The Cycle of Misunderstanding Children

It was a joy to be a featured guest today on We Act Radio’s Education Town Hall (www.educationtownhall.org) with Thomas Byrd, alongside feature DC reporter Virginia Spatz and fellow pedagogue and guest David Greene.

Here’s a link to the MixCloud archive if you missed it: http://www.mixcloud.com/education_town_hall/doing-the-right-thing-for-students-and-teachers-on-the-education-town-hall-august-7-2014/

One of the things I touched upon is the cycle of misunderstanding that exists at the heart of the discussion about assessment and evaluation. Make no mistake, our misperception and misunderstanding of the individual child is at the heart of our misunderstanding of effective teacher evaluation.

The cycle is vicious:


cycle

1. Inappropriate Learning: Students experience irrelevant, disengaged, homogenized, generalized “learning” experiences, based on false perceptions and deep misunderstandings of children, based largely on leaders insisting that teachers use nonsensical data and ill-advised, often non-educator-influenced ideas about teaching and learning.

2. Inappropriate Formative Assessment: We use standardized, unidimensional, homogenized “measurements” to determine “mastery.” However, these formative assessment “systems” and “programs” absolutely fail to consider all factors, and do not at all engage students where they are, neurocognitively and psychosocially, leading to deepening feelings of irrelevancy and a set of data that does not reflect what non-educators think it does.

3. Inappropriate Remediation: Because our assessment method stinks, we don’t know what a kid does and doesn’t know, what s/he can and can’t do… So how the heck can we help them?

4. Inappropriate Summative Assessment: Again, using standardized, unidimensional, homogenized “measurements” of “mastery,” we know jack about what a kid really knows and can do, only this time, we’re using very high-stakes, high-stress vehicles that are totally removed from the real world and reflect more of an ability to navigate a system of hoops than actual mastery.

5. Inappropriate Outcomes: Because we never understood the kid to begin with, don’t listen to the kid, don’t know what the kid can and can’t do and knows and doesn’t know, we failed the kid all the way down the line, and the results weren’t great. So we blame the teacher, or the school, or worst of all the kid, and then make policy and strategic decisions based on all of this inaccurate nonsense, and begin the cycle all over again: We put the kid right back into irrelevant, meaningless industrialized rote learning without ever having addressed some of the root problems that may exist.

Until we wrestle the Standardized Testing Industrial Complex to the ground and stop misperceiving children and inaccurately believing that they can be oversimplified into single quantifiable integers, we cannot break free of the gravity of the effort to objectify and commodify children and their learning.

Responding to Whoopi Goldberg

Recently, teacher tenure was the subject of discussion on ABC’s “The View.” The prevailing sentiment was that tenure was a mechanism for insulating teachers from being fired, and that everyone should be in favor of getting rid of bad teachers… by getting rid of tenure.

On August 4, I watched the video response Whoopi Goldberg posted a brief video reply on YouTube, defending her statements.

Later on August 4, I replied with my own video message.

A probationary teacher can be, in many jurisdictions, summarily dismissed without due process. Tenure is the mechanism by which schools BEGIN to afford teachers due process rights. It is not the end of a process; it is the beginning. In places where this basic concept is misunderstood or misapplied, certainly we can agree there is a problem. However, the solution to getting rid of bad teachers is not eliminating tenure. The entirety of the way we employ and evaluate teachers is worthy of consideration.

While I don’t want to give away the farm as I continue to work on finishing my manuscript, I will say that I believe assessment is at the very heart of this issue, and that reducing teachers to “good” and “bad,” and the debate over teacher evaluation to “tenure” or “no tenure” is dangerously oversimplified.

I sincerely hope I can have an impact on this debate, and that together, perhaps we can all shine a spotlight on the complexity of the problems and solutions. As Allison Janney’s marvelous C.J. Cregg said in Sorkin’s The West Wing, “Complexity isn’t a vice.”

To those who have shared my message and have left such wonderful messages of encouragement and support, my thanks. I am but one voice among the many, and I am humbly grateful if anything I ever do is a help to you, in my quest to serve kids.

Banning Devices in Your Classroom is a Stupid Idea

Cell phones are not a distraction to learning. Period.

If a child in your class is using a cell phone unrelated to what you’re teaching, that fact has nothing to do with a cell phone. The child does not find the learning opportunity relevant, meaningful, and/or accessible, and that is the problem. There are a litany of reasons why this might be, many of which are outside of the control of the teacher, but no assessment that one can do better on because of having a picture of it is a worthwhile authentic assessment of skill mastery anyway.

If you can copy it down from a phone or your hand or a note, it’s not an authentic performance-based assessment, and that’s the thing to change, not the cell phone policy.

A modern smart phone’s purpose is to provide the user with connectivity that s/he desires. Period. It’s not “for use outside of class.” It’s to be connected. We want students connected. We want students using every tool at their disposal to access, search, sort, collaborate, and create. The policy is flawed because the pedagogy and the educational philosophy is flawed. I guaran-damn-tee that nobody consulted one of us who actually lead schools and integrate technology into public school classrooms for a living. We have got to, as a field, stop trying to prevent people from being people and start changing our practices and policies to reflect the realities of 2014, lest we continue to disregard the contemporary individual child as s/he is in favor of the backward-looking children we think we were. Ed tech best practices do not support banning cell phones.

Think of it this way: If you like taking notes by hand, do you want to be told you have to use an iPad? If you take notes on an iPad, do you want to be told you have to use a pencil? If you like setting your book down and making eye contact with a speaker, do you want to be told you must follow along? If you need to follow along with a text to understand it completely, do you want to be told you must put your book down?

Those that advocate the wholesale removal of personal electronic devices from classrooms both fundamentally misunderstand the role of the device in the classroom and demonstrate bias against some kinds of learning modalities, even if that bias is unconscious. I, as a learner, benefit from using my device in learning. You, as a teacher, cannot reasonably or meaningfully demonstrate evidence to the contrary. Therefore, the wholesale “ban” of personal electronic devices from the hands of students during learning is intrinsically ANTI-CHILD and ANTI-LEARNING for some children.

We must be more precise and more individualized in our application of pedagogy and policy in our classrooms. A haughty “whatever, I’ve seen it” or a dismissive “whatever, I disagree” betrays an elitist attitude that is unbecoming of progressives and radicals. Don’t try to micromanage the methods by which your students integrate technology into their learning and their lives; they will inevitably utilize those devices in ways inconsistent with and outside of your understanding of both the technology and the child, because you are not that child.

Instead, focus on creating learning opportunities and methods of assessment that are meaningful and relevant, and let everything else go. One must be far more anarchistic than authoritarian in the design of a meaningful learning situation if one has any hope to include those learners who have fundamentally different psychosocial ways of being than their teachers.

Unless you think all of your kids are just like you, you shouldn’t even think about banning cell phones. Just ask the kids to silence them, and be done with it.

If a kid does poorly in demonstrating knowledge and skill on an assessment, it should be because that is an accurate reflection of that child’s knowledge and skill, not because s/he was doing or not doing any one particular thing at any one particular moment.

Cell phones are not a problem. Kids are not a problem. Misperception of children, micromanagement of learning, and pedantic insistence that our children emulate OUR behavior, is.

American Education Is, In Fact, Broken

Diane Ravitch wrote, “Bill Gates is wrong. American education is not ‘broken.’ Federal education policy is broken. Testing children until they cry is a bad idea. It is educational malpractice.”

Diane and I agree on a lot. We agree that Federal education policy is broken. We agree that testing children until they cry is a bad idea and that it is educational malpractice. I go so far as to call it systematized child abuse, the intellectual brutalization of a generation.

How can anyone say such a system is not a failure? I do not understand Diane’s position that a system that abuses children is not a failure. I’m not indicting every individual in that system, but I am indicting the system, and rendering the most vehement judgment.

Where Diane and I fundamentally disagree, as I’ll outline in the book, is that we have a national public education system, and Federal policy is woven into every cell of that system. Consequently, I contend American public education IS broken, and broken beyond repair. Does this mean teachers are to blame? Categorically, no. Does this mean children cannot learn? Categorically, no. Does this mean we should not have public education in America? Categorically, no. But one cannot fix this system. One must end it, and start anew, not with the reparation of policy, but with its wholesale replacement. Our system is not “only” broken because of utterly failed legislation. It is a catastrophic and complex failure of societal values, agrarian calendars, misperceived roles and responsibilities, flawed social science, self-defeating corporate interest, inhumane attitudes toward and treatment of children, and damned bad math. That’s not a failure of policy; that’s a total failure of a system. Diane, I find the vast majority of your insight absolutely correct and consider you one of the foremost leaders and voices in favor of doing right by children and schools, but can’t the system be a failure without the people in it being failures? How can we say, as pro – child educational leaders, that a system that regularly and systematically intellectually, emotionally, and psychosocially abuses children, is not broken? 

The first step in solving any problem is recognizing that there is one: The American public education system has failed, past tense.

I haven’t given up on it. I haven’t given up on kids. I’m an idealist that isn’t quitting: we can fix the problem, but the solution isn’t repairing the disaster that’s beyond repair. It’s clearing away the wreckage and building a new structure, correctly, right from the start. Let’s stop using duct tape on the hoses of the blown-up Yugo and consider our smart options for a new car. Sometimes it’s less costly and better for the family, right?

I love children. I love education. I hate what’s happening, and we can do better. We can. Right from the start… anew.

The Test

I left my classroom to work for more kids. To help more teachers. To make a bigger difference. I wanted to be in more classrooms. To see more students. To change more lives. I thought “administration” would be different for me, that I’d be one of the good guys. That I’d support a cadre of thoughtful professionals, create conditions for thriving teaching and immersive, passionate, compassionate learning. I thought my days would be filled with “ah-ha moments” and laughter and effusiveness. I used to make music. I used to have a room, filled with a hundred young musicians. I used to have clarinets and saxophones and trumpets and tubas and cymbals and wind chimes. I had Rimsky-Korsakov. I had Kamen. I had Holst. I had art. I had moments. I made music. I made a difference. I had kids. How many kids do you see, now? How many smiles? How many ah-ha moments? How much positive change in the world do you see, from the floor underneath a table filled with the accouterments of the standardized testing industrial complex? What do you see? Where have we gone? What have we done? What are we doing? What the hell is going on…

( Emo though it may be, and bent though the meaning may be, my accompaniment for the day has been this Imogen Heap tune. )

IMG_20140516_140543_691 IMG_20140516_140535_288 IMG_20140516_115836_838 IMG_20140516_115823_985 IMG_20140516_115821_700 IMG_20140516_113922_139 IMG_20140516_113916_788 IMG_20140516_113904_469 IMG_20140516_113819_711 IMG_20140516_113813_333 IMG_20140516_113808_665 IMG_20140516_113748_924 IMG_20140516_113712_169 IMG_20140516_111411_624 IMG_20140516_104618_927 IMG_20140516_101738_598 IMG_20140516_101358_516 IMG_20140516_101311_306 IMG_20140516_101230_465 IMG_20140516_101215_637 IMG_20140516_101158_922 IMG_20140516_101129_907 IMG_20140516_101102_139 IMG_20140516_101045_837 IMG_20140516_095424_021 IMG_20140516_095417_368

Gender-Based Dress Codes Threats to Kids and Schools Alike

I have a difficult time understanding school districts that seem to invite having their names in potential Supreme Court decisions. It’s 2014. Wouldn’t you think that issues like “children and their gender” and “student First Amendment rights” would be worthy of at least a modicum of rational policy discussion? I would. But time and time again, elected officials and appointed administrators seem to believe that if they just bully children enough, they’ll go away, and everything can go back to being quiet.

Wouldn’t you think that bullying would be something a school would avoid? It’s 2014.

All the more surprising when things like this arise is the fact that nobody takes the time to even basically Google (or preferably DuckDuckGo) these things. Take for example a recent situation that crossed my desk in which a child was asked to wear the color of graduation gown opposite that child’s gender identity. Did you ask which gender? I bet not, because it doesn’t matter, does it? It matters that there’s a disparity between the child’s gender to the child and the child’s gender to the school. So let’s start with the most fundamental level, below the foundation of American Constitutional law, and start with fundamental inalienable human rights:

Who gets to say who you are: you or the government?

Conservatives and Liberals alike should love this issue, because as a public school is, by proxy of taxation, a government entity, Conservatives should adore saying “keep the government out of my personal life,” and Liberals should adore saying “treat all gender identities equally.” How is this even an issue? You know the reason why, perfectly well, but let’s move past that for a moment and get to the Law of the Land.

With my background in school administration and education law, I immediately thought that Tinker v. Des Moines might apply. It was Tinker after all that, over forty years ago, established in SCOTUS precedent that “[i]t can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

However, knowing Tinker was about peaceable protest and that I, as a reasonable school administrator (were I in a position that involved graduation management) would probably have decent latitude with reasonable restrictions at a major event, probably under Bethel v. Fraser(Note: I do not, personally, believe Bethel to apply to the case at hand and I think it’d be an absurd argument to suggest that a black robe instead of a white robe when both are officially approved is remotely the same as charged sexual innuendo in a graduation speech. Read the case law if any of that sounds interesting to you.) But other cases tried in Federal courts have recently shown that schools that participate in gender bias are, in fact, treading into the same Constitutional violations as Tinker used. Cases like Fricke v. Lynch that said a school can’t tell a boy he can’t have a boy date at the prom would seem to indicate that even at so-called “special occasions,” the school can’t participate in gender bias without violating student First Amendment rights. (If I were an attorney fighting for a student’s right to wear one color of gown and not another, I’d probably lead with Fricke, but I’m no attorney.) Flores v. Morgan Hill might also suggest that a school that knew that a student felt discriminated against on the basis of gender (in that case, specifically, sexual orientation) could be found liable.

However, I’m no attorney, so being unsure of the case law precedent, I fell back to a few other ideas. Would Title IX apply in any way? Probably not, but would it be worth getting an attorney to try the tactic? It might, and even if it provides no ultimately-compelling litigation legwork, it’s still damned compelling argument about how we don’t allow gender bias in our schools under Federal Law.

Taking another tack, I thought about the supportiveness of the parents. A parent could well claim Constitutional injury on Fourteenth Amendment grounds, having the right to raise the child as s/he sees fit. (Turns out, I’m not the only one wondering about that.)

In fact, these issues are in our courts – both legal and of opinion – right now. Last year in New Mexico, a transgender student was told he had to wear a “female” gown at a private school graduation. However, that was a private school, and therefore that school has more protection.

For two students named Alicia and Amber in Florida, I’m glad it didn’t come to litigation, but I do wish in 2002 we’d seen a court decision defending their right to wear graduation-appropriate clothing of the gender of their choosing, just like any other student of the opposite biological gender was being allowed to do. I’m also glad that the ACLU had prevailed twelve years ago when it fought this very fight and won. (I may not be an attorney, but the ACLU has them at the ready. If I were a student being bullied by administrators, I’d certainly consider talking to them. I bet Michelle Garcia agrees with me.)

All this is to say that I think it’s pretty shortsighted and self-defeating for a school to think it should just try to brush this stuff under the carpet by harassing the kid into “going away,” when there are replete examples of that backfiring big time.

Then again, I’m the sort of guy in schools that thinks kids should come first, and deserve our love and protection, not bullying for adult convenience.

On Parents in Learning

I write this from my one and only perspective of authority: I write this as a career public school teacher. I do not write it as a parent, because I am not one, and that role is irrelevant and not remotely prerequisite to my understanding of children or my ability to teach children, as an educator, because the role of the teacher differs fundamentally from the role of the parent. Conflating them demonstrates misunderstanding of what a teacher is and what s/he does.

I was asked recently in a contentious context what I believed the role of the parent to be. I responded, “the facilitation of authenticity.” I believe there was a misperception that this is a minimizing or dismissive statement… but authenticity in the human experience is the paramount objective, in my view. Imagine Maslow’s Hierarchy for a moment: Envision the fulfillment of self-actualization, for a person to become as completely one’s self as one can be. To achieve the true, highest self.

This is not “merely” anything. This is the truest and highest aim of humanity, and the cliches of what parents want for their kids are better summarized thusly than any other way, to me.

“I want my child to be happy.” Well, no, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes happiness would be falsity, but I gather parents mean this more generally. “I want what’s best for my child.” Well, no, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you want what you think is best despite there being possibly ample empirical or anecdotal evidence to suggest something else is better, but it discomforts you. “I want my child to be a productive member of society.” If your child is authentic and happy and does nothing to contribute to the fabric of America, but harms no one and is self sufficient, will you be disappointed in her?

I don’t seek oversimple or convenient understandings of what’s best for a child. “Facilitating authenticity” accepts in the former term that one can only attempt and has no true control, because one cannot nor ought to truly control another person, but rather love and provide for them; and in the second term that every individual child is unique, and what one is best and right and true and real for one child will bear little to no resemblance to what is best and right and true and real for another child. We facilitate authenticity: We seek with every vehicle at our disposal to create conditions for and support the development of the child’s full potential, as s/he would have it.

Are children in need of significant guidance and direct intervention if not supervision? At times in youth, absolutely, yes, and I am not suggesting we allow a seven year old to predetermine his or her own path and then enact that plan without deviation, but the specifics on my feelings about the unfolding and unique timeline of moving children from dependency to independence, and the elimination of our usurpation of their rights and individuality and control over time into the encouragement of their experimentation, exploration, and ultimate self-determination, free of adult coercion, is another subject entirely. I do not dodge it; I merely say, that is not the specific matter at hand. Right now, we’re talking adult roles.

I choose my language about children intentionally, and it is true, it can be challenging to hear sometimes. But if you converse with me, if you go with me down this rabbit hole of art and science, and examine the human condition and seek understanding of the child as a total entity, and include sociology, psychology, emotion, learning, awareness, consciousness, play, freedom, liberty, passion, will, and action in totality, I believe that you will find “authenticity” is that which most of us seek most desperately, and that the facilitation of the conditions in which a child may thrive to be his or her true self is the highest, noblest aim.

It is the mutual aim of the true parent and the true teacher, though our roles in facilitating that authenticity are fundamentally different, and in many ways mutually exclusive.

The parent is biased. The parent is, must be, ought to be biased: Deeply, passionately, uncompromisingly dedicated to the child. To that parent’s child. The parent must never apologize for or relinquish a steel grip on love for his or her own child.

The teacher must not be biased. The teacher must not be, ought never to be biased: Deeply, passionately, uncompromisingly dedicated to all children. To all parents’ children. The teacher must never apologize for or relinquish a steel grip on love for all children, equally.

A parent parents. A teacher teaches. They are not the same role, even if they both (ideally) are full of love for the same child. Better to have both roles working tirelessly in concert than one role dictating (at best) or ostracizing (at worst) the other. I believe, passionately, in collaboration, as anyone who has read my work or observed me in my schools will know.

While in so, so many cases these aims and perspectives overlap, the times in which they do not, in the interstices of good intention and fair-minded action in which opposition exists, collaboration is and must be key. I was accused in this conversation of having an adversarial view of parents. I do not. I have an adversarial view of the law and of debate processes, as has been the heart of jurisprudence and the generation of accord in Western society since it was founded. But I do not view parents as natural adversaries; I view them as necessary allies, as we share (or ought to share) a common aim: the total love of the total child.

However, I am not afforded, as a teacher, the luxury of selecting which children may thrive and which may account for an acceptable rate of attrition. I have no right to allow for acceptable losses. When I am tasked with the care of, responsibility for, and teaching of 36 children, you (parent, citizen, onlooker, policymaker) task me with 36 instances of the most daunting task, every one of which must be a blazing success. In the course of discharging that duty – one I take seriously and do so joyously – I must have the full facilty of my professional skill and the full support of my colleagues, my leaders, my policy, and my community. I have no adversarial view of the parent by default.

What I do regard with the most cutting, disparaging frustration and disrespect is a parent who believes I work for him or her, or that his or her role as a parent is “superior” to mine. There is no superiority among men, nor of men over children, nor of any one child over another. I reject it with ferocity. I am an uncompromising egalitarian, and demand flatness in education. This, to some parents, is defeating and disdainful. To them, I say, you do not understand me, or my position. I might go so far as to say, to a parent who is putting his or her ego squarely in the way of what is demonstrably best for the child, that s/he is being no parent at all. But those are specific instances, and I reserve that kind of judgment for the most select of confused, angry adults. They are, fortunately, exceedingly rare. However, they do exist, and I do not have the right to tolerate a parent causing suffering for his or her child when I know it to occur and can intervene on the child’s behalf. (Indeed, the law tasks me with doing so. But I digress. Again, these monsters are rare.)

I do not believe a parent any more important in the teaching of a child than a teacher. If you say “a parent is more important to a child than a teacher in that child’s life,” I would not disagree. But do not say “a parent is more important than a teacher in that child’s learning.” No, sir, he is not. No, madam, she is not. There is absolute flatness in educational hierarchy: The only person that is, will be, ought to be elevated is the child himself or herself. Everyone else is subservient to that unique, powerful intellectual and emotional creature, and clambering to lift one’s self up artificially when there is no cause whatsoever to do so is hubris tantamount to betraying the child.

If that disquiets a parent, this idea that the parent’s thoughts and feelings ought to be considered no more important than a teacher’s, in the course of a child’s schooling, then that parent has (in my view) an ethical responsibility to leave the public school system and seek the sycophancy of private tutelage, where teachers will work for parents instead of for children. Moreover, any teacher that would abuse this educational philosophy and elevate himself or herself to be more important than the parent, or the paraprofessional, or the psychologist, or the therapist, and gain a haughty anti-parent attitude, has no place in my school.

Yes, difficult parents can be difficult, but why? Generally, in my experience, it is because they love their children very much, and are doing what they think is right. We have a responsibility to engage with and, yes, to educate these adults. (A parent that believes s/he has nothing to learn about his/her child is demonstrating incredible arrogance. A parent that believes s/he knows everything s/he needs to know about child development and educating children is a master of self-delusion.) I hear parents say, “who are you, who have no children, to teach me about my kid?” I’m a professional educator. I have made my life’s work the study of children and how they learn. I would never presume to tell you I know your field better than you do; who are you to do so to me, simply because it makes you uncomfortable or frightens you? We can immediately get into the adversarial conflict that way, but I don’t seek it and I don’t want it. This interaction – the most common one – stems from a parent initiating the conflict. “I know my kid better than you do.” No, you don’t. You know your kid as a parent does. But a teacher has a different perspective, one honed by training, experience, science, and objectivity. We need to work together to take full advantage of this wonderful opportunity to bring together our unique perspectives. But no, you don’t know your child “better” than I do. It’s comparing apples and oranges. We have different roles. It’d be like you telling a doctor “I know my child better than you do.” Not in terms of kidney function, you don’t. Not when it comes to the mechanics of his cardiovascular system, you don’t. That’s arrogant. That’s adversarial.

Granted, this position assumes the efficacy and quality of the teacher in question. I consider that my responsibility, as a leader. I expect a lot of teachers. (Wouldn’t you want me to, parents? Don’t you?) If we are incapable of being wiser about, more knowledgeable about, more skilled at teaching, and more capable of understanding children writ large than our parent partners, then we’re not qualified and oughtta get outta Dodge. I take the understanding of pedagogy very, very seriously, and the passionate pursuit of comprehensive understanding of the child mind is my life’s work. I want to understand, and I want to share in and collaborate in that understanding with everyone invested in the wellness and development of every child in my care.

There is nothing adversarial about a perspective that believes so passionately in love for, respect for, and care for every single child in my charge that I will do anything and work with anyone to help facilitate every child’s authentic development and fulfillment of potential. I aim for authenticity. I hope for joy. I work for children. I invite you to join me.

And I respect the hell out of the parent role. I respect it, celebrate it, uplift it, and admire it, when done with real love and genuine care.

Finally, a comment was made in the course of this conversation with which I fully agree: “This won’t be well received.” That’s true. Social delusions are powerful things. They’re forces, edifices, institutions, egregores… The collective social delusion is immensely powerful, and we have convinced ourselves as a society that “children ought to go to college and get a job that makes them productive contributors to the workforce so they can be happy.” I think, as I’ll outline in my book, that it is an insidious lie that is ultimately inhumane and anti-child. But that notwithstanding, my position that the whole of American public education is effectively a lie includes, by its very nature, that parents have absolutely no idea what is going on with their child’s learning as a general rule. (I think this is something that ought to infuriate parents, but that’s another story. I am, despite suggestions to the contrary, on the side of anyone who is on the side of children, and that generally includes parents.) This suggestion of systematic, widespread, and sometimes intentional duplicity will, undoubtedly, not be well received.

It is, however, the truth. Truth is rarely convenient, and it is often not well received.

The Hidden Cost of Placating Parents

The amount of time, energy, and resources we waste on trying to make mopey parents feel better, make angry parents happy, and brush problems under the carpet is staggering, but we never seem to want to face the hidden costs.

Teachers who are circumvented, who are ignored, trampled upon, brushed aside, plowed under, and thrown to the wolves burn out. They teach less effectively because they’re under massive stress, and more children suffer because of the parent(s) of one kid.

We insist too often in education on making concrete that which must be fluid. “My child needs X.” “My kid must have Y.” “You’re doing Z when you should be doing A, B, and C.” These adversarial, motto-riddled, emblazoned-in-granite-over-edifice conversations are contrary to any child’s best interest. Collaborative conversations between the primary observers and guardians of a child – the parents – and the trained, experienced professionals in child psychosociology, pedagogy, and development – the educators – can accomplish wonders when they work together, especially when paired with thoughtful paraprofessionals. (And I include specialized, degreed non-educator child experts like psychologists, therapists, and counselors in the “paraprofessional” category.)

But all the best intentions and opportunities in the world are for naught when higher-ups circumvent hard conversations for the sake of convenience. The vast majority of the time, I’ve seen teacher-parent relationships blossom because of mutuality: everyone has the child’s best interests genuinely at heart, and disagreements about style are easily overcome through substance. (Note to professional practitioners: Have your research in line before you walk into the room, or don’t ask me to back your play. You purport to be an expert in children by virtue of sitting on my side of the table. Know your stuff, or find another chair.) However, there are times when it is entirely appropriate to have an adversarial relationship with a parent. Specifically, when a parent wants something that we know beyond the shadow of a doubt to be contrary to the child’s best interests, we have an ethical and professional obligation to say “no.” At best, this leads to clarification and parent education. At worst, this can lead to due process hearings and legal proceedings.

So what? Let it. In short: Go ahead. Sue me.

You heard me. Bring it on. “I’m an attorney, sir…” I’m going to go ahead and stop you right there. Oh, what, you thought there was more? No, I’m really just going to stop you. I have no interest in what comes out of your mouth after you, as a parent, say something like that. If you’re an attorney, you know that our system of laws exists in a naturally-adversarial condition. It’s designed that way. Even “no fault” cases are often heard with plaintiffs and defendants, and involve evidence and process to guarantee that everyone gets a fair say. So I say, bring it on. If I know, in my heart of hearts, what I’m doing is accordant with the law, compliant with research and child science, consistent with best practices, and representative of the state-of-the-art of teaching, bring it on.

You always have a right to leave the public schools if you want what you think is best for your child despite the facts. (In my world, we call doing something you know to be wrong “stupidity,” but hey, I’m just a teacher. What do I know about definitions and meaning?)

See, I think we’ve sold our credibility down the toilet by placating parents. I’m not interested in complacent parents. Are you a parent? Are you pissed off at this blog post? Why? Do you want to be coddled and complacent? Do you want me to ignore the facts of modern child science when doing right by your kid? Or would you rather your child’s school be populated with people that constantly pursue, with unmitigated tenacity and unbridled passion the absolute bleeding edge of what modern psychology, sociology, pedagogy, medicine, and the multifarious content disciplines tell us to be best for your child? I’m not interested in making you happy, parents. I’m sorry if that busts your chops; I really am. I wish you’d believe me when I say I hope it’s a fringe benefit, but as an action, I could give two shakes if you’re “happy” with me as a teacher. What I want, more than anything that involves your ego, emotions, feelings, whims, thoughts, or aspirations, is what’s best for your child. Fortunately, 95% of the time, parents and teachers are on the same page about these things. I’d bet most of you have rarely, if ever, experienced a real confrontation with one of your kid’s education professionals.

But in the 5% of the time when a haughty know-it-all, an egomaniacal fact-flaunter, or a self-appointed homeschool-leaning dilettante decides to act or speak contrary to what we, as professionals, know to be best for the child in question, I say take it to the mat.

Do we fight stupid and unnecessary fights in our field? Absolutely. There’s stuff I desperately want to teach teachers is unimportant, useless, and counterproductive. There’s a lot of completely avoidable tribulation in our schools, and I’m neither blind to it nor unwilling to tackle it and make some fairly sweeping culture shifts to ensure we put down our baggage. But there are times when we’re right, you’re wrong, and it’s as clear as day to any objective observer.

The cost of placating parents when they’re wrong is worse than wasting massive time and energy and money that could be better spent helping kids. Make no mistake, tiny fraction of parents that put “winning the fight” ahead of respecting good educational science: you’re hurting your kid and many other kids with your shenanigans. The real cost of placating parents is that it hurts kids.

Usually, the kid hurt the most, is the kid at the center of the situation, and you know me: I will never acquiesce in the face of defending a child.

Letter Grades: Lying to Children Since 1785

I recently had a discussion with a colleague in which s/he revealed that a principal mandate that 30% of all letter grades issued be As, 30% Bs, 30% Cs, and only 10% Ds or Fs. This is not a completely unheard of phenomenon. The idea is that we should limit the number of failures. Only 10% of kids are “allowed” to fail, at maximum. Otherwise, the teacher isn’t doing his or her job, right? 90% of kids pass, and they’re equally distributed into average, good, and excellent performance.

That’s such a crock, I’ve edited this line for profanity about a half-dozen times. There are so many things wrong with this that I would have to seriously consider the employability of such a school leader. This demonstrates such an egregious misunderstanding of what grades are, what they should be, and how to grade, that I cannot help but question this educator’s entire concept of assessment.

Beyond the obvious fact that this is not a normal distribution, it also presumes absolutes in assessment that don’t exist. There is nothing in this policy that prevents a teacher from shifting the grade scale writ large to artificially inflate numbers until the failure rate lowers to 10%. Letter grades are relative, not absolute. Saying “only 10% of children can get Fs” doesn’t mean “only 10% of children will fail.”

Kids that can’t do what you’re asking them to do can’t magically do it just because you call their skill a D instead of an F, nor does a kid that can do what you’re asking “fail” if you call it an F. Letter grades provide no meaningful granular performance data to illustrate to children and their families what those children can do, how they can do it, and how they can improve upon the things they cannot yet do. Letter grades are relative and limited at best, and arbitrary and harmful (as ignorance-inducing) at worst.

I know many schools identify “at risk students who are failing.” But what is failing? Do we have any confidence in the assessment systems we use, when they’re predicated upon oversimplified letter grades and (more often than not) oversimplified, irrelevant, counterproductive integers generated through standardized multiple-choice assessments?

“Grading” is a distraction from learning. All assessment should be for learning, and for the learners at that. Assessment should be comprehensive, performance-based, conducted in an authentic context, and unquestionably low-stakes. There is no need to “test” a learner when it comes to measuring skill; “tests” are oversimplified and limited in modality. Instead, afford students unlimited, multifarious, rubric-based opportunities to authentically demonstrate skill mastery and content knowledge mastery in the ways they choose. When asked, “how well does my child multiply?” give a serious answer, not a letter response.

Using that example, “B” tells me nothing. What does that mean? 82% of the time he gets the right answer? What’s happening during the other 18%? What process is he using? Is there a comprehension error or is there something else at work? Is there an underlying skill that needs remediation? Is the child perfectly capable of getting 100% in certain situations, and nearly incapable in others, and if so, does that have implications for learning environment, assistive technology, or placement? Assessment is not a simple matter, and ABCDF grading distracts from the real work of meaningfully understanding children and helping them understand themselves and their learning more effectively.

On that very note, we can eliminate the entire “zeroes and Fs are hurtful” factor, and instead get back to the labor of being honest with kids. If a child has zero appreciable skill in a certain area, then we do the child no service by lying to him or her. Instead, by making zeroes and Fs bogeymen, we terrify kids into thinking that failure is undesirable, instead of telling them the truth that failure – regular, meaningful failure – is absolutely essential to learning.

The sooner we eradicate ABCDF and replace “grading” with meaningful, granular, individualized, comprehensive assessments measured through authentic low-stakes performance, the sooner we can stop lying to children.

ABCDF is a bad enough lie without rigging it to artificially twist already artificial data.

The professional website of Keith David Reeves