First They Came for the…….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6) Fear mongering and increasingly hostile policies toward transgender youth

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are three examples from the menu: 

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

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

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

Just words, no pictures.  

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

Chicken Wings

Smothered Cheese Friesos

A few words accompany each photo, plus the price. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you think?

“Deja Vu All Over Again”*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘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. 


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.