Posts Tagged ‘Memoir’

Weapons in School: A Personal History… and Ronald Reagan’s Change of Heart

January 25, 2018 1 comment

In the early 1970s I taught at Shaw Junior High School in Philadelphia. In May, 1972, the last year I taught at that school, a student was stabbed to death in a scuffle that occurred in the lavatory across from my classroom. At that time, Philadelphia staffed its schools with non-teaching assistants and had police officers assigned to guard the building. Knives and guns were forbidden in schools, but, as the incident in the bathroom indicated, enforcing the prohibition was difficult.

Two years later I became Assistant Principal at a nearby suburban high school of 650 students. In that capacity I confiscated knives from students,  removed baseball bats from lockers of students who were not on the baseball team but had threatened to harm classmates over squabbles that occurred in the neighborhoods outside of school, and asked those attending basketball games to allow me to inspect their overcoats in search of guns that were rumored to be on their person. I count myself as fortunate to have avoided injury on one occasion when I disarmed a student who had a knife in a fight with another student and to have never encountered a situation where a student was armed.

In the late 1970s I became Principal in a rural Maine school district where I was asked to impose greater discipline on the students who attended. I was told (and during my first year witnessed) students often scuffled in the hallways and often brought “buck knives” to school, knives they used most frequently to vandalize property but which could have been used to injure each other in scuffles. In writing the student handbook for the school, I banned the possession of knives and guns, a move that was widely supported by the teachers but questioned by many students and parents— particularly during hunting season when many students went hunting before school and left their rifles in the vehicles they drove to school. The ban seemed commonsensical given the experiences of my predecessor, but it did result in the need for me to replace six tires over the course of the year and to have many heated exchanges with parents and students who questioned the need for the ban, which they viewed as coming from my experience “in the city”.

For the years that followed, when I became a school superintendent in that same rural Maine district, in the Seacoast section of New Hampshire, and a Western Maryland district, I cannot recall any issues involving the prohibition of knives and guns in schools. The bans were in place, enforced on rare occasions by administrators, and never an issue at the Board level. In each these assignments I worked on the State Superintendents Association’s legislative committee and I cannot recall any debates on the issue of weapons in school at the legislative level.

All of that changed in 1999 when Columbine occurred. By that time I was leading a large suburban district in Upstate New York, a district that had homes like those pictured in the Denver suburb where two students brought high-powered weapons into a high school and killed several of their classmates. The Columbine incident occurred at the time I was convening “coffees” to discuss the school budgets that would be voted upon in mid-May, and the discussions that followed my 15 overview of the budget had nothing to do with school finance and everything to do with security in schools. The issue of school safety was exacerbated when a rumor circulated that a group of students was going to come to an unnamed school in our region with assault weapons on May 5th, Cinco de Mayo, with the intent of killing classmates. While no one could find the source of this rumor, it persisted to the extent that my colleagues and I experienced a decline in attendance in their high schools on that day.

Since Columbine, the debates about guns in schools, the need for “good guys with guns” in schools, the need for surveillance equipment, and the need for better locks has resulted in a counter-movement in the gun-owning community. Since Columbine States have moved away from laws preventing weapons in schools by passing concealed carry laws, open carry laws, and, in the case of New Hampshire, laws that prevent local school boards from passing any restrictions whatsoever on guns in schools. All of these laws that allow the proliferation of guns are based on a “slippery slope” theory that if state legislatures— or local school boards— pass laws or policies that limit the acquisition of guns, limit the kinds of guns that can be sold, or limit places where guns can be carried, soon those same legislative bodies will be passing laws that confiscate guns altogether.

It would be wonderful if legislators ignored the NRA, who promotes these laws that encourage the widespread use of guns and promotes the “slippery slope” thinking. It would even be better if gun owners had some assurance through the law and some faith in such an assurance that “the government” has no intention of confiscating any weapons they possess unless there is substantial evidence that they intend to use them to harm people. But recent experience in Oregon indicates gun rights advocates will spread misinformation on any legislation designed to protect family members, school children, and members of the public from gun owners who a court has determined are likely to use the weapons to harm others.

And so we find ourself in a world where 297 school students were killed in 137 school shootings between 1980 and 2013 and 200 school shootings and 94 deaths since the Sandy Hook incident at the end of that year and the end of 2016 and school boards concerned about the well being and safety of their children have no means of excluding those with weapons.

In retrospect, I’m glad I began my career as a school-based administrator in the 1970s when it was still possible to screen spectators for concealed weapons and still possible to send students home with the rifles they perched on the gun racks on their pick-up trucks. There were only two mass shootings at public schools during an era when common sense prevailed in terms of gun ownership, an era when Ronald Reagan saw “no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons” and that guns were a “ridiculous way to solve problems that have to be solved among people of good will.” The party of Ronald Reagan has changed its thinking since then… in part because the context has changed. Ronald Reagan had just signed the Mulford Act which forbid the public carrying of loaded firearms, a law he believed “would work no hardship on the honest citizen”. California’s Mulford Act was introduced in 1967 in response to members of the Black Panther Party who were conducting armed patrols of Oakland neighborhoods. If such an incident took place today, where would the GOP stand? Where would the NRA stand?

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In an Era Where Education Policy is Nationalized and Board Races are Funded by Outsiders, Politics and Education are Intertwined

December 29, 2017 Leave a comment

In a post she wrote yesterday, Diane Ravitch explained why she finds it necessary to be “political” in her blog on public education. She wrote this in response to her being named the most “overtly political thought leader” in public education in 2017:

If you don’t like bad policies, you have to become political.

If you want change, you have to become political.

If you don’t like decisions made by the U.S. Department of Education or your state legislature, you have to be political.

If you don’t like the idea of turning Title 1 and special education funding into a honey pot for vouchers, charters, and home schooling, you must be political.

If your governor and legislature want to privatize education and destroy the teaching profession, you must be political.

If you want to protect children, teachers, and public schools from profiteering predators, you must be political.

I confess.

I am overtly political.

It is a strange role for a scholar and a historian. I am supposed to observe.

But when you observe malfeasance, fraud, lies, propaganda, corruption, and error, you can’t stand by as a detached observer. You just can’t.

You have to get political, get up, act, raise your voice, fight for what you believe in.

That’s why I am political.

When I launched this blog six years ago, I intended to make it apolitical. My career as a public school Superintendent led me to be apolitical, largely because school board races in the states where I worked were non-partisan and political discourse was counterproductive to achieving the goals of the districts where I worked. Though I served on the legislative committees of my State professional organizations during my first 17 years (1981-1997), I seldom felt that out group was fighting against a national movement that opposed public schools. Indeed, the only “national” bills we opposed in that time frame tended to be ones that national Christian organizations attempted to introduce that would limit the ability of counselors to provide services to children, loosen home schooling regulations, and forbid the instruction of “secular humanism”. We tended to weigh in on financial issues, mandates that would expand our curricula without providing additional funds (i.e. teaching animal husbandry to elementary children; requiring all children to receive first aid training; mandating RNs in each school; etc.), and “local bills” that had potential State-wide ramifications. There was no dark money funding local board elections and no billionaires funding national initiatives like the Common Core… and no one in the White House who sought to nationalize assessments. In effect, despite President Reagan’s effort to politicize public education, despite President George H.W. Bush’s efforts to mobilize volunteers to help public schools perform more effectively, and despite Bill Clinton’s efforts to engage the nation in “reform” by passing Goals 2000, public education remained a local and State level issue.

All that changed with NCLB, which created a de facto national assessment for public schools and a de facto national rating system for public schools. As I came to the end of my career, I was appalled when the Obama administration reinforced the test-driven policies that were embedded in NCLB when he used millions in federal funds to launch RTTT, which required the use of tests as the primary metric for measuring school and teacher performance. As Superintendent in NH, wrote a White Paper on the issue that then Commissioner Ginny Barry shared with my colleagues as a basis for determining a response. After lengthy deliberations, NH decided to opt out of the original applications. Ultimately, NH was one of the last states to sign to RTTT, in large measure because school boards and administrators in our state place a high value on local control and are generally suspicious of any top-down mandates— particularly those that do not come with funding.

After retiring in 2011 I launched this blog intending to refrain from interjecting national political issues. But after reading Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch’s book on the movement to privatize public education, and reading extensively about the trends toward privatization, I found politics creeping into my writing. When Mr. Trump was elected, though, all bets were off… particularly when our current Governor, Chris Sununu, replaced the widely respected Ginny Barry with Frank Edelblut, a businessman-turned-politician with no experience overseeing public schools, no children who attended public schools, and a public record that expressed nothing but disdain for teachers and public education.

I DO find political activism to be frustrating, however. My local State legislators, local House member, and both local Senators are wholly supportive of the letters I write and the positions I take… but they are now foreclosed from having any voice as the GOP drafts legislation behind closed doors. I will persist in being political, though, because to do otherwise is to accept the direction our country is headed… and democracy depends on forcing the doors open when legislation is being written, depends on having one’s voice be heard, and depends on engagement when doors are slammed, ears are closed, and dissent is unwelcome.

Utopia IS Nowhere to be Found: But Everyone who Works in Public Education is Doing the Best They Can to Create One in their School

December 8, 2017 Leave a comment

Teacher-blogger Steven Singer wrote a thought provoking post a few days ago on his website that is linked to Facebook and found himself in “Facebook Jail” because of it… presumably because their algorithm screened out his content as “Fake News”. In the post, Mr. Singer described an assignment he gave his 7th grade students where he asked them to describe their version of Utopia and offered an overview of their responses. He then reflected on how the assignment mirrored the thinking behind the charter school movement:

The economists, think tank partisans and lobbyists love to denigrate the public school system and pine for an alternative where corporate interests and business people make all the rules.

Sure they have literally billions of dollars behind them and a gallery of famous faces to give them legitimacy.

But they’re really just engaged in a more high stakes version of Moore’s novel or the assignment my kids did this week.

But Mr. Singer might not appreciate that the administrators who manage his school are also engaged in a version of Moore’s novel, albeit a version that has some constraints. 40 years ago I was appointed Principal at a rural HS where there was no student handbook, no faculty handbook, and no course of studies. Using handbooks from the school I worked in previously as a template and working with a small cadre of teachers in the HS I developed a set of handbooks that created a “Utopia”. Initially the staff members expressed universal appreciation for the handbook. But as time went on, I know that some “hard-line” faculty members wished the rules governing student behavior were as ironclad as the ones that charter school leaders like Eva Moskovitz imposes on students. Some “humanistic” faculty members, on the other hand, lamented the fact that some students chose to drop out of school because they did not want to follow rules like taking five classes, leaving their buck-knives at home, going to a study hall when they did not have class, or– worse of all– having a hall pass when they used the lavatory.

I tried hard to get the hard-line teachers to appreciate that public school administrators do not have the luxury of throwing children out of school the way that the nearby private school could. I also tried to get the humanistic teachers to appreciate that some semblance of order is needed to ensure the school operates effectively. And I tried to get everyone to understand that the rules could be changed in the same way their lesson plans, and Mr. Singer’s can be changed. And over the course of my three years as Principal the rules were changed based on input I received from a cadre of staff members the faculty elected: tightened in some areas and loosened in others.

Here’s the bottom line in public schools: everyone who works in public education is doing the best they can. Everyone who works in public education is trying to make life better for the children who attend their school. And everyone who works in public education is challenged by the finger-pointing of the “reformers” who want to impose ironclad rules on students… AND impose ironclad rules on everyone who works in public education.

P.S. In an effort to help Mr. Singer get out of Facebook Jail I posted his essay on my page.


Former HS Principal Challenges Five “Affirming Myths” About Upward Mobility

October 11, 2017 Leave a comment

An article in Metro USA offers a preview of “When Grit Isn’t Enough: A High School Principal Examines How Poverty and Inequality Thwart the College-for-All Promise”, a book by Linda F. Nathan, former co-headmaster of Boston Arts Academy, to be published later this month. According to the article by Pat King, Ms. Nathan sets out to dispel five “affirming myths” about upward mobility:

Those myths are:

  • “Money doesn’t have to be an obstacle”
  • “Race doesn’t matter”
  • “Just work harder”
  • “Everyone can go to college”
  • “If you believe, your dreams will come true”.

I’ve written several (or maybe countless) posts debunking these myths in an unsystematic fashion over the past six years, but these ideas ARE affirming to those of us who have created our own affirming myths about how hard we had to work to pay for college, how many African Americans attended classes with us in graduate school, and how many people we’ve met in our lifetimes who strived and overcame what appeared to be insurmountable obstacles. Each of these “prove” that the five aphorisms above are not myths but realities. But I think if every white male baby boomer born into the middle class examined their personal affirming myths they would realize that:

  • Paying for college was much easier in the 1960s than it is today
  • Racism is as virulent today as it was before Brown v. Board of Education in the 1950s and the passage of the Civil Rights bills in the 1960s.
  • Hard work is easier for someone born into a college educated family where mom and dad work as a team to raise a family
  • Everyone may be able to get into a post-secondary school but everyone doesn’t need a college degree to make their way in the world
  • Believing in agreeable fantasies like the first four myths will not change the realities that those born into poverty face or those born with brown or black skin face… “if you believe” the first four myths, the fifth one must be true.

I was fortunate to be born as a white male into a family of two college educated parents who raised me and my three siblings in neighborhoods or towns where we could attend the best public schools. They encouraged thrift, open-mindedness when it came to race and class distinctions, hard work at home and during the summer, attendance at colleges we could pay for out of our own pockets, and to keep our feet on the ground while we looked to the future. That good fortune contributed more to whatever success I achieved than anything I did…. and it is a “good fortune” that our country should try to provide to as many of its citizens as possible.


The Latest (and Completely Unrealistic) Silver Bullet for High Schools: Starting Later

September 13, 2017 Leave a comment

The NYTimes “Upshot” writer Aaron E. Carroll breathlessly reports on the recent Rand study that claims that starting high school later would result in greater student achievement and, consequently, any additional costs incurred by starting school early would be offset. As a retired Superintendent who worked in five different school districts in four different states over a 29 year time span I can assure readers that anyone who thinks this idea will come to fruition is completely untethered from reality. Here are four reasons:

  1. Extraordinary front-end costs: Both the Rand Corporation and writers who cover this issue acknowledge that the up front costs are daunting. But neither the Rand Corporation nor the education reporters offer any rational explanation on where the funds to acquire new buses will come from. The states? Not with 35 statehouses under GOP control. Local budgets? Not with school spending at a lower level than a decade ago.
  2. Politically untenable implementation impacts of cost avoidance strategies: Assuming a windfall of state or local funds is impossible, there are two ways front-end costs could be diminished: by flipping bus routes, having elementary students start early and high schools start late; or, by combining bus routes so that K-12 children all ride the same bus. Speaking from experience, both of these ideas will result in push-back. When I was superintendent in rural Western ME we DID get K-12 routes put in place, but did so to save money and fuel. We moved the start times to a time somewhere between the high school and elementary school start time. Why? Because we didn’t want to move the end of the high school day too far back because of high school athletic practices… and we didn’t want to move elementary start times too far back because working parents could not find child care coverage.
  3. Unwillingness of politicians and voters to act on “empirical evidence”: The notion that politicians would take action based on “empirical data” is zero given the political response to the clear and unequivocal empirical data on climate change. Moreover, there is no “empirical evidence” that politicians and voters are willing to spend money now to achieve future gains.
  4. Unwillingness to invest in the future: If we wanted to invest in the future we wouldn’t be spending less now on K-12 education than we were spending in 2008-09… and we wouldn’t be spending more three times more on prisons than we are spending on schools.

I wish that we lived in a world where empirical data mattered… but we don’t. We live in a world where we are seeking fast, cheap and easy solutions. Moving school start times is none of the above in the start run and only theoretically beneficial in the long run. Rand Corporation’s spreadsheet mentality, like that of “reformers” who see test scores as a fast, cheap and easy means of “measuring” school performance.



How Climate Change Denial Gets Traction

June 9, 2017 Leave a comment

A recent NYTimes article described the skepticism of some students regarding climate change in Wellstone, OH, a skepticism I could appreciate given this recent essay I wrote describing my father’s attitudes toward freon’s impact on the atmosphere:

I Understand Those Who Deny Climate Change

Over the past several weeks I’ve read scores of articles on the appointees President Trump has recommended for cabinet posts, including many “climate change deniers” nominated for key positions that oversee environmental policy. While I am dismayed that some prominent political figures and corporate leaders disregard the findings of scientists, my personal experience helps me understand those who deny climate change. I gained this understanding from debates around the dinner table when I visited my parents in the 1970s.

Some background: My father worked for DuPont for over thirty years. After earning a Mechanical Engineering degree and serving briefly in the Navy at the end of World War II, he was hired by DuPont and began working up the organization ladder. His initial assignment was in the field, cleaning storage tanks for DuPont’s customers in a sales territory that ranged from Montreal to West Virginia and included Western Pennsylvania and Western New York. He then worked in petro-chemical sales in Utah and Oklahoma, in the sales and management training offices in Wilmington Delaware. After a short stint selling chemical products in Michigan, he returned to DuPont headquarters in Wilmington in the early 1970s where he became a district manager for a division that sold one of DuPont’s signature products: Freon.

Those familiar with environmental issues of that time recall that there was a difference of opinion between atmospheric scientists and chemical corporations like DuPont who manufactured chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)—like Freon. In 1973 a team of scientists determined that there was a hole in the ozone layer surrounding the earth, postulated that the hole was expanding, and contended the cause of the hole was the emission of CFCs. When these findings were initially reported, the nascent environmental movement championed the cause of banning CFCs. In response, the chemical corporations issued studies that contradicted these independent scientific studies. Among those corporations skeptical of the environmentalists findings was DuPont, whose Board Chairman characterized ozone depletion theory as “a science fiction tale…a load of rubbish…utter nonsense.” My father, who was loyal to his company, concurred with that line of thinking and believed any government regulations or limitations on the sale of CFCs were unnecessary. I believed the scientists and thought regulations were needed. We debated the issue for a few years but eventually agreed to disagree.

Ultimately, years after my father retired, a scientific and political consensus emerged: CFCs did contribute to the depletion of the ozone layer and our government and corporations signed international agreements to limit their use. By 1993 DuPont stopped the production of Freon entirely.

Apart from his adherence to DuPont’s “company line” regarding CFCs, my father was a bright, open-minded, and scientifically inclined individual. And while it may seem that his unwillingness to accept scientific findings was due to blind loyalty or greed, I think another factor might have come into play— a factor that underlies climate denial today: a fear of change. I believe that deep down my father feared that if DuPont abandoned the manufacture of CFCs he might end with a new assignment in a different part of the country, and possibly in a lower paying job. It was also possible the value of his DuPont stocks might plummet, or his pension or benefits might be compromised. Moreover, if it WAS true that CFCs were creating a potentially devastating impact on the climate, he realized on some level that he might be complicit in the destruction of the eco-system. Those unarticulated deep-seated fears caused him to reject the science that proved that one of the products his division was marketing was damaging to humankind.

I understand his denial because I find that I have the same visceral feelings about the science surrounding climate change as my father had toward the science of CFCs: I want to wish it away! Given the scientific evidence linking the burning of fossil fuels and the destruction of the planet and my behavior as a consumer, it is clear I need to make some changes… and I am fearful of how those changes I need to make will make my life less convenient, less comfortable, and more costly.

My wife and I live in a three-bedroom house in the country. We have two cars. We burn wood and use fuel oil to heat our house. The energy source of the electricity we use is fossil fuel. We enjoy travelling, especially this time of year when we typically spend a few weeks in the Southwest to get away from mud season. While we’ve adopted a plan-based diet, there are other changes we’d need to make to address our contribution to man-made climate change. We’d need to get a smaller, energy efficient and solar powered home closer to town. We’d need to give up one of our cars, ideally the 4-wheel drive SUV that is roomier but far less fuel-efficient than our small sedan. We’d have to forego airline travel entirely. Alternatively, if we want to stay in the house where we are now and continue our current levels of energy consumption we would need to install expensive solar panels in our backyard and be willing to pay a carbon tax for the fossil fuel we consume driving and travelling. It is likely that the result of these additional costs for energy would mean fewer meals in restaurants, smaller gifts for grandchildren on their birthdays and holidays, less money available for movies and theater performances, three-day weekends, or vacations much closer to home. We would need to sacrifice some comforts and pleasures.

On some level, everyone in the country realizes that reducing their carbon footprint requires the kinds of sacrifices I listed above… and if those kinds of changes occurred across an entire country, the entire economy would change. It would rely on more local products and activities, rely less on consumption, and, as a result, in all probability grow at a slower rate than we are accustomed to. And on some level, I expect that anyone who senses that we will have to make sacrifices feels a sense of foreboding. And because we are making these sacrifices based on the “scientific fact“ that WE are contributing to global warming, we might be inclined to challenge the “scientific fact”.

And now, as I plan for my annual trip to the Southwest to get away from the endless winter, I understand those who deny climate change. Like them I, too, want to wish away the scientific evidence and not make any changes.

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The Administrator Behind the Metal Detector Accepts The Necessity of His Role

April 30, 2017 Leave a comment

“The Man Behind the Metal Detector”, a NYTimes op ed article by Boston public school administrator Adam Stumacher, describes Mr. Stumacher’s conflicts about his role as the school’s gatekeeper and inspector of book-bags and knapsacks. These paragraphs describe his unsettling thoughts as he performs his daily task, comparing his students’ experiences to those he had growing up in rural New Hampshire:

The reality for my students is different. They have been followed through stores, had people roll up their car windows or cross the street when they approach. So perhaps they are unsurprised by the metal detectors.

I try to tell myself none of this is within my control. I think of our school’s work to design courses around diverse texts, hire teachers who reflect our students’ cultures and connect kids with opportunities like internships — how we welcome all students with the promise that we will not rest until they achieve their potential.

But I see how their body language shifts when they walk through metal detectors, some wrapping their arms around themselves and others throwing their heads back in defiance. I see how they fixate on their phone screens or scarves, anything to avoid meeting my gaze. In that moment, there is no denying I am part of the machine.

As one who taught in urban public schools and worked as an administrator in a blue collar suburban district just outside of a city, I am not surprised that Mr. Stumacher is conflicted about his role. Indeed, I imagine anyone who, like me, grew up in a small college town where most of my associations were with churched classmates whose parents expected them to go to college, is often conflicted when they are forced into the role of “enforcer”. Most teachers are drawn to professions in public education because they believe they can make a difference in the lives of children through connections, not because they want to impose their will. So Mr. Stumacher’s conflicts about serving as a de facto policeman are not surprising. What would have been more interesting is to read about the process the administrative team went through to make the decision to put the metal detectors in school to start with, a decision that they had to realize would change the entire dynamic of entry to school each and every day and change Mr. Shumacher’s role. The article offers this as an explanation:

There are metal detectors at the entrance of nearly every public high school in Boston — I imagine it’s the same in most major cities. Last year, when I started working at this school as part of a new administration, we were determined not to use them. We made it until October, when a student brought a knife to school. He was a gentle kid, a ninth grader, and he said he’d brought the knife only because some guys in his neighborhood were harassing him on the way to school and he needed to protect himself. But our first job is to keep the school safe, and so we asked the district for metal detectors, which arrived before 7 the next morning. I had never seen anything arrive so promptly from the district. Textbook orders take months.

This brought to mind my first year as an administrator in 1975 when I heard through the student grapevine that a student had a knife rolled up in a towel in his gym bag. Like the student in Mr. Shumacher’s essay, he was “a gentle kid” who didn’t stemlike the kind of student who would be prone to violence. Nevertheless, I called the student to the office where I confronted him. When he denied the allegation, I asked if I could accompany him to his locker to retrieve his gym bag so he could show me it’s contents. When I asked him to unroll his towel, he looked at me guiltily, and slowly unrolled the towel where there was a large knife. Like the student in Mr. Shumacher’s essay, he said he’d brought the knife only because some guys in his neighborhood were harassing him on the way to school and he needed to protect himself. We called his parents in for a conference, suspended him from school for three days for possession of a weapon (the notion of In School Suspension had not been introduced at that time), and alerted the police and local community leaders of the sense of threat the student felt. The idea of metal detectors was not on our radar in 1975 because in that era one could freely walk through airports, freely enter the US House and Senate Building, and freely enter any public space without having to walk through a metal detector or screening device monitored by a uniformed guard.

My questions to those who see metal detectors as the only option is this: we built “the machine” that Mr. Shumacher is a part of. Why can’t we take it apart and build it a different way? Why can’t we begin with the premise that our money is better spent building cohesive neighborhoods than  building and staffing metal protectors? Why aren’t we operating out of a caring attitude instead of a fearful one?