There can be little question at this point in human history that cleverness is both our greatest gift and the worst thing that ever happened to any species. From life-saving vaccines to nuclear weapons to symphonies to hate crimes to Doctors Without Borders to the Holocaust, we’ve been able to reach astronomic heights at the same time we’ve exposed ourselves as the “most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth” (Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels). What makes us so infuriatingly complicated is that our ingenuity can twist just about any discovery into the opposite of that for which it was intended. Will we ever evolve enough to be able to anticipate the negative applications of the things we want to unleash on ourselves before we suffer the consequences of something we really believed was going to help us out, to make our lives better? Even more difficult yet necessary given our innate curiosity’s leading us ever onward in our new creations, can we figure out how to turn something we’ve dreamed up that’s harmful into something positive? Will we ever learn?
It certainly seems unlikely at this point. Using plants to manufacture drugs which helped alleviate pain was certainly a noble goal, but shouldn’t we have been astute enough to recognize that anything which relieved pain would be abused by those seeking escape life’s realities? Creating an Internet platform which allows friends to share joys and pictures was a great opportunity for people to stay in touch regardless of how far apart they lived, but surely we could have reasoned that volunteering that much information about ourselves to the world would be exploited by those who only wanted to take advantage of that data for their own power and/or enrichment. You could go on with any human creation over the years: Nothing is all good or all bad in the hands of unpredictable, wily, visionary, emotional, psychotic, logical, vengeful, peaceful, angry, loving animals like us.
Smart phones have radically changed our lives in the short time they’ve been available, and we’ve probably only scratched the surface of all the ways they will determine our futures. And shouldn’t it frighten us how that clause—“they will determine our futures”—can be so casually dropped without many of us even noticing? Think about that: It won’t be up to you how your life is altered by some technological invention; to function as part of our society, you will be forced to change yourself to fit the technology, whether you like it or not. I resisted as long as I could being beholden to my cell phone, but I lost that personal war and now readily admit that they are necessities for any person in modern society. But I had functioned quite well, by my own standards at least, for some thirty-five years before the first smart phone (click on “IBM Simon” to read this article) happened in 1992, and was pushing forty before they were widely used in the late nineties (at the earliest), a scant twenty years ago. That’s a quick turnaround for societal change, especially when you’re a middle-aged person before the revolution even starts.
The same happened even more quickly with social media, initially sold to us as a total positive: You get to share with friends and family so easily and immediately that there’s no doubt Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat have all made hundreds of millions happy, at least occasionally. But think what a short time span has elapsed from that idyllic concept (“Too idealistic” is how one of Facebook’s spokespeople has been trying to spin it) to recent lapses, which may have led to a government hostile to the U.S. manipulating our most recent Presidential election just enough to swing the vote to the disaster we now endure. On a less consequential but even more widespread level, studies have been published about how addictive checking out feeds can be, but it turns out we are actually becoming more isolated and less happy. Everybody has at least a couple horrific anecdotes about how harmful some inadvertent posts have been to people they know. The longer we live with this “advancement,” the less we seem to like it. But it’s become a social requirement, with the various age levels tending to inhabit similar, but different platforms (“Facebook has become so old, Dad!”); yet all generations feel pressured to respond in certain ways to specific cues—how much hidden resentment lurks in our responses for some meme when it’s prefaced with something like, “Only my true, real friends will comment and share this…”? From issues of national security to creating unspoken yet deep rifts between friends, the pot of gold at the end of the social media rainbow has contained abundant radioactive material as well.
The future offers wonderful and horrifying things for us too since our cleverness onslaught will continue unabated for…forever—we’re never gonna stop, and we all know it! Looming as both possible great leaps forward and traps we will rue ever dreaming up (Can you say, “atomic power”?) are things like artificial intelligence (AI) and genetic engineering (as it becomes more easily accomplished via CRISPR developments). Both have huge benefits and downsides, depending on how we use them. AI robots will do everything more uniformly, more rationally, more quickly, and more cheaply than humans can, dramatically improving productivity. Yet, as any long-time reader/watcher of science fiction could tell you, we’ve already imagined dystopian futures where machines have become our masters. Unless you’re Neo or John Connors, I would suggest, that scenario won’t work out very well for you. Even if the machines never become sentient and declare war on humankind, remaining our humble servants could prove harmful as well when their increasing efficiency and skill coupled with their decreasing costs lead to massive unemployment and human displacement as we struggle to adapt to a standard we are incapable of meeting due to our biological limitations.
Or is our genetic destiny capable of being altered for the better? The amazing strides we could make in preventing many inherited disabilities or diseases will make it impossible to resist the CRISPR promise to help vulnerable people, but O Brave New World that has turned such technology into a means to create more “stable” humans in order to keep us from harming ourselves. It’s also even easier to imagine how rich people could make use of genetic manipulation to continue and further their advantage over the masses, leading to a worsening class divide, which has already become a huge issue in developed economies throughout the world. (Of course, Sci-Fi’s already been there, too, in Gattaca, as well as the aforementioned Huxley work. And is it fear-mongering to worry about biological experiments going awry and creating some form of superbug which causes a pandemic, killing millions before our cleverness (?) finds some defense?
So, yeah, it’s pretty easy to envision both gloriously sunny utopias and repressive, dark hellscapes in our near futures. The pace of that change is ratcheting up as well, impossible as that sounds, which makes it even more difficult to make carefully reasoned choices on how any new by-product of human cleverness will alter the world. (Solar power into a solar weapon? Nanotechnology injecting millions of tiny machines into our bodies to attack tumors or instill mind control? Opiate-based pain relief mutating into a crisis of drug addiction and overdose deaths? Wait, that one’s already happened.) And you know as well as I do that some hitherto unknown idea or technology or technique or guru will soon present us with something we never would have dreamed of before it was suddenly available, leading to its rapid transformation into something we are unable to imagine living without. (I don’t know about you, but I don’t want anything to do with Siri or Alexa. And I’m afraid to admit I know I’m doomed to be entrapped by some other disembodied voice sooner or later. And, sure, they know why Alexa was randomly emitting an evil laugh; she was amazonized at how easy it was to take over our world, is my theory.) And that pattern will repeat in ever-more-rapid cycles. What’s to become of us?
I guess the good news is that we’ve made it this far. We’re quite adaptable, after all, and it would appear that there is little humans cannot endure, even the things we mislead ourselves into believing are advances which turn out to be drains on our psyches. Maybe one day all those promises and guarantees will hold up; we’ll reach a perfect blend of science and humanity, of spirit and logic, of imagination and fact…And then we’ll develop a resistance to all medications because we ate hormone-treated baloney when we were six, only to become infected with some human-manipulated germ gone horribly wrong which leads to a gruesome painful death unless sufferers consume the brains of a blood relative—Zombie family apocalypse!—or (probably more likely) some idiot President will start a nuclear war to cover his collusion with Russia because his ego was bruised and the pee tapes are about to be released. Sorry for the pessimism, but our history has shown over and over that we can screw up just about any situation, find a solution for that screw up, adapt quickly, and then discover a significant negative outcome from the solution that nobody had ever contemplated or intended initially. We’re just that smart.
But our cleverness implies the capacity to learn, to understand, to climb higher on the rubble of our failures. Ultimately and tragically, every day we greet a new opportunity to choose differently than we did the day before. We’ve incorporated our collective belief in progress into almost every part of our lives: education, careers, families move upward and onward as reassurances to us that we are in control, that we do know what we’re doing, despite all evidence to contrary.
Theologians and philosophers tend to see humanity’s life approaches in one of three ways: Some of us believe humans are innately evil or flawed, despite having been created by a perfect being/entity/god. We accept teachings which have been told to us by alleged human representatives of those perfect beings; those teachings are generally ideals we probably can’t achieve. We accept (often grudgingly) that these judgements of moral behavior might not be the same across the various faiths humans follow, but we are certain our version is the right one; we gamble our eternal after-lives on that presumption since we believe there’s a place where those who have performed appropriately on Earth reside forever after their deaths. But since following those teachings is very hard and maintaining a belief that our souls will live eternally is reassuring, we tend to embrace a goodly amount of daily hypocrisy so we can ignore anything we find difficult or inconvenient in the teachings, especially in wealthy countries like the U.S. This tends to explain why so many of the most outwardly “godly” people tend to be concealing the most significant sinful behavior. Some also prescribe a post-life place of eternal punishment for those who fail to follow or accept those teachings—and we’d like to believe the really bad hypocrites among us will go there too, but not those who were only a little bit disingenuous: You know, people like us.
Then there are those who reject the concept of a supreme being/creator, instead following the teachings of the natural world. Things which can be observed, tested, and replicated repeatedly become the basis of learning more about our physical surroundings and how things work. As our depth of knowledge has grown, we have been able to find ways to manipulate, control, and exploit our world to the point where we now see ourselves as complete masters of this planet. Unfortunately, all that knowledge and manipulation has had adverse effects on many humans as well as trillions of other creatures which share this space with us. The faith this group has, then, is in human scientific skills to save us from the dangers many of our other scientific discoveries (Oil burns!) have wrought upon our world. It’s hard to exaggerate the selfishness, ignorance, callousness, and greed which have led to the current state of our environment; yet, many of this philosophical clan still believe that humans are basically good and will ultimately figure out the right thing to do. If nothing else, they have faith that the scientific method can lead us to ways out of our current challenges into better days. (Bill Gates is one of the chief proponents of this, as only a multi-billionaire can afford to be.) Oddly enough, this non-deist approach is probably more optimistic than most religions.
Needless to say, the members of the third group see themselves as in both camps, at least some parts of each. (Which parts? Why, the good, correct parts, of course. What a silly question!)
I’m not sure what all this says about our species nor do I have any better suggestions for how to proceed other than we should try to understand how our world is changing, even though it’s a hopeless task when things change so rapidly and in such complex ways. We should exert as much rational thought possible on how changes in our world might impact us, both good and bad, despite the impossibility of knowing what those changes could lead to ten years from now. We should show good judgement on how we use our time in ways that grow our souls and improve our thought, even though every other generation besides our own will consider the things we choose as pointless, stupid, and harmful. (We, of course, will react to their choices precisely the same way.) We should recognize a higher calling, even though we’ll never agree on exactly what god, religion, philosophy, or rules for life represent the true way.
Ultimately, then, anyone can make a strong case that the human race is doomed, that the radical changes our cleverness endlessly produces will one day inevitably lead to our destruction. (Most religions foretell this, and even atomic scientists keep a Doomsday Clock, currently set at two minutes to midnight—midnight being when we destroy Earth. That ain’t much time, friends.) Until our last second, however, we can at least accept responsibility in our own lives for being moral in our actions, especially as family members and friends, toward each other. That’s got nothing to do, by the way, with your political, religious, ethnic, or socio-economic group; I think Bowling for Soup sums up what I mean very clearly in their song, “Don’t Be a Dick.” It’s difficult to behave in just, fair, loving ways when we are bombarded with examples of the opposite so often in the news, on the street, or in any comments section online. It’s infuriating how poorly so many of us behave since we should be clever enough to know the difference between that which is reasonable and good as opposed to that which is irrational and abasing. Fortunately, at least, we do regularly witness the human capacity to shift from the petty and spiteful to our better selves when devastating crises occur. From pitching in during hurricanes, to fighting deadly contagious diseases, to saving rabbits from fires, it’s amazing how many laudable acts humans perform. I’d like to hope that we don’t need disasters destroying our neighborhoods before we act decently, and I guardedly assume that maybe our kindness often goes unnoticed in the land of Trump and Circumstance. I have no idea how our cosmic ledger of good deeds versus heinous crimes currently stands; it certainly wouldn’t surprise me if the next mean, thoughtless, stupid, hurtful, or grasping human act would cause a higher power to shrug in disgust before wiping us out in order to try again.
But every day, some of us odious vermin work at food pantries, give blood, and donate our efforts in Pads programs. We clearly can’t control if or when our cleverness will cause our destruction, so we can assume we’re in for quite a few bumpy nights; however, there’s no reason why we can’t individually focus on other human traits like empathy, compassion, and generosity. Cleverness might get most of the attention, but our world does a lot better when we don’t think too much.
“The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.” Flannery O’Connor
At first, the tragedy in Parkland, Florida, seemed like just another in the series of horrific school shootings we’ve come to dread and expect in the U.S. “Hopes and prayers” would be profusely proffered with nothing changing until the next school joins the bloody ranks of this uniquely American epidemic. But then articulate, camera-ready high school students gained access to our national media, and suddenly the possibility of some progress on this shameful legacy became possible.
As a high school/junior high teacher for thirty-three years (1979-2012), I was certainly aware of this issue, teaching for the bulk of my career in a high school similar in many ways to the two frame high schools of this era, Columbine (1999, 13 dead) and Parkland (2018, 17 dead) with Sandy Hook elementary school (2012, 26 dead) notably in between as well as way too many others. I worked with kids very similar to those who attend Stoneman Douglas High School—upper-middle class, mostly white, with the majority going on to college and top 25% socio-economic status for their adult lives. These are our future lawyers, doctors, and business leaders; they are the ones who take charge of our country, but typically not for twenty-plus years into the future, so it is fascinating that the country is paying so much attention to what they have to say right now.
Let me be very clear right up front: I strongly agree with their agenda—tougher gun laws, more comprehensive background checks, raising age limits, and assault-rifle bans (if anything, I don’t believe they go far enough)—but my support comes with a few qualifications as well. Where was all this outrage and activism when other places were being shot up? The fifty-nine dead in Las Vegas happened just months ago; did they take to social media after that too? Who organized the marches to change laws in memoriam of these concert-goers’ and their hundreds of family members and friends? This self-absorption—where we humans seem capable of action only after we have been personally touched by an issue—has always frustrated my sense of right/wrong. That our personal lives have to be impacted before we see an issue’s importance and are willing to support action is hardly a new phenomenon, though. Gay rights progressed rapidly only after so many people had come out that virtually every straight person knew and liked at least one gay person. Until we had Will and Grace, not to mention Ellen, we were quite capable of blithely saying and doing nothing about ludicrously unfair statutes which prohibited many rights to gays. But once we realized that Jack McFarland and Sulu might die because they couldn’t get insurance coverage on their life partners’ policy, we recognized the inherent unfairness and compassionless nature of the bigoted system which had always been in place.
That certainly seems to be the case with these students. As Trevor Noah pointed out during off-camera comments on The Daily Show, they are using the privilege they have been afforded all their lives to question the status quo, at least once they have directly experienced how that quo functions. So we who have long been appalled by the unfettered access our country has allowed to high-tech guns need to be patient with some of the eye-rolling inducing comments these kids make in their insistent demands that things change immediately now that they have an awareness of those things’ flaws. (The most cringe-worthy moment I’ve seen so far was when a student being interviewed on CNN along with Dan Rather complained that on the day after the shooting, he had been rejected by one of his “safety schools,” Cal State Long Beach, even though he plans to go to Harvard or Northwestern (at about the seven minute mark of the interview). I’m very familiar with that kind of student, having taught them for many years. These Parkland students are extremely intelligent, articulate, and exceptional but they are not as unusual as they have been portrayed by the media—any high school teacher from similar districts throughout the country would recognize the earnest, idealistic, privileged, media-ready attitudes exhibited by these teens.
I guess the main thing I want to point out here is that there have been many individuals over the years who have been trying to accomplish the goals these kids are lobbying for and who offer an expertise and knowledge which would significantly supplement the raw emotion and idealism of those who have taken up the issue only after—and primarily because—they have been personally affected by gun violence. Of course it’s imperative that those victimized by a problem participate in the formulation of a societal consensus on what the solutions should look like; it just seems unfortunate our attention and willingness to listen requires the emotional outpourings which follow tragedies. It’s the same psychology which leads to horrific car wreck remains being displayed on the grounds of many high schools right before senior prom to deter drunk driving or the vicarious yet safe fear and dread spike which forces most to slow down to see as much carnage as possible after highway accidents. I understand that impulse and recognize it will always be this way, but I wish we didn’t need such negative energy to be motivated to do what seems logical, humane, and obvious.
None of which blunts in the slightest the importance of our seizing upon this moment as an opportunity to make some progress on attacking the killing machines which so many Americans have determined to be their god-granted right, regardless of the potential harm they can so easily cause when in the hands of the wrong people. For too long, we anti-gun folks have remained an impotent minority as our country has gotten more and more extreme about firearms. Every once in a while (like right now or after Sandy Hook), an emotional wave spurs a few more to action and there are many anti-gun organizations headed up by bereaved parents or recovering victims, but the perpetual fervor and rabid attacks from the other side always manage to interfere with and ultimately defeat any actions that might change the dangerous lack of controls we have over who can get a gun, how many guns it’s acceptable to own, and/or the types of guns/accessories readily available all over the country. Even liberal, reasonable people seem to have given up the fight, weakly pursuing only the most minor reforms in our lax gun laws. But with the media megaphone provided by Parkland, anti-gun advocates might be heard more loudly and forcefully when they speak. And I hope their goals are to limit the purchase of and to get rid of as many guns as possible, especially those in the hands of private citizens.
Yeah, I’ve heard and read all the reasons why this is a horrible violation of personal rights, not to mention the Constitution, but all those reasons are at worst completely invalid and at best hardly absolute when people look at the facts. Let’s run through a few of the pro-gun arguments and see how well they stand up to logical analysis.
The right to bear arms is protected by the Constitution. The second amendment was created during a time when the U.S. armed forces were a rag-tag collection of volunteers, and hostile Native Americans were prevalent on our continent. We now have the best-armed, best-trained military in the world, and its ability to protect its citizens is without peer…anywhere. The U.S. is bordered by friendly countries, and almost all of the threats to our sovereignty are overseas in places where our enemies spend more time fighting each other than trying to invade our shores. No foreign country poses a military threat to the continental United States, and if one did, our armed forces could destroy it in a matter of days. Ordinary citizens do not need guns to protect themselves from invading enemies, so the Constitutional need of 1789 no longer exists. And let’s not even broach the topic of the infallibility of our founding fathers since that 1789 document also allowed for slavery. Times change, and the Constitution needs some updating when it comes to guns even if you accept that the second amendment is intended as some sacred rite, rather than the need of another time when foes were closer and our federal armed forces were weak. And we’ll also skip getting into all the other amendments—to say nothing of the Constitution’s basic tenets of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—which a heavily armed citizenry threatens as well. The Constitutional argument for loose gun restrictions doesn’t hold up well at all.
We need guns to protect ourselves should non-democratic forces take over our government. The NSA spying Edward Snowden revealed should give everyone pause about the increasing power of our federal government. But does anyone seriously think that with drones, tanks, access to all our personal records, 1.3 million soldiers, and a military budget that dwarfs the next seven largest countries in the world combined; buying six shotguns would keep you safe should the government suddenly turn fascist? It’s idiotic to believe that arming your ten-year-old with a .22 rifle would prevent our government from doing what it wants should it ever go rogue. And that’s accepting that the kinds of coups which occur in places like Thailand and Egypt are even possible here. Our system might lead to flawed leaders (Can you say Dick Cheney and Donald Trump?), but our tradition of peaceful dissent and the electoral process make militia paranoia absurd. We don’t need guns to protect ourselves from our government, and even if we did, our government has way too much firepower for any community organization (and certainly any individual) no matter how well armed, to overcome.
If we ban guns, the bad guys would just use other weapons. This one’s probably my favorite of the poor reasons gun advocates trot out. Yes, we have had dozens and dozens of mass murders committed with knives and ball-peen hammers. It’s just idiotic; killing people with a gun is light-years easier than anything else commonly available. Perhaps one day evil criminal geniuses will come up with death rays or killer robots, but the only places you will find ANY examples of death on a large-scale that don’t involve guns are in the pages of science-fiction novels. Oooo, look out—here comes that bad man with his clothes line! He’s on a strangling rampage, and we’re helpless in the face of such deadly force! C’mon; it’s just one of those debating points that has not a shred of evidence to support it, and we should just laugh when some gun-advocate tries to use that line of “reasoning.”
We need guns to protect ourselves from the bad guys. This is probably the most effective argument (unlike the previous reason) that gun advocates use. There have been cases where armed citizens have fought off or even killed evil ones who tried to rob or hurt them. But there have also been cases where the armed citizen killed or injured innocent bystanders. My preference is that guns only be in the hands of professionals—cops, soldiers, and criminals. Yeah, you read that right: The bulk of law-breakers do not want to hurt anyone, but just want money or drugs (or money to get drugs), and armed law-abiding citizens simply complicate what should be a simple robbery by brandishing a hand-gun, leading to somebody’s getting shot. Certainly, sometimes the recipient of the bullet in these shootouts is a bad guy, but just as often a good guy with a gun is racked up. You can go on-line to try to research how often guns have been successfully used to foil crimes (as I have), but both sides of the issue use various studies and statistics to prove completely opposite conclusions. I don’t doubt that if we abolish guns there will be tragic events where unarmed people are hurt by evil idiots with guns. But the evidence suggests that the numbers of innocents killed by guns will go down significantly once we get rid of the plague of guns currently awash in the U.S.
And we mustn’t forget that the bulk of gun-related deaths (roughly two-thirds) come in the form of self-harm: Suicides are simply too easy with readily available guns and a federal government which is now trying to cut or eliminate funds for helping mentally ill people. The majority of those prone to violence due to mental illnesses direct that violence on themselves. Again, yes, some of these poor people would find other ways to act out their pain with other tools, but guns are significantly faster and more lethal than anything else.
You can’t go by other countries since they aren’t like us. Of course they aren’t like us! But they aren’t like each other, either, and the one common factor in England, Canada, and Australia (three countries more like us than many in that they all share a language and heritage [or a heritage imported to the country from England]) is that they have significantly fewer gun deaths every year than we do. Australia is especially interesting in that they only changed their gun laws after a horrific 1996 mass shooting in Tasmania. A conservative president John Howard (who was an ardent backer of George W. Bush and thus obviously no bleeding heart) pushed through a significant reduction in guns by banning all automatic and semi-automatic weapons, coupled with a government buyback. And Australia hasn’t had any mass gun killings since, not to mention that their gun-related suicide rate has plummeted without any increase in other types of suicides at all. The firearm-related death rates for these four countries look like this per 100,000 population: England: 0.25; Australia: 1.06; Canada: 2.38; and the United States: 9.42. (See this for a list of all countries where you will see that only less developed countries in South/Central America and Africa have rates higher than the U.S. Of the “modern, developed” (rich) countries, the U.S. is definitely the gun-death capitol of the world.)
So it’s great that these young people are joining those of us who have been against guns for a long time. That they now agree with long-time opposers is heartening, and that they are drawing significant attention to this issue is wonderful. Like the veterans, they should understand the important implications of their support, because they can have no illusions that this will be an easy task. But as we’ll see below, there are some positive signs we could see progress this time.
First, understand the National Rifle Association (NRA) and its five million members wield significant sway with many politicians right now, both in terms of financial backing and the ability to deliver votes. On the money front, there are a couple of ways to fight back: In the short term, find candidates and politically active groups to support and donate money to them. It does seem that the U.S. government is for sale, and politicians have to have large sums of money to wage campaigns and conduct public relations which will keep their constituencies happy. So we anti-gun people will have to buy our own representation exactly the same way the NRA has. Given the poll numbers which suggest the majority of Americans are ready for reform, it should be possible to compete with the millions gun groups (especially the NRA) donate to Senate and Congressional races. We could even take some solace in that our bought politicians are at least being paid to save lives.
Hand in hand with that, you can use purchasing power to insist that your dollars don’t go toward the support of the gun industry or its mouth-piece, the NRA. This is an extremely effective way to exert pressure on others who donate large sums to influence politicians. And guess what? Two airlines, six car rental companies, and at least one bank have all eliminated special discount programs open to those with NRA membership. Now Wal-Mart has raised gun purchase age from 18 to 21, and Dick’s Sporting Goods has discontinued sale of assault rifles (expanding a partial ban which came after Sandy Hook). And in perhaps the most interesting development, retailer REI has decided not to reorder from some of its suppliers because their parent company manufactures assault rifles. REI does not sell guns and it bought mostly clothing from these subsidiary manufacturers, but its executives have determined that contributing to the overall revenue of a corporation which sells these kinds of weapons is no longer acceptable business practice. It’s understandable not to trust the words of politicians, especially those of Donald Trump, but once gun manufacturers and the NRA start to feel financial pain, who knows where this could lead?
But the long-term, more important battle is to get Citizens United overturned. (Citizens United is a Supreme Court ruling which more or less allowed unlimited money through super-PACs and the like to corrupt the political process to the point where single-issue groups or wealthy individuals have disproportionate influence in our government.) If you saw NRA leader, Wayne LaPierre, at this year’s conservative summit, CPAC, you heard his unbridled disdain for our law enforcement officials, schools, and mass media, all areas which have little to do with a group supposedly interested in gun safety and hunting. But NRA campaign donations totaling millions to politicians like Senators Mark Rubio and John McCain, as well as Speaker Paul Ryan, have allowed LaPierre and his followers to dictate policy on any issues they feel impact gun sales; thus the NRA’s main solution for making our schools safer revolves around an insane plan to arm teachers, but only the ones who are as good at shooting as Jose Abreu is at hitting home runs. Trump has been all over the place on his proposals following the Parkland shootings, but the Republican leadership has been rock solid in its opposition to doing anything, except proposals like the latter, which the NRA likes because it would lead to more gun sales. Of course we need better gun laws in the U.S., but cutting lobbyists off at the wallet would help us to get better laws for just about everything.
I’ve already seen Facebook memes suggesting that it’s hypocritical for voters to single out politicians who accept NRA donations as bad when the drug, insurance, and other industries also use cash to influence governmental policies to the detriment of us regular folks. So, if we more tightly restrict and limit ALL cash contributions, that won’t be a problem. Nobody’s pet cause should be adjudicated legislatively based on how much money its patrons can pony up. There’s simply too much money in our political system. Maybe those Parkland teenagers should be advocating another of my causes: Political elections which are severely restricted in both time and money spent. In England, for example, a typical general election lasts four weeks, and candidates are prohibited from buying broadcasting time. Contrast that with the billions of dollars wasted on TV ads in the U.S. or the Presidential campaigns which begin at least two years before the actual election—one year into our current administration and potential candidates are already gearing up for their shot in 2020. And no, that’s not just Democrats as John Kasich and Jeff Fluke are clearly making plans to challenge for the Republican nomination.
But, ultimately, voting is crucial to making any of the Parkland teens’ wishes come true. Already, the Florida legislature has backed away from any reforms, and you can be sure Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell will be loathe to allow any debate, much less bring any legislation to the floor of either the House or the Senate. Trump has been erratic, but just as during recent immigration discussions on DACA, he doesn’t follow through on any of his controversial proposals unless his Republican cronies and special interest groups agree with him. The only way we will change the gun culture of our society is to make our voices heard on Election Day. So after all the protests and marches and town halls, those of us who want fewer guns in our society need to be sure to show that desire with our votes. For me, it’s pretty simple—if a candidate is willing to accept donations from the NRA or has a high rating from the NRA, he/she will not get my vote. And I don’t really see how any pro-gun people can criticize this approach—it’s the way they have come to control this issue despite overwhelming public sentiment in opposition.
If you’d like to make it even simpler, voting for Democrats or Independents is the easiest way to get gun laws changed. Looking at the 2017 NRA ratings of Senators or the campaign contributions the NRA has made over the years (the top Democrat received $50,000 total for his career, compared with over eight Republicans who have been given over $1,000,000), it becomes crystal clear for whom we should vote if we want representatives who are not beholden to the NRA. The key this year will be the suburbs of urban areas in places like Illinois, California, Texas, and New York which have traditionally supported Republican, “pro-business/anti-tax” candidates, who have fallen in line with the NRA over the years. Congressional districts in rural Alabama or Montana are unlikely to support any changes to current gun laws, but these suburban areas—exactly the communities which have suffered the most school shootings—can make the difference in who controls the legislative branch of our government. Coupled with a different President in 2020, reasonable changes in gun federal gun laws could be in place within three years. No, that won’t be the weeks or months which the Parkland teenagers have demanded, but it would be a huge improvement. It will take even more radical changes in our laws and gun culture to rid ourselves of this mass shooting epidemic completely than seem possible right now even with this optimistic schedule, but modest adjustments could go a long way to reducing their numbers.
It is depressing to contemplate that we are so divided we can’t come together on sensible procedures to prevent unstable people from easily obtaining guns, to agree that assault rifles don’t belong in homes, to ban over-sized magazines (which allow guns to fire significantly more bullets before reloading is necessary), to get rid of bump stocks (which alter guns to fire more rapidly), or to increase the age requirements for rifle purchase from 18 to 21 without significant Congressional and Senate turnover. Let’s hope that the Parkland teenagers—and the rest of us who support their cause’s goals—recognize that no matter how logical anti-gun reasoning is or how brutally tragic future massacres are, given current political realities, nothing will change on the federal level until we have voted many of today’s leaders out of office. And the potential for regression on a wide variety of issues will constantly be at risk as long as the Citizens United ruling is the law of the land. We can make a difference and lower the risk our children take every time they get on the bus to head to school, but it will take a lot more than well-spoken distraught teenagers or a couple of marches. We need to work together to make progress on this deadly scourge in our schools; the first step is to understand the importance of getting the money out of our political process and insisting that our elected representatives do what’s in our best interests, rather than what’s profitable for their biggest donors.
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.