IS TEACHING A CALLING OR A JOB? CAN IT BE A TEAM SPORT?

I begin with the negative, but I promise that–if you stick it out–you will encounter a vision of what teaching could be.

The first question: is teaching a calling, a profession, or just another job?  

“So, are they quitting because they’re fed up with their heavy-handed union bosses?” The hostility of the question took me by surprise. I was explaining to my dinner companion, a veteran lawyer, that 40% of teachers leave the field within five years, and right away he jumped to his anti-union conclusion disguised as a question.

No, I explained. Unions don’t seem to have anything to do with it; it’s most often related to working conditions: class size, discipline policies, and how much control and influence they have over their daily activities.

“It’s not money?” he asked, aggressively suspicious. Not according to surveys, I explained.

I described what I’d seen of a teacher’s daily work life. He interrupted, “How can it be a profession if you can’t take a leak when you need to?”

While that’s not a criterion that social scientists use to define a profession, my cut-to-the-chase acquaintance might be on to something.

Can teaching be a true profession if you can’t take a bathroom break when nature calls?

Certainly, teachers and their supporters want teaching to be seen as a profession. They’ve won the linguistic battle. If you Google ‘the teaching profession,’ you’ll get about three times more references than  ‘teaching as an occupation’ or ‘the teaching occupation.’

Social scientists have no doubt about the low status of teaching.  Richard Ingersoll of the University of Pennsylvania says, “We do not refer to teaching as a profession. It doesn’t have the characteristics of those traditional professions like medicine, academia, dentistry, law, architecture, engineering, et cetera. It doesn’t have the pay, the status, the respect, the length of training, so from a scientific viewpoint teaching is not a profession.”

He carefully refers to teaching as an occupation, noting that it’s the largest occupation of all in the USA. And growing at a faster rate than the student population.

Jennifer Robinson, a teacher educator at Montclair State University in New Jersey, disagrees with Ingersoll. She believes our familiarity with teachers and schools breeds disrespect for teaching. “We don’t treat teaching as a profession because we’ve all gone to school and think we’re experts. Most people think, ‘Oh, I could do that,’ which we would never do with doctors.”

Robinson suggests that a significant part of our population–including lots of politicians–does not trust teachers. She cites the drumbeat of criticism in the media, blaming teachers for low test scores.

A common criticism is that teachers come from the lowest rungs of our academic ladder, a charge that Ingersoll says is simply not true. “About 10% of teachers come from institutions like Macalester, Yale and Penn,” he says. “Perhaps 25% come from the lowest quartile of colleges,” meaning that close to two-thirds of teachers attend the middle ranks of our colleges and universities.

According to Ingersoll, one hallmark of a profession is longevity, sticking with the work. In that respect, teaching doesn’t make the grade. As noted above, his research indicates that at least 40% of new teachers leave the field within five years, a rate of attrition that is comparable to police work. “Teaching has far higher turnover than those traditional professions, lawyers, professors, engineers, architects, doctors and accountants,” Ingersoll reports. Nurses tend to stick around longer than teachers. Who has higher quit rates, I asked him?  “Prison guards, child care workers and secretaries.”

Perhaps teaching is a calling? Those who teach score high on measures of empathy and concern for others and social progress, Ingersoll and others have noted. As a reporter and a parent, I have met thousands of teachers whose concern for their students was visible and admirable.

Trying to elevate the profession’s status (or arguing about it) is a waste of energy. That’s the view of Robert Runté, an associate professor on the faculty of education at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. In a fascinating essay that’s now 20 years old, he wrote, Since one needs schools before one can have school teachers, teachers are stuck with their status as salaried employees working within large organizations. Teachers have always been and will always be subject to direction from their school board and the provincial bureaucracy. They are, to that degree at least, already proletarianized.

Consequently, the whole question of whether teaching is a profession, or can become one, is a red herring. The real issue is the degree to which teachers can resist deskilling and maintain some measure of autonomy within the school bureaucracy.”

To some, he may be going off the deep end when he asserts that the construct of ‘profession’ is a trumped-up label created to flatter workers and distinguish themselves from others.

The only feature that ever really distinguished the professions from other occupations was the “professional” label itself. What we are is knowledge workers, and as such we have a responsibility to both ourselves and to the public to become reflective practitioners. As reflective practitioners we can reassert, first our ability, and then our right, to assume responsibility for the educational enterprise. We must stop worrying about unimportant issues of status and focus instead on the real and present danger of deskilling.

“Deskilling” is the enemy, a concerted effort to reduce teaching to mindless factory work. Remember that awful graphic in “Waiting for ‘Superman’” where the heads of students are opened up and ‘knowledge’ is poured in by teachers? That’s how some politicians and education ‘reformers’ understand the role of schools and teachers. And how much skill does it take to pour a pitcher? Not much, and so why should we pay teachers more, or even give them job protection? Just measure how well they pour (using test scores of course), compare them to other teachers (value-added), and then get rid of the poor pourers. Bingo, education is reformed!

Teaching has taken some big hits in recent years, driven in great part by the education reform movement that argues, disingenuously, that “great teachers” make all the difference. This position allows them to ignore the effects of poverty, poor nutrition, poor health and substandard housing on a child’s achievement.

Most parents are not fooled by this. Their respect for their children’s teachers and schools remains high.

So what’s to be done? Professor Lethbridge asserts that teachers should embrace their role of ‘knowledge workers,’ and I agree, sort of. I believe that schools ought to be viewed as ‘knowledge factories’ in which the students are the workers, teachers are managers/foremen/supervisors, and knowledge is the factory’s product. In that model, students must be doing real work, an issue I wrote about recently.

It’s not all grim.  Curtis Johnson of Education Evolving notes that There are now some 75 schools where teachers are in charge, have authority over everything that counts for student and school success. At EE we called them ‘teacher-powered’ schools. In these schools, the teachers are in fact professionals and turnover is very low. For readers who find this interesting, check it out at http://www.teacherpowered.org.”

And Susan Graham, a teacher, has her own suggestion: “Whether you call us ‘professionals’ or ‘knowledge workers’, what we want is enough time to do our job well; the discretion to apply the knowledge and skills we have worked to acquire; sufficient collaboration to continue to inform and improve our practice; and respect for our intention to act in the best interest of our students.”

To show respect for teaching and teachers, I suggest that we leave the ‘profession/occupation’ argument to academics. Instead, let’s consider doing three things:

1) Supporting leaders whose big question is “How is this child intelligent?” instead of “How intelligent is this child?”

2) Electing school board members who believe in inquiry-based learning, problem solving, effective uses of technology, and deeper learning.

3) Insisting on changes in the structure of schools so that teachers have time to watch each other teach and to reflect on their work. These are common practice in Finland and other countries with effective educational systems.

Oh, and bathroom breaks when necessary….

And now, my second question, timed for baseball’s postseason: Could teaching be–like baseball–a team sport?  Perhaps, but getting there requires surmounting at least six obstacles.

  1. The “egg crate” architecture of most schools does not support the notion that teaching is a team sport: Individual classrooms resemble cartons, isolated from each other, and teachers rarely get to see each other teach.
  2. Scheduling also does not support the notion that teaching is a team sport. Most American public school teachers spend almost all of their time in their classrooms with students, which means they have very little time to work as a team, or to share and reflect.
  3. The language of education does not support the notion of a team sport. Occasionally a couple of teachers ‘team teach,’ meaning they are in the classroom together. That signifies that no one else is on a team!   
  4. Teacher evaluation does not support the idea of teaching as a team sport. It’s done on an individual basis, with the possible exception of a few rating points being given for ‘contribution to the school environment’ or something like that. In my experience, when an administrator praises a teacher for being “a team player,” the principal means that the teacher doesn’t make waves.
  5. The governance of most schools contradicts the notion that teaching is a team sport. Often it’s ‘labor versus management,’ with teachers punching a time clock twice a day. Teachers are rarely asked to play a role in choosing curriculum, for example.
  6. How teachers are paid is another problem. Time on the job and graduate courses taken are not how baseball team members are paid, but judging performance in the classroom is a challenge. The notion of “merit pay” for individuals (whether based on test scores or ‘value added’ measures) undercuts the team approach. The sport of baseball has easy-to-understand measures like batting averages and earned runs, as well as more complex numbers like ‘Wins above Replacement,’ but education is not so easy to measure. Policy makers supporting merit pay schemes are paying scant attention to the implications (test all students in all subjects!); the fact that with high student turnover, a kid might have three different teachers in one year; or to the evidence indicating that merit pay doesn’t work.  There is a solution–judge the school–which I present below.

In schools where teachers are on teams, they have time to meet and discuss individual students, to plan curriculum, to develop both short- and long-term goals. They have time to breathe. They work as a team and hold each other accountable. Yes, each school has the equivalent of a baseball team manager, but he or she is not ‘management’ and the teachers ‘labor.’ They all have their eyes on the prize.

I believe that most teachers want to play a team sport. They prefer to work together and to have big hopes, dreams and goals for their school and all its students. One of my strongest memories from my own high school teaching was the joy of working with other English teachers, even to the point of swapping classes for a few weeks so each of us could teach a play or a poet we felt particularly well-qualified to teach.

So here’s my pitch: Teaching should be recognized as a team sport, and education as a team activity. The ‘team’ is the school, and everyone in the school is on the team, including secretarial staff and custodians. Education’s “win-loss” record, which is more complicated than baseball’s, should include academic measures, teacher and student attendance, teacher and student turnover, community involvement, and more. (I wrote about this in ‘Trust but Verify’ and in “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education.”

And just as the winning team will divide the World Series loot into individual shares, so too could performance pay be divvied up when the team achieves its agreed-upon goals. In this system, teachers, administrators, counselors, secretaries and custodians would all share the rewards.  No more divisive ‘merit pay’ for individuals….but real rewards for everyone.  

A baseball season lasts 162 games, plus the post-season if they do well, and the same logic should apply to judging education.  To use a familiar analogy, it’s a movie, not a snapshot, because snapshots don’t help much in baseball or in education. A player might have five hits and 6 runs batted in in one game but do poorly in every other game.  A snapshot of that one great game would be very misleading. 

Because education now relies on snapshots — one score on one test on that one big day — and because so much of schooling tilts against the team sport concept, we have miles to go before anyone can confidently assert that teaching–whether it’s a profession or a job–is a team sport.

I’m interested in your thoughts on this.

 

Advertisements

Cheating in College–and How to End It

“Cheating Goes Global as U.S. Students Outsource College Papers”  That’s the headline from a front page story in Sunday’s New York Times. It’s a compelling, disturbing–but fundamentally flawed incomplete–story of what is called ‘Contract Cheating.’  From it we learn that a lot of American college students today cannot be bothered to do their assigned work; instead, they hire writers to produce their essays and term papers, paying as much as $42 per page.

(NOTE FROM AUTHOR: As Alan Schwarz points out, ‘fundamentally flawed’ is strong language, perhaps too strong for this post. And so I have substituted ”incomplete’ for ‘fundamentally flawed.’  My thinking was that its incomplete nature was important enough to justify ‘fundamentally flawed,’ but I respect Alan’s argument.  As noted below, the reporters tell only the ‘supply’ side of the story and neglect the equally important ‘demand’ side. They also say that Australia has solved the problem but provide no supporting details.)

The Times story is built around one Mary Mbugua, a young Kenyan woman who has earned as much as $320 a month writing papers for students, in a country where the per capita income is only $1700.  While she is conflicted about the fundamental dishonesty of her work, she needs the money,  and so she writes–to order–term papers about everything from euthanasia to whether humans should colonize space.

Ms. Mgubua is presented as a representative of many thousands of educated men and women in Africa, India, the Ukraine, and elsewhere.  How many such papers are churned out?  The Times reports: “Millions of essays ordered annually in a vast, worldwide industry that provides enough income for writers to make it a full-time job.” 

The companies that provide this service are slick.  One pitch reads, “No matter what kind of academic paper you need, it is simple and secure to hire an essay writer for a price you can afford.  Save more time for yourself.”

I ask you to consider what the company means by “time for yourself.” Beer pong?  Road trips?  Smoking weed?  Ultimate Frisbee? Personal growth?  Somehow, I don’t think they mean exploring complex issues or developing one’s mind.

Here’s my problem: The Times tells only the ‘supply‘ side of the story: who is writing these essays and why.  The reporters do not dig into the equally important ‘demand‘ aspect: who is buying these essays, and why.

Nor do the reporters address possible solutions, although they report that Australia has (somehow) solved the problem.  Because the article devotes space to a software company and its founder, it seems to be implying that solving the problem of widespread plagiarism requires technology.  That’s flat out wrong!

From my own experience covering higher education, it’s not difficult to find students who are willing to reveal their secrets.  My colleagues and I filmed on four campuses for our 2005 film, ‘Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk,’ and we had quite a few undergraduates volunteer to show us how they were cheating their way through college, and explain why. (Click here to watch the film on YouTube or buy it from PBS.)

It turns out they were cheating or coasting through because their goal was to earn a college degree, not to get a college education.  I came away believing that most students didn’t even grasp the notion of ‘a college education,’ largely because they had spent their school years on a treadmill, chasing external rewards like grades.

And we learned that most colleges and universities were more intent on improving their scores in the US News & World Report rankings than on equipping young people to navigate–and improve–a changing world.

Teaching and learning–which we naively thought were the core business of higher education–were for the most part an afterthought.

Because professors needed time to do their (all important) research, many entered into an unspoken agreement with their students: “If you don’t ask too much of me, I will give you a good grade.”  (That’s actually on tape, from a tenured professor at the University of Arizona!)  They lived by “Publish or Perish,” not “Teach or Take Off.”

If colleges want to end the moral rot of plagiarism, they can accomplish it with one broad stroke.  Here’s what needs to be done:  Make the development of the idea and the drafting of every major paper as important as the final product.

♥Insist on seeing each paper in all its stages of development

♥”What’s your idea for a paper?”

♥”How will you cover this topic?”

♥”Show me your outline.”

♥”Turn in your first draft for my comments.”

♥”Submit your second draft for comments.”

♥”Meet with me regularly to discuss your progress and obstacles.”

(All of this, along with some in-class writing, should also be standard operating procedure in high schools and middle schools.)

Plagiarism becomes impossible under these conditions, because the professors will know what the students are doing from the git-go. No more papers turned in at the last minute.

However, this approach will force professors of sociology, psychology, and history–heck, professors of every subject that is NOT English–to function as writing instructors, something that many of them will not want to do.

It will require professors to shift focus away from their chosen field and onto their students. What a concept!!

It will force students to choose what issues they want to know more about.  They will have to do research and some honest writing and rewriting.  They will be accountable for the entire process, not just a few typewritten pages turned in during the semester.

Learning to be accountable for what you do: that’s a pretty important lesson to absorb.  Sadly, plagiarists are learning a different lesson: Do whatever you have to do to get by. And they are being abetted by their professors.

This isn’t pie in the sky.  I’ve met many professors who follow these rules, and I know there are colleges that subscribe to this ideal.

To conclude, this is simple stuff, but, unfortunately, ‘simple‘ does not mean ‘easy.‘ Doing this on America’s college campuses will require genuinely hard work and a fundamental mind shift.   Unless and until higher education’s leaders recommit themselves to the vision that drew most of them into education in the first place, plagiarism will continue to flourish.

(Please post your thoughts at Themerrowreport.com. And thanks)

 

“Harder to Become, Easier to Be” (A path to ending teacher shortages)

A number of states and districts are experiencing teacher shortages, with Illinois and Florida apparently at the top of the list.  From my perspective, teacher shortages are a case of the chickens coming home to roost. Two reasons for the shortages: 1) Not enough new blood and 2) a higher rate of departure by veterans,  and both are the result of how badly we treat teachers.

A constant drumbeat of hostile ‘news’ about schools and teaching is keeping young people from choosing the field, while the practice of mistreating teachers in the name of higher test scores is driving some very good teachers out of the classroom.  

Exhibit A for the latter might be this letter I received from an experienced teacher in an eastern state.  Below is an excerpt:

“Let me tell you what a horrific day I had at work.  OK, so yesterday I had to spend the entire morning proctoring the state science assessment for 5th graders. Today I was called to the office and told I needed to proctor yet another test for the 5th graders, whose results would be used to determine what ‘track’ they will be on in middle school. The test had four sub-tests. I was told that I had to pick up all the fifth grade ESL students and get their tests and subtest answer sheets and bring them into another room. None of the classroom teachers knew anything about this test, either.

So my ESL colleague and I took the kids to a separate room and started the test. ESL kids get ‘extended time’…but while we’re giving the test, the noise level outside the room is unbelievable–the assistant principal is yelling to the secretaries because she won’t get off her butt to ask them a question but would rather yell from her desk. Talk about disrespect for the ESL kids.

We started at 9:30. The first two parts took until 11:30, then we had to dismiss the kids to their art, music, gym, etc, classes. After those classes they had to come back to us to be tested on math. Oh, and by the way, we needed calculators for them, but the administrators ‘forgot’ to tell any of the teachers about this. Then LATER we found out the kids were supposed to get a reference sheet about math terms, but the administrators said “just give them the test anyway…” Then came lunch and recess, and they had to come back again because they STILL weren’t done. When we finally finished, it was 2:30. Remember, we started at 9:30.

TOMORROW, I have to give them ANOTHER test. Friday, I have to give them ANOTHER test, then they spend the rest of their day finishing up the ESL test on the computer…and the computers keep crashing.

I called the ESL person in charge and told them about the proctor who was reading instead of doing his job. She told me that the only reason I was complaining was that I didn’t want the proctors there in the first place.

I’ve called in the union. I don’t think they will actually do anything, but this is child abuse and MY NAME is on these tests. And these scores go on MY evaluation.

Trader Joe’s looks better every day.”

How many gifted teachers move on for similar reasons?  Let’s hope the woman persevered, but the odds are that she either chose another line of work or–a worse prospect–stayed in the classroom with her hopes diminished and the fire of her idealism extinguished.

Her story is hardly unique, because for years the so-called ‘School Reformers’ have blamed teachers for school shortcomings, to justify policies that have narrowed the curriculum, increased testing, and removed teachers based on student scores. The resulting ‘churn’ hurts the field, damages morale, and brings added uncertainty into the lives of students.

However, here’s a surprise: Not everyone loses when teachers leave in droves. 

Reporters are trained to ask “Who Benefits?” because, even in the worst of situations, somebody ends up benefitting. For example, while drivers lose when roads are not maintained, those potholes also mean that auto repair shops make more money.  And while all residents suffer in a city like Flint, Michigan, with inadequate or unsafe drinking water, those who bottle and sell water make money. And when reporters dig deeper, they may find that the beneficiaries of disasters are also the major obstacles to remedying unfair situations.

So let’s ask that all-important question about the exceptionally high rate of turnover–some call it ‘churn’–in our teaching force: Who benefits from teacher turnover?

Precise “churn” numbers are hard to come by, but perhaps 30-40% of all new teachers leave the profession within their first five years. Turnover is not evenly or randomly distributed: teachers in low-income neighborhoods leave in much larger numbers. Minority teachers, who’ve been aggressively recruited, leave faster than their white peers, generally because they’ve been assigned to the toughest high poverty schools.  I’ve been in schools with turnover rates of 25-35% every year.

Turnover is not inherently bad, of course.  When older teachers ‘age out’ of the profession, they retire and are replaced. Alternative certification programs like Teach for America operate from the premise that most of its ‘graduates’ will not make a career out of teaching but will move on at the end of their 2-year commitment, adding to the churn.  Some new teachers turn out to be pretty bad and are let go, and others discover that teaching is a lot harder than they expected and look for greener pastures.

Whatever its causes, churn has had a profound impact on our teaching force. As recently as 1987 when schools enrolled 45 million kids, they were hiring about 65,000 new teachers a year.  Thirty years later, schools (now enrolling 53 million students) were hiring 200,000 new teachers every year. In percentage terms, students increased about 9 percent, while new hires grew by nearly 200 percent.  Today 12 percent of all public school teachers are in their first or second year. According to Education Week, in eight states, 15 percent of the teachers are new. Within states, however, the percentages vary, meaning that in some districts the percentage of rookies may be much higher.

According to Education Week‘s analysis of the OCR data, Florida reported the highest proportion of novice teachers in the country, with about a quarter of its teachers in their first or second years. The District of Columbia and Colorado, both with nearly 18 percent of their teaching forces qualifying as new, also came in at the top of the list.

Nationally, one-quarter of our teachers have less than five years of experience. By contrast, In 1987 the modal ‘years of experience’ was 15—we had more teachers with 15 years of teaching experience than any other.  Today the modal teacher is in her first or second year.

Churn hurts students. Researchers from Stanford, the University of Michigan, and the University of Virginia came to that conclusion in their study, “How Teacher Turnover Harms Student Achievement”:

Turnover affects morale and the professional culture at a school. It weakens the knowledge base of the staff about students and the community. It weakens collegiality, professional support, and trust that teachers depend on in their efforts to improve achievement. 

So, who benefits when schools have to find replacements for so many teachers every year?  The obvious answer would seem to be school boards (and taxpayers), because green teachers are cheaper than white-haired veterans.  Payments into retirement plans are lower, because those dollars are a function of salaries, and new teachers earn less.

I nominate schools and colleges of education as the primary beneficiaries of churn.  After all, someone has to train the replacements. Consider one state with a teacher shortage, Illinois: In 2012, its institutions of higher education graduated over 43,000 education majors, presumably the majority of them trained to be teachers. The largest producer of teachers, Illinois State University, had more than 5000 would-be teachers enrolled, and its website reports that one of four new teachers hired in Illinois between 2008-2011 was an ISU graduate.  Illinois K-12 schools employ about 145,000 teachers. If 20% leave in a given year, that creates 29,000 vacancies–I.E., jobs for 29,000 replacements. If 10% opt out, the K-12 schools need 14,500 trained replacements.

But if only 5% of Illinois’ teachers left every year, there would be just 7,250 job openings for the state’s 43,000 graduates who majored in education.  So is it in the interest of Illinois higher education and its teacher-training institutions to help make teaching a job that more people want to keep? Or do they benefit from the churn because it means their classrooms are full and their professors occupied?

As the lawyers say, “Asked and answered.”

But why pick on Illinois?  Teacher turnover is also high in California, which, according to the highly regarded EdSource, has among the highest student-to- teacher/counselor/librarian/administrator ratios in the nation. Having the responsibility for 35 – 45 high school students who face severe poverty and trauma makes teaching beyond challenging. Many teachers have over 200 students each day. Is it possible to teach Science or English (including writing and rewriting!) to 200 students?

The astute and tireless Tim Slekar, who works in Wisconsin, reminds me that ‘churn’ isn’t keeping teacher education institutions full, because young people are staying away in droves.  He recently told The Cap Times, “I’ve sat here and done it more than once where an interested student and their parents come in, and the parents say, ‘Yeah, she wants to be a teacher but we told her we’re not supportive of that decision,’” Slekar said. “How is it that parents are telling their kids that we don’t want them to be teachers?”

And it’s not just Wisconsin, the focus of that article.  Here’s a national view that I urge you to read.

Every institution in America that prepares teachers is on the horns of a dilemma.  They want classroom teaching to be seen as an attractive career option so undergraduates will choose to major in education instead of, say, sociology or nursing. But, on the other hand, they benefit when teaching jobs are plentiful, because an exodus of teachers from the classroom means their own enrollment will not go down.  But if teachers stay, then the need for new teachers drops, and enrollment at teacher-training institutions falls. Follow the money!

So, who benefits from our wasteful churning system? Who benefits when teaching turns out to be an unsatisfying profession for so many?

If I am right about schools of education and school boards being the beneficiaries of churn, then it follows that neither of them can be entrusted with the responsibility for making teaching a genuine profession.  In fact, it may turn out that schools of education and school boards have been (and will continue to be) obstacles to genuine change.  Instead, we ought to be taking a hard look at School Reform policies that create or exacerbate turmoil in teaching. 

It’s essential to follow the money.  Not to pick on Illinois, but in that state, where the population of both students and teachers is shrinking, the number of administrators is actually increasing!  “From 2014 to 2018, student enrollment at Illinois K-12 public school districts fell by 2%, reflected by a nearly identical percentage drop in those districts’ total teachers during that time,” according to reporter Adam Schuster writing in Illinois Policy.  Shouldn’t those dollars be spent on teachers and curriculum materials, or returned to taxpayers?

For schools to prosper, let’s make it more difficult to become a teacher (by raising entry standards and improving training).  At the same time, let’s make it easier to be a teacher (by raising their salaries, improving their working conditions, and enlarging their responsibility for curriculum, methods, and student evaluation).  

Happily, this prescription fits on a bumper sticker: “Harder to Become, Easier to Be”

I welcome your reactions at Themerrowreport.com.  Thanks….

(This essay is adapted from “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education.”)

 

 

 

Three Wishes for the New School Year

As public schools open across the country, I have three wishes:  One, that most parents and most teachers will be open to working together.  Two, that most teachers will accept that parents are their children’s primary educators.  And, three, that most parents will accept and embrace that responsibility.  

This is, unfortunately, a tall order. Some parents have gotten accustomed to playing second fiddle, meaning they are reluctant to get involved. As the same time, some educators truly believe that they are children’s principal educators and thus treat parents with disdain.   While in public forums many professional educators may describe parents as “our greatest asset” and “invaluable partners,” how most schools actually treat parents belies their words.  In my experience as an education reporter, many administrators and teachers hold parents in low regard, and their behavior and policies reflect that. Perhaps that’s an inevitable consequence of attempting to elevate education to a high-status profession.  “After all, you wouldn’t expect a heart surgeon to consult with a child’s parents before replacing a ruptured valve and saving the child’s life,” the thinking goes, as if the work of educating a child were the equivalent of complex surgery. It’s not brain surgery; what it is, instead, is a team effort.

Many schools make parents ‘outsiders’ in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.  There’s the once-a-year “Back to School Night” and perhaps a “Parent Involvement Committee’ or a “Parent Advisory Board” that meets occasionally with the Principal.  Many schools expect parents to hold bake sales, auctions and fundraising drives, but that’s not treating parents as partners in their children’s education. Unfortunately, it’s the rare educator who 1) says “We cannot do a good job of educating your child without you,” 2) actually means it and 3) then proves it by his or her actions.

Why this negative attitude toward parents?  Some educators feel that low income parents do not have the time or energy to get deeply involved in their children’s schooling.  But even if their dismissal of parents is rooted in empathy or sympathy, it adds up to the same thing: the exclusion of parents. Unfortunately, however, plenty of administrators and teachers are genuinely disdainful of parents and apt to dismiss them as uncaring, uninvolved or ignorant.  “Just leave the education to us” is how I would characterize their attitude.

As evidence of parental detachment, these administrators and teachers often cite the low turnout at Back to School Night, concluding from the large number of no-show parents that they don’t care.  But look carefully at how Back to School Nights are structured: a quick series of show-and-tell presentations by teachers, one-off lectures that make parents feel like visitors or strangers who happened by. The educators will tell the parents to make sure their kids do their homework assignments and don’t watch much TV.  Why would most parents bother to attend more than once? What’s inviting about being talked down to?

What if parents who need help were taught the skills to help their kids become better readers and treated as partners in the education process?  No lectures, no ‘parent involvement committees,’ no window-dressing, but a genuine partnership with openness and commitment from everyone.

Suppose the root problem is education’s failure to recognize that parents want their children to succeed but may not know how to contribute?  Suppose the real problem is education’s failure to treat parents as assets?

Parents could and should be treated as valuable assets and not as ‘outsiders.’  Teachers–accustomed to holding parents at arm’s length–can learn ways to acknowledge that parents are essential.  Parents, who may have become accustomed to educators saying ‘leave the education to us,’ will have to learn to accept this new role and responsibility.   

Let me add a fourth wish for the year ahead:  That the men and women in charge acknowledge the importance of the citizens who do NOT have children in schools.  The problem with the truism “It Takes a Village to Raise a Child” is that most villagers have no direct connection to children or to the schools they go to. Only about 25 percent of homes have school-age children, and in some communities that number drops into the teens. Even if you include households with grandparents, the percentage probably won’t reach 40.

However, it is the people in those households with no strong connection to public education who hold the future of public schools in their hands.  They vote on school budgets, and so their opinions of schools, teachers and students matter. Not only do older folks vote in greater numbers than young voters, but the gap is increasing. According to the Census Bureau, “the turnout rate among 18-to 24-year olds fell to 41.2 percent in 2012 from 48.5 percent in 2008.  The turnout rates of adults ages 65 and older rose—to 71.9 percent in 2012 from 70.3 percent in 2008.”

For these reasons, educators and those connected to schools must develop and adopt strategies to win the support of those without a direct connection to schools.  It’s not enough for good things to be happening in schools; ‘the outsiders’ need to be supportive, and the best way to make that happen is to get them involved.

It may be difficult for many educators to take this step because they have grown accustomed to a system that says, in effect, “Leave the children and the money at the schoolhouse door, and leave the rest to us.”  That approach won’t work any more, if it ever did. The ‘outside world,’ meaning ordinary taxpayers and the business community, may also have trouble adjusting, because they’ve grown comfortable with being kept at arm’s length.  But that’s what has to change…and determined educators can do this pretty easily by meeting ‘the outsiders’ where they are and involving them in the ‘curriculum’ of the modern world. Here are a few ways that students–generally every school’s underused asset–can make those connections: 

*Students can create a photo gallery of the residents of their apartment building or their street and then post portraits on the web for all to see and talk about.

*Art students can sketch portraits of business storefronts, or workers and bosses, also to be posted on the web.

*The school’s jazz quintet can perform at community centers with the jazz trio from another school in a neighboring county — simultaneously on Skype.

*A video team can interview adults in a senior citizen center around a chosen theme (best job, favorite trip, et cetera), to be edited into a short video for the web. Producing short biographies of ordinary citizens will teach all sorts of valuable skills like clear writing, teamwork and meeting deadlines.

*Music and drama students can rehearse and then present productions at retirement homes and senior centers — but with a twist: involve some of the adults in the process (a small part in the play, a role in selecting the music, and so on).

Once involved with students, these citizens will be much more likely to be supportive of the enterprise….at the ballot box and elsewhere.

With public education under relentless attack from powerful forces, including the current national administration, people who believe in public education must not remain silent or stand on the sidelines.  We must pitch in and work together to give every child multiple opportunities to succeed. 

 

(This is excerpted from “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education.”)

Did Public Schools Elect Trump? Will They Re-elect Him?

Our democratic republic is at risk, and I think our public schools are partially responsible.  Its elaborate sorting system has turned out too many adults who resent rather than value our nation and our struggle to create a more perfect union. 

While many of these adults voted for Donald Trump in 2016, I believe that many more did not bother to vote at all….and may in fact not even be registered to vote.

This is not new.  If “Not Voting” were looked upon as a choice (candidate), it would have won the popular vote in every Presidential election since at least 1916.  Only three times in the 15 Presidential elections since 1960 have more than 60% of the voting age population gone to the polls.  The turnout in what we like to believe is the world’s greatest democracy generally hovers around 53-54%. It has dipped below 50% three times since 1916, most recently in 1996, when only 49.1% of the voting age population bothered to vote.

Who are these non-voters? Should we scorn them for their indifference? Don’t they understand how many of their fellow Americans have died protecting their freedom and their right to vote?  Surely we can agree that not voting is deplorable behavior?

Not so fast.  I have come to believe that most non-voters are behaving rationally. They do not feel that they have a stake in our government, so why should they vote? They were schooled to see themselves as insignificant, and so, as adults, they keep their heads down, stay uninvolved, and do their best to make ends meet.

I hold public schools at least partly responsible for our consistently low voter turnout, because public education is an efficient sorting machine that is undemocratic to its core.  Schools sort young children in two basic groups: A minority is designated as ‘winners’ who are placed on a track leading to elite colleges, prominence and financial success. While the rest aren’t labeled ‘losers’ per se, they are largely left to struggle on their own. That experience leaves many angry, frustrated and resentful, not to mention largely unprepared for life in a complex, rapidly changing society.   Why would they become active participants in the political process, an effort led by the now grown up ‘winners’ from their school days? (It would take a candidate who understood their resentment to arouse them….which happened in 2016.)

Although formal tracking has fallen out of favor, schools have subtle ways of designating winners and losers, often based as much on parental education and income, race, and class as innate ability. By third or fourth grade most kids know, deep down, whether the system sees them as ‘winners’ bound for college or ‘losers’ headed somewhere else.  

Ironically, A Nation at Risk, the 1983 report that warned of “a rising tide of mediocrity,” made matters worse.  In response, America put its eggs in the basket of student achievement–-as measured by student test scores.  Believing we were raising academic standards by asking more of students, we were in fact narrowing our expectations—those test scores again.  This practice went into high gear with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.  “Regurgitation education” became the order of the day. This approach rewards parroting back answers, while devaluing intellectual curiosity, cooperative learning, projects, field trips, the arts, physical education, and citizenship. (And the state of Tennessee just affirmed this approach for its current students!)

This fundamentally anti-intellectual approach has failed to produce results.  Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have largely remained flat and in some instances have gone down. What’s more, students aren’t even retaining what we are demanding they regurgitate.  For example, a survey reveals that one-third of Americans cannot name any of the three branches of our government, and half do not know the number of US Senators.

Reducing kids to test scores has produced generations of graduates whose teachers and curriculum did not help them develop the habit of asking questions, digging deep, or discovering and following their passion. Because of how they were treated in school, many Americans have not grown into curious, socially conscious adults. This is not the fault of their teachers, because decisions about how schools operate are not made in classrooms.  It was school boards, politicians, policy makers and the general public that created schools that value obedience over just about everything else. 

But the end result is millions of graduates who were rewarded with diplomas but have never participated in the give-and-take of ordinary citizenship—like voting.  Did they graduate from school prepared for life in a democracy, or are they likely to follow blindly the siren song of authoritarians? Can they weigh claims and counterclaims and make decisions based on facts and their family’s best interests, or will they give their support to those who play on their emotions?

During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump welcomed support from those he called ‘the poorly educated,’ but that’s the incorrect term. These men and women are not ‘poorly educated,’ ‘undereducated,’ or ‘uneducated.’ They have been miseducated, an important distinction. Schools have treated them as objects, as empty vessels to pour information into so it can be regurgitated back on tests.

The sorting process used in schools has another result: it produces elitists (in both political parties) who feel superior to the largely invisible ‘losers’ from their school days.  Arguably, those chickens came home to roost in the 2016 Presidential election.  Candidate Clinton called her opponent’s supporters ‘A Bucket of Deplorables,’ and that gaffe probably cost her the election.  But in all likelihood she was speaking her personal truth, because, after all, her school had identified her as a ‘winner,‘ one of the elite. It’s perfectly understandable that she would not identify with the people who had been energized by Donald Trump. Most pundits, reporters, pollsters and politicians fell into the same trap.

Sorting is inevitable, because students try out for teams and plays, apply to colleges, and eventually seek employment, but let’s postpone sorting for as long as possible. A new approach to schooling must ask a different question about each young child. Let’s stop asking, “How intelligent are you?”  Let’s ask instead, “How are you intelligent?”  That may strike some as a steep hill to climb, but it’s essentially the question that caring parents, teachers, and other adults ask about individual children. They phrase it differently, asking, “What is Susan interested in?” “What gets George excited?” “What motivates Juan?” or “What does Sharese care about?”  Every child has interests, and those can be tapped and nurtured in schools designed to provide opportunities for children to succeed as they pursue paths of their own choosing. Giving children agency over their education—with appropriate guidance and supervision—will produce graduates better equipped to cope with today’s changing world.  And a larger supply of informed voters!

The challenge for the 2020 Democratic nominee is reach beyond the traditional party constituency and embrace those who have been neglected by schools and other institutions.  They need to believe that America belongs to them.

And going forward, our democracy must create more public schools that respect and nurture our children. If we don’t change our schools, we will elect a succession of Donald Trumps, and that will be the end of the American experiment.

Summer Reading/Forbes.com/Bike Donations

First, let’s follow the money!  Apparently quite a few of you contributed to a favorite cause, including Planned Parenthood, Chess in the Schools, and the Network for Public Education.  From what was reported to me, the total seems to be just north of $8,000. Thank you, because having that public challenge provided a major incentive NOT to quit!   And, believe me, there were a few times during my 78-mile ride when my 78-year-old body cried out for a nap!

(Sorry to be so late with this news: We have had a houseful of family and, full disclosure, the Women’s World Cup was a very high priority in our home!)

I have begun blogging at Forbes.com, at their invitation.  My first piece is titled  “It’s Summertime. Do You Know Where Your Children’s Teachers Are?”   I’d appreciate your clicking to take a look……

Summer reading for education wonks:  My list includes David Kirp’s forthcoming The College Dropout Scandal; William Doyle and Pasi Sahlberg’s Let The Children Play; Parker J. Palmer’s On The Brink of Everythingthe paperback edition of Ted Dintersmith’s What Schools Could Be; and The Wit and Wisdom of Diane Ravitch. 

Not exactly education but not to be missed: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari (I’m late to the party with this one).

Also, please do not miss Ted Kolderie‘s short and compelling booklet, Minnesota Is Creating a Self-Improving System.

I also have The Mueller Report.  Reading the second part makes me wonder why the House has not opened an Impeachment Inquiry.  If not now, when!!  (There are at least three different editions; I have the Washington Post version.)

Happy reading…..

 

Attempting 78 Miles on a Bike to Celebrate My Birthday

Well, last Friday was so beautiful that, even though it wasn’t literally my birth anniversary, I decided to go for it.  My daughter Elise and I hit the trail at precisely 7AM. While we were the only humans around, we certainly were not alone.

The snapping turtle, one of two, was intent on laying her eggs, and the goslings were protected by at least a half dozen aggressively vigilant Canada Geese.  The adult deer could have been the yearling I encountered on the path a year ago.  During the day we probably saw three or four times as many chipmunks as people!

The first half went well, and we stopped for lunch (energizing smoothies) at the 44-mile mark in Yorktown, New York.

My daughter kept an eye on me, making certain that I was hydrating properly. What’s more, Elise was riding a folding bike!  This is the cycling equivalent of the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers line: “She did everything he did, only backwards and wearing heels.”  While I’m no Fred Astaire, Elise is a latter day Ginger Rogers.

So….if you’re donating, do it in her honor. Or maybe you should give twice as much?

So now you want to know how it turned out? Did we make the full 78 miles?

(roll of drums)IMG_0369

Yes, with an extra 8/100ths of a mile (about 400 feet!) tossed in for good measure.

I know 78 miles sounds like a lot, but the secret is simple: a flat course that’s almost entirely in shade, a slight tailwind for the return half, lots of liquid, and great company.  Next year I hope some of you will join me/us for a 79-mile ride (Lord willing and the creek don’t rise).

Now, about those donations. It’s time to pony up, friends.  I am giving to the Network for Public Education, Planned Parenthood, and Chess in the Schools, a wonderful program for NYC kids founded by Lewis Cullman, the remarkable philanthropist who died at age 100 on Friday.  I’ve served on the Chess Advisory Board for years and have seen first hand how much good it does for so many children; it introduces them to the mental discipline of chess, and that skill often carries over into other aspects of their lives.

A final note: On Monday, four days before my ride, I was diagnosed with a slight tear in my right rotator cuff. I didn’t ask the orthopedist or my new physical therapist whether I should attempt the ride, because I was pretty certain how they would have answered.  But it was all good…..

Thanks for your interest.  Write those checks, and now let’s get back to the serious stuff of reclaiming America and America’s public schools from the grifters and ideologues.

All the best,

John

The Birthday Bike Ride Challenge

What follows is a diversion from the political madness and (perhaps) an opportunity for you to donate to a favorite cause.   In just a few days I will turn 78, and on or around my birthday I will once again attempt to bike my age.  This will be my 9th consecutive attempt, and, while I was successful the first eight times, as a stock prospectus is required to state, “Past performance is not indicative of future results.”

The ride doesn’t get any easier for two obvious reasons:  Every year the distance increases, and every year I am a year older.  An athletic nephew has suggested that it might be time to consider switching to kilometers; to be honest, there are mornings when yards would be a challenge!

However, last year I managed 83 miles, which I guess means I have 6 miles in the bank, plus 2 miles stored up from the year I was supposed to bike 73 and went 75.

 

 

 

Last year I challenged readers to donate $77 to their preferred cause if I made it, and many of you accepted the challenge.  You reported donating $90,000, an astounding sum!  However, my friend and noted author Jim Loewen (“Lies My Teacher Taught Me,” “Sundown Towns”) generously earmarked $77,000 of his annual donation to Tougaloo College, the HBCU in Mississippi, in my name and said I could count it toward the total, which I did.

Still, $13,000 is a pretty cool number.

Last year I suggested Planned Parenthood as a recipient, and that’s an even better idea this time around.

The Network for Public Education does important work on behalf of teachers and strong public schools (and also for “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party”).

I’m impressed by the fledgling Coalition of Independent Public Charter Schools, a group that is trying to get charter schools to behave honorably (which, unfortunately, many do not do.)

As a former education reporter, I’d be happy if you chose to donate to the Education Writers Association,  The Hechinger Report, or Chalkbeat, three organizations that improve the quality of education reporting and contribute mightily to the public’s understanding of the enterprise.

Finally, if you want to give me a birthday present, please send a copy of my book, “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education,” to friends of yours who still believe in the faux ‘Education Reforms’ of George W. Bush (“No Child Left Behind”) and Barack Obama (“Race to the Top”).   While it is obvious that the Trump Administration is hostile to public education, his predecessors did incalculable damage with their embrace of ‘test and punish’ accountability and largely unaccountable charter schools.  As I argue in the book, schools have to stop asking, “How Smart Is This Child?” and ask instead, “How Is This Child Smart?”

If you think you might want to ride with me (and one of my daughters, bless her), send me an email at john.merrow@gmail.com.

I will let you know the outcome, one way or another.  If you will tell me about your donation(s), I will keep a running tab….

And thanks for reading this far. Now I have to go stuff myself with pasta!!

“Restaurant” & “Charter School” Are Vague Descriptors

“Charter School” is a vague descriptive term, akin to “Restaurant,”  in that neither term tells you very much. One of them, however, is dangerously vague.

“Restaurant” is vague but not dangerous.  The word tells you only that the establishment serves food of some kind, but nothing else. It might offer great cuisine–or greasy slop.  It might be a fast-food joint or a 3-Star Michelin legend with a 6-month waiting list for a reservation.   And, if you do go there for a meal, that’s the extent of your obligation.  If it’s bad, you can get up from the table and leave….

So, now imagine you are standing outside a building sporting a sign reading “Charter School.”   All you can discern from the term is that it’s one of about 7,000 publicly funded but privately managed charter schools.   And the possibilities of what that charter school might be are dizzying.  Here are just some of them:

  1. It might be part of a national chain of schools or a stand-alone “Mom and Pop” school;
  2. It might have been authorized locally or set up by a distant authority (which may not be keeping its eye on things);
  3. It might have a Board of Directors made up of local parents and other residents, or it could be controlled from afar by a Board with no local representation whatsoever;
  4. It might have an admissions test, even though it is supposedly a public school, or it might be open to all comers;
  5. It might be financially transparent, or it could refuse to reveal how it’s spending the public money that it receives–which means its leader could be making more than $500,000 a year, even if his or her school has only a few hundred students;
  6. It might have a Draconian–and unpublished–discipline code that, unbeknownst to the public, systematically excludes students with special needs and/or children of color, or its code could be published for all to see; and
  7. It could be what’s called a ‘conversion charter,’ a school that is closely connected to its home school district, or it could be fighting its own district for resources.
  8. You won’t see a sign for a ‘Virtual Charter School,’ where education is conducted on line.  According to Education Week,  a study of 163 “virtual” high schools revealed that many fail to graduate even 50% of their students.  From the article: “Online charter schools, which are run mostly by for-profit companies, have long struggled with poor academic outcomes—from test scores, to academic growth, to graduation rates, to attendance rates. The most high-profile study, done by economists at Stanford University in 2015, found that students attending an online charter school made so little progress in math over the course of a year that it was as if they hadn’t attended school at all.”   In 2016 Education Week published “Rewarding Failure,” an exhaustive study of the ‘Cyber Charter School industry, and its findings remain shocking.

Now let’s follow the money, because our hypothetical “charter school” might have been established as a not-for-profit school or set up to make money.  As it happens, that supposed distinction is now one without a difference, because an awful lot of so-called non-profit charter schools are systematically looting their state treasuries in ways that are perfectly legal, thanks to state laws that were deliberately written to allow the ripoffs.   In “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education,” I focused on North Carolina.   But here’s information about Arizona.  PennsylvaniaFloridaMichigan. California.  California againTennesseeNew Mexico.  (I could go on and on, but you get the point: the Charter School Industry is rife with scandal.)

If you are on Twitter, just follow #anotherdayanothercharterscandal, for a drumbeat of verified bad news.   Here’s one from earlier today.  And another.

The Network for Public Education, which is vigorously and vigilantly anti-charter, recently summarized the situation in a report entitled “Asleep at the Wheel.”

The most prominent pro-charter school organization, The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, generally ignores any and all bad news, preferring instead to serve as a cheerleader.  It has its own “Hall of Fame” and “Champions for Charters,” for example, and it offers a template for local charter schools so they can fill in the blanks to boast about themselves.  These smart marketing techniques are, I suppose, designed to keep the public from knowing the truth about the chaos that is Charter World.

Could our hypothetical “charter school” be doing great work?  Well, sure, but the evidence suggests that most charter schools do not outperform their traditional counterparts. 

Many of the Democratic hopefuls are weighing in on education generally and charter schools specifically.  Peter Greene, a keen observer, has created a clever way to evaluate what they are saying.  Echoing a standardized test scoring system, the candidates can be deemed to be ‘below basic,’ ‘basic,’ ‘proficient,’ or ‘advanced.’ Here’s part of what it takes to receive an ‘advanced‘ score: The candidate recognizes that “The modern charter school movement is understood as part of a larger wave of privatization that threatens to replace government by the people with ownership by the rich and powerful. Advanced candidates recognize that the teaching profession is suffering not just from low pay, but from shrinking autonomy and a lack of support for public institutions. They recognize that high stakes standardized testing is driving schools in unproductive and toxic directions.”  

I began by saying that ‘Charter School’ is a dangerously vague term.  Unlike restaurants you can walk away from, many parents make extraordinary sacrifices to enroll their children in charter schools–without knowing enough about the school they are committing to.  It’s not so easy to walk away, but that charter school might be one of the awful ones described above.

If you’ve read this far, you know that I am concerned about charter schools, an effort that began with the best of intentions more than 30 years ago.  I served as moderator of the seminal meeting near the headwaters of the Mississippi River in Minnesota, back in 1988.  From that meeting came the draft legislation that Minnesota passed in 1990 and the first charter school in Saint Paul in 1992.  The visionaries hoped that all school districts would establish charter schools as learning laboratories, but that has just not happened.

Is there hope?  There might be, because some of the independent public charter schools are banding together in a new organization, The Coalition of Community Charter Schools, which is designed to give a voice to the 3,000-plus independent (‘Mom and Pop) charter schools.  This organization seeks to return to the original vision of charter schools. To that end, it has created a comprehensive Statement of Principles that it expects all members to adopt and adhere to.  The Principles, the equivalent of the old Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, include financial transparency, no admissions test, local control, multiple measures of accomplishment, collaboration, a commitment to diversity, and respect for teachers.

How many independent charter schools will be willing to commit to these principles is an open question.  I’m hoping that at least half will join.   If very few are willing to be open, then the charter movement is in deeper trouble than I feared

Frankly, I think this is the last best hope for charter schools, but I am not neutral on this.  I helped a little bit with the planning for the new organization and have moderated two of their early gatherings.

To sum up, the term “Charter School” tells us almost nothing, which is why I suggest that no one even consider enrolling a child in a charter school unless they have access to its disciplinary code; its graduation, promotion, and retention rate; the diversity of its students and teaching staff; the measures of accomplishment it uses; and the salaries of its leadership.  All that information is the equivalent of a restaurant menu, and just as you read a menu before ordering, so too should you learn this information before entrusting your child to that supposedly wonderful “Charter School.”

Your comments welcome at themerrowreport.com, and thanks….

Let’s Hear it FOR Betsy DeVos!

Full disclosure: Although I have never met or interviewed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, I am a huge fan.  In fact, the closest I have been to her was at the Education Writers Association’s annual conference in Baltimore recently.  Sitting maybe 75 feet from her, I was dazzled as I watched her hold off some tough questions from education reporters, a notoriously aggressive bunch. That stellar performance gave the lie to those who mock her intelligence.

In Baltimore she proved that she is smart.   Sure, she made a lot of gaffes early in her tenure, but now–after just 27 or 28 months on the job–she doesn’t get flustered.  She has learned to avoid  answering direct questions; instead, she ignores whatever she is asked and pivots back to her talking point: “Students and parents need ‘freedom’ to choose.”  Ask her anything, and she will–with a smile–talk about ‘freedom.’   She couldn’t do that if she weren’t a smart cookie.

Moreover, Secretary DeVos is a gutsy defender of minority positions.  Here’s an example: A less courageous person would fold under pressure and take the popular position that public schools are vital to our future because they enroll about 90% of students.  But, showing a backbone of steel, DeVos swims against the tide.  She is not afraid to criticize public education.  And she hasn’t just shown courage once or twice; no, she’s out there regularly–every day–taking on public education, essentially saying “Damn the consequences!”

I also admire her because she is a great friend of the American teacher, something her critics never acknowledge. In Baltimore, for example, she came out strongly in favor of paying teachers about $250,000 a year!  She cleverly suggested pegging teachers salaries to the salary of the President of the American Federation of Teachers.  Since the average teacher salary today is under $60,000 and the AFT President makes nearly $500,000, the Secretary is proposing a salary INCREASE of about $190,000 for the average teacher.   So, the next time someone says DeVos doesn’t like public school teachers, wave that in their face and tell them to zip it!

Sadly, not a single education reporter led with that news in their stories about DeVos at the EWA annual meeting.  I was embarrassed for my profession, frankly.  Quadrupling teacher salaries, for crying out loud!  Why wasn’t that their lead story?

I also admire the Secretary’s neutrality on the question of pedagogy.  Although she is the nation’s leading educator, she refuses to get drawn into arguments about which approaches to teaching and learning are most effective.  Phonics and phonemic awareness versus whole language?  No comment!  Project-based learning versus rote memorization?  No comment!  Social and emotional learning versus a strong focus on academics?  No comment!   So neutral is she that I don’t believe DeVos has ever said anything about teaching and learning, focusing instead on ‘freedom.’  When it comes to the central issues of teaching and learning, she is religiously opinion-free.

And finally, DeVos has shown that she’s in it for the long haul. She doesn’t get thrown off course by an occasional stumble or a temporary setback but hunkers down and works harder toward the goals she has set.  Let me give you an example, more evidence for you to use should you hear anyone criticizing our Secretary of Education.  DeVos is from Michigan, where she and her billionaire husband have strongly supported school choice, virtual charter schools and for-profit charter schools.  On her watch, 80% of Michigan’s charter schools began as or became for-profit schools, and the overall education system has declined in what some have called ‘A Race to the Bottom.’   Even when evidence emerged that for-profit charter schools generally have disappointing academic results, low graduation rates, and frequent financial scandals, DeVos has not wavered in her support.

Now that she is our nation’s top educator, she is promoting what she supported in Michigan, arguing that these approaches, when free from picky regulations and serious oversight, will give students the ‘freedom’ that is a vital part of the American dream.

Some other leaders might have looked at the evidence and wavered in their commitment, but Secretary DeVos has the courage of her convictions.  She’s in it for the long haul.

Call me a fanboy, but, as I see it, Education Secretary Betsy Devos has it all: brains, the courage to defend minorities,  pedagogical neutrality, a deep commitment to higher salaries for America’s teachers, and the strength to stay the course despite the evidence.

Convinced?