoring). The fact of the matter is that few charter schools do a better job than their regular public school counterparts. This charter concept advocates giving public money to private companies with much less accountability than regular public schools must navigate.
When it comes to Mr. Trump’s stance on local control, I do not wholly disagree with him. Local control is an important part of public school governance, and you may have read my thoughts on our current governor’s recent mistakes in this regard. That said, local control involves a balance among power and responsibility; it’s not “all or none.” Under the law, federal, state, and local governments all share part of the public education pie, and that is a logistical and financial necessity. I have no problem with national standards like CCSS because we tried state standards under NCLB, and the state-to-state variations were a fiasco. Honestly, if I thought for one minute that Mr. Trump had ever read or understood the CCSS, then maybe I could take him seriously on this topic. The fact of the matter is that, as with his policy positions on nearly everything else, Mr. Trump’s education policy suggests not only that he does not understand the complexities of these issues; they show that he does not care about them either and has given them no time or thought.
His public policy statements on education amount to three chants that he believes will appeal to what has sadly become the Tea Party base of the Republican Party:
  • Yes vouchers!
  • Yes charter schools!
  • No Common Core!
His lack of depth and detail on these policies show the laziest approach to education that a candidate could take. He proposes no new thinking, no reasoning for his position, and no acknowledgement of specific problems facing education. He presumably felt he needed to say something about education, so he said as little as he could with the tiniest crib notes possible. Each of these three items is solidly on the Authority side of policy with no nuance or balance with Empathy at all (note that unidentified standardized test scores are the rationale he touts for his opinions in the video). Students and their needs are nowhere. Policy does not interest him. The needs of the average citizen do not interest him. Nothing interests him but the care and feeding of his considerable ego. He wants to dominate.
He is solely Authority. Punishment. Control.
So who’s the better education president? I do not agree with everything Hillary Clinton has ever done concerning schools, and I am not likely to agree with everything she does during the course of her [fingers crossed] presidency. What is clear to me as a voter, a mother, and a teacher is that her public record shows a lifelong commitment to children’s rights here and abroad and to improving schools because she sees the "long game" where this country is concerned. Whether you like her or not (something that, by the way, should not be a factor in hiring someone for this job), she has a proven track record in complex policy understanding and experience, and this knowledge enables her to create legislation that achieves goals. Her approach will be a mix of Authority and Empathy that leans in the Empathy direction, as policy concerning children should.
Donald Trump does not care about children or the betterment of this nation. He is intellectually disinterested in anything that does not concern his own ruthless quest for power and control. He has no regard for your children or their future, and he’s made that clear not only with his nearly nonexistent stance on education but also with the lack of attention and detail he gives to every other policy issue as well. That’s terrifying. He’s a dangerous man. I love this country, and I care about kids and the future, so my choice is clear. I’m with her.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Enough Already

My husband and I have such a deep affection for a few specific movies that, if one of them appears on our television screen, we drop everything to watch it—no questions asked. These movies include Tremors, The Hunt for Red October, The Departed, Raising Arizona, and the miniseries Band of Brothers (time stands still in our house for Band of Brothers). My favorite among our movie addictions is The Right Stuff, the fantastic story of the Mercury 7 astronauts of the 1950s and 1960s.

In showing each of the astronauts’ first space flights, the movie has several moments of high tension when people may very well die, but the ones that terrify me are space-capsule reentry scenes. Back in 1983, that film taught me that, during a space capsule’s reentry into the earth’s atmosphere, the capsule is essentially a fireball, engulfed in flames as it hurls toward home. Special heat-shielding tiles on the spacecraft keep the astronaut inside from incinerating, but reentry remains the most unnerving part of space flight because if one thing goes wrong…poof. To make matters worse, the spacecraft loses communication with ground control during that part of the mission.

Reentry is scary and solitary. Reentry tests an astronaut’s mettle. Reentry is life on the edge.

When it comes to reentry in the education world, there’s nothing like the first two weeks of the school year to make you feel like you are losing your mind. Summer vacation is a lovely respite from a difficult job, but reentry is rough. Within the course of just a few days, we receive class lists with so many students, so many needs.
  • An algebra class with so many IEPs and 504s that you feel like you’ll never be able to memorize who needs what and when and new technologies available for accommodations that, although fabulous, require training, practice, and especially time that no can spare
  • An honors English 11 class with 30 kids who are already having college-application anxiety attacks and are wound tighter than my back-to-school undergarments
  • A Spanish I class after lunch with so few girls and so many boys who are strung out on lunchtime carbs that you may choke on the testosterone and energy on a daily basis

Besides class lists, we receive so many directives, so many agendas to implement. Each one of these initiatives is do-or-die to the person(s) behind it, but few people realize just how much these things pile up right out of the gate. Here’s a sampling from this year.
  • the new A/B schedule,
  • new county professional development priorities,
  • new school-based professional development structures,
  • new content-area professional development approaches,
  • a new bell schedule,
  • a new revisit period,
  • new hall duties,
  • new grading policy changes,
  • new PowerSchool and Blackboard updates,
  • new curricular changes and modifications,
  • new resources in the classroom (textbooks, Chromebook carts, online resources--you name it)
  • new colleagues to support (whom one does not want to appear manic in front of), and
  • new parameters for lesson planning and teacher evaluation related to all of these other changes.

Then, if you’re really a glutton for punishment, you add items to the list yourself to try to be a better professional or a better person:
  • classroom beautification,
  • making yourself a healthier lunch each day,
  • taking advantage of the offer of after-school workouts with colleagues ("I’ll really do it this time!"),
  • changing how you manage your planning time or with whom you plan,
  • deciding YES, this year I figure out the classroom management stuff that tortures me,
  • coaching a sport this fall,
  • seizing a new teacher leadership opportunity in your building or in the school system, or
  •  maybe switching over to a new planner/calendar system to help you keep it all straight ("A pink one—if it’s pink, I can hold everything in my life together!").

It’s ENOUGH already. I’ve never listed out all that we cover in the first three or four back-to-school professional days like this before. Whoa. The Right Stuff illustrates what this feels like for educators at minute 17:56 on this clip.

So many needs...
So many competing demands...
So many unrealistic expectations...
Never, ever going home with the feeling that you did everything you needed to do that day...
Never, ever living life with the sense of a “job well done” because you will never, ever be assured that all of your students are well, safe, happy, and have what they need at the same time—ever...

You can’t hold it all together. You can’t possibly meet all of these expectations, especially your own. Why are you doing this? This is insane!

You know what? It is insane. You can’t possibly handle all of it at the same time. It’s too much to ask, this job. It always has been, and it always will be. And it’s OK. In fact, your feelings of inadequacy and exasperation show that you have not lost your mind; they show that you still care and are still trying, and that’s enough.

It’s ENOUGH already.

Getting up at the crack of dawn to make your family lunch, put on clean clothes, and drink enough coffee to operate your motor vehicle is enough.

Standing outside your classroom and smiling at your students while saying “Good morning!” to them is enough.

Trying each day to make lessons more engaging, more rigorous, more technologically adept, more organized, and just plain more fun is enough. Even when you fail at all of that, trying is enough. (Star Wars fans, don't listen to Yoda on this point. "Do or do not; there is no try." Yeah, right, dude. No one ever expected you to differentiate instruction for the Jedi, and I bet you never had parent conferences for any of them.) 

Being the person a student comes to when she is sad or hurting herself or adrift in a situation she can’t control because she knows you will try to help her—even when you have no idea how to help her and are figuring it out—is enough.

Creating a new lesson in Blackboard that you are super excited about but is thwarted by a server crash that forces you to punt on one minute’s notice is enough.

Being a consistently kind person in a student’s life is enough.

Giving a troubled student a second chance (and a third and a fourth and a fifth) because maybe no one else in that child’s life will is enough.

Spending your day keeping kids safe, figuring out what they need, and teaching them as well as you can isn’t nothing. In fact, it’s an extraordinarily big deal.

Imagine if you had someone devoting his or her day to making sure that you are safe, to figuring out what you need. Wouldn’t that transform your life? If you do have someone like that in your life, hasn’t that person changed the game for you in every way? That’s what you are doing for kids. You are changing the game. You are changing their lives, one day, one gesture, one kindness, one lesson at a time. And that’s enough.

I’ve written before about the martyr complex that some teachers develop, and the first weeks of school can trigger that mess like nobody’s business. When confronted by all of these stressors every single day, feeling persecuted is an understandable reaction. Feeling powerless is likewise rational. Feeling alone is practically mandatory. But those feelings are not true. Those feelings are lies.

Changing the world is not something that involves superheroes who are impervious to stress and anxiety. Changing the world is one flawed human, one day, one step, one act of intelligence and decency at a time.

You feel alone, but you’re not. Those heat shields on the spacecraft that save the burning capsule have human counterparts in schools. They are your friends, your mentors, your bosses, the teacher next door who walked in and told you how cute your outfit is today. They have all felt exactly as you have—as powerless, as frustrated, as pulled in all directions. But they persevered, and you will, too. Reach out to them. They want to help. Sure, some of them placed many of these demands on you. They, too, are just trying to do a better job and may not see the cumulative effect of it all. Help them to understand, and then ask for help.  

The people at school who feed on your stress, who blame the kids for it, who blame society for it, who blame everyone for their lot in life except for themselves? They’re the ones igniting the flames. They hold the lit match in their hands. They’re the ones trying to blow you up. Look away from those pyromaniacs. Your human heat shields are in place, and they’re enough.

Because of my mostly smiley disposition, some people think that I never have any worries, that I blithely (and blond-ly) coast through life without any of these things ever bothering me. That, too, is a lie. Over these past weeks, I have lost my sense of self a few times, I have been so overwhelmed that I wanted to cry, I have had moments of despair, and I have asked myself, “Why do I do this every year?” It happens to all of us.

But I do know why I do this every year: I do this because I love these kids, and I want them to have good lives. I can’t fix everything that’s wrong at home, and I can’t be the Wonder Woman who makes everyone’s troubles go away by magically waving a wand that makes everyone use commas correctly or easily pass another ridiculous standardized test. I can’t be everything. 

But I can show up. I can be there for kids. I can work hard to give them the best of myself. I can make them my priority. I can do that every day, and when I screw up, I can come back in the next day and try again. That’s enough.

I’m enough, and so are you.

Reentry is scary and isolating. Reentry tests an educator’s mettle. Reentry is life on the edge. We survived the first two weeks of school, and we’ll come in again this week and do it again. These jobs are brutal, but we have love, training, expertise, and human heat shields. We’ve got The Right Stuff. 

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