My wife and I practice Buddhism in the Plum Village tradition and part of that tradition is practice songs. One of the practice songs is a haunting melody in a minor key whose lyrics are the words in this post… and when I read two recent articles on the reaction of school teachers to the recent election of Mr. Trump the lyrics to the song popped into my head.
One article from a NYC parents group website called Mary Poppins, was “An Open Letter to Donald Trump from Concerned Parents”. In the letter, parent Anna Fader cites several incidents of bullying that occurred since Mr. Trump was elected and she implores the President elect to “…lead by example and uphold the values of our great nation and constitution“. While acknowledging that everyone will have to work harmoniously to make this happen, Ms. Fader emphasizes the oversize role the President must play:
Teachers, school administrators, parents, and local and national government officials will also need to do their best to handle these situations and set the tone for their communities, but it is most incumbent on you, Donald Trump, to tell America that you do not stand for or condone any form of bigotry. Tell America’s children that you do not condone attacks on Muslims, gays, blacks, Latinos, or any group. Tell girls that they are valuable, strong and their bodies are not up for grabs. Reassure children that you are not going to deport their law-abiding parents in the night. Be the beacon that this nation needs to actually “unify our great country” as you professed you would.
She underscored her points by including this photo of a first grade teacher’s message to her students following the election:
In a postscript at the end, she notes that bullying is a two way street and in communities where children who supported Trump are in the minority bullying by children who supported Ms. Clinton is wrong and needs to stop.
The second article by NYTimes writer Emily Bazelon, “Bullying in the Age of Trump”, opens with these two sobering paragraphs followed by a recounting of particularly egregious incidents among the 430 shared with the Southern Poverty Law Center:
Kids who are in religious or ethnic minorities, or are gay or disabled, are more likely to be bullied in school than other kids. Their point of difference can be a point of vulnerability. In the last decade, schools have put more energy into preventing bullying, to the benefit of these kids and others (girls, too, are more frequent targets). And they’ve often had the authority of the courts, state legislatures and the federal Department of Education behind them.
Now the country has elected a man who threaded racist, xenophobic and misogynistic messages and mockery of disabled people through his campaign. Donald J. Trump’s victory gives others license to do the same. There are already signs that during his presidency, the moral values that schools and parents have been helping to instill in young people — empathy and “upstanding,” a term schools use that means looking out for fellow students who are being mistreated — will be in danger of eroding.
Ms. Bazelon doesn’t pull any punches in her assessment of Mr. Trump’s decisions to appoint staff members with track records of bashing religious minorities and crudity and concludes with these paragraphs:
It’s also clear that if we can’t count on our national leaders to counteract bigotry, then we have to redouble our efforts to do so ourselves. When parents and alumni at Maple Grove High posted pictures of the racist graffiti on social media, the district issued a statement: “The tweet you may have seen of a racist message scrawled in a school bathroom is real and we are horrified by it. It goes against everything we stand for.” The school officials promised an investigation, acknowledged the danger to minority students and staff members, and said they would work to heal the impact on the school’s culture and “on every member of our school family.”
Those words are a start and deeds must follow, in small moments of kindness and larger acts of standing for justice. At this moment, local civil institutions and all of us, in our communities, are being put to a test. We have to show heart and conviction. We have to ensure that our kids learn the values some leaders have forgotten.
Like the parent who composed the open letter, Ms. Bazelon sees the responsibility for instilling civility shifting away from the national leadership to each and every classroom in the nation… and… in effect… to each and every citizen. In the face of vulgarity and crudeness in our President it is incumbent on every adult to exert the greatest wisdom of all: kindness. Legislation will not help us or our children. Our thoughts, words, and acts of kindness will.
NPR reporter Eric Westervelt’s recent report on four teachers who gave up their jobs after attaining a continuing contract illustrates everything that’s wrong with the way public schools are operating today and underscores the fact that the teachers who leave the profession are not those who struggle. On the contrary, Westervelt’s sampling indicates that teachers leave out of frustration about the lack of resources, the emphasis on testing, the toxic environment resulting from the anti-union legislation in many states, and– most sadly, because there is an emphasis on promoting students to the next “grade level” even if they aren’t actually learning the material presented in the classroom.
In each of these cases, the desire to run schools-like-a-business is driving teachers out of the profession. Schools emphasize testing and promotion because the metrics used to determine success are simple and cheap. Promotion rates and test scores, neither of which require mastery of the material by the students, are easy for the public to understand, inexpensive to calculate, and lend themselves to ranking and rating schools and— when invalid algorithms are used— teachers. Schools batch students in “grade levels” based on age and expect them to advance in lockstep through those “grade levels” because that’s the way a product that is manufactured progresses through a manufacturing process. Teachers are discouraged from being in unions and schools are starved of resources because government officials want to limit the costs to taxpayers in the same way that Walmart, for example, strives to limit overhead. The “overpaid teacher” meme is so ingrained today that asking teachers to pay for resources does not seem unfair to “cash-strapped-and-overburdened” taxpayers. The result, as Linda Darling Hammond states in Westervelt’s article, is “Teachers who are well prepared leave at more than two times lower rates than teachers who are not fully prepared”. A vicious circle is in place, especially in those districts with the tightest budgets— the districts serving the children with the greatest needs. Changing this vicious circle will be difficult. It will require the public to see the flaws in the “business model” and the merits of a developmental approach toward teaching and learning. It will require the public to have faith in “secular government schools” instead of schools operated by the “efficient” business sector or religiously affiliated schools. It will require a realization that a quality education, like any quality product, costs more than a shabby product. And it will require a willingness for affluent parents who understand all of this to be willing to pay higher taxes to help their less advantaged counterparts. Those who can afford high priced homes in districts that operate schools with robust programs and who pay teachers well will need to help out those children who had the bad luck to be born into families that struggle economically. When the minds and hearts of the public change, public schools can change for the better as well…. but it will require time, energy, and resources to effect that change.
The NYTimes ran a thought provoking and even handed article describing the dilemma faced by Brent Warthke, an Eau Claire WI middle school social studies teacher: how do I introduce Presidential politics to a group of 8th grade students in my social studies class? Back when I attended middle school (in the early 1960s when it was Junior High School), when I taught middle school (in the early 1970s), and when I led school districts (from 1980 onward) the issue of how to teach about politics was fairly straightforward: do not display any biases and try to make certain students understood both sides of the issues being debated. This year the challenge is how to present a toxic and vulgar campaign without having students sent to the office. In the words of one middle school student quoted in the article:
“We self-censor a lot,” said Connor Felton, 12. “I think if you repeat some stuff that Trump says, you could get sent down to the principal’s office. Maybe even expelled.”
Indeed, if a student teased a fellow student who was handicapped or fat or if a male student made references to grabbing a female by her genitals or sneered about her period they would be sent to the office… not because it was “politically incorrect” but because it is demeaning, bullying, and uncivil. Similarly if a teacher or administrator overheard a group of white students jeering at a group of immigrant students they would find it intolerable and put a stop to it.
Part of public education is learning how to conduct debates civilly and to gain a clear understanding of each student’s perspective on issues. This is part of the explicit and implicit curriculum because it is part of the explicit and implicit conduct we expect from each other and we expect our police to enforce. The saddest reality of this election is that the students who are being exposed to national politics for the first time are learning what Mr. Trump, Ms. Clinton, and themes media are teaching them… and I don’t believe it’s the lesson Mr. Warthke and his counterparts are wanting them to learn about how democracy functions.
Adam Grant’s NYTimes op ed essay asserting that we should stop grading students on a curve focusses on his experiences as a graduate school professor at the Wharton School of Business. His point is that grading on a bell curve in a graduate school compels needless competition among individual students and effectively teaches them to compete with each other instead of working collaboratively to gain a deeper understanding. I wholeheartedly agree with this premise and the conclusion he draws… but felt that he missed a much larger and important point. In the article he writes:
“If your forced curve allows for only seven A’s, but 10 students have mastered the material, three of them will be unfairly punished.”
The bell curve is forced and arguably meaningless in a select college or graduate school where most entrants can master the skills taught in the time provided. In public schools where everyone must master skills, the bell curve is a natural consequence of differences in learning aptitude. Because some students require more time to master the skills taught and time is seen as a limited, whenever a bell curve is used in public education all who get low grades because they cannot learn in the limited time provided are unfairly punished. As long as we accept the premise that time is a constant and learning is a variable we will needlessly punish students who cannot grasp material quickly by labelling them as “failures”. When this premise is imposed on learning in general, we end up claiming that “schools are failing”. Maybe we need to look at our premises about education before we jump to conclusions about the efficacy of public schools. Until we do, we will continue grading on a curve based on time limitations and confusing the RATE of learning with the CAPACITY to learn.
Restorative Justice Boosts Self-Awareness, Builds Community, and Builds Skills Needed in a Democracy
This Sunday’s NYTimes will feature an article by Susan Dominus on how the use of restorative justice in an urban high school in NYC has dramatically lowered the suspension rates. Ms. Dominus’ article vividly describes the daunting challenges an administrator faces when trying to replace the criminal justice model of discipline with a restorative justice model. Teachers and deans who are accustomed to swift and automatic consequences for specific forms of misconduct are thrown when they are expected to deal with small offenses on their own and expected to help students learn to manage their own conduct. After reading the description of how the Principal at Leadership and Public Service High School in Manhattan’s Financial District implemented restorative justice model over a period of years, Ms. Santos noted that:
“While studies have shown that restorative practices curb suspensions, research on their influence on test scores and grades is inconclusive.”
It’s a sad reality that schools are assessed based on standardized test scores and students progress is measured by grades— because both are based on the premise that time is fixed and performance is variable. Moreover, test scores and grades measure what is easy to measure but ultimately not that important. Restorative justice, as this article shows, tackles the toughest and most important issues. If we want to graduate students who are ready to thrive in a community, who are self-actualized learners, who are self-aware, who understand the skills needed to function in a democracy, we need to ignore their standardized tests and change our thinking about grades. We need to show them the same patience in the mastery of academics as restorative justice affords them in the management of their emotions. If we continue to focus on seemingly objective and precise metrics like standardized tests and grades we will continue ignoring the emotional well-being of children. Given our obsession with tests and grades Is it any surprise that we are reading countless articles about disaffected and disengaged young adults?
Ms. Dominus illustrates the difficulty of changing the dominant paradigm of school discipline and, in so doing, illustrates how difficult it is to change the dominant thinking about test-based accountability. Her article is aptly titled “An Effective but Exhausting Alternative to High School Suspensions”. What Ms. Dominus fails to acknowledge is that our current practice with school discipline is IN-effective but equally exhausting. As is our practice in batching students in age based cohorts and expecting them to progress in lockstep.