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.”

‘Tis the Season….to make lists

“Readers love lists.  Will you build a weekly column around lists?”

Her question took me by surprise.  “But I will be writing about education,” I replied.  “Not sure how I can fit lists into that.”

“Easily,” she said. “Seven things a teacher should never say to a student.  Six ways to control a disruptive class.  Five public school districts that cannot seem to retain teachers, and why.  Four reasons why schools should require uniforms, and four reasons why that’s a bad idea.  Three completely ineffective ways of teaching reading….and why it’s so difficult to get rid of them.”

She smiled.  “Shall I go on?”  

That conversation with the legendary editor Tina Brown took place in late 2007, when she was launching The Daily Beast.  She was interviewing me as a potential columnist, but I wasn’t savvy enough to recognize that she knew what she was talking about.

Ten years later, I finally absorbed the wisdom. That’s when I released my 12 steps to rescue public education.

Now I am a big fan of lists, particularly this one: seven very deserving non-profit organizations that could use your year-end financial (and tax-deductible) support.  

The links are hot, to make donating easy 🙂

CHESS IN THE SCHOOLS   Thousands of programs supplement public education and provide opportunities for less-fortunate kids to dance, play musical instruments, paint, play sports and so on, but most of these worthy programs are, sadly, not actually part of the school day and part of the curriculum. Instead, they take place after school or on weekends.  Chess in the Schools is different because it is integrated in the elementary school curriculum. Students learn to play chess as part of their school day!

      And chess teaches much, much more: Sportsmanship, Patience, Concentration, Critical Thinking Skills, Self Esteem, and Social Skills.  CIS holds tournaments, helps send students to college, and trains teachers.  And over the years it has reached more than 500,000 students!  

     Today CIS is in only 48 schools in New York City.  Your tax-deductible gift will help it help more children.

THE NETWORK FOR PUBLIC EDUCATION  If you are concerned about the right-wing attacks on public education, which I wrote about here and here, please consider supporting the Network for Public Education, an activist organization started by a former high school principal, a former high school teacher, and an education historian (all of whom I interviewed during my reporting career).  NPE’s mission is “to preserve, promote, improve and strengthen public schools for both current and future generations of teachers. NPE also publishes an invaluable and up-to-date list of charter schools embroiled in scandal, financial and otherwise.  Sadly, the list grows and grows.

The next three organizations strengthen reporting about education. All are essential, so take your choice—or support all three!

CHALKBEAT  This vibrant organization provides in-depth on-line reporting about public education in eight cities and states–Chicago, Indiana, Philadelphia, New York, Colorado, Newark, Tennessee, Detroit–plus a national overview.

THE HECHINGER REPORT This invaluable organization’s mission statement says it all: We cover inequality and innovation in education with in-depth journalism that uses research, data and stories from classrooms and campuses to show the public how education can be improved and why it matters.  Its reporters dig deep, often turning over rocks to reveal messy scandals, but never losing sight of the larger goal: to improve public education.

EDUCATION WRITERS ASSOCIATION is the glue that holds my former profession together. Without EWA, education reporting would be a shadow, and the field would not be able to attract and hold some of the brightest minds in journalism.

WORLD CENTRAL KITCHEN  No doubt you are aware of WCK, the remarkable organization founded by Chef José Andrés. You may already be a supporter. If not, click the link above. Or read what I wrote about WCK in June.  If you are horrified by Putin’s war and what the citizens of Ukraine are enduring, you can help by giving to WCK.

DOCTORS WITHOUT BORDERS  Another way to help the people of Ukraine is to donate to this remarkable organization, also known as Medecins Sans Frontieres.  That beleaguered nation is one of 70 (SEVENTY!) where this organization can be found. As its mission statement notes “Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) offers medical humanitarian assistance to people based solely on need, irrespective of race, religion, gender, or political affiliation. Our teams of doctors, nurses, logisticians, and other frontline workers are often among the first on the scene when peoples’ lives are upended by conflict, disease outbreaks, or natural or human-made disasters.” 

So, that’s my list. Now, does anyone have Tina Brown’s email address?

Thanks for considering a donation (or two or three….)

Happy Holidays and may 2023 bring you peace, health, and happiness. 

WHO WILL DEFEND PUBLIC EDUCATION?

Former President Trump has called for suspending the US Constitution, and most Republican politicians have refused to condemn his outrageous statement, let alone say that his views disqualify him from holding the highest office in our land.  And, sadly, white nationalists, racists, anti-semites, LGBTQ-haters, and the political opportunists and media whores who enable them are still out in force, working as hard as ever to destabilize our nation.  

But that’s politics today, unfortunately. What’s striking and deeply disturbing to me is the extreme politicization of public education, beyond even the battles over desegregation that closed schools across much of the American South in the 1950’s and tore communities–North and South– apart in the 1970’s. Because of my belief in the importance of public schools, I’m using this space to call out the right-wing political activists who are working to destroy public education– and keep to children from reading, thinking, and questioning.  Concerned Republicans and Democrats need to step up and defend public schools, because classrooms are becoming ‘unsafe spaces’ for exploration of anything that’s remotely controversial.  That’s the polar opposite of education….and a genuine threat to our democracy. 

At the top of my list is  “Moms for Liberty” and its co-founder Tiffany Justice. This group is leading an effort to take over school boards in order to restrict the curriculum and fire supposedly ‘woke’ administrators. She told former Trump consigliere Steve Bannon, “We’re going to take over the school boards, but that’s not enough. Once we replace the school boards, what we need to do is we need to have search firms, that are conservative search firms, that help us to find new educational leaders, because parents are going to get in there and they’re going to want to fire everyone.”

In October The New Yorker profiled the organization, a piece well worth your attention.

Blogger Peter Greene, a former high school teacher, cataloged the right-wing campaigns of Moms for Liberty, the 1776 Project, and Patriot Mobile recently in Forbes Magazine.  Below is Greene’s description of some of their victories, and the consequences.

Right-wingers took over the “Miami-Dade School Board, where a resolution to recognize LGBTQ History Month (which the district had done just last year) drew a crowd of opponents, including Moms for Liberty, the Christian Family Coalition, and the Proud Boys. The new majority on the board squashed the motion……In Colorado, a superintendent resigned after board members campaigned against his policy priorities. In Florida’s beleaguered Broward County district, a new majority appointed by Governor DeSantis passed a surprise motion to fire the current superintendent…..and in Berkeley County (SC), the new majority, on the same night they were sworn in, fired the superintendent, fired the district legal counsel, cut property taxes, banned “critical race theory,” and set up a committee to begin reviewing and removing books deemed inappropriate.  Deon Jackson had served as Berkeley County’s first Black superintendent for just over a year, after long-time employment in the district in other capacities. The board offered no explanation for their action, telling the press only, ‘We expect to be able to share our rationale in the future.’”

The campaign is succeeding.  As NPR reported on a new survey recently, “More than two-thirds (69%) of principals surveyed report “substantial political conflict” with parents or members of the community last year over several controversial topics:

  • Teaching about issues of race and racism 
  • Policies and practices related to LGBTQ+ student rights 
  • Social-emotional learning
  • Student access to books in the school library

“There is a very vocal and politically organized group of parents/stakeholders with ultraconservative views that want to remove discussions about race from the high school classroom, believe that LGBTQ+ rights should not be upheld in the school system, desire to have Christian prayer in schools, desire books related to race and LGBTQ+ topics be removed from the curriculum and library,” a principal from Nebraska told researchers.

The right’s obsession with–and hatred of–public education isn’t new.  Consider this 2002 analysis for perspective. 

Some of today’s politicians seem to be going out of their way to harm public education, including Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor who was re-elected in a landslide and whose “Don’t Say Gay” bill is now in force (although his “Stop Woke” law has been ruled blatantly unconstitutional by a federal judge); and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who recently called teacher union president Randi Weingarten ‘the most dangerous person in the world,” more dangerous than Putin, Erdogan, Assad, and  Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. 

I reiterate: this is not, or should not be a “Democratic Issue” or a “Republican Issue.” All children need and deserve the opportunity to achieve their potential, and strong public schools (and libraries, museums, et cetera) are essential. Unfortunately, these ideologues do not believe in diversity, choice, critical analysis, exploration of ideas, or in education itself. It’s their way or the highway. 

Who Is The Most Dangerous Person in the World?

Here’s an interesting parlor exercise: Who do you think is the greatest threat to our planet?  Would you nominate Putin, Assad, Kim, Xi Jinping, or someone else? 

Well, don’t bother arguing among yourselves because Mike Pompeo, the former US Secretary of State and head of the CIA and now a presidential hopeful, has it all figured out.  Speaking at the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas recently, he said,

I get asked, ‘Who’s the most dangerous person in the world? Is it Chairman Kim, is it Xi Jinping?’ The most dangerous person in the world is Randi Weingarten. It’s not a close call.

Like Putin, Assad, Kim, and Xi, Weingarten is also a President.  However, she leads the American Federation of Teachers, a labor union with only 1.7 million members.  By contrast, China has 1.4 billion people, of whom 625 million are ‘fit for service,’ and Russia has 143 million people, including 47 million who are ‘fit for service.’

But numbers aren’t everything.  In fact, Pompeo may be right. Weingarten is dangerous to people like Pompeo because most of the members of her ‘army’ are classroom teachers, most of them women.  Consider that list again (Putin, et cetera): all men–not a single woman–and we know that men like Pompeo are scared of women, particularly powerful women.

Weingarten also terrifies Pompeo because she is honest, while he was notorious for using the State Department budget and facilities for entertaining his friends, family, and political supporters.  Would anyone be shocked to find State Department silverware and china in Pompeo’s home?  I doubt it.   

But what makes Weingarten particularly dangerous is that she is gay and female, the worst nightmare for pompous blusterers like Mike Pompeo. That configuration–a strong and honest gay woman who cares deeply about America’s children–is something he and his ilk just cannot handle.  Randi Weingarten is the whole package.

Recall the aphorism, “The Whole Is greater than the Sum of its Parts.”  Greater–and terrifying–for A-holes like Pompeo.

How NOT To Help Struggling Students

By now you are aware of the disastrous results on the national test known as ‘The Nation’s Report Card,’ which tested a stratified representative sample of 4th and 8th graders in reading and math. The results demonstrated what most state tests have already revealed:  COVID, school closures, and inadequate virtual schooling did major damage to our children’s learning.  

What you may not realize is that this was not NEW news. Savvy educators, politicians, and anyone who has been paying attention to state test results knew this was coming.

NAEP reported that the average fourth-grade math score decreased by 5 points to its lowest level since 2005. The average eighth-grade math score decreased by 8 points to its lowest level since 2003. Basically, nearly every group went backwards, with those who started at a lower level losing the most ground.  

Harvard’s Tom Kane, writing in The Atlantic, reported that “students at low-poverty schools that stayed remote had lost the equivalent of 13 weeks of in-person instruction. At high-poverty schools that stayed remote, students lost the equivalent of 22 weeks. Racial gaps widened too: In the districts that stayed remote for most of last year, the outcome was as if Black and Hispanic students had lost four to five more weeks of instruction than white students had.” Keep that number, 22 weeks, in mind please.

For an interesting take on NAEP’s strange way of measuring, please read this:

Other studies have shown the harm that COVID and school closures inflicted on students’ emotional health.  This NIH study found that “Prolonged school closures possessed negative effects on K-12 students’ physical, mental, and social well-being and reduced the number of health and social workers, hindering the reopening of the country.”

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, who called the results “appalling and unacceptable,” told a group of reporters that the results are “a moment of truth for education,” adding “How we respond to this will determine not only our recovery, but our nation’s standing in the world.” Keep that phrase, “how we respond,” in mind as well.

Most observers responded by blaming someone else, of course. The ‘blame game,’ which has been going on since schools closed, reached epic proportions when the NAEP results were made public.  Although teacher unions have been receiving the brunt of the calumny, the data doesn’t support those accusations.   Actually, the data can be manipulated (‘interpreted’) to support just about any accusation…or none.  

Let me explain: Because not one state improved overall, the usual Red vs Blue arguments are irrelevant.  Because students in charter schools showed the same dismal results as those attending traditional public schools, that undercuts the ‘charters are better’ argument.  While it’s true that unions generally supported keeping schools closed, nearly all charter schools are non-union, and the charter sector’s disappointing results take the wind out of the ‘It’s the unions’ fault’ accusation.

Affixing blame is a fool’s errand anyway. What matters is doing something that helps struggling students. Dr. Peggy Carr, the Commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, recently told a new program that  “The good news is that we know what works. We have evidence-based strategies that have science behind them, proven effects, that, if we implement them, we can turn things around.” Unfortunately, the reporter did not ask Dr. Carr for details.

Here is what Dr. Carr might have said.  At least three strategies have been shown to help struggling students raise their test scores: 1) summer school; 2) an extended school day and year, and 3) what is known as ‘high-dosage tutoring,’ where one trained tutor works with no more than four students, three times a week for an entire year.  Of course, these strategies are designed to raise achievement scores, which they no doubt can do. However, I’d like to see evidence that the gains persist, because I suspect that the ‘forgetting curve’ is just as steep–if not steeper–than the ‘learning curve.’

Let’s go back to “22 weeks” and “How we respond,” the two phrases I asked you to keep in mind. The goal of those three ‘ evidence-based’ strategies is the same: stuff the information the students missed into their skulls and brains. Is this a good idea? Here’s an analogy that might be useful: Imagine that you were held captive for 22 weeks. During your captivity, you were allowed only one meal, lunch, meaning that you missed 154 breakfasts and 154 dinners. Now that you are free, can you catch up if we force-feed you those missed meals? Perhaps three breakfasts and three dinners for the next 51 days? Or maybe two breakfasts and two dinners for the next 77 days? Would either strategy work? Of course not! Your body would reject the food, and you might even take a turn for the worse. The extra hours and days, summer school, and intense tutoring are the educational equivalent of force-feeding. If educators and policy-makers respond by endorsing these strategies and these alone, history will record that their response was inadequate to meet the challenge.

As I said at the top of this piece, the on-going educational disaster and the existence of some remedies are NOT “new news.” The Biden Administration and the Congress gave state education agencies and school districts $190 billion in federal pandemic relief, but they have not been spending the money!

In sum, policymakers and educational leaders knew about the impending disaster, knew about possible solutions, and knew they had the money to implement solutions….and still they have done almost nothing!

Is there a tutor shortage?  OK, then raise the pay!  Is there resistance to extended day, extended year, and summer school from teachers and other workers?  OK, then raise everyone’s pay, and figure out how to persuade parents that this approach will work, even though most kids and parents hate the idea of summer school! 

However, those school districts that are looking for ‘more of the same–that are working overtime to ‘get back to normal‘–are making a huge mistake. It’s long past time to acknowledge that ‘normal’ wasn’t all that great for most students.  Those adults who are merely focused on boosting test scores are going to do more harm than good.

I wish more educators were capable of thinking outside the box.  Here’s one suggestion: Think of children as returning prisoners of war, and act accordingly.

While I often disagree with Mike Petrilli  of the Fordham Foundation, this advice of his makes perfect sense to me:  “The best act of contrition is for us to ensure that the Covid generation now gets everything it needs to be made whole: the extra resources and instructional time to make up for learning loss, and the social and emotional support to get back to full health, physically and emotionally. That still is not enough, but it is the least we can do.”

How will we respond?

How Public Education Can Survive…and Prosper

As public schools were reopening around the country in September, The New York Times devoted an entire Sunday “Opinion” section to ask “What Is School For?”   Twelve writers provided answers, including “Everyone,” “Economic Mobility,” “Making Citizens,“Learning to Read,” and “Wasting Time.”  In the lead essay NPR’s Anya Kamenetz argued that while public schools are for everyone, they are also in serious trouble; declining enrollments, teacher shortages, right-wing attacks, more voucher programs that siphon funds away from public schools, and funding cuts are among the problems she delineates.

But what about the future? Can public education be saved? If so, how and by whom?  Because The Times did not address those questions, let me suggest that, if public schools are going to survive and prosper, they must emulate public libraries.

Not long ago public libraries, not schools, were the endangered species: no one was reading books because video and video games were taking over. Funding for libraries was shrinking, and they were opening late, closing early, and staying shut one or two days a week.   

What happened?  Contrary to popular myth, it wasn’t just ‘Harry Potter.’  No, the library community woke up and realized that they had to market themselves. Librarians added DVD’s to their collections, made their public spaces hospitable, created events for different groups, and reached out to their various communities.  

Their strategies worked, in most places anyway. Over the last two decades, public libraries have made themselves ‘must go’ places for millions of Americans, young and old. Today, two-thirds of us carry library cards, and half of us visit the library at least once a year. If you’re like me, you ‘visit’ your local library on-line, click some buttons to borrow books, then go to the building itself when the library reaches out to say that your book is ready. Nothing could be easier or more appealing.

A 2013 survey revealed just how much we care about libraries:  Some 90% of Americans ages 16 and older said that the closing of their local public library would have an impact on their community, with 63% saying it would have a “major” impact. Asked about the personal impact of a public library closing, two-thirds (67%) of Americans said it would affect them and their families, including 29% who said it would have a major impact.”

For years the fundamental difference between public schools and public libraries was that nobody had to go to the library, while school attendance was mandatory.  Schools were a monopoly and had little or no reason to change–or even question–what they were doing.

However, a lot of people were unhappy with public schools, but those seeking alternatives to traditional schooling were generally rebuffed by local School Boards and other political entities, which were seemingly more concerned about test scores, graduation rates, and cutting budgets than about the individual needs of students. But just saying ‘no’ to demands for change didn’t work, and parents today have choices, including public charter schools, on-line schooling, vouchers, and homeschooling. That is, today many children do not have to go to their local public school. 

And both during and after COVID, many parents have been voting with their feet, as The Times and others have pointed out.  “Public school enrollment remains down for a second consecutive year, at 49.5 million in fall 2021 compared to 49.4 million in fall 2020, according to preliminary federal counts from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. Comparatively, pre-pandemic enrollment was at 50.8 million students in fall 2019.”

Defenders of public education often respond by attacking voucher programs, online schooling, and charter schools–often with good reason.  However, this defensive strategy, even when supported by strong evidence of embezzlement, inefficiency, and low achievement, will not be enough to bring back dissatisfied parents. Nor will negativity build support among the general public, the 75% of households who do not have school age children.

To survive and prosper, more public schools must do what public libraries did: 1) sell themselves to parents and the general public and 2) get better. 

Displaying student work on school walls is not enough. Instead, students should be working in public and with the public.  Here are a few possibilities: 

  1. Teams of 7th and 8th graders interview local merchants about their businesses and then post the stories, with photos, on the school website. 
  2. Groups of 3rd and 4th graders go to local nursing homes to read to, and chat with, residents. Post the student reports, with photos, on the web. 
  3. Invest in an outdoor air quality monitor (less than $300) so that teams of 5th and 6th graders can monitor the local air quality several times each day. Link with other middle schools around the state so students can compare and contrast air quality. Invite local experts to Zoom with students to answer questions. The reports should be posted regularly on the school website.
  4. 10th and 11th graders ask local residents–especially those without school age children–to recite well-known lines like Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy. Then students should edit the videos so that each resident has one or two lines. Next, post the resulting montages.

What is likely to happen is a groundswell of public enthusiasm: “Did you know what kids are doing these days?” and “Don’t you wish you could be a kid again?” and “Did you see me on the web? Reciting Shakespeare!” 

Activities like the above are game-changers for children as well, but schools must do even more. Today’s kids swim in the internet’s sea of information, and so schools must help them learn to distinguish truth and facts from fiction and misinformation….while encouraging them to choose facts and truths.

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.  

Schools that change along these lines will be offering parents more choices for their children, and enrollment will climb.  Responsive schools will survive the attacks by forces that do not want Americans to think for themselves.  Conversely, public schools that fail to adapt will continue to wither, depriving millions of children the education they are entitled to.

Be “Impersonal”

The adult and child walking in front of me were complete strangers, people I had never seen before. The man, who looked to be in his early 30’s, was casually dressed. He was holding the hand of a young girl, probably about five years old. Perhaps the girl, Sophie, was his daughter and they were on their way home from school or a music lesson.

If you’re reading carefully, you may be thinking, “Hold on a minute!  You wrote that you had never seen those two before, and yet you assert that her name was Sophie?  That doesn’t compute, buddy.  You’ve lost your credibility….big time.”

I did what I have done on other occasions.  I called out, “Excuse me, sir,” and the man stopped and turned around.  “Hi, Sophie,” I said, and the man looked at me sideways, probably wondering why an old man with white hair was striking up a conversation.

“Do I know you,” he asked, somewhat suspiciously?  

“No,” I said.  “We have never met, but I know your daughter’s name is Sophie.  I probably shouldn’t know it, but I do–and so does everyone else who sees her backpack.”

He seemed uncertain as to how to respond to my blunt, even rude, comment, and so I continued talking.

“I reported on children’s issues for 41 years on public television and radio,” I said. “And a story I did on child predators back in the 1980’s has stayed with me.  I spent a day with cops searching for a suspected pedophile, and at one point they hauled in a man who was lingering outside an elementary school.  He hadn’t done anything, so they couldn’t charge him, and he denied being a predator.  But he did tell them—and me, the reporter–how pedophiles are successful in persuading children to go off with them.”

The father was now paying close attention.

“The biggest gift,” this (probable) predator said, “is clothing or a backpack with the child’s name printed on it.  All he has to do is call the child by name to catch them off guard.  The 5-year-old won’t recognize or remember him, but children see many adults throughout their day.  But the man knows her name, and so she might assume that she must have met him. Of course, her parents have taught her not to talk to strangers, but this man knows her name, and so she lets down her guard.”  

I have not been able to erase from my memory his final words: “Game over.

Unfortunately (from my point of view), personalized backpacks like the one Sophie was wearing are big business. A Google search turns up 43,100,000 hits.  That’s 43 MILLION!   A search for personalized lunch boxes– another gift to predators–produces 10,000,000 hits.  Disney will gladly sell you all sorts of stuff with your child’s name emblazoned on it, as will hundreds of other large companies.  

(Ironically, searching for the combination of ‘personalized backpacks’ and ‘predator’ produces references to the movie, “Predator.”  And there’s even a pedophile brand of backpack!

Perhaps I should be embarrassed to break into people’s conversations, but I am not, not any more.  It seems that old age reduces inhibitions, and so when I see parents walking with young children wearing their personalized backpacks or carrying personalized lunch boxes, I speak up. So far, anyway, nobody has punched me out or cursed me, and quite a few parents have expressed their gratitude.

That interview with that (probable) predator took place in the 1980’s, long before Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok.  Today those Apps are a gift to those who are attracted to children. And again it’s the adults who are creating the problem, because many parents post photos, with names, of their children on their Facebook page, and those pages are often open to anyone surfing the web.  I know parents who do this almost daily,  and it seems to me that this amounts to an invitation to men with evil intentions.  Too many photos allow strangers to display deep familiarity with children they decide to target.  There’s no better example of TMI–Too Much Information–than splashing one’s family life all over Facebook.

I am not alone in my concerns about endangering children.  The website Bella Online has a clear warning. Here’s another.  But, unfortunately, most advice–even good advice like this and this– does not include warnings against personalized clothing or information sharing on Facebook.

Because the data reveals that only about 10% of child abuse is committed by strangers, all children must also be taught about the sanctity of their bodies; they must be taught to be wary of overly friendly family members who want them to keep secrets.  But 10% of the millions of children who will be sexually abused before the age of 18 is a big number…..

So why not cut back on posting on Facebook or Instagram about everything your children and grandchildren do? Gift-giving season is approaching, so please do not give your grandchildren or children personalized clothing, backpacks, et cetera.  

Let’s all stay safe…..and help keep our children and grandchildren safe

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.