The Great Smarties Candies Refocusing Strategy

Q. What do Smarties candies (the American kind), Orwellian Doublespeak, Union solidarity, Hamilton, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the New Jersey Turnpike’s Joyce Kilmer Rest Area have in common?

A. They’re all at least referenced in today’s blog post.  To learn more and see how they’re connected, read on.

 

As a parent, there are days and weeks in which I’m left simply shaking my head at the absurdity that comes home from my kids’ schools. This has been one of those weeks.

This week is PARCC testing for the 5th graders in my daughter’s school.  According to my daughter, parents of approximately a quarter to a third of the students in her class, including hers, refused to allow our kids to be tested.  Back in February of 2015, before the first round of PARCC testing, our local Board of Education passed a test-refusal policy, which reads, in relevant part:

“It is the policy of the Montclair Board of Education that the parental decision to decline testing should be met at the district level with educationally appropriate and non-punitive measures.”

Our district’s PARCC parental refusal policy.

On Monday evening, after the first day of testing, my daughter reported that the kids in her class who took PARCC were given Smarties candies afterward by her teacher, but that the kids whose parents refused were not offered any candies.  And according to her, her teachers knew this was a bad idea, because on the first day they made half-hearted efforts to hide this fact.  A child stood up to throw out his Smarties wrapper, and the teacher asked him what he was doing.  He replied, “Throwing out my wrapper.”  The teacher said, “Ahem” and gave him the stink eye.  The kid then responded, “Oh, uh, uh, yeah, I was throwing out my tissue.”

Tuesday morning I got to the bus stop, where the mom of another of the 50 or so students served by this two teacher teaching team came up to me excitedly to share the same story: that the kids in these teachers’ “switch” class who took PARCC were given Smarties candy, but the kids who refused did not.

When I had a free moment at work later that morning, I sent a note to the teachers.  I wrote:

Dear Ms. B and Ms. E:

As you are aware, yesterday was the first day of PARCC testing for 5th graders at our school.  My daughter, along with other students in your classes, was not permitted to take PARCC, which is a political decision my husband and I, as her parents, made after a great deal of thought and research.

Last night and this morning, I heard reports from my daughter and from another child in your classes that yesterday both of you distributed rewards of candy (Smarties) to those children in your classes whose parents allowed them to take the PARCC, but that children whose parents did not allow them to take the PARCC were not given candy.

As a preliminary matter, I am not a fan of candy being distributed to children by their teachers.  If, however, you are going to distribute candy to children, it strikes me as problematic that you as their public school teachers would effectively punish the opt-out children for political decisions made by their parents.  I look forward to an email from you confirming that if treats are going to be distributed in the future, decisions regarding who will get treats will not be based on something out of the children’s control (i.e., the political decision to opt-out/refuse, which was made by these children’s parents).

I trust your response to this email will resolve this matter and I will not need to pursue this matter further.

Thank you.

Best regards,

Sarah Blaine

I did not copy anyone.  No administrators, no principals, no central office staff.  I figured that this was a momentary lapse on their part, and that a quick email pointing out the foolishness of their position would suffice to either put a stop to the candy distribution altogether, or to at least ensure that it was distributed to all children in their classes.

Boy was I wrong.

By dinner time on Tuesday, I’d gotten no response from the teachers, and my daughter reported that Smarties were again distributed to the testing kids only, and this time the distribution was more blatant, as if the teachers had gotten bolder after Monday evening had passed with no parental complaints about the inequitable treatment of our kids.  So I forwarded my original note to the principal, along with a cover email:

Dear Dr. A:

Please see the email below, which I sent to Ms. B and to Ms. E this morning.  I have not received any response as of yet.  Time is of the essence, as today, Smarties candies were again distributed only to those children in Ms. B and Ms. E’s classes who took the PARCC test.  Because students — especially elementary school students — whose parents refused to allow them to test have no control over that political decision made by their parents, I believe that it is unacceptable for teachers in your building to only provide candy to those children whose parents did not make that political decision.  Either no candy should be distributed or candy should be distributed to everyone, at least when the kids have no control over the situation.

I feel confident escalating this situation to you without teacher confirmation given that another child independently reported that this was happening to her parent, so I’m confident that the teachers’ selective distribution of candy is not something my child made up.

Thank you for your anticipated prompt attention to resolving this matter.

Best regards,

Sarah Blaine

By mid-morning this morning, there was still radio silence, from both the teachers and the principal.

Around lunchtime I emerged from a meeting in Trenton (ironically the main topic of this meeting was the State’s proposal to make taking PARCC and passing certain sections of PARCC a graduation requirement), and as I ate my lunch I checked my phone, where I discovered this gem:

Good afternoon Ms. Blaine,

Miss B and I have received your email.  Thank you for sharing your concerns.  Please be advised that the “Smarties” were NOT a reward for taking the PARCC.  They are one of many refocusing strategies we use throughout the school year.

Thank you very much and have  a great day.

Yours in learning,

Mrs. E & Miss B

Yes, you read that correctly.  Apparently my teachers give their students candies made of pretty much pure sugar (dextrose is the first ingredient on the label) as a “refocusing strategy.”  Let me type that again:

R E F O C U S I N G   S T R A T E G Y

R E F O C U S I N G   S T R A T E G Y

R E F O C U S I N G   S T R A T E G Y

R E F O C U S I N G   S T R A T E G Y

Funny, no matter how I squint at or format those words, they still seem to be monumentally out of focus.  My children’s teachers can’t seriously have defended distributing candy only to testing children as a “refocusing strategy.”  But every time I read those words, that’s what I see.  CANDY = A REFOCUSING STRATEGY.

Of course, aside from the pedagogically dubious practice of hopping up 5th graders on sugar to refocus them, my daughter’s teachers didn’t address my actual concern, which was why on earth only kids who took PARCC were worthy of being “refocused.”

It’s almost as if they need more practice reading non-fiction.

Or more worksheets aimed at helping them to pick out the main idea of my letter.

Perhaps they’d do better if my email had been written in multiple-choice format, in true Pearson style, with a question full of negatives and full credit awarded only for choosing ALL correct responses:

Which of the following is NOT in compliance with the Montclair Board of Education’s policy of providing educationally appropriate and non-punitive responses to parental decisions to decline to allow their children to test?  Choose ALL that apply.

(A)Allowing non-testing kids to sit in the library, where they are supervised while doing school work or reading for pleasure.

(B)Beating them over the head with number 2 pencils.

(C)Forcing them to sit and stare silently in the testing room with no books or other materials to alleviate their boredom while their peers take the tests.

(D)Giving candy to testing kids, but only big fat Bronx cheers to refusal kids.

If you chose B, C, AND D, I’ve got some Smarties for you.

Otherwise, ppppppppppptttttttbbbbbbbbtttttpppppfffffff.  How’s that for an onomatopoeic representation of a Bronx cheer?  And if you’re a teacher who did not choose B, C, and D, perhaps it’s time to consider a career change?

But wait… there’s more.

As I drove home from Trenton, I found myself fuming about that email.

REFOCUSING STRATEGY?!?!?  I couldn’t look at the email again because I was driving, but the words would not leave my head.

And no matter how I turned them over in my mind, all I kept finding was that one of my favorite verses from Hamilton — especially the first line — kept playing over and over in my head:

You must be out of your Goddamn mind if you think

The President is gonna bring the nation to the brink

Of meddling in the middle of a military mess

A game of chess, where France is Queen and Kingless

[The rest of that Hamilton verse is so exquisite that I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t either seen the show or, like me, spent months listening obsessively to the soundtrack.]

These teachers must be out of their goddamned minds if they think

This parent will buy for a second with a wink

That the Smarties candies distribution

As a “refocusing strategy” is a  reasonable solution

Ok, my rap skills suck (we share the same alma mater, but Lin-Manuel Miranda I am not), but the teachers’ justification for their behavior sucks even worse.

Indeed, as the winter holiday party was in the works last December, Ms. E wrote the following email to the parents in the class regarding the holiday party:

“Thank you all!  It will be a sugary day.  We sugar them up–then send them home to you!! XOXO”

My Common Core non-fiction text inference skills tell me that Ms. E does not believe that providing kids with a sugary candy is an effective refocusing strategy.  I can, however, infer that she thinks sugary candies are appropriate for celebrations — or, perhaps, for rewards.

Continuing up the Turnpike, I found my annoyance growing rather than abating, so rather than continue fuming, I pulled off the New Jersey Turnpike at the Joyce Kilmer Rest Area, where I wrote to the superintendent, who has explicitly stated at Board of Education meetings that he wants to be made personally aware of any punitive action taken by school district employees against opt-out kids. As a courtesy, I copied the principal, but I decided to leave the teachers off this email, although I forwarded their email responding to my initial email to the superintendent.  Please excuse any less than artful phrasing, given that I composed this on my phone at a rest stop.

Dear Mr. B:

Please see the below email exchange between my 5th grader’s teachers and me in which they attempt to defend their practice of feeding Smarties candies (pure sugar) ONLY to students who took PARCC and not to students whose parents refused to allow them to take PARCC, using the pretense that feeding pure sugar to students is a “refocusing strategy” necessary only for those kids who took the test and not for those kids who sat for hours quietly completing work (ironically, ReadWorks-style test-prep) during testing time.

I look forward to you immediately addressing this issue and making it clear to your entire staff that preferential treatment of those students whose parents allowed them to take PARCC is not something this district condones or allows, as per the BOE’s February 2015 resolution to that effect.

I forwarded my original email (below) to Dr. A last night but have not yet received a response.

I am currently in the car home from a meeting with NJ State Board of Education president Mark Biedron regarding the proposed regulations that would implement PARCC as a graduation requirement. I cannot believe that in 2016 in Montclair we are seriously seeing teachers punishing kids (that is, denying elementary school children candy) for their parents’ anti-PARCC stances, especially given the “non-punitive responses” language in the BOE’s February 2015 PARCC parental refusal resolution.

I know that you have expressed your commitment to ensuring that children like my daughter are not punished by their teachers for their parents’ refusal decisions. I look forward to your prompt handling of this matter. I can be reached at XXX-XXX-XXXX and am available to discuss this issue at your convenience this afternoon in hopes that it will be resolved before my child arrives at school tomorrow morning.

Best regards,

Sarah Blaine

That email generated a quick response (it arrived by the time I got home about an hour later), not from the superintendent, but from the principal.  Remarkably, she claims to have bought the teachers’ explanation, hook, line, and sinker.  (Apparently she wasn’t aware of my superb rap regarding that point.)

Now I presume, of course, that she’s trying not to throw her teachers under the bus (although I will eventually get around to writing up my prior encounter with her, in which she absolutely threw one of these teachers under a bus — and asked me to allow my daughter to read that email), but what educator really could feel comfortable defending teachers’ decisions to distribute candy comprised of pure sugar to their students as a pedagogically sound “refocusing strategy”?

I feel like I’ve wandered into some bizarre alternate universe.

So I couldn’t help it, I wrote back and this time I got a little snarky:

Dear Dr. A:

Thank you for your prompt response to this, my second email to you regarding this issue (my first was sent last night at approximately 6:30 p.m., before today’s testing session).

I would welcome the opportunity to discuss this with you further.  My cell phone number is XXX-XXX-XXXX.

As a preliminary matter, since I have a master’s of arts in teaching and yet have never seen any research supporting feeding children candies comprised of pure sugar as a “refocusing strategy,” I would appreciate it if you could point me to some research supporting the use of sugary candy as a “refocusing strategy.”

I would also appreciate some documentation of the teachers in this class using this “refocusing strategy” prior to PARCC testing week, as this is the first I have heard of them employing this particular “refocusing strategy.”  I understand that Ms. B occasionally distributes Tootsie Rolls to students who win competitive educational math games in her class, but not that the class as a whole is given Smarties or other candies as a “refocusing strategy.”  Can you please document how often my daughter’s teachers are feeding her class candy without my knowledge or consent?

Finally, I appreciate your willingness to ensure that to the extent that the teachers are feeding the children candy, candy is available to all students in the class, especially given our Board of Education’s policy that test refusers will be met with educationally appropriate and non-punitive responses.

Best regards,

Sarah Blaine

In the least surprising development in this saga so far, Dr. A has not yet responded, much less furnished me with any studies supporting the use of sugary candies as a “refocusing strategy.”

And again, surprising no one, as I’ve informally surveyed teachers and professors of education, all of them have laughed and/or cursed at the idea that sugary candies could possibly constitute an effective refocusing strategy.

In an aside, one fellow activist said that she was pretty certain that there is a law in our state that expressly prohibits the distribution of food items in which any iteration of sugar is the first ingredient at school during school hours.  She turns out to be correct — at least for schools, like ours, in which more than 5% of the student population qualifies for the federal free or reduced lunch programs.

N.J.S.A. 18A:33-16 reads, in relevant part:

As of September 2007, the following items shall not be served, sold or given away as a free promotion anywhere on school property at any time before the end of the school day, including items served in the reimbursable After School Snack Program:

(1)Foods of minimal nutritional value, as defined by the United States Department of Agriculture;

(2)All food and beverage items listing sugar, in any form, as the first ingredient; and

(3)All forms of candy as defined by the New Jersey Department of Agriculture.

There are some exemptions, but none of them are likely to apply here, unless the distribution of candy is a school celebration, such as a class holiday or birthday party, or a curricular activity, such as a lesson on foods from other cultures.  The other exceptions are individual in nature (sugar for diabetics, rewards specified in a students’ IEP, etc.), and again, are not applicable here.  Further, guidance from the State specifically notes that the although the use of food as an incentive or reward is not prohibited, any such foods must meet the guidelines set forth in N.J.S.A. 18A:33-16, so Smarties candies are not acceptable.  That guidance further notes: “[r]esearch has shown that using food items as rewards can negatively affect students’ healthy attitudes toward eating.”  [And amazingly, the guidance even cites a publication that they say contains evidence in support of this proposition.] Somehow, I find myself more skeptical than ever that the principal will be able to point me to a study supporting the use of candy as a “refocusing strategy.” If she can find one, I have a funny feeling it will have come out of the Relay Graduate School of Education. Boom!

The first ingredient in Smarties, of course, is dextrose (sugar).

Smarties Nutrition and Ingredients Label. First Ingredient = Dextrose.

So not only is my daughter’s teachers’ distribution of Smarties candies to PARCC-taking kids not only poor and unsupported pedagogical practice, since 2007 it has also been against the law.

Awesome.

Really.  In the literal sense of the word.  The unbelievable cluelessness of her teachers truly does inspire awe in me, as does the principal’s decision to double-down on their preposterous pretext of an explanation.

Candy as a Refocusing Strategy.

It is truly awe-inspiring.  Or at least, perhaps, a bit Orwellian. Or is it that the euphemism “refocusing strategy” is an Orwellian way of describing the teacher’s actions?

But back to the topic at hand: I find myself wondering if the choice of “Smarties” candies was a deliberate choice to inspire students to greater “smartness” on the PARCC test.

The kid loves Hamilton and Smarties. We also refused to allow her to take PARCC.

This afternoon, as you can see from the photo, I bought my daughter a big bag of Smarties, because:

(A) she is fortunate to be able to eat candy with relative impunity at this age;

(B) it is within my prerogative as her parent to allow her to eat candy;

(C) I really appreciate her good natured willingness to allow me to share this story with all of you;

(D) I like Smarties too (although my waistline doesn’t need them).

If you guessed (E) All of the Above, you win… SMARTIES.  (Ok, not really, as I think they all got eaten by neighborhood kids — and a few parents.)

Here she is, with a friend, all sugared up on Smarties.  As you can see, focused (much less “refocused”) is not an appropriate description of their mental state:

https://parentingthecore.files.wordpress.com/2016/04/smarties_video.mp4

This story, of course, while entertaining (although not nearly as entertaining as another story involving her ELA teacher, which I will share in another post, because I’m running out of steam tonight, and this blog post is already way too long), has more serious ramifications.

What does it mean when a public school teacher, as a state actor, takes it upon herself to punish students whose parents have made a political decision to protest the negative effects of high-stakes testing by declining to allow the child to test?

When the issue first came up Monday night, my daughter was initially hesitant regarding whether I should call the teachers out on this.  But I posed this hypothetical to her:

What if your teachers had only given Smarties to Christian kids?  Would anyone think it was okay to exclude Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or agnostic/atheist children in your class from receiving Smarties?

Of course, she agreed that everyone would say such a decision was horrible and unacceptable, and that teachers in public schools cannot do this.

But, I pointed out to her, it isn’t the kids’ decision what religion (if any) they’re being raised in, is it?

She agreed that this was not something kids can control at their ages.

Yet, I said, surely all of the non-Christian kids’ parents could convert their children to Christianity and therefore assure their children’s access to Smarties, right?

She agreed that this could, hypothetically, happen.

Here, of course, I pointed out to her that the PARCC refusal decision was also a parental decision, and that if her father and I hadn’t made this decision, she would not be allowed at her age to unilaterally refuse PARCC.  So just as in the hypothetical it would be unfair to punish the non-Christian kids for their parents’ beliefs, here it would be — and is — unfair to punish the test-refusing kids for their parents’ beliefs (which is entirely the rationale for the district’s opt-out policy in the first place, and is why even the most pro-testing and pro-education reform members of our local Board of Education voted in favor of it).

One of my ongoing frustrations as a parent who actively opposes the use of annual, high-stakes testing in our public schools is the accusation that we opt-out parents are mere tools of teachers and their unions. See, for example, here, here, here, here, and most recently and obnoxiously, here.  I think this story demonstrates that this is not the case, as we are certainly not tools of these particular teachers, and my greatest frustration with teachers’ unions is their unwillingness to help prune teachers who are embarrassments to their profession as a result of their consistently shoddy pedagogy, poor judgment, and casual cruelty toward students.

As is clear from this story (as well as the story of my last run-in with my daughter’s teachers over the opt-out movement, which was the time when the principal threw the teachers under the bus), there are still teachers out there, like my daughter’s, who, for whatever reason, support PARCC and other forms of high-stakes standardized testing, so we opt-out parents are certainly not the tools of all teachers.

More to the point, though, as their leaders made manifestly clear at the 2015 Network for Public Education conferences, the national teachers unions’ leaders are most certainly only supportive of the reduction or elimination of high-stakes testing in public schools to the extent that they believe such support furthers their own ends.

In 2015, as the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (“ESEA,” then also known as “No Child Left Behind” or “NCLB,” and now in its reauthorized form known as the “Every Student Succeeds Act” or “ESSA”) was on the table, Randi Weingarten of the AFT in particular (although as a practical matter NEA has been no better on this point) explained her refusal to support the Tester Amendment to ESEA, which would have eliminated No Child Left Behind’s annual testing requirement in favor of only a grade-span testing requirement: i.e., under the Tester amendment state testing in ELA and math would have been required only once in elementary school, once in middle school, and once in high school.  Randi explained that this was a sacrifice she could make to ensure that the union had a seat at the table for issues that mattered more to it.  In other words, Randi was ready and willing to sell out children and their parents on the over testing issue to maintain her own access to power.

Here is some of what I was tweeting back then as I listened to her speak:

My reaction to Randi Weingarten’s explanation of why AFT refused to support the Tester Amendment.

 

Even in the moment, I was calling out the union-parent divide regarding annual standardized testing.

 

This year at NPE, the AFT’s vice president used a similar line of argument to justify their union’s shockingly early endorsement of Hillary Clinton.  Personally, I’m not sure what good a seat at the table does either of the teachers’ union when their input is ignored every step of the way, just as I’m not sure why they’d support the continuation of annual testing, which is the key ingredient in state plans to evaluate teachers based on their students’ year-over-year change in standardized test scores (a policy that hurts students and teachers).

This year’s issue was the uber-early endorsement of Hillary.

The vast majority of teachers work desperately, often under frightful pressure to the contrary, to provide pedagogically sound, developmentally appropriate, humane education to their students, and as a former teacher myself, I appreciate their work immensely.  But as a parent, I have no particular love for the union’s long history of refusing to self-police, as a semi-professional association, their own members.  We lawyers are far from perfect at this, but like doctors, we do try, and lawyers are disbarred, suspended, and/or admonished every year.  Teachers’ failures to self-police their ranks are, in my opinion, a major contributor to the false but widespread myth that our nation’s public schools, as a whole, are failing.  People remember their outlier bad teachers, and judge the system by them.

I often wonder whether many of the absurd policy prescriptions advocated by so-called education reformers could be avoided or eliminated by sending reformers to psychologists for counseling to resolve residual trauma leftover from one or more bad relationships they had with their teachers during their own childhoods.  Instead, however, reformers seek to do what I, too, would like to see done: to advocate a policy that would result in getting rid of teachers who are embarrassment to the profession.  It is not that their goal is wrongheaded: it is merely that their methods are nonsensical and at best only tangentially related to their goals.

Reformers seek to identify and fire teachers based on student performance on standardized tests.  Their theory goes that if a child can’t demonstrate gains on these tests, regardless of how poorly designed, invalid, unreliable, culturally biased, and flawed they may be, then that is proof positive that the child’s teacher hasn’t done his or her job.  That, of course, is silly, as a million other factors may have affected that child’s results.  Indeed, to some degree as a parent I’m more concerned by a teacher with an excellent record of standardized test results, as there is a good chance that indicates a teacher who is crassly willing to sell out his or her principles to do the worst forms of test-prep.  It’s the cheerleaders for testing and those whose ability to tolerate cognitive dissonance is so well-developed that they honestly believe that the crappy nightly reading passages with related multiple-choice questions aren’t test prep that I, as a parent, fear.  The teachers who are testing cheerleaders are, in my experience, the most likely to also be guilty of shoddy pedagogy, poor judgment, and/or casual or thoughtless cruelty to students.

For me, the metric isn’t student performance on standardized tests.  For me, the metrics that merit firing a teacher are — after having met with the teacher over time to identify the issues and offer suggestions and opportunities for improvement — continuing shoddy pedagogical practices, consistently poor judgment, and a serious track-record of casual cruelty to students.  None of those can be measured effectively by a teacher’s student’s standardized test results, but all of those can be documented and substantiated over time by an administrator willing to do the work.  This doesn’t mean that I don’t think all teachers should be entitled to due process given the enormous pressure and competing points of view forced on them by parents, students, and administrators — of course I do — but administrators need to stand up and do their jobs so that teachers’ due process rights do not somehow prohibit the eventual firing of subpar teachers who refuse to show improvement.

And in point of fact, there are relatively few teachers whose practice is so continually bad that they should be fired.  Indeed, I think my daughter’s teachers should be counseled and supported (and provided with some professional development that includes basic civics instruction on what public school teachers cannot do), but frustrated as I am with their judgment regarding the candy, I don’t think this alone is anywhere near a firing offense.

So as a parent, at best I’m in constant tension with teachers unions’ even lukewarm support of the opt-out movement, as teachers’ union support of opting-out naturally puts teachers’ — and not students’ — best interests at heart.  Specifically, here in New Jersey, while I’m appreciative of the support that the NJEA gave to the opt-out movement in 2015 and to a lesser degree through its New Jersey Kids and Families initiative in 2016, I am nevertheless under no illusion that as soon as the NJEA sees the opt-out movement and its proponents as enemies rather than allies, the NJEA will sell us out as quickly as you can say Chapter 78 contributions.

I think the unions’ — especially the national unions’ — willingness to sell out students and parents is simply a fact of life, but as a parent advocate it’s why I feel that the parent movement against high-stakes testing is in an uneasy truce, at best, with teachers’ unions.  Yes, I have a New Jersey Kids and Family bought “Our Family Refuses PARCC” sign on my lawn and it makes me happy to see lots of those signs around my town, but although yay — it was free to me — the provenance of that particular sign makes me uncomfortable.  I’d just as leave have bought my own sign, as I did back in 2015.

I would love it if the leadership of our local union would issue guidance to teachers around refusing students, so that kids like mine are never again placed in the uncomfortable position of feeling like they need to tattle on their teachers to their parents.  But as a parent, I understand that the union’s job is to look out for its membership, and my job is to look out for my children.  Supportive as I might be of teachers and, generally speaking, of their unions, when push comes to shove, I, like any parent, will choose my kids every time.  Those simple facts: that for parents, our children, all children, and public education in general are our priorities, not knee-jerk support of teachers union, drives home the fact that the opt-out movement is a parent-led movement, and neither a union-led movement nor the opportunistic manipulation of parents by teachers’ unions.  Indeed, one of my concerns about the more extreme reaches of the parent-led opt-out movement is that even after reason returns to the use of testing, educators are not going to be able to put the opt-out movement genie back in the bottle.  I hope that someday when we win this fight, I, as a parent-leader, will be able to be effective at helping to convince parents to “opt-in.”

 

P.S.  A silver lining to this debacle with my kid’s teachers is that in the course of our discussion of the use of candy as a so-called “refocusing strategy,” my kid learned what the term Orwellian means.  We discussed the premises of Orwell’s Animal Farm as well as 1984, while sitting out on our neighbor’s stoop.  This then led to an enlightening discussion with a Cuban immigrant who was part of the conversation.  She told us, partially with the help of our other neighbor as interpreter, about the restrictions on free speech and lack of food, money, and resources she experienced under Castro in Cuba.

P.P.S. I’m sure that some teachers are going to be upset with me for “teacher bashing.” To them, I say two things: (1) we can’t even begin to learn to talk to each other if that talking means we can’t identify and call out problems when we see them and (2) if these teachers don’t want to be held accountable for their poor judgment, perhaps they shouldn’t display such poor judgment.

Homework Rant

My family is fortunate to live on one of those old fashioned blocks that is truly a neighborhood.  There are about a dozen families on our street with elementary school aged children, and during their free time, the children run in a pack around the block with the big ones looking out for the little ones.  Their games are incredibly creative: I’ve seen these kids write a script to film a movie, engage in elaborate games of “family” and sword-fighting, climb trees to fantastic heights, and design amazing obstacle courses.  They have their arguments and spats, but overall the culture we’ve watched them create is one in which everyone — from the child with autism to the nerdiest of the nerdy — is accepted.  My girls are glad to have a street full of brothers they know will have their backs.

What I cherish more than anything about this neighborhood is that the kids are able to run around independently.  There are adults around in the afternoon — a combination of parents and babysitters — but once their homework is done, the kids are pretty much on their own until dinner time.  This year, however, my older daughter has not been able to join the gang much at all after school.  That’s not because I over-schedule her: after school she has a half-hour trumpet lesson once a week and religious school on Wednesdays, but rather because homework has become a monster, devouring childhood.

My kids’ schools have a late start (late bell is at 9:20 a.m.) and a late finish (they don’t get off the bus home until about 4 p.m.).  We are an all-choice school district, so many kids on the street have significantly earlier schedules, which admittedly compounds the problem.

E leaves for school at 8:15 three mornings a week because the school band practices before school starting at 8:30 a.m.  By the time she gets home, she’s already had a seven and a half hour day, and she’s understandably tired and worn out.  But there’s that pile of homework, staring her in the face.

Last night she got off the bus and did not finish her homework (plus 15 minutes of trumpet practice) until 9 p.m.  The only concerted break she took was a half hour for family dinner.  She did, of course, take lots of small breaks that she created herself as mini-rebellions I’m not sure she’s even really aware of — she wanted to direct her little sister on how to clean up their toys, or discuss the distinction between hermits and homeless people with me, or go to the bathroom — but again, looking at the totality of the circumstances, those breaks, as frustrating as they felt at the time, were the only rebellion she could muster against homework demands that are simply too much for her child’s body and child’s brain. All in, this kid put in a 12 hour day yesterday.

As a practicing lawyer, I know how fried I feel after a 12 hour day, and indeed, one of the great perks of the job I have now is that I rarely have to put in such days anymore.  Why are we demanding this of our children?  Is it to teach them Grit?  Resilience?  Is this what Rigor looks like?  It seems to me that it’s going to backfire: demanding too much of our littlest children is ultimately going to inspire them to cheat or rebel.  As Peter Greene says, Grit is nothing more than a big old Poop Sandwich.

I can almost hear the teachers reading this now.  They’re fuming at me, asking why I haven’t reached out to my daughter’s teachers to address the issue.  Trust me, I did.  The full text of my email is below — the only changes I’ve made are to take out names and other personal information.  The entirety of their response appears below my email to them.

Dear Mrs. _______ and Mrs. ________:

E is having a very good year this year, and I’m glad to see that she’s working hard.  I especially appreciated the cell project.  She is a conscientious student, and I think she particularly appreciates that classroom management seems to be less of an issue this year than in years past.  Plus, you’ve got a really sweet group of kids in that class.

That said, it seems like the homework load (tonight in particular) is a lot to ask of 10 and 11 year olds.  E is a hard-working and conscientious student, and I’m sure she takes more time on her assignments than is strictly necessary, but she tells me that today she got off the bus, had a snack while she worked, and then worked straight through until I got home at about 6:15.  It was only her and her sitter (also a student with homework to do) in the house for that time, so I don’t doubt that she was probably working pretty steadily during that two hour block, and when I got home the ELA work was pretty much done.

She continued working (admittedly with more distractions) until we ate dinner around 7 p.m.  She was back at work at 7:30 to start her math homework, and I found myself getting frustrated with her because she was getting ridiculously easily distracted, but that doesn’t seem unreasonable when she’d already put in an 11 hour day at that point (band practice starts at 8:30 a.m.).  She only finished when I started this email to you, around 8:50 p.m., and she still needed to practice trumpet for another 15-20 minutes after that.  Her bedtime is 9:30 p.m.

As I understand it, the homework tonight was TWO ReadWorks assignments, the ELA worksheet with the terms to be associated with each word, the worksheet to determine the places at the table, and 2 pages of long-division math problems.  As a working parent, my time with my kids is pretty limited, and so I ask that you please be aware of the homework load that you’re giving these kids, both from a developmental perspective (E had no time to run and play at all today because of homework) and from an awareness of how such a heavy homework load impinges on family time.  Frankly, tonight’s load was unacceptable, especially because I had been counting on E’s help to get the house ready for Thanksgiving.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.  I am happy to discuss further.  Please feel free to reach me at XXX-XXX-XXXX.

Best regards,

Sarah Blaine

And here’s the response I got, in its entirety:

Good afternoon Mrs. Blaine,

Thank you very much for voicing your concerns.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

-_________ and _________

I know that we have a problem in this country: parents vilify teachers, and teachers vilify parents.  I do not want to jump on the teacher-bashing bandwagon.  I by no means think my kid is perfect, and like I said, I think that the four hours the homework actually took easily could have been compressed to two hours if E had been fresh when she sat down to begin her work.  But a feature of nightly homework is that our kids aren’t fresh when they begin it: they begin their homework after a 6 or 7 hour school day (plus commuting time).

Teachers, we parents want to be on your side.  We really do, and in large part the reason I started writing this blog was to help parents and teachers find ways to speak to each other, and to reasonably voice our concerns.  But when your responses to our legitimate concerns amount to nothing more than what appear to be, when We the Parents read between the lines, perfunctory and polite f– yous, we get upset.  And we get angry.  And we feel like we’ve had enough.  And the divide between parents and teachers grows rather than shrinks.

How can parents and teachers find ways to have meaningful conversations and dialogues with each other?  How can we find ways to listen and really hear what we are saying?  How can we find ways to work collaboratively with each other, rather than alienating each other?  I know that email gets in the way, but it’s also almost impossible for me to address these issues by telephone, as you’re busy teaching our children.  I am all for high standards and a demanding education.  But when I watch demands for more rigor and increased grit undermine my children’s childhoods, I get angry.  There is no excuse for assigning hours of homework to 10 year olds.

I’m a former teacher.  I know that, at best, the jury is still out on the efficacy of homework — especially at the elementary school level (see here, here, and here).  As a parent, I’m not opposed to all homework.  I think it’s important for our kids to have routines, to have parental oversight of some school work to ensure that they’re holding themselves to high standards, and I think that well-designed and thoughtful homework helps to improve the school-home relationship.  But that’s not what I’m seeing this year.  Rather, the bulk of what my kid is bringing home is hours of worksheets.  Test prep.  It is work for work’s sake.  And it impedes my ability to parent my child as I see fit.

I’ve worked hard to make sure that E is a conscientious and careful student.  But I worry that she’s become conscientious and careful at the expense of a childhood she won’t be able to live twice.  After 42 years, I’ve realized how precious childhood is, and I’m a firm believer in the idea that no one on his deathbed wishes that he’d worked more.

It’s really hard to parent a child in our achievement-driven culture.  On the one hand, I’ve got an excellent student on my hands, and I don’t want to stand between her and a highly-selective college or university someday.  She wants to please her parents and her teachers, she wants to succeed and do well, and she is an ambitious kid.  But on the other hand, I want her to live her childhood as a child.  I want her to run around the neighborhood playing with her friends, even those who are younger and/or get out of school an hour or two earlier than she does.

Teachers, I want you to partner with me in helping to educate and raise my kids.  This is a team effort, and I’m willing to pull my weight.  However, teachers, you can’t begin to help me if you won’t hear me, honor me, respond to me in a substantive way, and respect my concerns about what today’s version of public education is doing to our children.  My kids deserve no less.

I have no interest in playing gotcha or getting you in trouble or running this up the chain of command or even second guessing  your teaching in the court of public opinion.  But if you won’t engage, you leave me no choice.  As I tell my kids, there are battles I expect them to fight themselves, and I won’t rescue them from their own mistakes.  But this is a policy issue that is far beyond 10 and 11 year olds.  And when it comes to bad policy in our public schools, I will fight you until my kids graduate and beyond, especially if you refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of my concerns. Welcome to democracy in action.  Oh, and by the way: Happy Thanksgiving to you, too.

P.S. My daughter arrived home from school.  She said that her English-Language Arts teacher pulled her aside to tell her to “make sure to tell her mother” that the reason they had two ReadWorks assignments last night was that “they” were talking in class and so the class couldn’t finish the one they were doing as classwork.  E, an honest kid, admitted to me that she was one of the talkers, but again, if you’re consistently pushing kids beyond their limits and expecting them to behave like automotons, they are going to rebel in the little ways available to them.  And don’t even get me started on the propriety of using my kid as your messenger rather than addressing my concerns yourself.  Finally, I thought the purpose of homework was to support pedagogy, not to serve as a punishment. I’m not sure how children are supposed to learn to love school if schoolwork is equated with punishment.

Addendum (1/5/16): One of her team of teachers — and, incidentally, the more flagrant assigner of work for work’s sake — did call me about a week after this incident.  We spoke for awhile, and it was a decent talk.  I expressed my concerns, and she did give me the option of pulling the plug on the homework, but not with a reassurance that doing so wouldn’t affect my kid’s grades (i.e., as I understand it, my kid could still “lose points” for not completing assignments even if I write a note explaining the issue).  I do think she understood, however, my anger and frustration at her decision to use my kid as a go-between when she had no way to know whether my kid was even aware that I’d emailed about the issue, and I am hopeful that she won’t repeat that mistake.

The homework load was lighter between Thanksgiving and Christmas, but it was unclear to me how much of that was because of the natural ebb and flow of the school year (the marking period ended during that time, and we were all busy with winter parties and concerts and whatnot).  Last night, however, the homework load was back — and just as extreme.  I’ve instituted a new policy of not allowing my kids to start their homework until I get home from work: that way they have about 2 hours in the afternoon to run and play and be kids — and when they do sit down to work, they’re fresher and more focused from having that time off.  But my big one worked from 6 p.m. until I pulled the plug a little before 9 p.m. last night, with only a break for family supper.  And even my first grader spent about 90 minutes on a combination of homework and reading.

Please, teachers, especially elementary school teachers, please be thoughtful about the work you’re assigning, and don’t assign work unless you truly believe that its worth is more than the worth of the precious family time we working parents cherish with our children.  Teachers, I will bend over backward to support you and your role in raising my children, but please also remember that respect and support are — or at least should be — a two-way street.  Thank you.

Those Terrifying Teachers

  1. Those who control education policy in this country these days are obsessed with getting our kids college and career ready. They want our kids to succeed. But their narrow definition of success is bankrupt of humanity. The implicit assumption in a goal of “college and career readiness” is that it is the job of schools to prepare our kids for getting into the most highly-selective colleges so that they can go on to have the most financially lucrative white-collar careers. The college and career readiness mantra leaves no room for the satisfaction of a master craftsman, a choice to pursue service over money, or even the stereotype of the starving artist. The college and career readiness trope is about measuring success by measuring bank accounts.

As a child, I grew up in a wealthy community in which the overwhelming value transmitted to children by that community was that success meant the acquisition of material wealth. In particular, the message that was drilled into me, over and over again, was that success meant achieving top grades and participating in activities that would make me attractive to highly-competitive colleges and universities. Attend one of those highly selective colleges or universities, the message went, and I would never have to worry about material wealth, or achieving success as my community defined it.

I always had a hard time explicitly swallowing this message, but I nevertheless internalized it. I attended a highly-selective college, although I had to fight with my parents about my choice, because attending one of the small, liberal arts colleges that comprise “The Little Three” wasn’t as instantly impressive to strangers as it would have been if I’d attended a name recognition giant like Harvard or even Cornell. My small-scale rebellion was to choose to apply Early Decision to the small liberal arts college I thought would be the best fit for me instead of waiting to hear from the better known colleges my parents would have preferred.

My micro-rebellions continued, even as the internalized values of my childhood predominated. For instance, I felt drawn to the kibbutz movement, although once I spent a few months volunteering on a kibbutz after college, I quickly realized that theory was swell, but practically speaking, the kibbutz movement — and commune life more generally — was not all it was cracked up to be.

After college and my return from a post-college year of volunteering in Israel, I took some time to get my bearings waiting tables before I ended up at a master of arts in teaching program and eventually in a rural Maine classroom. As I’ve written before, I was young and naive and I’m sure I was not nearly the teacher then that I think I could be now. But I contributed something positive to the world, and overall I think that my classroom time in Maine was a net-positive for my students and their community before I returned to New Jersey to be closer to my mother, who was, by then, six years into a cancer diagnosis. Some day, I’d like to return back to a high school classroom.

Back in New Jersey, I applied to law school. And again, I got sucked into the definition of success that had been drilled into me as a child, as this definition was once again reinforced in law school. The message about success in law school was that success was about achieving the highest grades and getting job offers from the most prestigious law firms. Again, I sort of bucked the system, but not really: I went to a large New Jersey law firm with high salaries and a good reputation, but because I was married and gave birth to my first child before I graduated from law school, I turned down offers from more prestigious New York law firms. I knew that I couldn’t be the kind of parent — and daughter to my still cancer-fighting mother — that I wanted to be if I needed to bill large law firm hours and manage a Manhattan commute.

I spent seven years at that large New Jersey law firm, although the last year or two were spent in a crisis of conscience as I tried, among other things, to square my internalized notions of success with the idea that I didn’t want to — and wasn’t — doing what it would have taken to try to “succeed” there: i.e., make partner. And to be honest, I can’t even begin to imagine how miserable I’d be now if I had done those things. As it is, I regret that I spent much less time with my mother than I wish I had during the last year of her life, because I was so worried about making a good impression during my first year at that law firm.

If I had overcome my conscience and values enough to stay, I would have grown more and more miserable as my kids advanced through our good but far from perfect local public school system, which has been rocked by education reformers’ attempts to make it an exemplar district for suburban education reform. That law firm was a home base for so-called education reformers: many of its clients were hedge funds and private equity funds, and so we were subjected to propaganda from the high-performing charter schools, and indeed, Democrats for Education Reformer’s new president, Shavar Jeffries, became a partner there shortly after I left. I would have not just worn golden handcuffs; I would have been wearing a golden gag.

So for the past three years I’ve been on a new path, a path in which the partners at the small, woman-owned law firm where I work now know, because I’ve told them directly, that I have no interest in killing myself to convince them that they should make me a partner. Rather, I cut my hours back to three-quarters time so that I have more time for my family, friends, and the causes I care about.

I am fortunate indeed to be able to work only three-quarters time without great financial stress. While I appreciate that I am privileged to live a comfortable life, I’ve stopped coveting the multi-million dollar mansions up on the hill. Let the Stephen Colberts and the Audible.com CEOs and the private equity fund managers live in those: frankly, I’m much happier in my house on a lot measured in square feet rather than acres. Here I have the good fortune of living on a close-knit street with neighbors who have become dear friends. Our children develop independence by running in a pack from noon to nightfall, a rare phenomenon these days.

For me, success is realizing that I have enough, and that time is a far more precious commodity than money. I’m successful because while my time still seems limited, I know that I’m able to be a better mother to my children because work doesn’t keep me family dinner and reading to my children. I’m successful because I’m able to cultivate friendships, and be flexible, and take my kids for a five day camping trip on an island in the middle of a lake. I’m successful because I have a spouse who supports me in these things, and doesn’t insist that I continue working at a job that was killing me, just so that we acquire more stuff.

I don’t live in one of our town’s fancy mansions. My furniture has been torn to pieces by our cats and kids. I can’t justify joining the country club at the end of my block, with its lovely pool and golf-course that my husband would enjoy. I don’t get to donate thousands of dollars at charity galas, or jet set off to Europe or a tropical island any time I’d like. My wardrobe is a far cry from being fashion forward.

But I look at my life, and I’m pretty content.

I have time for some activism in the education world.

I have some time to write this blog.

I have a husband, family, and children who mean the world to me.

I have the opportunity to offer my cousin a place to live while she attends a local college that would otherwise be out of reach for her.

I have the best neighbors I could possibly imagine, and I know the close-knit community of our street is only possible because our properties are small enough that there’s the density needed to ensure that our kids have a pack of built-in friends.

I have strong friendships, many of which have lasted for twenty or thirty years or more, and I have time to nurture those friendships through phone calls, email, and yes, even Facebook, as well as in-person visits.

I have a best friend whose joy in his daughter brings me delight every time I see them together.

I have the satisfaction of knowing that I’m able to make a small but nevertheless meaningful contribution toward moving the education conversation in this country in the direction in which I think it should go.

I have the opportunity to send my children to good schools, with diverse peers who will teach them more about the world than I could ever hope to do on my own.

I’d call each of those things a hallmark of success.

Given all of that, what do I teach my children about success in this dog-eat-dog world?  It would be easy to fall back on what I was taught as a child: that success is attending the highest ranked school and then getting the job or starting the career that will earn the most money. But I don’t believe that anymore. These days, I believe that success is not so easily measured. Success is not the biggest bank account or the most prestigious job. Success is building a life filled with meaningful relationships, opportunities for service, outlets for creativity, and the self-awareness to find contentment in enough.

The college and career readiness trope lacks humanity. It misses the point that many of us don’t want our children’s schools to set our kids on a path toward internalizing the idea that success is defined as having the most stuff.

So these days, I try to teach my kids a broader definition of success than the one I internalized as a child. I try to teach my kids that success is living a life that values kindness, service to others, and creativity. Don’t get me wrong: I have talented children, and I want them to have the opportunity to attend amazing colleges, and to pursue rewarding careers. But I also don’t want them to sacrifice their happiness and satisfaction in the pursuit of material gain. What frustrates me as a parent is that current education policy forces our schools to shove the narrow definition of success that characterized my childhood down my children’s throats.

And do you know what? I don’t think the best teachers want our children to give up kindness, service to others, compassion, or creativity either. I don’t think the best teachers define success as narrowly as education policy says they should.

These days, we live in a world in which the ultra-wealthy — through their minions — set education policy despite having little or no experience in public school classrooms.  The ultra-wealthy toil away in their Greenwich, CT hedge funds or Manhattan equity funds or Silicon Valley venture funds or their hugely-endowed philanthropic trusts, and try to bring some meaning into their lives by devoting some free time and excess cash to tinkering with our education system. But their measures of success are barren: they inundate the policy environment with claims that college and career readiness can be measured through test scores, but I notice that they don’t even attempt to measure what it means to provide an education that identifies and nurtures each child’s unique gifts and talents.

Career teachers scare the crap out of the ultra-wealthy. Career teachers scare the crap out of them because comparing the life of a career teacher to the life of an ultra-wealthy hedge fund manager demonstrates how empty a life spent in pursuit of money and power truly is. Career teachers scare the crap out of the wealthy tinkerers, because career teachers are adults who have eschewed the temptation of the private sector in exchange for the opportunity to be of service.

The ultra-wealthy attack teachers because a choice to teach is a choice to say that there are things more important than money and material success.

The ultra-wealthy are terrified by those who make the choice to teach, because a choice to teach is a choice to value service over greed. Career teachers, merely by their existence, are living critiques of the lives the ultra-wealthy have built.

The ultra-wealthy try to motivate teachers with merit pay and career ladders. But career teachers ignore the lame financial incentives and bogus career ladders, because career teachers are about measuring success by the humanity they’re able to infuse into their classrooms, not by the size of their paychecks.

So the ultra-wealthy respond by attempting to de-professionalize teaching.

The ultra-wealthy try to strip away teachers’ benefits.  The ultra-wealthy try to transform teaching into a glorified temp job by devaluing teacher training and teacher experience. But the career teachers aren’t going to stop doing what’s best for children without a fight, because the career teachers are there to serve children and communities.

The ultra-wealthy — and their minions — attack those who choose teaching as a career. They do it because teachers are the people who have implicitly voted with their feet against living lives devoted to the unregulated pursuit of greed, money, and power. And somewhere, deep down, the ultra-wealthy know that the career teachers are right to reject these things. You know those teachers: they’re terrifying indeed.

Refuse Early So Teachers Can Teach

I know this is shocking elsewhere in the country, but here in New Jersey, we just finished our second week of school.  As the school year begins, I’m reflecting on what this year’s goals for my pro-public education advocacy should be.  I know this much: my first goal is to engage, encourage, and support parents to not just refuse standardized tests like PARCC, but to refuse early and supportively (rather than confrontationally).  In particular, I think we can best support our teachers, our children, and our schools by refusing early enough in the year to empower our children’s teachers to build curriculum and lesson plans around children’s needs rather than around the dictates of the testing industry.  

To that end, I encourage you to submit your refusal letters early, as this strategy will only work if there are mass refusals.  I sent mine yesterday, as one concrete action I could take to support the #ParentStrike movement across the country.  Here is my letter, which you should feel free to copy and modify to fit your needs:

Dear Teachers:

I am Sarah Blaine, the mother of _________ in Mrs. ________’s homeroom.  I write to let you know that in accordance with Montclair Board of Education policy regarding test refusals, _________ will not be taking the PARCC test in 2016.  I write now, at the beginning of the academic year, with the hope that enough of my fellow parents will do the same so that you, my child’s teachers, will hopefully not feel constrained to teach to the PARCC or any other standardized test.  Instead, my hope is that a high number of early refusals will allow you to feel free to use your professional judgment to provide our children with the most developmentally appropriate and engaging lessons you have the power to create, instead of wasting time preparing for educationally irrelevant state-mandated tests.  

__________ is thrilled so far with both of you, and I look forward to a constructive, engaging, and challenging school year for her.  Please know that I am always open to conversation and suggestions as to how to best support __________’s learning both inside and outside of the classroom. Our family has not made this decision to refuse testing lightly, but rather as an attempt to express our support for a public education system in which teachers will once again be treated as the knowledgeable professionals we know that they are (I am a former public school teacher myself, and earned my M.A.T. before I began teaching in a rural community).

I am, of course, happy to speak with you further about this issue, but I trust that my wishes for ____________ will be respected, and that she will of course be, in accordance with district policy, provided with non-punitive alternatives.

Best regards,

 Sarah Blaine

Let our teachers focus on REAL education

Amazing graphic by Beth O’Donnell-Fisher


Are Teachers Professionals?

Peter Greene recently published a pair of pieces, here and here, on the quality of teacher education programs.  Reading his pieces — and the Ed Week blog post that inspired them — inspired me to share a few quick thoughts.  

A dozen years ago, as I sat in my Professional Ethics course one day, my ears perked up.  My professor was discussing what it means to be a professional, and was listing the traditional professions: law and medicine.  I spoke up: “What about teachers?  Aren’t teachers professionals?”  His response: “Absolutely not.”

As a former teacher, I was floored.  I think I had to reach down and physically pick my jaw up off the floor.  But in hindsight, as infuriating as I found my professor’s pronouncement at the time, his reasoning actually makes sense.  As my professor explained it, one belongs to a profession if current members of that profession take responsibility for controlling entry to that profession.  That is, lawyers — in law schools — educate future lawyers, and lawyers — through state bar examinations created and scored by lawyers — determine whether law school graduates are fit to enter the legal profession.   As I understand it, the same holds true for doctors, who are educated in medical schools, internship programs, and residency programs by doctors, and who must pass their medical boards — i.e., exams for future doctors created and scored by doctors — in order to practice medicine unsupervised.  

Superficially, traditional routes for entry into the teaching profession sound similar.  Those of us who have been licensed teachers completed a degree — either undergraduate or graduate — in a program taught by some combination of former and current teachers, and then most likely passed some iteration of the Pearson-produced Praxis test or other licensing tests required by our state departments of education.  The difference, however, is in those final words of the prior sentence: “required by our state departments of education.”  Teachers do not regulate entry into the teaching profession: rather, government bureaucrats and for-profit testing companies do.  That distinction makes a world of difference.

These days, we are constantly subjected to assaults on the teachers: by the media, by parents, by politicians, by members of the public, and sometimes by other teachers, who complain about the quality of their coworkers (I heard this from a couple of public school teachers just in the past few weeks).  We hear that teachers are lazy, that they’re lacking in content knowledge, and we parents are known to judge some of them pretty harshly ourselves.  I know that I have a habit of seeing red when teachers send assignments home from school that are riddled with spelling, grammar, and/or syntax errors.  

But take a moment, and imagine an alternate universe in which teachers are responsible for regulating their own profession.  Imagine communities where practicing teachers make the final determination of whether candidates for the teaching profession are ready to be granted professional licenses — with the knowledge that they themselves are responsible for the perceived quality of their profession.  Would a teacher agree to license a new colleague who appeared to lack a grasp of the conventions of written English?  Would a teacher agree to license a new colleague who did not have deep content-area knowledge?  Would a teacher agree to license a new colleague who had not proven himself capable of effective classroom management?  Would a teacher agree to license a new colleague who hadn’t proved himself knowledgable of the latest theories of child development and principles taught in educational psychology courses?   

Imagine teachers observing, mentoring, and evaluating candidates based on metrics they themselves developed for determining who merited a license to teach in a classroom filled with children.   Imagine the entrance exams that teachers — not Pearson — would create to ensure that those who are to follow in their footsteps are adequately prepared for the awesome task — and it truly is awesome — of ensuring that our country’s children are educated to be thoughtful, compassionate, and productive members of a society that embodies democratic values.  I truly believe that we humans tend to rise to a task when we are granted the autonomy necessary to take pride in our work, our colleagues, and our professions. Imagine, if you will, a public policy in which master teachers — like Peter Greene — truly have a say on not only what happens in the classroom, but on who is qualified to be counted among their colleagues.  Imagine teaching as a profession.  

Personally, I’d rather see these guys (included in these pictures from NPE are Jesse Hagopian, Jose Vilson, Anthony Cody, Stan Karp, and Peter Greene along with dozens of other teachers I didn’t get a chance to speak with):

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EduShyster Jennifer Berkshire Interviews Jose Vilson and Peter Greene at NPE 2015


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Jesse Hagopian speaks on Black Students Matter at NPE 2015


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The room, packed with teachers, at Jesse Hagopian’s Black Students Matter presentation at NPE 2015


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Geralyn Bywater McLaughlin and Nancy Carlsson-Paige of Defending the Early Years Present at NPE 2015 

 determining entry into the teaching profession rather than people like these guys:

 

Chris_Christie.jpg

After all, our kids deserve teachers selected by professionals who know what they’re doing.  I, for one, place my faith in the teachers, not the bureaucrats and politicians.

P.S., Obviously, we lawyers could also do a far better job at self-regulation than we do.  I certainly count myself among those attorneys who have had the experience of wondering how, exactly, my adversary managed to graduate from law school and pass the bar exam.  But at least we only have ourselves to blame.

 

Squelching Out the Meaning

Peter Greene’s recent blog post “Meaning and Standardized Writing” is spot on. As Greene writes, the problem with a great deal of student writing is that it’s motivated by the need to complete the assignment and be graded, rather than by addressing the problem that all good writing seeks to solve, which Greene conceptualizes as: “How can I communicate what I want to communicate in a meaningful way?”

Greene then juxtaposes good writing with standardized-test writing:

The standardized testing approach to writing, both in “writing” assessments and in the open-ended response format now creeping into other tests, gets virtually nothing right at all. Nothing. The goal is itself a meager one– let’s just measure student technical skill– and even that is not measured particularly well. Test writing is the opposite of good writing. The problem the student is trying to solve is not “How do I create a meaningful expression” but “How do I provide what the test scorer wants to see” or “What words can I use to fill up this space.”

Tonight, my 4th grader brought me her ELA (English Language Arts) homework to review. Here’s the prompt (or, as Greene rightly notes, the “stimulus”):

And they say there’s no “test prep” in our schools this year…

First of all, I’m not sure why it’s the “SEEC” method rather than the SEEEEECC method, but hey, what do I know?  Now I am a lawyer, and the SEEC (“SEEEEECC”) method reminds me very much of the law school writing formula, IRAC (Issue, Rule, Analysis, Conclusion).  I don’t think that rules of thumb for structuring writing are terrible for writers embarking on their first efforts at a new kind of analytical or expository task, but writing teachers must ensure that their students understand that writing rules are made to be broken, and that slavish adherence to writing rules will lead to kludgy, painful-to-read prose.

The problems with standardized writing assessments, however, are two-fold. First, many writers never make that leap away from the SEEC or IRAC rules, so that their writing is so rule-oriented that it’s boring, inflexible, and painful to read (trust me, I’ve read my share of painful legal briefs, although I’ve also read some really outstanding — and engaging — legal prose). Second, the rubrics (or scoring matrices) reward strict adherence to the rule, which again reinforces the problematic idea that good writing is writing that adheres to rules.  

Here’s my fourth grader’s response to the SEEC-based writing prompt (used with her permission):

I love my kid, but I can’t figure out who was more bored: her when she wrote this, or me when I read it.

It’s fine and it’s technically correct, but Greene’s point shines through: there is no question that this paragraph is not a paragraph in which my 10 year old is communicating what she wants to communicate in a meaningful way. Rather, she is — as Greene predicts — writing to answer the wrong questions. Her writing is dull and lifeless because she is asking herself “what can I write to satisfy this assignment” or “how can I fill up this piece of paper” or “what can I use to fill in five paragraph-sized blanks,” and, as Greene notes, “these are all the wrong question to start with.”

On the other hand, there has been a lot of “authentic” writing — i.e., writing that answers the “correct” question of how can I communicate what I want to communicate — going on in my house recently (and I don’t mean my blogging, although of course that’s exactly what my blogging is — my attempt to communicate to the world my point of view regarding the “reforms” to our education system).

The weekend before Thanksgiving, my daughters started playing “The Letter Game.” My oldest daughter started writing letters to my younger daughter. My younger daughter kept bringing them to me to help her read them, but what I didn’t realize at the time (I might have been busy blogging) was that my kindergartener was writing decipherable notes (full of invented spellings, of course) back in response to her sister. For about two hours, the two of them were communicating through the written word. As they were wrapping up their game, I realized what had been going on, and was amazed by the little one’s notes. (Unfortunately, the big one managed to throw them away while she was on a cleanup frenzy the following day, so I can’t show them to you here.)

To me, that was an extraordinary breakthrough. It was my little one’s first authentic experience with using written language to express what she wanted to communicate. Over the long weekend, a lot more authentic writing happened in my house. The girls (my daughters and their close friend) began writing “newspapers” documenting happenings in the imaginary world they’d conjured up. Here are a few examples:

FYI, Jake Blaine is a figment of their imagination. I’ve never met a Jake Blaine in my life.


Apparently the Newspaper is in the process of being rebranded…

And my little one decided to start “blogging.” Here are some of her “Blog Posts”:

“Julianna’s blogs.”


(“My friends are sad.”)


(“A cat sat on a mat.”)


(“Flower grow very tall. And pink. Sun Post.”) The big one incorporated this into their newspaper, above.

The newspapers and the “blog posts” are writing that these kids generated for themselves, to communicate what they want to say in a meaningful way.

Do you see the difference between writing that is authentic, or, as Greene says, between writing that communicates what the author wants to communicate in a meaningful way and writing that attempts to do nothing more than fill the page, follow a formula, or give the exam-reader what the exam-reader is looking to find? A writing teacher who knows his students (like Greene), is best situated to design writing assignments that will facilitate an environment in which students learn to effectively communicate what they want to communicate in a meaningful way. But when the stimuli-drafters are far removed from the classroom, the students, and their teachers, and when the stimuli ask students to react formulaically to the prompt, we suck the joy out of writing, out of school, and out of teaching.

I don’t blame my daughter’s ELA teacher. I’ve spoken with her in detail, and I know how much she tries to slip authentic and joyful assignments between the inevitable test prep. I know how much more she wants for the kids, but how hamstrung she is by the district’s (and PARCC’s) demands. But to me, the juxtaposition of the joyful, authentic writing happening without adult intervention in my house against the dry and lifeless writing my daughter did for school tonight illustrate better than anything I can write exactly what’s wrong with our high-stakes test driven culture, and the all-business ELA Common Core State Standards that accompany that test-driven, automaton-producing educational ideal.

I know detractors might argue that these are two different types of writing: analytical writing versus creative writing. But that’s exactly my — and I believe Greene’s — point. When writing is authentic and meaningful, expository and analytical writing is both intellectually meaningful and creative (check out your average New Yorker article). But when formulas and mnemonics rule, writing becomes about spitting words out onto paper, and not about contributing meaning to our human endeavor on this lonely little planet. Why on earth are we allowing test-driven school culture (especially one that attempts to standardize and test writing, of all things) to squelch the meaning out of our kids’ words?

Asinine Arne’s Idiotic Idea

Update (12/6/14): The proposed rules have been published in the Federal Register.  There is a 60 day comment period.  Please go and comment (I submitted a slightly edited version of this post, of course). Here is the link: https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2014/12/03/2014-28218/teacher-preparation-issues Thanks for your attention to and care regarding education and the preparation of new teachers.  Oh, and be forewarned that there is a 5,000 character limit in the online comment box, so if your comments exceed that (as mine obviously did), you will need to add them as a PDF or other document.

Update (12/2/14):  A slightly less “salty” version of this piece appeared on Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post blog, The Answer Sheet, today.  Here’s the link:  http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/12/02/the-concept-education-secretary-duncan-has-entirely-missed/   To be honest, I actually like the WaPo piece better.  I think that toning down the raw edges of this piece increases its impact.  So please feel free to read in either place and let me know what you think.

The pre-Washington Post piece appears below:

When it comes to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his asinine ideas, it’s hard to figure out which idea is the worst of the worst. But I think we have a winner. On November 25th, the New York Times published an article titled, “U.S. Wants Teacher Training Programs to Track How Graduates’ Students Perform.” Yes, you read that correctly. When an aspiring teacher graduates from her teacher education program, that program will be ranked based on how the aspiring teacher’s students perform (on standardized tests). And, even worse, programs that fail to generate higher student performance (never mind whether some are sending teachers to suburban classrooms full of privileged children while others are sending new teachers to the rural or urban trenches) will lose some federal funding if their alumni’s students fail to perform. Now, please bear with me. Out here in lawyer-land, there’s a slippery concept that every first year law student must wrap her head around: it’s the idea of distinguishing between actual (or “but for”) causation and proximate (or “legal”) causation. Actual causation is any one of a vast link in the chain of events from the world was created to Harold injured me by hitting me, that, at some level, whether direct or attenuated, “caused” my injury. For instance, Harold couldn’t have hit me if the world hadn’t been created, because if the world hadn’t been created, Harold wouldn’t exist (nor would I), and therefore I never would have been hit by Harold. So, if actual or “but for” causation was legally sufficient to hold someone responsible for an injury, I could try suing “the Creator,” as if the Creator is somehow at fault for Harold’s decision to hit me. Well, that’s preposterous, even by lawyer standards, right? The law agrees with you: the Creator is too far removed from the injury, and therefore cannot be held legally responsible for it. So to commit a tort (legal wrong) against someone else, it isn’t sufficient that the wrong allegedly committed actually — at some attenuated level — caused the injured’s injury (i.e., that the injury would not have happened “but for” some cause). Instead, the wrong must also be proximally related to that injury: that is, there must be a close enough tie between the allegedly negligent or otherwise wrongful act and the injury that results. So while it would be silly to hold “the Creator” legally responsible for Harold hitting me, it would not be similarly silly to hold Harold responsible for hitting me. Harold’s act was not only an actual or “but for” cause of my injury, it was also an act closely enough related to my injury to confer legally liability onto Harold. This is what we lawyers call proximate (or legal) causation: that is, proximate causation is an act that is a close enough cause of the injury that it’s fair — at a basic, fundamental level — to hold the person who committed that injurious act legally responsible (i.e., liable to pay damages or otherwise make reparations) for his act. [As an aside to my aside, if this sort of reasoning makes your head explode, law school probably isn’t a great option for you.] Well, it appears that Arne Duncan would have failed his torts class. You see, Arne didn’t get the memo regarding the distinction between actual causation and proximate causation. Instead, what Arne proposes is to hold teacher prep programs responsible for the performance of their alumni’s K-12 students (and to punish them if their alumni’s students don’t measure up). Never mind the myriad chains in the causation link between the program’s coursework and the performance of its graduates’ students (presumably on standardized tests). Arne Duncan somehow thinks that he can proximally — fairly — link these kids’ performance not just to their teachers (a dicey proposition on its own), but to their teachers’ prep programs. Apparently Arne can magically tease out all other factors, such as where an alumna teaches, what her students’ home lives are like, how her students’ socio-economic status affects their academic performance, the level of her students’ intrinsic motivation, as well as any issues in the new alumna’s personal life that might affect her performance in the classroom, and, of course, the level of support provided to the new alumna as a new teacher by her department and administration, and so forth. As any first year law student can tell you, Arne’s proposal is asinine, as the alumna’s student’s test results will be so far removed from her teaching program’s performance that ascribing proximate causation from the program to the children’s performance offends a reasonable person’s sense of justice. [Not to mention the perverse incentives this would create for teaching programs’ career advising centers — what teaching program would ever encourage a new teacher to take on a challenging teaching assignment?] So what’s the rationale for Asinine Arne’s Idiotic Idea?

“The last thing they want or need is an easy A,” Mr. Duncan said. “This is nothing short of a moral issue. All educators want to do a great job for their students, but too often they struggle at the beginning of their careers and have to figure out too much on the job by themselves.”

I graduated from a teacher prep program. I earned an M.A.T. (Master of Arts in Teaching) from the University of Maine, where my concentration was in teaching secondary school English. And Arne both is and isn’t wrong. There is no question that my M.A.T. program could have been a year of easy A’s for me. There was a lot of work, but it’s true, I didn’t really find the intellectual work of the classes themselves particularly challenging. However, I made a decision — and I don’t think I was alone among teachers in making this decision — that if I was going to have the moral authority as a teacher to ask my students to work to the best of their ability, then I had to have had the experience of working to the best of my academic ability. So, I really worked my tail off in that program because I felt it was important for me to do so, not because the courses themselves really demanded that level of work. And yes, for whatever it’s worth, I graduated with a perfect GPA. But as I understand it, perfect GPAs common in many graduate programs, not just education. That being said, I had a few terrific professors in my M.A.T. program (Ted Coladarci for Educational Psychology comes to mind) and I had my share of ho-hum to pretty awful professors there as well (I won’t name names, but my personal “favorite” was the all-but-dissertation grad student who taught us nothing but then required us to write an end-of-course reflection paper about the transformative experiences we’d had in her course — a lot of alcohol enabled me to draft 57 lies in 4 pages). But good, awful, and in-between, that 13 month teacher prep program also provided me with a strong grounding in the theoretical — and practical — components of running my own classroom. Our program started in mid-June (on my birthday, in fact), and after a summer of intense theory, from the first day public schools were in session that fall, we were in actual classrooms with actual students. At first we observed, met regularly with our mentor teachers, and began designing lessons to meet our students’ needs. As the fall semester progressed, we taught some lessons in our practicum classes. Then, in the spring semester, we student taught full time (we each had two 8 week placements) for the entire semester (our academic courses met in the late afternoons and evenings). That spring, I was responsible for teaching — under the guidance of and with the help of my mentor teachers — full rosters of students. After the spring semester ended, we returned to straight classroom work for the summer to round out our education coursework. When I began my first teaching job the following fall, I was as well-prepared as I think I could be, but I was also unprepared, because there is a huge gap between a student teacher, who benefits from the gravitas and classroom management accountability instilled by her mentor teachers, and a brand new teacher who must, for the first time, create the gravitas and accountability necessary to effective classroom management on her own. It isn’t that my academic preparation was bad — it really wasn’t — it’s simply that there is a fundamental divide (even with the year of practicum and student teaching experience our program afforded us) between studying how to do something and actually doing that thing yourself. After teaching for a couple of years, for a whole variety of reasons, I left the classroom, moved back near my family in New Jersey, and decided to apply to law school. I am here to tell you that my law degree provided me with far, far less practical experience than my M.A.T. degree. For those of you who aren’t familiar with how law school works, at a typical law school you take a standardized curriculum the first year. Pretty much every first year law student in this country studies Contracts, Torts, Property, Criminal Law, Civil Procedure, Constitutional Law, and Legal Research & Writing in her first year of law school. During the following two years, law students take a variety of electives, although most law students make sure to take a few other basic classes during those years: i.e., Corporations, Evidence, and maybe Criminal Procedure. In Legal Research & Writing a law student writes a few legal memoranda and a couple of legal briefs. In the entire year long course, I think we finished four major pieces of writing (two memos, a summary judgment brief, and an appellate brief). What we don’t learn in law school is anything practical. We don’t learn how to draft the supporting papers for our motions, we don’t learn how to talk to adversaries on the phone, we don’t learn about scheduling orders and negotiating confidentially agreements, and we don’t learn how to interview clients. We certainly don’t learn how to review documents, create deposition outlines, or draft contracts. Anything practical we learn during our law school years we learn from our summer internships: I learned a fair amount interning for a Third Circuit Court of Appeals judge after my first year of law school, and even more as a second year summer associate at the large firm I joined upon graduation. And for the record, as with my teaching program, I had some terrific law school professors (Claire Dickerson and Diana Sklar come to mind), and I had some pretty awful law school professors. Frankly, that was my experience from elementary school through the end of law school — some teachers were awesome for me, others, not so much. When I left my M.A.T. program to begin my first year as a teacher running my own classroom, it took me a bit of time to get my sea legs as far as classroom management went, but my professional program had provided me with the tools to get there. When I graduated from law school (and FYI, I graduated with high honors, so the issue isn’t one of not being able to hack law school), finished studying for and taking the bar exam, and actually started my first job, I knew nothing. More experienced attorneys had to walk me — step by step — through how to do everything from how to put together a motion to how to take a deposition. The point of this Very Long BlogPost is that Asinine Arne has, to my mind, entirely missed the point. No professional academic program can 100% prepare you to hit the ground running in your career. Rather, professional expertise is something you develop over years of actually practicing your profession — and the further you progress in your career, the more you appreciate the theoretic base you learned in your academic preparation. I’m a far better lawyer in my tenth year of practice than I was in my first, and I imagine that if instead I was a 15th year teacher this year, I’d be a heck of a lot better at teaching than I was when I left the classroom after two years of teaching experience. That being said, compared to law school, there is no question that my M.A.T. program gave me the skills I needed to develop professional expertise, and frankly, it did a far better job of teaching practical skills I’d need in my classroom than law school did at teaching practical skills I’d need in the courtroom. Arne says:

“All educators want to do a great job for their students, but too often they struggle at the beginning of their careers and have to figure out too much on the job by themselves.”

Figuring out how to do the job by yourself is the key to developing from a student into a professional, whether you’re a teacher or a lawyer. At some point, every professional must make this transition, and all of the training in the world can’t substitute for the on-the-job experience that transforms a recent professional program graduate into a seasoned veteran. Actual professionals know this. It’s too bad Asinine Arne didn’t get the memo. P.S.: Arne Duncan has been secretary of education for six years, and in that role he is ultimately responsible for the educational progress of all U.S. students. According to the most recent PISA results, U.S. students’ scores haven’t improved on Duncan’s watch. Therefore, by Duncan’s own logic, I propose that we deprive his alma mater — Harvard University — of some federal funding for its current students because Duncan’s failure to improve U.S. PISA scores demonstrates that Harvard (which educated Duncan) is responsible for U.S. students’ flat scores on the PISA exam. If Duncan and Harvard don’t like the logic of my modest proposal, then Duncan should withdraw his proposed scheme for rating teacher preparation programs based on the educational outcomes of their alumni’s students, as my logic simply tracks his own.

The Best For Me

by Sarah Blaine

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day. I expect my Facebook feed will be replete with one of my pet peeves: “Thank you to the Best Mom in the Whole World!” and “My Mom is #1” and “My Mom is the Most Awesomest Mom Evah!” I hate that. When someone announces that his mom is the BEST mom, he’s implicitly stating that the rest of our moms are the second-best moms. Ugh.

So when one of my daughters told me that I was the best mom, I didn’t just say thank you. Instead, I asked if that meant that Quinn’s mom and Max’s mom and Grey’s mom and Zane’s mom weren’t the best moms for Quinn and Max and Grey and Zane. As a former English teacher, I believe that language matters. So I was thrilled when she altered her language to say what I love to hear: “You are the best mom in the world FOR ME!”

Teachers are the same way. As a high school senior, I took AP Calculus. I had a legendary teacher, Mr. Winkler, and I know that many of my high school friends mourned his loss when we read his obituary a few months ago. There was group work in that class, and challenging assignments intended to help students to really dig into why Calculus worked, and so forth. Many of Mr. Winkler’s students went on to study advanced mathematics and related subjects in college. But I wasn’t ready to buckle down and study, and the bulk of what happened in that class went over my head. He couldn’t get through to me. I was too wrapped up in other things, including but not limited to the nasty nightly battles in my parents’ acrimonious divorce. So in the spring of 1991, I took my “Gentleman’s C,” which Mr. Winkler was kind enough to provide, and my failing score on the AP exam, and I went off to college, fully intending to never study math again.

But as a college sophomore, I had one of those life changing professors, Professor Howard Bernstein, who was a professor who challenged me and taught me and inspired me and transformed me. He was an adjunct, and the class I took with him was Historical and Philosophical Foundations of Education. We read Rousseau and Plato and Dewey and John Holt. We read E.D. Hirsch and Diane Ravitch (this was many years before Ravitch’s change of heart). We talked about the canon, and standards, and curriculum, and the whats and whys of education. We talked about what it meant to educate, and what it meant to be educated. We talked about what it meant to teach, and what true learning looked like. Professor Bernstein inspired me, and empowered me, and kindled my interest in education — the interest that sparked this blog more than 20 years later.

One of the things we talked about in Professor Bernstein’s class was the achievement gap between men and women in math and the sciences. I got inspired to examine why I hated math. So the following semester I took calculus. I earned an A+. My college Calculus professor was decent, but he was not, by any means, a better teacher than Mr. Winkler. The difference was me: I, the student, was ready to learn.

Last year, my daughter was in second grade. I’d heard mixed reports about her teacher (some really positive, some less so), but I always begin the school year by assuming the best. Her second grade teacher turned out to be a lousy fit for my daughter. But for some of my daughter’s friends, she was terrific. Thankfully, my daughter’s third grade teaching team has been terrific for her, and she’s gone from, among other things, “hating math” to considering “math teacher” as a future career. But I imagine that there are other kids in the class for whom that is not the case. And that’s okay.

Just as kids are not one-size-fits-all, neither are teachers. Some teachers will inspire some of us. Other teachers will leave us cold. And there’s not a lot of rhyme or reason there. It’s like falling in love. Someone can look great for you on paper, but in real life, you just don’t click.

We all make our way through school: sometimes we have teachers who inspire us, like Professor Bernstein. Sometimes we have terrific teachers we’re just not yet ready to learn from, like Mr. Winkler was for me. And sometimes we have teachers with whom we just don’t click. That’s an inherent part of the human experience. I know it was true when I taught: there were kids I know I reached, and there were kids I know I didn’t reach.

It should go without saying that teaching is an inherently subjective profession, and that different students have different needs at different times in their lives. That’s why I find the attempts to rank and sort teachers by value-added measurement so preposterous. Value-added measurement leaves common sense in the dust.  It forgets that all important prepositional phrase: “for me.”  

There is no more one objectively “best” teacher for all students that there is one objectively “best” mom for all kids. I hope my kids will continue to believe that I am the best mom in the world for them. But when my kids enter a classroom, the most I can realistically ask of their teachers is that their teachers try to differentiate their teaching enough to be the best they can be for my kids. It’s not realistic to expect all of my kids’ teachers to be transformational. But I do expect my kids to learn a little bit about the human experience in many different classrooms with many different teachers, even (and perhaps especially) in the classrooms of the teachers with whom they don’t click. That is where they will learn that humanity comes in many different sizes and shapes and form, and that no human beings, be they teachers or students, are one-size-fits-all. What will remain consistent for my kids are my expectations: each of my kids will be expected to work hard in every classroom, regardless of how well she clicks with the teacher.  

P.S. I love this article, which demonstrates the fallacies that can result when we confuse correlation with causation.

To Love Me, To Civilize Me, and To Keep Me Safe

by Sarah Blaine

I think we all, whether explicitly articulated or not, indeed, whether we are parents or not, have a parenting mantra.

As my neighbors will attest, I regularly ask my daughters: “What’s my job?” Their canned response, developed as a family over time, is: “To love me, to civilize me, and to keep me safe.”

I truly believe that about sums it up.

My job is to love my children: wholly, unconditionally, and deeply.

My job is to keep my children safe: and by safe I don’t mean wrapped in a bubble, free from injuries, but rather safe to explore, safe to take risks, and safe to push the boundaries of their worlds as they grow and change.

And finally, my job is to civilize my children. That is, it is my job to ensure that they learn to value kindness, to be considerate of others, and to learn to effectively navigate the shoals of growing up in the contradictory and confusing culture we call — sometimes without noticing the irony — western civilization. Civilizing them also includes teaching them not to fart in public and that locking the cat into a “cat haven” under the bed is a recipe for laundry, not entertainment.

Civilizing children is transmitting knowledge from one generation to the next. Teachers and parents need to be partners in this endeavor: neither can cede responsibility to the other.

My family developed our mantra over time, and I imagine it’s not done evolving. When my oldest was still an only, only the civilizing part of the mantra had evolved, and we used it as a party trick. I’d ask, “What’s my job?” and my daughter would pipe back in her two-year old lisp: “To civilize me.” My friends would chuckle. Love and safety didn’t need to be explicitly stated. For her, they went without saying.

But the concept of civilization became a powerful force: discipline (both positive and negative) became about encouraging civilized behavior, and discouraging uncivilized habits. It started as a joke, but the tool worked. Discipline stopped being as much of a power struggle and instead became an attempt to guide my daughter into channeling her self-centered, selfish, animal impulses into a more nuanced, adult, and, yes, civilized view of the world, one where everything wasn’t ME ME ME NOW NOW NOW. One where she was a willing participant in civilizing herself.

But then my little one, my younger daughter, my pixie as my neighbor calls her, came along. And eventually, she learned to talk. The waters run deep in that one, and it’s a magical experience to discover the corridors of thought her mind explores. They could not be more different than my own.

It’s easy for me to figure out what the big one is thinking: it’s usually similar to what I’m thinking.

But the little one is contemplative, and full of little quirks and notions, and sometimes dark thoughts, and always full of questions. She cannot be hurried. She has fears. She is also anxious to a fault, and I work hard to help her examine and keep her anxiety in check.

My little one was the one who evolved our party trick into a mantra: the words were not these, but the intent was clear: all discipline wasn’t just about civilizing her, she pointed out; sometimes it was about teaching her how to keep her body and her soul safe. So we evolved our saying into mommy’s (and daddy’s) job being “to civilize her and to keep her safe.” It went along with a parallel mantra: “What do mommies always do?” I’d ask. She’d answer, “Come back.”

My little one is the most affectionate, generous child I have ever encountered: she is full of “hug alerts” and “I just wanted to give you a kiss” and constant snuggles. Her gift is for giving. She made it clear that parenting wasn’t just about civilizing her and keeping her safe: it was also about loving her enough to recognize and adapt to her unique spirit, which I love and cherish, even though it is so very different from my own. And she needed me to state my love. Explicitly. My job is to love her.

So our mantra evolved — again — into its current form: our job as parents is to love our children, to civilize our children, and to keep them safe.

Parenting children and especially, for me, parenting two very different children, has stretched my soul and, I hope, given me a little insight and humility concerning my character and experience. One thing parenting has certainly taught me is that parenting is an expansive and evolving endeavor: it isn’t a one-size-fits-all endeavor.

I can be as judge-y as the next person, but I try harder these days to refrain from indulging in that cathartic exercise in superiority: the decisions I make for the youngest are sometimes so different than the decisions I make for the oldest that I’m sure an outsider would judge me out of my mind. But my children are so different, and one-size-fits-all does not meet their needs, nor would it help them develop into their wisest, kindest, and most civilized selves.

My oldest thrived on learning to sound out words at age 3. At pick up on her first day of kindergarten, her experienced and gifted teacher looked me in the eye and said, “I see we have a real reader here.” And we did: she came into kindergarten reading Magic Tree House and other chapter books, and during “book buddies” with the second graders, she discovered that she was a more fluent and accomplished reader than her second grade buddy.

My little one will be 6 this fall. She hasn’t started kindergarten yet, but I know that her sister’s entering-kindergarten reading fluency is far-off. However, from the time she could talk, she has wanted to know about skeletons and bodies. We google images of animal skeletons together, and my iPad is full of apps about biology and the human body because of her. She once spent about forty-five minutes detailing — for my somewhat stunned cousin — how to dissect a rat, which, I hasten to add, she learned from an iPad app aimed at high schoolers, with the eponymous name “Rat Dissection.

As parents rather than full-time educators, it is hard to feel that we can have a meaningful voice in the education policy world. I think that many parents sit out these debates not because they don’t have thoughts and concerns and ideas, but because they worry that they are non-expert participants in an education world that teems with experts, both actual and self-anointed.

Who are we? We are just parents. We defer to those in the know.

But we parents do have insight, and we need to have a voice, because we do have some wisdom, wisdom that is worth sharing, wisdom that can add richness and perspective to a debate that is often sadly lacking in both.

That is why Louis C.K.’s comments about his daughters’ math homework, standardized testing, and Common Core were so powerful. We have heard so few parents weigh in on this debate.

And that vacuum is why I read this Success Academy teacher’s response to Louis C.K. as so tone-deaf:

So instead of throwing in the towel, what we must teach alongside these more difficult—yet completely achievable—standards is grit. Parents and teachers have to work together to model and reinforce perseverance both at school and at home. A few tears shed over homework or a test is simply not reason enough for us to balk at meaningful, thoughtful math that will better prepare all kids for a changing and more dynamic workforce. When we as adults complain that the bar is too high, we send students the message that we don’t believe they’re capable of greatness.

Of course, I empathize with Louis C.K.’s frustrations to a certain extent. This math looks very different. The worksheets his daughter brought home might not have been the best quality—indeed, teachers are still figuring out the new standards, too. And nobody wants to see his child upset. But a Twitter tirade doesn’t help anybody, least of all students.

For my older daughter, this teacher’s comments are spot on. For her, occasional tears shed over math homework are character-building exercises in resiliency: academics come so easily to her that it’s a powerful lesson for her to learn to persevere when she does hit a stumbling block.

But for my younger daughter, the same tears might be a devastating watershed that could undermine her future academic success. And what is most upsetting about this slippery critique of Louis C.K.’s parenting by a teacher is that it’s a call from a teacher to shut out parents’ voices, to shut down the conversation: well, that’s not the kind of teacher I seek out for my children. Plus, she’s wrong. I bet Louis C.K.’s tirade did help two small people: his daughters, who experienced a powerful lesson from their dad’s empathy.

One thing that parenting has taught me, viscerally, in a way that classroom learning and book learning and even my experience as a teacher could not, is how different children truly can be, and that one-size-fits-all assembly-line education does not — and cannot — fit all of our children.

My youngest will enter kindergarten this fall. I have no doubt that my youngest is full of insights and connections and intelligence and deep thoughts and wisdom and imagination. In my experience, Common Core and its related standardized test preparation have not been significant stumbling blocks for my oldest. But I fear that squeezing my youngest into the standardized, common mold is not going to be effective. It’s not going to contribute toward civilizing her.

I hope and pray that my youngest will thrive, and I will do my best to differentiate and provide support at home, but my primary fear about where we are headed as a country is that we’re attempting to impose one-size-fits-all education on infinite-unique-needs-they-each-have individual children. And we have a movement that attempts, as the Success Academy teacher did, to drown out parents’ voices when those voices are raised in protest.

I am all for high standards; I am not for standardization.

My little one says that she’s a witch, she’s a wizard, she’s a secret agent, she’s a fairy, she’s a kitty, she’s a cat. But there’s one thing she never identifies herself as: a widget.

 

A Wrinkle in Math

My daughter has been quite fortunate this year — she has a terrific math teacher, and she has blossomed and grown in her math skills. Most critically, she’s gone from hating math to loving math, including declarations such as, “When I go to college, I want to major in math.”

But I know that across the country, many children (and their parents) are not having the same experience. Every time I hear elementary school parental frustration about “Common Core math,” I’m reminded of this passage from one of my favorite novels as a child, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time:

“Have you done your homework, Meg?”
“Not quite,” Meg said, going back into the kitchen.
“Then I’m sure Calvin won’t mind if you finish before dinner.”
“Sure, go ahead.” Calvin fished in his pocket and pulled out a wad of folded paper. “As a matter of fact, I have some junk of mine to finish up. Math. That’s the one thing I have a hard time keeping up in. I’m okay on anything to do with words, but I don’t do as well with numbers.”
Mrs. Murray smiled. “Why don’t you get Meg to help you?”
“But see, I’m several grades above Meg.”
“Try asking her to help you with your math, anyhow,” Mrs. Murray suggested.
“Well, sure, “Calvin said. “Here. But it’s pretty complicated.”
Meg smoothed out the paper and studied it. “Do they care how you do it?” she asked. “I mean, can you work it out in your own way?”
“Well, sure, as long as I understand it and get the answers right.”
“Well, we have to do it their way. Now look, Calvin, don’t you see how much easier it would be if you did it this way?” Her pencil flew over the paper.
“Hey!” Calvin said. “Hey! I think I get it. Show me once more on another one.”
Again, Meg’s pencil was busy. “All you have to remember is that every ordinary fraction can be converted into an infinite periodic decimal fraction. See? So 3/7 is 0.428571.”
“This is the craziest family.” Calvin grinned at her. “I suppose I should stop being surprised by now, but you’re supposed to be dumb in school, always being called up on the carpet.”
“Oh, I am.”
“The trouble with Meg and math,” Mrs. Murray said briskly, “is that Meg and her father used to play around with numbers and Meg learned far too many short cuts. So when they want her to do the problems the long way around at school she gets sullen and stubborn and sets up a fine mental block for herself.”

I think that for some kids, what is being marketed as the Common Core’s approach to math is intuitive and makes a lot of sense. But why are we insisting on a one-size-fits-all approach? I’m all for having kids show their work, but why do we insist that all of our kids must show the same work, rather than simply ensuring that the methods they’re using are mathematically correct and make sense to them?

For some kids, subtraction through “counting up” makes sense. For others, the traditional method of borrowing make sense. If both methods are mathematically sound, and both methods produce the same result, then why the insistence on forcing one method on all kids?

And, of course, although Meg may have been labeled “dumb in school,” at least her graduation and her future were not tied to high-stakes exams that forced her to demonstrate her proficiency at “the long way around” of completing a certain math problem (unlike the sample 3rd to 5th grade PARCC math problem that requires the kids to, one-by-one, click 48 boxes in an array to demonstrate their “understanding” of 6 x 8 = 48).

This all reminds me of this oldie but goodie from second grade math last year, with the teacher who inspired last year’s hatred of math: