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.

Weaponizing Public Schools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Do Republican Politicians Hate Public Schools?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT’S THIS PICTURE WORTH?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cooking and eating together is what makes us human.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cyclus Interruptus”

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

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

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

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

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

C.  No performance-enhancing drugs;

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

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

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

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