Rethinking JFK’s “Ask not…..”

“Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”  John F. Kennedy issued that stirring challenge in his inaugural address sixty years ago, in January, 1961.  His words tapped into a wellspring of idealism and inspired many young Americans to join the Peace Corps or get otherwise involved in efforts to ‘improve the world around them.’

Sixty years later, the idea of national service is in the air.  Just over a year ago the non-partisan National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service, which Congress created in 2017, issued its report, “Inspired to Serve,” and on the first Sunday of this month The New York Times devoted its lead editorial to the subject: “A Call to National Service”.  

In addition to reading reports and editorials about national service, I’ve also spoken with a few dozen of its supporters in the past two weeks, and nearly all of them believe that something must be done to pull our badly fractured country together.  National service just might do that, some of them argue cogently and persuasively. And, they say, it must be required because time is running out on our democracy.

That’s the all-important question: Should national service be mandatory? Should every citizen between the ages of 18-30 be required to spend two years in some sort of national service, whether military or otherwise?  

After all, the argument goes, Americans have rights and responsibilities, and shirking those responsibilities should not be allowed.

However, I think we are asking the wrong question. I suggest that it’s time to rewrite JFK’s stirring words. More about that below.

Start with facts: How many of us actually commit to serve our country?  According to the National Commission,

Today, nearly 24 million individuals participate in some form of military, national, or public service to meet critical national needs—security, disaster response, education, conservation, health care, housing, and more.  These efforts are formidable and have transformed lives, communities, and the Nation; but in a country of 329 million, imagine what more could be done if significantly more people were inspired and able to answer the call to serve. 

The National Commission says it discovered that millions more Americans are ready and willing to serve, but the opportunities are not there.  “Inspired to Serve” puts forth 164 recommendations, which the Commission believes will lead more citizens to enter public service, either for a time or as a career.  While the Commission wants to require all 18-year-olds (including women this time) to register for the Selective Service (i.e., the draft), it does not call for mandatory service.  Instead, it hopes that, if the country asks and expects service, it will eventually become a social norm, something ‘everyone’ does as a matter of course.  

In short, it wants us to be inspired–but not required–to serve our country.

When The Times asks about requiring service, it does it somewhat rhetorically:  

What could be objectionable in asking all young people to pause before plunging into the scramble of adult life to donate some of their time and energies to some socially beneficial, critically needed service at home or abroad?

It would be an introduction to the responsibilities of citizenship, a communion with different layers of society and people of different backgrounds, a taste of different life paths. It could even be rewarded by credits toward tuition at a public university or other federal benefits, much as the G.I. Bill did for some veterans in years past.

In the end, however, The Times seems to agree that ‘coerced service is not service.’ Like the Commission, it hopes national service will become a ‘social norm.’

So, like JFK, The Times concludes that we should ask….

Asking young Americans for a year of their time for their country would be a powerful way to inculcate that call to service. It would not be a panacea for America’s troubles, of course. But a year in which barriers of race, class and income were breached, working in areas like under resourced schools, national parks or the military, where the fruits of service were real and beneficial, could help restore a measure of the community, commitment and hope that America cries out for.

I think that national service ought to be a priority of the Biden Administration and the Congress.  Let’s create more opportunities, and let’s provide all sorts of incentives, including financial support for education and training post-service.  I’m certain that many millions of young Americans are eager to do something concrete and significant to support our country. They want to feel that they are contributing to improving the world beyond their own immediate environs.

But don’t JFK’s two statements–“Ask not..” and “Ask..”–seem to imply that a lot of Americans were doing the opposite, expecting handouts while offering little in return?  Takers, not givers?  In the 1980’s President Reagan’s Secretary of Education William Bennett railed against college students for their supposed materialism. Today some politicians are demanding both ‘free college’ and debt loan forgiveness.  Are we in danger of becoming “A nation of takers,” as I have heard a few say?

That’s a red herring, in my view. I think that only a few–the top 1% and the big corporations that dodge taxes–are the takers, paying ridiculously low taxes. Most of us are already giving, or are willing.  

I believe that 2021 demands a different question:  Why does the richest country in the world tolerate treating its least fortunate so poorly?  

Even with the President’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, child poverty is a national disgrace…..or ought to be.  

Everyone paying attention must know that Health care for most poor children is inadequate and often abysmal.  The pandemic revealed the gaping fault lines in educational opportunity, the so-called ‘digital divide’ between rich and poor.

Sadly, grinding poverty is not “new news” in the United States. Michael Harrington famously brought it to our attention in 1962 in “The Other America.”  And today the great Nicolas Kristoff in The New York  Times does his best to keep the issue in front of us.  

So, I propose dumping the “Ask not” and “Ask” formulation and  rewriting JFK thusly: “Ask Why The Richest County in the World Denies Its Least Fortunate Citizens Adequate Health Care, Nutrition, Housing, and Education.”   

Followed by “Now Ask Yourself What You Are Going to Do About It.”

Because there’s plenty we can do, including, of course, national, state, and local service.  

More: Voter registration. Food banks. Tutoring. Local gardens. Anti-racism forums. Habitat for Humanity.  Meals on Wheels. And we can also throw our political support to politicians who will vote for higher taxes on the wealthy, and end to the loopholes that allow big corporations to pay NO taxes at all, and a beefed up IRS to catch tax cheaters.  

The best time to do something about this crisis was years ago. The second best time is now…….

Think of Children as POW’s, and Act Accordingly

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the fault lines in our society, including in public education.  Thankfully, nearly all our children and youth have survived, but many went through harrowing experiences, including serious illnesses and deaths of family and friends.  Some of our young have prospered, thanks to their parents’ wealth and savvy, but many more have been left out, left behind, and deeply scarred.  

Soon almost all our young people will be back in school buildings, for what one might call ‘brick-and-mortar learning.’  What should that look like?  What should happen in classrooms? Will there be a mindless rush to measure “learning loss” and then ‘catch up,’ or will the adults in charge recognize the gravity of what most kids have experienced?

I suggest that we think of our children as recently freed Prisoners of War who’ve been kept in isolation for months.  They have endured unprecedented and often harrowing experiences, and they’ve also endured endless stretches of boredom. They now need time and space to process what they have been through.  They need to learn how to be together. Basically, they need a safe way to re-enter society. 

We don’t want to go back to ‘normal,’ not now and not ever!  Pre-COVID, most schools were uncomfortable and even unsafe for many youngsters, who were bullied and teased and victimized by their peers, conscious of their place in the dreaded pecking order.  Modern electronics made this harassment easier, even allowed it to be anonymous.

To become safe places for all children and youth, schools need both time and space. That means rethinking the daily schedule.  For openers, make the Middle School and High School morning ‘homeroom’ period–normally just a few minutes–into a 30-45 minute period that can be used for discussion of salient issues. No electronics allowed, and no topics off the table.  Set some rules, including “What’s said here, stays here” and “Treat everyone else the way you want to be treated” (which is, of course, a variation of The Golden Rule.) 

Because elementary school kids stay with one teacher all day, the approach should vary. I think teachers should invite/challenge their students to come up with rules for classroom behavior.  Let them spend as long as necessary debating the rules they want to live by, instead of slapping up a laminated poster listing the rules.  Allow students space and freedom to talk about their experiences during COVID, because they are now getting accustomed to being with their peers, in person.   My strong hunch is that they will come up with their own version of ‘The Golden Rule.’

Looking back at what I’ve posted in this space during the pandemic, I’m afraid I sound a bit like a broken record about the importance of creating schools that respect students, teachers, and learning.  

Here’s what I wrote in June, 2020, 11 months ago:  Create a school environment that is physically, emotionally, and intellectually safe for every child.  Physical safety is the easiest of those three.  Emotional safety means more than adults keeping their antenna alert for bullying.  A more effective strategy is to enlist student leaders in this effort, to persuade them to set the bar high and to communicate to other students about bullying and other harassment:  “We don’t do that here!”   In an intellectually safe environment, it’s cool to ask questions and be curious, and it’s admirable to acknowledge when a student isn’t grasping a concept or understanding what the teacher just said.  Displaying ignorance in pursuit of knowledge is to be expected and encouraged, not mocked.”  

Back in July, 2020, I argued that it would take a village to open schools safely. “When public schools closed during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, the Federal Government responded with funding to hire school nurses.  Because only 60% of today’s schools have full-time nurses and 25% have no nurse at all, Congress should do that.  But it should also provide emergency funding to rent supplemental space, pay for Covid-19 testing and PPE, buy liability insurance, and pay teacher aides.” 

I wrote this in February:  “This school year is unlike any other. For those students who have been able to stay on track, congratulations and Godspeed.  But for those whose lives have been turned upside down, they have not failed!  They shouldn’t have to go to summer school, have their ‘learning loss’ measured and published, or be held back.”  

One year ago I wondered how learning should be assessed, and I’m still asking that question.  

 “Pass/Fail” may end up being the popular option, although hard-working students and dedicated teachers will object, because that ‘one size fits all’ approach discounts their efforts.  Randi Weingarten, the sensible President of the American Federation of Teachers, believes teachers and students should design ‘capstone projects.’  “We’ve got to trust educators and students to come up with meaningful projects that demonstrate student learning, and to do so in ways that minimize the inequalities of the digital divide,” she wrote in an email. “Before the pandemic, most students had seven months of learning, so let’s end the year with meaningful projects.” 

In December, 2020, I made these suggestions for schools when they reopen: 

1. Make the institution more (small d) democratic. 

2. Give students more agency over their own learning. 

3. Give kids time and space to get accustomed to being with peers, even socially distanced, for the first time in many months.  

4. Social and emotional learning may matter more than book-learning for these first weeks and months, because we don’t know the effects of isolation. 

5. Lots of free play. 

6. And maybe this is (finally) the time to move away from age segregation and group children instead according to the interests and their level of accomplishment.  

7. Finally, NO hand-wringing about ‘remediation’ or ‘learning loss,’ because that’s blaming the victim, big time.

At this moment in late April, 2021, I am not particularly optimistic about the future. Sadly, too many School Boards did not see this crisis as an opportunity, and, like many others, I am deeply disappointed that our new Secretary of Education refuses to abandon high-stakes standardized testing. 

On the plus side, public schools will get a large infusion of federal funds to allow them to be properly ventilated and brought up to (technological) speed.  

And never forget that children are resilient…….

The “Learning Loss” Pandemic

“Learning Loss” has grown to pandemic proportions, devastating the lives of millions of young people, particularly here in the United States.  

Worse yet, “Learning Loss” is mutating, and today an astounding 16 different and uniquely challenging manifestations have been identified.  To save their students, our teachers will need to acquire a specific skill set that will enable them to identify, diagnose, and treat this dizzying array of “Learning Loss.”  

Not only are there 16 varieties; there are also degrees of “Learning Loss.”  Unfortunately, some so-called experts rate “Learning Loss” as First Degree, Second Degree, and Third Degree without specifying whether they are using the BURN scale or the MURDER scale. That’s confusing because, while a First Degree Burn is mild, First Degree Murder is the most extreme charge.  Similarly, a Third Degree Burn is life-threatening, while Third Degree Murder is the least serious murder charge (though the victim probably doesn’t care about the distinction).  

Amidst all this confusion, there is good news: Teachers can be trained to recognize and treat “Learning Loss.”  This must be our nation’s first priority in the battle against “Learning Loss.”   As in the fight against COVID-19, we must first inoculate schooling’s front-line workers, the teachers.  

Fortunately for America’s students, the educational equivalent of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines is now available for teachers.  A wonderful new video series demonstrates how to undo the damage done by “Learning Loss.”  With their practical content and easy-to-follow procedures, these videos put the joy back into teaching….and enable teachers to rescue our children.

In these commercially available but non-profit training videos, “Learning Loss” is categorized as ‘Serious,’ ‘Moderate,’ or ‘Mild.’  No confusion there….unlike some profit-seeking competitors.

The traditional standardized test–a blunt instrument–simply cannot be trusted to pick up either “Literal Learning Loss” or the more subtle “Latent Learning Loss.”  What’s needed is the specific but teachable skill of ‘Listening for Learning Loss.”  With the help of this remarkable video series, a competent professional can master these techniques in a matter of days. 

Full disclosure:  I am the creator and host of the trademarked, patented video series, “Learning Loss Lessons.”  Those who purchase it will learn about the 16 varieties of “Learning Loss” as well as two important general skills, “Labelling Learning Loss,” and “Limiting Learning Loss.” 

The specific forms of “Learning Loss” covered in the series include two language arts deficits, “Literary Learning Loss” and “Lyrical Learning Loss” and four that are specific to the realm of mathematics and scientific reasoning: “Logarithmic Learning Loss,” “Logical Learning Loss,” “Linear Learning Loss,” and “Literal Learning Loss.”

My ground-breaking series also identifies subtle forms of “Learning Loss” that are related to the increasingly important realm of social and emotional skills, including “Listless (or Lethargic) Learning Loss,” “Lukewarm Learning Loss,” “Laconic Learning Loss,” “Likeable Learning Loss,“Lapsed Learning Loss,” and (most difficult to overcome) ‘Lunchroom Learning Loss.”

Once teachers have completed watching the videos and mastering the prescribed techniques, they will feel confident when meeting with concerned parents.  Soon they will be having conversations like the following, recorded recently in Washington, DC: 

TEACHER: “Mr. and Mrs. Petrillo, your son, Chester, suffers from moderate “Literary Learning Loss” and mild “Longitudinal Learning Loss.” 

PARENTS: “Thank heaven you have been able to diagnose Chester’s problem.  We knew something was wrong but have been at our wit’s end.  What can you do for him?

TEACHER:  “Fortunately for Chester, the path to a complete recovery is straightforward.  First, a dose of  what I call “Dynamic Rejection of Individual Learning Loss,” or D.R.I.L.L.  That will be followed by “Kicking Individual Learning Loss,” or K.I.L.L.  With enough D.R.I.L.L. and K.I.L.L., Chester will be inoculated against “Learning Loss,” and soon he will be experiencing school as he did in the good old days.”

PARENTS: “Thank you so much.  This is such a relief.”

Imagine how reassuring this will be for teachers, administrators, School Board members, and everyone else who wants schools to keep doing things the way they’ve always done them.

The penultimate video in the series shows teachers and other professionals how to create and celebrate a “League of Learning Leaders,” its membership consisting of students who, thanks to extensive D.R.I.L.L. and K.I.L.L., have overcome their deficits.  

School Districts may use funds from the COVID-19 Relief Act to pay for this vital professional development training for their teachers.  And attorneys for Boards of Education will be pleased to learn that the vital issue of “Limiting Learning Loss Liability” is covered in detail.  

Some argue that education’s first priority ought to be more counselors to counter the mental health damages done by a year without peers and countless hours staring at screens, but I believe schools should first purchase these valuable videos for their teachers.  If there’s money left over, then by all means get extra services for the kids. 

Here’s some pricing information about my valuable series.  

The final video in the series, “Lucrative Learning Loss,” is largely autobiographical.

Basketball’s “March Madness” and School’s “Spring Stupidity”

Because the annual NCAA men’s and women’s basketball championships are underway, I’d like to draw an analogy between Basketball’s “March Madness and the “Spring Stupidity” of Standardized Testing, which the Biden Administration is bent on enforcing.

Let’s start with what’s likely to be on the tests. This sample problem was offered by the University of Wisconsin/Oshkosh to high school math teachers and was designed to help ‘Close the Math Achievement Gap.’

Jack shot a deer that weighed 321 pounds. Tom shot a deer that weighed 289 pounds.   How much more did Jack’s deer weigh than Tom’s deer?

Here’s another question, which I found on a high school math test in Oregon:

There are 6 snakes in a certain valley.  The population doubles every year. In how many years will there be 96 snakes?

a. 2

b. 3

c. 4

d. 8

These high school math problems require simple numeracy at most.  With enough practice, just about anyone can solve undemanding problems like that–and consequently feel confident of their ability–even though their abilities have neither been stretched nor challenged.

School is supposed to be preparation for life, but spending time on problems like those is like trying to become an NCAA-level basketball player by shooting free throws all day long.  To excel at basketball, players must work on all aspects of the game: jump shots, dribbling, throwing chest and bounce passes, positioning for rebounds, running the pick-and-roll and—occasionally–practicing free throws.

Come to think of it, basketball and life are similar. Both are about rhythm and motion, teamwork and individual play, offense and defense.  Like life, it can slow down or become frenetic. Basketball requires thinking fast, shifting roles and having your teammates’ backs.  Successful players know when to shoot and when to pass. As in life, failure is part of the game.  Even the greatest players miss over half of their shots, and some (Michael Jordan!) are cut from their high school teams.  And life doesn’t give us many free throw opportunities.  But if school is supposed to be preparation for life, why are American high school students being asked to count on their fingers?  That mind-numbing and trivial work is the educational equivalent of shooting free throws.

If schools stick with undemanding curricula and boring questions, our kids will be stuck at the free throw line, practicing something they will rarely be called upon to do in real life.  And they won’t be prepared for the challenges that await them.

Here’s the sort of realistic problem–taken from an international test–that ought to be given, because it challenges students to think.

Mount Fuji is a famous dormant volcano in Japan.  The walking trail up Mount Fuji is about 9 kilometers (km) long. Walkers need to return from the 18 km walk by 8 pm, which is when the park closes and the gates are locked.

Two 16-year-olds estimate that they can walk up the mountain at 1.5 kilometers per hour on average, and down at twice that speed. These speeds take into account meal breaks and rest times.

Using their estimated speeds, what is the latest time they can begin their walk so that they can return by 8PM and not be locked in the park for the night?

This is obviously not a multiple-choice question.  To get the correct answer, students have to read carefully and then perform a number of calculations.  Incidentally, the correct answer (11 AM) was provided by 55 percent of the Shanghai 15-year-olds but just 9 percent of the US students in that age group.

Ironically, the test results revealed that American students score high in ‘confidence in mathematical ability,’ despite underperforming their peers in most other countries.  Can it be that their misplaced confidence is the direct result spending too much time practicing the mathematical equivalent of shooting free throws?

No decent basketball coach would dream of getting his or her players ready for games by focusing on free throws; in truth, any coach who tried that would be fired in a heartbeat.

And no players with ambition would put up with such a benighted approach to their sport.

But let’s be clear: The misguided decision to proceed with national testing means that students will spend their first months at school practicing mathematical free throws.

In this year of COVID, mandatory standardized testing and the inevitable test-prep that will precede the tests amount to curiosity-killing, talent-destroying educational malpractice.

I urge you to take a break from the NCAA Tournaments and write your Senators and Representatives. Write your State and local school boards. Write the new U.S. Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona. Let everyone know that America’s children deserve school experiences that will stretch and challenge them, not bore and demean them.

Cancel the F**king Tests!

Last week in this space I put forth nine reasons why it was absolutely essential that students be required to take machine-scored, multiple-choice bubble tests once they return to school. This was an entirely facetious essay that maintained, among other things, that NOT giving tests would cause an economic recession but that GIVING tests would make it easier for students to social distance because they would be chained to their desks for hours.

Because a few readers thought I was being serious, I thought it might be helpful to try to state directly and clearly how I really feel. Let me put it in caps, the typed equivalent of shouting from the rooftop, to make things perfectly clear: REQUIRING TESTS THIS SPRING WOULD BE CHILD ABUSE! Because this school year has been unpredictable, abnormal, and inconsistent, why would anyone expect anything but skewed (screwed up) data from mandatory tests, particularly because students who have been ‘remotely schooled’ all year do not have to take the tests, and no one is clear yet about how the tests would be administered to students now attending remotely? It’s a disaster waiting to happen, and anyone who cares about children should be demanding that the tests be cancelled.

When running for the Democratic nomination, candidate Biden told an audience of teachers in Pittsburgh that he was strongly opposed to mandated high-stakes testing. I was there and heard his pledge.

But in February of this year, President Biden’s Education Department said that states must give the tests mandated by ESSA, the Every Student Succeeds Act, although the proclamation allowed states to request waivers and created some loopholes. Since that surprise announcement, many activists have been pressuring the Biden Administration to reverse the decision–and to keep his promise. No luck so far!!

Covid-19 revealed the depths of the inequalities in our society, including in public education, and we don’t need bubble tests to prove the point. You can find thoughtful discussions here and here.

The education historian turned activist Diane Ravitch summarized the problems with ever giving these machine-scored, multiple-choice bubble tests, whose scores, by the way, largely reflect the test-taker’s zip code, family income, and parental education :

The tests are administered to students annually in March and early April. Teachers are usually not allowed to see the questions. The test results are returned to the schools in August or September. The students have different teachers by then. Their new teachers see their students’ scores but they are not allowed to know which questions the students got right or wrong.This would be like going to a doctor with a pain in your stomach. The doctor gives you a battery of tests and says she will have the results in six months. When the results are reported, the doctor tells you that you are in the 45th percentile compared to others with a similar pain, but she doesn’t prescribe any medication because the test doesn’t say what caused your pain or where it is situated.

I gave this post the title “Cancel The F**king Tests!”, but in case that doesn’t happen, I hope (SHOUTING NOW) that parents and their children will BOYCOTT THE F**KING TESTS!”

Here’s a useful guide from FairTest on how to boycott them.

Cancelling State Tests WILL Cause a Recession

Many on the left are raising a stink about the US Department of Education’s insistence on having states give their annual tests. Critics say it’s unfair because most students haven’t been in physical schools for about a year.  These critics also maintain that it’s unnecessarily stressful to test students now. What’s more, some even propose sensible alternatives to machine-scored bubble tests, but don’t be fooled by the clarity of their logic or the power of their examples, because these hysterical objections only serve to demonstrate that the critics of machine-scored, multiple-choice bubble tests fail to understand that standardized testing is an important driver of the US economy.

Please consider these NINE economic consequences of cancelling machine-scored tests. 

  1. Cancelling standardized tests will endanger the health of students and teachers.  Both test-prep and testing are natural environments for social distancing; students who are required to stay at their desks all day long are not at risk of either passing on or catching COVID.  That’s a win-win that would be a loss if tests were cancelled.
  2. Not testing will unsettle students, endangering their already shaky mental health. The rhythm of test-prep and testing is well-known and familiar to students.  What could be better for students who have been trapped on Zoom for months than to have the familiar Zen-like peace-and-quiet of test prep and testing?  
  3. The companies that create, administer and process these tests are a vital cog in our national economy, employing thousands of men and women, who then spend their earnings in their communities, thus seeding local economies.  Suppose our 13,000+ school districts were to cancel the (often) multi-million dollar contracts? That would devastate those companies and the lives of their employees. 
  4. Vital educational research will be jeopardized.  The 400+ full-bore studies of “Learning Loss” would be useless without the results of this year’s mandated standardized tests.  Although it’s a foregone conclusion that these studies will demonstrate the reality of “The Achievement Gap,” those headlines will enable us to continue the practice of not having to capitalize either opportunity and expectations gaps, meaning that we can continue to pretend they are not real.  
  5. Cancelling testing will overturn lives.  Somewhere between 175 and 35,000 doctoral students are close to finishing their dissertations on “Learning Loss.”  Without data from this spring’s state tests, they will be unable to complete their theses, unable to sit for their oral exams, and unable to qualify for their doctoral degrees.  This will mean an additional year of graduate school tuition and hardship for the struggling families of the graduate students, who may also have to postpone child-bearing for another year.  Heartbreak and even divorce loom on the horizon for many of these families….if state testing is cancelled.
  6. Cancelling tests will completely derail the planned boom in in-service training for teachers regarding “Learning Loss.” With grants from the Gates Foundations and other organizations determined to reform public education, teams of skilled teacher-educators have spent months preparing extensive lessons for teachers to give them the skills they need to deal with the dreaded “Learning Loss.” Without weeks of after-school training, classroom teachers will not be able to identify the various forms of “Learning Loss,” which include ‘Lopsided Learning Loss,’ ‘Linear Learning Loss,’ ‘Logical Learning Loss,’ ‘Logarithmic Learning Loss,’ among many others. The trainers must have the data that standardized tests will provide.
  7. Cancelling tests will drastically reduce the incomes of child psychiatrists and psychologists, many of whom are called on to help despondent teens cope with the stress of testing. These doctors, humanitarians to the core, spend their well-earned dollars in their communities, and that money cycles through over and over, strengthening our economy. Without the stress of testing, young kids won’t need doctors, and the economy will sink.
  8. Cancelling tests will also hurt the bottom line of pharmaceutical companies, who rely on sales of Ritalin, Adderall, and other methylphenidate-based medications to keep their profits up. And before you scoff, those profits go to shareholders, who in turn pump the money into local economies when they purchase a new Tesla, a larger home, or a new polo pony
  9. Cancelling testing will endanger the health of universities.  Pre-COVID, the focus on test prep and testing guaranteed that every year at least 100,000 teachers would get fed up and leave the profession for some other line of work. This created a perpetual ‘teacher shortage’ that university schools of education could rely on as they prepared their budgets. That is, they knew that school districts would have jobs for their graduates, and so they could aggressively recruit students and train them for classroom work.  Cancelling testing will mean that teachers will actually be able to do what drew them into the field–help students learn and grow.  This means that fewer teachers will give up on teaching, districts won’t have teacher shortages, university education programs will shrink, education faculty will lose their jobs, and lives will wither.  All because we cancelled state standardized testing.

I will admit that some students (perhaps even all of them) would benefit from returning to a pressure-free school environment so they can get reacquainted with their peers. And I also acknowledge that some teachers (perhaps even all of them as well) should not have their worth determined by unreliable test scores. 

However, those are necessary sacrifices and small prices for students and teachers to pay, because cancelling testing will endanger our national economy.

PLEASE, DO NOT CONSIDER THE NEEDS OF CHILDREN AND TEACHERS. TO SAVE THE AMERICAN ECONOMY, WE MUST KEEP THE TESTS!!

What To Do About the Dreaded”Tennis Loss”

Imagine for a moment that you are an excellent tennis player who regularly ranks in the Top Ten in your age group and in your state.  You have an excellent first serve that you can place with pinpoint accuracy, a reliable second serve, a devastating two-hand backhand, and a well-disguised drop shot that befuddles opponents.  What’s more, you cover the court with surprising speed and agility and have developed an impressive deep topspin lob.  You invariably bring home some silver in local tournaments, and in state tournaments you are a good bet to reach–at minimum– the quarterfinals.

Then came the pandemic. You haven’t been able to play tennis since March, 2020, because all the courts and public clubs were shut down.  Some of your wealthy competitors have their own courts or have been able to play on private courts belonging to friends.  Not you…..

Now the ban has been lifted, and you and your coach have just begun to work on all aspects of your game–your first serve, second serve, drop shot, two-hand backhand, and topspin lob–because a weakness in any one aspect of your game will invariably mean defeat.  At this level, opponents are quick to sniff out deficiencies and take advantage of them. 

However, on the very day that you and your coach begin working in earnest, a directive comes from from the state office that coordinates tournaments and–critically–determines rankings. It says that, out of concern for “Tennis Loss” and in the absence of tournament results, rankings will be determined by a performance test that will be administered state-wide in one month. Players wishing to be ranked must send a time-stamped videotape that shows the player delivering 50 first serves.  The state will then evaluate the tapes based on accuracy, placement, and speed, and the results will determine everyone’s ranking for the following year.

Only first serves!  No other aspect of one’s game matters, which means that, if you care about where you are ranked, you will not work on the rest of your game, just your first serve.

You could opt out of the test, of course, but that would mean, come tournament time, you would have to hope the directors will cut you some slack.  Maybe they will give you a wild card entry, although wild card entries are little more than opening round sacrificial lambs for the top-ranked players.

It’s a classic lose-lose situation: If you ignore the other aspects of your game and just work on your first serve, you may end up with a good ranking but a crummy all-around game. But if you opt out of the test and instead develop your complete game, you won’t be ranked and probably won’t get into tournaments.

If you’ve read this far, you know that I am actually writing about the Biden Administration’s recent decision to plunge ahead with the mandated standardized bubble tests, despite then-candidate Biden’s public promise to the contrary at a gathering in Pittsburgh. I was there and heard him make the promise.   Why is he going back on that promise? Perhaps he’s been so busy with the pandemic, climate change, Iran, Russia, China, et cetera that this idiotic announcement slipped through unnoticed.

Let’s make him aware of what is being done in his name!

Consider public education’s current circumstances: The pandemic closed down physical school for well over half of students last Spring.  ‘Virtual school’ was a mixed bag across the country, a struggle for teachers, and an abyss for children in families without access to high-speed internet or space at home for them to work without interruption.

Like my hypothetical tennis player, what American students need now is the opportunity to work on all aspects of their game, and that includes relearning how to work with other kids after months and months of isolation.  It means lots of free play, games with other children. It means interesting team projects, preferably ones that involve both classmates and peers from other schools, other towns, other states (and maybe even other countries).  It means opportunities for young people to talk and write about their experiences over recent months.

Doing these things would give trained professionals the time and opportunity to assess the needs of their students.  And by ‘needs,’ I mean educational, physical, emotional, nutritional, et alia.

But because the powers-that-be have blathered on about “Learning Loss,” they have decided that one standardized, machine-scored bubble test will be all-powerful, even though it may be given on-line to some students and under wildly different conditions for other students.  

(A reminder: the term ‘standardized test’ means that the test is given under standard conditions—everybody follows the same rules.)

Because of the Biden Administration’s decision (made, incidentally, before the new Secretary of Education was confirmed), many public schools will focus on test-prep, and on the narrow subjects the test will cover.  Say goodbye (again) to art, music, physical education, extra-curricular activities, and recess.  Just get back to doing what we’ve done since at least 2001 and “No Child Left Behind.”   And the results are completely predictable: students in the wealthy suburbs will do well, and some politicians and so-called ‘reformers’ will spew their usual nonsense about “The Achievement Gap,” and nothing will change.

Ask yourself who benefits besides the established order.  Maybe follow the money??

For a clearer look at how ridiculous and harmful the Biden Administration decision is, read this

You, my hypothetical tennis player, do have one other option: Band together with other ranked tennis players in your state and simply refuse to cooperate.  If enough of you take a stand, the authorities will eventually have to give in because they will have no way of creating rankings.

And students, their families, teachers, local school boards, and state education agencies also have that option.  It’s your serve, people!

The False Narrative of “Needy Kids vs Selfish Teacher Unions”

The giant lumbering beast known as the US Economy–akin to a conveyor belt with countless moving parts–wants public schools to reopen.  The beast needs workers, but right now too many adults are at home, supervising their children’s ‘remote learning.’  Open the schools, and the adults can go to work: it’s that simple….

But of course it isn’t simple.  Putting kids back in schools will allow adults to work, and that’s important, but it is what happens inside schools that matters more.  

A quick history lesson: We’ve always sent our children to school for three reasons: 1) Acquisition of knowledge, 2) Socialization, and 3) Custodial care.  The internet has turned that upside down because it puts infinite information at everyone’s fingertips wherever they happen to be and because thousands of apps allow for ‘socialization’ with anyone and everyone.  That left only custodial care as a vital school function, until the pandemic made even that impossible. 

However, students swimming in a sea of infinite information need guidance, because ‘information’ is not knowledge.  It takes a certain skill set to distinguish between wheat and chaff, and a certain value system to choose the wheat over the chaff.  Skilled teachers make that happen.

Socializing via apps, though convenient, is fraught with peril, because that person you believe to be your age and your gender might be an adult with evil intentions. Skilled teachers help students learn to discern. And skilled teachers see that students use this all-powerful technology for useful purposes.

But perhaps the major lesson of remote learning is that young people want and need to be with their peers.  Apps don’t cut it…and the kids are not alright.

The mental health consequences of prolonged isolation are becoming clearer by the day.  “Students are struggling across the board,” said Jennifer Rothman, senior manager for youth and young adult services at the nonprofit National Alliance on Mental Illness, to The Washington Post in January.  “It’s the social isolation, the loneliness, the changes in their routines.  Students who might never have had a symptom of a mental health condition before the pandemic now have symptoms.” 

If you read my blog last week, you were shocked by one reader’s response:  “John, I’m wondering if we could have a conversation sometime. I am passionate about this subject. Our 13-year old grandchild just committed suicide after returning one single morning to virtual schooling. It was Monday, Jan. 4, first day back, after the holidays. They broke for lunch, Donovan wrote a note…. went outside, and shot himself.”

So when schools reopen, attention must be paid, not to catching up with the curriculum but to the needs of young people.

Now to the present: President Joe Biden has pledged to reopen schools by the end of his first 100 days, a monumental challenge.  Reopening schools is a complex issue, but–sadly and predictably–opportunistic politicians and some in the media are framing the issue as a conflict between the needs of students and the selfish wishes of teachers and, naturally, their unions.  

This false narrative hurts both groups.

Let’s consider where we are right now.  Schooling at home isn’t working for many children for four reasons:  

1. The yawning technology gap–the Digital Divide–between rich and poor and white and non-white;

2. Lack of training.  Few teachers have been trained for on-line instruction, and many–perhaps most–aren’t good at it;  

3. Unimaginative school systems. Most have simply told their teachers to do on line what they normally would be doing in classrooms; and

4. The aforementioned consequences of prolonged isolation. 

Pre-pandemic, Trump’s Secretary of Education spent most of her time and energy subverting public education, favoring vouchers and private religious education above all.  When the Trump Administration suddenly called for reopening schools, Betsy DeVos did an immediate 180 turn–but never once reached out to public educators to ask how the federal government might be of assistance.  She was, in short, happy to see the enterprise flounder.  

It’s not just DeVos and Trump.  Politicians–including school board members–all across the nation have had more than a year to plan for reopening public schools.  They knew vaccines were coming and could have insisted that teachers be seen as “front-line workers” and therefore entitled to getting vaccinated in the first round.  Very few took that basic step, one that would have shown respect for teachers and concern for children.

What have school boards been doing?  Not much. The San Francisco School Board has spent months arguing whether to rename schools for people more admirable than Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, instead of preparing for reopening or pushing to make sure teachers would be vaccinated.  While that’s pathetically politically correct, the behavior of some school boards was borderline criminal, in at least one case allowing their family members to jump the vaccination line ahead of teachers!

And so, today, not even half of states have prioritized the vaccination of teachers and others who work with children in schools.  That’s an absolute disgrace.  As one teacher noted on Twitter, “…for us it’s been about the lack of care and preparedness of the school district, how they’ve treated the teachers and staff, the lack of communication, and the moving goalposts for how and when to reopen.”

And what do we know about the physical condition of schools that our Economy wants reopened?  A 2014 government report concluded that “53 percent of public schools needed to spend money on repairs, renovations, and modernizations to put the school’s onsite buildings in good overall condition. The total amount needed was estimated to be approximately $197 billion, and the average dollar amount for schools needing to spend money was about $4.5 million per school.”

I spent a lot of time in classrooms over the years, and I would say that many of them were poorly ventilated–hot when it was hot, and cold when it was cold. Most were crowded.  A friend who retired from teaching–in a fairly wealthy community–just a few years ago sent me this note:

My last classroom at (XXX) school was an unhealthy environment in the best of times: the sink backed up on a regular basis with smelly toilet water as the pipes were set in concrete and difficult to access when they clogged.  I taped large pieces of styrofoam over the sink to keep the children out of it and to keep the smell down.  One wall of the classroom backed up to the furnace room which spewed toxic fumes. I kept the door open to the hall.  There was NO air ventilation!   It’s going to be an expensive proposition  to properly ventilate old buildings. That’s a reality that needs to be dealt with!

So, yes, schools should reopen as fast as possible–but only after teachers have been vaccinated, classrooms have been provided with adequate ventilation and PPE, and schools have developed safety protocols. In some instances, this will require immediate attention to the physical condition of buildings, because there are public schools in America without hot running water!  

Experts have voiced concerns about what they call ‘Learning Loss,” which they tend to measure in months and sometimes years.  I hope that others find it offensive to define learning in terms of quantity rather than quality, but let’s save that for another day.  That said, it’s absolutely essential that adults stop obsessing about ‘learning loss.’  Cancel the damn standardized tests.  Meet the children where they are.  

Our giant lumbering economy wants schools reopened for another reason: It needs what our schools produce, high school graduates.  After all, America’s education system has been a reliable conveyor belt, moving students along for 12 years before dumping them out into society.  Higher education has come to depend on a fresh supply of close to 2 million freshmen each fall.  Branches of the military need recruits, and so on.

COVID has stopped the conveyor belt entirely in some places, and slowed it down considerably elsewhere, but I believe that many who are demanding that the conveyor belt be restarted are not thinking about either students or teachers. They want to get back to ‘normal.’

That ain’t happening, and we must embrace that reality.  This school year is unlike any other. For those students who have been able to stay on track, congratulations and Godspeed.  But for those whose lives have been turned upside down, they have not failed!  They shouldn’t have to go to summer school, have their ‘learning loss’ measured and published, or be held back.  

They should get a mulligan, a blame-free, no fault do-over.   

And finally, let’s acknowledge that the interests of teachers and students are aligned. They may not sync up with the interests of higher education, restaurants, bars et cetera, but students and teachers are in this together.

Our Choices During “School Choice Week”

This short piece attempts to make two points. First, public education must stop trying to ‘get back to normal,’ because “normal” isn’t anywhere near good enough to justify continued large public investments of taxpayer dollars in public education. As widespread school reopenings draw closer, I believe that educators face decisions that will, at the end of the day, determine whether public education survives. And, if they mess it up, Jeff Bezos is lurking in the wings!

A second point: The young people who will be returning to classrooms have endured (and are still living through) an unprecedented time of crises–not just COVID-caused isolation but also economic hardship, political turmoil, and often severe stress in their homes, including (perhaps) abuse. For those reasons, simply trying to “get back to normal” in classrooms is a terrible idea. It’s time to step up for our children, meet them where they are, and do what’s right. Stop blathering about ‘learning loss’ and ‘closing the achievement gap’ and other diversions!

Point One: As schools prepare for reopening, traditional public schools and the men and women running them are facing serious choices.  Ironically, this week, January 24-30, happens to be “School Choice Week,” a gimmick created ten years ago by conservatives to advance the charter school and voucher movements.  I.E., “School Choice Week” exists to undermine traditional public education.

(SIDEBAR: In case you are curious, the ‘School Choice Week’ website does not list its funders, but, as Valerie Strauss reported in the Washington Post,  “According to the Center for Media and Democracy, the National School Choice Week website listed the American Federation for Children, the Walton Family Fund, ALEC, SPN, the Freedom Foundation, FreedomWorks, Cato Institute, Reason Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, the James Madison Institute, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as education partners in 2016. Using the Wayback Machine, you will also find so-called progressive organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), KIPP and Education Reform Now on the partners’ list that year.”

For the past four years, the school choice movement was aligned, and sometimes supportive of, the harshly anti-public school policies of Betsy DeVos, but the end of the Trump era has put Choice advocates in a tough spot, as this fascinating article by Avi Wolfman-Arent from WHYY details.)

The hostility of the right is not the greatest threat to a healthy public school system, however.  More dangerous is the continued acceptance of test-based accountability, the notion that true learning (and teacher quality) can be measured by standardized, machine-scored bubble tests.  The Presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama gave us “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top,” 16 years of heartless policies that drove out art, music, physical education, recess, and anything else that made schools interesting and vital places for children and adults.  Those policies also produced flat-line scores on our national test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, by the way.

For public education to survive, Arthur Camins, until recently as Director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at Stevens Institute of Technology, says it’s time for a divorce.  He writes: 

It is time for Democrats to file for a divorce from a four-decade bipartisan education policy marriage.  The case is clearer now than ever. There are irreconcilable differences. A marriage with one partner committed to competition as an improvement driver and the other to equity and democracy is an inevitable failure. A partnership in which one party prioritizes tax cuts and deregulation for the wealthy and the other quality education for everyone results in abuse of the least powerful partner.”

But divorce alone won’t do it, and neither will abandoning test-based accountability.  Public schools must stand for something. 

Why? Because Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has his eye on taking over public education!  Don’t laugh! 

“Jeff Bezos’ $2 billion investment to establish a Montessori-inspired network of preschools may be shrugged off by many as the world’s richest man dabbling in another playground. Instead, we should see it for what it is: the early days of Amazon’s foray into public education.”

And later in the same article, these chilling sentences:  Public education offers Amazon access to a unique resource—the consumers, and employees, of the future, along with their user behavior, preferences and countless other data points. It’s easy to imagine why Amazon, a company famous for its powerful recommendation engines that personalize, and optimize, each user’s experience, would do anything to be able to collect years’ worth of data on a student by the time she graduated from high school and into adulthood. Future profits from owning that data would all but guarantee the return on Amazon’s investment, even if the company were to provide its educational services at a steeply discounted rate that made it hard for anyone else to compete.”

I urge you to read Dominik Dresel’s full piece in EdSurge. It’s alarming, as Diane Ravitch pointed out in her blog, dianeravitch.net.

So, what to do?  How can public education 1) turn aside the potential threat from Jeff Bezos and the genuine challenge of the right wing charter/voucher movement, 2) strengthen its position with the public, and 3) meet the critical needs of today’s children?   

To repeat an important point, it is not sufficient to be AGAINST something.  So what must public education be FOR in order to fight off external threats AND help children grow to their fullest potential?

For starters, here’s some thoughtful advice from Teresa Thayer Snyder, former superintendent of the Voorheesville district in upstate New York. She wrote on her Facebook page

When the children return to school, they will have returned with a new history that we will need to help them identify and make sense of. When the children return to school, we will need to listen to them. Let their stories be told. They have endured a year that has no parallel in modern times. There is no assessment that applies to who they are or what they have learned. Remember, their brains did not go into hibernation during this year. Their brains may not have been focused on traditional school material, but they did not stop either. Their brains may have been focused on where their next meal is coming from, or how to care for a younger sibling, or how to deal with missing grandma, or how it feels to have to surrender a beloved pet, or how to deal with death. Our job is to welcome them back and help them write that history.

Bear in mind that she wrote this before the January 6 insurrection at our Nation’s Capital. (I’m happy to report that her words have gone viral, largely due to praise from Diane Ravitch in her blog.)

But it’s also essential to begin making schools less autocratic and more democratic, because as Deborah Meier and others have noted, democracy requires practice, and, as we all know from experience, schools are intensely autocratic: line up, raise your hand, be quiet, and on and on.  

What better place to start practicing democracy than in classrooms?  Teachers can make the classrooms more democratic by letting students develop the rules for classroom behavior–I.E. for their own behavior.  

As I wrote back in March, 2019:  “I am partial to teachers and classrooms where the children spend some time deciding what the rules should be, figuring out what sort of classroom they want to spend their year in. I watched that process more than a few times. First, the teacher asks her students for help.

Children, let’s make some rules for our classroom.  What do you think is important? 

Or she might lead the conversation in certain directions:

What if someone knows the answer to a question?  Should they just yell it out, or should they raise their hand and wait to be called on?

Or: If one of you has to use the bathroom, should you just get up and walk out of class? Or should we have a signal?  And what sort of signal should we use?

It should not surprise you to learn that, in the end, the kids come up with reasonable rules: Listen, Be Respectful, Raise Your Hand Be Kind, and so forth.  But there’s a difference, because these are their rules.”

Those words–Kind, Safe, Respectful–are found in store-bought laminated posters, but when students create the rules, they own them and are therefore more likely to adhere to them.

That’s just a beginning. And, while making schools behave democratically does not mean that the kids take up, it does mean making certain that education is both child-centric and personalized, because the goal is to move toward a public system that gives young people more agency over their own learning. The adults must ask an essential question about each child “How is she smart?” instead of “How smart is she?” They must listen to the answers and then open doors that allow students to follow their interests and develop their talents.  

Eventually, this will mean students of different ages in different states (or even different countries!) working together on projects.  In these schools, students are no longer the product; instead, they are workers, producing knowledge.

For education leaders at this critical moment, imagination and courage are essential, along with the willingness to take risks.

Some other suggestions:

1. Give kids time and space to get accustomed to being with peers, even socially distanced, for the first time in many months, while recognizing that social and emotional learning (SEL) may matter more than book-learning for these first weeks and months, because we don’t know the effects of isolation. 

2. Make time for lots of free play.  Schools need to be happy places

3. Suspend high stakes testing for the foreseeable future–and perhaps permanently–while also calling a halt to hand wringing conversations  about ‘remediation’ or ‘learning loss,’ because that’s blaming the victim, big time.  Some states, including New York, are calling on the US Department of Education to suspend its requirements, something that then-candidate Biden pledged to do at a Presidential Candidates Forum in Pittsburgh in December, 2019. I was there and heard him with my own ears. Let’s push him and his choice for Secretary of Education to follow through!

While these steps are simple, they won’t be easy. However, our children’s futures are at stake. Not only that, children who practice democracy in school are more likely to be small-d democrats as adults and less likely to fall for the snake oil of demagogues like you-know-who.

And if positive motivation isn’t enough to spur educators to do the right things, remind them that Jeff Bezos is lurking in the wings!!!

The Lives They Lived (personal edition)

COVID-19  was responsible for the deaths of hundreds and hundreds of teachers in 2020, enough alone to make the year an ‘annus horribilis,’ to borrow Queen Elizabeth II’s phrase.  But the world of education also lost Ruth Bader Ginsburg, John Lewis, Sir Ken Robinson, Jim Lehrer and Les Crystal of the PBS NewsHour,  the Reverend Darius L. Swann, David K. Cohen, Arnold Packer, and (on the island of Martha’s Vineyard) Nelson Bryant, Lee Fierro, and Dr. Susan Whiting Shanock.

Although they weren’t educators per se, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and U.S. Representative John Lewis contributed mightily to the cause of public education: Justice Ginsburg by the cases she brought as an attorney and the cases she decided while on the Supreme Court, and Mr. Lewis by his work as a student leader and his leadership in the struggle for civil rights as a protestor and as a member of Congress.  Barriers against women, in education and in the workplace, fell because of RBG. John Lewis nearly lost his life on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, but it was that savage beating that led directly to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

I probably should have placed my tribute to Sir Ken Robinson at the end of this post, because I am going to ask that those who haven’t seen his TED talk, the most widely viewed in TED’s history, to please do so.  Viewed by an estimated 380,000,000 people, the short talk is profound. Its message, which is as relevant today as when he spoke, demonstrates how much the world lost when Sir Ken died in August at age 70 after a short battle with cancer.  Knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2003 for his service to the arts, Sir Ken was “named as one of Time/Fortune/CNN’s ‘Principal Voices’; acclaimed by Fast Company magazine as one of ‘the world’s elite thinkers on creativity and innovation’ and ranked in the Thinkers50 list of the world’s top business thinkers,” quoting from an obituary. 

Technically, PBS NewsHour co-founder Jim Lehrer and long-time Executive Producer Les Crystal were not teachers.  However, Jim and Les (with Robin MacNeil and Deputy Executive Producer Linda Winslow) built what began as The MacNeil/Lehrer Report in 1975 into the nation’s most trusted source of news.  While Jim and Les taught me a great deal, more importantly their PBS program educated millions of Americans five nights a week for many, many years….and continues to do so today.

A quick story about the kind of man Jim was: Sometime in 2006 while wandering around Bangkok, I came across a peddler selling tiny vehicles fashioned out of soda cans. At first I saw only replicas of taxi-like vehicles, but under the pile I spotted a bus. I immediately thought of Jim, whose bus collection was legendary.  His office was full of bus memorabilia, some no doubt from the work sites of his father, a bus dispatcher in Oklahoma and elsewhere. What’s more, the basement of the Lehrer home in DC was a carefully arranged display of bus memorabilia that Jim enjoyed showing to visitors.  Even though I spent lots of time in Jim’s office and had toured his basement, I nevertheless bought the tacky, tinny, tiny bus home and later presented it to Jim.  He could not have been more gracious; his words and his smile implied that this piece was the one item he had been searching for, in vain, the world over, and for years!  Odds are, of course, that Jim had been given this particular thing more than a few times….and had been as gracious to the other gift-givers as he was to me. (If you’re not familiar with Billy Collins’ poem, The Lanyard, please click this link.)

The Reverend Darius L. Swann, who died at 96, also contributed to the struggle for equality in education. Although I never interviewed him, I knew his name because his 1964 lawsuit led directly to the 1971 Supreme Court decision known as Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg that upheld busing as a legal means of desegregation.  

The Associated Press reported it this way:  On Sept. 2, 1964, Swann wrote a letter to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, asking that his son James be allowed to attend Seversville School, two blocks from his home, rather than the all-black Biddleville School, which was more than twice as far away. He was allowed to argue his case at a subsequent meeting of the school board, which suggested that the Swanns enroll James in Biddleville, then request a transfer.

The Swanns said no thanks. “We figured that the system was really protecting segregation,” Swann told The Associated Press in an interview in 2000. “What they wanted to do was decide things on a case-by-case basis, when what they needed to do was change the whole system; there was a systemic problem.”

Enlisting the support of local activist Reginald Hawkins and civil rights attorney Julius Chambers, Swann sued the school system in January 1965. While they pursued their legal fight, the Swanns enrolled James and his younger sister, Edith, in a private Lutheran school. After one year there, the Swanns moved their children to Eastover, a public school in the affluent, predominantly white Myers Park neighborhood.

Chambers continued the lawsuit even after the Swanns moved to New York, where Swann and his wife worked at Columbia University, and later to Hawaii before moving to India, where he researched Asian theater.    …

In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld court-ordered busing in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district, clearing the way for the use of busing as a means of desegregation. Swann learned of the decision while he was in a mountain village in India and read about it in an English-language newspaper.”

Finally, David K. Cohen and Arnold Packer, two men who contributed mightily to the education of others–and who also shaped my own professional life as much as anyone.   If you are at all wonkish about education, you are familiar with “The Shopping Mall High School,” which David, Arthur K. Powell, and Eleanor Farrar wrote in 1999.   Subtitled “Winners and Losers in the Educational MarketPlace,” the book was reviewed by Albert Shanker, a giant in the world of education.  He called it “A sobering analysis of current conditions in our secondary schools and how they got that way.”

A gifted writer, David was an even better teacher.  (Irony of ironies, David was also my wife’s favorite teacher when she attended the Harvard Graduate School of Education eleven years later.)  David was my doctoral thesis advisor, and a friend for many years thereafter.  He inspired thousands of other students to dig deeper and to ask questions. Moreover, he convinced self-doubting students–like me–that they could swim in a bigger pond, in deeper water.  

Dr. Arnold Packer, known everywhere as Arnie, was an economist, not an educator, and that was part of his appeal.  Plain-spoken and direct, Arnie had little patience for the love of jargon that seems to afflict the majority of educators.  “What does that mean, actually?” he would ask when some cloud of verbiage was filling a room.  He had serious credentials in the world of education because he was the principal architect of what were known as the SCANS skills.

If I may, another quick trip down memory lane: Sometime around 2002, Arnie and I created an interactive curriculum to teach math and writing to HS students. This unlikely partnership between an economist and a reporter came about because he and I sat together at an education conference, an experience that activated the BS detector mentioned above, big time. When the meeting ended, we went to a bar, and–after two or three beers–decided that we could do a much better job than the educators.

And we actually created a plan, first scribbled on napkins at the bar, then in prose, and then in a proposal to the US Department of Education, which was funding innovation in curriculum using technology.  We partnered with Baltimore City Schools and–wonder of wonders–got a multi-million dollar grant (most of it went to the school system).   

The high school English and Math curriculum we created was interactive and computer-based. Working in teams, students had to become merchants who were selling something in a mall. Big decisions about rent, store frontage, what to sell, staffing, loans, etc. That meant lots of math. They also had to write and present their business plan—to real business men and women–meaning writing and public speaking. 

Some English and math teachers teamed, and others did not, meaning we had a natural experiment. It worked, producing statistically significant differences in both subjects, plus improved attendance.  Arnie and I were over the moon, until the system killed it because it was logistically difficult to arrange schedules, or some crap like that. 

The trio—Arnie, John, and beer—cannot share credit equally, because Arnie was the driving force.  Later we worked together to create what Arnie called the “Verified Resumé,” an electronic portfolio that could be updated to reflect newly acquired skills, much more than college credits.  Again Arnie was the driving force, and I was his eager wingman.

Finally, here on Martha’s Vineyard, where I’ve been living since March, we lost Nelson Bryant, the venerable New York Times columnist who educated millions of readers about the intricate charms and essential value of the outdoors and Lee Fierro, a high school drama teacher who found fame as the actor who slapped Roy Scheider in “Jaws.”  Bryant, who parachuted into occupied France during World War II, was 96.  Fierro, who was 91, died of coronavirus complications, And finally, Dr. Susan Whiting Shanok, who although she was an international mediator who taught nations how to get along, is best remembered on the island for an incident that occurred many summers ago.  A teenager, Susan was working as a waitress, and one day she spilled an entire bowl of hot soup on the ‘Tough Guy’ actor and summer resident Jimmy Cagney.  Her immediate response: “Don’t worry, Mr. Cagney, I’ll get you another bowl of soup.”

Thanks to all of you, and may you rest in peace……