One of the key dichotomies for teachers in public schools, especially when you speak of education reform, is autonomy versus accountability. Many experts and politicians regularly attack the current system as providing too many protections which enable teachers to avoid being held accountable. Those against teacher tenure, unions, and collective bargaining rights emphasize how those things shield teachers from being called to task for academic outcomes; when employees in business don’t deliver demonstrable results (increased sales, more profits, or work productivity), the reasoning goes, they are subject to being fired with little recourse: Produce or get out. Teachers, on the other hand, (as claimed over and over by tenure foes) achieve job protection early in their careers and are never again under any pressure to do anything except show up and get a paycheck, regardless of lackluster results, typically as shown by standardized tests.
But people like me will counter that without commitment, dedication, and creativity in our teachers, our kids won’t get a quality education. Teachers coerced, demeaned, and rated like brands of toothpaste will not be happy in their work, nor will the most talented individuals be attracted to a profession which is not valued in terms of either prestige or monetary reward. I have always wanted my children to have motivated, energized, happy people teaching them; and the best teachers have always insisted on a certain amount of freedom to conduct their classrooms as they saw fit. Although we’ll discuss how curricular decisions need to be determined collectively as well as updated frequently, individual teachers need to feel in charge when it comes to their classrooms which can only come through a sense of autonomy, the belief that what you are doing matters and that you have control over how you do your job.
And that’s one reason teacher unions have come to play an important role in getting teachers some freedom. It would be quite disingenuous of me not to let you know that I was a union activist over my 33-year teaching career: Not only did I teach junior high and high school English, but I also served in my teachers’ unions in several positions for the bulk of that time, as local president, contract negotiator, and grievance chair for example. Obviously that experience does color my perceptions on this issue, so you’ll have to keep in mind I am decidedly pro-union when I analyze how public schools can improve. It will come as no surprise, then, that I support tenure, collective bargaining laws, and independent teachers. I’ve explained all the reasons why many times before: You can check out other essays on my blog (or if you’d like even more detail, my book) to get those explanations more specifically. But like that quick take above, unless teachers are enthusiastic and motivated (aka autonomous), your kids won’t learn as much as they could. If you want your teachers to give their best and work their hardest, you’d better be sure they like what they do. Treating them like interchangeable, faceless clerks who need to stock the shelves with material you have forced on them while insisting they handle that material in identical, proscribed ways—which is what some claim as necessary “reform”—will not create the environment or workplace morale which can enhance the education of our country’s children.
But if patronizing standardization isn’t the answer, leaving teachers wholly to their own devices isn’t either. One persistent issue over the years has been how the quality of instruction varies from teacher to teacher and school to school. Because teachers have been largely tossed into their classrooms without much day-to-day support, there is no question that some have floundered more than they should. Don’t get me wrong: I believe floundering is one of the best learning tools for anyone in a new job, and I heartily endorse a healthy amount. Learning by doing is the fastest way to become competent, so trying lots of different things in order to figure out what works is one of the best ways for new teachers to grow. (Be sure to catch my enlightening workshop: “Floundering—Going Down with Style” coming soon to your child’s desperate-to-fill-institute-time school district. And no, I don’t really explain anything during the three-day workshop; good teachers will flounder around until they figure it out on their own!) Really, I’m not sure I’d want to keep any teacher on staff who believed he had all the answers after teaching for one year; making mistakes, second-guessing lesson plans, and the Sunday-night “dreads” (becoming uncomfortable as the wonder of your school-free weekend fades into the reality of the approaching Monday morning) all help motivate young teachers to figure things out, to get better. But like all “good” things, too much struggle can lead to habitual bad techniques, cutting corners, and out-of-control classes. All of which leads us right back to the original American Enterprise Institute article which has stimulated my last three essays (Numbers one and two are still available if you haven’t read them.)
Those essays and that article review the ambitious goals two schools implemented with teachers providing students with challenging curriculums and pushing the highest standards, while being provided with quality resources in the form of up-to-date facilities and opportunities to collaborate. But we also discovered that no matter what anyone tells you, no two schools will require exactly the same treatment: Many outside factors (parental support, community educational background, and available resources—to name a few) play a role in how ready students are for the material they are expected to handle. Forcing all schools to follow the same path to achieving those high-level standards is not only a foolish goal, but logistically impossible. Classrooms are always inhabited by unique sets of human beings who must cooperate and concentrate to complete purposeful actions in the hopes of attaining something useful (knowledge). That’s a challenging, complex set of variables which will interact in a myriad of ways. Results will never be constant because it’s impossible to control all the things which will impact the final outcome. Not only will each individual and class react in one-of-a-kind ways based on their unique backgrounds, but you also have the wild-card factor of rapidly changing/growing young people. There’s no question that you will see a large change in both students’ personalities and habits from kindergarteners through seniors in high school. I certainly did as the school year progressed in the students who made up the bulk of my 33-year teaching career, ninth graders (fourteen going on fifteen)—a first-quarter freshman can be very different from that same human being in the fourth quarter. Blend all those ingredients together and you can have a significant variance from year to year with a single teacher and the same curriculum. That’s not speculation; that is a fact, as any teacher will tell you.
But good teachers will focus more on what they can do to “fix” whatever doesn’t work well, rather than fixating on all the other variables. Understanding those things which impact readiness for and obstacles to learning is one thing; using them as an excuse to give less than maximum effort cannot be acceptable in a teaching staff. And right there you have the rock and hard place of teaching: Teachers can never stop doing their utmost to provide students with the opportunity to learn, but they have to accept that there are many factors beyond their control which can impede progress. The challenge for teachers is to ensure a baseline performance which meets the minimum standards which have been collectively worked out by the school’s community. No, those should not be left entirely up to any one teacher; this is a key issue for accountability: Teachers have to understand that simply because they disagree with or haven’t signed off on parts of the curriculum doesn’t mean they shouldn’t teach them or work just as hard to help students attain the goals which have been mutually worked out over the years. Because of those non-academic items which affect every child’s capabilities to achieve standards, teachers must recognize that the curriculum which has evolved for any one school is the product of many years’ experience and work from other teachers, administrators, school boards, and community members. A school’s “culture,” therefore, is much too significant for any individual to ignore, and new teachers have to learn the larger gestalt in which they work. But equally important is that every teacher has a vital role to play in that culture’s progression.
Accountability, then, is based on the way a teacher fits into a school’s process. All too often, teachers are given little education on the background of their school—what the community expects and how that has been changed over the course of decades. Instead, they are assigned classes to teach, textbooks to use, and provided no help figuring out how they can use their unique talents to assist their students to achieve established standards. And those standards might not be very clearly spelled out either; teachers have to learn those mostly on their own, too. Finally, even less time is spent helping new teachers to understand how they are a crucial part of evaluating and modifying the curriculum from which the standards flow, that their opinion based on their own experiences will now contribute to how the school operates. No matter how many decades more one teacher has been teaching than another, both the first-year rookie and the thirty-year veteran will have roughly the same number of students to teach; and thus equal responsibility for the school’s success or failure.
But because schools generally do not foster a sense of teacher community, instead leaving that mostly to chance, every school has developed extremely varied identities which will veer positively or negatively, way too dependent on the charisma or quirks of individual teachers, principals, superintendents, and school boards. Teachers have to fight to be heard, and most never even understand how important they are to the school’s function. Instead, they have shielded themselves from the capriciousness which regularly seems to flow from their bosses, politicians, and communities, accepting responsibility only for what happens in their classrooms and ignoring their rightful place as an important piece of the larger picture (often using the insulation provided by strong unions to stay out of the fray).
But as we noted last time, the trend in many schools is toward more time for teachers to plan and work together, which could help develop that unified purpose, that feeling of community which allows the sum to be much greater than that of the parts. And you can rest assured that once a sense of teachers’ belonging, involvement, and being valued as important to the school has been instilled in a school, that school’s teachers will expect all members of their community be accountable for their efforts toward that end goal. The widely criticized tenure process is supposed to be a trial period for new teachers, a time to evaluate if they have what it takes to join the rest of the teachers as shareholders in “ownership” of the school and its legacy. Tenure is a significant achievement, not because it guarantees lifetime employment, but rather because it means a teacher is now a full-fledged, accepted member of the staff, a partner in the firm. When you work with kids, you have to feel like what you’re doing is significant, that it matters. Which of course, teaching does.
Consider the memorable people with whom you have interacted over the years. The odds are high you will list at least one teacher among the top two or three important non-family influences in helping you to become the person you are. Granted, teachers do spend a great deal of time with the community’s children and are entrusted to make sure their students are provided with worthwhile learning opportunities. But that quantity only emphasizes how important quality matters in teachers who are shaping our communities of the future. I feel a personal disappointment/responsibility that with over 3,000 of my ex-students now eligible voters, Trump could ever come close to being elected President. I do take some solace on Illinois’s overwhelming support for Hillary, but still… Regardless of my overblowing my own importance in Presidential elections, every person who attended public schools bears the impact of many teachers; they participate in the growth and development of all of us. We tend to ignore their importance in how our society turns out, but after family, teachers are the most significant influence on our kids.
Accountability, then, can become institutionalized once teachers who actively participate in their schools’ curriculums and cultures work more closely with those new to the profession. It’s already happened to some extent in virtually every excellent school in the country. The challenge is figuring out the correct environment which allows that culture to develop so the process is not so haphazard. The encouraging trends of permitting teachers more time to interact through more student late-arrival days and the increased numbers of teachers working together to team teach are definitely steps toward helping teachers to learn their schools’ cultures more thoroughly. It will also lead to everyone’s becoming more familiar with each other’s methodology which can only lead to inexperienced teachers learning how to do better and skilled teachers to a clearer understanding which teachers need help or another career. No, the veterans won’t try to create clones of themselves—that would take way too much time and work, given their normally busy schedules. But as all teachers get more time to interact with their colleagues, they will instill a sense of mission in each other that accepts nothing less than hard work, dedication to common goals, and a ruthless devotion to finding even better techniques, materials, and/or technologies to increase their effectiveness. Those who can’t or won’t commit to that level of performance should be obvious to everyone, certainly during the multi-year probationary period currently in place prior to achieving tenure, and politely but firmly shown the door.
And that’s without even getting into my challenge that if the current tenure process is used as it was designed to function (at least here in Illinois, one of the more “liberal” teacher union states), it will effectively police the teaching profession. Accountability coupled with autonomy in schools already exists; you need only look to those which are successful and you will discover its proliferation. The question is how to replicate that atmosphere more consistently and systematically: Setting up situations where teachers have the time to cooperate with each other is the single best way to ensure an accountable outcome and a more robust school culture filled with autonomous teachers.
Last time, we took a look at an article—in the American Enterprise Institute’s What to Do: Policy Recommendations for 2017 series, included in the K-12 Education section—where AEI researchers summarized three key approaches used in two charter schools sponsored by the University of Chicago. The first, “Provide an ambitious model of instruction,” led us to many digressions on how we determine what the model should look like: Since that area includes what’s in the curriculum, what methods are used to impart that curriculum, and to what standards students are held as evidence of meeting those goals, it’s a gnarly topic—and it’s pretty much everything that matters most about education. So naturally, the debate over how public schools can maintain excellence when that’s what they deliver, improve when it isn’t, and the ways we can tell the differences between the two has been anything but smooth or consensual.
Rather than review that contentious recent past (or rail against the present, given who is now leading our country on educational policy), we need to look at the second two “ambitious” principles good schools need to incorporate, according to the AEI. (I keep referencing this very conservative policy source because it’s relevant that two parties—the AEI and me—typically so far apart in our opinions on…well, almost everything else, can agree on these fundamental premises.) Those other two ambitions would be as follows: Schools should “organize teachers’ work to provide ambitious instruction, and (school systems need to) provide broad supports for ambitious instruction.”
Of course, we’re back to debatable abstractions, but there’s really no way to organize and support ambitious instruction without more time for teachers to interact with each other. There is much truth to the assertion in this article that as schools exist right now, teachers are left to their own devices too much. The AEI sees current practices as teacher-centric, that teachers develop into divas, one-of-a-kind artists who free-lance and expect to be able to do whatever they want since they know everything, almost as though teachers went into education solely to flaunt their individual skills, prima donnas who never have their egos checked. They also complain that teachers claim no one can question what they do since only teachers understand what is needed. (Did I mention that AEI and I often diverge in our views?) No, I wouldn’t phrase it that way, but in the spirit of trying to find educational foundations on which all can agree, I’m overlooking their slight negativity toward my ex-colleagues. (I could never have been accused of arrogance during my 33 years in the classroom—truly, I didn’t consider myself to be half as wonderful as I actually was.) Instead, I would point out that the workloads and schedules of teachers don’t allow for enough time to interact in any significant way on curricular/methodological/evaluative standards. (That bit about nobody questioning their expertise will be addressed next time.)
Regardless of our disagreement over the evolution of teachers’ isolation in enacting crucial educational issues, we do agree that teachers need to work together to develop approaches to all those important pedagogical questions.
But they can’t be expected to generate methodologies, goals, or standards which are the same as any other school’s. In the first part of our analysis of these ambitions, we pointed out how any single set of standards applied uniformly to every school will not succeed. The needs, backgrounds, and abilities of American students simply won’t cooperate with such a limited view. For proof of that just look to the failure of the Common Core’s evaluative arm, the PARCC tests. which some 63% of the 42 states who are still using the Core’s standards have stopped administering. It’s especially easy to understand the folly of trying to administer any standards uniformly: For example, we all agree with the goal that high school graduates should have high levels of critical reading skills. But we’re likely to part company when it comes to how we measure progress toward that goal, what evaluation instrument we use to assess it, and the grading scale we use for different sets of students—and let’s not even get started in how we would define “critical reading skills!” Each school has to consider its students’ previous educational experiences, natural ability, family support, economic status, and national/state/local financial investment before tailoring the educational curriculum, winding up with different approaches to that overall objective, different ways to evaluate progress towards it, and different levels of achievement deemed as acceptable. It just isn’t realistic to demand the same results from wildly varying starting points. (This is the issue Senator Al Franken tried to get then-nominee, now Secretary of Education DeVos to discuss when he asked for her stance on the proficiency vs. growth debate. She had no clue what he was talking about, which is another significant problem we currently face.)
The only answer to this challenge, then, is to allow individual schools latitude in determining how to assess where students begin, where they finish, and which approaches work best to aid that growth. And if we expect harried teachers to do all this in a directed, coordinated way, we’ll have to get them the time to work together and provide them with the resources they need to get the job done.
We’ll talk about accountability, which has become a huge public relations issue (aka: buzzword, smokescreen, distraction) in the future, but the real problem with these two ambitions will be that they cost money. I worked in two school districts (Itasca Elementary #10 and Hinsdale High School #86) which did an excellent job in providing the resources I needed to do my job: supplies were abundant, technology was good if not cutting edge (I don’t believe you ever want state-of-the-art electronics since it means you’re paying double for something that still has major bugs in it, compared to the duller-but-significantly-more-reliable-and-cheaper versions down the road), and the facilities were well-maintained. (My chief complaint at my first school—which was having to compete with noise from O’Hare’s takeoffs and landings every few minutes on some days—got solved just a couple of years after I left with soundproofing and air-conditioning. My big complaint at my second school—stifling classrooms for many days each school year—got taken care of the first year after I retired with air-conditioning for the entire building. Clearly, I was the key obstacle to building improvements where I worked.)
The money problem is definitely tied to the way public education is funded: Here in Illinois, property taxes dominate, meaning wealthy areas have great schools, including facilities. Recent legislation has attempted to even out some of the disparities through larger state contributions to poorer districts, but we’re a long way from anything remotely resembling equity when it comes to public education funding. (And even the modest steps made in Illinois were partially offset by a tax break for those who choose to send their children to parochial schools and the elimination of the crucial requirement that students have physical education every day.) In other words, fair school financing is one of those huge issues that creates too-large an explanation/digression for my purposes here. Rest assured, I do have suggestions for better ways to fund public education (see my e-Book for much more on this), but we’ll have to put off getting into that one again, at least for now. It is an important key, absolutely.
But the time issue is more manageable since there are economical ways to address it that don’t require millions of dollars to be levied by a taxing body (local and/or state); they will, however, mean reassessing the traditional school day as well as how teachers interact.
More time for teachers to work together is clearly a trend in area schools: My daughter’s Downers Grove High School District #99 has begun late arrival days, for example; most Mondays this school year will begin at 9:20 A.M. Teachers will report at their usual 7:20, providing two hours each week for more collaboration. Other school districts in the area have also begun working more staff time into their schedules. Given how much teachers have to get done as it is, this time will have to be planned carefully to assure quality collaborative opportunities, lest busy teachers circumvent the program’s intent by using the time to do regular class work (grade papers, record scores, contact parents, fill out forms, and the like). Despite the potential pitfalls, this type of teachers-working-with-teachers space is exactly what the goal of more “organizing teachers for ambitious instruction” is all about.
Another positive sign is that more peer coaches are becoming available. Many school districts now regularly grant release time (typically one less teaching period) to free up classroom teachers to assist other teachers with tasks with which they might need help. From using technology to reading techniques to mentoring younger teachers, it is always easier to ask a colleague a question, not to mention your colleague’s expertise is based on actual teaching experience. You’d be surprised at how high a percentage of the scant time allowed for institutes during my thirty-three-year career was spent with outside experts who didn’t have any first-hand knowledge of my school and students; you’d be even more shocked that a significant percentage of those trying to instruct me didn’t even have any teaching experience or education background at all. Giving teachers assignments where they can help other teachers is a much better way to spend institute money that is currently used on outside experts, who provide mixed results (and that’s being kind).
Finally and most significantly, more teachers are being allowed to work together. Right now, this occurs mostly when special education teachers work in regular/average classrooms with the subject area teacher. The special ed teacher is primarily there to service the students in the class with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) who have had a learning or psychological issue documented. These students might otherwise be in special education classes. The unintended upside is that the more integrated the teachers become as they work together, the less any differences are perceived by everyone. It’s just two teachers in the same class teaching everyone. This can be beneficial for the non-IEP students in understanding that students with differences are just like them and don’t need segregation or being singled out for those differences; however, it can have an invigorating impact on the teachers as well. They come to understand each other’s subject matter, learn state regulations/mandates, and help each other to utilize methodology they might not otherwise know about.
That last benefit is a key to helping schools get the most out of their teachers. Most outside experts come into a school with “all” the answers: some program or approach they insist, if properly applied (which generally means a hefty investment in whatever they’re selling—usually consultation services, software, texts, workbooks, and/or courses), will dramatically improve any school…forever! That we’re having this discussion at all shows you just how well those promises turn out. But teachers—who spend their days doing the same things other teachers do AND who have the time to impart to others the special skills/insights they possess—are infinitely more helpful and useful to faculties. Not only do they know the technology, technique, or methodology better than others, but even more importantly for making that specialized skill beneficial, they understand what teachers in their buildings need and want. As was pointed out earlier, teachers are used to going solo in the classroom and can be reluctant to confess weakness or ignorance to others. But working with a colleague you’ve known for years makes it much easier to ask that awkward question and get an answer which might unleash some beneficial tactic for helping students.
Cooperative teams working together to improve worker productivity has been standard in most large corporations for quite some time now, but schools still tend to operate with dozens of independent entrepreneurs who don’t communicate with each other all that often. But even more radical (translated: expensive) solutions are possible: I’ve speculated about some in my eBook, and in another blog entry suggested a way for new teachers to be incorporated into a staff through a cooperative program where new teachers and veterans are assigned the same class for a year. Assuming the benefits of this idea are as bountiful as I believe they would be, the concept could be expanded to having all teachers work cooperatively with another to teach classes on a regular schedule. Coupled with the increased collaboration time we’ve already seen many school districts incorporating, we could see increasingly effective schools in no time.
And this cooperative teaching model wouldn’t be limited to teachers—every administrator should be required (although I would prefer the term “granted the privilege”) to teach at least one class every school year as well. As was shown in the schools the AEI found to be successful, not to mention the countries where school systems have been highly rated for years, when educators have the opportunity to work together, they will find answers to the specific challenges their unique schools face much more effectively than when teachers are left in their current isolation with only outside experts pretending to know what is best.
This ambitious agenda definitely places more control with individual schools and teachers rather than a centralized bureaucracy (like county, state, or federal governments), which inevitably leads to concerns about accountability. We’ll take on that issue next time.
The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) is not an organization with which I normally agree, as I have discussed before. From the environment to taxation to consumer protections, we tend to diverge: They prefer fewer controls and less government involvement in most things, while I believe the government must play a significant role in order for humans to progress, especially in areas where human greed and self-interest conflict with overall societal well-being . AEI’s most influential donors, the Koch brother billionaires, rarely support candidates I vote for (although I think we agreed on not voting for Trump), and their push to eliminate regulations and restrictions on their energy projects (coal and natural gas) scares me. But, this article, in AEI’s What to Do: Policy Recommendations for 2017 series, included in the K-12 Education section, is quite astute in its suggestions for how good schools should be run. Amid the pro-DeVos (I’m not) and we-need-more-charter-schools (we don’t) articles, they tucked in this one, “To Reform Education, Be Ambitious,” by Nat Malkus (AEI Research Fellow) and Ian Lindquist (AEI’s Program Manager of Education Policy Studies). Although “ambitious” might be a stretch, the process they outline is what many teachers have been advocating for a long time as really the only way to approach improving (where necessary) and maintaining (where already successful) public education.
Based on a book which analyzed steps taken in two University of Chicago charter schools, The Ambitious Elementary School (authored by University of Chicago’s Stephen Raudenbush and Lisa Rosen, along with Elizabeth McGhee Hassrick of Drexel University), Malkus and Lindquist cull their AEI presentation into three fundamental approaches all schools should incorporate into the way they operate: Provide an ambitious model of instruction, organize teachers’ work to provide ambitious instruction, and provide broad supports for ambitious instruction. In essence, what this means is that teachers need to be provided with appropriate resources so they can collectively cooperate to hold students to mutually developed high standards. That’s not particularly “ambitious,” especially to those of us familiar with how public education works in suburban areas with the financial means to provide good educational facilities. But it does at least get to the heart of what it takes to have a good school without going off on tangents which demean teachers or attack their unions (which tends to be more typical of the “conservative” approach to education). In an era of polarization, that a group like the AEI can produce anything with which those in education can use as a basis for discussion, is pretty good, so this ex-union activist will do his level best to meet them halfway. (I’m no longer a member of the education world, having retired after thirty-three years of teaching.)
Briefly delving into the first Principle of Ambition, providing an ambitious model of instruction simply means each and every student should be pushed, should break an intellectual sweat, should be expected to achieve. That’s pretty basic, and I would expect it to be a given at any public school. The challenge, though, is working out the best ways to do that, which is at the heart of a significant portion of the reform movement and its many controversies: Is tracking (ability grouping) the best way to enhance student outcomes? Can you get the most out of special needs students in main-streamed or separate classes? How do the answers to those first two issues combine to work in schools with diverse ranges of abilities? How can we know that students are progressing at acceptable rates? Does providing school choice enhance or detract from the overall educational outcomes? Who determines what those outcomes should be? An ambitious model of instruction has always been the clear mission for public education; our democracy depends upon clear-thinking citizens, and that will only happen if their education is rigorous. But just what that should look like has been difficult to define or assess (plus, those previous questions are just a few of the dozens confronting public schools), which has led to countless school reform battles.
We need only look at one of the more recent attempts to sort that out to see the challenges: The Common Core. No one can read the standards set forth in the Core and fault them as unworthy goals. Problems, however, quickly arose on how best to apply them, how to measure progress towards them, and how well the grade-level objectives matched up with any school’s students. As of this year, only three of forty-five states which adopted the Core’s standards have totally dropped out, but a whopping twenty-six will no longer use the recommended Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests to determine how students are progressing toward those standards. And of all the testing being done, only twelve states require passing the required tests in order to graduate from high school. In other words, standardized testing is still being done, but using a variety of different instruments with few consequences for those who do poorly. Thus, we’re still seeking an answer to how we can find reliable ways to determine exactly how effective any public school might be.
Yet, there are many school districts in the country which are producing excellent results, if you consider how well their graduates function in society. So, there must be some things which are working. We need to look more closely into the reasons these schools succeed. Clearly (in light of the Common Core’s white hot controversy during its brief existence), a single set of standards universally applied to all students will not be effective; each school has to work towards finding the correct balance of challenging its students at the appropriate levels without overwhelming them to the point where discouragement sets in. Somewhere between getting an A for showing up and students’ failing despite intense effort is the sweet spot, but that huge range shows how difficult it will be to locate just where it is. And as is pointed out by Malkus and Lindquist, an excellent way to get there is to have an individualized plan for each and every student, a tough benchmark to reach when teachers deal with 25 kids or more at a time (and for many, 150+ in a single day). That focus on rigorous objective standards, however, still needs to be of paramount importance since success can never be achieved unless everyone is clear on just what that success should look like. But at the same time we can’t forget that each unique student requires his/her own measure of success, that one-size-fits-all instruction can never be effective for all students. And yet… You can see the challenges which public education will always present classroom teachers when on the one hand, unique students require unique approaches, but high school diplomas need to be based on similar standards.
Therefore, teachers need to focus on finished products (graduates) who meet a high level of achievement, but must adjust their techniques for reaching that standard constantly to match the unique skill set each student has. And we have seen public education yanked back and forth between those two poles over and over again. School choice proponents, for example, push toward more individualized needs: The school to which my kid was assigned doesn’t meet her needs, so I’m going to shop around until I can find a school that does. Accountability advocates, though, pull back in the other direction, arguing for standardized tests based on objective data which will rank students and schools according to a fixed scale, with little room for any qualifying comments or extenuating circumstances.
The hard thing, then, with any attempts to distill the desired ambitious model of instruction into practical applications is figuring out how to apply those disparate objectives in schools which differ so dramatically in their needs since students come with varying abilities and backgrounds.
My experience in junior high (eight years) and high school (twenty-five years) suggests this needs to be clearly and specifically analyzed much more often than is typical. Schools are classic examples of institutions which tend not to see the forest for the trees: The day-to-day tasks of planning for each class period, never-ending paperwork, administrative demands, and state/federal mandates (to name a few non-teaching issues) all too often leave little time for high level, more abstract discussions of what exactly the students need to be able to do, what activities will help them reach those skills, and what means teachers will use to determine how well those skills have been achieved. Oh…and those discussions need to be supplemented with insights into different learning styles as well as finding myriads of methods to individualize instruction as much as possible given the one-of-a-kind abilities each student possesses. During my teaching career in two middle-to-upper-middle-class schools, we rarely had the time for those discussions; even our institute time was largely devoted either to administrative “initiatives” typically designed to incorporate some state or federal mandate, or to outside “experts” who would come in and try to convince us that they knew better than we did how to teach our kids.
We won’t get an ambitious model of instruction unless our teachers can work together to resolve—at the building level—how to reconcile those competing goals of all students reaching challenging, important standards coupled with instruction which tailors a school’s curriculum to the idiosyncratic needs of each student. You can hardly be expected to figure out a plan of action to achieve that during a couple of meetings of entire faculties for a few hours two days before school starts. (Most districts begin the school year with one or two teacher institute days, and those days are often up to 50% of the allotted teacher training time for the year.) And we must accept that how those key issues are resolved will vary from school to school (and even within the departments of specific schools). Teacher A’s school has a history of academic excellence in an affluent area with students proceeding on to elite colleges as their parents closely monitor every test; Teacher B has many English-deficient, economically disadvantaged students who would be the first in their family to graduate from high school, with little parental participation due to crushing work schedules and single-parent households. To expect the same ambitious method of instruction in those two schools is more than short-sighted—it is a waste of time and resources. We need to be able to get to a place where those on site have the means to work through the knotty issues of achievement as contrasted with student needs.
And that’s where the AEI article offers some beneficial ideas on how schools can walk that tightrope. Next time, we’ll take a look at the other two ambitious goals which, if applied appropriately, could lead to much better balance.
As the 2017-18 school year begins, one district continues to deal with an old problem. If you’re at all familiar with the attendance-balancing conundrum faced by Hinsdale Township High School District 86, home to Hinsdale South and Hinsdale Central High Schools, the news that the school board is planning to hire a public opinion research firm to figure out what the community believes should be done to solve the matter might have led you to some significant eye rolling. Since I taught English for twenty-five years at South, as well as having been active in the Hinsdale High School Teachers Association (HHSTA) for most of that time, I could only shake my head at the prospect of an outside agency being hired ($52,000 is the proposed budget) to gauge (gouge?) public sentiment while soliciting input on the solutions most favored by the community. Yet, I do understand the difficulty the board faces, which has led to this course of action.
In case you don’t know about all the drama in District 86 over attendance: For the past several years, Central’s student population has been rapidly growing while South’s is shrinking. On the most recent Illinois Report Card, Central had 1281 more students than South (2834 vs. 1553). More problematic is that Central’s numbers are above what district administrators feel the building can handle, while South is roughly 400 below its capacity. “Not much of a problem,” you might think, since it seems obvious that students could be moved from one high school to the other. And even if the district chose not to transfer any students who had already begun attending Central, you might conclude it would make sense to shift some incoming freshmen from Central to South each year, which would gradually even out both schools’ totals. But you would be very naive to underestimate how challenging either of those actions would really be.
You see, parents in the Central attendance adamantly do NOT want their children to go to South. This has been proven repeatedly whenever the board has even hinted at moving students. Last year, when the board broached the topic of changing the district’s “buffer” zone (an area in the middle of the district where parents can pick which of the two high schools their children attend—almost all choose Central) so that those students would now have to attend South, hundreds of parents showed up, with the overwhelming majority protesting the possibility of not being able to send their kids to Central. Soon thereafter, the board tabled even forming a committee to look at attendance issues, preferring to bury the matter in the overall strategic plan for the district. (For me, one particularly surreal moment occurred at that meeting when a board member apologized to Central parents for “stressing” them by considering shifting their kids to South.) Then, this past spring, the board attempted to pass a referendum which would have funded a Central building expansion to accommodate the growing Red Devil masses, effectively increasing the imbalance with an ever-growing Central campus. But district voters soundly rejected the proposal by a three-to-one margin.
If you’d like to read a more detailed account of all this (flavored liberally, of course, with my own insights), you could check out my other essays on this topic, starting chronologically with this one from May 2016, followed by another one in September that same year, topped off by this analysis after the referendum was voted down in April, 2017. While I heartily recommend this journey down memory lane in its entirety (and there are others, if you’re game), the bottom line of all this doesn’t offer any solutions which won’t anger a hearty portion of one section of the district or the other. Current Central parents will be livid if they can no longer send their kids to Central, and South folks will not be happy to see their taxes increased to add on to Central when there is more than adequate space already available in South. There really aren’t many solutions to this problem outside of these two, which would seem to lead to disgruntled residents no matter which is selected.
But you would misjudge human creativity if you felt those two options couldn’t be finessed to make them seem more palatable, or at least hidden—it’s just that those are the only two that follow the letter of the law and spend tax dollars most reasonably. Another couple of ideas floated over the years are even more radical or risk being horribly offensive and morally questionable. First, some have suggested merging the two schools, which would result in one campus inhabited by freshmen and sophomores, with the other populated by juniors and seniors. This new Hinsdale Township High School would definitely solve all the balancing problems (even though it would create others—most notably to some, the elimination of half of the district’s varsity sports programs), and there could be little question that this would offer all District 86 students equal academic opportunities. One high school instead of two would be such a huge change for everyone, though, that it is hard to see it getting any serious consideration, or being endorsed by many on the proposed public opinion surveys.
The other, shadier idea which has been suggested would be creating an elite “school within a school” at South which would house a small, advanced group of students. I’ve disliked this idea from the start as a somewhat cynical publicity stunt to convince Central people it was safe to journey into the wilderness they believe South to be, where their sheltered children could pursue their more advanced studies, isolated from the unwashed masses that populate the rest of the building. The official concept District 86 has considered for this is an International Baccalaureate program, which I have nothing against and appears to be a solid, worthwhile concept. The catch, however, is that the Advanced Placement classes already in place serve essentially the same purpose, and no one is suggesting the elimination of any A.P. classes in District 86. Instead, this idea is a misleading way to trick parents into thinking the school-within-a-school approach would be much better than the programs already in place, an extremely shaky premise given the excellent education currently being provided at both schools. What the I.B. proposal really facilitates is a way to segregate any Central students who might enroll in it from the general population at South. No one will ever admit that, and I’m sure this hidden bias would be denied vehemently by all District 86 board members and administrators; but it is a bit odd that during my twenty-five years teaching high-level classes at South, nobody ever broached this idea or even hinted our honors programs were lacking. In my opinion, the I.B. idea has surfaced as a means to balance attendance, not as something for which there is a curricular need. That it takes several years and significant retooling to be certified as an I.B. school, however, makes this approach seem unlikely to address a problem which needs decisive action sooner rather than later.
The one tried-and-true method for solving overcrowding is for the school board to use accumulated tax money combined with issuing new bonds in order to add on to Central without subjecting these new expenditures to the referendum process. You might be shocked that the board would be able to circumvent the normal process for new building projects (that is, seeking permission from its electorate before committing millions of tax dollars to expansion; i.e., a referendum), but this has been done repeatedly over the years. Any and all new building in District 86 since South was constructed in the 1960s was funded this way—and that would include field houses, science lab wings, air conditioning, and annexes, to name a few, totaling over $75 million (conservatively). That the board sought referendum approval in the spring of 2016 before proceeding with additions is actually an outlier when compared to typical District 86 operating practices: No property tax increases for new construction have been approved through referendums in over fifty years, yet many significant building projects have been completed during that time.
So it is still possible that Central could be expanded over the decisive margin of objections evidenced through the recent referendum of District 86’s electorate. To its credit, however, school board members are trying to involve the community in the ultimate decision, hence the proposed hiring of a public relations firm to assess community opinions. Yes, it would seem pretty obvious what community opinion is at this point given the crushing defeat of the referendum proposal this past spring, but that defeat did not resolve the overcrowding at Central, which is only getting worse.
And it is possible, maybe, that the survey could provide helpful information on the key question that has impeded the most fiscally responsible solution to this problem: Why are Central area residents so opposed to redistricting attendance boundaries for better balance, which would mean some students currently slated to attend Central would be moved to South?
Clearly, the answer to that pivotal question is not simple, direct, or even totally understood at a conscious level by many opposed to the change. Without a doubt, the most significant and readily accessed reasons have to do with the quality education Central has provided over the years. Consistently rated as one of the best high schools in America, Hinsdale Central has a proud tradition of academic and extra-curricular excellence as evidenced by the success its students have in elite colleges, their professional lives after graduation, and how often Central racks up Illinois High School Association (IHSA) sports championships. Most people resist change, especially when that which is to be changed is regarded as exemplary. Many residents of the Central attendance area selected their homes and paid a premium price (Oakbrook, Hinsdale, and Clarendon Hills are NOT cheap places to buy real estate) particularly because it meant their children would be able to go to Central. To have that switched to South will not be received well, regardless of South’s own excellence.
But that’s where things start to go wrong, to get twisted, to get an ugly sheen which contains hints of racism, class snobbery, and economic bigotry. As someone who taught for twenty-five years at South, I know how good it is, and the shrill resistance of Central residents to sending their children there often seems hurtful both to the teachers and students who go to South every day. I’ve been over my opinion of South’s high quality several times (see the previously referenced blog entries for more on that), but the rumors and myths many Central people accept as truth about South destroys anyone’s ability to convince them of how good the school is, and most significantly to believe the opportunities afforded South students are in every way equal to those at Central. Unfortunately, it will come as no surprise to anyone when the public opinion firm verifies what everyone already knows—South is perceived within the Central attendance area as more dangerous, less academically rigorous, and generally a huge step down from Central in preparing kids for college and providing them with an education anywhere near as good as the one Central provides. That the top students at South go just as far as Central’s elite—although fewer in number—is disregarded; some may even believe those kids achieve despite going to South, not because of it. Unless this public opinion firm can somehow alter those negative perceptions many Central residents have about South, nothing but confirmation of the status quo will come from the $52,000 the board is planning to spend.
Why South has such a bad reputation on the Central side of town and how that can be changed is a discussion nobody wants to have, but it’s at the heart of any solution to District 86’s attendance issues. To some, the whole time-consuming exercise (to say nothing of the cost) of public opinion surveys does little but delay needed resolutions to the issue. And others would argue that more time is all the board is really seeking by postponing a direct confrontation on this controversy, now that the referendum solution has failed. As the last board did a year ago when it tabled any discussions of what to do; in hiring a public opinion company, the current board could be accused of kicking the controversy down the road another year or so. And as has happened each time the board has avoided hard decisions, the problem hasn’t gone away, emerging later in an even more acute state.
While we can empathize with the difficult situation in which District 86 school board members find themselves, it is hard to believe that an outside public opinion research firm will be able to discover a magic solution which will make everyone happy. Regardless, something concrete has to be done. In an extensive demographic report created in 2015, attendance estimates were made based on “enrollment projections assuming turnover of existing housing units and family in-migration which are A. less than anticipated; B. as anticipated; or C. greater than anticipated through 2029-2030.” And under all three scenarios, significantly more students are projected for Central until at least 2030. Even more ominous is that last year’s attendance at both schools was closer to the high projection (C) with Central actually 37 students beyond that largest projection (2797 projected vs 2834 actual). Eventually, the school board will have to decide if it is going to change attendance zones and send students who originally were slated to attend Central to South (and anger the parents of those students) or spend millions more than is necessary through increased taxes/bonds so that Central can be enlarged despite all the space available at South (and anger everyone else).
This day of reckoning can only be put off for so long. Not only are Central students suffering with overly crammed facilities and decreasing course offerings, but South’s students face issues too. Numerous faculty members have been transferred to Central, which leads to an unsettled atmosphere and fewer services (like the English Department’s Writing Lab) offered. It’s hard not to see actions like hiring a public opinion research firm as anything more than delaying tactics which will make necessary solutions even more unpalatable to everyone later.
For more on the challenges facing public education and common sense ideas to meet them, check out my e-book, Snowflake Schools, which can be previewed here.
Now that we’re past the embarrassing Presidential world tour where the headlines seemed most focused on Melania’s brushing off Donald’s attempts to hold her hand, the Pope’s dour facial expressions, handshake duels, bogus arms deals, and GolfCartGate, but before we all become engulfed in memos detailing Trump’s attempts to force high-ranking national security officials to ignore potentially treasonous acts; everyone needs to devote at least a little attention to the budget the White House proposed to Congress right before Trump left the country. As the details of this recommendation become clearer, so does the Republican party’s fundamental priority, philosophy, belief, or however you’d like to label their mantra: If you have resources, you can buy whatever you want; if you don’t, too bad. We all need to recognize just what kind of country the Republican party envisions—at least the Republican party with Donald Trump, Paul Ryan, and Mitch McConnell at its head. While everyone is understandably distracted from this reality with Trump leading a seemingly endless parade of foolish acts and inane tweets, in one area Donald, Paul, and Mitch have been pretty consistent: Rather than proposing anything new or trying to improve current programs, they are dedicated to the “good old days” when wealthy people had an even greater share of this country’s resources and power than they do now. And from health care to withdrawing from the Paris climate accord to huge investments in weapons (all of which, conveniently, can be manipulated by Washington to profit friends and family), every position they stake out screws over those who don’t have very much to begin with.
Naturally, it’s no different with education. The foundation of public schools for many years has been what is basically a socialist construct: We all contribute so that every kid in America can learn the basics every citizen should know. No, that’s hardly an absolute standard since every state legislature or local school board can interpret what those “basics” are in a variety of ways, but at least the cost of however that ideal comes out is shared by all. And yes, the system of paying for education has also been significantly corrupted since it is generally financed through local funding (property taxes here in Illinois) which has created huge differences in how much any one school district spends per pupil. But the Trump administration as led by Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos (a billionaire in her own right), is now proposing an even more dramatic shift in resources which will allow parents more “choice” over the schools that receive their tax dollars. Many rich people already send their children to private schools at their own expense, but DeVos believes they should be able to direct any money they pay in taxes for education to whichever school they wish. In effect, these vouchers would take money originally going to public schools and redirect it to the schools parents select (which would include private and parochial institutions), robbing public schools of crucial revenue when they can ill-afford any decreases whatsoever.
Schools would thus compete with each other to attract parents and their money, with institutions already struggling being left even further behind. And the children whose parents don’t have the resources to get their children out of those impoverished schools? Well, they’re just stuck with an under-funded, second-rate education forever. This is social Darwinism at its worst with those already well-off being subsidized at the expense of the poor who stay trapped and powerless with little hope of their future being any different. That theme plays over and over again in the proposals in Trump’s budget, which is entitled “A New Foundation for American Greatness” (another ready-made lesson in irony). Budgets for health, welfare, education, art, and social service programs are slashed with funding for some sixty-six programs ended entirely.
There are dozens of other sources which can give you more specific details on the ramifications of Trump’s budget, including many which document how directly some of Trump’s staunchest supporters—working class whites—will be hurt by his draconian spending cuts, the better to benefit the wealthy. But it’s crucial for everyone to acknowledge exactly what’s going on here: The gap between the haves and the have-nots in the U.S. has increased significantly in recent years, and Republicans are doing everything they can to encourage, magnify, and accelerate both the gap’s size and the pace at which it widens.
Now, many are pointing out that this budget, like the horrific health care act which came out of the House on May 4, will never be enacted as currently written, that both are “DOA” in the Senate. And let’s all hope that is true. But regardless, this document shows exactly how Trump and his cronies view their constituents. Of course they hide behind the claim that they are cutting ineffective, wasteful programs, but the clear good which comes from things like Planned Parenthood, the National Endowment for the Arts, or Meals on Wheels has been evident for many years. Eliminating or reducing the government’s support for these programs in order to buy more weapons can’t be explained any other way than a preference for getting rid of things which help people so our military can obtain more things which kill them.
I understand that some Republicans would respond to my views with the argument that there are better ways to achieve the goals of the cut programs, but merely repeating that endlessly offers little solace to those who need help. What ideas, programs, or approaches do Trump, Ryan, McConnell and the rest of the Republican Party offer as better alternatives? It seems that they have nothing but “glittering generalities” rather than any concrete, workable solutions. For those of you who have forgotten the propaganda techniques you learned about in high school, a glittering generality is something that sounds good, but has no substance or validity behind it. The most glaring example of this comes from Trump as he was campaigning for the Presidency and regularly characterizing Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act) as a “disaster” (it isn’t). His alternative was that he would replace it with “something terrific.” Now that we’ve actually seen his replacement, we know what a ridiculous scam his campaign rhetoric was, unless by “terrific” he meant “awful for anyone who isn’t already a millionaire.” Then there are the flat-out lies he told: His terrific plan would cost less, cover everybody in the country, and make no cuts to Medicare. The reality, though, is that the Trump plan would increase rates for low-income seniors by as much as $12,000 per year, lead to over 20,000,000 Americans losing their coverage, and include some $800 billion in Medicare cuts. Ryan has been the cheerleader for this monstrosity, and we’ll see how McConnell handles the Senate revisions of the highly unpopular proposal in the weeks to come.
That’s not to say that the Democrats are perfect or have all the answers to the many problems which our country faces. But no matter how you try to spin it, Democratic proposals have generally tried to improve things for those less well off—Obamacare, environmental legislation, and a host of other programs now under attack all provided benefits for the poor. You can argue about the effectiveness, sincerity, or cost efficiency of these initiatives, of course, but there can be no denying the fundamental humanity on which the intent of the programs is based. That is in sharp contrast to the callous indifference Republican initiatives show toward anyone who is struggling. From immigrants to decaying urban neighborhoods to senior citizens barely scraping by on social security, the Trump/Ryan/McConnell vision for America works to shift resources away from the neediest to those already well off.
Let’s hope the brazenness and crudity of Trump’s approach will finally help everyone to recognize this key difference and vote accordingly. Many of us are praying that the Trump administration will be short-lived, ending in impeachment (my prediction is he will resign long before the Russian investigation proves how corrupt he is so that President Pence—which sounds almost as bad to me as “President Trump”—can immediately pardon him), but wishing for an end to Trump is hardly much of a strategy to minimize the damage Republican leadership could still do.
Instead, we have to recognize that Donald is not the source of this heartless approach to governing, but merely the loudest symptom of that which has taken over the Republican Party. As someone who spent his younger days criticizing the eight years of Ronald Reagan’s Presidency, I can’t believe how wonderfully progressive his policies seem today. Some have argued that this saint of conservatism would never be even seriously considered in today’s Republican party given that he cooperated with liberal Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, approved tax increases (his two bills passed in 1982 and 1984 together constituted the biggest tax increases ever enacted during peacetime), instituted an amnesty program for undocumented workers, and even lobbied on behalf of stricter gun regulation (all these and more can be found here). That the Republican Party leadership has moved so far from what most Americans (and, I think, Republicans) believe is really quite shocking, and I still don’t understand how we Americans allowed them to take over. Regardless, that needs to be changed as quickly as possible.
Although the circus surrounding Trump’s ignorance and self-absorption will continue unabated for as long as he inhabits the White House, we have to recognize that it’s not just him, that Republican leaders are supporting and enabling him every step of the way. Regardless of what happens with His Orangeness, we have to recognize that the Republican Party is being taken to extremes by others as well.
Thus, every election from now on provides us with the opportunity to alter this tilt toward heartlessness. We need reasonable people to run for office who, regardless of party affiliation, will represent the interests of all of us and who will oppose those who would appeal only to our fears and prejudices. That applies to all parties: While many current Republicans will have to answer for backing Trump/Ryan/Mitchell, I would hope that voters will be astute enough to listen to any candidate—Democrat, Republican, or Independent—to assess her/his level of opposition to our current directions. From the air we breathe to the helpless we protect, nothing about the current heads of our executive or legislative branches represents the best humanity has to offer. We are capable of so much more, and through our actions—especially in voting—we must take steps to make sure our leaders are too.
Several weeks ago, a referendum was put before the residents of Hinsdale High School Township District 86 (which is composed of Hinsdale South and Central High Schools). The referendum outlined plans to raise property taxes by $76,000,000 in order to upgrade aquatic areas at both schools and to add more classrooms at Hinsdale Central to accommodate its increasing enrollment. The communities of District 86 (Darien, Hinsdale, Willowbrook, Oakbrook, Burr Ridge, and Clarendon Hills) voted down the tax increase by three to one—75.1% against and 24.85% in favor in DuPage County. This will leave the District 86 school board (four of whom were elected as new members on the same ballot with the ill-fated referendum) with significant challenges immediately as this board takes charge.
My knowledge of this excellent school district comes from its astute hiring practices: I taught English in Hinsdale South for twenty-five years, and became familiar with the district’s workings (at least somewhat) in my roles for the Hinsdale High School Teachers Association (HHSTA—the union which represents all District 86 teachers): president, contract negotiator, and grievance chair at different times for much of my career. So I followed with interest this particular referendum since it was the first one attempted in District 86 since the 1960s. There has also been much controversy about the two high schools and how they are perceived in their communities through the years, most recently over the expansion of District 86’s “buffer zone,” an area in the district where some residents can select either high school for their children to attend (almost all currently in the zone have selected Central). That, coupled with a declining enrollment at South while Central’s attendance sky-rocketed, led to the referendum’s being not just about adding on to Central, but instead a forum on the two high schools. Why, many asked, should homeowners vote to increase their property taxes so that Central can add classrooms when there is significant space available right in the district, just a couple of miles away at Hinsdale South? To some, though, the answer was obvious—addition was necessary, so no one currently eligible to attend Central would have to go to South.
I’ve written about this issue several times. You can find the essays (along with links to various news stories which motivated them) on my blog, with this one and this being two which ought to give you the highlights. I’ve never tried to hide my bias in favor of Hinsdale South as an excellent high school and that the opportunities provided by its amazing staff (I can say that now since I’ve retired) compare favorably to every high school in the country, including and (what school board members and administrators need to keep reminding everyone) especially Hinsdale Central.
And now that distinction needs more emphasis than ever: For the past decade or so, as the enrollment has gone up at Central, several additions and upgrades have been made to the facilities there. From library remodeling to new science labs to air conditioning, tens of millions have been spent to improve the physical plant at Central. And yes, most of those upgrades were also made at South as well. But in the last few years, South’s enrollment has declined from over 2000 students at its peak to less than 1600 on its most recent 2016 school report card. With Central still growing (not to mention the expansion of the aforementioned “buffer zone” last year), this meant any new building was only going to take place at Central, unless the board shifted attendance areas for the two schools in order to send more students to South.
The discussion of the transfer/redistricting solution to Central’s overcrowding lasted about two board meetings last year, as parents from the Central attendance areas turned out in droves to protest the possibility. That board (of whom three members are still on the current board) quickly backed away from the idea, pledging not to broach the subject again when determining whether or not to seek a referendum and even apologizing to parents for “stressing” them with speculation about their children being made to attend South. That led to the proposal for a $76 million tax increase, and we know how that turned out.
So now the whole South/Central issue comes into play once more. The overcrowding at Central is not going to go away; facilities are limited, and there is only so much room available (especially in specialized areas like science labs). Increasing class sizes is never an appealing solution (nor should it be), and the growth in Central with South shrinking has already led to the reallocation of the most valuable resource any school district has: its teachers. Many have been transferred from South to Central, which leads to some uncertainty and tension, especially when department chairs have to agree on which teachers should be moved and younger teachers need stability in order to polish their craft. Any involuntary transfer will create some negativity; the goal should be to minimize that kind of disruption of the staff.
But that leads right back to the much more unpopular and difficult disruption of students who were supposed to go to Central being told they have to attend South. And with the referendum’s being soundly defeated, there aren’t many alternatives. Temporary classrooms could be used at Central as a stopgap, depending on how long the enrollment bulge lasts, but that is hardly a palatable solution, especially in one of the more prestigious high schools in the country. Other than that or a population shift to South, the board could try for another referendum or use its excellent credit rating to issue some bonds which could finance Central’s expansion.
That last option is basically how past additions and building modifications have been funded, so it would hardly be surprising should the board take that direction. But as I’ve also previously pointed out, the intent of property tax laws is for residents to have a say in approving funds for building projects, among other things. A referendum is the more letter-of-the-law method to get necessary money for projects, but the key point opponents of the recently defeated District 86 proposal made was that much of this building wasn’t necessary, that needed classroom space was already in place. With that kind of controversy at the heart of this spending proposal, then, a referendum is by far the best method to determine the will of the people. And that just happened, without much doubt as to what community members feel about increasing taxes. So, guess what—we’re right back where we started with one question each before both sides in this issue. For the No Transfer people: How will the district provide adequate facilities for so many students without changing any attendance boundaries or increasing property taxes? For the “Fill South First” advocates: Why is attending South so unpalatable for parents in the Central attendance area?
I no longer work in District 86, and I only lived in district for a few years a long time ago (a rental unit, of course. I could definitely digress on the irony of teachers’ being entrusted with the education of children in whose neighborhoods they can’t afford to live), so I will refrain from analyzing or judging the reasons so many strongly oppose redistricting so that more students wind up at South. I’m sure some of those reasons are based solely on a positive perception of Central, of familiarity and experience. But as someone who worked at South and dealt with many from Central-land, I do believe there is a strong streak of irrational horror at the idea of having to slum it by going to South. No one in any of the towns which feed into Central would ever accept that racism, class-snobbery, or “white trash” stereotyping has anything to do with not wanting to attend South; yet that vibe is impossible to avoid if you listen to some of the rhetoric when South is discussed.
And that’s what will have to be confronted by the new board. Regardless of what happens with the overcrowding at Central, the divided district needs to move toward more unity, toward more respect for each school, and toward a celebration of the equity of opportunity provided for all students in District 86. And there is some positive news to report in that direction. #WeAreHinsdaleSouth is a new organization created by parents of Hinsdale South students (both past and present) which has formed to promote South since “South’s reputation took some unwarranted hits in the past few years, including from a member of the school board,” according to one member of the group. #WeAreHinsdaleSouth has plans to make sure that everyone in the District 86 attendance area is aware of that which makes South such a good school, publicizing accomplishments, opportunities, events, and people which show the school in its best light. You can read more about them here, as well as finding out about attending their next meeting on Monday, May 8.
I certainly wish this group well and hope they finally help South to be better recognized for the stellar school it is. I also hope that #WeAreHinsdaleSouth is in this for the long haul—it will not be an easy task to enhance South’s image on the Central side of town; patience, creativity, and diligence need to be the key strategies since reputations are quick to form but hard to change. And regardless of #WeAreHinsdaleSouth’s efforts, the school board must accept the challenge of fostering a more unified approach to the district. Although wanting to change the South vs. Central dynamic for the better might not have been the key reason voters rejected District 86’s proposed referendum, a potentially beneficial unintended consequence of that vote could lead to a stronger, less divided community. This is definitely not the easiest path, but it is the right direction for the district and something everyone should be rooting for.
On April 4, 2017, voters will be electing local governmental leaders—village officials, school board members, and the like. Additionally, several communities will have to vote on referendums advanced by their school districts seeking additional funding. Two of those involve districts in which I have an interest: Hinsdale Township High School District 86 (where I worked for twenty-five years), which is seeking $76,000,000 for additional classrooms and swimming pool remodeling; and Center Cass School District 66 (which is the elementary district my two daughters attended), which needs over $12,000,000 for various repairs and safety updates. (You can find the official referendums here–just click “Propositions.) Yet, one aspect of funding a school district for which you will not see any new monetary requests is the single most important factor in any school’s success—its teachers.
Just to be clear with my background, I taught English for thirty-three years, retiring in 2012 after working in both a junior and senior high school as well as being active in my school districts’ unions (President, negotiator, and grievance chair). Thus, I have an extreme bias in favor of teachers and the role they play in public education: No matter what kinds of reforms, programs, or experts you can cite; nothing will impact a school more than the quality of its teachers. And despite myths to the contrary, our public schools are not rife with incompetent teachers hiding behind unions or school codes in order to maintain their “cushy” positions. Of course there are some bad teachers out there, but they are a minuscule number of the millions of dedicated public educators. Most teachers work extremely hard to make a difference in the lives of our children.
But it has become more and more standard for school districts to downplay any and all expenses associated with maintaining their staff. I receive several Google news alerts for a variety of public education issues which provide me with over thirty news stories from around the country every day. But in the last five years, I have yet to see an article covering a school district, national leader, school board member, or any organization (other than those quoting teachers’ unions during contract negotiations) who will argue that school funding should be increased in order to attract and retain the best possible teachers. The referendums shown above make absolutely no mention of needing more money for teachers—whether it be to lower class size or to gain a competitive edge when hiring the best teaching candidates—and I can’t remember hearing those in charge of our schools ever advocate for higher teacher salaries.
Instead, it’s become a standard procedure for many administrators and school board members to claim that teachers cost too much, that things like steps on a salary schedule are no longer “sustainable,” or that ”greedy” teachers are bleeding taxpayers dry. I do understand that resources are not infinite—How many times during contract negotiations did I hear that there were “only so many slices of financial pie”!—but that line of reasoning won’t come up when discussing more funds for school expansion or repair, even when the need for more classrooms isn’t always dire, as is the case in Hinsdale 86 where shifting some students from one school to another is a money-saving option which the district has rejected. Yet, the attacks about “easy” work schedules and “Cadillac” insurance programs arose every time I fought to improve the working conditions for teachers I knew were doing an amazing job.
The most galling argument I ever heard was during one negotiations when, frustrated by the district’s claims of poverty and refusal to agree to a reasonable salary increase, I suggested that if money were so tight, perhaps the board should seek more funding for our salaries. The response was that requesting a referendum for salaries would be like “re-financing a mortgage to buy groceries.” Since teachers are mere transitory expenses, the reasoning went, one should never “waste” a difficult process like promoting unpopular tax increases on raises for them. Needless to say, my reply (that having the necessary money to eat was significantly more important than saving a percent or two on a mortgage interest rate, thus rendering their analogy idiotic) didn’t go over well.
The most essential element by a wide margin in improving and/or maintaining the quality of public education is who is in front of the classroom. No matter what study you look at or how many factors are cited as important, all will have quality teaching near the top of the list of crucial characteristics. Everyone knows this, but it seems we refuse to recognize the relationship between good salaries and good teachers, unlike other professions. As all you baseball fans know, the White Sox recently traded one of the best pitchers in baseball, Chris Sale, and a key aspect of his value in the trade was everyone agreeing on how “reasonable” his contract was at only $38,000,000 for the next three years. Yet, when it comes to the people who are responsible for teaching and looking out for our children every day, we become enraged when they earn over $100,000 a year (which would require teaching for 380 years to earn what Mr. Sale—who is a bargain by baseball standards—will earn in three years). And I believe Chris is worth every penny; I just also happen to believe that teachers deserve a good wage too.
So as we vote this Tuesday on the referendums which are being pursued, we should keep in mind the unspoken reality that any additional money a school system receives at least indirectly might strengthen a district’s faculty. Hinsdale 86 is an excellent example of how a failure to use referendums can create a needless money crunch when it comes to maintaining a quality staff. My old district hasn’t passed a referendum since the 1960s, yet has spent tens of millions of dollars on new building: The district has added many classrooms, field houses, and science labs as well as extensive remodeling projects over the years. The money for all this was obtained through issuing bonds and spending surplus property tax revenues. This time, at least, it is going through the appropriate channel of soliciting taxpayer approval before embarking on significant building sprees. Unfortunately, though, the need for additional classrooms is less clear since much room exists in one of the two schools. (You can read more about this issue here, here, and here.) I would vote for this referendum, were I eligible to vote in Hinsdale Township, but it’s hardly a black/white choice. My rationale would be to support the superior teachers there, not the questionable building. The district will have major problems if this referendum fails, but the issues which failure would raise are important and should be addressed sooner or later. Sadly, though, those most likely to feel the pinch for a rejection financially would be the teachers, come the time for a new contract. (You can find an editorial which rejects this referendum as foolish here in the Chicago Tribune.)
In Center Cass 66, I would strongly encourage fellow residents to vote “Yes” on this tax increase (which I will also pay). Elementary teachers unfairly earn significantly less than their secondary counterparts, and the relatively small tax increase for repairs should allow Center Cass to compensate teachers more equitably. Of course, the teachers in the district will have to fight for their fair share, but assuming the referendum is approved, at least they won’t be competing as much with facilities expenses. (It was also a nice touch that over Spring Break, repairs to one of the schools’ roofs ( at Prairieview Elementary), have been on display for anyone driving by on Plainfield Road, right before the voting.)
One day, perhaps, we will see a school board courageous and far-sighted enough to push a referendum because teachers are cherished and valued more highly than the thrill of construction. There should be no question as to what is the most important resource in any school district, but we have a long way to go to acknowledge that teachers matter most and should be compensated accordingly. Approving referendums (even as they are currently constructed) is at least one small, indirect way to show some support for teachers.
For more outlier views on what goes on in the world of public education and ways we can strengthen this institution, check out my e-book, Snowflake Schools.
To “Resist!” that which the Trump administration will attempt to do has become a rallying cry for all who disagree with his agenda (or the agenda of the puppet-masters who control him, depending on your view of Trump’s competence). One of the most controversial of his appointments, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, has been front and center in this spotlight, given her past history of favoring for-profit charter schools and educational vouchers which would allow parents to divert tax money from public to private/parochial schools. So what is the best way to resist someone in charge of the federal approach to public education who will have significant influence in both funding and policy? The two largest teacher unions—the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT)—have adopted different approaches, as explained in this New Republic article, but the NEA tactic is not the one which is in public education’s best interests.
No matter what happens, who’s in charge, what program’s being pushed, or which laws are proposed in Congress; kids will still keep going to schools. Every day, they will show up, expecting to be educated (even if their attitudes occasionally suggest otherwise), and plop themselves down (eventually) into their seats as the bell rings to start the day. And the teacher will do her all to make that educating process happen, 99.9999% of the time. I taught for thirty-three years beginning in 1979, which is when the very first Education Secretary, Shirley M. Hufstedler appointed by President Jimmy Carter, took office. And not once in all that time did I spend any significant time worrying about what the Secretary of Education wanted me to do. It simply did not intrude upon my daily work life. Sure, I was aware of what comments, for example, Arne Duncan (9th Education Secretary) or William Bennett (3rd) might make—Duncan (despite his weak record) always came across as reasonable while Bennett never failed to elicit anger—but never did I ever alter what I believed to be in the best interests of my kids because of what federal educational experts preached from Washington. It makes me laugh that anyone would think good teachers would worry much or (God forbid!) alter their behavior because of what Betsy DeVos says. She simply isn’t relevant to teachers’ worlds.
And that does provide some justification for the NEA’s avowed intent to shun DeVos as not worthy to meet with or talk to, as explained in the above article. NEA president Lily Eskelsen García has stated, “There will be no relationship with Betsy DeVos.” As a past NEA member and union activist, I completely understand that reaction to the problems that DeVos brings to her position. DeVos has been strongly opposed to teacher unions and worked against both teacher rights and interests. But that has been true of many educational leaders at the local, state, and federal level over the years; regardless of who’s in charge, it is the job of elected union representatives to continue communication in order to push for that which is good for their members. And the AFT, in contrast, has agreed to meet with DeVos, and its president, Randi Weingarten, has already had a brief conversation with the Education Secretary.
Don’t get me wrong: Given the chasm which exists between how DeVos views public education compared to almost every public education teacher, it is unlikely that either García or Weingarten will be able to make progress softening or changing her positions on basic educational policy. In the best case scenarios, it’s possible to envision a frosty, agree-to-disagree kind of relationship. But the stakes are significant enough that the unions need to remain engaged. Then too, they’ve got plenty of resources and opportunities to try to modify, fight, and/or protest against Republican measures. There will be many talking points and chances to set the public straight about what DeVos is trying to do. But one aspect of DeVos’s position trumps all these things when it comes to doing what’s best for public education and a key reason the unions need to maintain some sort of contact.
And that’s something which matters to every school in the country: Money. From teacher salaries (always my top priority in my role as teacher union representative) to supplies to facility maintenance, up-grading, and construction to getting quality support staff, to instituting new programs/technologies, every dollar counts. And that’s where teachers’ unions come in. At the local level (where I was active for most of my career), the unions negotiate contracts, file grievances, and generally advocate for the teachers whom the leaders (who are also teachers in that district) represent. The state organizations sometimes provide assistance with local issues that might overwhelm a small union, especially things requiring legal help, but devote most of their time to working with and lobbying state legislatures. And the national unions, like the NEA and AFT, receive members’ dues to help advance educational issues at the federal level. In the end, the most tangible issue affecting teachers’ lives and their ability to do their jobs effectively relates to funding, to money. And the federal government has some.
Granted, the amount of Washington dollars which end up in any one school district varies by a lot. In the district where I worked—Hinsdale High School Township District 86—we got a very small percentage of funding from the federal government—a percent or two of the total budget. You can contrast that with the 12% Chicago Public Schools expects to receive this fiscal year. And that difference might be one reason AFT leaders automatically show a greater willingness to work with DeVos than the NEA: AFT locals tend to be larger, more urban, and more strapped for cash than the more suburbanized, wealthier, smaller locals which make up the bulk of the NEA’s power base. Chicago Public Schools? An AFT local. Naperville Community Unit School District 204, Butler School District 53, or Community High School District 99? All part of the NEA. NEA’s locals are more able to shun federal money should they so decide, whereas large city school systems operate at huge deficits regularly. Losing federal money can mean larger class sizes, school closings, and less qualified teachers. But any loss of funding can negatively impact any school system.
And that doesn’t mean union leaders need to compromise their ideals or goals just to curry favor with DeVos in order to receive a few dollars. The issues which matter to NEA and AFT members have to do with labor laws, governmental unfunded mandates, and collective bargaining regulations. How those complex issues work requires that all sides maintain clear lines of communication—during my time as teacher representative, our local had to work with numerous board members and administrators who did not agree with our positions; some even actively sought our elimination. Yet, we continued to interact, negotiate, and ultimately hammer out agreements which allowed for working relationships to exist and the shared goal of educating kids to continue. Nobody’s expecting García and DeVos to go on joint vacations or to become besties—the teachers just need her to communicate their opinions and represent their interests, regardless of how hostile DeVos is to those views.
Refusing to engage with DeVos might play well with García’s membership and enhance her popularity among the anti-DeVos crowd (which includes most teachers), but it’s hard to see how it helps out the schools where her members work. We have definitely entered a different political environment, and I certainly don’t want to overstate the influence DeVos will wield (I’ve actually written exactly the opposite), but grandstanding instead of doing the job you’ve been elected to do hardly seems an effective strategy. Maybe García has some unstated plan which will make this seeming futile petulance pay off in the long run, but for now, I don’t believe giving DeVos the silent treatment will serve anyone’s best interests—except maybe Devos’s since she will have to interact with one less critic. And this will improve the lot of NEA teachers how…?
For ideas that can improve public education, you might want to read Snowflake Schools, excerpts of which can be found here.
Let’s make this perfectly clear right from the start: I do not think that Betsy DeVos is qualified to be Secretary of Education and I did not support her controversy-laden nomination process which ended in a 50-50 vote in the Senate. For the first time in history, a vice president had to cast the deciding vote; DeVos enters office with the least popularity and most notoriety of any cabinet-level appointment I can remember. And that’s what bothered me more and more as the whole cabinet Senate-approval process has gone on—given the relative importance of the various positions Trump has at his disposal to appoint, DeVos is a very small fish in the sea of incompetence and/or disregard (if not outright desire to harm) that other departments will have to endure, yet those appointments have generated much less furor than DoVos’s.
Don’t misinterpret me here: Of course I believe public education is crucial! I spent thirty-three years teaching, so obviously I’m biased, but it doesn’t get much more significant for the continued success and growth of the country than how much education our kids get. From income to contribution to society to likelihood of voting, the better your education, the better your chances to contribute and to achieve. And when you achieve, you’re also more likely to recognize the need to give back, not to mention having the resources to do so. Public education is one of the greatest assets America possesses, and it is the pipeline that supplies what is truly our crown jewel and the envy of the world—America’s outstanding collection of colleges and universities which have fostered creativity, innovation, and leadership second to none. Yeah, I think education is important.
But Betsy DeVos won’t have much impact on most of the educational world, especially the middle-class enclaves which receive scant monetary support from the federal government whose budget Betsy will now influence. I spent twenty-five years teaching and union agitating in one of the better school districts in the state, Hinsdale Township High School District 86, home to Hinsdale South and Central. Through eight different teacher contract negotiations, I became familiar with the financial condition of the district, and we never got more than a percent or two of our funding annually from Uncle Sam. Of course, every cent matters, but it wouldn’t be a huge hardship for many of the suburban school districts in Chicagoland to blow off the relative chump change they get from the feds should DeVos try to ram through some controversial change. And do you really think Donald will let her go after the ‘burbs with their bastions of conservative, management types as opposed to the wicked cities?
Those city schools will be the ones to get the brunt of DeVos’s attention since those enormous, cash-strapped districts depend much more on federal money. For instance, Chicago schools are budgeted to get over 12% of their funding from Washington this fiscal year. That’s a lot of programs, teachers, and facility upgrades/repairs. These districts, however, have been the most troubled for the longest time due to conditions which often hamper the ability of children to function well in school—less local tax money, higher percentages of low-income families, and eroding facilities. There is much that needs improvement in some areas of our cities, and it’s a pretty safe bet that DeVos will push one of her favorite programs, charter schools. Certainly vouchers will also be encouraged, but her inclination in this direction will be staunchly opposed in the suburbs since most people are happy with their schools. (They’re happy with them because they’re damn good, by the way.) And in the cities, vouchers have much less impact since most families have no other reasonable options save their local public school. The main battle ahead, in my view, is between the federal government trying to leverage its more significant monetary contribution to the large urban districts where the teacher unions are pretty strong. We can anticipate some epic confrontations, but it will be hard for DeVos to dislodge many state laws which provide a basis of power for the unions. Much work needs to be done for our city schools, but I’m doubtful that we’ll see a revolution educationally in Chicago’s public schools; she’ll just try to increase the speed with which cities are moving in the directions fostered under the two previous administrations.
On top of that, educational bureaucracy is largely decentralized and notoriously slow-moving. It will take years for DeVos to get up to speed and even longer for her to mount any effective legislation or initiative. Plus, it’s not like she has a stellar record of achievement shining down on her from the recent past courtesy of either the Bush or Obama administrations. Her poor performance won’t be unusual given how Arne Duncan, Margaret Spelling, and Roderick Paige did preceding her. No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and Common Core all had laudable goals and motivations, but none of those programs has really made a dent in the most stubbornly underachieving districts any more than they impacted to any great degree good, independent, locally supervised schools. Then too, teachers can be (speaking from first-hand experience) extremely stubborn in refusing to do things which they don’t believe are in the best interests of their kids. Okay, maybe that sounds naïve and idealistic, but keep in mind this assessment is coming from someone who spent years fighting with his bosses for better teacher rights and was a noted challenger of authority (aka “a huge pain”)—I’m not exactly a dewy-eyed neophyte on how school systems work. I’ve witnessed what teachers do, and believe me; no math department in the world will veer one problem away from what they have determined to be the best route until you have proved to them the new way will be significantly better. Schools have a rich history of ignoring grand plans from on high, and DeVos doesn’t have much of a track record in accomplishing the radical change she often espouses. For an alternative view (fact?) check out this article I found pretty amusing—there’s absolutely no evidence supplied to support the attention-grabbing title, not to mention this one which has a heartfelt and inspiring back story, but again offers not one iota of support to show how DeVos will wreck schools.
Contrast the limited impact she will have with the potential for harm coming from the rest of Trump’s awful cabinet. Rick Perry was appointed to the Department of Energy without even knowing he would be overseeing our thousands of nuclear weapons. Ben Carson was selected to head Housing and Urban Development as the token black, despite admitting how little he knows about running a huge department. Steve Mnuchin worked for the much maligned Goldman Sachs as well as evicting thousands of homeowners during the 2008 financial meltdown, so we have a pedigreed swamp dweller at the helm of Treasury. Likewise, Rex Tillerson comes to the State Department with years of experience glad-handing various repressive governments (especially Putin’s Russia) to advance the interests of Exxon. Scott Pruitt will head the Environmental Protection Agency with a history of opposing most of its works and filing lawsuits against it. Tom Price is in charge of Health and Human Services despite several conflicts of interests, mainly revolving around his habit of pushing legislation which would benefit pharmaceutical companies in which he had purchased stock. Jeff Sessions is our Attorney General although his past is littered with racist, discriminatory behavior. All these men will be able to change our country in much more significant ways—from the air we breathe to the wars we fight to our economic well-being to the laws we enforce—than Betsy DeVos’s feeble attempts to expand charter schools.
Yet, the outrage over DeVos burned brightly while most of the others were approved with much less rancor. Yes, Elizabeth Warren did crusade against Sessions and Al Franken has been tough with whomever he’s questioned (including DeVos), but the antipathy to DeVos seems much greater and louder. So what is it about this particular appointment that so galvanized the opposition to the point where even a couple of Trump’s lapdogs (aka Republican Senators) voted against her?
The obvious answer is how important everyone sees education as being. More than that, though, everybody has a strong reaction when we believe our kids our threatened. Some of the DeVos firestorm, then, came from our knee-jerk reaction to potential negative outcomes for our kids. As The Simpsons character, Helen Lovejoy, is fond of wailing, “Won’t somebody please think of the children!” Nobody ever wants to be seen as short-changing children or puppies, so it makes sense that once it became clear that DeVos was hardly a wonderful candidate for Education we all sharpened our knives and had at her. That she won’t have nearly the negative influence as Sessions, Pruitt, Tillerson, or any of the other bad cabinet members gets lost in the invective. That she’s a billionaire only makes it easier to pile on when she doesn’t even know the difference between growth and proficiency.
Sadly, however, I believe there’s more going on here than just a bad candidate for an important position. In this case, we have a bad woman candidate. I know there were a couple of other females nominated (although pathetically few), but they had more political cover than DeVos—like newly appointed Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, who also happens to be Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s wife. Yep, America’s blatant sexism, which in my view is one of the key reasons Hillary Clinton is not our President, has reared its ugly but equal opportunity head in going after another woman who has poor public relations skills. Don’t get me wrong—I disagree with almost every education pronouncement DeVos has ever made, but at least she has been interested in the field over the past several years. I know she didn’t go to, send her kids to, or work in any public schools; yet she has been lobbying, proposing, and working on educational issues for years. No, that isn’t the same as direct public education know-how, but it’s more experience than Carson or Perry, more transparency than Price or Tillerson, and less corrupted values than Sessions or Mnuchen bring to their departments. Yes, she doesn’t like unions and has no problem with tax dollars being shifted to parochial schools as part of parents’ being able to choose their child’s school. But she will have a much harder time enacting that agenda than Pruitt will in lowering clean air and water standards for the profits of industrial barons at the cost of everyone’s health—Flint was just a warmup with a guy like this having so much influence. And that’s just fallout from ONE of the other departments peopled with Trump’s much more deplorable choices. Essentially, I believe that DeVos would have gotten significantly less flack if she had been a man, and the men got off way too easily since most belong to the “old boys network.” (As I was writing this, one of the old boys did get rejected as Andrew Puzder—who despises labor unions, opposes any minimum wage, and of course was slated to be Secretary of Labor. So at least when a man has an undocumented servant and was once accused of abusing his ex-wife, even Donald can’t get him through the Republican Senate.)
I’ve written before how we need to prioritize in the coming battle with Trump in charge. Like everybody, I’m just now coming to grips with how bad it is rapidly becoming, not to mention concerned as hell about how much worse it could get. But expending huge amounts of energy and devoting significant dollars against DeVos is to misallocate vital resources that we’re going to need for other more dire crises to come. As I’ve pointed out repeatedly throughout this essay, I am NOT in favor of Betsy DeVos or her plans for American education. I do, however, have much faith in the teachers, students, and their parents who are not going to let their schools be taken over by some unqualified rich person in Washington. State legislatures and local school boards are the keys to most school districts, and coupled with energized teachers unions, I am confident that DeVos’s impact will be minimal. With so many other more important challenges ahead from those who face much weaker opposition, save your time and energy for Mother Nature, Lady Justice, Columbia, three women who are going to need all our help from attacks coming from the Trump administration.
And of course, you should check out the arguments which contradict what I have written here, so here are several I have come across. Hey, I’ve got no problem with people criticizing DeVos’s record and opposing her agenda, and if you disagree with my assessment and want to spend your time and energy making public education better, that will never be a waste of time and will always be beneficial. Just don’t over-exaggerate the damage she will cause. These articles come from the following sources: Gizmodo, NPR, Policy.Mic, Vox, Inside Higher Ed, North Carolina Policy Watch, and The Chicago Tribune.
And if you’d like more ideas on how public education can be improved, please look into my eBook, Snowflake Schools, which has way better ideas than any DeVos has every articulated from someone who went to public schools, studied them in college, worked in them for thirty-three years, and sent his kids there as well. Take that, Betsy!
Grading was an issue I wrestled with for over thirty years in my job as a junior high and high school English teacher. At their root, grades are necessary evils, required to motivate students to do that which they ought, but don’t particularly want, to do. It would be wonderful if we all possessed an innate general curiosity which led us to seek out that which is noble, truthful, and providing the greatest good for the greatest number. But, after a millennium or two of regularly doing exactly the opposite, resorting to selfishness, greed, and sloth in order to satisfy our creature comforts, it’s logical to assume we humans will always have to fight against our baser tendencies. Young people, contrary to the way they often seem to older folks, are no different in their approach than previous generations. The current change they especially grapple with, though, is how fast our ever-evolving technology is being integrated into all aspects of their lives—we’ve all been participating in countless sociological experiments as the electrical revolution showers us with device after device, innovation after innovation, which rapidly alter everything, with an emphasis right now on how we communicate with each other.
As you can tell, we could go off on a lengthy general analysis here, but one communication alteration in particular has significantly impacted those aforementioned grades: Grading programs and on-line postings of student performance for parental consumption have changed the nature of teachers’ evaluating students to the point where the usefulness of the A-B-C-D-F grading scale has been obliterated. Using a percentage rather than a letter under the current system would better represent a student’s performance in school and be a fairer way of reporting that student’s achievement to colleges and/or future employers. Schools need to dump letters and use numbers.
I’ve completely lost the battle against grade programs, and will refrain from reprising all the reasons I believe they have hurt public education. (You could read how more subjective, non-quantifiable student characteristics need to be factored into grades here, or check out a detailed analysis of why grade programs are awful in my eBook, Snowflake Schools.) Suffice it to say that I don’t like how all student evaluations now come in the form of points so that they can be used with a grade program which reduces student performance to a percentage. Maybe I’ll summon the energy to tilt at that particular windmill again some day—because I absolutely believe they don’t serve us well—but for the sake of this essay, I’ll concede their pervasiveness means we must adapt to minimize their negative impacts. So if grade programs and on-line grades are here to stay, in the name of consistency, we should use those percentages on grade reports and transcripts. You’ll also note that the report card is rapidly fading out of existence as well—everything is on-line, which eliminates the need for any kind of “card.” (I’m fine with that change since as a big tree hugger I’m good with anything which reduces paper consumption. And to emphasize I’m not asserting any “alternative facts” [i.e. lies] here as well as refraining from sugar-coating reality from myself, I cannot deny how popular grading programs have become with teachers. But when you combine the ease of computers crunching percentages when fed points with the public posting of each and every assignment result on-line, you really change the nature of the beast, as we will touch upon later.)
To start, those percentages are all the students and parents see up until their conversion to letters at the ends of semesters. And here’s where the harm of using letters rather than numbers arises: Any person with the slightest arithmetic knowledge can tell you there’s a greater difference between an 81% student and one who clocks in at 88%, as compared to that 88% student and your 91% ace. There can’t be much discussion that 7% is a bigger gap than 3%. (I realize with Trump as President, this kind of objective reality could vanish any day now.) However, on the grade reports issued for those three students, two will have a B, with only that 91% landing the first-prize A.
My contention has always been that the vagueness of the five-letter-grade system in the hands of teachers is a good thing: Much of what goes into students’ performance has little to do with how they do on assignments where points are assigned. Again, I’ve sounded this alarm often in the past, but to review the concept: Things like promptness, reliability, effort, quality of classroom participation, courtesy, temperament (mean vs. kind, for example), and source of motivation (the craven nature of some students who have no interest in subject material unless it will be an aspect of their grade is unacceptable and must not be rewarded) should matter when evaluating a student’s progress in class. But none of those things translate well or readily into points/grade programs and thus are mostly left out of the grades our kids receive now. So, grade programs have made a big difference in just how the grades our kids earn are tabulated.
Before on-line grade postings took away the more human kind of evaluations, that 88% student might have deserved to rank lower than the 91% student for deficits in some of the above characteristics. Yep, that would have been the teacher’s judgement based on observations taking place in the classroom over many months. Uh-huh, those would be subjective evaluations which parents would have to trust were being meted out fairly. Nope, that wouldn’t always be the case; personalities can conflict which might lead to different reactions in ways far too subtle to be clearly seen as discrimination or conscious bias. (And, by the way, grade programs can’t do much to end this by-product of human interactions.) But there have been many more cases where teachers used their positions to give students lower grades than they might have earned in points because their performance had been poor in other ways. Being a “good” person isn’t something that is documented specifically with an objective rubric, but we all know how important it is. I’m admitting—not to mention advocating and encouraging—that non-scientific stuff can/does/should influence a student’s grade, and there are cases where a teacher should use subjective criteria to help a student see the need for improvement. I also understand some people would rather have a grade reflect nothing but how a kid scored on tests—which is what grade programs have moved us closer to. But keep in mind that throughout the history of public education, there have been many, many more instances of students benefitting from a teacher’s subjectivity: Bumping up a student’s grade because the teacher had observed the stellar quality of that 81% student’s character, work ethic, and effort—even though the “objective” point total for that kid might have topped out at 77%. So that’s the huge scandal of the pre-grade program/posting era: Teachers tended to shade grades in ways designed to reward positive non-point behavior or to punish those who demonstrated negative traits which were not included in point totals; that definitely happened more than it happens now.
Instead, we have the harsh reality of points, which leaves little room for a teacher’s opinion on the student’s overall performance. The only evaluation calculated is a percentage of points assigned on specific assignments, with a significant proportion being determined based on tests and quizzes. And that’s where the conversion to letter grades really comes up short. A 79% might qualify as a C+ in most people’s eyes, but in many schools, on the permanent records, the + will be eliminated; that almost B-student will wind up with a C on his transcript and grade point average (GPA). So, instead of a 79% to be averaged in with other percentages, this student will have a 2 (on a four-point GPA system) instead of a 3. To illustrate how this can impact that kid’s class rank or college attractiveness, if another of his grades had been 86%, let’s say, the overall average of those two percentages would have been in the solid B range—82.5%. But, using the cruder letter system, that B coupled with the C, would result in a 2.5 GPA, a middle C (which translates to roughly 75%). And it doesn’t take mathematical prowess to recognize all the other misleading, bad results this can lead to: a student who ekes out low B’s in her classes (with an average of 80.5%) is recorded identically to the student with an 88.4% under the letter-to-GPA system—both would have a 3.0 GPA.
So until we de-emphasize grade programs (by at least stopping their on-line posting, which hardens what should be a more nebulous, evolving rating), we should use percentages rather than letter grades on permanent records—transcripts and the like—in order to represent student performance more accurately and fairly. The wide-spread (and also problematic, in my view) practice of weighted grades (giving grades earned in honors classes an extra point on GPAs, an honors B being figured in as an A or 4 instead of 3, for example, on the GPA average), would also have to be adjusted. Probably, honor classes’ percentages could be increased by 10% on final averages. Yes, that would lead to the somewhat absurd outcome of some very academically talented students having a final average above 100%, but that’s already happening regularly with those same students having a GPA of something like 4.35 on a 4-point GPA scale (weighted A’s are worth 5). I could renew my anti-weighted-grade tirade, but I won’t push my luck any further for now.
To sum it all up, using letter grades in the era of grade programs is unfair to students. It wouldn’t be hard or costly to shift to percentages over the A-B-C-D-F system most schools currently have; and it would better represent student achievement, at least until we revise the “only points matter” nature of how schools evaluate student performance and allow for teacher judgement of important subjective traits to resume its place as a key ingredient for determining how students are progressing.
For more detailed analysis of how both grade programs and weighted grades are detrimental to public education, check out my e-book, Snowflake Schools, excerpts of which can be found here.