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Hinsdale 86 Board Eliminates Buffer Zone

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On Monday, June 18, this appeared on the agenda of the Hinsdale Township High School District 86 school board’s meeting as the second action item:

Recommended Action:  Eliminate the Buffer Zone as an attendance area by using proximity to draw school attendance boundaries to bring each school closer to its target enrollment”

And after board members had voted, the attendance choices some residents of District 86 have been granted since 1991 were abolished, beginning with the 2019-20 school year.  As of then, all students will have their high school assigned by the district, and no individual family will be able to select between Hinsdale South and Hinsdale Central. The buffer zone, which has fostered controversy in District 86 since its creation, came to an end by a 5-2 vote; whether this settles the issue permanently remains to be seen.  The most likely next step will come when the administration, led by Superintendent Bruce Law, presents the board with proposals on blending the two criteria the board has designated for determining which students will attend Hinsdale South or Hinsdale Central: geographic proximity and target enrollment numbers for each school.

This has been an issue for a long time, especially in recent years as enrollment for each high school has shrunk or grown:  South down to 1507 and Central up to 2765 on the 2016-17 school report cards.  I’ve written many times about this issue, with this one from 2016 providing an overview of how this has played out.  In summary, Central is overcrowded, South is under-utilized (to give you an idea, its enrollment peaked at over 1900) and is projected to shrink even further, a referendum which would have added space at Central was crushed by a 3-1 margin in April of 2017, and many parents potentially impacted by a shift in high schools are adamantly opposed to sending their children to South.  Now, however, it appears that the school board has made the hard choice to retake and utilize the authority granted in Illinois school code to determine which school students attend.

To be as transparent as possible, I am an unaffected observer of this situation.  Although I do not live in District 86 and both my children are just about finished with public education in elementary CCSD 66 and high school District 99 (Downers South), I did work for twenty-five years at Hinsdale South as an English teacher, which gives me some insight into Hornet-land (I retired in 2012).  As far as District 86 goes, I was active in the teachers’ union (Hinsdale High School Teachers Association—HHSTA) and worked with teachers from Central, district as well as building administrators, and board members on many district-wide issues, especially those which impacted teachers.  I still know lots of teachers, but very few administrators with whom I worked are still there (the only ones left are all at South), and I don’t know any of the current board members, with the exception of Keith Chval whom I met in the late 1990s when I was HHSTA president and he was part (head?) of the community organization Caucus 86, which slated people to run for the District 86 school board.  (Caucus 86 consulted with school leaders, including union presidents, on what constituted good board members.  For what it’s worth, I found Keith to be genuinely interested in working to make District 86 as good as it could be, and I haven’t seen or read anything since then to dissuade me of that opinion.)  Regardless, my view of this current situation has to be weighed with all of this baggage in mind:  I’m not impacted by this decision, I’m very biased in favor of Hinsdale South as a quality high school, I’ve never liked the whole “Buffer Zone” concept, and I believe the school board’s recent action was the right first step.  What all the various parties affected by this decision choose to do next, however, will ultimately determine if buffer zone elimination leads the district away from its historic divisions.

To begin, then, those in the now-defunct Buffer Zone will be unhappy.  Any time you go from having the option of either high school one school year to having that determination now in the hands of the school board the next, you can be forgiven for being upset.  Nothing I can write will convince parents who chose to live in the buffer zone (at least in part) because it would allow their kids to go to Central that South will provide their children with the same superior educational opportunities Central does.  Central has higher standardized test scores which some equate with the overall quality of a high school, but I cannot emphasize enough that the educational heights any individual student can climb at South will get the most talented students into equally rarified air as similar students at Central would reach.  Central’s expedition up the academic Himalayas will be larger than South’s, but those in South’s plucky troop will climb just as high as anyone in the country. (Since the most significant predictors of academic success are parental education and income as well as student test scores, and Central’s entering freshmen have always averaged higher in all three of those measures; the progress students make during their four years in high school is the standard by which any school should be judged.  And that progress has been consistently roughly the same at both schools.)   I taught some amazing students in my time at South—who went on to stellar academic careers at colleges like Stanford, MIT, the Air Force Academy, and Harvard (to name a few), and the vast majority of them gave credit to South as a key reason they got off to such good starts.

I know, I know—I’m trying to do what I’ve already conceded is impossible, but it does gall South teachers (even retired ones) to be denigrated as providing an education inferior to Central’s so regularly and vociferously any time the idea of transferring students comes up.  After the school board passed the above motion on June 18, the possibility of being forced to go to South led some audience members to disrupt the meeting for several minutes, board members were forced to leave the stage, and reinforcements from the Darien Police Department were called in.  (You can watch it here; the vote begins at about 1:17 and the disruption goes on until about 1:27.)   Parents need to realize they are attacking the entire staff at South with this kind of nonsense, to say nothing of demonstrating unacceptable behavior.  The interviews with teary parents don’t elicit much empathy from those whose career work these people are flatly stating is inferior to that of other teachers in the same school district, even though these parents have not one iota of knowledge about what South teachers do or what the school is really like.  I also have little tolerance for any rhetoric about “differences” between the high schools tinged with racism and class snobbery—South has significantly more minority and low-income students than Central—is that your problem?  Sorry, if that’s the case, I certainly agree with the majority who argue those kinds of beliefs shouldn’t mean higher property taxes for everyone so Central can be needlessly enlarged.  To be as fair as possible, though, I can understand how most parents would be concerned when the high school their child had been scheduled to attend gets changed, especially when many community members (mistakenly and with no first-hand knowledge) view one high school as inferior to the other one.

However, just as some of the concerns and shows of consternation are somewhat understandable, one does have to concede that the high school choice provided to residents of the late Buffer Zone was unusual, unique to District 86.  Even the year-long gap between the zone’s elimination and any attendance changes stands out in contrast to the relatively common boundary revisions other school districts have felt compelled to make over the years—and enacted much more quickly.  In many places, students have to switch schools regularly and with much less notice.  Just in the last twelve months in the Chicago suburbs:  January 18, 2018—280 Plainfield District 202 students found out they would switch schools effective for the 2018-19 school year; March 2018—600 St. Charles students in Geneva District 303 learned they would have a different school for the next school year; and December 2017—the CCSD 89’s board of Glen Ellyn voted to begin phasing in attendance changes for the 2018-19 school year.  In short, this sort of thing happens often as communities and school districts grapple with shifting populations and unbalanced attendance in their districts.  District 86 has actually been an outlier in creating a buffer zone and continually adding on to make more room at one high school while there is space in the other.

Unfortunately, this special treatment has evolved into taken-for-granted expectations which prompted audience members at District 86’s June 18th meeting to feel justified in screaming, “Shame” at the board and threatening the superintendent’s job.  This sense of entitlement is also an affront to the District 86 residents who have never been allowed to select which high school their children attend.

The school board—or at least the five who voted in favor of the Buffer Zone’s elimination—deserve credit for facing this contradiction, imbalance, and unfairness and finally doing something besides forming a committee to study the problem, using taxpayer money to build additions that weren’t really necessary, or hiring a public relations firm to assess public sentiment on that about which public sentiment was perfectly clear.  (Oh wait, this board did do that last one.)  It’s also very easy to imagine that some of those impacted by this change—when the new boundaries between South and Central are created—will take to the courts to challenge this decision.  Some of the pressure on the board to eliminate the buffer zone comes from a group in the South attendance area (Burr Ridge) which has filed a lawsuit claiming the school board discriminates against South; the District 86 board president stated that the reason no discussion of the buffer zone’s elimination took place on June 18 was due to pending litigation.  So, there is no doubt this could get messy, and there will undoubtedly be more legal machinations from both sides in the coming months, if not years.  You can be sure this will be a prominent discussion item in the next school board election when three seats will be in contention, in April 2019, which could shift the balance of power to those more inclined to resist a boundary shift’s taking effect.  And I fear that my old high school’s name will be continually dragged through the mud by those who know very little about it.  The majority on the Hinsdale 86 school board deserve plaudits for the correct-but-tough decision they made on June 18, and I hope all players in this situation try to keep their emotions in check as it goes forward.  Hinsdale South and Hinsdale Central are both excellent schools, and the District 86 communities should be thrilled to have such superior schools for their children to attend.

If you would like to read more on this seismic District 86 event beyond watching the board meeting referenced above, an explanation from the school district would be a good start.  The school board will be discussing the next steps in the buffer zone elimination process at its July 9th meeting, Monday in Central’s auditorium (they must be anticipating a big crowd), beginning at 6:00 P.M. (The discussion will take place after a tour of the building, audience communication, and several other business items.  As one who used to attend District 86 school board meetings regularly—yes, that is as fun as it sounds—you probably could get there at eight and still be waiting for a while for this agenda item.  Audience communication is bound to be heated and lengthy.)  For the more sensational seeking, you can hear people yelling after the board’s vote here.  This CBS newscast makes it seem as if the driving force behind the boundary change is the Burr Ridge lawsuit, and its spokesman (an ex-student of mine) makes the case for inequity over the years. There’s also a buffer zone resident bringing up worries about property values going down as a consequence of the change (another one of those claims which will inspire the ire of any South backer).  This ABC newscast follows the same trajectory, but with the aggrieved parents more emotionally devastated about the prospect of having their children attend South.  In this article, the Burr Ridge lawsuit is seen as the key driving force, and its scope is more specifically explained.  The Trib focuses on the anger of parents affected by the decision; it is a bit much to read how the board didn’t properly listen to all the alternatives being articulated on June 18 which would solve the problem while keeping the buffer zone intact when this issue has been poked and prodded for a long time, especially over the last two years.  Perhaps these individuals had only recently learned of this, but it’s been a much-debated topic for over a quarter century.  The most factual account of what happened at the board meeting can be found in the Hinsdale Patch.  And if you’re more interested in one ex-teacher’s views on how public education can be improved overall, my top choice is always available.

There’s no reason to doubt that Hinsdale Central and especially Hinsdale South will continue their excellence in educating District 86’s teens.  The key irony in a situation which has generated so much expense, negative energy, and hard feelings?  When it comes to which high school District 86 kids attend, there is no bad option.

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The Cleverness Conundrum

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There can be little question at this point in human history that cleverness is both our greatest gift and the worst thing that ever happened to any species.  From life-saving vaccines to nuclear weapons to symphonies to hate crimes to Doctors Without Borders to the Holocaust, we’ve been able to reach astronomic heights at the same time we’ve exposed ourselves as the “most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth” (Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels).  What makes us so infuriatingly complicated is that our ingenuity can twist just about any discovery into the opposite of that for which it was intended.  Will we ever evolve enough to be able to anticipate the negative applications of the things we want to unleash on ourselves before we suffer the consequences of something we really believed was going to help us out, to make our lives better?  Even more difficult yet necessary given our innate curiosity’s leading us ever onward in our new creations, can we figure out how to turn something we’ve dreamed up that’s harmful into something positive?  Will we ever learn?

It certainly seems unlikely at this point.  Using plants to manufacture drugs which helped alleviate pain was certainly a noble goal, but shouldn’t we have been astute enough to recognize that anything which relieved pain would be abused by those seeking escape life’s realities?  Creating an Internet platform which allows friends to share joys and pictures was a great opportunity for people to stay in touch regardless of how far apart they lived, but surely we could have reasoned that volunteering that much information about ourselves to the world would be exploited by those who only wanted to take advantage of that data for their own power and/or enrichment.  You could go on with any human creation over the years: Nothing is all good or all bad in the hands of unpredictable, wily, visionary, emotional, psychotic, logical, vengeful, peaceful, angry, loving animals like us.

Smart phones have radically changed our lives in the short time they’ve been available, and we’ve probably only scratched the surface of all the ways they will determine our futures.  And shouldn’t it frighten us how that clause—“they will determine our futures”—can be so casually dropped without many of us even noticing?  Think about that:  It won’t be up to you how your life is altered by some technological invention; to function as part of our society, you will be forced to change yourself to fit the technology, whether you like it or not.  I resisted as long as I could being beholden to my cell phone, but I lost that personal war and now readily admit that they are necessities for any person in modern society.  But I had functioned quite well, by my own standards at least, for some thirty-five years before the first smart phone (click on “IBM Simon” to read this article) happened in 1992, and was pushing forty before they were widely used in the late nineties (at the earliest), a scant twenty years ago.  That’s a quick turnaround for societal change, especially when you’re a middle-aged person before the revolution even starts.

The same happened even more quickly with social media, initially sold to us as a total positive:  You get to share with friends and family so easily and immediately that there’s no doubt Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat have all made hundreds of millions happy, at least occasionally.  But think what a short time span has elapsed from that idyllic concept (“Too idealistic” is how one of Facebook’s spokespeople has been trying to spin it) to recent lapses, which may have led to a government hostile to the U.S. manipulating our most recent Presidential election just enough to swing the vote to the disaster we now endure.  On a less consequential but even more widespread level, studies have been published about how addictive checking out feeds can be, but it turns out we are actually becoming more isolated and less happy.  Everybody has at least a couple horrific anecdotes about how harmful some inadvertent posts have been to people they know.  The longer we live with this “advancement,” the less we seem to like it.  But it’s become a social requirement, with the various age levels tending to inhabit similar, but different platforms (“Facebook has become so old, Dad!”); yet all generations feel pressured to respond in certain ways to specific cues—how much hidden resentment lurks in our responses for some meme when it’s prefaced with something like, “Only my true, real friends will comment and share this…”?  From issues of national security to creating unspoken yet deep rifts between friends, the pot of gold at the end of the social media rainbow has contained abundant radioactive material as well.

The future offers wonderful and horrifying things for us too since our cleverness onslaught will continue unabated for…forever—we’re never gonna stop, and we all know it!  Looming as both possible great leaps forward and traps we will rue ever dreaming up (Can you say, “atomic power”?) are things like artificial intelligence (AI) and genetic engineering (as it becomes more easily accomplished via CRISPR developments).  Both have huge benefits and downsides, depending on how we use them.  AI robots will do everything more uniformly, more rationally, more quickly, and more cheaply than humans can, dramatically improving productivity.  Yet, as any long-time reader/watcher of science fiction could tell you, we’ve already imagined dystopian futures where machines have become our masters.  Unless you’re Neo or John Connors, I would suggest, that scenario won’t work out very well for you.  Even if the machines never become sentient and declare war on humankind, remaining our humble servants could prove harmful as well when their increasing efficiency and skill coupled with their decreasing costs lead to massive unemployment and human displacement as we struggle to adapt to a standard we are incapable of meeting due to our biological limitations.

Or is our genetic destiny capable of being altered for the better? The amazing strides we could make in preventing many inherited disabilities or diseases will make it impossible to resist the CRISPR promise to help vulnerable people, but O Brave New World  that has turned such technology into a means to create more “stable” humans in order to keep us from harming ourselves.  It’s also even easier to imagine how rich people could make use of genetic manipulation to continue and further their advantage over the masses, leading to a worsening class divide, which has already become a huge issue in developed economies throughout the world. (Of course, Sci-Fi’s already been there, too, in  Gattaca, as well as the aforementioned Huxley work.  And is it fear-mongering to worry about biological experiments going awry and creating some form of superbug which causes a pandemic, killing millions before our cleverness (?) finds some defense?

So, yeah, it’s pretty easy to envision both gloriously sunny utopias and repressive, dark hellscapes in our near futures.  The pace of that change is ratcheting up as well, impossible as that sounds, which makes it even more difficult to make carefully reasoned choices on how any new by-product of human cleverness will alter the world.  (Solar power into a solar weapon?  Nanotechnology injecting millions of tiny machines into our bodies to attack tumors or instill mind control?  Opiate-based pain relief mutating into a crisis of drug addiction and overdose deaths?  Wait, that one’s already happened.)  And you know as well as I do that some hitherto unknown idea or technology or technique or guru will soon present us with something we never would have dreamed of before it was suddenly available, leading to its rapid transformation into something we are unable to imagine living without.  (I don’t know about you, but I don’t want anything to do with Siri or Alexa.  And I’m afraid to admit I know I’m doomed to be entrapped by some other disembodied voice sooner or later.  And, sure, they know why Alexa was randomly emitting an evil laugh; she was amazonized at how easy it was to take over our world, is my theory.)  And that pattern will repeat in ever-more-rapid cycles.  What’s to become of us?

I guess the good news is that we’ve made it this far.  We’re quite adaptable, after all, and it would appear that there is little humans cannot endure, even the things we mislead ourselves into believing are advances which turn out to be drains on our psyches.  Maybe one day all those promises and guarantees will hold up; we’ll reach a perfect blend of science and humanity, of spirit and logic, of imagination and fact…And then we’ll develop a resistance to all medications because we ate hormone-treated baloney when we were six, only to become infected with some human-manipulated germ gone horribly wrong which leads to a gruesome painful death unless sufferers consume the brains of a blood relative—Zombie family apocalypse!—or (probably more likely) some idiot President will start a nuclear war to cover his collusion with Russia because his ego was bruised and the pee tapes are about to be released.  Sorry for the pessimism, but our history has shown over and over that we can screw up just about any situation, find a solution for that screw up, adapt quickly, and then discover a significant negative outcome from the solution that nobody had ever contemplated or intended initially.  We’re just that smart.

But our cleverness implies the capacity to learn, to understand, to climb higher on the rubble of our failures. Ultimately and tragically, every day we greet a new opportunity to choose differently than we did the day before.  We’ve incorporated our collective belief in progress into almost every part of our lives: education, careers, families move upward and onward as reassurances to us that we are in control, that we do know what we’re doing, despite all evidence to contrary.

Theologians and philosophers tend to see humanity’s life approaches in one of three ways:  Some of us believe humans are innately evil or flawed, despite having been created by a perfect being/entity/god.  We accept teachings which have been told to us by alleged human representatives of those perfect beings; those teachings are generally ideals we probably can’t achieve.  We accept (often grudgingly) that these judgements of moral behavior might not be the same across the various faiths humans follow, but we are certain our version is the right one; we gamble our eternal after-lives on that presumption since we believe there’s a place where those who have performed appropriately on Earth reside forever after their deaths.  But since following those teachings is very hard and maintaining a belief that our souls will live eternally is reassuring, we tend to embrace a goodly amount of daily hypocrisy so we can ignore anything we find difficult or inconvenient in the teachings, especially in wealthy countries like the U.S.  This tends to explain why so many of the most outwardly “godly” people tend to be concealing the most significant sinful behavior.  Some also prescribe a post-life place of eternal punishment for those who fail to follow or accept those teachings—and we’d like to believe the really bad hypocrites among us will go there too, but not those who were only a little bit disingenuous:  You know, people like us.

Then there are those who reject the concept of a supreme being/creator, instead following the teachings of the natural world.  Things which can be observed, tested, and replicated repeatedly become the basis of learning more about our physical surroundings and how things work.  As our depth of knowledge has grown, we have been able to find ways to manipulate, control, and exploit our world to the point where we now see ourselves as complete masters of this planet.  Unfortunately, all that knowledge and manipulation has had adverse effects on many humans as well as trillions of other creatures which share this space with us.  The faith this group has, then, is in human scientific skills to save us from the dangers many of our other scientific discoveries (Oil burns!) have wrought upon our world.  It’s hard to exaggerate the selfishness, ignorance, callousness, and greed which have led to the current state of our environment; yet, many of this philosophical clan still believe that humans are basically good and will ultimately figure out the right thing to do.  If nothing else, they have faith that the scientific method can lead us to ways out of our current challenges into better days.  (Bill Gates is one of the chief proponents of this, as only a multi-billionaire can afford to be.) Oddly enough, this non-deist approach is probably more optimistic than most religions.

Needless to say, the members of the third group see themselves as in both camps, at least some parts of each. (Which parts?  Why, the good, correct parts, of course. What a silly question!)

I’m not sure what all this says about our species nor do I have any better suggestions for how to proceed other than we should try to understand how our world is changing, even though it’s a hopeless task when things change so rapidly and in such complex ways.  We should exert as much rational thought possible on how changes in our world might impact us, both good and bad, despite the impossibility of knowing what those changes could lead to ten years from now.  We should show good judgement on how we use our time in ways that grow our souls and improve our thought, even though every other generation besides our own will consider the things we choose as pointless, stupid, and harmful.  (We, of course, will react to their choices precisely the same way.)  We should recognize a higher calling, even though we’ll never agree on exactly what god, religion, philosophy, or rules for life represent the true way.

Ultimately, then, anyone can make a strong case that the human race is doomed, that the radical changes our cleverness endlessly produces will one day inevitably lead to our destruction.  (Most religions foretell this, and even atomic scientists keep a Doomsday Clock, currently set at two minutes to midnight—midnight being when we destroy Earth.  That ain’t much time, friends.)  Until our last second, however, we can at least accept responsibility in our own lives for being moral in our actions, especially as family members and friends, toward each other.  That’s got nothing to do, by the way, with your political, religious, ethnic, or socio-economic group; I think Bowling for Soup sums up what I mean very clearly in their song, “Don’t Be a Dick.”  It’s difficult to behave in just, fair, loving ways when we are bombarded with examples of the opposite so often in the news, on the street, or in any comments section online.  It’s infuriating how poorly so many of us behave since we should be clever enough to know the difference between that which is reasonable and good as opposed to that which is irrational and abasing.  Fortunately, at least, we do regularly witness the human capacity to shift from the petty and spiteful to our better selves when devastating crises occur.  From pitching in during hurricanes, to fighting deadly contagious diseases, to saving rabbits from fires, it’s amazing how many laudable acts humans perform.  I’d like to hope that we don’t need disasters destroying our neighborhoods before we act decently, and I guardedly assume that maybe our kindness often goes unnoticed in the land of Trump and Circumstance.  I have no idea how our cosmic ledger of good deeds versus heinous crimes currently stands; it certainly wouldn’t surprise me if the next mean, thoughtless, stupid, hurtful, or grasping human act would cause a higher power to shrug in disgust before wiping us out in order to try again.

But every day, some of us odious vermin work at food pantries, give blood, and donate our efforts in Pads programs.  We clearly can’t control if or when our cleverness will cause our destruction, so we can assume we’re in for quite a few bumpy nights; however, there’s no reason why we can’t individually focus on other human traits like empathy, compassion, and generosity.  Cleverness might get most of the attention, but our world does a lot better when we don’t think too much.

Is There a Road Back to Civility?

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If we’ve learned nothing else from the 2016 Presidential election, we should now understand how talented and creative Americans are at insults, put-downs, spinning truth, ridicule, threats, disseminating falsehoods, false equivalencies, and hyperbolic negativism.  And understand—especially those of you who might assume I’ll be directing this sermon primarily to one side of the political spectrum—this was one, if the only, area where bipartisanship was always on display.  Trump, Clinton, Obama, Republicans, Democrats, Liberals, Conservatives, Coastal Residents, Middle-American Folks, City Dwellers, and Rural Denizens would be just a few of the many groups targeted for attack; whether it be ridicule, ad hominem fallacies, name-calling, mocking meme, or flat out fabrications, all groups got their share of abuse.  And I haven’t even brought up race, religion, economic status, sexual orientation, or gender.  I know that historians can find many examples of political campaigns which descended to similar depths from our past, but I find that pretty small consolation.  Am I really supposed to feel better about our political/social environment because it’s no worse than how it was during the Lincoln vs. Douglas campaign of 1860, a time in America when it was still legal for people to own other human beings?  Somehow, I can’t take much solace in that; shouldn’t we be making at least as much progress in political dialogue as we have on slavery?  I mean, think how abhorrent it is now to accept the reality of slave owners.  Yet, we should be fine with our current nastiness since it’s probably no worse than pre-Civil War America, some 150 years ago.  Surely we can aspire to better than that.

And that’s what’s been bugging me lately:  How can we ever move forward from the various positions we’ve staked out when we continually reinforce our defenses with hatred for and viciousness toward those with whom we disagree?  Consider these two memes from our most recent election:  “Hillary Clinton 2016 because what America needs is a vindictive old rich lady with a penchant for lying, alcohol problems, a philandering husband, and a tangled heap of corpses behind her;” and this one about Trump: “I’m not racist; I just hate non-whites, liberals, immigrants, gays, foreigners, the mentally challenged, and those Muslims.”  Of course there are many others, and we won’t digress over whose insults are closest to reality when we have so many important issues which require our ability to come together to find the most reasonable solution with which the majority of us can live.  No, that standard—“most reasonable solution”—does not lend itself to the hyperbole of one group graphically describing the horrors of altering their position one iota while the other is stereotyping as stupid/moronic/traitorous/ignorant anyone who disagrees with anything they’ve proposed.  Reaching a mutually acceptable compromise is at the heart of “the art of the deal,” as those who have ever negotiated with others who fundamentally disagreed with their positions can tell you.

I represented a few hundred teachers several times in contract negotiations with school board members, administrators, and labor lawyers. (No, it wasn’t just me; we had a team of teachers for all sessions and even an Illinois Education Association full-time Uni-Serv Director for two of the nine contracts I bargained.)  And I was never completely satisfied with the contracts we finally agreed upon, just as those on the other side of the table never felt like they got 100% of what they wanted either.  But that wasn’t anyone’s ultimate expectation from the outset.  Whenever you begin discussions about things which involve money, decision-making power, and/or working conditions; you can be sure those who have the most power will consider status quo a fine way to continue, while huge concessions will be sought by those who see current conditions/resources as unfairly administered/distributed.  How close to each side’s goal the final deal seems determines how good they feel about it.  But, an experienced negotiator can tell you that if one side is seen to have won a significant advantage over the other, you can be certain the next time the two groups sit down to bargain, the “losing” side will be determined to earn some face back for the previous poorly perceived outcome.

So there is a certain gamesmanship, basic vocabulary, and etiquette to how you speak about agreements and the other side before you start, during the process, and especially once a settlement has been reached:  Gloating or complaining are seen as poor form; you had plenty of time to do that in private when you were insisting that your proposals for how things should be changed were superior and necessary when compared to the foolish rantings of the other side.  But once you’ve presented your case as best you can and lectured on how incredibly awful the world would be should the other side’s alternative reality come to fruition, you then move to the second phase of negotiations—what’s it really gonna take to get this done?  In the final stage, when you’ve compromised to reach a tentative agreement, you then praise both the deal and your counterparts for helping everyone come to that “most reasonable solution” possible.

Of course that’s not how either side really sees it; we’re not talking about a perfect, ideal system in which no hypocrisy exists:  You can be sure that my team and I had plenty of nasty things to say about the other side (only among ourselves)—petty, personal, mean things which helped us to process the gall of having to accept less than we felt we should.  My guess is that my name inspired more than a few colorful descriptions by my opponents who had to put up with my brilliant oration during some of our lengthy sessions.  But if the overall goal is to create something all can live with, when the war is over and a pact has been agreed to, you move on; you shelve all your personal baggage from dealing with other human beings with whom you disagreed for several months.  And your praise for their work need not be totally hypocritical or untrue despite the heat of previous battles: They had to sit through the same sessions you did, and labored honestly (assuming they did) for what they thought was best.  You might not like some of their tactics—not to mention personal quirks, vocal mannerisms, wardrobe choices, or attitudes—but for the sake of progress, you stow all the meaningless, subjective issues in order to move forward.

But that’s certainly not what’s currently happening.  Every turn of events is trumpeted as earth-shattering and leads to condemnations from those rooting for failure and lies from those on whom the events reflect poorly.  From Russia to climate change to health care to gun background checks to Medicare cuts to Republican Senators secretly crafting legislation to foreign relations to travel bans to fake news to our current flavor of the week (with the Trump administration, that seems more like “crisis of the second”), we all scramble to line up dutifully in our outrage or rationalization based on which view we support.  It’s no longer the case that everyone admits there’s a problem and then cooperates to figure out a way to address it that doesn’t totally alienate or totally please anyone—what kind of compromising sell-outs would ever allow some “half” measure to trump their perfect views?  And that’s where we are; few seem able to let go of political affiliations in order to get things done, even if the things are only small, incremental steps which only begin to nibble at the edges of the problem. We personalize and demonize to the point where our atmosphere is so poisoned that breathing it in pushes mentally ill individuals to turn a softball field into a target range.

That awful outcome is thankfully still relatively rare and we’ll never be sure how much our contentious, partisan bickering contributed to any one deranged person’s actions, but it certainly doesn’t help.  And even more importantly, our vindictive, personality-driven sniping has created a system where reasons and truths don’t matter nearly as much as getting a win for our side.  How else can you explain so many people voting against their interests for those whose chief agenda is shrinking governmental help for those who really need it in order to make the rich richer?  How else can you explain so many rejecting election results with “He’s not my President” comments before the inauguration even took place, not to mention belittling the intelligence of anyone so stupid as to vote for 45?

This really isn’t about how much you abhor Trump or despise Pelosi or are disgusted by Ryan or hate listening to Schumer or want to scream at McConnell or would love to tell off Warren.  I do understand the negative emotions which certain voices and appearances can trigger regardless of the content of what the person says—I still have nightmares about the patronizing, condescending lectures one lawyer used by our school board for many years would give us ignorant, misguided teachers about how broke the district was (while he was earning some $250 an hour, by the way) during negotiation sessions.  But part of maturity and experience is the ability to get past all the trivial irritations to reach a better reality.  And reality is the key word here:  The idealistic fantasies demagogues evoke will definitely appeal to our ids and stir us to anger and mistrust of those who disagree with our fearless leader’s vision, but just like our dreams of winning the lottery, reality will insist on dragging those dreams back to our actual financial condition.

There’s no easy answer to this problem; once our irrational, fearful, hateful emotions have been tapped, it’s very hard not to overreact when those buttons are pushed.  For me, anything coming from Ryan or McConnell (or Lord help us all, Kellyanne) trigger my dark side and make it hard even to listen to them, much less trying to glean something positive from their words.  We all need some release for our feelings so that we can sift through our prejudices and Pavlovian training in order to find common ground on which we can build something, anything, which can inch our country in a positive direction.  Yes, it will still gall me every time Trump utters something hypocritical or the opposite of what he promised mere months ago to say nothing about the constant lying, but ranting about what a buffoon he is will not accomplish anything except to give me a fleeting, empty sense of satisfaction.

I certainly do appreciate Trevor Noah, Seth Meyers, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Bill Maher, and Steven Colbert (I’m so happy he’s begun incorporating more of his Colbert Report’s sharpness into his monologues) for providing me with many opportunities to keep calm despite Jeffery Lord’s constant appearances on news shows—and I know that some of you feel the same way every time Bernie comes on.  Being able to laugh about it helps some, but we’ve got to access our logical Spock-ian sides when it comes to the issues we need to address.  You might poo-poo my concerns about the environment, but can’t we at least agree that renewable energy industries could be a great source of economic activity?  Everybody knows that good-paying jobs lead to a thriving middle class which solves a myriad of our social ills.  And I have to accept my goal that nobody but the police and military have guns—Use a camera to shoot animals, or if you must, at least make it harder by using a bow and arrow!—is not going to happen any time soon, but that doesn’t mean that gun owners can’t agree that background checks, waiting periods, and certain restrictions on devastating weapons make sense.  Oh, and let’s throw in bringing guns to bars and schools; I taught for 33 years, and the thought that the school was full of packing teachers as we went over math problems and had discussions on Shakespeare would definitely not have made me feel safer.  And do I really have to point out how counterintuitive it is to mix alcohol and weapons?

I’m not hopeful we can make any real progress in this area soon.  The leader of our country finally admitted there was Russian interference in our election only to blame Obama for not doing enough to solve the crisis he has been claiming for months was a hoax and a witch hunt.  Meanwhile, at #trumpcare, a poster writes, “Karma’s a bitch… the racist Trump supporters who will die if #Trumpcare is passed, will have paid the ultimate price for their stupidity.”  This could take a while, but at some point we all need to give civility and compromise a try.

What Makes a Good Teacher

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For as long as humans have been able to communicate with each other, we have had teachers, those attempting to help others to increase their knowledge more rapidly than relying totally on first-hand experience.  Yet despite our millenniums of practice, we have yet to figure out what makes one person better than someone else at this ancient practice.  It seems counterintuitive that given the billions and billions we spend educating our children that we still don’t understand how to detect and evaluate so crucial a skill.  These two reports, “Peering Around the Corner”  and “No Guarantees,”  published this past winter by Bellwether Education Partners, however, come to exactly that conclusion.

In these papers, the authors looked at eleven different states in order to assess how well the various hoops that prospective and current teachers have to leap through in order to begin or continue teaching classes work.  The goal (and probably assumption) was that a careful study of the various ways we attempt to make sure that our teachers teach effectively would yield the key components of that which makes teachers better.  Their conclusion (a summary of which can be found in this article based on the reports as well as this newspaper account) was that, “We don’t yet know how to identify or train good teachers.”  Despite licensure, teacher education programs, evaluation systems, in-service institutes, and hundreds of experts touting various different paths to teaching excellence (all of which generate heaps of revenue for the providers, often at taxpayer expense), the only useful predictor on how good teachers are going to be this year is how good they were last year.  And for those new to teaching, there isn’t any difference-making training that would accurately ensure a first-year teacher would be successful.  Yep, we spend billions and billions on standardized tests and training programs that don’t improve current teachers or predict who will be any good.

This comes as no surprise to those of us who have been claiming “artist” status for teachers for many years.  Teaching requires such an intense combination of contradictory traits—obsessive organization has to co-exist with the necessary flexibility to adapt to current conditions. (If that makes no sense to you, then you’ve never had the joy of trying to conduct a lesson that needed careful concentration during a period when the first significant snowfall occurs.  And no, I never taught below eighth grade, with the last twenty-five years spent in a high school—teenagers are just as distracted by crystalized water falling from the sky as kindergarteners.)  You need to have a passion for your subject matter as well as being able to relate to the things that matter to your students, which is generally anything but your subject matter.  Every day, you face from twenty-five to one hundred fifty kids with the goal of having unique, individual interactions with as many of them as you can as well as meeting educational standards often imposed by those who know nothing about your students.  No day or class period will be anywhere close to the same as the day before, no matter how diligently you try to replicate previous successes.  Most importantly, every day, your kids come to you expecting consistent professionalism, enthusiasm, and talent, despite their being all over the place in their emotions, motivation, and willingness to cooperate.

Of course nobody could find a system that could address all those skills, much less provide readily digested steps that would guarantee improvement in those expected to possess them.  In my eBook, Snowflake Schools, I argue that the key traits any aspiring teacher should have are a good work ethic, creativity, self-discipline, communication skills, and a “Golden Rule” morality.  Those qualities can only be assessed over the long haul; you can’t determine if people will consistently behave in those ways unless you observe them for months and years.  And we all know those qualities don’t come easily—we have to fight to maintain them and will have periods where we are more successful in their execution than others.  It’s a fool’s errand to try to in-service teachers on a good work ethic, for example.  Yes, you could definitely provide expert help on some techniques your teachers might not have considered—especially for those new to the profession—but you couldn’t “make” them work harder if they weren’t driven to do so.

We also have to recognize that we can’t expect artists to conform to one set pattern of behavior.  The quest for uniform teacher performance ignores the unique abilities and personalities every human has.  Some teachers are very orderly, controlled, and matter-of-fact; some will be more spontaneous, funny, and wacky; and some will scare the living snot out of students without saying a word.  All those types can be excellent instructors who might have a positive impact on your child.  Teaching is not a popularity contest, and many kids need that tough task-master to push them harder while others flourish with a caring, supportive soul who remembers everybody’s birthday and always gives out treats around holidays.  Like any relationship, some of our characteristics will mesh and others clash with our friends, family, and workmates.  Teachers exist in a nebulous area somewhere between and part of all three of those categories, and you children will see them at various times as “buddy,” “boss,” and “relative,” with all the connotations those labels bring.  No, teachers don’t exist completely in any of those realms and the Venn diagram for any individual teacher will tilt more toward one than the other two, but once you recognize how complex that dynamic is, you can begin to understand how impossible it is to provide step-by-step instruction for teachers to improve.  Maybe one teacher needs some work on his empathy while another could get better at using her free time to plan for future classes while a third has troubles with classroom discipline while the next is way behind in the technology necessary to make the material much more interesting and accessible but the next…

Just as students with learning disabilities or behavioral disorders must have “Individualized Education Plans” (IEPs) crafted and evaluated every year by their special education teachers/case managers, every teacher’s improvement plan is unique to that particular teacher.  That certainly doesn’t mean there’s no place for teacher institutes and opportunities for teachers to be exposed to new ideas.  It does mean, however, that the school climate needs to recognize how many different ways there are to be an effective teacher so that those new ideas/techniques/insights are presented as concepts to be considered, not THE way things now need to be done.  No matter how many PowerPoint slides are shown, how many catchy acronyms are coined, or how much administrative arm-twisting is used; teachers will assimilate other ideas into their systems much the way we all take in food.  Some will be delicious and immediately incorporated into our regular diets, some will revolt us and be rejected forever, and some will have a few interesting flavors that we will revisit only after altering the recipe and/or preparation methods.

But the overall approach should flow from the foundation that only the individual teacher will be able to figure out if the basic ingredients show any promise at all.  A teacher’s rejecting suggested methodology should not just be tolerated, but encouraged.  Only when teachers are trusted to know that which will be most effective for their classrooms can outsiders have the slightest chance of helping them with modifications and changes that could help them improve.  It should come as no surprise that most experts have no clue on training good teachers.  It’s an idiotic question in the first place.  Good teaching comes from good teachers and there are countless ways to be one.

I recognize that this seems a totally self-serving and ridiculously convenient view, especially coming from someone who used to be a teacher.  “Yeah, right, Jim—no matter what a teacher does, as you’ve outlined it here, you will find a glib way to make it seem okay.  That’s precisely the lack of accountability which has led to teachers and their unions being perceived as status quo guardians who couldn’t care less about how well our kids learn as long as everyone accepts that they know best.  There has to be a way to determine if a teacher is capable of performing your so-called ‘art’ well enough to justify the huge salaries you believe they should earn.  You’ve already praised tenure laws and unions despite their protecting the incompetent, and you have ceaselessly denigrated the only objective means of assessing teacher quality—standardized tests—as poor measures of student learning.  With that kind of impenetrable protection, incompetent teachers can continue to be horrible their entire careers, leading to the mediocrity we’ve endured ever since collective bargaining laws gave teachers and unions preferential treatment.  And don’t get me started on your obscene pension plans, of which you are currently benefitting!  C’mon!”

Okay, that’s quite a lot for me to cover, despite its being a self-created rhetorical barrage which should normally consist of a lot more softball questions.  Believe it or not, I do have responses to all of that, but there’s no way I could adequately discuss them in a single blog entry.  (And I have countered those criticisms before in other blog entries—many of which you could find on this site.)  However, in the near future, I will try to deal with the key issue analyzed in this particular essay—how can you differentiate between a good teacher and a bad one.  There are unmistakable characteristics that, despite all my emphasis on different teaching styles being valuable, should be absolute necessities and which are observable, thus capable of being assessed in order to rid the teaching profession of those who shouldn’t be in it.  Of course there are bad teachers; and to address another of the points my hypothetical critic made previously, school districts have four years (in Illinois, and multiple years in most states) to determine if a new hire has what it takes to be a good teacher.

Be that as it may, we’ll take a look at some characteristics we should expect from all teachers next time.

Public Education’s Corporate Reformers: Bill Gates

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Last time, we introduced the topic of “Corporate Reform,” a broad label which includes many groups with various approaches to improving public education.  Despite their varied specialties (from charter schools to vouchers to technology to standardized testing being linked to teacher evaluations to the Common Core to the elimination of teacher rights, such as tenure and unions), the key commonality these organizations share is that the bulk of their funding comes from billionaires who amassed fortunes through business dealings, which is where the “corporate” part of the label comes in.  My key point in the previous article was that we critics of these reformers (of which I am a strident one) tend to let that label do all our talking for us without a more reasoned and specific analysis of what these many different movements entail.  But that kind of broad-brushed attack is no more convincing to me than those who claim all schools are terrible and that we need to start from scratch in rebuilding education in America.  We need to understand the specifics of what these people want for education in order to ward off that which is counter to the best interests of our kids.  And what better place to start than with one of the original education-focused billionaires—Bill Gates.

Gates is the most notable among those who earned a fortune, stepped back from his business role, and leapt into charitable works designed to improve society.  And I do believe his motives are generally positive; he does want to assist in making society better.  Given his obsession for detail and desire for control, however, he hasn’t been content to find really significant people already in the education field to support, but instead has attempted to head the reform movement himself, along with his wife, Mindy.  Thus, the bulk of his time and money goes to the Bill and Mindy Gates Foundation.  That key distinction is what has made Gates suspect right from the start:  The obvious question is, “Who the hell is Bill Gates to determine what’s best for America’s schools?”  I believe that’s still at the crux of why we need to be extremely wary of anything coming from Bill or his foundation.  He gets to make the call on what’s good or bad, not the teachers doing the work who are the only ones who have a solid understanding of what’s going on in their classrooms.  In our country, apparently, his willingness to sign checks has allowed him to bypass the usual requirement for practical expertise and proven results before rising to positions of leadership.  To hear Gates speak, one would assume he came to his current perch after years teaching, more years administrating, further years researching as a professor in one of our top universities, and even more years at various levels of government working to improve and make laws that would advance public education.  But actually, no, he made gazillions selling software, and he’s using those gazillions to pursue his hobby, which is saving public education.

What he says: The foundation celebrated its fifteenth year of existence this past October, and Gates was interviewed and gave speeches at various foundation activities. His overall view:  “Every student deserves high standards. Every student deserves an effective teacher. Every teacher deserves the tools and support to be phenomenal.  And all students deserve the opportunity to learn in a way that is tailored to their needs, skills, and interests. This is the combination of advances we are backing that we believe will transform America’s schools—and at the center of it all is an effective teacher.”

Nobody would contradict or disagree with any of that.  Okay, you probably could find some who would, but I’m talking about rational, reasonable people.  The problem I have with Gates’s objectives, right from the start, though, is that he’s assuming a common, single, universal definition for all those subjective qualities he enumerates—“high standards,” “effective teacher,” and of course, the incredibly easy-to-determine-objectively “support to be phenomenal.”  But when you read what Gates has said about public education and see his programs, you get a strong sense that he believes he can find the correct formula which will lead to what he defines all those things as.  That belief—that there’s a single method to do a complicated activity involving human interactions (which flies in the face of our history, not to mention how education has worked)—informs the rest of Gates’s approaches and leads him only to things which can be quantifiable.  Data is king to Bill, and it’s understandable that a computer software engineer would believe that there is a code to be unlocked in every aspect of life.

You can see this over and over in his comments which are based on the research HIS people have done.  For example, the Foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching project (see http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED540956.pdf) has identified the nine principles for improving teaching: Set goals, use multiple measures, balance weights, monitor validity, ensure reliability, assure accuracy, make meaningful distinctions, prioritize feedback and support, and use data for decisions at all levels.  Not too much to attack in that either, but once again the Foundation is acting as if all those subjective ideas can be objectified to the point of formulaic applications.  “Meaningful distinctions”?  C’mon, you can’t get much more subjective than that, but of course, I forget:  If you apply data to your views, you will be able to reach consensus on the most meaningful distinctions, right?     

Well, no, it just doesn’t work like that when you’re attempting to analyze the millions of variables that go into assessing which technique is most effective for one human being leading twenty-five younger human beings in getting those twenty-five to understand, retain, and apply skills that we believe will be useful to our world.  Change even one of those twenty-six people—to say nothing of the school environment, the community culture, or the resources available for a school district—and your results will also change.  We will never be able to create a lesson, school organization plan, district improvement blue print, state standardized test, or federal set of standards which will be useful in all situations for all teachers and students.

Teachers have known this for their entire working lives, as the lesson plan that killed for one class dies painfully one period later.  Something as basic as the time of day can play a huge factor in how teachers have to plan for their classes.  I regularly had three English I Honors classes in my schedule with one early in the day, another around lunch, and the third the last period of the day.  And I had to change how my day’s plans would be structured based on my early period’s sleepier, less alert responses; my lunch period’s short attention spans, especially when I had the joy of a split period schedule (half of class, lunch, second half of class.  Yeah, they really do that some times.  My department would be assigned these kinds of classes since they wouldn’t split P.E. or science lab classes, but it’s “no problem” for English), and the over-excitement and/or mental fatigue of my last period classes.  Things are different every year, semester, quarter, week, day, and period when you teach.  No matter how set in your ways you become—which is a danger in any profession, but seems especially problematic in teaching—the constant fluctuations in everything means that a certain flexibility is crucial to any effective teacher.  And that means Bill’s “phenomenal support” will only be phenomenal if it matches what teachers want, which is fluid, based on how things change.

Plus, it would be foolish to ignore the reality of how that wonderfully effective teacher is also subject to life changes that will alter how she/he does the job.  Part of the experience factor of teaching is that after doing the job for years (the exact time span will vary, although Bill will try to crack that code too, I’m sure), you just know how to do certain things that make your classroom effective and have jettisoned the things that weren’t, in corporate vernacular, “cost effective,” in terms of return (learning) for investment (time and effort).  And like all superior artists (be they athletic or performing), the effective teacher will make use of that experience to give the appearance of effortless artistry.  Having watched enough sports and listened to enough music in my time, I have come to accept the cliché that the great ones make it look easy.  Michael Jordan would probably be my generation’s shining example of an amazing performer who seemed to glide through his world with the greatest of ease.  Walter in his prime was the same way.  But given the mundane commonality of teaching as well as its significant cost, few can recognize the unique artistry that thousands of teachers have in their performance arenas.  Instead, we try to objectify and standardize what they do since we all contribute to their salaries and demand concrete results as if our kids were high-end automobiles still under warranty.

Which brings us back to Bill. His drive to figure out education hasn’t born much fruit so far.  Two of his major initiatives have essentially been dropped by any and all educational practitioners. (One of the saddest perversions in our etymological history is the sadistic abuse public education leaders have perpetuated on the word, “initiative.”  There is no message that generates more fear, anger, depression, and horror in any faculty cafeteria in America than the news that the school district is about to embark on a new “initiative.”)  The Gates Foundation’s Small Schools Initiative and its data-gathering plan, InBloom, had negligible impact despite tens of millions invested.  Rather than detail them, since they’re both essentially dead, I’ll let you read their autopsies (Small Schools and InBloom).  And now the foundation is pushing its Measures of Effective Teaching Project as the latest “savior” of public education.  Lord knows, most teachers are at best skeptical of most evaluation models, so one would hope this Gates initiative is more productive than the previous two billion or so the foundation has spent.  Thus far, however, there is little to support that it will do anything more than burn valuable work time as teachers go through the motions of jumping through Bill and Mindy’s hoops until this too passes into oblivion (and consumes even more than the $45,000,000 it already has.

In the most charitable analysis possible, the Gates Foundation has done very little to improve the lot of any students while expending billions that could have been used on more beneficial pursuits.  One day, perhaps, Bill Gates will understand how complex and individual teaching really is, and seek out ways to form partnerships with teachers to better the economic fundamentals which hurt so many families which don’t have the resources to focus enough on their children’s’ educations (for more on that, check out this article).  Until that time, the Gates Foundation will continue to use its extensive cache of cash to do little besides keeping Bill in the spotlight and distracting everyone from the real possibilities for improving public education which would entail encouraging every teacher to seek his/her own unique path to teacher effectiveness.  If you would like to read more on Bill’s educational exploits, you can check the following articles in the Seattle Times, Washington Post, and Washington Post again.

For more on freeing teachers to be the best they can be, check out my eBook Snowflake Schools.  You can read entire chapters here.

Duncan as Secretary of Education

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As we begin 2016 with a new federal public education policy in place (The Every Student Succeeds Act, which we’ll take a more detailed look at in the near future), it seems appropriate to review that which preceded it:  recently retired Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s last seven years as Washington’s education leader.

It’s important to recognize and be transparent about one’s biases right from the start:  As a retired junior high and high school English teacher of thirty-three years, I have been a supporter of Barak Obama from the time he was a relatively unknown Senator from Illinois.  In many ways—health care, energy, economic directions, equal rights issues, gun control, tax code, and many other domestic policies—I believe he has done an excellent job, or at least (in the case of gun control, specifically) articulated a view with which I agree.  His foreign policy has seemed much less successful to me; but my expertise there is minimal at best, and it’s debatable just how much one leader can influence the world in this day and age.  His greatest failing during his two terms in office, however (from my vantage point at least), has been how federal education policy was managed by his appointee, Arne Duncan.

The problems with the previous administration’s key education initiative, George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind, were clearly understood and negatively impacting schools when Duncan took over in 2009.  Basically, school districts were required to use standardized testing to determine how well they were doing, with schools considered “Failing,” if a single sub-group population of students (based on race, special needs, and/or economic status—often representing a very small percentage of all a school’s students) did not make “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) on those tests, with the standard for AYP being set by the federal government.  By 2014, 100% of all students were to be achieving at the “meets or exceeds standards” level on these tests, regardless of the fact that each year a different set of students would be taking the tests.  (One-twelfth of the students from the previous year would have graduated, for example, meaning that the overall group would be at least 8% changed from one year to the next.)  Regardless of the specifics of NCLB, the law pushed schools in the direction of using standardized tests as created by for-profit companies as the single most important metric in evaluating how effective or “good” a school was.  Again, my biases shine through, but I believe a school as excellent as Hinsdale South High School (where I worked for twenty-five years) being rated as “failing” several years in a row based on NCLB,  shows just how misguided this policy was.

Enter Duncan in 2009 with a clear mandate to address NCLB’s problems.  But, instead of attempting to rectify the obvious failures of NCLB’s direction, he increased the importance of outside influences on schools with his Race to the Top program which doled out federal money only to schools deemed deserving based on criteria such as tying teacher evaluations to standardized tests—making them even more important to school districts than they had been previously.  More Duncan policies were pushing schools to adopt standards created by those with no understanding of or experience with specific schools (the Common Core), as well as encouraging for-profit corporations to take over public schools, greatly increasing the number of charters in the country.  The term, “Corporate Reform,” basically describes Duncan’s philosophy: More centralized control of schools achieved through weakening teachers’ rights and local school boards’ power in order to give state and federal governments more say in how schools are run.  The goal was to use data (standardized tests) to identify poor-performing teachers, principals, and schools so that those resources could be redirected to privately run charters.  Vouchers and tax credits were also favored, in theory so that parents could have more choice in which school received their tax revenue.  Under some proposals along these lines, public funds could even be spent on private or parochial schools.

In short, Duncan presided over a period of the federal government’s trying to make public schools more like private businesses.  If a business provides a good product (by Duncan’s criteria for schools, high standardized test scores and low costs), then it will attract more customers (parents who want their children to attend that school).  If the product is inferior (poor test scores or high costs), the company (school) should go out of business (close) to be replaced by those who will do a better job using a different business model (privately run charter schools funded with public funds) and fostering more competition for customers (parents shopping for schools among different charter and public school options).

Although there have been a few positives with this model—high school graduation rates have increased, and there have been modest improvements on some standardized test scores—overall, Duncan did not improve education in America.  For every small gain, there have been much larger losses.  Excessive standardized testing has led to a narrowing of schools’ curriculums, especially since only English and math tests counted when evaluating a school’s worth.  Art, music, and physical education programs have suffered, with some schools dropping elective courses and even programs. Teachers now spend way too much time trying to prepare students for these tests, despite believing test prep to be a poor use of class time.  And the results have shown little improvement in the test scores in comparison to other countries, many of whom do significantly less testing.

In the meantime, tests have stressed everyone, while enriching testing companies.  Teacher dissatisfaction—difficult to measure accurately, I will concede—seems to have increased.  My direct evidence is mostly anecdotal, but I do come from a teaching family and have had contact over the years with hundreds of teachers; and from what I’ve seen, teachers are significantly unhappier now than they were twenty years ago.  And some evidence of this has cropped up in recent years as the baby-boom generation of teachers has retired.  Many school districts are having difficulty in finding capable replacements as the profession of teaching has suffered the erosion of hard-earned rights and status in the public’s eyes with many outside “experts” attacking tenure as a refuge for incompetent, lazy slackers.  The Common Core has also negatively influenced schools as teachers were compelled to change successful methods and programs in order to comply with what the experts had determined was “better.”  One of the poorly understood aspects of Duncan’s granting schools waivers from meeting the aforementioned AYP targets of NCLB was his then being able to pressure schools into adopting the common core—the federal government’s “ransom” for not enforcing the unrealistic goals set for all schools by those completely unfamiliar with them.

Teachers’ feelings of powerlessness, lack of respect, and not being valued have increased to the point where many of my former colleagues are simply serving their time until retirement, encouraging students to stay away from the teaching profession, and/or leaving the field entirely for better working conditions and pay.  The steady progress teachers made in the 1980s and 90s has given way to stagnation and regression.  And despite all the time, effort, and billions of dollars spent on these federal initiatives, neither Race to the Top nor Common Core has improved public education for students, teachers, or parents.

In short, very few in the education field are sorry to see Arne Duncan go.  That’s not to say that he was evil or bigoted or mean-spirited (unlike several of the current Republican Presidential candidates), but he pushed our schools in a negative direction.  (And you really observant readers will notice how I’ve loosed my avalanche of criticism on Duncan, as though President Obama had nothing to do with this.  He clearly has, and I do believe it has been his major shortcoming.)    As mentioned earlier, we’ll take a look at the new federal law passed last month in the coming weeks, and it’s way too soon to evaluate the new Secretary of Education (who will probably be in office barely a year anyway); but Arne Duncan’s legacy (with Obama’s imprimatur) is not one that many will see in a positive way.

If you would like to see more analysis of Duncan’s seven years in office, you can check out the following sources, listed here by their publisher: The American Spectator,  The Nation, Vox, Socialist Worker, The New York Times, this one from The Washington Post, and another one from The Washington Post.  For more analysis of positive directions for public education, check out my e-book, Snowflake Schools—you can find entire chapters here.