DON’T READ THESE BOOKS!  AND DO NOT VOTE!

When someone on Twitter posted a list of 25 popular books that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis had supposedly banned from the state’s public schools, people went crazy.  The list included Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” and Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time.” 

Below is a screenshot of the list. How many of these books have you read? Have your children read most of them?  What on earth is going on in Florida?

People familiar with DeSantis’s efforts to restrict classroom discussion of controversial topics had no trouble believing that he would try to prevent young people from reading controversial or challenging books. If DeSantis did draw up a list, these books might well be on it.

But the list is a fake, a clever satire.

Many people were fooled, including teacher union President Randi Weingarten and “Star Wars” actor Mark Hamill.   Hamill’s screenshot of the list amassed more than 100,000 likes and 24,000 retweets. 

(Add my name to the list of those who were taken in.)

Like all good satire, that fake list of banned books is rooted in truth, because book banning is real and growing.  Florida school districts  have banned around 200 books, according to a report published by PEN America, a nonprofit that tracks book banning in the U.S.  Pen America ranks Florida third among US states for banning books, trailing only Texas and Pennsylvania.

PolitiFact, which exposed the fraud, provides context here“Eight of the tweet’s 25 listed books were challenged in Florida’s Indian River County School District in February — “The Color Purple,” Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”; Alex Gino’s “George”; Judy Blume’s “Forever”; Angie Thomas’ “The Hate U Give”; Khaled Hosseini’s  “The Kite Runner”; Jay Asher’s “Thirteen Reasons Why”; and Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.”

The books were removed during an investigation, but the district later restored them, concluding they were appropriate for students.  

Likewise, Walton County in the Panhandle temporarily removed 58 books, including “George,” “Forever,” “The Hate U Give,” “The Kite Runner,” “Thirteen Reasons Why” and “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” for review in April.” 

At least in Nazi Germany, it was a short step from book banning to book burning….and beyond.  Those who would restrict books and ideas here in the United States should not be in positions of authority. No one should be afraid of ideas.

As noted above, the most reliable source of banned books is PEN America, which has been tracking this phenomenon for years.  Unfortunately, the movement seems to be picking up steam.  Take a look….

Back to that list.  Yes, it’s fake, but it is also a GREAT reading list for young people who want to explore essential questions: 

What does it mean to be human? 

How does one resolve tensions between self-interest and the needs of one’s community? 

What is courage? 

What is honor? 

If we cannot trust 18-year-olds with complex ideas, should they be voting? As it happens, the politicians who want to control what young people read also would be happy if they did not vote.

However, that isn’t going according to plan because young people have been voting.  Voter turnout among young people 18-29 jumped in 2020, according to CIRCLE (the Center for Information and Research in Civic Learning and Engagement)  at Tufts University.  “We estimate that 50% of young people, ages 18-29, voted in the 2020 presidential election, a remarkable 11-point increase from 2016 (39%) and likely one of the highest rates of youth electoral participation since the voting age was lowered to 18.” 

But 50% means half of young people are NOT voting.  It turns out that, if young people are registered, they are likely to vote, but not enough young people are registered. Laura Brill of the Civic Center wrote to political blogger Robert Hubbell on that point.  (The emphases are mine.)

With the school season starting, voter registration rates for the youngest voters remain shockingly low. According to our research, in many parts of the country, fewer than 25% of 18-year-olds are registered to vote. Another report shows that youth voter registration rates this summer were lower in many states than in 2018. 

I know your readers are looking for effective ways to promote democracy, and referring high school students to our programs so they can run voter registration drives in their schools is one of the best ways there is.  This can lead to hundreds of registrations in a single school. Roughly one million high school students will be old enough to vote in November. I’ve provided brief descriptions below in the hopes that you might let your readers know about these efforts.

High School Voter Registration Week (HSVRW, Sept. 19-23) is a national week of action for students around the country to register their classmates to vote. Students can take part in HSVRW by joining Future Voters Action Week or one of our one-hour workshops. Educators interested in registering their students are also welcome to attend!

Future Voters Action Week (FVAW) is a five-day virtual workshop that empowers high school students to spearhead their own advanced voter registration drives in their schools. The program enables students to finish the week with the team, strategy and resources they need to register their peers. Applications for Future Voters Action Week are here. Sessions start Aug. 29 and Sept. 12. We encourage students to apply now, as space is limited.

Best phone bank ever:  We’re training volunteers to phone schools to raise awareness about High School Voter Registration Week, to encourage schools to participate and to find relevant contacts. Trainings are Wednesdays at 4:30pm PT / 7:30pm ET.

I’m guessing that most of my readers are well beyond their teenage years. Maybe they (you) are grandparents, and, if that’s the case, please share the reading list-and the voting information–with your grandchildren.  

Reading, thinking, and discussing tough issues: that’s always important. Voting this fall is as important as it has ever been in our nation’s history.

LETS STUDENTS MAKE THE RULES

I hope to convince you that students, not teachers or school administrators, should make the rules governing classroom behavior, and so, if you aren’t a teacher or if you aren’t concerned about public education, you can skip this. 

The notion of letting students make the rules governing classroom behavior will be a heavy lift. Why?  Because public schools are fundamentally and deliberately anti-democratic. They are places where young people are told where to sit, when to talk, when to eat, when to play, what to read and think about, and more.  

Why are our schools anti-democratic? Perhaps to make it easier for the adults.  Perhaps because long ago we adopted the Prussian education model: lectures to children grouped by age. Or perhaps because we adults haven’t had much experience with democracy in our own lives.

But what better place to start practicing democracy than in classrooms and in schools, where kids of varying backgrounds are supposed to learn how to live and learn together.

What I am arguing for here is rare.  In 41 years of reporting, I visited thousands of elementary school classrooms, and virtually every one of them displayed–usually near the door–a poster listing the rules for student behavior.

These were store-bought, glossy, laminated posters.  No editing possible, and no thought required. Just follow orders!  Here’s an example:best 'class rules'

I can imagine teachers reading the rules aloud to the children on the first day of class and only referring to them whenever things got loud or rowdy.

“Now, children, remember Rule 4.  No calling out unless I call on you.”

I am partial to classrooms where the children and their teacher spent some time at the beginning of the year deciding what the rules should be and figuring out what sort of classroom they want to spend their year in. I watched that process more than a few times. First, teachers asked their students to engage.

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

Some teachers led 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 the students invariably came up with reasonable rules much like those on the laminated posters: Listen, Be Respectful, Raise Your Hand, Be Kind, and so forth.  But there’s a difference, because these were their rules, and teachers and principals told me that, when students create the rules, they own them and are therefore more likely to adhere to them.

Not just rule-making. I’d give students more say in what they study as well, because I believe that a good education system is–insofar as it is possible–both personalized and child-centric.  Giving students–at all levels–more ‘agency’ over their education means figuring out what each student is interested in and then using those interests to see that they learn to read with comprehension, work with numbers, speak in public, and work well with others.

However, students shouldn’t get to make all the decisions about what they’re studying.  After all, a central purpose of school is the transmission of knowledge, and so the basics are also part of the deal.  Young children need to learn spelling rules (“I before E, except after C”), the multiplication tables, how to divide and carry, and other basics. They need to know that letters have sounds associated with them (i.e., Phonics and Phonemic Awareness).  Someone has to teach them that, if you put an E at the end of words like ‘ton,’ the O sound changes from ‘short’ to ‘long.’  

Giving students power over their learning will, eventually, make teaching easier.  I was a high school English teacher many years ago, assigned students in the lower academic tracks. They were supposed to write a few papers (we called them ‘themes’) during the year, and I probably gave them assignments based on whatever play or novel we were reading.  So I ended up reading 125 papers about ‘Macbeth,’  ‘All Quiet on the Western Front,’ or Shirley Jackson’s short story, ‘The Lottery.’   That takes a toll on the teacher!

(Side note: NO English teacher should be responsible for 125 students! That’s an impossible task that forces teachers to triage.)

If I were teaching high school English today, I would ask each student to identify three or four things they were curious about. Then I would spend a few minutes with each student, getting that list down to one topic.  I’d ask for a 1-page ‘memo’ of their thoughts about how they would approach the topic, followed a week or so later by an outline.

When I discovered that some students shared an interest in the same general topic, I would connect them and urge them to share their pursuit of knowledge. 

Because I would be looking at drafts of their work, the chances of them downloading someone else’s work from the internet would be minimized.

I would also ask students to create a webpage where essays could be shared with students and the community at large.  Pride of publication is a great motivator!

Math teachers could invite students to create word problems that reflect their own interests.  A youngster interested in farming oysters might create problems that provide data about the cost of ‘seed,’ the rate of loss, the time involved in transferring the ‘seed’ as it begins to mature, the labor costs involved in harvesting. What’s the rate of return on investment if…..?

The draconian opposite–Giving children no say in the rule-making process–can be found in so-called “No Excuses” schools.  The poster child is Eva Moskowitz and her Success Academies, a chain of charter schools in New York City.  A few years ago on my blog I published Success Academies’ draconian list of offenses that can lead to suspension, about 65 of them in all.   Here are three that can get a child as young as five a suspension that can last as long as five days: “Slouching/failing to be in ‘Ready to Succeed’ position” more than once,  “Getting out of one’s seat without permission at any point during the school day,” and “Making noise in the hallways, in the auditorium, or any general building space without permission.”   Her code includes a catch-all, vague offense that all of us are guilty of at times, “Being off-task.”   You can find the entire list here.

(Another side note: the federal penitentiary I taught in had fewer rules.)

Preparing young people for life in a functioning democracy won’t be easy because it means that adults have to change their behavior.  Their challenge is to ask and answer a different question about every young person–How Is This Student Smart?  Humans are curious by nature, and every child has interests and abilities that can be built on, and so teachers might consider asking questions, instead of simply giving assignments: 

          What would make this material appealing to you? 

          What would persuade you to invest your energies in this subject? 

          What else are you interested in?  

I also believe young people should be deeply involved in figuring out how their efforts will be measured.  It makes no sense to wait for end-of-the-year bubble test results or for teachers to arbitrarily say ‘This passes” or “This doesn’t.”  Teachers and students should assess progress frequently, take a clear-headed look at the results, and adapt accordingly. 

Education is much more than knowledge transmission. Much of what goes on is the development and creation of the individual.  What Jacques Barzun called “Building a Self” involves discovery and trial-and-error, and that journey becomes much more interesting when kids are creating knowledge, not just giving back the right answers in order to get good grades.  

The goal of education, wherever it’s occurring, is not correct answers. The end game is life-long curiosity.

Weaponizing Public Schools

“Whoever has the youth has the future.” Adolf Hitler

“Education is a weapon, whose effect depends on who holds it in his hands and at whom it is aimed.” Josef Stalin

“Revolution and education are the same thing.”  Fidel Castro

Like Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, and Fidel Castro, Vladimir Putin is following a well-trod path, using Russia’s 40,000 schools to train all Russian children to believe what they are told and follow orders.  Here in some American states, public schools are also being weaponized, but in different ways.

As the New York Times reported, “Starting in first grade, students across Russia will soon sit through weekly classes featuring war movies and virtual tours through Crimea. They will be given a steady dose of lectures on topics like “the geopolitical situation” and “traditional values.” In addition to a regular flag-raising ceremony, they will be introduced to lessons celebrating Russia’s “rebirth” under President Vladimir V. Putin.”  They will also learn how to ‘uncover falsifications in the Fatherland’s history’ and to ‘defend historical truth.’   

“We need to know how to infect them with our ideology,” Serge Novikov, described by The Times as a senior Kremlin bureaucrat,  said.  “Our ideological work is aimed at changing consciousness.”  

And, chillingly, Novikov defined patriotism as “Readiness to give one’s life for the Motherland.”

That was Hitler’s view as well.  He believed that education served a sole purpose – to ensure that all children would be loyal to the Nazi state so that the Third Reich would last 1000 years.  As he wrote in  ‘Mein Kampf.’  “Whoever has the youth has the future”.

Josef Stalin understood education to be an important weapon:  “Education is a weapon, whose effect depends on who holds it in his hands and at whom it is aimed.” But Stalin also expanded education dramatically, with the goal of universal literacy. Prior to the Russian Revolution, schooling was for the elite only.

Likewise Cuba:  While Fidel Castro also hoped to achieve universal literacy, he did not lose sight of his goal. “Revolution and education are the same thing,” the Cuban dictator said. Che Guevara, his lieutenant, echoed that view: “To build communism, a new man must be created. . . . Society as a whole must become a huge school.” 

Even today in Cuba, “the schools are the linchpins in the ideological struggle,” a Cuban educator said.  Mabel Maria Ruiz, a school principal in an upscale Havana suburb, says her goal is to teach students to give unconditional support for the Cuban government.  “Wherever the revolution tells them ‘You are needed,’ they must be capable of stepping up,” she said. “That’s the challenge and that is what we are forming them for.”

These dictators were teaching impressionable young children what Wilfred Owen, the brilliant World War I poet, called the old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.  (“It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”)

Long before coming to power in China, Mao Tse Tung wrote in 1941, “A policy should be established of focusing such education on the study of the practical problems of the Chinese revolution and using the basic principles of Marxism-Leninism as the guide, and the method of studying Marxism-Leninism statically and in isolation should be discarded.  Once in power, he declared that “Bourgeois intellectuals could not be trusted with the education of the people.”  Thousands of the teachers and professors in China were sent to reeducation camps, and literacy rates in rural China dropped sharply as “politically correct” students were put in charge. 

I saw the damage Mao had wreaked first-hand in 1977, when I spent several weeks in the Chinese countryside visiting schools. Most of the classrooms I visited were led by Young Pioneers or Red Guards, clad in their distinctive red kerchiefs, seemingly about the same age as the students.   And, although Mao’s disastrous Cultural Revolution was over, its scars were clearly visible. I interviewed teachers who had been confined to ‘reeducation camps’ until they renounced their previous lives and work. My most vivid memory is of a concert violinist (and former music teacher) whose knuckles on both hands had been smashed by Red Guards, to keep him from playing ‘decadent’ classical music

Under Mao, 130 million children between the ages of 6 and 14 were required to belong to the Young Pioneers, and today Putin seems to be adopting Mao’s approach.  Russian children will be encouraged to join the “Pioneers,” a new patriotic youth movement, the Times reported.  Young Russians will apparently wear red kerchiefs, a visual echo of Mao’s “Young Pioneers” and “Red Guards.”  

Stalin, Castro, Mao, and even Hitler professed to be intent on creating a better world for their people, as does Vladimir Putin. First, however, the people had to be “properly” educated so they wouldn’t question their leaders.  

But George Orwell saw them for what they were: power-hungry despots.  Here’s what he wrote in 1984, his classic novel.  “The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power……Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now you begin to understand me.”

Here in the United States, public education and public school teachers are squarely in the sights of some Republican politicians.  Instead of echoing Putin or Hitler, they are waving the flag of “Parents’ Rights.” 

Among the Republicans waging what should properly be called a war against public education are Governors Ron DeSantis of Florida, Bill Lee of Tennessee, Kay Ivey of Alabama, Greg Abbott of Texas, Brian Kemp of Georgia, Kristi Noem of South Dakota, Doug Ducey of Arizona, Tate Reeves of Mississippi, Brad Little in Idaho, Eric Holcomb in Indiana, and Kim Reynolds of Iowa. 

They are eagerly copying Glenn Youngkin, the conservative who was elected Virginia’s governor in 2021 largely because he presented himself as a staunch defender of parents and their children–and by extension the entire community–against ‘indoctrination’ by leftist teachers who, Youngkin said, were making white children feel guilty about being white. 

So-called “Critical Race Theory” is not taught in public schools, but that’s not stopping the politicians from using it as a whipping boy.  Florida’s DeSantis put it this way: “Florida’s education system exists to create opportunity for our children. Critical Race Theory teaches kids to hate our country and to hate each other. It is state-sanctioned racism and has no place in Florida schools.”  And Florida has now banned a number of math textbooks, accusing the publishers of trying to indoctrinate children with Critical Race Theory. 

A blogger who’s particularly upset, Michael McCaffrey, put it this way: 

“Indoctrinating children with CRT is akin to systemic child abuse, as it steals innocence, twists minds, and crushes spirits. Parents must move heaven and earth to protect their children, and they can start by coming together and rooting out CRT from their schools by any and all legal means necessary.” 

In the name of “defeating” CRT, Tennessee’s Governor Bill Lee has invited Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian institution based in Michigan, to create 50 charter schools in Tennessee with public funds, including $32 million for facilities.  As the New York Times reported, Governor Lee believes these schools will develop “informed patriotism” in Tennessee’s children. 

It’s not just CRT.  Republican politicians are also campaigning against transgender athletes, transgender bathrooms, mental health counseling, any discussion of sexuality, and for the “right” of parents to examine and veto school curriculums. While I have written about these issues here, it’s important to remember that less than 2% of students identify as transgender or gender-fluid. 

And it’s not just Republican Governors who are openly hostile to public schools.  Popular blogger Peter Greene recently described the activities of two Lieutenant Governors: 

In April, Idaho’s Lt. Governor Janice McGeachin set up a task force “to examine indoctrination in Idaho education based on critical race theory, socialism, communism, and Marxism.” After soliciting tips online, the task force held a four hour hearing in August. After hearing testimony “split on whether indoctrination is a problem in public schools,” the task force then unveiled and approved a half-dozen new proposals (one wonders if the folks who had just given testimony then suspected they had been wasting their time).

The Idaho task force proposals included one to make Idaho’s law banning certain teachings more explicitly forbid critical race theory; to ban use of federal grant money for crt-type activities (apparently referencing a Biden administration rule prioritizing culturally responsive teaching); to oppose a diversity policy being considered by the State Board; and to support school choice, favoring education savings accounts, a version of school vouchers.

Last March, North Carolina Lt. Governor Mark Robinson announced the Fairness and Accountability in the Classroom for Teachers and Students (FACTS) task force. The stated goals included holding education officials accountable and providing a means for teachers and parents to report indoctrination where they found it. The task force included three members with ties to the ultra-conservative John Locke Foundation, two conservative GOP lawmakers, the head of the North Carolina Coalition for Charter Schools, and Baker Mitchell, who owns a group of “classic education” charter schools which he has used to make considerable profit.

It’s not difficult to connect the dots: Republicans are attacking public schools, accusing them of ‘grooming’ their children to be gay, of making white children ashamed of their race, of undermining American patriotism and pride, and more.  One goal is to persuade more parents to home-school their children, or enroll them in non-union Charter Schools, or use vouchers to pay non-public school tuition. Public  school enrollment will drop, teachers will be laid off, teacher union revenue will decline, and less money will flow to Democrats.  

But it seems to me that their real target is not parents but potential voters who do not have any connection with public education.  Remember that in most communities about 75% of households do not have school-age children; many of these folks are older, and older people vote! If Republicans can convince these potential voters that schools (and Democrats) cannot be trusted, they will win.

And Republicans seem to be winning.  Teacher morale is low, and teachers are leaving the field in droves.  Florida and California will have significant teacher shortages this fall, and one state, New Mexico, had to call in the National Guard to serve as substitutes.  Enrollment is declining at institutions that train their replacements, and student enrollment in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles public schools dropped for the second consecutive year. 

I began by contrasting the approach of dictators like Putin, Hitler and Stalin with the strategies being employed by Republican politicians. However, there are also disturbing similarities.  Florida’s DeSantis, now polling strongly for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, recently signed legislation requiring public high schools to devote 45 minutes to teaching students about “the victims of Communism.” 

Florida has also passed two bills limiting classroom conversations about race and racism and restricting younger students’ access to lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity, but Florida is not alone.  The newspaper Education Week reports that fifteen states have passed similar legislation over the past year, and 26 others have introduced bills attempting to restrict these lessons.  

Forbidding discussion of Topic X and mandating discussion of Topic Y:  That’s exactly what Mao, Hitler, Stalin, and Castro did, and it’s precisely what Putin– and some Republican politicians–are now doing.

Why Do Republican Politicians Hate Public Schools?

Why do so many Republican politicians hate public education and the idea of ‘the common school’?  It’s a reasonable question, given that many GOP leaders are actively working to undercut or sabotage public education.  For a detailed explanation of the Republican anti-public school war, see this New York Times article by Jennifer C. Berkshire and Jack Schneider or my recent blog post, “Saving Public Schools, One State at a Time.” 

Want names?  OK, the Generals in this war on public education include Governors Ron DeSantis of Florida, Bill Lee of Tennessee, Kay Ivey of Alabama, Greg Abbott of Texas, Brian Kemp of Georgia, Kristi Noem of South Dakota, Glenn Youngkin of Virginia, Doug Ducey of Arizona, Tate Reeves of Mississippi, Brad Little of Idaho, Eric Holcomb of Indiana, and Kim Reynolds of Iowa. Former Florida Governor (and failed Presidential candidate) Jeb Bush, who has been trying to break up public education for years, hasn’t stopped.  In the US Senate, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Mike Braun, and Joni Ernst, all Republicans, are vocal critics of public education.

At the end of the day, exactly why these men and women are hostile to ‘the common school’ is a matter of conjecture.  Some, with their fingers to the wind, are trying to get out in front of what they think is a winning issue.  That is, they are craven politicians in the worst sense of the word.

Others are anti-union, plain and simple.  Teachers are, after all, the most heavily unionized of all workers, and they vote overwhelmingly Democratic.

But I suspect that most of these Republicans are anti-public schools because they are anti just about everything that’s ‘public.’  They oppose anything that smacks of community, but especially common experiences in secular institutions.  They don’t like the idea of shared values, an adequate ‘social safety net,’ welfare, Social Security, national service, the draft, a living wage, unions, worker solidarity, or any semblance of a ‘national dialogue’ about what it means to be an American.

(The notable exceptions, Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland and Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, who has been drummed out of his party, prove the rule.)

“Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country” is an alien concept that would fall on their deaf ears. Their basic  buzzwords are ‘liberty‘ and ‘religious freedom.’  In education, they support  ‘choice’ and ‘vouchers.’  That means diverting public money from public schools and into alternatives, including religious schools.  

These Republicans, who were already winning their war on public education, now they have the US Supreme Court on their side. As Sam Abrams of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education noted recently, “In tandem with its reversal of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court stands to substantially alter everyday life in America with its recent decisions of ­Carson v. Makin, amplifying its support for public funding of religious schools, and Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, allowing prayer in public schools.

The significance of Kennedy is blunt. With the Court ruling 6-3 along party lines that the dismissal of a football coach at a public high school in the state of Washington for holding post-game prayer meetings violated his First Amendment right to free exercise of religion, we can expect similar meetings as well as Bible study sessions, nativity pageants, and the like in public schools across the country. Such events will surely lead some students to feel coerced into participating for fear of disappointing peers and authority figures. In her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor indeed noted that a lower court had determined that some players said they joined the coach’s prayer meetings “because they felt social pressure to follow their coach and teammates.”

The significance of Carson is more subtle but equally profound. In Carson, the same justices ruled 6-3—as forecasted on this site following oral arguments in December—that Maine’s exclusion of religious schools from partaking in its Town Tuitioning Program likewise violated the right to free exercise of religion. This program covers all or part of the cost for students in rural districts without high schools to attend either public or nonsectarian private high schools in nearby districts or beyond (if the school is public, the total cost is covered; if it is private, coverage is pegged to per-pupil statewide average spending). With this decision, we can expect religious groups in considerably rural states across the country to lobby legislators to create programs similar to Maine’s.”

Abrams concludes, “The public school as a neutral common ground is over.”  I urge you to read his full analysis. 

A Supreme Court dominated by radical Christians plus opportunistic politicians determined to undermine public education by choking off funding and driving out teachers.  That sounds hopeless, but it’s not.  As I wrote recently, these battles will be fought state-by-state.  Most parents support public education, but that’s not enough.  Rather than defending the common school, teachers, their unions, and all with the power to influence schools ought to be championing ‘uncommon’ education.

I’ve written about this elsewhere so suffice it to say here that we desperately need a paradigm shift. Away from public schools that ask about each child ‘How Smart Are You?’ and then trust standardized tests to provide the answer.  Toward schools and educators who seek to know “How Is This Child Smart?” and then build on every child’s interests and curiosity to help them reach their fullest potential.  

That’s not pie-in-the-sky; it’s what many parents and the best teachers have always done……..but it won’t just happen by itself.  It’s not enough to play defense.  Yes, fight back against the DeSantises of the world, but also work for and demand positive change.

WHAT’S THIS PICTURE WORTH?

Some believe that a picture is worth 10,000 words, but I’m hoping this particular photo is worth some money. That’s my bike’s odometer reading on Friday afternoon, after I successfully “biked my age” for the 12th year in a row.

If you think this particular photo is worth $810, or $81, or even $8,100, please donate to World Central Kitchen, Chef José Andrés remarkable organization that is feeding thousands and thousands of children and their families in the war-torn Ukraine, which is still being hammered by the brutal invading army from neighboring Russia.

Here’s how World Central Kitchen started, in Chef Andrés’ own words: 

“It all began in 2010 after a huge earthquake devastated Haiti. Cooking alongside displaced Haitians in a camp, I found myself getting schooled in how to cook black beans the way they wanted: mashed and sieved into a creamy sauce.

You see, food relief is not just a meal that keeps hunger away. It’s a plate of hope. It tells you in your darkest hour that someone, somewhere, cares about you.

This is the real meaning of comfort food. It’s why we make the effort to cook in a crisis.

We don’t just deliver raw ingredients and expect people to fend for themselves. And we don’t just dump free food into a disaster zone: we source and hire locally wherever we can, to jump-start economic recovery through food.

After a disaster, food is the fastest way to rebuild our sense of community. We can put people back to work preparing it, and we can put lives back together by fighting hunger.

Cooking and eating together is what makes us human.

Since those early days our journey has taken World Central Kitchen all over the world. We fed an island after Hurricane Maria destroyed Puerto Rico. We fed tens of millions struggling with the Covid-19 pandemic. We put boots on the ground when a blast devastated Beirut, bushfires ripped through Australia, and a volcano transformed a Spanish island.

We were under a bridge with thousands of asylum seekers in Texas, in a demolished Kentucky town after brutal tornadoes, on the Louisiana coast when yet another enormous hurricane made landfall.

We have traveled a long way together, with support from people just like you….

At times like these, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the scale of the challenges we face, and the speed of each new crisis.

But many complex problems have simple solutions. Sometimes you just need to decide to do something. Sometimes you just have to show up with a sandwich or some warm rice and beans.

You’d be amazed at the power of a plate of food. It can change the world, and so can you.”

Again, here’s how you can help change the world. 

“Cyclus Interruptus”

On my 81st birthday one week ago, I wrote of my plans to ‘bike my age,’ something I have managed to do every year since turning 70.  Unfortunately, it didn’t happen, because I tested positive for COVID-19 on my birthday. 

However, my streak is not officially over!   I have successfully appealed to ABBA, the Annual Birthday Biking Association, for an ‘Act of God” exemption. I reached out to ABBA at its international headquarters in Stockholm, Sweden, where I spoke with the organization’s Executive Director, a woman who identified herself as Agneta Åse Fältskog, and who also turns out to be an avid biker.  ABBA’s leader told me that after testing negative I would have 30 days to start and finish an 81-mile-ride within a 24 hour period. 

Older readers may recall that I had some involvement with ABBA in previous years, described here.  Two years ago, I joined ABBA and pledged to follow the highly-regarded group’s rather stringent rules, including these four:  

A.  The cyclist may not get off the bike more than 7 times during the ride;

B.  Nap or rest breaks cannot exceed 15 minutes, and no more than two naps are allowed during the competitive effort;

C.  No performance-enhancing drugs;

D. No sex during the ride. This provision continues to be the subject of much debate within ABBA. All the French and Italian ABBA members, men and women, want the rule revised to prohibit unprotected sex, but not all sex. That debate continues, which means I–now 81–will do my best to abide by the current rule.

In an attempt to imbue my somewhat trivial and self-centered pursuit with gravitas, I’ve asked friends and other readers to donate $81, $810, or some other dollar amount to Chef José Andrés’ “World Central Kitchen” in support of the beleaguered citizens of war-torn Ukraine.  Many of you did, and I am grateful.

If you haven’t gotten around to donating to WCK, here’s how to donate.   Thanks……

And thanks for reading this “Lack of Progress Report.” I tested negative yesterday morning, so the clock is ticking….

Biking for Ukraine

Friends,

You may already be donating to help the citizens of war-torn Ukraine, but here’s another opportunity: my annual “Bike My Age” ride. Because I am hoping to extend my streak of “Biking My Age” to 12 years in a row, I’m asking you to contribute $81 or $810 (or add more zeroes if you are so inclined!) to the World Central Kitchen, the remarkable organization founded by Chef José Andrés. Just click this link to donate. 

Perhaps you will also be good enough to make your commitment public by responding at the bottom of this page.  That might encourage others to support this most worthy of causes

Today is my actual 81st birthday, but I’m not attempting an 81-mile ride today for three reasons: 1) It’s too hot to bike. 2) I am slowly recovering from spending 10 hours traveling on Saturday (plane and cars) and another 7 hours in a car yesterday.  And 3), I have a tear in the labrum tissue in my right hip joint, along with some bone spurs.

All of which adds up to the very real possibility that I may not make it.

But please don’t make your contribution dependent on my ride. Donate now…..

Thanks,

John

Education’s “Proficiency” Deception

If you’ve ever wondered why, even though most parents are satisfied with their children’s public schools, many politicians and policymakers are vocal and often harsh critics of American public education, here’s the answer in a single word, PROFICIENT.

The real world defines PROFICIENT as “Adept, skilled, skillful, expert.” It means having great knowledge and experience in a trade or profession. Proficient implies a thorough competence derived from training and practice.”  Proficiency is a pretty high bar.  

Unfortunately, public education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the so-called “Nation’s Report Card,” presumes that all students who fail  to reach proficiency are either falling behind or are already failures.  

For complicated, bizarre, and political reasons, NAEP established only four benchmarks: Below Basic, Basic, Proficient, and Advanced.  As veteran school superintendent Jim Harvey points out, the media and those hostile to public education are quick to assume that “proficient” means being on grade level.  It does not!  In fact, students who score at the ‘basic’ level are on track to graduate.  And, as you will read below, half of 17-year-olds denigrated by NAEP as ‘basic’ have earned their college degrees!

So when you read alarming stories about how many American students are ‘below grade level,’ dig deeper, because chances are those spouting the ‘statistics’ have an agenda.  

Below is James Harvey’s analysis, which I endorse.  Jim is a savvy observer who recognizes that public education has its share of problems….but widespread failure is not one of them.

Every couple of years, public alarm spikes over reports that only one-third of American students are performing at grade level in reading and math. No matter the grade — fourth, eighth or 12th — these reports claim that tests designed by the federal government, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), demonstrate that our kids can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. It’s nonsense.

In fact, digging into the data on NAEP’s website reveals, for example, that 81 percent of American fourth-graders are performing at grade level in mathematics. Reading? Sixty-six percent. How could this one-third distortion come to be so widely accepted? Through a phenomenon that Humpty Dumpty described best to Alice in “Through the Looking Glass”: “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean.”

Here, the part of Humpty Dumpty was played by Reagan-era political appointees to a policy board overseeing NAEP. The members of the National Assessment Governing Board, most with almost no grounding in statistics, chose to define the term “proficient” as a desirable goal in the face of expert opinion that such a goal was “indefensible.”

Here’s a typical account from the New York Times in 2019 reporting on something that is accurate as far as it goes: results from NAEP indicate that only about one-third of fourth- and eighth-graders are “proficient” in reading.

But that statement quickly turns into the misleading claim that only one-third of American students are on grade level. The 74, for example, obtained $4 million from the Walton and DeVos foundations in 2015 by insisting that “less than half of our students can read or do math at grade-level.”

The claim rests on a careless conflation of NAEP’s “proficient” benchmark with grade-level performance. The NAEP assessment sorts student scores into three achievement levels — basic, proficient, and advanced. The terms are mushy and imprecise. Still, there’s no doubt that the federal test makers who designed NAEP see “proficient” as the desirable standard, what they like to describe as “aspirational.”

However, as Peggy Carr from the National Center for Education Statistics, which funds NAEP, has said repeatedly, if people want to know how many students are performing at grade level, they should be looking at the “basic” benchmark. By that logic, students at grade level would be all those at the basic level or above, which is to say that grade-level performance in reading and mathematics in grades 4, 8 and 12, is almost never below 60 percent and reaches as high as 81 percent.

And the damage doesn’t stop with NAEP. State assessments linked to NAEP’s benchmarks amplify this absurd claim annually, state by state.

While there’s plenty to be concerned about in the NAEP results, anxiety about the findings should focus on the inequities they reveal, not the proportion of students who are “proficient.”

Considering the expenditure of more than a billion dollars on NAEP over 50-odd years, one would expect that NAEP could defend its benchmarks by pointing to rock-solid studies of their validity and the science behind them. It cannot.

Instead, the department has spent the better part of 30 years fending off a scientific consensus that the benchmarks are absurd. Indeed, the science behind these benchmarks is so weak that Congress insists that every NAEP report include the following disclaimer: “[The Department of Education] has determined that NAEP achievement levels should continue to be used on a trial basis and should be interpreted with caution” (emphasis added).

Criticisms of the NAEP achievement levels

What is striking in reviewing the history of NAEP is how easily its policy board has shrugged off criticisms about the standards-setting process. The critics constitute a roll call of the statistical establishment’s heavyweights. Criticisms from the likes of the National Academy of Education, the Government Accounting Office, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Brookings Institution have issued scorching complaints that the benchmark-setting processes were “fundamentally flawed,” “indefensible,” and “of doubtful validity,” while producing “results that are not believable.”

How unbelievable? Fully half the 17-year-olds maligned as being just basic by NAEP obtained four-year college degrees. About one-third of Advanced Placement Calculus students, the crème de la crème of American high school students, failed to meet the NAEP proficiency benchmark. While only one-third of American fourth-graders are said to be proficient in reading by NAEP, international assessments of fourth-grade reading judged American students to rank as high as No. 2 in the world.

For the most part, such pointed criticism from assessment experts has been greeted with silence from NAEP’s policy board.

Proficient doesn’t mean proficient

Oddly, NAEP’s definition of proficiency has little or nothing to do with proficiency as most people understand the term. NAEP experts think of NAEP’s standard as “aspirational.” In 2001, two experts associated with NAGB made it clear that:

“[T]he proficient achievement level does not refer to “at grade” performance. Nor is performance at the Proficient level synonymous with ‘proficiency’ in the subject. That is, students who may be considered proficient in a subject, given the common usage of the term, might not satisfy the requirements for performance at the NAEP achievement level.”

Lewis Carroll’s insight into Humpty Dumpty’s hubris leads ineluctably to George Orwell’s observation that “[T]he slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

NAEP and international assessments

NAEP’s proficiency benchmark might be more convincing if most students abroad could handily meet it. That case cannot be made. Sophisticated analyses between 2007 and 2019 demonstrate that not a single nation can demonstrate that even 50 percent of its students can clear the proficiency benchmark in fourth-grade reading, while only three could do so in eighth-grade math and one in eighth-grade science. NAEP’s “aspirational” benchmark is pie-in-the-sky on a truly global scale.

What to do?

NAEP is widely understood to be the “gold standard” in large-scale assessments. That appellation applies to the technical qualities of the assessment (sampling, questionnaire development, quality control and the like) not to the benchmarks. It is important to say that the problem with NAEP doesn’t lie in the assessments themselves, the students, or the schools. The fault lies in the peculiar definition of proficiency applied after the fact to the results.

Here are three simple things that could help fix the problem:

  • The Department of Education should simply rename the NAEP benchmarks as low, intermediate, high, and advanced.
  • The department should insist that the congressional demand that these benchmarks are to be used on a trial basis and interpreted with caution should figure prominently, not obscurely, in NAEP publications and on its website.
  • States should revisit the decision to tie their “college readiness” standards to NAEP’s proficiency or advanced benchmarks. (They should also stop pretending they can identify whether fourth-graders are “on track” to be “college ready.”)

The truth is that the NAEP governing board lets down the American people by laying the foundation for this confusion. In doing so, board members help undermine faith in our government, already under attack for promoting “fake news.” The “fake news” here is that only one-third of American kids are performing at grade level.

It’s time the Department of Education made a serious effort to stamp out that falsehood.

If you’d like to reach Jim, write to him at harvey324@gmail.com.

SAVING PUBLIC SCHOOLS, ONE STATE AT A TIME

Anyone paying attention is aware that Republicans are waging open war on public schools.  What’s less clear are the root causes of the war, the reasons Republicans are implacably hostile to public education.  

I believe there are three:  1) The GOP’s animosity toward unions; 2) Seething resentment of years of ‘social engineering’ by the Federal Government, which has often used education policy to try to remake other parts of American society; and 3) Anger at the Democrats’ broken promise that ‘education is the ticket to the middle class.’

The anger has bubbled over and has put public education squarely in the sights of many Republican politicians, who are now engaged in open warfare against public schools.  Waving the flag of “Parents’ Rights,” they have jumped on hot-button issues like transgender bathrooms and Critical Race Theory, even though these iissues have little or nothing to do with what actually happens in classrooms.  Why these ambitious politicians are going after public schools is not complicated. They’re trying to enhance their status with the conservative wing of the GOP and perhaps position themselves to run for President in 2024.  At the local level, some Republican activists have embraced the same issues (plus mask mandates) and have been disrupting school board meetings and threatening elected school board officials.

The Generals in this war include Governors Ron DeSantis of Florida, Bill Lee of Tennessee, Kay Ivey of Alabama, Greg Abbott of Texas, Brian Kemp of Georgia, Kristi Noem of South Dakota, Glenn Youngkin of Virginia, Doug Ducey of Arizona, Tate Reeves of Mississippi, Brad Little in Idaho, Eric Holcomb in Indiana, and Kim Reynolds of Iowa. Former Florida Governor (and failed Presidential candidate) Jeb Bush has been trying to break up public education for years, and he hasn’t stopped.

If public education is to be saved, other governors will have to step up, and soon.

FALSE PROMISES:  Is education the gateway to the middle class? Ask the 46 million Americans whose college loan debt approaches $1.75 trillion!   $1,750,000,000,000 is enough to pay for four years at Harvard for 23 million students. While some who took out student loans are now enjoying successful careers, many more former students are still deeply in debt–with little to show for it.

For 70 years Democrats preached a powerful message: Education is the highway to upward mobility and economic success. They won elections by telling voters that public schools were, in Barack Obama’s words, “ladders of opportunity.”   Work hard in school, Democrats promised, and you can achieve the American Dream.  But for the past 40 or so years, that promise, sadly, has been largely an empty one, because social mobility has been elusive for most Americans since the late 1970’s. In other words, for about 40 years Democrats have been making false promises that schools have not been able to keep.

A study published in 2008 showed that, while economic mobility in the U.S. increased from 1950 to 1980, it  has declined sharply since then; another study by the Brookings Institution in 2013 found that income inequality was becoming more permanent, thus sharply reducing social mobility.  In other words, if you begin school today as a low income student and work your tail off to achieve academically, the odds are that you are more likely to become a low income adult than to be a thriving member of America’s middle class. 

Although it’s not the school system’s fault that the American social structure is rigidly stratified, it is irresponsible and hypocritical to make false promises to millions of young people.  Unfortunately, the Democratic Party hasn’t changed its basic message.  Democrats haven’t accepted the reality that today’s public schools are more likely to ratify the existing social order, rather than provide those “ladders of opportunity” that President Obama talked about.

So what about the millions who bought that line and worked hard in school but still haven’t climbed the social and economic ladder? What about the millions who are saddled with crippling debt?   Instead of questioning the validity of their own assumptions about school as a ladder to success, some Democrats seem to blame the victims (“I guess they just didn’t work hard enough”). That’s a sure-fire recipe for stoking anger and resentment among voters, which savvy Republicans have capitalized on.

“SOCIAL ENGINEERING:”  Ever since the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision outlawing school segregation, the Federal Government has been using the schools to try to change other aspects of American society, in hopes of making life more fair for all citizens.  The logic was straightforward: If we can change the attitudes of children, they will grow up to be broad-minded adults. However, the attempts at what opponents called ‘social engineering’ upset a large swath of American society, including white conservatives, evangelical Christians, and proponents of state’s rights.  This was ‘federal intrusion’ for many Republicans, whose suspicion of–and hostility toward–the federal government seems to be in their DNA.  It was President Ronald Reagan, the Republican icon, who proclaimed in his 1981 inaugural address, “Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.”   

Education is a particular flash point. The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution reads, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution nor prohibited by it to the states are reserved to the states respectively or to the people.”  Because the Constitution never specifically mentions education, it is, by default, a state function.  However, 49 states (all except Hawaii) have ceded most authority over schools to local communities, hence the hallowed notion of “Local Control.”

Despite the 10th Amendment, well-intentioned Democrats (especially President Lyndon Johnson) wanted to use public schools as a lever to change not just schools but the larger society:  Make life fairer for all Americans, end racial discrimination, and make the American economy more competitive.  But this ‘social engineering’ to improve society required spending more money on the education of poor and minority students; it meant supporting court-ordered school integration.  And it upset the white status quo and its hallowed “Local Control” of public schools. 

“Local Control” has enabled schools to evolve into a mechanism to identify, label, and sort children from a very young age, a system that often perpetuates bias.  Even though tracking has long since fallen out of favor, “Local Control” allows most schools still have subtle, or not-so-subtle, tracking systems. They ask one question about a student–“How Smart Are You?”–and then use standardized test scores to provide the answer.  Because scores correlate closely with parental income and education levels, by third or fourth grade most kids know, deep down, whether the system sees them as ‘winners’ bound for college or ‘losers’ headed somewhere else.  “Local Control” also helps maintain the status quo.  Because school characteristics are nearly always a function of a community’s wealth, some schools are decrepit to the point of being unsafe, which has the effect of ‘tracking’ those students downward. Schools in wealthy communities have modern facilities, the most experienced teachers, the latest technology, and perhaps even climbing walls in the gym. That is the track for ‘winners’.

Throughout the second half of the 20th Century, Washington increased its presence in and influence over public education.  In 1965, President Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act(ESEA) increased the federal presence in local schools. In 1975 Congress passed the Education of All Handicapped Children Act, which guaranteed a free, appropriate public education to each child with a disability in every state and locality across the country, but this essential law was widely seen by Republicans (including President Gerald Ford) as an ‘unfunded mandate’ requiring schools to spend money they didn’t have.  Jimmy Carter’s decision to create a federal Cabinet-level Department of Education in 1979 further enraged conservatives and states-righters, and in 1983, “A Nation at Risk” warned us that our schools were ‘drowning in a rising tide of mediocrity.’  The ensuing clamor raised standards and tightened academic requirements but also kicked started high-stakes testing. 

Make no mistake, federal involvement in education has improved the lives of millions of American children. Title One of ESEA created educational opportunities for disadvantaged kids, as did Head Start. The handicapped legislation brought hundreds of thousands of disabled children out of attics and institutions and into public schools.

Eventually and inevitably, however, Washington went ‘a bridge too far,’ notably with George W. Bush’s ‘No Child Left Behind Act’(NCLB) in 2001.  Pre-NCLB, federal programs like those created by ESEA targeted specific groups of students, such as the disadvantaged or the disabled, but NCLB went well beyond that. It stipulated that, if a school accepted even one dollar in federal funds, then every one of its students had to meet federal standards. And failure to meet those standards meant drastic, even draconian penalties, such as firing the school’s entire staff.  

And since virtually all of our nearly 100,000 public schools accept money to support one federal program or another, it was game over: the federal presence was everywhere, challenging, overruling, and riding roughshod over ‘Local Control.’

NCLB relied on one measure–standardized test scores–to determine whether a school was making what it called “Adequate Yearly Progress,” and before long recess, art, music, physical education, drama, and every other ‘non-essential’ aspect of school disappeared from schools everywhere, replaced by test prep and drill.  

Bush’s NCLB was followed by Barack Obama’s “Race to The Top,” which prioritized charter schools and the evaluation of teachers and schools based on the standardized test scores of students.  Sixteen consecutive years of a punitive ‘drill and kill’ approach to education never produced higher test scores and saw a decline in student performance on the well-regarded National Assessment of Educational Progress. 

Quite naturally, public education’s critics pounced.  Demands for vouchers, charter schools, and other schemes to divert money away from public schools increased.  Some blamed poor test scores on teachers, leading some districts to hire (expensive) supervisors to spy on teachers in their classrooms.  School districts spent millions to create ‘teacher-proof’ curricula and to bring in untrained Teach for America volunteers, whose idealism and academic credentials from top colleges were supposed to be enough to leave career educators in the dust.

One parent, a Floridian, said it well:  “I began to wake up during my daughter’s first grade year, when she no longer had recess. … For example, my daughter spent 180 minutes on English Language Arts and a certain amount of time on science and math, instructional time which, as we were told, was critical to prepare children for testing.”

REPUBLICANS AND UNIONS:  Republicans dislike unions in general, but they specifically despise teacher unions.  Of course, the party of unfettered capitalism has always been suspicious of organized labor, but the GOP took a hard right turn in 2012, when the party platform dropped explicit support of the right of workers to be in a union and encouraged states to pass right-to-work laws and supported a national right-to-work law.  

Teacher unions are a favorite target for at least two reasons: Teachers are the most heavily unionized part of the workforce, and their unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, contribute millions of dollars to politicians, with an estimated 95% of the money going to Democrats for at least 30 years. 

It’s not difficult to connect the dots: Republicans are attacking public schools, accusing them of ‘grooming’ their children to be gay, of making white children ashamed of their race, of undermining American patriotism and pride, and more.  Their goal is to persuade more parents to home-school their children, or enroll them in non-union Charter Schools, or use vouchers to pay non-public school tuition. Public  school enrollment will drop, teachers will be laid off, teacher union revenue will decline, and less money will flow to Democrats.  

REPORT FROM THE BATTLEFIELD:  Republicans are winning the war on public education, as Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider argued in The New York Times. Teacher morale is low, and teachers are leaving the field in droves, forcing one state, New Mexico, to call in the National Guard to serve as substitutes.  Enrollment is declining at institutions that train their replacements, and in at least three large school districts, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, student enrollment in public schools has dropped for the second consecutive year. 

Republicans are winning by focusing on these four headline-grabbing issues: Critical Race Theory, Parents’ Rights, Transgender Students, and “Don’t Say Gay” legislation.  

CRITICAL RACE THEORY is not a K-12 issue, as every Republican politician knows. It’s an academic theory studied in colleges and universities that views much of America history through the lens of race and racism.  Despite its being a non-issue, Republican Governors are in a frenzy. Florida’s Ron DeSantis put it this way: “Our tax dollars should not be used to teach our kids to hate our country or to hate each other.” And Florida has now banned a number of math textbooks, accusing the publishers of trying to indoctrinate children with Critical Race Theory. 

In the name of defeating CRT, Tennessee’s Governor Bill Lee has invited Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian institution based in Michigan, to create 50 charter schools in Tennessee with public funds, including $32 million for facilities.  As the New York Times reported, Governor Lee believes these schools will develop “informed patriotism” in Tennessee’s children.  The Hillsdale curriculum also presents a negative take on FDR’s New Deal, LBJ’s Great Society, the Civil Rights movement, affirmative action, and climate change.  Professor Bruce Fuller of UC Berkeley told The Times, “I’ve been following charter schools over the last 25 years, and I’ve never seen a governor use charters in such an overtly political way.”

PARENTS’ RIGHTS: At least 10 Republican governors say that Parents’ Rights should supersede and control teaching about race. They say parental objections to ‘inappropriate’ content in school libraries and curricular materials should lead to their removal.  As Arizona Governor Doug Ducey said to his state’s lawmakers, “Let’s require all that a child is taught, all curriculum and academic materials, be put online and available to search and review by every parent, grandparent and interested citizen.” As the Associated Press reported: “Republican state lawmakers across the U.S. are trying to require schools to post all course materials online so parents can review them, part of a broader national push by the GOP for a sweeping parents bill of rights ahead of the midterm congressional elections.”  Some GOP politicians want parents to be able to monitor their children’s classrooms, either in person or on video once cameras are set up in school classrooms. 

TRANSGENDER STUDENTS: The Republican lies and distortions are dangerous.  A columnist for the New York Post called the transgender curriculum “The Left’s new religion.” Militant transgender advocates are imposing their agenda with uncompromising zeal on schoolchildren. That’s fine with President Joe Biden…. From the youngest age, students are being brainwashed with gender ideology. Children — as young as 5 — are being encouraged to disregard their anatomy and choose their gender based on their feelings.”

The Fox News personality Laura Ingraham also weighed in: “When did our public schools, any schools, become what are essentially grooming centers for gender-identity radicals? As a mom, I think it’s appalling, it’s frightening, it’s disgusting, it’s despicable.”

The actual number of transgender students is small–less than 2% in high school–but their situation is precarious.  In a 2019 study, one-third reported attempting suicide.  But it’s a hot-button issue for Republican politicians bent on undermining public education–and winning re-election.  NBC reported recently that “State lawmakers have proposed a record 238 bills that would limit the rights of LGBTQ Americans this year — or more than three per day — with about half of them targeting transgender people specifically.  Nearly 670 anti-LGBTQ bills have been filed since 2018, according to an NBC News analysis of data from the American Civil Liberties Union and LGBTQ advocacy group Freedom for All Americans, with nearly all of the country’s 50 state legislatures all having weighed at least one bill.” 

Nearly all of these bills concentrate their attention on schools, by 1) restricting LGBTQ issues in school curriculums, 2) permiting religious exemptions to discriminate against LGBTQ people and 3) limiting trans students’ ability to play sports, to use bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity, and to receive gender-affirming health care.

“DON’T SAY GAY” LEGISLATION:  Most national attention has been on Florida, which has approved two controversial bills limiting conversations about race and racism and restricting younger students’ access to lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity.  The newspaper Education Week reports that fifteen states have passed similar legislation over the past year, and 26 others have introduced bills attempting to restrict these lessons.  Both bills—widely referred to as an anti-“woke” bill and a “Don’t Say Gay” bill—are part of a nationwide effort push to limit lessons on systemic racism, sexism, gender and sexuality, and LGBTQ+ topics. 

The deluge of state legislation on these issues probably means that Congress will begin paying attention, according to political scientist Alex Garlick of the College of New Jersey. If Republicans win control over one or both houses of Congress in the midterm elections, as prognosticators expect, they will likely pass similar pieces of legislation — even though they would have “no chance” of being signed by President Biden, Garlick told The 74. 

Republicans are winning other battles at the state level, according to The Network for Public Education, a left-leaning research and advocacy organization.  Their new report, “Public Schooling in America,” awards only three states–Nebraska, North Dakota, and Vermont–a grade of A or A- for their support of public education.  Twelve states received a grade of D, and 17 received an F.  The NPE report examined state support for vouchers, education savings accounts, home schooling, and for-profit charter schools and concluded that most states with these programs are failing to protect vulnerable children while also turning a blind eye to deception and graft. 

WHAT CAN BE DONE TO SAVE PUBLIC SCHOOLS?  

Saving public education will require far more than playing defense against the Republicans.  GOP hostility toward teacher unions seems fixed in stone, but the oft-broken promise of education as a game-changer can become true for our children–if Washington and some individual state governors are willing to engage. It will require challenging and modifying ‘Local Control,’ which is certain to be a flash point for those invested in maintaining the status quo.

Saving public education makes economic sense, because strong public schools attract businesses and build strong communities.  Remember that public schools serve the entire community, not just the children who attend them and their parents.  About 90% of all children attend public schools, but it is in everyone’s interest–not just parents’–to see that all children have the opportunity to achieve their potential.  Parents do not get to decide what children are taught in public school; that’s part of the social contract.  Consider this: One day some of the graduates may monitor the IV drip and measure out the medications that are keeping your aging parent alive; others may tune up the jet engines on the plane your family will soon board, repair the gas main leak just down the street in your neighborhood, count the votes in the next elections, and so on. 

So, for example, if we want adults to be able to work well with others, then schooling ought to include group project-based activities.  If we want adults to be able to speak coherently in public, then schooling ought to include public speaking and debate.  If we want adults to be able to read with understanding, then students ought to be reading a lot in school.  And so on…..

Individual states have to develop a new vision and then implement aggressive, proactive strategies to make that vision a reality.  Who among current Governors might be willing to act to save their public schools? I believe the process will be easier in relatively small states, so perhaps the Governors of Connecticut, Oregon, Rhode Island, Colorado, Nebraska, North Dakota, Vermont, and Maryland might be willing to engage in an open dialogue with all their citizens–not just parents–about what they want the state’s young people to become and to be able to do, as adults. Only then can schools be reimagined.

Some first steps: 1) Make it harder to become a teacher by raising admission standards at state-supported institutions that train teachers. 

 2) Encourage young people to enter the field by awarding full scholarships with one significant string attached: the recipients must teach for five years in the state….or repay the full amount. 

3) Raise teacher salaries overall but provide an extra boost for those who are willing to teach in the state’s toughest schools.

4) Finally, if teachers are to be true professionals, then our system must learn to trust them. Right now, we do not.  Many districts now spend big bucks on bureaucrats who spend their time hovering over classrooms.  End that practice now. The goal here is to make it easier to be an effective teacher. 

State leadership will have to work closely with local school boards, which should be allowed to maintain certain prerogatives like hiring and teacher evaluation. But other local practices like tracking and maldistribution of resources must be stopped. 

Leadership matters.  Governors like Ned Lamont of Connecticut (a Democrat) or Larry Hogan of Maryland (a Republican) need to encourage a wide-open and free-wheeling dialogue about the purposes of education.  In fact, Maryland has started down this road with its remarkable Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, which passed the legislature in 2021. The Blueprint calls for salaries commensurate with those in professions requiring the same amount of education, bonuses for those willing to teach in the toughest areas, and a $10,000 salary boost for teachers who meet the challenging National Board standards. It promises more resources for the most-challenged students, and, significantly, it insists that teachers should spend less time teaching full classrooms and more time in small groups and one-on-one situations.

More states have to do the hard work that Maryland has begun, but if education is to become a reliable route to achieving the American dream, we must do more than reimagining schooling. The entire playing field has to be level.  In other words, the federal government must commit to raising taxes on the rich and then use those resources to strengthen the social safety net of housing, nutrition, and health care. 

Florida’s governor is providing the model for how NOT to save public education. Ron DeSantis has sued local school boards and threatened to withhold funding over mask mandates, and recently he ordered all public schools to devote 45 minutes to teaching students about “the victims of Communism.”  Bullying and heavy-handed interference won’t work.

The U. S. Department of Education has an important role to play.  Because Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos spent four years touting religious schools and promoting vouchers to enable children to ‘escape’ public schools, succeeding her should have been a slam dunk for Miguel Cardona, President Biden’s choice.  Unfortunately, Secretary Cardona seems to be focused on “getting things back to normal.”  This is a huge error because ‘normal’ school is no longer the path to the American Dream of higher social and economic status. 

To be fair, reimagining public education is not Secretary Cardona’s role, because public education is the responsibility of individual states.  Still, the Secretary could be calling on Americans to get involved in public education; he could be asking us to think about what we want our children to grow up to become…and how to make that happen.  The Department should clamp down on for-profit charter schools and other scammers.  Above all, the Department must continue to act to protect the civil rights of all students, particularly the most vulnerable.

We are not starting from scratch. About 5% of our public schools are what are known as ‘Community Schools,’ which feature partnerships between the school and community resources.  In these 5,000 schools, an integrated focus on academics, health, social services, youth/community development, and community engagement has been shown to lead to improved learning, stronger families, and healthier communities.  I’ve been impressed by Expeditionary Learning, whose 150 member schools stress group projects, outdoor activities, and a holistic view of each child.

There’s no quick fix, but there’s also no time to waste.  The efforts of cynical, ambitious politicians like DeSantis, Abbott, Ducey et alia to destroy public schools must be stopped.  Public schools that are genuinely responsive to the needs and talents of all children will once again make the American Dream a genuine possibility, and at the same time make our democracy stronger and more resilient.

The New Rules

(Note to readers: I received this transcript from a teacher I got to know when I was reporting for the PBS NewsHour. While I cannot swear that it’s legitimate, this teacher has never misled me in the past.  I’ve changed the names of the principal and the teacher and removed references that might identify the location of the school.)

PRINCIPAL: Well, Mrs. Peterson, I’ve finally managed to connect with all the parents of your students, and I have some good news and some bad news.

MRS. PETERSON: What’s the good news, Mrs. Montoya?

PRINCIPAL: Nearly all the parents trust you and want you to teach their fifth graders the way you feel is best.

MRS. PETERSON: Thanks, but I don’t like that “nearly all.”  What does that mean?

PRINCIPAL: The parents of five of your 5th graders have some problems, and they are invoking the new state law.

MRS. PETERSON: Meaning?

PRINCIPAL: Rose’s parents want to make certain that none of the math problems involve animals, especially dogs and cats, because Rose is allergic to cats and was bitten by a dog when she was three.  They’re afraid forcing her to deal with them, even in words, could bring about a panic attack.  The law is on their side, I’m afraid.

MRS. PETERSON:  OK, so I’ll be careful about math problems.  What else?

PRINCIPAL: Regina’s Dad wants a guarantee that you will cover both sides when the children are studying the Civil War.

MRS. PETERSON:  Of course.  

PRINCIPAL: He means that he wants you to tell the students that Abraham Lincoln owned slaves.

MRS. PETERSON: That’s preposterous! Lincoln freed the slaves. He didn’t own any slaves! 

PRINCIPAL: Well, Regina’s Dad showed me some material he had downloaded from the internet, and he wants that story told.  And he’s claiming one of the five seats we have installed for parents in the back of your classroom.

MRS. PETERSON: What seats? What are you talking about?

PRINCIPAL: The new law requires parental seating for any parent who wants to observe their child’s teacher at work.  He says he plans to be there regularly.

MRS. PETERSON: This is ridiculous.

PRINCIPAL:  It gets worse, actually, because some legislators want cameras installed in every classroom so that parents can keep an eye on teachers.  

MRS. PETERSON: Ok, who’s next?

PRINCIPAL: Wally’s parents have decided to homeschool him during Black History Month, unless the School Board creates two White History Months.

MRS. PETERSON: Are they crazy? The rest of the whole damn year is White History Year!

PRINCIPAL: Well, they say that, since whites are in the majority, there ought to be TWO White History Months, and they are going to petition the School Board to create them.  They don’t want Wally to feel bad for an entire month, because never owned slaves or belonged to the Klan. He shouldn’t be made to feel guilty because he’s white, they say.

MRS. PETERSON: OK, that’s Wally, Rose, and Regina.  What are the other two complaining about?

PRINCIPAL: Sonia’s folks have some concerns about how you are dealing with sexuality and gender issues.

MRS. PETERSON: What do they mean?  I don’t ‘deal with’ those subjects. That’s not in my curriculum.

PRINCIPAL: Yes, but you have a student with two Dads, and Sonia’s parents want to make sure you never ask stuff like “What did you do with your parents this weekend?” or “Do your parents go trick-or-treating with you?”  Anything that would bring up gay marriage and stuff like that.

MRS. PETERSON: What on earth are they afraid of? Do they think I’m grooming their children?

PRINCIPAL: Actually, they did use that term, and I told them they were being ridiculous. Still, they were talking about suing you–and me–if their child comes home feeling depressed or put upon for being straight.

MRS. PETERSON: What if their child is gay, or just confused? Am I supposed to ignore their pain?

PRINCIPAL: Actually, yes, because the new law says that’s none of your business.  And don’t  forget to post all your lesson plans and curriculum materials on line so parents can review everything, with enough time to file objections.

MRS PETERSON: This is getting worse and worse.  This new law is for the birds.

PRINCIPAL: Just one more: Frank’s parents are very upset about the portraits of President Biden and Vice President Harris that hang near your door.

MRS. PETERSON: Don’t they know those portraits hang in every classroom in the school? That’s not my doing.  I think that may be a state rule, actually, or perhaps the School Board’s. 

PRINCIPAL: They know, and they want them taken down and replaced by portraits of Trump and Pence.

MRS. PETERSON: They lost!

PRINCIPAL: Not according to Frank’s parents. The election was stolen, they told me several times.

MRS. PETERSON: Well, I’m not taking down any portraits. President Biden won the 2020 election, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. 

PRINCIPAL:  I asked the Superintendent for guidance, and he told me to take down all the portraits, to calm things down. 

MRS. PETERSON: Now that’s a profile in courage!  Run and hide…  Why can’t we get the other parents involved?  After all, I have 32 students, meaning that 27 families are satisfied with my teaching.  Isn’t there some way to make them aware of what’s going on?

PRINCIPAL:  Almost all parents appreciate what we do, but they don’t have a clue about what’s going on.

MRS. PETERSON: That’s the truth.

PRINCIPAL: I wish I could work with you to figure out how to get parents involved, but I have a meeting with some School Board members. They have big plans for Teacher Appreciation Week.