Posts Tagged ‘Memoir’

Aspiring to Live in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood

June 6, 2018 Comments off

A few days ago I went to see RBG, a full length documentary celebrating the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The movie was wonderful, inspirational, and eye-opening. But it took a back seat to a trailer for a forthcoming movie about another American icon, Fred Rogers.

The trailer for “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” featured vignettes of Mr. Rogers with a disabled child, with an African-American friend in a children’s pool, and with small groups of wide-eyed children looking at him in wonderment as he performed low-tech puppet shows and told them silly-but-enchanting stories. It also featured trademark snippets of his show as he shed his outer garments for a cardigan and sung simple songs that assured his viewers that they were beloved human beings.

When Mr. Rogers was on PBS I recall watching it over my older daughter’s shoulders and cynically rolling my eyes. At the time I was a high school disciplinarian in a rough and tumble small town outside of Philadelphia. I thought the world Mr. Rogers lived in was fanciful. No one in Mr. Rogers neighborhood was being busted for smoking dope, engaging in fights with others over petty insults, or struggling to make ends meet. I feared he was presenting my daughter with an unrealistic picture of what she would encounter when she got out in the world. Moreover, as a cynical young adult, I was certain that when Mr. Rogers concluded his performance on the show he probably went to a bar outside the studio and threw down drinks with his buddies and watched the Steelers pound opponents into submission.

Watching the trailer at the Nugget theater with a group of aging baby boomers who in all probability shared my experience as a PBS parent, I was stunned to find I was touched deeply as Mr. Rogers explained death, divorce and racism to open-minded three and four year olds in his soft and reassuring voice. I shared this experience with a group of friends and found that they, too, had the same experience watching the trailer. When I spoke to my younger daughter who is now 40 about my experience watching the trailer, I found that she had seen it five times and cried each time.

What is it about Mr. Rogers neighborhood that triggers such a response? Upon looking at my own reaction to the trailer I came to the conclusion that I was touched because I really wanted to live in a neighborhood like Mr. Rogers’ and I really hoped to help create a world like his. And now, after a long career working in public education and looking at the state of affairs in our nation, I can see that such a world seems more and more implausible.

Later in my life I had an opportunity to meet Mr. Rogers. My late wife, a fabric artist, served as an assistant to  Jan Newbury-Meyers for a course at Haystack Mountain in Deer Isle, Maine, and the two of them became fast friends.  Jan’s husband, Sam Newbury, worked with Fred Rogers and when we visited Jan at her home in Pittsburgh, Sam shared stories about his workplace, which sounded as wholesome and warm as the show itself. When we joined Sam and Jan on Sunday at the Presbyterian Church she attended we had an opportunity to meet their good friend Fred Rogers. He was as genuine and radiant in person as he was on television. He greeted us with the same glint in his eyes as he greeted his guests with on TV. He seemed enthused to meet US even though at that point in his life he had undoubtedly encountered thousands of people who watched his show, and even though I felt we were invading his privacy by meeting him at church.      After meeting him, it was clear that Mr. Rogers never went to the bar and talked about the Steelers… but it was equally clear that he understood the Steelers fans and would welcome them into his neighborhood.

I believe that while living in a world that resembles Mr. Rogers Neighborhood is seemingly implausible, it IS possible for each of us to create such a world by emulating Mr. Rogers. If we are willing to welcome strangers into our communities, to lend a helping hand to those in need, and to accept those who view the world differently from us we could all live in Mr. Rogers’ world.



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“Choice” Advocates Relentlessness Leads to Proposal to Replace Impact Aid with Vouchers

April 5, 2018 Comments off

I worked for a decade leading a school district that included a military base, Fort Ritchie.  Fort Ritchie was located in a geographically remote section of the district and was served by an elementary school that had a majority of students who were children of those serving or working at the base. To help the district fund that school, whose land was tax exempt, we received impact aid. Near the end of my service in that district, the military based was closed and we lost the impact aid, which had a cascading effect on the funding of not only the school located on the base, but schools across the district. I offer this to illustrate the importance of impact aid as a revenue source to districts who serve children in the military, a revenue source that would be converted into a voucher scheme if conservative-libertarian legislators prevail in passing the “revenue neutral” (at the FEDERAL LEVEL) Education Savings Account for Military Families Act of 2018. These paragraphs from yesterday’s Politico feed explain how these plans would work:

MILITARY SCHOOL CHOICE BILL GETS HOME-FIELD BACKING: Thirty-four conservative organizations and school choice advocacy groups say they’re backing a bill introduced last month to create Education Savings Accounts for military-connected students. In a letter sent to Congress on Tuesday, the groups urged lawmakers to support the Education Savings Accounts for Military Families Act of 2018, H.R. 5199 (115), introduced by Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), and its Senate companion.

The legislation would create education savings accounts through federal Impact Aid dollars, which are used to supplement school district budgets because the districts sit on tax-exempt federal land like military bases or Native American reservations. Military families could use the accounts to pay for expenses like private school tuition, educational materials and contributions to college savings accounts. The bill is based on a proposal from the Heritage Foundation. Advocates for school districts receiving Impact Aid funds, like the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools, are opposed.

“Families who serve in the armed forces move from duty station to duty station with little choice in where they live or what schools their children attend,” the letter from supporting groups reads . “This is a problem Congress can solve. Armed with a military ESA, parents can send their children to a private school, take individual classes at a public school, school at home, use an online learning program, hire a private tutor, and eventually use any surplus to help pay for college.” Among those who signed on to the letter are the Center for Education Reform, EdChoice, the American Association of Christian Schools, the American Federation for Children and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

There are not that many districts in the nation who receive Impact Aid… but I believe EVERY public school district in the nation needs to raise their voice in opposition to this bill because if it passes it will serve s a precedent that the relentless pro-voucher groups will use to divert funds for public education to private for profit and sectarian schools… and the revenue lost to districts who serve these military bases will impact not only this children of the military who remain in public schools but ALL the children who attend public schools in those districts. This is a bad bill that should be defeated. Time for me to write my legislators!

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 Comments off

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 Comments off

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 Comments off

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 Comments off

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.