Category Archives: Commentary

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.

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.

School Rules

“School rules” is a difficult topic for me, considering how much time I spend shouting at the top of my lungs about how we must love children and how free they should be. I talk a lot about non-coercion, but rules by definition are coercive by nature. In prohibiting certain behaviors by attaching sanction to them if enacted, rules seek to curtail said behaviors before they transpire, and that is a form of coercion.

Let’s be clear about a few things. Kids need rules. I’ve often said throughout my career that kids crave structure, either theirs or yours, and in the absence of yours, it will most certainly be theirs. The lower levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs provide, in my opinion, a form of structure. At the least, we can generally agree to intervene when a little one attempts to jump off of the top of the monkey bars and fly. Basic humanitarian safety is a “takes-a-village” net consciousness that says, “let’s try to keep each other safe.” Further up the hierarchy, all children need a sense of belonging, and belonging involves relationships, and relationships have structure merely by virtue of existing.

Fiercely independent children, highly intellectual learners, those who are motivated to be self-sufficient for any number of reasons, who strongly desire not to rely upon others, who prefer to discover and do for themselves, or who like to work in groups of one, must be supported and affirmed in doing so whenever and wherever possible, but that is itself a form of structure, and a school’s rules ought to protect them.

Children who are highly social, who like to work in large groups, who like to move significantly from one setting to another, who may have highly-nontraditional ways of organizing their information or their learning, or who need to be (to the outside observer) loud, social, talkative, and off-topic, must also be supported in their learning. Their highly individualized ways of organizing information and thinking about problems also deserve our fervent protection.

Children are to be loved, universally, in all conditions, in all modes, no questions, no exceptions. I make no exceptions to this core tenet.

But while I concede that “children need rules,” insofar as humane protectionism warrants, so too do I say “we have too many rules.” The ancient totalitarian view of children as ignorant, addled little monsters of willful defiance besetting orderly Victorian adulthood is absurd, parody-worthy, and utterly incomprehensible to us radical pedagogues. Children are not to be “controlled” or “managed,” and a teacher ought to think back to introductory teacher preparation – authoritative versus authoritarian! – if s/he thinks that s/he ought to be Master and Commander over a uniformed complement of little Calamys and Holloms.

School rules, in my opinion, ought to exist to protect and empower children. Period. Anything that does not protect them and their individual learning is not worthwhile as a rule. That is my personal, passionate position. It is why, as an aspiring school leader, when I created my hypothetical code of conduct – I have a hypothetical everything for the time I may need it, because I spend an inordinate, nerdly amount of time thinking about these things, because of either how much I care or how loony I am, likely both – that the rules I included are based on Supreme Court precedent and case law. If a rule does not have an extant Supreme Court precedent, then it is unlikely to be a rule in my book.

Consequently, life might be a little more challenging at times for teachers at my school. There is no rule in my handbook against hats, for example. There is no SCOTUS precedent that explicitly prohibits hats. For a long time, I would write my rules in such a way as to justify these behaviors in half-measure. For example, in my band handbook, I indicated as a classroom rule that no student should wear a hat with a brim that covers the eyes. (All other hats were fine.) If a student had a hat with a brim, I just asked them to turn it around. (A not-unstylish thing to do when I was teaching.) This proved an extraordinarily popular rule, because elsewhere in the school, students were not allowed to wear hats at all. It was considered “disrespectful.” One does not need to be Lawrence Cremin to drill that rule back to Judeo-Christian roots. As I regard the inclusion of religious sentiment in the secular sphere of the public school to be expressly prohibited by SCOTUS precedent, I did not feel justified in enforcing that idea despite having been expressly instructed to do so by my administration. (Add this to the long list of reasons why my first job and I were a lousy fit for one another…)

The brim is not the issue. I wanted students to have direct line of sight to my baton, as the director. My thought was that one could not possibly successfully receive my cues, and enter on time, if you were not looking at me with direct or peripheral vision. I no longer believe that to be the case. While my experience as a conductor shows me that virtually every student I have ever instructed performs more accurately and effectively as part of the ensemble when they have clear sight lines to the conductor, we must not restrict learners through inductive reasoning. Induction is a perfectly valid way of designing instructional experiences and learning environments, but I must always allow for the possibility of the exceptional learner. This allowance virtually guarantees that some students will fail – the kid that thinks he can play a note on time without a direct line of sight, and can’t – which reinforces why failure must be a regular, safe, positive experience for children in every learning setting. We allow for uniqueness and trial and error (read: failure) and as such, failure is no longer failure at all, but learning, which is the ultimate goal of all teaching. I believe insisting that all students, without exception, must have direct line-of-sight to my baton before I’ve given each student the opportunity to choose and learn for himself or herself what to do after I’ve explained my rationale as to why I believe the students will find greater success by following my instruction, is prescriptive. It’s coercive, and anti-differentiating, and that violates my core beliefs. In insisting a child do precisely what I say, the way I’ve said it, simply on the basis of my being the teacher, I have denied the child absolutely necessary discovery, reflection, analysis, questioning, application, and individual personal first-hand experience. I’ve predetermined how that learner best learns, and that runs contrary to everything we know about the criticality of individualized learning.

In creating this rule, do I not preclude the remotest possibility that a student could hear the breath of the ensemble, experience those around him or her in the section around them, catch the glinting cues from the instruments and movements around them, looking in a completely different direction, and properly enter and play correctly every time?

I believe it is remotely possible, and so my rule stands against a child, and cannot be allowed to do so.

Do I think this hypothetical extraordinary learner is likely to be in my band? No, certainly not. In fact, I cannot point to a single instance of such near-clairvoyant musicianship. Will I effectively teach my students why it is that we have hundreds of years of evidence that a quality visual relationship between performer and conductor is so important to the effective performance of ensemble music? Of course I will, and I am more than equipped to do so, as a well-trained, experienced, and not-wholly-untalented music teacher. But I will not explicitly prohibit students from learning and experiencing music in other ways. That’s irresponsible, prescriptive, and I ought not to do that.

So persistent has my belief in noncoercion and child protection become, having taught thousands of children in my career so far, that the Student Code I’ve written reads (as it is) like a document designed to empower children, not restrict them. A summary of Article I headings in my prototype includes:

  • I.§A.¶1. Right to Equal Education.
  • I.§A.¶2. Right to Equal Access.
  • I.§A.¶3. Right to Freedom from Gender Bias.
  • I.§A.¶4. Right to Due Process.
  • I.§A.¶5. Right to Peaceable Protest Within School Rules.
  • I.§A.¶6. Right to Secular Education and Protection / Separation of Religion.
  • I.§A.¶7. In Loco Parentis.
  • I.§A.¶8. Search and Seizure.
  • I.§A.¶9. Freedom of Expression.
  • I.§A.¶10. Freedom of the Press.
  • I.§A.¶11. Right to Diverse Library Materials.
  • I.§B.¶1. Right to Safety and Security.
  • I.§B.¶2. Right to Respectful Treatment.
  • I.§B.¶3. Right to Essential Human Dignity.
  • I.§B.¶4. Right to Freedom from Compulsory Politics.
  • I.§C.¶1. Restrooms.

Section A is all rooted in Supreme Court precedent. Section B is rooted in extant case law. Section C tackles what I believe is a unique example of lacking precedent being cloudy is the topic of “the right to go to the bathroom.” There is no clear national case law that states definitively that a student has the right to use the bathroom. That said, Brian Freeman has made a compelling case over the years, since he first wrote on the subject at Whittier Law, that in loco parentis (“in the place of the parent”) as established by Lander v. Seaver in 1859 has significant limits, and ought not be used as an implement of power and control to deny students basic human rights. I am entirely comfortable with his inference that denial of urination is a form of corporal punishment, and would go so far as to say that denying a child with a legitimate need to relieve himself or herself is not merely tantamount to, but is in actuality, abuse. (For education law enthusiasts, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals did, in 1987, find in Jefferson v. Yselta ISD, that “a young student who is not being properly punished or disciplined has a constitutional right not to be … denied … the basic liberty of access to the bathroom when needed.” I do not consider this definitive national precedent for the right to relieve one’s self, but it’s a start.)

Profanity is another difficult topic, as a further example. There is no SCOTUS rule that explicitly prohibits profanity in school, or empowers us to do so. It is not one of the “enumerated powers” granted us by previous precedent. I recently was made aware of an incident in which a student was profane and sexually-explicit in an online chat environment. When the report of this incident was presented, the administration opinion returned was that the report was an overreaction, as the students were merely collaborating (which they were, to be fair), the incident was quite mild (which it was, to be fair), and it was a first infraction (which it was, to be fair). The report illustrated a patent and documented violation of a published county-wide rule, specifically the district’s electronic communication policy, which explicitly prohibited profanity and sexually explicit communication online. Now, if that action had transpired in person, directly in front of an administrator, one could easily assume, having seen administrators enforce rules that do not appear in print, that an administrator would have at least counseled the student.

School cultures are often rife with double-standard.

If we believe in a rule, if we believe that it exists to protect students and is therefore valid – and you can make the case why eliminating profanity from a school protects children; a loose case, but a case nonetheless – then we must enforce it equitably. Otherwise, we are playing favorites. We are picking and choosing, on arbitrary bases, which children we will protect and which we will not, which establishes the precedent that some children are more valuable than others, and that is an unloving act violating my central tenet.

If, on the other hand, we do not believe in a rule, and we do not believe it exists to protect students and is therefore invalid, then the appropriate leadership decision is to rewrite or eliminate the rule. You do not leave a rule on the books that is not a rule at all. That creates double-standards and promotes a condition in which children could be selectively disciplined, or in which children are miscommunicated to by people they are supposed to be able to trust (teachers). Conditions of contradiction confound children and adults alike. Promoting such an environment through action or inaction is also an unloving act, which also violates my central tenet.

Therefore, inaction in this case is unacceptable. If you make a rule a rule, you have to treat it like a rule, and if you’re not going to treat it like a rule, then it ought not be a rule. It’s that simple. Failure to act in this case is, at best, a misunderstanding of the circumstances and a failure to consider the larger perspective. At worst…

…wait for it…

…it is unloving and anti-child.

Teaching, not Training

“Teach,” as a verb, is defined as the act of imparting knowledge or skill. Many dictionaries consider synonyms to include “coach,” “inform,” “enlighten,” “drill,” or even “indoctrinate.” It comes from the Old English word tǣcan, meaning “sign or token.”

“Train,” as a verb, is defined as the act of developing or forming the habits, thoughts, or behavior of another through instruction. I’ve seen dictionaries refer to “teach” for synonyms. It comes from the French trahiner by way of the Latin traginare, meaning “to pull along.”

“Facilitate,” as a verb, is defined as the easing or lessening of difficulty, or to assist progress. It comes from the French faciliter by way of the Latin facilis, meaning “easy.”

Training is not teaching. Facilitation is not teaching. Teaching is teaching, and the dictionary definition of teaching leaves much to be desired.

Everywhere I look today, I see charlatans. They’re everywhere: frauds and cheats, misguided pollyannas at best, liars and neerdowells at worst.

“I can teach you how to do that.” Can you? “I teach so and so.” Do you? Or do you just know something, and are willing and able to replicate that knowledge or skill in another person verbatim? That’s not teaching. That’s training. Or perhaps you have a trick-of-the-trade that will help a person save a lot of time and energy doing a thing they’re doing, that you know how to do more efficiently. That’s not teaching. That’s facilitation.

Teachers do not train. Training is dispassionate, uncreative, repetitive, rote, scripted, mechanical… It doesn’t want new thoughts. It wants reproduction of itself. It wants duplication. (And sometimes, that’s ideal for the task at hand.) Teachers do not facilitate. They may labor tirelessly to increase the ease of learning, but ultimately learning isn’t about what’s easy; it’s about learning, and a teacher cannot ensure all students are learning if s/he is ultimately preoccupied with eliminating labor. Teachers teach, and teaching is the creation of holistic conditions – physical, intellectual, psychological, and emotional – to enable every student to learn.

Sound too simple? It’s not. Learning is defined as the act of acquiring knowledge or skill by study, instruction, or experience. It comes from the Middle English lernen, a German cognate, meaning “learn.” It seems like a circular definition, as compared to the other etymological derivations, doesn’t it? I believe there is a reason for that: true learning is unique. It is its own phenomenon, and does not define itself through other things. In fact, if you etymologically drill down lernen further, you come to the Gothic lais, “to know,” with a root sense of “to follow or find the path,” from the Old English lǣst, meaning “the sole of the foot.” In short, learning is finding one’s path.

It’s individual by nature. It must be achieved by the learner, and cannot be achieved by the teacher. Teachers do not create knowledge and skill, nor can they give it, because then it is not true knowledge and skill that has been learned, as all learning must be unique to and borne of the individual. The “imparting” of knowledge and skill as the dictionary defines it is a regressive, banking type of pedagogy to which I do not subscribe, as a radical, but regardless of one’s pedagogical philosophy, I believe the fact remains that learning must come from the learner, not the teacher.

All learners find their own paths, but we teachers must ensure that while they explore and discover amid their trailblazing that we do not lose a single one of our flock. There is no acceptable rate of attrition in teaching and learning. Teachers never leave a learner behind. Not one. Not one, not ever. No excuses.

“What about a lazy kid?” You never leave a learner behind.

“What about a kid that just doesn’t want to work?” You never leave a learner behind.

“What about a kid that’s misplaced and shouldn’t be there?” You never leave a learner behind.

Never. Ever.

You will not get me to budge on this point, and if you call yourself a teacher and insist on fighting with me on this, then you must accept as a maxim that to you abandoning some kids is okay with you, and I say you should be ashamed of that attitude. Maybe you’re jaded. Maybe you’re tired. Maybe you’re stymied.

Or maybe you don’t mean it and you ought to reflect upon your language as well as your attitude. (I didn’t say this was going to be an easy conversation.)

I’m not blind to how screwed up the system is. If you know me at all, you know that fighting to right those wrongs is one of my life’s missions. But do not ask me to accept that teachers abandon kids. They don’t. They fight for their learners’ learning. They sacrifice for it. They lie down in front of buses and end up underneath them for their kids.

And they certainly don’t take children out into the wilderness of massive knowledge and new discovery, and let them wander off into the intellectual woods and say “sorry, Timmy, that’s too far, and now you’re on your own.” That’s abandoning a child. That’s betraying your responsibility. You never, ever, ever leave a child alone. I have said it ad nauseam and shall continue to reiterate it until the day you believe me or leave teaching never to return: Children are for one thing, and that is to be loved. They are never, ever to be “done to.” They are to be loved, and you cannot love a child by cutting him or her off and leaving him or her to be alone.

Rote memorization can provide useful intellectual tools, but memorization is not learning. It’s the difference between knowing (read: awareness) and knowing (read: understanding). I know that Pearl Harbor was bombed December 7, 1941. But that fact doesn’t mean I understand the nuances of how we got there, what happened then, what happened after, and the reasons behind it all. Knowing a fact is not “learning” any more than someone who knows many facts is “smart.” Moreover, every individual learner’s knowledge, skill, and experience is unique by its very nature, and so rote memorization cannot possibly provide for real learning. Learners are inquisitive while learning. Learning requires curiosity, and so teaching requires curiosity. Training does not.

If a student has a question, a teacher must answer it. The answer may well be “I don’t know,” but that is always an antecedent, that must lead immediately and directly to a consequent of discovery or inquiry. Why doesn’t the teacher know? (Not punitively, but genuinely: Why not? Is it a new question? Is it a new perspective? Might it infer a link that may or may not exist?) How can both the teacher and the learner find out together?

Understand, I do differentiate between teachers and professional teachers in terms of career. I expect professional teachers to have certain skills and that often involves credentialing because pedagogy is such a complex art and science that is vastly undertaught in our teacher preparation programs and grossly undervalued by our administrators. But you can, of course, be a teacher even if teaching not your vocation… but I don’t think it happens often. Teaching – true teaching, as I define it – requires passion and commitment of time and energy I find few have in sufficient measure to do effectively while maintaining an alternative vocation. 

Training shouldn’t be disparaged, either, nor should facilitation. Both are useful. But to me, there is a nigh-Hippocratic responsibility that “I teach” includes, that is not nearly present enough in the daily minds and attitudes of many of those that purport to do so. One ought to be an effective master of the knowledge and skill included in and ancillary to one’s subject or content before attempting to teach it, and needs to be a constant and lifelong learner to ensure the ever-expansion of that knowledge and skill, but so too must a teacher be an effective master of the art and science of teaching. Pedagogy is a word I use a lot, and it may have a simple definition on paper, but it’s a massive thing. It’s a concept as well as a skill, a collection of methodologies as well as the inclusive thought on all methodologies. It’s like “science” or “art” or “philosophy.” These are huge, huge “schools” of thinking, creating, doing, and being. As such, there is a sacrosanct trust around “I teach” that requires much more than a shingle hung out front and a few happily-trained doers of a thing to scrawl out testimonials.

Students are individuals, and being unique, they will understand, explore, discover, and create in ways no one ever has. That requires us to provide for our students taking up their intellectual lanterns and strapping on their thoughtful boots, and trudging off into parts of our field, of learning, of content, of human experience, that we are unprepared for and that, at times, might well create misunderstanding, misconception, or misapplication. That is why we must have small troops on these great field trips of exploration (smaller class sizes), take great care to check on every individual learner often without stopping them and sitting them down (lightweight ungraded formative assessment), be sure students can do what they must be able to do before we tackle the next obstacle (effective summative assessment based on skill and aptitude, not age-based promotion or school-social convenience and the corresponding remediation and individual teaching), and never, ever leave a learner behind.

An unanswered question is an unanswered call for help.

An unaddressed misconception is a rope bridge with busted slats.

An unattended discovery is letting that kid tempt the rabid animal with a smore.

An unassisted stumble is an ignored open wound.

Teachers never abandon their kids in the wilderness. It’s unloving, and it’s anti-child. Those that believe that there is an acceptable rate of loss when it comes to learners are sellers of snake oil, portrayers of safe and sincere teaching who are truly predators, malicious neglectors, self-aggrandizing quacks. They are the Adolfo Pirellis to my Sweeney Todd, and I will assail the mountebanks with the same ardor, though I’ll use my words and my pro-child actions in lieu of the razor and furnace.

Trainers have their place. There are things that can be understood through training, and it may in fact be the very best way to accurately duplicate a skill that must be done precisely the same, regardless of individuality. There may be only one way to do a thing, as a general rule, and training is more than sufficient but the ideal fusion of saving time and minimal effort to achieve the greatest result, and facilitators may be able to improve even upon that baseline. These are valuable things in our world. But they are not, and never will be, the same thing as teaching.

Teachers never leave a learner behind. Not one.

Not ever.