Stop The Insanity!

The insanity continues. School shootings continue to threaten our students, and we know ways to reduce the danger. Arming teachers must not be one of them.

According to an Education Week analysis, there have been 14 school shootings this year that resulted in injuries or deaths, with 196 such shootings since 2018. There were 38 school shootings with injuries or deaths in 2023, 51 in 2022, 35 in 2021, 10 in 2020, and 24 each in 2019 and 2018. (edweek.org) Firearms are now the number one cause of death for children in the United States. (forbes.com) “The child firearm mortality rate has doubled in the U.S. from a recent low of 1.8 deaths per 100,000 in 2013 to 3.7 in 2021.” (kff.org) No other similarly large and wealthy nation has firearm mortality in its top four causes. [Ibid.] Guns surpassed car accidents as the leading cause four years ago. (cnn.com)

Everytown Research & Policy proposes a two-part plan that they say will foster safe and nurturing schools, address violence at its earliest stages, and block easy access to firearms by those who would do harm. First, they want to prevent shooters from getting access to guns by enacting sensible laws, including secure firearm storage laws and practices; enacting “Extreme Risk laws, so that law enforcement and family members can act on warning signs of violence and temporarily prevent access to firearms; raising the age to purchase semi-automatic firearms to 21; and requiring background checks on all gun sales so that minors and people with dangerous histories can’t evade gun laws.” They also propose solutions that “empower educators and law enforcement to intervene to address warning signs of violence, to provide the support that students in crisis need, and to keep shooters out of schools.” They propose “fostering safe and trusting school environments that can prevent violent incidents, creating evidence-based crisis intervention programs in schools to identify and support students who may be in crisis, implementing evidence-based security upgrades to prevent shooters’ access to schools and classrooms, and initiating trauma-informed emergency planning protocols so that staff can secure schools and law enforcement can respond quickly.”  (everytownresearch.org) Theoretically, we have the capacity to do all that. Do we have the spine?

Apparently not. Tennessee Governor Bill Lee just signed into law legislation that allows public school faculty or staff to be armed. This bill does have constraints built in, but it looks to faculty and staff to solve a problem it has failed to address. Tennessee Lookout, a non-profit news organization known for its commentary, writes, “The Tennessee ‘arm the teachers’ legislation superficially allowing public school faculty and staff to carry guns has the potential for tragic disasters and is awash with so many hurdles, caveats, and restrictions that few if any Tennessee school districts are likely to use it. When distilled to its essence, this newborn law is a legislative con job by those who want to appear to have done something to prevent school firearm violence while at the same time doing nothing. Back in Roman times, at least Nero fiddled.” (tennesseelookout.com)

Although the legislation offers guardrails and requirements, only those who approve participants will know who’s armed. Parents won’t know if their school has opted into the program or if their child’s teacher is armed. (washpost.com)

I am vehemently opposed to arming teachers. Armed and trained personnel like the police in Uvalde failed to save lives, and they have far more training in firearms than teachers ever will. Is it realistic to expect a teacher, even one trained in firearms use, to be able to get to a properly locked-up gun and use it to save lives? Might that teacher be seen as the shooter by first responders? What will stop disgruntled students from overpowering teachers and taking the guns? What is the impact on the classroom environment and student/teacher relationships? Couldn’t the resources devoted to implementing these laws be better spent on mental health responses?

There’s a reason that major stakeholder groups object to these laws. The American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, The National Association of School Resource Officers, the President and Executive Director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which represents 75 police forces from large cities in the USA and Canada, all oppose arming teachers. (everytownresearch.org 2)

Even before the pandemic, schools and their staff were asked to take on far more than traditional education, and the demands of student mental health issues have escalated. Placing the responsibility on teachers to solve school shootings is not only unethical; it’s also ineffective and dangerous.

We need legislators to overcome their debts to the gun lobby and do the right thing. Let’s use laws to protect our students in ways that matter. Let’s work on real gun control and keeping guns out of the classroom. Let’s have the courage to enact laws that will make everyone safer. Let’s let teachers teach.

The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy Works Both Ways

Note: This is an op-ed with no cited research!

We recently saw a spectacular production of Purpose, an epic family drama by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, at Steppenwolf theater in Chicago. The parents in this family both project their expectations onto their two sons and label them unfairly, leading both sons to live up to those labels.

The play was a provocative exploration of family relationships that led to an hour-long discussion on the way home. To my surprise, that dialogue brought me to my frustration with the high school where I taught in Connecticut. That school offered five sections of freshman English, and they were labeled Honors, High Average, Average, Low Average, and X. Impotent as a brand-new teacher there, already planning a move to Illinois, I was powerless to convince the administration that such labels are harmful. Being called “average” may not encourage students to reach for greater success, but its impact pales in comparison to the damage done by a label like “low average,” not to mention “X.” I taught five sections that included two “average,” two “low average,” and one “X.” It must not come as a surprise that my classes lived up to [down to?] their labels, that my low average class made limited effort, and that my X class behaved terribly and did little work. I like to think that I made some progress in dispelling those labels, and I did eke some achievement out of all my students. But this experience offered the most blatant example of how important the way we label and describe people can be.

When I landed at Glenbard West, we had three levels of English for the first three years: Honors, Regular, and Basic. While those labels seem less hurtful, getting my “Basic” students to see themselves as achievers remained an uphill battle. I loved the smaller class size and less rigid curriculum that I could tailor to each class, but too many of my students accepted the premise that they were remedial students and could not expect to be successful.

I struggled to change their minds. I addressed these students formally, Ms. Smith and Mr. Jones, to show my respect. I seized on their best moments for genuine praise, like when one of my girls prompted a great discussion about why Curley’s wife doesn’t have a name like all the male characters. Together they were able to guess that Steinbeck wanted readers to see her merely as Curley’s property. When another student, responding to events in another book, said aloud, “When you choose not to choose, you have chosen,” I turned it into a poster for the class to see daily. And when one of those classes complained about being bored, I responded [as I always did] that “boredom is in the eye of the beholder.” They remained unconvinced, so I urged them to write about it. They produced this collaborative poem:

Boredom,

                  you walk around with nothing to do

you are the dull grey of an old movie

                  without the crispness of black

or the freshness of white

you stalk schoolrooms,

invading English and Biology classes –

even social studies and driver’s ed

are not immune to your attack.

You are invisible and sneak up on us,

                  Shutting down our brains

while our yawns gape, making teachers angry.

By English II-B

February, 1991

I was so pleased with their sensory details, impassioned emotions, and thoughtful word choice that I convinced them to submit their poem to the jury process for Page to Stage, our annual performance of student writing.  When it was chosen, they insisted they would not read it aloud on stage, that I should ask theater and speech students to read it for them. Knowing a bit about reverse psychology, I assured them I would do that if they weren’t up to the task. After some rehearsal during class time, they chose to participate, and watching them stand taller and taller during their choral recitation to an enthused audience is one of my favorite teaching memories. In my early years at West, I saw some of my “Basic” students go on to college, including one who went to a four-year school, something none of them would have predicted.

During the years of folded computer printer paper, when you’d just tear between pages as needed, I printed a multi-page version of a favorite quote that decorated my classroom wall: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, else what’s a heaven for?” My belief that my students could achieve seemed to help them do just that. But when we label learners, we give them the wrong message. When we call students “Basic” or – heaven forbid! – “X,” we tell them we don’t think they can succeed. Too often they will live up to those negative expectations. We know better. We should do better by our students. We should avoid labels where we can and choose encouraging labels when we must use them. All of us fall prey to self-fulfilling prophecies, and we must stop setting students up for low expectations and failure. They deserve better.

Preparing Learners for the Future

Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce produced a report, America’s Divided Recovery, proving that “Over 95 percent of jobs created during the recovery have gone to workers with at least some college education, while those with a high school diploma or less are being left behind” (https://cew.georgetown.edu). They warn that the recent job recovery focuses on high-skilled professional and managerial jobs, while the low-skill blue-collar jobs lost have not rebounded. Clearly education has a significant impact on lifetime earnings, and, according to a new report by the Lumina Foundation and Gallup, “the benefits of higher education go far beyond employment and earnings; a postsecondary degree can improve outcomes in everything from personal health and character to civic engagement and relationships” (insidehighered.com). How, then, do we re-engage students in their education and offer them a better life because of it? Student-centered classrooms are a potent start, but considering the options for our students after schooling has never been more important. Not all students can or should go to college. The job market has changed, and schools need to prepare students for the new realities they will face.

Ryan Craig, author of Apprentice Nation, points out that we’re last among developed countries for apprenticeships, with only half a million, which equates to only 0.3% of the workforce. He argues that apprenticeships, because they are real, paid jobs and allow students to check the fit of a potential career, are the best pathway, especially for underprivileged and first-generation students who tend to be bogged down with student debt (the74million.org). In the United Kingdom, apprenticeship providers go to big companies to set up and run apprentice programs where high school students work for a reduced apprentice wage and get experience (Ibid.).

Opportunities are few and far between in this country, but California has established “Apprenticeship Innovation Funding” that offers employers $3500 for every apprentice they hire and train (dir.ca.gov). The state of Indiana is transforming public high schools “by making career skills a major focus through more internships, apprenticeships and a drive to earn career credentials before graduating” (the74million.org2). Indiana will offer $5,000 Career Grant Scholarship Accounts for grades 10-12 to pursue career training.  State Rep. Chuck Goodrich, a sponsor of the bill that created the scholarships, said, “We want our students to graduate with not only a diploma, but also a credential, currency they can take with them” (the74million.org3). In Indianapolis, Victory College Prep High School “has placed every 11th and 12th grader in internships with companies or nonprofits for 10 school days a year the last five years, other than some pandemic adjustments” (the74million.org2). Staff acknowledge the need for more worksites to participate, and they are building the program.

Colorado Governor Jared Polis argues that, “A fragmented approach—where high schools, postsecondary institutions, and employers all work in their own silos— shortchanges everyone” (the74million.org4). Colorado has been a leader in preparing learners for the world of work: “roughly 53% of high school graduates in Colorado earn college credit or industry credentials through dual and concurrent enrollment while in high school, saving them an estimated $53 million annually on tuition costs. A growing number also participate in apprenticeship and “learn while you earn” models” (Ibid.). Although the state already has intermediaries pairing businesses and youth as well as Pathways in Technology Early College High School models, it has created a task force “to develop and recommend policies, laws, and rules to support the equitable and sustainable expansion and alignment of programs that integrate secondary, postsecondary, and work-based learning opportunities” (Ibid.).

Some individual schools around the country are beefing up their Career and Technical Education programs. John Handley High School in Winchester, Virginia, offers programs in Business, Information Technology, Health and Medical Sciences, Marketing, Technology Education, and Trade and Industrial Education (www.wps.k12.va.us). Elgin, Illinois, just received a YouthBuild grant for 16-24-year-old students who didn’t graduate high school; it provides mentoring and on-the-job training (haeelgin.org). In Georgia, the German-inspired Georgia Consortium for Advanced Technical Training (GA CATT) starts students in Coweta County south of Atlanta as apprentices sophomore year, likely the youngest members of any apprentice program in the U.S. For example, Walker Reese finished his three-year apprenticeship as a maintenance technician as he finished high school last spring and walked into a full-time job at Blickle Wheels and Casters in the city of Newnan. (the74million.org5). Such programs are common in Germany.

I am a big believer in a liberal arts education that empowers learners to think and to problem solve, but such an education on its own may not be enough for many students. The American “college for all” mentality does not serve all students well, as many fail to graduate or end up underemployed and in debt. It also does not serve the country well, as it fails to feed the pipeline for skilled workers in specific fields. We should learn from other developed countries and build apprenticeship programs and meaningful career and technical education. Then we will be serving both our students and our national interest.

A Blueprint for Meaningful Educational Reform

Words are inadequate to describe my excitement when I discovered XQ Institute, an organization “dedicated to rethinking high school” (xqsuperschool.org)! I’ve been poring through their material, and they promote everything I believe about how to redesign schools.

XQ Institute was co-founded by board chair Laurene Powell Jobs, founder and president of Emerson Collective, and Russlynn Ali, XQ’s CEO and former U.S. assistant secretary of education for civil rights. XQ’s board of directors also includes Geoffrey Canada, Marc Eckō, Jimmy Iovine, Michael Klein, and Yo-Yo Ma.

XQ Institute maintains that a school that bases its rethinking on this set of design principles “fully realizes its potential to achieve a bold, holistic, student-centered school design”:

  • Strong mission and culture
  • Meaningful, engaged learning
  • Caring, trusting relationships
  • Youth voice and choice
  • Community partnerships
  • Smart use of time, space, and tech (xqsuperschool.org)

These principles encourage shared values to drive change, interdisciplinary and engaged learning strategies, effective personal connections, student-centered learning with some level of autonomy, and the expansion of non-traditional approaches and flexible use of technology tools. What’s not to like?!!

I believe this framework effectively incorporates best practices that could transform schools and leads naturally to the XQ Learner Outcomes:

  • Masters of all fundamental literacies
  • Holders of foundational knowledge
  • Original thinkers for an uncertain world
  • Generous collaborators for tough problems
  • Learners for life (xqsuperschool.org2)

XQ Institute offers this ultimate goal: “students who are deeply engaged in their own learning and fully prepared for all that the future has to o­ffer” (xqsuperschool.org3). Doesn’t this description fit the needs of students, schools, and the country?

This set of outcomes reminds me of the Glenbard Essential Qualities I’ve written about previously. In the 1990s, they were knowledgeable person, critical thinker, effective communicator, quality producer, collaborative worker, responsible individual, and socially responsible citizen. They’ve evolved in important ways, and now include the following:

  • Practices responsible decision-making and considers impact on others
  • Creates, monitors and reflects upon ambitious and realistic goals 
  • Builds and sustains strong, healthy relationships 
  • Advocates for self and others in a socially responsible, empathetic manner
  • Employs a growth mindset that includes self-regulation, motivation, and resiliency
  • Communicates
  • Thinks Critically
  • Embraces Diversity
  • Creates
  • Collaborates (glenbard87.org)

The shift to verbs instead of nouns makes the qualities more proactive, and the new list seems even more aligned with my values as an educator and with the XQ Framework I admire.

The XQ Institute provides specific tools and materials to help schools undertake a serious self-evaluation and work toward change. Just imagine how a school might evolve to serve its students and community better if it shapes its curriculum and pedagogical design around these principles!

Change is hard, and school systems suffer from inertia. Visionary leadership from a thoughtful organization, accompanied by materials to lead schools through self-exploration, offers a real opportunity to transform schools to meet the needs of today’s students and the world. I would love to see school systems embrace the XQ Institute Approach. Our students, our schools, and our country badly need – and deserve – these changes.

Learning from the Best Teachers

For me personally, one of the greatest joys of having been a teacher for many years is the continuing relationships I have with former students. Discovering how they are making their way in the world and getting to know them as adults and peers is a gift. It also pleases me enormously that so many of my former students have chosen to teach. Some have left the classroom, but others are still phenomenally engaged.

Even as I struggle with the current teacher shortage and an inadequate teacher pipeline, I find hope in the passion and commitment of some teachers currently in the classroom. I recently got to talk to one of those teachers, my student almost twenty-five years ago, and his remarks inspired confidence in me once again. So I’d like to share some of them here.

Marc Nelson teaches art to 4th through 8th graders in Kewanee, Illinois, a district where 80% of students receive free lunch. His lovely wife, Jill Bartelt, teaches reading and math there. I remember his phenomenal artwork and his passion for literature in high school, including his I-Search paper on Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Like me, Marc was inspired to become a teacher when a fourth-grade teacher invited him to teach his sister’s first grade class about his passion for Knights. Just as I fell in love with teaching as a sixth-grader when I read to my first-grade teacher’s children, Marc, too, was captivated by teaching. He initially thought he would teach history at the college level, but his love for literature and an amazing Shakespeare professor at Augustana inspired him to unite his passions through his art.

Because I follow Marc on Facebook, I have seen first-hand the way he incorporates other fields in his classroom. His kids don’t get to museums and art galleries, and they live in a more rural environment, but Marc introduces them to art and artists they would otherwise never meet. He involves them in projects that extend well beyond the classroom.

I asked what has been most satisfying about teaching for him. Marc spoke of a great administration and the amount of freedom and support they offer him. Every year he gets to try new projects and align classroom work with content area teachers. For example, when social studies classes are exploring the Great Depression, that becomes the focus in his art class. He says, “There are seemingly endless opportunities and ways to teach certain things.” He used available stop-motion equipment so his 7th and 8th graders could create a film together based on a true incident. His students often brainstorm a list of subjects they’re interested in and try to marry two of them. They’ve combined Covid and WW II, and the Ukraine in general and the Holocaust in Eastern Europe with mass graves that weren’t found until the 1990s. That’s the crux of why he loves this job so much – “It never gets old.”

When I asked about frustrations, he acknowledged a real drop in base knowledge of the average student and in maturity levels. Since the pandemic, behavior and attendance are bigger issues. Marc claims he’s pretty easy-going, so sometimes students test his limits. Yet Marc retains remarkable enthusiasm.

Marc’s experience in Americorps took him to numerous public schools where he saw vitality and energy. He chose to teach public school instead of college and likes that middle school and high school students aren’t yet fully formed. He found subbing at the local junior college art class quiet and less dynamic. The joy of discovery that his younger students find delights and surprises him. He engages them in community projects. “The work goes beyond the walls of the school, and the kids get so excited!”

Marc has avoided some of the parent interactions and interference that have been the bane of existence for other teachers. In addition to his administrative support, he tries to anticipate parent issues and come up with appropriate responses. He has had parents question some of his projects, but thoughtful discussion resolved those issues.

I admire Marc’s use of his art outside the classroom as well. He has mounted shows of his drawings of oppressed people in Syria, Israel, and Gaza. His students see him walk his talk about going out into the world, and that must inspire them. You can explore his work at www.marcnelsonart.com.

I also asked about advice for new teachers. Marc said, “Invest yourself in whatever you’re teaching, find a way that it’s fascinating to you which will help you ‘deliver’ it effectively.” He also urges parents to use their time with their kids to foster interests and raise a consummate, lifelong learner. They should ask their students about their passions and learning, build on that, read them books and take them places, and support the current instruction at home. He urges the public: “Do not give lip service to the importance of children but then hamstring teachers. Back up that importance with support for teachers and the schools. Attend events, go to fundraisers.” Too many people seem to think that public school teachers are just servants who are not worthy of respect.

Marc respects his students: “They’re so much more capable of remarkable things than I gave them credit for before I knew them.”  He likes responding to what’s happening with artists and what’s happening in the world. He gets them to engage with the times we’re living in and tells them, “When you walk through this door, you’re an artist and this is your studio.”

In a perfect world, Marc he would love to have more world-based projects – for all classes. He agrees that better pay and more respect for teachers are overdue. The workload remains arduous, but Marc avoids burnout by doing what he’s passionate about. He appreciates the freedom not to be bogged down testing and grading tests, and he values the support he gets (and gives).

Clearly there aren’t enough Marc Nelsons to go around – don’t we wish we could clone teachers like him? But he offers clear guidelines on how we all can help other teachers be their best selves:

  • Good teachers who are meeting standards need the freedom to design how they get there.
  • Students deserve projects and experiences that take them beyond the walls of the classroom.
  • Teachers need to support and encourage each other. Administrators, parents, and community members need to support good teachers.
  • When teachers can find a point of passion in their subject, they transmit that passion. The curriculum needs to be flexible enough to let them find those passions.

These are not “pie-in-the-sky” goals. They are achievable and worthwhile. Aren’t our kids worth it?

Charter Schools: Yay or Nay?

Image by Adam Lapuník

As an educator, I have complicated feelings about charter schools. I am committed to a public school system that serves all of our children, and I do worry that charters siphon off students who might help lead classrooms if they stayed in public school. On the other hand, the inertia of our school system makes change very challenging to accomplish. Unlike parochial schools and other private schools, charter schools are public schools funded by state and federal governments; they’re free to attend and open to the public. Depending on the state they’re in and their particular charter, however, they do not share all the constraints of traditional public schools. Charter schools have a level of freedom that’s valuable.

It’s been 35 years since Albert Shanker, then president of the American Federation of Teachers, first suggested charter schools, and 31 years since the first charter school opened in St. Paul, Minnesota.(charterschoolcenter.ed.gov) Now over 7,000 charter schools in North America have more than 3 million students enrolled. (chalkbeat.org)

Chris Drew, PhD known as “The Helpful Professor,” identifies potential strengths of charter schools that are not as tied to state regulations, such as innovative and effective teaching, methods, a sense of community, and specialization in specific curricular areas. He warns, though, that charter schools vary by state, vary in quality, may have high teacher turnover rates, and often depend on fundraising. (helpfulprofessor.com)

According to Psyche Pascual of GreatSchools.org, charters are like public schools in that they administer the same state-mandated standardized tests; don’t charge tuition; can’t discriminate by race, sex, or disability in their enrollment; and are accountable to the city, state, county, or district that granted their charter. They can organize staff differently, however, and they may be run by a non-profit or a for-profit organization. They may have a founding educational philosophy like Waldorf or Montessori, but they may not. Nor are they always limited to hiring teachers with credentials. Many charters were founded by a group of committed parents or community members, and they often require parental involvement. (greatschools.org)

Current research suggests that charter schools are clearly gaining on public schools in terms of student achievement. In a recent landmark study, researchers at Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, which studies charter schools, found that Black and Hispanic

charter school students advanced more than their counterparts in traditional public schools “by large margins” in math and reading. The study also found stronger “academic growth” among charter school students living in poverty and English-language learners, compared with similar students at traditional public schools. (usnews.com)

The Stanford 2023 report shows that, in the 15 years since their 2009 study, public school performance remained relatively flat, while students enrolled in charter schools showed large, positive growth. Over the 15 years between the studies, the reading growth of students in charter schools rose by 23 days of learning each year and student learning in math increased by 37 days of learning each year. (ncss3.stanford.edu)

The University of Chicago Consortium on School Research used multiple factors beyond test scores to evaluate Chicago charter high schools. Although their students had a higher turnover rate than those in public schools (which is typical of charter schools), they still outperformed their public equivalents. Charter students appear to benefit from certain advantages over public schools: a collegial sense of responsibility and trust, higher expectations for moving up a grade and for college attendance, and greater parental involvement. (chalkbeat.org)

The charter school population continues to grow as well. Since the pandemic, 1.5 million students have left public schools, while enrollment at public charter schools grew by more than 300,000 students between 2019-20 and 2022-23, a 9% increase.  The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools 2022 annual enrollment report identified multiple factors valued by parents: higher-quality instruction (54%), smaller school and class sizes (47%), and better safety (47%) than district schools. (the74million.org)

Research on return on investment is especially compelling. Researchers from the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform compared funding with performance data from the National Assessment of Education Progress and research findings from the CREDO Institute at Stanford University. They found significantly higher gains in charter schools compared to their public counterpoints: in reading, charters average 4.4 NAEP points higher per $1,000 spent than traditional public schools, making charter schools 41% more cost-effective in reading; in math, charters average 4.7 points higher per $1,000 funded, making them 43% more cost-effective in math. On average, each dollar invested in a student’s schooling in traditional public schools yields $3.94 in lifetime earnings. That same dollar invested in a charter school student yields $6.25 in lifetime earnings — a 58% higher return on investment over the course of a 13-year education. (bpb-us-e1.wpmucdn.com)

The varied success rates of charter schools mirror the varied success rates of public schools, so their biggest advantage may well be the choice that parents and students get. Research confirms however, that charter school students are gaining an advantage over their public school peers. As an educator, surely I should be convinced to support charters. I have a grandchild in San Francisco who will benefit from school choice. Does that make me squirm? A bit… I do wish that public schools could have some of the flexibility available to charter schools, which might allow them to see equally fine results. If and when that happens, I will remain an avid supporter of public schools. In the meantime, however, I acknowledge the advantage of choice for so many of our students.

Happier News for a Change

When so much of the news is distressing, here’s a break with some good news about education:

  • The American Exchange Project helps students build bridges across the American divide. Co-founded by 29-year-old David McCullough III, grandson of the late Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough, it pays to for youth to spend a week in the summer after senior year “in an American town that is politically and socio-economically and culturally very different from the one that they’re growing up in,” McCullough said. Participants report bonding with others very different from themselves and seeing shades of gray in a world that used to be more black-and-white. (cbsnews.com)
  • Boston has opened high school reengagement centers that “offer a proven, scalable way to help more students find a path to a diploma and a better life.” Dozens of volunteers visit the home of students living well below the poverty line who have had poor attendance to encourage them to stay in school. Bostons’ four-year graduation rate went from 59% in 2006 to 81% in 2022. The five-year rate jumped from 65% to 84%.  Other districts could certainly duplicate this effort. (nextcity.org)
  • Indiana already had some work-based programs to prepare students for chosen careers, including those that do not require college. Now their Career Scholarship Accounts are available to every student as a sophomore in high school. “Students participating in qualifying programs can apply for $5,000 each year to pay for career training courses, enroll in earn-and-learn opportunities and cover the costs of items like transportation to and from work sites, uniforms, tools and certification exams.” (the74million.org)
  • Education Reimagined is developing partnerships with educators, communities, and researchers to shift the current model of schooling to “one built on community-based ecosystems of learning that offer deeply personalized opportunities to all students.”  For example, the brand-new City View Community High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, uses the local Chamber of Commerce as students’ home base and creates personalized learning activities, connected to standards, and community-based projects and problem solving. (the74million.org2)
  • Michael Hayes, a male fifth-grade language arts teacher at Hidden Valley Elementary school, started “Men Count” to ensure that Charlotte students see more men of color in the school so that many can see themselves. Male volunteers from all over Charlotte participate, providing role models children can relate to. (charlotteobserver.com)
  • Hope Chicago is taking a two-generation approach to attacking poverty by working with five Chicago schools to provide scholarships for both students and a parent of those students. As long as the student stays in school, the parent does, too. An April 2023 report by “Belfield, a City University scholar, found that college enrollment rates averaged 74% — a 17% increase — in the organization’s first year partnering with the five schools.” Chicago Hope plans to expand the program. (the74million.org3)
  • Ed tech nonprofit UPchieve offers free, individualized, on-demand academic support. This 24-hour online tutoring service relies on 20,000 volunteer tutors to offer free, on-demand academic and college application support to any U.S. middle or high school student attending a Title I school or living in a low-income neighborhood. (the74million.org4)
  • Two years ago, some students at a 60% white school in East Ridge, Minnesota, met to brainstorm what they could do to make students of color feel less isolated. They founded the Close the Gap club, which offers free tutoring by students for students. 40-50 teens participate and appreciate the support, finding it easier to get help from peers than teachers. (startribune.com)
  • Last spring Aleksander Simeunovic, a high school student in Batavia, Illinois, created Fox Valley Coding Buddies to promote online safety and digital literacy for elementary and middle school students. The group has already hosted 46 workshops across eight suburban school districts for students in grades 3-8 with 1,550 student participants, using 76 trained volunteers and eight executive board members. They tailor each workshop to the specific schools’ needs. (www.shawlocal.com)
  • New Jersey is the first state in the country to require public schools to teach media literacy to K-12 students. They believe that “students will become better citizens as adults by learning how to conduct research, analyze information, determine credible sources and ask questions to better reach their own conclusions.” (dailygazette.com)
  • Last month St. Charles, Illinois, offered a parent program entitled “Make Kindness Go Viral: Addressing Cyberbullying at Home.” A presenter from the Cyberbullying
    Research Center provided information on how kids use the Internet and their devices first and then examined cyberbullying, sexting, and unwise social media use along with practical strategies for identification, prevention, and response. (district303.org)
  • Two college students in Tulsa, Oklahoma, live in a senior community for free in exchange for performing music concerts and practices and engaging with residents. Although the financial benefits attracted them, both they and the residents say the bonding has been wonderful. The students bring joy and life to the facility, and the residents provide encouragement and advice. (kjrh.com)
  • A first grader in East Grand Forks, Minnesota, has been working on improving her reading by going door to door in her community and practicing by reading to seniors. Not only has Maggie’s reading improved as the seniors support her and help with difficult words, but they really enjoy the company! (kare11.com) In my own hometown retired adults work in the elementary schools as volunteers and report the cross-generational experiences are truly fulfilling. Perhaps we can expand opportunities like this across the nation.

It’s easy to feel discouraged about education given the strains schools are facing and the impact of the pandemic on learners. News items like these can remind us that good work continues around the country. We should support it and urge expansion of the best initiatives.

1984: Ahead of It Time

I used to love Orwell’s novel, foolishly believing we would heed his warnings, like those of Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451. Surely we would never turn into book burners,  and – while we don’t always acknowledge the full truth of our history – surely we would not seek to revise it completely.

I was wrong. We have failed to heed those warnings too often. We must turn the tide.

Book banning and revisionist history are both on the rise. You need only to look at Valdimir Putin’s efforts to develop new history books. “Dictators are not content with controlling the present; they want to control the past as well. ‘Correctly’ crafted historical narratives can give them an appearance of legitimacy and provide justification for their actions” (washingtonpost.com). Despite being in the midst of a tragic war with Ukraine, Putin took the time to create a task force to produce a new history textbook for 10th and 11th graders. Completed in less than four months, the new texts offer new versions of Russian history. Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian dissident jailed for his opposition to the war against Ukraine, writes:

Russian students will be taught that both the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia and the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan were conducted at the behest of these countries’ own governments; that “human rights violations” (written exactly like this, in quotation marks) in the Soviet Union were just a pretext for Western interference in its internal affairs; and that Mikhail Gorbachev was an incompetent and ignorant leader whose policies led to the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century,” as the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. is described in the textbook, using Putin’s well-known expression. The history of the Soviet dissident movement is illustrated with a “primary source” — not a declaration or pamphlet by dissidents or human rights groups, of course, but a 1972 report from KGB Chairman Yuri Andropov about “organized subversive activity … by anti-Soviet elements.” (Ibid.)

Even these fabrications pale compared to the way the texts present the war with Ukraine. It is unusual, to say the least, to include current and unfinished events in a so-called history textbook, but Putin wants to reshape history and squash opposition, so the books call Ukraine a “neo-Nazi” state that came to power in a “military coup” in 2014 and claim Ukraine started the war. The books even claim that Russian soldiers are now “fighting shoulder to shoulder for goodness and the truth… and the special military operation has consolidated our society” (Ibid.). Putin would replace history and truth with propaganda and slogans.

This matters, not only in Russia. We are seeing efforts within our own borders to revise history; just look at what the Governor of Florida’s history commission claims about slavery. Book banning runs rampant in some of our states, trying to limit access to ideas and issues disliked by the book banners. Even though they often claim they have the right to limit access as parents concerned about their children, they are content to limit the rights of other parents to decide for their own children.

At least in our country, the backlash is beginning to make an impact. When Florida’s Martin County, trying to interpret the bill DeSantis pushed through, released a lengthy list of books to be removed from school library, authors fought back. Most were selected because of the complaints of a single parent! This list included twenty books by Jodi Picoult, claiming they are “adult romance.” They are not, but they do address controversial issues. Picoult slammed the bans. She said, “We have actual proof that marginalized kids who read books about marginalized characters wind up feeling less alone… Books bridge divides between people. Book bans create them” (washingtonpost.com2).

The New York Public Library has a new program called “Books for All: Protect the Freedom to Read in Your Community.” They offer toolkits for activists, free digital access to banned books, discussion groups, teen writing contests, reading lists, and ways to take action (https://www.nypl.org/spotlight/books-for-all). The American Library Association partnered with the New York Public Library, and they, too, offer resources.

Rewriting history and limiting access to books that don’t agree with the objectors’ views are a proven path to repression and authoritarianism. We can’t let that happen here. Speak up! Follow your library and school board meetings. We need to turn the tide while we still can.

The Culture Wars: A Harmful Distraction

Politicians and other public figures continue to push the culture wars as a distraction instead of focusing on solving the very real problems facing our schools and communities. Their actions cause harm while preventing the kind of collaborative problem-solving we so urgently need. All of us must speak up.

The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) reported 695 attempts to censor library materials and services and documented challenges to 1,915 unique titles in just the first eight months of 2023. The number of unique titles challenged has increased by 20% from the same reporting period in 2022, a year that had already shattered censorship records. Challenges to books in public libraries accounted for 49% of documented challenges, compared to 16% during the same reporting period in 2022. Challenges by a single person or group demanding the removal or restriction of multiple titles dominate, with over 90% of the overall number of books challenged included as part of an attempt to censor multiple titles.

“These attacks on our freedom to read should trouble every person who values liberty and our constitutional rights, said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. “To allow a group of people or any individual, no matter how powerful or loud, to become the decision-maker about what books we can read or whether libraries exist, is to place all of our rights and liberties in jeopardy” (uniteagainstbookbans.org).

Libraires themselves are under attack. “Some libraries have received bomb threats; others are at risk of having their funding slashed, or even face closure, over disputes about book removals. In some instances, librarians have been harassed, threatened and called groomers and pedophiles” (nytimes.com).

According to PEN America, the movement to ban books is driven by a vocal minority demanding censorship despite a 2022 poll showing that over 70% of parents oppose book banning. PEN counted book removals in school and classroom libraries during the 2022-2023 school year and found 3,362 cases of books being removed, a 33 percent increase over the previous school year. More than 1,550 individual titles were targeted. Many of the same books are challenged around the country, including classics by Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood, and contemporary young adult fiction by popular authors like John Green. “The most dramatic spike in book bans took place in Florida, which removed more than 1,400 books and surpassed Texas as the state with the highest number of removals, according to PEN. Florida emerged as a hot spot for book challenges after the state passed several laws aimed in part at restricting educational and reading material on certain subjects. As school districts scrambled to comply with the new regulations earlier this year, some teachers and librarians removed entire shelves of books” (pen.org).

Free speech advocates worry that some school districts will further limit book access by suspending new book purchases or avoid stocking books on topics that might be viewed as controversial. “The way it’s going to begin to manifest may look different,” said Kasey Meehan, the lead author of PEN’s report. “We’ll begin to see this chilled atmosphere play out in different ways, either through quietly removing books, or not bringing books in, in the first place” (nytimes.com).

The novelist Nora Roberts responded to the decision of a Martin County, Florida school to purge eight of her novels based on the complaints of a single member of the conservative group Moms for Liberty: “All of it is shocking…If you don’t want your teenager reading this book, that’s your right as a mom — and good luck with that. But you don’t have the right to say nobody’s kid can read this book.” The very same parents who want their parental rights protected too often would do so by denying those rights to other parents (washingtonpost.com).

Alexi Giannoulias, Illinois Secretary of State and State Librarian, recently testified to a Senate Judiciary Committee, “Our democracy depends on a marketplace of ideas [that] will not function if we ban books, because we will be banning ideas and preventing our children from thinking for themselves and having the ability to debate and learn and understand different perspectives” (chicagotribune.com). But even in Illinois books are being removed. The Yorkville school board removed the book Just Mercy from the curriculum, deeming it inappropriate and upsetting for teens. This book explores issues in the American justice system and should promote meaningful discussion.  I’m proud of Yorkville High School senior Alexis Barkman. She said, “By allowing the opinions of a select few to influence what is taught in our classrooms, you’re sending the message that their beliefs are more important that the quality of our education. You’re depriving us of our freedom to read and form our own opinions about the subjects you deem too controversial” (shawlocal.com).

Such behavior for political purposes is offensive to me. Look at a Missouri candidate for governor, State Senator Bill Eigel.  A long-shot at best, he very publicly used a flamethrower to set cardboard boxes on fire. Eigel said he would burn books he found objectionable, and that he’d do it on the lawn outside the governor’s mansion. Later he claimed this was all a metaphor for how he would attack “the woke liberal agenda” (chicagotribune.com). Is this dangerous stunt more important than the key issues defined by Missouri University Extension: economic opportunity, educational access and workforce preparedness, and health and wellbeing (muextensionway.missouri.edu)? Of course not.

And books aren’t the only front line. The United States Senate is arguing over a dress code even as the nation faces a likely government shutdown and its consequential impact. A black student in Texas just filed a federal civil rights lawsuit because his high school disapproves of his dreadlocks even though he ties them up on his head to meet school requirements (chicagotribune.com). When we continue to face an achievement gap for students of color and a school-to-prison pipeline, is this really our priority?

Heidi Stevens, my favorite Chicago Tribune columnist, said it best: “Stop pretending book bans are about sex… Stop pretending we can solve the most pressing, dire issues of our time – the climate crisis, the opioid overdose epidemic, gun violence, the recent doubling of childhood poverty – the mental health crisis among young people – without including all sorts of voices, stories, perspectives, ideas, experiences, and wisdom in public discourse and policy making” (www.chicagotribune.com).  Please heed her call to action and reach out to your elected officials.

“Let the Children Lead the Way”

Whitney Houston was right when she sang, “I believe the children are our future
Teach them well and let them lead the way.”

At a time when political polarization continues to fracture families and communities, we hear voices of reason among our youth. An opinion piece in The Washington Post this week proves that once again.

Eli Tillemann, a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology in Alexandria, Virginia, described a divisive issue in his school that led to further polarization among adults (washingtonpost.com). This top-rated magnet school saw its selective admissions process overhauled by the Fairfax County School Board in an effort to improve diversity. No longer would applicants have to pay a $100 application fee or undergo standardized testing. Sadly, the infighting that followed nearly ended the Parent Teacher Association and a lawsuit was filed with the Supreme Court.

Tillemann shows more maturity than most of us when he writes, “Over the past two years, many of my classmates and I have learned a valuable lesson from this factional squabbling: It doesn’t work. When a society separates into warring camps, no one is left to have a meaningful conversation about fixing the underlying issues.” Instead of taking sides, he and many classmates decided to write their own curriculum, to learn to debate constructively and “to build a program that prepares students to navigate our increasingly tribal cognitive ecosystem.” With help from Niels Rosenquist, a psychiatrist and an interdisciplinary researcher at Harvard Medical School, and digital media executive Stuart Schulzke, they created “Dialectic,” a program now being looked at in states like California, Utah, and Massachusetts.

As president of both the Democrats and Republicans at his school, Tillemann has brought them together to host lectures on “the science around communication in the digital age, the neurobiology of tribalism and, perhaps most important, how to disagree.” He writes that more than 70 students attended the kickoff lecture, and that he and his classmates really want to learn how to disagree better, how to avoid the tribalism so apparent in the adults around them.

These students seek to tackle controversial problems, working together to generate better solutions. He writes, “This is not just civility for civility’s sake. The best outcomes in policy, business and life usually emerge from a competition of ideas and a compromise on solutions.”

These young people recognize that their solutions may not be adopted, but they hope to change the acrid environment surrounding the debate about the issue. They recognize that the well-intended changes to the admissions process are still flawed, and they are suggesting options to avoid some of the problems. I am impressed!

But Tillemann is right that we need more work like this around the nation. He says it far more effectively than I could: “Americans must level up the caliber of our discourse by relearning the benefits of practical debate. Constructive, respectful disagreement is vital to a functioning democracy. It is time for both sides to embrace a new strategy for resolving our differences.”

Out of the mouths of babes…