Is “E Pluribus Unum” a Pipe Dream?

Out of Many, One” was the motto of the United States from 1782 until 1956, when it was replaced by “In God We Trust.” Even now, the Latin phrase, E Pluribus Unum, can be found on our $1 bills in the banner held by the eagle, on some of our coins, and on the flags and seals of both the Senate and the House of Representatives.   

Always aspirational, “Out of Many, One” was meant to signal to the world that the original 13 colonies were united.  Which they were in 1782 when faced with a common enemy, England.  

But they were clearly not united regarding slavery.  Pennsylvania outlawed the practice of owning other human beings in 1780, Massachusetts and New Hampshire in 1783, Connecticut and Rhode Island in 1784.  Vermont, not one of the original 13 British colonies because it had declared independence from Britain earlier, actually abolished slavery in 1777.

Slavery, America’s original sin, bitterly divided the new country and led to our Civil War, making “E Pluribus Unum” a hopeless cause.  In 1956, threatened by the specter of ‘Godless Communism,’ Congress dumped “E Pluribus Unum” and changed our motto to “In God We Trust.”  For good measure, it added the phrase “Under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance.

Those changes in the 1950’s were cosmetic, but Congress has tried to bring us together, most notably with the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, which Congress ratified in 1868 (along with the 13th and 15th Amendments).  The 14th Amendment provides for ‘equal protection under the law’ and prohibits states from taking away fundamental rights–which Southern white politicians were busy trying to do (and which an earlier Supreme Court decision, Scott v. Sanford, allowed!)

In Scott v. Sanford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857), the Supreme Court held that African Americans were not U.S. citizens, even if they were free.

The Fourteenth Amendment, however, guaranteed that everyone born or naturalized in the United States and under its jurisdiction would be a United States citizen. It also ensured that federal citizenship was also made primary, which meant that states could not prevent freed slaves from obtaining state citizenship and thus federal citizenship. As such, the Fourteenth Amendment effectively overturned Sanford v. Scott.

In simplest terms, the federal government always has a vested interest in Unum, while the States always lean toward Pluribus. That fundamental tension is built into our Constitution, which declares that any and all rights and powers not specifically enumerated as belonging to the central government therefore belong to the states. 

Education is a good example of the federal/state tension.  Because ‘education’ does not appear in the Constitution, that was reason enough for the US Supreme Court to rule (5-4) in 1973 that American citizens do not have a fundamental constitutional right to an education. Education, the court said, was up to individual states.  

End of story?

Well, No, it wasn’t, because the White House and the Congress, particularly when controlled by Democrats, wanted to improve the life circumstances of children and families living in poverty. Better schools, they felt, were the safest and least controversial way to do that. (Housing, health care, a guaranteed living wage, et cetera, were either too difficult or impossible.)

In 1979 President Jimmy Carter and Democrats in Congress created a Cabinet-level Department of Education, which Republicans have campaigned against ever since.  Ironically, however, it was a Republican President who went ‘a bridge too far’ for many American parents.  George W. Bush, former governor of Texas, worked with Democrats in Congress to create “No Child Left Behind.” Its  onerous rules and harsh penalties applied to virtually every US public school and led to a massive increase in machine-scored standardized testing in English and math…and the disappearance of art, music, physical education, and recess, as well as widespread cheating by adults whose jobs depended on higher test scores.

If “No Child Left Behind” got the camel’s nose into the tent, the Obama Administration’s “Race to the Top” put the entire camel squarely inside the structure.  In 2009, ‘the Great Recession’ prompted Congress to give Education Secretary Arne Duncan $4.35 billion in discretionary money, which was more money than all other Education Secretaries combined.  Congress did not earmark the money but left it to Duncan to decide how to distribute it.  Suddenly, Duncan had the power to make states–desperate for dollars–do whatever he and his advisors wanted them to do.  

As some noted at the time, Arne Duncan had declared himself the country’s de facto School Superintendent.  

He established four criteria, but for many in the states, the actual criteria weren’t the point. This was federal overreach, a usurpation of states’ rights.  And as soon as it could, a Republican Congress changed the rules, writing laws and regulations that hamstrung Duncan’s successors.  Trump’s Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, did not have the authority to do much, although she pushed hard for programs like vouchers and charter schools that take away resources from traditional public schools.  President Biden’s Education Secretary, Miguel Cardona, has all but disappeared from the political scene, leaving education to the states.

And states are stepping up their push for power, not just in education but in virtually every way possible, including voting, health care, and a woman’s right to choose. I urge you to read Jamelle Bouie’s brilliant piece in the New York Times, which makes it clear that we are further away than ever from “E Pluribus Unum.”

But we cannot give up on national unity. 

Clearly, no single step or action would bring us together, but what if you had the opportunity to try to move us toward national unity?  Suppose you had the power to take that all-important first step toward bringing us together?  

What would you call for:  Mandatory Voting?  An inspirational and charismatic President?  Mandatory National Service for all?  A common enemy like Russia or China? A more equitable tax system? Or something else?

What do you think would have the best chance of healing our country, and why?


A few weeks ago in this space I rewrote Pastor Martin  Neimoeller’s “First they came for….” in an effort to sound the alarm about the increasingly strident hate campaign(s) being waged against transgender kids…and, by extension, all LBGTQ individuals and, eventually, everyone who dares to be even slightly different.  The pastor was warning about the rise of Naziism in Germany before World War II.  That’s what’s happening here, now.

The hate and hysteria are spreading, and the attacks are growing more vicious: The Republican-controlled legislatures of Montana and Kansas, the Governor of Oklahoma, the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and that state’s legislature…this list goes on and on.

It’s time to fight back. It’s time to organize.  I’m starting a national organization of straight people (and anyone else who is concerned) who are willing to stand up to these power-hungry men and women.  I’m calling it “FRIENDS OF GAYS, UNITED.”

The acronym is “FOG-U

(Alternatively, the group could be named “Friends of Queers, United,” or FOQ-U. Your decision.)

(My hope is that members of FOGU will show up in significant numbers at rallies of people like DeSantis and shout out, “We are Friends of Gays, United.  Governor DeSantis, FOG-U

Or, “Hey, Montana Republicans, FOG-U” 

Or, “Speaker McCarthy, FOG-U

But a warning is in order.  Please pronounce FOG-U very, very carefully, or else it might sound like a socially unacceptable slur which my own sense of propriety prevents me from writing.  We would not want our intentions to be misunderstood.

Please join FOG-U…..or start your own local chapter.  T-shirts and ball caps are being designed as we speak.

Seriously, do not remain silent……

There Are No “Alphabet Wars”

Learning the alphabet is a straightforward 2-step process: Shapes and Sounds.  One must learn to recognize the shapes of the 26 letters and what each letter sounds like.  There’s no argument about this, and certainly there has never been and never will be an “Alphabet War.” 

The same rule–Shapes and Sounds–applies to reading. Would-be readers must apply what they learned about Sounds–formally called Phonics and Phonemic Awareness–to combinations of letters–i.e., words.  They must also learn to recognize some words by their Shapes, because many English words do not follow the rules of Phonics. (One quick example: By the rules of Phonics, ‘Here’ and ‘There’ should rhyme; they do not, and readers must learn how to pronounce both.)  To become a competent, confident reader, one must rely on both Phonics and Word Recognition. 

Ergo, there’s absolutely no need, justification, or excuse for “Reading Wars” between Phonics and Word Recognition. None!  And yet American educators, policy-makers, and politicians have been waging their “Reading Crusades” for close to 200 years.  As a consequence, uncounted millions of adults have lived their lives in the darkness of functional illiteracy and semi-literacy.

Here’s something most  Reading Crusaders don’t understand: Almost without exception, every first grader wants to be able to read, because they understand that reading gives them some measure of control over their world, in the same way walking does.  And skilled teachers can teach almost all children–including the 5-20 percent who are dyslexic–to become confident readers.

Skilled teachers understand what the Reading Crusaders do not: Reading–again like walking–is not the goal. It’s the means to understanding, confidence, and control.  Children don’t “first learn to read and then read to learn,” as some pedants maintain. That’s a false dichotomy: they learn to read to learn.   And so skilled teachers use whatever strategies are called for: Phonics, Word Recognition, what one might call Reading as Liberation, and more. 

See for yourself how reading is taught:  Imagine that you’re sitting in the back of a classroom of First Graders, most of them 6-years-old, a few of them age 5. It’s early October, and the students already know their letters and the sounds they make.  First the teacher holds up what looks like a Stop Sign.  

Teacher: Children, what does this sign say?

Many hands go up, and a lot of the kids call out “Stop” and “It says Stop” and “That’s a Stop sign.”

“Maybe you recognized the sign because you’ve seen it on lots of street corners, but let’s read what this sign actually says. First, let’s take it apart, letter by letter.  The first letter, T, makes a sound.  What sound does T make?” 

The teacher then goes through the sounds the other three letters make, the children make the sounds and put them together, laughing when they realize their mistake.

Then she holds up a slightly different sign for her students to decode:   (this sign reads SPOT, but I am flummoxed by pasting graphics. Sorry)                                                                

They do, with increasing confidence because they’re enjoying the game the teacher is playing.

“OK, now let’s see what happens if we move the letters around again.” 

She holds up another sign:  (this one reads POST)

Same four letters.  Let’s try to read it by sounding out each letter. Start with the first one.  What sound does P make?”

After they’ve decoded and pronounced POST, they are delighted when she brings out two more versions of the familiar sign:   

They take those words apart, then put the sounds together, eventually reading both words.  OPTS is the most challenging because the First Graders don’t know the word, leading to a discussion about OPTIONS, a noun, and OPT, a verb.  The teacher doesn’t move on until she’s sure everyone understands. Then she challenges her students to use those words in conversation during the day, or at  home that night. 

Finally, the real thing, which they decode with ease:

And for one more challenge, she holds up this sign,  STOP but with an E at the end. 

She tells them how it is pronounced and explains that, when the letter E follows a vowel, that vowel ‘says its own name.’  She tells them how to pronounce it, and then she writes several words on the blackboard: NICE, HOSE, and CASE.  The children sound them out. 

Then she holds up another image, a GO sign:  

“Who knows what this sign says?  Can anyone use it in a sentence?” (Many hands go up.)  “That’s good.”

After sounding out the two letters and putting the word together, the teacher asks the children, “What happens to GO if we replace the G with S or N?”

She writes SO and NO on the blackboard, next to GO, which the children figure out almost immediately.  

“But letters can be tricky things, children. What sound does ‘O’ make in STOP? Keep that in mind.”

She replaces the G with the letter T, making TO .  Some students automatically rhyme it with GO and SO, pronouncing it ‘TOE.’  Now she explains that in this new word, TO, the letter O has a different sound.  

“So we see that the letter O can make different sounds. English is tricky, but we will learn all the tricks.  Read this sentence: ‘SO I said NO, you must GO TO the STORE.’

Which word isn’t following the rules?”

They all seem to understand that TO is the exception.

“I warned you that letters were tricky!  But there are ways to figure out most letters, rules that work most of the time.  But not all the time, because English breaks a lot of its own rules.  I promise you we will have fun figuring all this out…”

The teacher is incorporating Word Recognition– often called “Look-Say” or Whole Language–techniques into her reading instruction. Because English is often non-phonetic, readers must learn to recognize quite a few words, as she is explaining to her First Graders.

Another time she writes two short sentences on the blackboard: COME HERE!  WHERE ARE THE MACHINES?

“OK, kids. On your toes now, because only one of these words follows the rules.”

She asks them to pronounce each word according to the rules they have learned. They do, pronouncing COME with a long O, WHERE with a long E, ARE with a long A, and MACHINES with a long I.  Then she pronounces them correctly, mystifying and delighting her students. 

“I told you English was tricky and sneaky, but we won’t let it beat us!”

She creates a list of other rule-breaking words to learn.These so-called ‘sight words’ include who, where, to, are, been, because, machine, and police.  The list will grow throughout the year.

She often asks her students to tell the class what words they want to be able to read.  Hands go up, and children call out,  ‘Bathroom,’ ‘Girl’s Room,’  ‘Boy’s Room,’ ‘Ice Cream,’ ‘Police,’ ‘Rocket Ship,’ and more.  By meeting them where they are and encouraging their curiosity, she’s empowering them.  

Another time she will ask her students what sentences they would like to write. “I love you, Momma” and “I miss you, Daddy. Please come home,” some call out. She writes the sentences on the board for everyone to read. 

Neither Phonics nor Word Recognition, this strategy is closer to the “Literacy as Liberation” practiced by Brazilian educator Paolo Friere.  Whatever the source, it’s a powerful motivation for young children, giving a strong sense of mastery.

When the year is nearly over, she will ask her children some questions: ‘Who are the three or four fastest runners in the class?’   The children call out five or six different names.  ‘OK, now who are the three or four best singers in the class?’ Again names are called out.  ‘And one more question. Who are the three or four tallest kids in our class?’  More names.

“I asked those questions because some of you are taller, some of you can run faster, and some of you can sing better, but that’s just how things are turning out. It’s not because you are better. You’re just different.  The same thing is true with reading. All of you are readers, good readers, but some of you can read better….because you got lucky at birth, not because you are a better person.”  

She is correct.  It turns out about 40 percent of young children absorb the basics of Phonics without difficulty and are able to decode and comprehend with ease.  But everyone–even ‘born readers–has to learn to read because reading is not a natural act. 

“You’re all readers now, and nobody can take that away from you….ever.  So please keep on reading, and writing, and thinking, and asking questions.” 

Full disclosure: That teacher isn’t one person but a mashup of marvelous First Grade teachers I encountered as an education reporter, all but one of them women.  Among the women was my own First Grade teacher, Mrs. Catherine Peterson at Hindley School in Noroton, Connecticut.  I went back and spent a day with Mrs. Peterson when I was in my late 30’s and working for NPR.   The man was Johnny Brinson, a First Grade teacher in Washington, DC.  Like all great teachers, they made reading a challenging game, and then did everything possible to see that their students ‘won’ the game.

Tragically, the Reading Crusades continue, with one faction now claiming victory under the banner of ‘The Science of Reading.’  But that’s a story for another column.

Teaching English in an AI World

If you’re at all like me, you’re curious about Artificial Intelligence and new applications like ChatGPT and Bard.  The brilliant Thomas Friedman of the New York Times says the world will never be the same again, but my interest is narrower: If students can simply ask Bard or ChatGPT to write their papers for them, how can teachers prevent this?  

(Spoiler alert: Teachers can win this struggle!)

So, naturally, I turned to Bard, which told me (within seconds) that, while it can help students generate ideas, do research, improve their writing, and learn about different writing genres, it’s not supposed to be a substitute for original research and writing.  Then it warned me to “Monitor students’ use of Bard to make sure that they are not plagiarizing or engaging in other forms of academic misconduct.”

Yeah, right. If I’m teaching English in a public high school, I probably have between 100 and 125 students!  There aren’t enough hours in the day….

Second question: Can Bard help identify cheaters and plagiarists?  Within seconds, I received an answer: 

“There are a few things you can look for to tell the difference between original writing and prose provided by Bard.

  • Original writing is typically more creative and original than prose provided by Bard. Bard is trained on a massive dataset of text, so it can be very good at generating text that is grammatically correct and factually accurate. However, it is not always able to generate text that is creative or original.
  • Original writing is typically more personal and engaging than prose provided by Bard. Bard is a machine learning model, so it does not have the same level of understanding of human emotions and experiences as a human writer. As a result, its writing can  be dry and impersonal.
  • Original writing is typically more nuanced and complex than prose provided by Bard. Bard is a large language model, but it is still under development. As a result, it can sometimes struggle to understand the nuances of human language. This can lead to writing that is simplistic or even nonsensical.


  • Ask yourself if the writing sounds like it was written by a human. Bard-generated text can sometimes sound robotic or unnatural. Original writing should sound like it was written by a human.

To put this the test, I gave Bard the following task:

I am one of six children, the second oldest and the first-born son. We grew up on a small farm with chickens, a few cows, a few pigs, and one goat. I’m now 81. Please write a short memoir of no more than 200 words about my childhood.

Within seconds, Bard spit out this:

“I was born in 1942, the second oldest of six children. We grew up on a small farm in the Midwest. My father worked hard to provide for our family, and my mother took care of the house and the children. We didn’t have much money, but we were happy.

I loved growing up on the farm. I spent my days playing with my siblings, helping my father with the chores, and exploring the woods behind our house. We had chickens, a few cows, a few pigs, and one goat. I loved taking care of the animals, and I learned a lot about hard work and responsibility.

I also learned a lot about nature on the farm. I spent hours watching the birds and the animals, and I learned to identify all the different plants. I loved being surrounded by nature, and it helped me to appreciate the beauty of the world.

I had a wonderful childhood on the farm. It was a time of innocence and discovery, and I will always cherish those memories.

Now that I am 81 years old, I still look back on my childhood with fondness. I am grateful for the opportunities I had, and I am proud of the person I have become. I know that my experiences on the farm helped to shape me into the man I am today.

Boring, and also wrong, and so I responded:

This is inaccurate. I was born in 1941, and our farm was in Connecticut. Worse, however, it does not capture either the small pleasures of collecting the eggs every morning or learning to milk cows, and it also does not capture the deep pain of watching a pig or steer that I raised being slaughtered.  Please rewrite.

In just a few seconds, Bard responded by adding a few paragraphs, highlighted below to make it easier for you to read:  “Sure, here is a more accurate and detailed memoir:

I was born in 1941, the second oldest of six children. We grew up on a small farm in Connecticut. My father worked hard to provide for our family, and my mother took care of the house and the children. We didn’t have much money, but we were happy.

I loved growing up on the farm. I spent my days playing with my siblings, helping my father with the chores, and exploring the woods behind our house. We had chickens, a few cows, a few pigs, and one goat. I loved taking care of the animals, and I learned a lot about hard work and responsibility.

I also learned a lot about nature on the farm. I spent hours watching the birds and the animals, and I learned to identify all the different plants. I loved being surrounded by nature, and it helped me to appreciate the beauty of the world.

One of my favorite things to do was collect the eggs every morning. I would wake up early and go to the chicken coop, where I would find a dozen or so eggs waiting for me. I would carefully collect the eggs and put them in a basket, then bring them back to the house. My mother would use the eggs to make breakfast, and I would always get to eat one of the freshest eggs in the world.

Another thing I loved to do was milk the cows. I would go to the barn in the evening and bring the cows into the milking parlor. I would sit on a stool and milk each cow in turn, collecting the milk in a bucket. The milk would then be used to make butter, cheese, and ice cream.

Of course, there were also some challenges growing up on a farm. One of the hardest things was watching the animals being slaughtered. I knew that it was necessary to eat meat, but I still felt bad for the animals. I would often cry when I saw them being killed.

Overall, though, I had a wonderful childhood on the farm. It was a time of innocence and discovery, and I will always cherish those memories. I am grateful for the opportunities I had, and I am proud of the person I have become. I know that my experiences on the farm helped to shape me into the man I am today.

OK, but even with this information, the writing remains pedestrian and without emotion.  Human writers would know not to begin with their birthday, for one thing. They might lead with a sentence designed to keep the reader’s interest. Something like, “70 years later, at age 81, I can still hear the terrified squealing of the hog as it was strung up by its hind feet to be slaughtered….”

So what’s an English teacher to do in 2023?  Well, first of all, we’ve been through this before when the internet emerged. Soon students discovered that they could download papers and submit them as their own.  Next came profit-making companies offering papers written to order.  And then there were commercially available Apps that supposedly could scan papers and detect plagiarism.  

Good teachers won that struggle by 1) reducing the number of papers assigned and working with individual students as they developed their ideas and wrote drafts. It’s harder to cheat if the teacher is overseeing the process.  And 2) lots more writing in class.

What’s called for now is emulating what my high school English teacher, William Sullivan, did more than 60 years ago.  Two and sometimes three times every week he would tell us to clear our desks of everything except for a single sheet of paper and a pencil.  What followed was what he called a “2-8-2,” meaning that we had two minutes to think–no writing–followed by eight minutes to write, and then two more minutes to read what we had written and correct any errors. He would put our writing assignment on the blackboard.  Sometimes we would have to include a certain sentence, such as “I wish I had missed that train.”  Or “I still wish I hadn’t missed that flight.” 

Even today I still remember one particular assignment: “Turn out the light; I don’t want to go home in the dark,” which Mr. Sullivan told us were the dying words of William Sydney Porter and challenged us to explain the contradiction. 

(Later that day Mr. Sullivan told us that we knew William Sydney Porter as the writer O. Henry. And some forty or fifty years later I discovered that Porter actually did not contradict himself.  He actually wanted the lights out so he could die in darkness. Apparently Mr. Sullivan changed his words to create a paradox for us to try to explain.)

I taught English in a public high school, an HBCU, and a federal prison, and I used Mr. Sullivan’s “2-8-2” all the time.  I got to know my students’ writing, and I’m convinced that their writing skills improved. Frequent in-class writing worked then, and it should work in the age of Artificial Intelligence, CHATgpt, Bard, and all the other ‘advances’ in our future.  

However, policymakers and administrators have to behave sensibly. I.E.,  smaller classes, fewer students per teacher, and heightened trust in teachers.   Those shouldn’t be a bridge too far, if we really want our young people to be thoughtful and capable citizens.

The Value(s) of Public Schools

“The school system prepares your child for success.  Honestly, if your child listens, it’s amazing. The teachers–it’s unreal.”  That wise comment came from the mouth of one John Aldridge. He had fallen off his lobster boat well out in the Atlantic Ocean off the tip of Long Island, New York, at about 2 AM one summer morning.  He survived for 19 hours, an ordeal which included dive bomb attacks by hungry seagulls and other seabirds, as well as a visit from an occasional shark.  The boat was on autopilot, and his mates were asleep, alarms set for 6 AM, which guaranteed that no one would even know he was missing for at least four hours!

The story of John’s survival, which includes the remarkable reaction of his best friend and shipmate, Anthony Sosinski, can be heard on “Here’s The Thing,” a podcast hosted by Alec Baldwin.  The story is called, appropriately, “A Speck in the Sea,” and John and Anthony are great storytellers.

John was wearing only a T-shirt, shorts, and fishing books when he went into the sea. The boots filled with water and were making it difficult for him to float, but rather than kicking them off, he carefully took them off his feet, brought them to the surface, emptied them, turned them over, and put them under his arms, turning them into flotation devices.  He thought quickly, remained positive, and stayed alive…

Toward the end of the podcast, Baldwin mentions the value of living in a strong community (Montauk), and John immediately and tellingly goes right to the role of the schools, with a powerful and entirely unsolicited endorsement. 

I found that deeply moving; Baldwin mentions ‘community,’ and John says ‘schools.’

The connection shouldn’t be overlooked, because strong public schools are foundational. It’s a two-way street, of course.  When most of a community supports public education—even though it’s likely that only 25-30% of households have school-age children–good things happen.

In many thousands of cities and towns in the US, Community and School are officially joined in an enterprise known, naturally, as a Community School.  These intentionally bring together the best of both, and today close to 10,000 Community Schools are in operation.  Since the US has not quite 95,000 public schools, that’s an impressive number. By contrast, Charter Schools—which receive much more publicity–number only about 7,000.  I’ve been a big fan of Community Schools since my own children went to public school in Washington, DC.  They attended a public dual language school, but there was an early Community School not too far away, a place where parents were welcome and where additional services were available, and not just for children.  

I was reminded of this while reading an early draft of a book about Community Schools by my friend and former colleague Marty Blank and three other authors.  Apparently many people confuse the two approaches to educating students, which could not be more different.  Some Charter Schools have admission tests and turn away students with disabilities; moreover, quite a few Charter Schools are profit-seeking businesses. The draft includes this passage: “Community schools supporters tend to be wary of charter schools for several reasons: Charters are privately run and are often allowed to operate outside public oversight systems. When students attend charters, that reduces the level of public resources available to district public school systems. Moreover, very wealthy donors, including a handful of billionaires, have handsomely supported charter schools as part of an effort to weaken teachers unions and privatize public education. Charters are part of a broader “school choice” movement that includes vouchers, education savings accounts, and tax credits for families of students attending private and religious schools.”

Many in the GOP want to pit parents against teachers and schools, but in the best cities, towns, and schools, educating children is a shared enterprise, with the common goal of ‘Helping Grow American Citizens.’ 

I’ve written about this before; here’s an excerpt:  Because the purpose of school is to Help Grow American Citizens, it’s worth unpacking that phrase. “Help” conveys an essential point: schooling is a cooperative endeavor with parents and educators working in the best interests of children. 

Because schooling is a movie, not a snapshot, “Grow” suggests that School Boards should actively discourage high-stakes testing.  Those exams reveal how students did on that test on that particular day–and perhaps not much more.   Those tests (asking “How Smart Are You?”) are supported by those who want to sort and classify children. However, parents and competent teachers recognize that every child has talent and therefore ask a different question, “How Is This Child Smart?”

What does it mean to be “American” today? Is it flag-waving, flag-burning, or somewhere in the middle?  That’s an important, if difficult, conversation to have.  

The final word of the phrase, “Citizen,” also cries out for public conversation.  Just what do we want all children to be able to do when they grow up?  If we want adults to work well with others, then students ought to be working together in school on projects and other ‘cooperative learning’ endeavors.  If we want adults to be comfortable speaking in public, then children ought to be doing that in school. If we want adults to be able to make sound decisions, then students ought to be deeply involved in determining their course of study.  

 Let’s close where we began: “The school system prepares your child for success.  Honestly, if your child listens, it’s amazing. The teachers–it’s unreal.”   To which I say, Amen…..

With public education under bitter and unrelenting attack from right wing zealots, now’s the perfect time for those who believe in public schools and in the value of communities to step up and support schools and leaders who back them.

First They Came for the…….

First they came for the transgender kids, and I did not speak out—because I am not transgender.  

Then they came for the bisexuals, the gays, and the lesbians, and I did not speak out—because I am none of those.  

Then they came for the same sex couples, and I did not speak out—because I am married to a woman.  

Then they came for me—but by that time the puritans, the fascists, and the power-hungry were in complete control, and speaking out was not allowed. 

Of course, that is not what German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoeller wrote back in the 1930’s, of course.  What he said was this:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.  

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist.  

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.  

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Hitler’s supporters responded to Pastor Niemoeller’s warning by sending him to a concentration camp, where he stayed for eight years, until World War II ended in 1945.

His warning is regularly revised to reflect the threats of the times.  I was in college when I first encountered it, and, as I recall, that version began “First they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–because I was not a Jew.” 

I’ve rewritten the lines because of what is going on now, here in the United States and elsewhere.  Do you think I am kidding?  Read this:

Robert Foster, a former Mississippi House lawmaker who lost a 2019 bid for governor, is using his social-media platform to call for the execution of political foes who support the rights of transgender people.  “Some of y’all still want to try and find political compromise with those that want to groom our school aged children and pretend men are women, etc,” the former Republican representative from Hernando, Miss., wrote in a Thursday night tweet. “I think they need to be lined up against (a) wall before a firing squad to be sent to an early judgment.”  Here’s the full story:

And this: 

Michael Knowles—right-wing political commentator associated with the Daily Wire—said “for the good of society… transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely” at the Conservative Political Action Conference Saturday afternoon.

As you are reading this, dozens of states are considering draconian legislation–more than 120 bills were introduced before the end of January–that threatens the lives of young people struggling with their sexual identity.  Other states have already passed legislation, which their Republican governors have signed. The ACLU has a good list here.  Another organization, GLSEN, is also keeping watch here. 

Banning what’s called ‘gender affirming care’ has been high on the list for politicians like Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis and Texas Governor Jim Abbott.  Florida is one of many states that has passed anti-trans legislation over the last year, including a ban on gender-affirming care for minors. 

“Gender affirming care” sounds drastic, but it’s not, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. “The goal is not treatment, but to listen to the child and build understanding — to create an environment of safety in which emotions, questions, and concerns can be explored,” says Dr. Jason Rafferty, lead author of a policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) on gender-affirming care.

Florida’s DeSantis has made anti-LGBTQ ideology a central tenet of his gubernatorial tenure as well, passing the “Don’t Say Gay” bill and defunding diversity and inclusion efforts in universities. But it’s not just Texas and Florida, as that ACLU map makes clear.

Consider Indiana: Blogger Steve Hinnifeld, who follows Indiana politics and education, offers a chilling look into the Hoosier state:  

“They call it a culture war, but it’s not culture that’s under attack. Republicans in the Indiana General Assembly have declared war on real people: teachers, librarians, students and, especially, trans kids and their families. They’re the ones who will be harmed if legislators get their way.

         And several education culture-war bills have advanced at the midpoint of the session. Three are especially egregious: ACLU Indiana calls them part of a “slate of hate.” One would ban medical treatment for transgender children, one promotes book-banning, and another would force schools to “out” children over their gender identity.         

The American Medical Association, hardly a liberal organization, made it clear two years ago that politicians should keep their paws off the issue of transgender care, urging governors “to oppose state legislation that would prohibit medically necessary gender transition-related care for minor patients, calling such efforts ‘a dangerous intrusion into the practice of medicine.’ In a letter to the National Governors Association (NGA), the AMA cited evidence that trans and non-binary gender identities are normal variations of human identity (emphasis added) and expression, and that forgoing gender-affirming care can have tragic health consequences, both mental and physical.”

The right-wing Republican politicians paid no attention, and now Republicans in Congress have put forth their own anti-transgender legislation, hoping to put Democrats on the spot with voters.

While it’s easy to get lost in the nuances–what bathrooms should transgender students use?–the central point is what matters, and this is serious.  You must not remain silent or stand on the sidelines.  Even if you are straight, you know people who are not.  Even if you are straight like us, you probably have gay family members and friends. Like us, you may also have same sex couples in your family and circle of friends.  

They are all endangered…and so are you, because the anti-transgender people won’t be content with winning the transgender battle.  These are the people George Orwell warned us about in “Animal Farm.”  They don’t believe in equality, or democracy, or religious freedom, or tolerance, or in the principles of our Constitution. They want power and control.

What to do?  If you are a Republican, speak up against DeSantis, Abbott and others who are targeting transgender children, apparently just to please their base. You do not have to be a ‘liberal’ to oppose illiberalism. Work against politicians whose main platform seems to be the culture wars. Support mainstream Republicans wherever you find them, across the board.

Democrats and Independents cannot be passive on this either. They must demand and then support candidates who believe in equity and tolerance. 


Like every other profession or occupation, education has its own jargon, its own linguistic mishmash that serves to mystify (and sometimes alienate) outsiders.  Most of it is harmless, but some of what educators say covers up what ought to see the light of day. Below are three examples, one fairly harmless, one potentially troublesome, and the last genuinely harmful to young children.

“RIGOR” and “RIGOROUS”  Some educators and politicians who concern themselves with education are fond of these two related words.  Generally the folks who use them want the process to have more rigor or be more rigorous.  If they are trying to say that they want education to be more challenging and demanding, then we can forgive them for not having looked up ‘rigor’ and ‘rigorous’ in the dictionary.  Had they looked, they would have seen ‘harsh,’ ‘unyielding,’ and ‘painful’ as some of the synonyms.  

On the other hand, if they have chosen their words carefully and actually want the educational process to become even more painful, I suggest they do not belong anywhere near children or schools.

Whenever you hear an educator use those words, ask politely, “Do you mean ‘rigor’ as in RIGOR MORTIS?”

“OUR TASK AS EDUCATORS IS TO GET YOUNG CHILDREN READY TO LEARN”  I have heard too many educators say this.  This is NOT harmless if the speaker actually believes it. In fact, it is both arrogant and dangerous.  As a species, we humans are born ‘ready to learn.’  Young children are sponges.  

The adults in charge of education have to get young children ready for school, but that’s very different from getting them ready to learn.  School means rules, certain acceptable behaviors, et cetera, et cetera.  One hopes that the rules and procedures  fan the flames of their curiosity, instead of putting out the fire.  

If you hear this, ask for clarification.  “Aren’t children almost always ready to learn?”  If the guy (usually a man) doesn’t get the distinction, head for the hills (or another school).

“IN THE FIRST THREE GRADES CHILDREN LEARN TO READ; FROM THEN ON THEY READ TO LEARN”   People who say this are treating reading as an end goal, instead of recognizing reading for what it really is: a means to an end, with the end being understanding.  This is dangerous nonsense: Children learn to read because they want to learn more about the world around them, because that gives them more control over their environment. Both at the same time!  Dividing them, treating them differently, actually impedes learning to read, and learning generally.

Imagine if those same deep thinkers were put in charge of teaching children to walk.  They’d have kids walking in place for a year or two (learning to walk), after which they could walk around (walking to get somewhere).

I think this nonsense has its roots in an official attempt to evade responsibility for our failure to teach young children to read with confidence and comprehension. Basically saying “They haven’t learned to read very well yet because it’s a much longer process. Give us more time.”  But the truth is, children haven’t learned because we haven’t been teaching them properly!

The story is a bit complicated, but it goes back to the system’s embrace of a flawed approach to reading instruction known as Whole Language (and later as its clone Balanced Literacy). These two approaches deny the importance of Phonics and Phonemic Awareness as the fundamental engine of reading.  Whole Language stresses word recognition and guessing based on context (including pictures).  Phonics teaches that letters make sounds, and the sounds change depending on the arrangement of the letters.  

While English has lots and lots of exceptions to the rule of Phonics (say ranger, anger, and hanger aloud, for example), we learn to recognize the exceptions, but we don’t ignore the rules.

(A number of readers have brought up the issue of ‘Scripted Phonics,’ arguing that excessive scripting is mind-numbing. I agree, and I appreciate the correction. Their comments reminded me of some reporting I did for NPR back in the late 70’s from Connecticut, when Scripted Phonics temporarily ruled. As I recall, the idiots-in-charge had divided reading into about 20 discrete steps, and children were being taught those steps. They learned the steps, the idiots-in-charge declared that, because the children could pass the tests on the steps, they were–roll of drums–readers! Truth is, the children had learned to HATE reading.)

Educators have been fighting The Reading Wars for more than 75 years, but–unfortunately–teacher training has been and is dominated by Whole Language advocates, meaning that most of our elementary school teachers weren’t taught about the importance of Phonics.  The good ones–and there are plenty of them–had to learn about Phonics on their own.  The best teachers I’ve seen use a combination of Phonics and Whole Language, but Phonics is the fundamental building block.

People who talk about “Learning to Read, then Reading to Learn” belong in some other line of work.  Full stop…

You may have other examples to offer.  I’d like to hear them, so please feel free to share….


Yesterday, today, and every day going forward, nearly every one of our nation’s 3 million public school teachers goes about doing their job, trying to help young people grow into functioning, capable, confident adults, this despite an avalanche of grim and dispiriting news about the enterprise they are devoting their careers to. To wit: 

1) Voucher programs are on the rise everywhere, even though studies demonstrate that they don’t work very well;  

A Brookings Institution analysis of four studies in different states with voucher programs found that “on average, students that use vouchers to attend private schools do less well on tests than similar students that do not attend private schools.”

2) Restrictions on what students can read in many states, including the great state of Florida; 

And throughout Florida, many school librarians have been unable to order books for nearly a year, thanks to their districts’ interpretation of a state law requiring librarians to undergo an online retraining program on “the selection and maintenance of library … collections” — which was not published until this month. Julie Miller, a librarian for the Clay County School District, has not been permitted to order a book since March 2022. In a typical year, she would have ordered 300 titles by now. Instead, she has had more than a hundred conversations with disappointed students seeking fresh titles, she said, especially the latest books in their favorite fantasy series.

3) Restrictions on what teachers can teach, especially in the great state of Florida;

A Utah student group was called “Black and Proud.” The principal had it renamed. A New Hampshire history teacher used to discuss current events in a unit about race and economics. No more. And Florida school officials canceled a lecture for teachers on the history of the civil rights movement while they considered whether it would violate state rules.

4) Teacher shortages in Florida, Texas, California, Nevada, and elsewhere; 

For years, the public education system has dealt with sweeping teacher shortages. Last year, shortages were worsening. Reasons for the teacher shortage range From low teacher pay to large class sizes, difficulty with teacher retention to burnout from the coronavirus. The staffing issues tend to affect some states more than others, but most jurisdictions have difficulty hiring and retaining employees.

4) Efforts to expand charter schools in New York and elsewhere, even though few charter schools are financially transparent, and despite the mounting evidence that many charter schools are outright scams;

The GREAT Academy (NM) apparently used public funds to pay for additional contracts and bonuses that went to the school’s husband-and-wife founders by channeling the dollars through its foundation, according to a special audit released earlier this month. Read More

5) Hostile takeovers of local school boards by right-wing crazies; 

In the wake of recent victories in Texas and Pennsylvania — and having spent $2 million between April 2021 and this August, according to campaign finance filings — (The 1776 Pac) is campaigning for dozens of candidates this fall. It’s supporting candidates in Maryland’s Frederick and Carroll counties, in Bentonville, Arkansas, and 20 candidates across southern Michigan.

6) Fear mongering and increasingly hostile policies toward transgender youth

A national survey by GLSEN has found that 75% of transgender youth feel unsafe at school, and those who are able to persevere had significantly lower GPAs, were more likely to miss school out of concern for their safety, and were less likely to plan on continuing their education.  Critically, it is not just hostility from peers that threatens equal opportunity for transgender and gender non-conforming students.  Too often, school officials themselves single out these youth by refusing to respect their gender identity and even punishing them for expressing that identity.


7) An unwillingness to provide resources to help emotionally troubled youth who are having difficulty adjusting to the return to school after Covid. 

Schools across the country are overwhelmed with K-12 students struggling with mental health problems, according to school staff, pediatricians and mental health care workers. Not only has this surge made the return to classrooms more challenging to educators, it’s also taxing an already strained health-care system.

And while I don’t suggest ignoring the headlines and I don’t want anyone to underestimate the danger that public education is in today, it’s important to keep in mind that the vast majority of our nation’s 3 million teachers are helping our young people grow into functioning, confident adults.

A healthy public education system is a fundamental pillar of our society, and an educated citizenry is our best protection against fascism, despotism, and other ‘isms’ that threaten the American experiment.  

So, if you know some teachers, why not let them know they are appreciated.  Make tomorrow Teacher Appreciation Day….and the next day as well.  And the day after that…..

And please let your political leaders know that you support public education and our country’s young people.

The Original “I’ll Have What She’s Having”

“I’ll have what she’s having” may be the funniest line in the history of the movies. It’s what an elderly woman (Estelle Reiner) says, deadpan, to her waitress while watching a young woman (Meg Ryan) fake an orgasm at a nearby table where she’s dining with her former boyfriend (Billy Crystal) in Rob Reiner’s classic 1989 film, “When Harry Met Sally.”

In real life, however, those same five words,“I’ll have what she’s having,” can save some adults from public humiliation.

Let me explain: Recently I posted about a young woman who teaches First Grade on Martha’s Vineyard (MA) and moonlights three or four nights a week as a waitress.  The menu at her restaurant was all words, no pictures.

Here are three examples from the menu: 

Guinness Braised Short Rib $34 kale & leek mash potatoes, crispy leeks, Guinness gravy

Oven Roasted Cod $36 haricots verts, pine nut & black currant salad, citrus  beurre blanc, mashed potatoes

Cheeseburger & Fries $22  7 oz. Angus burger, cheddar, brioche bun

Just words, no pictures.  

By contrast, imagine you are eating at Burger King, MacDonald’s, a fast food place at an Interstate rest stop, or Denny’s.  At these places, photographs rule!  Here’s a sample from Denny’s:

Chicken Wings

Smothered Cheese Friesos

A few words accompany each photo, plus the price. 

If you’ve ever wondered why fast food restaurants and food courts at highway rest stops feature photos of all their food, well, it’s not simply to stimulate taste buds; it’s an acknowledgement that many of their customers are not readers. Those laminated full-color menus are an expensive accommodation, and they have to be reprinted every time prices go up or the menu changes.

That Vineyard restaurant–and all the other restaurants whose menus eschew pictures– are pretty much off limits for more than half of adult Americans, the roughly 141 million men and women who read below a 6th grade level, including a large number who are functionally illiterate.

For generation after generation, most Americans have not learned to read with fluency.  Today most Americans apparently read only when they have to.  The numbers are daunting: 

  1. Roughly 21% of American adults are illiterate, and another 33% read at or below a 6th grade level; 
  2. Americans between the ages of 15 and 44 spend ten minutes or less a day reading books;
  3. More than half of adult Americans haven’t read a full book in over a year, and 
  4. Young people are reading less than half the number of books that older generations read. (See here and here and here.)

More than 35 years ago producer Mike Joseloff and I traveled to Iowa to report on adult illiteracy for the NewsHour.  We chose Iowa, as I recall, because it had one of the highest-ranked public education systems.  There we spent time with a local businessman and his wife.  The man had his own successful plumbing business, but he could not read!  His wife handled all the correspondence and record-keeping, allowing him to live a lie, going through his days posing as a reader.

He had survived, he told us, by using his wits. He would carry a newspaper and pretend to read it while drinking his coffee, and he kept up with the news on local radio and TV, in case his customers wanted to talk about current events. 

As for dining out, he always went to restaurants with picture menus: Denny’s, Howard Johnson’s, MacDonald’s and so forth.

If he and his wife went out to dinner with friends and somehow ended up at a restaurant with a ‘words only’ menu, he said he would pretend to read his menu while listening carefully to what everyone else was ordering.  He made sure that he would order last, and then he’d say to the waiter, “I’ll have what she’s having.”

When we met him, he had decided he’d had enough of living that lie. He had just enrolled in an adult literacy class, in part because he wanted to be able to read to his young children. 

Perhaps most non-readers don’t have the courage or the opportunity to learn to read as adults.  That man was doubly fortunate: a loving and supportive wife and the courage to ‘come out’ as illiterate.  It seems likely that the majority of non-reading adults lead lives of deception, fewer opportunities, or narrower horizons–the direct result of our failure to teach them to read with confidence and comprehension when they were young children.

Mike and I did that story for the NewsHour a few years before “When Harry Met Sally.” Sadly, we probably could do it again, in Iowa or in any other state because American schools continue to do a poor job of teaching reading.

Let me leave you with a conundrum: FIRST, We know that reading is the fundamental building block of education, AND we know that competent readers are more likely to finish college (and beyond), AND we know that educated citizens earn more money, live in nicer places, have access to better health care, and live longer, healthier lives.

SECOND, we know how to teach reading effectively to virtually all children.

THIRD, despite our awareness of reading’s importance and despite our knowing how to teach reading effectively, we do not provide the necessary resources to teach all poor children and children of color to read confidently and with understanding.

WHY? Is the system set up to maintain the status quo, even though education is supposed to be a ladder up? Is it inherently racist and classist?

What do you think?

“Deja Vu All Over Again”*

My wife and I had dinner in a restaurant on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts one night this week. Our waitress, a very pleasant young woman, appeared to be in her mid-20’s.  In a short conversation as we were finishing up, we discovered that she was a First Grade teacher on the island. That’s her full-time job, but she was also working as a waitress four nights a week (and waitressing full time during summers). 

For me, this was deja vu, because nearly 40 years ago my very first report for the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour introduced viewers to teachers holding down part-time jobs while also teaching full time.  We filmed it in McMinnville, Oregon, and I still recall the high school English teacher who worked after school in a 7-11, where he often encountered his students, now his customers. That was in 1984.

The young woman last night and the man from Oregon are hardly unique.  Overall, about 20 percent of teachers hold second jobs during the school year, accounting for roughly 9 percent of their annual income. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, teachers are about three times as likely as other U.S. workers to moonlight.  (Another study provides a precise number, 17%.)

However, if you factor in part-time jobs within the school system, like coaching, teaching evening classes, or even driving a school bus, then an astonishing 59% of teachers are working part-time to supplement what they earn as full-time teachers, according to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI).  The authors of that article, economists Emma García and Elaine Weiss, write, “Moonlighting can increase stress and drive disengagement, as teachers are forced to juggle multiple schedules and have their family and leisure time reduced. And if moonlighting occurs outside the school system, the challenges of juggling the extra work are likely greater.” 

How bad are things for teachers?  “In about half of all U.S. states, the average teacher does not even earn a living wage needed to support a family,” according to the National Association of State Boards of Education. 

Garcia and Weiss believe that economic stress is driving teachers out of the field; public awareness of this situation helps explain both the current teacher shortage and also the drop in enrollment in teacher-training programs.  

And it’s not as if teachers have tons of extra time for their part-time jobs, because public school teachers also often work more than the average 39.4 hours a week required by their employment contracts. In 2020-21, teachers worked 52 hours a week on average, including 25.2 of those hours teaching. 

(And if you are now thinking that ‘only’ 5 hours a day teaching children is a walk in the park, you obviously have never been a teacher!)

Teacher salaries have not kept up with inflation.  An NEA report released in the spring of 2022 reports that teacher salaries, adjusted for inflation, decreased by around 3.9% during the last decade.

And according to the newspaper Education Week, “Teachers are also working under a “pay penalty,” an economic concept meaning they earn lower weekly wages and receive lower overall compensation for their work than similar college-educated peers, according to the Economic Policy Institute. That penalty reached a record high in 2021, with teachers earning 76.5 cents on the dollar compared with their peers.”

Should we have a national minimum teacher salary?  Democratic congresswoman Federica Wilson of Florida believes it’s time.  In mid-December she introduced The American Teacher Act, which would provide grants and incentives to increase the minimum K-12 salary to $60,000, with yearly adjustments for inflation.  Nationally, the average salary is about $61,000, with many states falling below that dollar amount.  But even within a state where the average is above $60,000, the proposed federal law would have a profound impact because teacher salaries vary widely within states; for example, in Massachusetts the average teacher salary is about $82,000, one of the highest in the nation, but the range is staggering.  Ten districts pay more than $100,000, while a few others pay just over $40,000.

That bill has close to a zero chance of passing the House, now controlled by Republicans, and it’s unclear whether it could pass the Democratically-controlled Senate.  Public education doesn’t have strong and vocal supporters, even though most parents support public schools.

What we are experiencing is the slow death of public education.  And, should the system die, the autopsy will not say “Accidental Death,” because the attacks on public education are deliberate.  One of the attackers’ strategies is to starve the system by cutting spending and diverting dollars to vouchers, private schools, on-line academies, and for-profit charter schools.  The right wing takeover of local school boards is another piece of this concerted attack.

The unrelenting attacks have taken a toll.  In 1999 only 13% of adults were ‘completely dissatisfied’ with public schools; today it’s 23%, according to the Gallup Poll.  In 2022 only 42% of adults said they were either ‘completely satisfied’ or ‘satisfied’ with public schools, a large drop from nearly 50% in 2001.

Teachers have been fighting back, most notably through the Red4Ed movement, which began in North Carolina in 2012 but sprang to national prominence when teachers in Arizona rallied thousands of supporters to demand more resources for schools. The movement caught on and eventually led to short-term school closings in ArizonaCaliforniaColoradoKentucky, OklahomaOregonNorth CarolinaVirginiaWashington, and West Virginia. COVID-19 seems to have stopped Red4Ed’s momentum.

So, what about us? Do we wring our hands, or do we fight back?  If you want to fight back, support higher salaries for teachers. Support changes that improve the lives of teachers (and students), by limiting standardized testing and giving teachers more of a say in the curriculum. It’s time to make teaching a true profession, which I have written about here. 

  • Deja Vu All Over Again” is from Yogi Berra, who also is supposed to have said “When you come to a fork in the road, take it” and (speaking about a popular restaurant) said “Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.”