The Anxiety of Data

I was thinking the other day about Proficiency Based Learning.  I was thinking about the reams and reams of data that we’re now required to assess and report.  We’re spending hours and hours recording and posting data . . .  But why?  Who really cares?

Supposedly it’s for parents, students, and us.  But students are mostly indifferent, if not confused, the parents are definitely confused, if not indifferent, and the last thing we educators are going to say to ourselves is, “I just spent six hours entering grades.  You know what I’m going to do now?  Thoughtfully mull over the data for a few more hours!  Let’s see if this’ll lead to divorce.”

Even I can’t decipher students’ report cards anymore — there’s too much data.  It’s like my Verizon bill, except without the “being ripped off” part.  Don’t give me eight pages of indecipherable fine print.  There’s something dishonest about it.  It’s like they’re saying, “Hey, don’t blame us when you finally learn that we’re extorting you!  It was right there all along on page 72b.”

Our new proficiency report cards aren’t quite that bad.  If anything, they’re coming from the opposite place.  It’s like we’re saying, “Okay, okay, here’s EVERYTHING POSSIBLE that we can measure — we’re going to publish it ALL.  Nothing being hidden here, okay?  We’re being COMPLETELY TRANSPARENT!”

Because we educators suffer from some serious professional anxiety when it comes to accountability.  After all, that’s been the watchword of every reform for the past twenty years.  No Child Left Behind was supposed to “hold schools accountable.” The idea was, collect all the data on how every sub-group is doing.  Then — publish it.  Shame the losers into doing better by labeling them.  More publishing.  If that doesn’t work, fire them.

It didn’t improve education.  But it certainly had an effect on teachers.  Many lost jobs.  Some lost their schools.  Some were even sent to prison, having been so pressured to produce that they cheated.  This was all in the name of data-based accountability.  Is it any wonder that now, still under the last vestiges of NCLB, even a progressive state like Vermont is falling all over itself to show how much data we can be super-transparent about?

It fits with a much wider, longer narrative, too — one in which schools get blamed a lot, whether it’s because America is losing the space race (we took the hit for Sputnik), the world economy to Japan (A Nation at Risk, 1983), the fight for racial equality (NCLB in the early 2000s), or the world economy again (see statements by “Duncan, Arne”).  We know we’re going to be blamed for the problems, and that we’re never going to get credit for the good stuff (such as the tech boom of the 1990s — no one ever seemed to give us credit for that).

That’s why, I believe, we now feel compelled to push out mountains of data to our students, through the wonderfully “transparent” online gradebook, updated (ideally) to the hour.  We’re so scared of being labeled “unaccountable” that we might as well set up a system that gives everyone everything on a kid at all times.  Be transparent.  Give ’em the data — on everything.

Sure, it comes from a noble place.  You could even say that we didn’t come up with this system consciously in order to justify ourselves.

But then again, we didn’t come up with this system, did we?

We never do.

The FBI Will Find the Truth — and It Will be Bad for Kavanaugh (and Possibly for the FBI too)

Why is anyone acting as though the FBI will not get to the bottom of this case?  Seriously, I know it seems hard to imagine, but despite what Donald Trump would have you think . . .  the FBI is really freaking good at what it does.

No, the FBI is not going to get a definitive answer on what happened in that bedroom.

But whether this party happened in the first place, and whether Kavanaugh and Blasey Ford were both there?  I think they can manage that.  Why are we even thinking this is going to be hard for them?

After all, there are tons of leads.  For one thing, there is a date on Kavanaugh’s calendar — July 1, 1982 — when he went to a party at Tim Gaudette’s house with many of the boys who supposedly attended the party Blasey Ford referenced in her testimony.  Go talk to some of those guys.  Visit Gaudette’s house, see what it looks like, and if it matches Blasey Ford’s description.  Talk to Chris Garrett (“Squi”) — who dated Blasey Ford and supposedly introduced her to Kavanaugh.  See what he knows.  Start talking to some of the other guys, like Mark Judge.  Remind him of a few details from the case, and see what he has remembered.  And what about Blasey Ford’s friend, who she says was there — Leland Keyser.  Talk to her a little more, see what she remembers.

This is nothing revolutionary.  This is what a good law enforcement agency does.  Local police departments do it all the time.  You talk to people.  You ask them pointed questions, you remind them about dates, you get them to tell you things they remember.  Those things they tell you give you leads, maybe other people to talk to, other houses to visit.  Someone remembers something — “Oh, I remember Christine Blasey was really upset about something that happened the night before — I think it was at this party at . . .” — and then, BOOM, you have a fresh lead.

People are acting like just because some of these people have made statements through their lawyers saying they don’t remember this party, that it never happened.

Friends, in the real world, when a crime is committed, just because potential witnesses say they don’t remember, that doesn’t mean anything.

Hell, that’s when a good investigator is just getting started.

Mark Judge claims he doesn’t remember?

For professional investigators, that’s not a dead end.  That’s a starting point.


But here’s the problem:  If the FBI does its job well, that may do it more harm than good.

Grant my premise that the FBI is probably going to turn up some reasonably credible evidence that Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh attended the same party in the summer of 1982, corroborating specific details (house location, floor plan, event participants) given by Blasey Ford.

Or perhaps the FBI identifies a witness who was most definitely at the party, and most definitely claims the incident did take place.  Maybe someone even saw Blasey Ford run down the stairs, upset . . .

Say the FBI comes out with this.  What do you think Donald J. Trump is going to do?

A)  Throw a giant parade for the FBI, declaring a “tremendous effort.”

B)  Tell the Senate, “Back the drawing board; find me another justice — but make this one ethical.”

C)  Blast the FBI on Twitter and Fox, calling the whole thing “a partisan witch hunt!” by “Rod Rosenstein and his Angry Democrats” and tarnish the bureau’s findings to the point where 1) half the American public believes him, and 2) Republican senators feel pressure to IGNORE the FBI’s findings and vote Kavanaugh in anyway.

I’ll take “C,” Vanna.

If there’s anything Donald Trump hates, it’s a free press and an independent system of law enforcement.  Everything that he has done since he has become president is aimed at making the justice department into his personal weapon.  He wants the Attorney General to be his fixer.  The FBI Directory should take a loyalty oath.  If the FBI turns up credible evidence that rains on his Supreme Court parade, Trump’s going to take it as a personal insult.  Why aren’t they loyal to him?

He’s going to keep trying to tear them down, in doing so tearing at the fabric of the rule of law in this country.

This case isn’t just about the courts.  It’s about having independent law enforcement unafraid to show a tyrannical president what he doesn’t like.

We’re about to see what happens then.  I think I have a pretty good idea.

Teachers Who Buy Their Own Stuff

Someone forwarded me this link the other day.  It describes #outofmypocket — a movement to share how much teachers spend on classroom supplies out of their own pockets.  While this didn’t take off in quite the same way as last year’s social media posts about teachers’ low paychecks and second jobs, I was taken aback by some of the stories.  The site estimates that 94% of teachers spend their own money on classroom supplies, and some posters spent thousands of dollars on markers, glue sticks, even on notebooks.  And can you imagine a school district cruel enough that they make teachers buy their own tissues?  It happens.

From what I understand, it’s pretty routine for elementary teachers to send out a list of supplies parents and children are expected to provide each year.  Yet in many schools where the parents cannot afford these items, it’s none other than the teachers who end up eating the costs.

This is hard for me to picture.  As a public school teacher, I have never spent money on school supplies for students.  Then again, I am a high school teacher; I barely need any supplies.  But the ones I do need, my school has always, unthinkingly supplied.  I have never bought tissues.

That said, I could imagine doing it.  I buy food for students, for celebrations.  I remember a coworker, now deceased, whose homeroom students, after her death, were astounded when they calculated the sheer amount of money she spent bringing in croissants over the years.  She cared.  It showed.  That was just one small way.  She’d have considered any talk about money beside the point.  She loved those kids.  Just like lots of teachers do too — they care so much about kids that they’d rather go broke than let a kid go without.  Say what you want about teachers, but they put their money where there mouth is.

But what if they didn’t?

Remember how that poor professor at Evergreen State in Washington, Bret Weinsten, got run out of town two years ago by the irate mob for objecting to that weird practice they were proposing?  It was called “Day of Absence” and the original idea (not the wacky form Weinstein questioned) was actually quite powerful: all POC (which means “People of Color,” in case you’re not Woke [which means “Super Cool” in case you’re not “super cool”]) would spend the day “absent” from campus in order to show the impact of POC in the life of the community.  Nice.

Well, here’s my modest proposal:  Maybe next year teachers should have a Year of Absence for Our Wallets.  Instead of buying supplies, take what the school budget gives you.  No money for tissues?  Let them use their sleeves.  The kids want to color with actual markers?  Tell them to use their imaginations.

I wonder what happens?

Actually, scratch that.  It wouldn’t work.  You know why?  Because the things teachers give kids with money from their own wallet?  You can’t measure those on what matters to the purse-holders: a standardized test!  Crayons and markers?  Learn your times tables, brats.  Construction paper and glue sticks?  We have a world economy to dominate.  Picture books to learn to read?  Everyone knows what happened to Mr. Bunny Rabbit already — he didn’t do his STEM homework, so he couldn’t compete in a global economy, and he was baked into a pie by his rivals, the Chinese.  Quit blubbering.

That’s why teachers do it, I think.  For the kids whose parents can’t provide this stuff, no one’s going to notice if they don’t have it . . .  except their teachers.

God bless ’em.

(And raise their salaries.)


Speaking of schools, and wealth, this past week, as part of my Fancy Fellowship, I had the chance to visit perhaps the wealthiest school district in Vermont to deliver a life changing lecture . . .  scratch that, I was sitting in a windowless conference room drawing on chart paper and trying not to drink too much coffee.

Anyway, for such a wealthy district, I was taken aback by what a cruddy facility they have.  “They spend their money on staff, not on buildings” is what I heard.  Makes sense, but still.  This place was terrible: vintage 70s, open classrooms (why was this ever a good idea?), secretaries and guidance staff stuffed into closets, windowless rooms, a cafeteria that looks it’s at a motor inn that’s going out of business, bathrooms like Fenway Park and Mad River Glen’s.  It was grim.  And I have a high tolerance, folks.

Anyway, the most shocking thing to me, a jaded denizen of some glittering palace over in Montpelier, was the lack of a common space.  When I walked into this high school, I was met, first, by a weird, impersonal buzzer that I could not figure out how to operate.  (“Oh, well,” I thought, “maybe high school doesn’t want me.  But you know who I bet does?  My local alt-right hate group . . . “) After I finally made it inside, I was ceremoniously confronted by a small holding cell space.  It wasn’t quite a brick wall, but it was close.  Go right or go left, it seemed to say, but don’t linger here.  Do you get what I’m saying?  There was no common space.  Where I work, visitors immediately enter a huge, soaring atrium — two stories tall, with skylights and plants and tables to sit at and plenty of open space.  You’ll see kids sitting at tables together, teachers milling around talking to kids and to each other, sometimes you’ll see the principal chatting with everyone.  Not only does it look a whole hell of a lot more inviting than a holding cell, but it functions to route everyone, at some point in their day, into the same common space.  Everyone passes through the atrium; all the wings of the school flow through it.

I once read about some tech company — it’s so hard to remember the names of them, isn’t it? — I think it was called Moogle or Racebook or Crapple — that specifically designed their headquarters so that employees from different divisions would be bumping into each other and (the thinking went) hashing out innovative ideas (such as the ability to order a take out burrito while completely intoxicated — wouldn’t that be cool?)  Well, the same things happen where I work.  I’m always running into colleagues and students in the atrium.  I’m always having inspiring discussions with them, saying incredible things to them, such as, “Why are you avoiding me?” or “Is it because you haven’t been to class in months?”

So as you can see, having common space isn’t just convenient, it’s community-building.  Architecture is important.  That’s why I think that schools that have no leisurely common gathering space, no places that belong to the public, outside of more utilitarian spaces like the cafeteria or library, is missing out.  It’s like a having parks in your city, or an old-fashioned town square in your village.

It’s good for the community soul.


The last thing I want to mention about schools today also has to do with this glorious atrium of ours.  But this one’s a little more dark.  Bear with me.

Do you ever have a moment where you’ve been fighting for something, and you’re losing, and you’re sort of resigned to it, but then something so utterly ridiculous happens that you realize just how badly you have already lost, and you can only laugh at your abject stupidity for ever thinking you had a chance in the first place?

No?  Well, I did.

Twice over the last few weeks, I have “caught” students playing first person shooter video games.  I say “caught” because they were making no attempt to hide it.  They were in the middle of a crowded atrium.  On their school-issued computers.  In a public high school.

I was sort of speechless.  This would be like having the gall to read a Charles Murray book in the middle of the dining hall at Middlebury College.  So I went up to the young man, who was actually sitting where middle schoolers normally sit, and I asked him if he had given a single thought to the symbolism of his actions.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “I’m in high school.”

As if that was what I was worried about.  Actually, it is — you are in a high school, my friend.  That’s the problem!

Maybe we haven’t quite lost the fight, but we’re definitely on the floor and bleeding.  Nothing more perfectly symbolizes what we’re up against with school violence.  Nothing more perfectly shows that we need to address the root of the problem, not the surface of it.  I am not saying that video games cause school shootings.  Far from it.  I am saying that violence so saturates our world that putting more guns in schools is so far beside the point, it’s insane.

That’s all I’ve got for this week.

17 Thoughts on the West River in Vermont

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Some Thoughts on the West

1.  Every year, after about my second run, I start to remember the rapids.  Then I don’t come back for a year.

2.  If you are with a group that doesn’t want to hike up and run the top rapid, find another group.  An open boat is no excuse.

2a.  Because that’s the best rapid, that top one.  The dam.  The chaotic eddy scene.  The horizonline.  The wave train.  The surf wave.  That steep right turn just below, with the big pourover on the right, where the river’s at its pushiest.  I could spent all day up there.

3.  Has the West always been so warm?  That was bathwater.

4.  Here’s how you know you’re getting old.  You pull something in your neck . . .  before you put on the river.  Maybe it was a “riding shuttle” injury?  Maybe it was a “standing in line for shuttle” injury?  I’m 36, by the way.

5.  Nowhere else in New England do you see what you see at the West.  NOWHERE.  I saw at least four tandem open boats.  I saw at least twenty C-1s.  I saw at least 100 solo open boats.  There were duckies . . . and shredders . . .  and riverboards . . .  and stand-up paddle boards.

Where are all these people from?  Why don’t I see any of them on the Dryway?

6.  My gear is sort of locked in the mid-2000s.  I need to get me one of those new river runner boats.  Party Brrap, Ripper, Axiom . . .  They look fun.  That’s a good trend.  I never liked the whole microscopic playboat era.

6a.  I would never buy a Jackson.  Nothing personal.  But the whole smiley face icon thing . . .  just the wrong branding for me.

7.  The best move at the Dumplings is the old school ender in a long boat at the ender spot near the bottom.  The second best is the pillow move in the center slot at the top.  The least best move is what every single boater in this video is doing.

8.  Hit the boof at Boof Rock and then turn around and catch the big wave right below and you are doing just fine.

9.  Real slalom boaters walk the shuttle . . .  with no shoes.

9a.  Real open boaters pull their canoe on a cart, then fold it up, and put it in the boat.  Done and done.

10.  I love burgers.  I consider myself a burger connoisseur.  Here is where you can get some of the best burgers in Vermont: the Three Penny Taproom, the Farmhouse, the Worthy Burger.  Here is where you can get the best burger in Vermont: the food stand at the West take out after a long day of paddling.  Food never tasted so good.

11.  They used to hold the slalom National Championships and US Team Trials on the Dumplings.  A lot.  That fact that they stopped says nothing about the West.  It says everything about slalom’s priorities.  Instead of beautiful rivers like the West or the Savage, now we race on plastic legolands like Charlotte or concrete ditches like Dickerson.

12.  In fact, lots of interesting stuff happened at slalom races on the West.  Jim Snyder first conceived of squirt boating at the West, while watching a racer inadvertently dip his stern.  Eric Jackson, founder of Jackson Kayaks, met his wife at a race on the banks of the West.

13.  Sometimes I hear people brag on the shuttle about how many runs they’ve done.  Seriously?  If you’re doing more than about three runs, you are not working the river enough.  Learn to catch eddies.

14.  You never appreciate what kind of shape you used to be in until you can’t make the same moves you used to.   I could see where I wanted to go, I just couldn’t get there.

15.  Jamaica?  Where the hell did that come from anyway?

16.  I tired myself out pretty quickly and just started began floating.  That was within sight of the put in.

17.  If I had to pick one event that really captures the essence of the boating community in New England, in all its quirkiness and character, I’d pick West Fest.

There’s just something about it.

It’s a river that brings us out.

The Camaraderie of the River

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For years I’ve been searching for a hobby to replace whitewater canoeing.  I still haven’t found one — and I don’t think I ever will.

Oh, I’ve tried quite a few: hiking, mountain biking, road biking, hang gliding, glider flying, snowboarding — even golf.  Nothing comes close to whitewater. But why?

For the last six years, I’ve been searching for the answer.  What was it about whitewater boating that put such a hold on me?

Of course there are a lot of reasons.  Let’s start with the fact that an early morning run down the New Haven Ledges in Vermont is the surest cure for a hangover I’ve found.  And of course there’s the challenge of rapids, the natural beauty of rivers, and the exercise.

But digging deeper, the main thing I miss about boating is simple: the camaraderie.  Nothing bonds a group of strangers like a river trip. It’s purposeful; you have to work through problems together, like shuttling or scouting.  It’s just the right amount of socializing; you can chat in the eddy, or be alone in the current. The whole interaction has a clear beginning, middle and end point.   You push each other to try stuff, get scared together, celebrate together.  If the rapids are hard, the logistics demanding, or the river remote, all the better.  It’s unity.

Think of the scene.  Then think of how rare it is in the rest of your life:  You call up a stranger and agree to meet at the take out.  By the time you’re tying on boats together, you’re already cementing a bond, swapping war stories about rivers you’ve run and mutual friends you’ve run them with.

“Oh, sure, the Upper Blackwater . . . ”

“Yeah, I know him well.  One time he put on the Gauley and he didn’t have his life jacket . . . ”

“That rapid has my number.  On our first run, we tried to run it blind . . . ”

You climb into someone’s truck, boats in back, and you drive to the put in while exchanging that wonderful kind of nervous talk — feeling each other out, trying to pretend your heart isn’t racing.  Every rite bonds you further.  Zipping into equipment together makes you feel like you’re going into battle together.  Then hiking down to the river gorge and paddling away takes you away from normal life.  Then you’re scouting, deliberating together, holding a rope for each other (“Don’t worry, I got you!”) — communicating with simplified verbal cues (“right, left, right”), hand signals, following each other over horizonlines, giving yourself five seconds, battling through the chaos, following the blur of bright blue or orange, high-fiving at the bottom, feeling your heart rate finally start to slow, your conversation on the paddle out no longer nervous but effusive.

“Can you believe how big that was?”

“Next time I want to try the far left life.”

“It’s not as bad as people said it was!”

At the take out, you’re ready to sit on the tailgate and crack open a beer, trading war stories about this run you now share in common. This feeling is especially strong if this was a new river you’ve been wanting to do.  Now you know what it’s like, it’s in your brain, and you can return and bring other people.  Even if it’s a familiar river, it’s still a memorable experience you’ve shared.  Everyone can talk about it at the take out, everyone had a role, everyone can add something about what it was like from their perspective to come through.

Ostensibly an individual sport, boating is actually the greatest team sport.  In most team sports, you don’t really have common experiences. Not everyone’s involved in all the plays, and not everyone’s even on the field for the same parts of the game.  Plus, you’re really not facing the same specific challenge; you’re facing a moving, swirling opponent composed of five or nine or eleven individual players with unique roles, constantly shifting in their attack or defense, rotating in and out of the game to be replaced by other players.  Your experience may be much more frustrating, on the left wing against a good right back, than your teammate’s over on the right wing against a slow defender.  Even your own experience against the same team may different from game to game, depending on the swells of the action, the whims of the player substitution, and the vagaries of team strategy.  Individual identities are subverted to the team concept; it’s not unusual to get the end of a high school game and not be able to tell the other team’s players apart.  While you’re technically facing the same opponent as your teammates, that opponent is fluid, ever-changing, and composed of parts designed to be interchangeable.  It’s sometimes unifying, but not always.

But we boaters share highly unique, common adversaries: individual rivers and rapids.  These obstacles, which tend to change little over time, often require a very specific, complex set of moves.  Making these moves, having the courage to try these unique challenges, and having to travel to the same (often remote) physical location to do so, breeds an amazing unity of experience among boaters.  There is an amazing kinship with two other people, floating in the eddy below Gorilla on the Green Narrows, knowing you’ve all just passed the difficult same test.  There is also kinship between two boaters just meeting each other in a put in parking lot in Maine who both realize that they too share this experience of running Gorilla.  So too is there a kinship across age gaps.  I remember meeting John Sweet and Tom McEwan and feeling tremendous admiration for these men who had run rapids on the Gauley and Upper Yough that were just as challenging thirty years before.  Rivers don’t get any easier.  In fact, they were harder with primitive equipment.  But we’re all united by the rapids and rivers we share, even though our experiences are highly unique and personal.  It’s the ultimate individual team sport.

Of course, while these bonds with other boaters are deep, there is a superficiality to the whole experience — to the river chasing, the couch surfing, the gypsy life.  Yes, you share an incredible bond at the take out of a hard river, but what are you really doing with your life?  There’s always an element of escapism, of leisure time, to river adventures.  This, of course, is the hypocrisy of the dirt bag: most “dirt bags” (as with most “starving artists”) are only playing at being poor, because they possess the sort of cultural (or actual) capital that allows them to spend time learning to boat, not learning to get by.  For too many people in our society, just keeping the lights on and the fridge half-full is adventure enough.  Meanwhile, most professional kayakers are doing little more than promoting plastic shells or brightly colored suits, filling the internet with videos (“content,” if we’re being pretentious), supporting the alcohol industry, and maybe occasionally teaching.  It’s hard for me not to look at some of the guys still dirt bagging around past 30 as having stayed a little too long at the party. As I left my own twenties, I left behind the amazing closeness of the river gorge but gained newer, deeper relationships in other aspects of my life. I met my wife around the time I stopped chasing rain, started a career that allows me to give back, and began to cultivate professional and community relationships that, in their sense of shared purpose, sometimes feel a lot like the bonds I remember from my heavy paddling days — without the physical danger, of course.

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And yet we need escapism, all of us.  Now matter how rich and rewarding your life is, you need moments away.  And no matter how privileged it is to be able to afford to kayak, no matter how superficial it may seem compared to other pursuits, it’s by no means unhealthy.  I wish everyone of all social classes or backgrounds had enough money and leisure to be able to have active physical experiences outdoors.  Paddling exercises your body, teaches you decision-making skills, and engenders a respect for our natural environment.  We all need some kind of a escape, some kind of adventure in our lives, and what paddling does better than any other hobby I’ve experienced is to put us in a position to share this adventure with our fellow human beings.  That’s something we need in an age of disconnection. 

These days, I’m afraid that when I do boat, I mostly boat solo. It’s partly because I don’t have time, or I tell myself I don’t, to coordinate with others. Plus, I enjoy the exercise of biking or jogging shuttle, the solitude on a river all to myself after a busy day at work.  But it struck me the other week, running into an old friend at the put in as I was about to run solo, how much richer adventures are when shared.

Right now, it’s raining. And tomorrow I’m going paddling with a group of three — more people than I’ve paddled with, combined, in a year. It’s not a hard river, but it doesn’t have to be.  By the time we get to the take out, it’s a river we’ll have in common.

See you on the water.

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Oh, Arne

Picture this: a powerful white man walks into a room full of African American parents.  He tells them that he, the head of schools in a major American city, is going to close their neighborhood school.  The parents get angry.  They yell at him.  One woman calls him a racist.

Calmly, the man asks her what grade her child is in.


Okay, there are 70 third graders at this school, he says.   “Do you know how many third graders are reading where they’re supposed to be?”

The woman confesses that she doesn’t know.


That’s when he turns to the audience.

“Do any of you know if your kids can read at grade level?”

Let’s pause here and just admire the man’s arrogance.  Imagine if some educational bigshot came strolling into your town, put his finger on your chest, and asked, “You, there!  Do you really know if your child can read?”

“Well,” you might stammer, “I think so . . . “

“But do you know if she can read . . .  at grade level?  Is she . . .  proficient?  Hmm?”

Well, for about seven years, not long ago, that basically happened all across America.  This self-appointed guru came sauntering in and informed you that you were too stupid even to know how your own children were doing.  Well, he’d give you a hint: they’re also pretty stupid.

Soon he stopped picking on just poor black mothers and went after white mothers in the suburbs.  At one point he complained:

“It’s fascinating to me that some of the pushback is coming from . . .  white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were . . .”

Starting to ring a bell?  

That’s right: that man I am talking about is Arne Duncan — who served as Barack Obama’s powerful Secretary of Education, has written a new book, and is still just as arrogant as ever.

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This is not a great book.


That moment back in Chicago is a pivotal one in Duncan’s new book, How Schools Work.  The young Duncan, a wunderkind, has just been handed the reins of the entire Chicago school system and, faced with his first taste of opposition in the form of those angry parents, somehow wins them over with his truth-telling, and as he puts it, “learns to always run into the fire.”

Later on, when he tries this arrogant-guy shtick with the entire country, it doesn’t go as well.  Huge swathes of the American public basically tell Arne to go f-himself, thank you very much. We know how well our kids can read, bro.

But that night in Chicago?  His shtick sort of works. He plays the classic Great White Hope card.  These poor, black mothers lack political power. They live in a neighborhood that no one at City Halls gives a Rahm Emanuel about.  Now here comes the brash new white guy, the downtown suit, playing truth-teller, peddling Real Data, the kind that the bosses usually keep hidden, and he is shuttering the school because he cares.  Those mothers stop yelling and they listen — mostly because they have no other choice.

But that in itself isn’t weird.  Urban reformers and politicians play the Great White Hope card all the time.  Donald Trump, in his fashion, made this about as naked and even parodic as possible when he asked African American voters, “What do you have to lose?” This has been happening for a long time.

But what’s weird about Duncan is that he doesn’t just think he knows best.  He thinks the schools have been LYING.

That school he shut down?  Just before he pulls the plug, he goes on a little fact finding mission.  He stops by to take in an awards night, and, sitting in the back with a great big frown on his face, draws an all-time oddball conclusion:

“I’d attended an event . . .  celebrating the school’s achievement in science.  The problem was that while some students did deserve the accolades, the school itself remained miserable.”

Can you believe those lousy school teachers?  Celebrating mediocrity! They should have held a big “Why We Suck at Science” party.  They could have shown the kids their dismal test scores. Arne walks out in a huff, certain this event is evidence of a conspiracy:

“[The schools] had not presented the data to the parents.  Instead, they tried to craft a counter-narrative that the school was not as bad as it actually was . . .”

What a seriously odd thing to say.  But Arne says it over and over in the book — and, a quick glance through the archives confirms — all through his tenure as Bigshot Teacher Boss.

Schools are lying to parents.


But let’s break this down a bit.  Duncan is operating in a strange alternative universe in which he makes two odd assumptions:

1)  Poor, minority parents in crime-ridden, under-resourced neighborhoods have NO inkling that their children aren’t exactly getting a fair shake at a great education.

2)  If we just showed them the REAL DATA, they’d be horrified and would demand better for their kids.

This is such an odd misreading of reality.

First of all, let’s look at the first assumption: Parents have NO CLUE.  This is wacky.

Let me venture a guess.  Duncan indicates that these parents are poor, African American, and live in a neighborhood without a lot going for it.  My guess is that these parents know their kids aren’t exactly attending the world’s best schools. My guess is that they know their neighborhoods are neglected, and that nobody at City Hall cares.  They probably — if their schools are anything like the public schools on the wrong side of the tracks in Washington, D.C. — have noticed that their kids’ schools are old, crumbling, and lacking the basics, like textbooks from the current century — especially compared to the white schools across town, which basically look like mini U-Chicago campuses.  It was like this in Washington, plain enough to see for anyone with a car.  That’s why these parents are mad at ol’ Arne for wanting to close their school rather than throw it more resources in the first place.

I met these parents when I worked briefly at a Washington, D.C. charter school.  There was one young man, bright, personable, engaged in school — whose writing level, I realized early on, was at least three or four years behind his peers’.  His parents, at our conference, told me they knew that his neighborhood school had failed him. They described all the usuals — the fights in the halls, the lack of new books, the teachers — I remember this is the phrase they used — who had “retired in place.” They knew.

Then we get to the second assumption:  That if they just had some DATA, a light would go off, they’d demand better, and schools would improve.

This is so amazingly, off-the-charts naive — it’s the kind of thing I’d expect a college sophomore to blurt out after learning that, OMG, wealth inequality exists in the United States.  If only they had the correct data, they’d rise up!

Duncan seems to believe this is the case with the schools.

There are so many things to question here:

–People will only act if they see the data?  (Have you met “people” before? They act for lots and lots of reasons, but sadly “objective data” is not usually in the top 10.)

–Are we sure that standardized test data is really what any parent wants to act on?

–Are we sure that standardized test data is an accurate measure of . . .  anything?

–So historically marginalized and ignored people, all-too-aware of their own powerlessness — victims of discrimination their whole lives, from a system so wide and deep they can barely get their minds around it — are suddenly going to not only demand change in their schools, but somehow win the kind of money and resources needed to make a difference in neighborhoods no one in the broader city cares about?

But Arne expects us to believe that when he takes some of these parents a few blocks away to some of the white schools (Question:  Did they ride in his car?) they are shocked — positively shocked! — that white kids are getting a way better education. Imagine that!  Gambling happening . . .  at Rick’s Cafe in Casablanca!

You’re SUCH a truth-teller, Arne!  Whatever would we have done without you?


But I wouldn’t be writing about this if Arne Duncan were just some random, arrogant superintendent out in West Whogivesashit Kentucky.  No. Arne Duncan was the most consequential Ed Secretary of the last fifty years. He was a man very much in step with his times, and a man whose approach had a huge impact on a generation of students, teachers, and schools.  His arrogance, I’m afraid, is the arrogance of a whole generation of educational reformers, which is still very much in power.

What’s dangerous about them is that not only do they think they know better — despite not ever having taught in a classroom — but that they have the “data” to prove it.  I say “data” in quotes because the standardized tests that Duncan has always rested his case on — going back to that night at the school in Chicago — has always been proven flimsy and questionable by the real scientists, guys like Daniel Koretz, professor at Harvard and the author of The Testing Charade, who once sat in a room and told Duncan and his minions why they were wrong.  But Duncan didn’t listen. In order for him to be the Great Truth Teller, the Bringer of Data, he had to buy all-in on the notion of standardized tests that would give him that data.  When a scientist like Koretz warned him that an overreliance on a test would cause teachers to start doing test prep, not education, Duncan didn’t listen. When Koretz warned him that teachers might even start cheating to save their jobs and their reputations, Duncan didn’t listen.  When Koretz warned him that the data itself was deeply unreliable, Duncan didn’t listen.

Are you surprised?

His was the arrogance of so many ed reformers: Only OUR tools, our metrics, our standardized tests can tell you what’s really going on.  Without those, nobody ever would have known, including their parents, that poor and minority children aren’t getting a fair shake at their schools.  

Here’s the delicious irony in the whole thing.  It was only when reformers like Arne Duncan started tying teacher evaluations to standardized test scores that American schools actually started lying about what they were doing.

Arne made the system worse.  Before that, schools weren’t “lying” about their performance.  Please. Poor urban schools like the ones that Duncan castigates and closes down were doing the best that they can with the limited resources and seemingly unlimited societal problems being shoved in their doors every morning.  They are doing the best they can to be beacons of light and hope in the middle of incredible and staggering want. They know they aren’t Beverly Hills High. They know their students aren’t exactly reading Charles Dickens. But they also know that these kids too need to be celebrated.  They know that for these kids — and for their teachers — you have to walk into school every morning suspending your disbelief about the pretty apparent reality around you. You HAVE to believe that every kid can learn. You have to celebrate these kids. That’s what Duncan is really seeing when he attends that science awards night.  But Arne Duncan doesn’t get what’s going on — because he never taught in schools in the first place. He sees these schools in the stark, black-and-white terms of an outsider. Clearly they must be lying.

Good thing we had Arne Duncan around to show us what was really going on.


Now there is a point in all of this.  Duncan, I can tell, is writing this book in a way to show critics of his policies like me that his heart was in the right place.  This is true. These schools are lying, in a way, but not for the reason Duncan claims. In fact, it’s not even a lie at all. It’s permission.  We are giving permission for too many minority students to attend schools that definitely aren’t up to par. But we also permit them to live in crime-ridden neighborhoods, policed by departments that they don’t trust.  These neighborhoods were often created by racist policies that herded African Americans into modern ghettos with no hope of rising to the middle class. We permitted all of this — and it’s much vaster than the tiny little example of it in some elementary school in Chicago that Arne Duncan, do-gooder, stumbles onto six months into his term as schools CEO.  

It’s way, way bigger, my friend.

Look a little harder.

Teachers vs. Doctors

Yesterday evening as I was making dinner, I found myself reading a Washington Post article about the growing shortage of doctors in the United States.  Apparently, by the year 2030, we’re going to be short up to 100,000 physicians.  (Oh, perfect, I thought — right around the time I’ll be having to submit to regular prostate exams, I’ll have to drive 100 miles and wait three hours in line just to get one.)

In response to the shortage, the article’s author calls for doctors to — get this — spend less time in medical school.  That sounds crazy, except that, as the author notes, most doctors, after finishing college, spend an average of ten years (!!) getting trained!!  Perhaps, he asks rather modestly, that could be condensed by a year or two?

Reading this, as a high school teacher, my jaw just about dropped.  How different are the levels of preparation doctors get compared to teachers!  How different are the levels of training we, as a public, permit.   According to the article, the average doctor attends four years of college, four years of medical school, then “three to eight years to specialize in a residency or fellowship.” That’s 7-12 years of training doctors get beyond college.

Many teachers have none.  They major in education in college, then start teaching your kids at age 22.

It’s also possible in some places to teach with no educational training whatsoever.  I know.  I was this teacher.  There are plenty of school districts in the United States that are so desperate to fill positions — especially so-called “critical needs” areas (math, science, special education) that they’ll “provisionally” hire teachers who don’t even have teaching licenses yet, provided they’re on their way to getting them.  The organization Teach for America routinely sends college graduates into some of the toughest teaching conditions in the country with little more than a month of training.

Why such a difference between the education levels of teachers and doctors?  The simple fact is that we, as a society, wouldn’t permit doctors to be any less well trained.  Can you imagine walking into a hospital and meeting some twenty-three year-old kid with his stethoscope on backwards.

“Hi, I’m Dr. Jeff!  You can call me J-Man.  I’ll be handling your gall bladder surgery.”

Heart surgery!”

“Sure.  Well, I’m a little nervous.  This is actually my first time!”

“Doing this particular surgery?”

“No, in a hospital!”

“But don’t worry,” he’ll add.  “I was a bio major!  At Princeton.”

It’s funny . . .  until you remember that we permit this all the time in our schools.

Image result for picture of doctor with stethoscope
Don’t worry. This guy took some science courses.

Here I think about my own teacher training: just a single year of graduate school to attain a Master’s.  It was an intense year, surely.  I lived in the classroom, completed two semester-long internships, and took scores of grad classes . . .  But that’s just ONE TENTH of the training doctors get.  It’s no wonder that, applying to jobs that spring, I felt like a fraud.  My experience is hardly unique.  If anything, others were even LESS prepared than I was.  Most of the math teachers in my grad school cohort were already teaching as full-time, salaried employees mid-way through our grad school year — simply because our host schools were so desperate for math teachers that they’d take these completely untutored students on as vested teachers.

Why do we as a society permit this?  There are two reasons.  First, we think teaching is a noble calling, but we don’t think it’s particularly hard or sophisticated.  It’s partly cultural — we Americans have always been ambivalent, deep down, about learning.  Our belief in education has always been balanced against our reverence for the drop-out, the self-made, the street-smart, the up-by-your-bootstraps, the office-boy-to-corner-office, and the “I-never-let-my-schooling-get-in-the-way-of-my-education.” We’re Americans.  We’re suspicious of the ivory tower (or the Common Core).

We believe, quite rightly in many cases, that the best learning happens in the “real world,” with on-the-job mentors who aren’t necessarily “certified,” in places that are not traditional classrooms.  You learn by doing, we think.  Put kids out in the community, we think.  Set them up with internships, with community mentors.  We ourselves, as teachers, often feel this way deep down — because this is what our own training encouraged.

It’s partly historical — teaching is historically women’s work, and degraded as such, like nursing and other traditionally female-dominated professions.  Doctors, traditionally male, long ago established themselves as experts in their field, masters of a whole trove of scientific innovations that the lay person couldn’t possibly understand.  Meanwhile teachers have historically deferred to professors as the experts in their shared field.  Innovations in pedagogy are refined high above, and then teachers are told what to do.

It’s partly because teaching is so familiar.  We’ve grown up watching teachers our whole lives.  They don’t seem so special.  It looks easy.  It’s why we have a lot more respect as a society for airline pilots than for bus drivers.  Familiarity breeds contempt — or at least the feeling that we could do just as well.

The second reason that we permit such untrained teachers is that we teachers ourselves view teaching as a craft that should be picked up through experience rather than studied scientifically.  My whole training told me, “Take a few education courses — but these really aren’t very important.  Then go into a classroom, watch and observe for a short time, then start doing it.  Then, very quickly, get a job, disappear into your own classroom, and don’t ever get any meaningful feedback ever again.  You’ll figure it out!”

We educators are as guilty as anyone of this — we don’t take our profession seriously enough.  We see it as something you can just pick up, like riding a bike or throwing a ball, rather than the way doctors see their work: as a science to be studied, taught, and practiced for a long time under supervision before you’re able to go off on your own.  When I began teaching, veterans would say to me, “Wait until your third year — then you’ll get it down.” But what they were talking about was pure procedural knowledge: how to keep 25 moody teenagers on track while fielding calls from the office, requests to go to the bathroom, under-the-breath bullying, illicit texting, and kids wandering in fifteen minutes late with no books or pencils.  Those veterans weren’t saying that I’d understand how to effectively reach students with disabilities, or that I’d know how to give meaningful feedback, or how to establish a positive classroom climate.  They were saying that I’d understand how not to accidentally receive 103 four-page essays at one time, or how to quiet interruptions before they start.  They weren’t saying I’d be knowledgeable.  They were saying I’d be able to survive.

This summer, I attended the National Writing Project, and I became more and more convinced that the more I can learn about techinique and philosophy — the why, not the how in teaching — the more deliberate I can be in my practice, and the more successful — the more professional — I’m ultimately going to be.

It strikes me that it’s taken me nine years to get to this point . . .  the same amount of time that many doctors are trained for.

Maybe they have a point??


Alright, I am not seriously advocating for teachers to need nine years of training.  But what I am saying is that if we want good teachers in the United States, we need to train them like professionals.  And as I say, I am always struck by how little feedback I get or how little observation I get to do.  As teachers, we’re expected to go into our classrooms and figure it out.  Even most teaching internships, the meat of teacher ed programs, are famously hit-or-miss.  Many of these experiences are so short, it’s almost impossible to either observe or be observed for any meaningful amount of time.  This needs to stop.  We need to make teachers complete longer, more intensive internships, with more thorough observations, and with more systematic, evidence-based training.

And here’s another paradox: If we want better teachers, we shouldn’t make it easier to become a teacher, as many advocates claim.  We should make it harder.  Too many people believe that, if we tighten the regulations, that will stop talented candidates from becoming teachers.  They believe we should tear down the nets and make it easy for anyone to teach.  But that is wrong.  If we want to begin to attract the kinds of smart, committed people to teaching who are attracted to medicine, in addition to raising the starting salaries for teachers, we should raise the requirements to even get into educational programs.  Too many advocates deride even the most basic test score criteria, claiming that this keeps away good people.  It does not.  It only makes teaching seem unserious.  We need to raise the requirements.  Making it harder to become a teacher is the first step toward making it more attractive, I think.  It blew my mind to hear a commentator in the article about doctors claim that the AMA limits medical school seats.  I’m not saying we should do that, but we should definitely make it harder to get in.

Now I can hear the critics: “If you make it too hard to become a teacher, our teacher shortage will be even worse.  We won’t have anyone to fill our schools!”

What would we do??

Hmm, let’s think . . .   This is a classic case of supply and demand, isn’t it?  I wonder how the market solves these problems?  How does a business attract workers when they’re in short supply . . . ?

(I’ll give you a hint: it’s pretty much the opposite of what several of the states with the worst teacher shortages — Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky, and West Virginia — have been doing for the last decade . . . )

Just a thought . . .


Look, I’m not saying teachers need to go to school for ten years after college.  What I am saying is that a shortage should never be an excuse to erode professionalism.  What I’m saying is that there’s a huge sweet spot out there — where we have not only more young people who want to teach and who stay in the profession, but also a better prepared, better educated teaching force.  These two elements are far from mutually exclusive — in fact, I’m saying that they can go hand-in-hand.

In the end, I think it’s simple:  If we’re going to be the champions of education, it’s not a bad idea to have a little bit more of an education ourselves.

Becoming Proficient at Proficiency Learning

Fellow Educators,

I have some concerns about proficiency based learning (PBL).

The first is the abbreviation.  “PBL” apparently stands for BOTH of our hot new initiatives:  proficiency based learning AND project based learning.  What gives?

Language aside, here’s the thing: Even though it’s been a herculean effort, we educators kind of like PBL.  It may be incredibly different than what we’ve known, but we like the way it teases out skills and knowledge from soft “transferable” skills — because that helps us design better lessons.  We respect the way PBL forces us to articulate exactly what it is we want students to know and to do.  We like how the bar is higher. We like how it’s not tied to standardized tests.  In a lot of ways, PBL forces us to be better teachers.  PBL feels — for lack of a better work — progressive.

You can see how much teachers like PBL up in Maine, now that PBL is under attack from the public there.  Even as parents, students, and legislators fret over unconventional transcripts, many superintendents and classroom teachers alike are rallying to PBL’s defense.  It’s not just that they’re bemoaning years of time and money down the drain should Maine pull the plug. It’s that they think PBL’s promising. And it is, especially compared with toxic educational trends of the last 17 years — the standardized testing sucking kids’ souls, the shady charter schools siphoning away students, the Michelle Rhee-style hiring and firing based on whimsical “value added” metrics.  Compared to pure evil, PBL looks like something worth fighting for, even if it is largely untested.

But I’m a little worried.  The public tires quickly of educational reforms.  PBL is already on the ropes in Maine, and I’m worried that Vermont’s sure to follow.  From my view, there are a couple of main problems with PBL. We educators need to fix these issues soon — otherwise we’ll end up tossing all the work we’ve done in just a few short years.

Here are a few of the concerns I have.

Raising the Bar

Every educational movement claims to “raise the bar.” But the placement of the bar is a complex negotiation between professional educators and the community in which they teach.  Under PBL we’re planning to raise the bar from a 60% (a passing grade currently) to an 85% (the equivalent of a 3 — a graduation-required grade) now.  We are raising the bar for graduation by 25 points?  

We’ll either be keeping a lot of kids from graduating, or lowering our standards to avoid this.  I think you know how that one ends.


PBL promises us that “learning is the constant, and time is the variable.” The problem comes when schools, in a rush to move beyond mere “seat time,” start de-emphasizing attendance policies even more than they do now.  Right now, attendance is a HUGE problem.  We have kids missing 40% of classes and expecting to graduate.  If it’s this bad under a “time-based system,” I’m worried at how bad it could get under a proficiency-based one.  Let’s not lose track of the basics.

I’m also worried that while we should be crafting a system in which all children get the time they need to learn, instead we’re creating a system in which students , in a rush to complete their many, disparate requirements, see proficiency-based learning as a box-checking activity, to be completed as quickly as possible — without spending enough time to truly master the material.  And I’m worried teachers will be pressured to check them off before they’re ready.

Never mind the concern lurking in the back of all of our minds about PBL:  What happens when smart kids start finishing high school in three years instead of four?  Or in two years?

If we start insisting on proficiency to graduate, and proficiency is fairly low, won’t masses of kids simply rise only to that low bar?  Can a student at 16, with only two years of high school, truly be prepared for college?  Or for the world?

Too Much Data

Here’s another problem: proficiency grading promises more data about how a student is doing.  But more data is not always better.

The old report cards were simple: one grade per course.  The problem, reform advocates complained, is that an A or a C told us little about a student.  Proficiency grading parses that A in English into 12 categories: six content standards and six “transferable skills” (work habits).  That jams a lot of scores onto a report card.  How are parents and students supposed to understand?  Though I’m a teacher, I barely do.

Not Enough Data

And yet, even with so many categories, the new proficiency report cards don’t have enough data.  At least, not the kind that’s useful.

The question parents most often ask is, “How’s my kid doing?”

But a proficiency report card does not sound the alarm though like the old report cards did.  There’s often no easy way to mark “missing” in a proficiency gradebook, no easy way to waive the red flag.

The old system was good at this.  Perhaps we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater?

Teaching Work Habits

Under the old system, the threat of a zero on a missing homework assignment theoretically motivated you to do your homework.  But under PBL, the only place you’ll lose credit for missing homework is in the transferable skills.  But transferable skills don’t count toward your GPA, so . . .  why do your homework?

PBL responds:

“If you don’t do your homework, you won’t do well on tests and you won’t be marked proficient.  So kids will be motivated to do their homework” . . .

. . .  said no one who’s worked with kids, ever.

Kids Want Rankings

But kids’ elementary school report cards look just like PBL ones.  So what’s wrong here?

High school kids — the ones who want to excel — want to be ranked.  They know the stakes.  They’re up against more competition for fewer acceptance slots and fewer scholarship dollars.  You’ve got to stand out.

But under the 1-4 PBL system, you can’t.  Under the old system, a 92 (an A-) was a lot different than an 85 (a B).  But under PBL, they’ll both likely fall under a “3.” This is especially a problem because it’s not always clear to students how to achieve a 4.  In fact, on many assignments, it’s not even possible.  So that means the great mass of students pretty much live at either a 2 or a 3.  Look around an average high school.  Does that seem right to you?

I hear this complaint from students all the time.  Sounds like we’re not alone.

Rating Fever

We’ve gotten drunk on PBL.  We think we can break everything down into a sub-skill and rate a kid on it.  Where the old system mushed everything together, we’ve gotten carried away pulling it all apart and taming it into a million separate categories.

First, it’s not practical to rate kids on absolutely everything.  I think we’re finding that.  (Can anyone say, “crazy data entry”?)

Second, we risk turning education into a box checking activity for ourselves as well.  Instead of designing rich, integrated lessons that call on students to spontaneously create meaning, we’ve got to have it planned out ahead of time.  But the best teachers know learning doesn’t always happen that way.  You have to be awake to what the particular learners before you need.  You can’t just be checking boxes.

The Future?

While it’s tempting to think that proficiency-based learning is just another educational initiative bound for an all-too-predictable five- or six-year flight before falling back to earth, there is much to proficiency education that is tremendously promising — if it only has a chance to succeed.

If nothing else, proficiency education forces teachers to be more precise about what they want from students.  Even the proliferation of grading categories — befuddling to non-educators — is inspired by the noble goal of more carefully watching who’s mastering the material and who’s not.  The old system rewarded the kid who waited out his four years; the new system seeks to reward him only if he can read, write, and calculate. And on top of it all, states like Vermont have been confident enough to allow each school to work out graduation standards for themselves.

That said, if we don’t honestly own up to many of these issues, then and all the time, money, and training that has been poured into proficiency education will have been wasted if the reform doesn’t stick.  And if there’s one thing we know about educational reforms, it’s harder than we think to make them stick.  

After all, it may take some time before the “proficient student” replaces the “A student” in our national consciousness.

If it ever does.

Texting in the Boys Room

Image result for kid on a cell phone in class
Cell phone use has become a major problem in American schools — and it’s not going away. (


“Excuse me, do you have your cell phone out?” I asked.

“Don’t worry, it’s not what you think,” the boy responded.

I was surprised because even though I fight this battle every day in my other classes, here in my advanced writing class, I had never seen a cell phone.  As I thought about it, even after nearly a year of teaching these 15 juniors and seniors, I had no way of knowing if they even owned cell phones.  

In any of my other classes, the ten minutes of directions I’d just given — form groups, choose a book to read together over the next month, then check local libraries or bookstores for copies — would’ve sent at least two or three kids reaching for the welcome distraction of their phones.

“Not what I think?  Sure it’s not,” I said to boy, cracking a smile.

“No, no!  I just texted my mom.  She works at the bookstore.  She’s already ordered four copies of the book. We’ll have them in class Monday.”

“Well . . .” I stammered.  “That’s . . . impressive problem solving.  And — smart use of your . . .  cell phone.”

His phone was already put away.


How the Other Half Lives

Skip ahead to my next class.  Unlike the advanced writers, these students leave no doubt that they all own cell phones.

“Please take a moment to put away your phones,” I cheerfully remind them at the start of class.  I think of myself like the announcement you hear in movie theaters right before the film begins.

“And take your headphones out, too!”

With their discrete wires emerging from sweatshirts and snaking into their ears, my students remind me sometimes of Secret Service agents.  Many of them attempt to conduct their entire lives with one headphone playing music at all times.  How can they concentrate?

“Remember,” I tell them, “to think about those studies we looked at.”

“Those studies” are my first lesson plan of the year — a series of articles about the dangers of distraction: how multitasking is a myth, and how a cell phone sitting on a desk can make us less cognitively astute, and appear less empathetic.  It’s my attempt to kill two birds with one stone: to educate students, and to stop cell phone distraction before it starts.

It usually works for about two weeks.   Then phones creep back onto desks, into laps, and into restless hands.  I spot them during lectures, during writing time, even during group project work.  Some kids are cagey — backpacks or books propped on desks are a telltale sign of illicit phone use.  So are illuminated faces in an otherwise dark room.  So is a strange interest in one’s groin area.  Other kids are more brazen.  Some, despite my friendly tone, are downright belligerent.  Their rebellious tones belie the straight-up lameness of their excuses.

“What’s your problem?  My mom’s texting me!”

But here’s the irony: most of these heavy in-class tech users are completely unable to use technology to help them learn.

Even though they spend — by their own admission — upwards of eight hours a day using media, few of them understand how to follow their progress by checking our school’s online gradebook.

Even fewer of them bother to check their school email, ensuring that they miss their teachers’ email updates about missing assignments and homework changes.

Even more alarming, they struggle to use technology for basic educational tasks: knowing where to find information, how to identify good and bad sources, even understanding what to type into a basic Google search to yield relevant results.  The reasons are not hard to detect. These students lack problem-solving skills, literacy skills, and simple perseverance — ironically all of which are exacerbated by their heavy use of technology. It’s a depressing cycle.


Family Drama

And here’s another problem.  Cell phones also allow family problems to creep into the classroom.  There’s a sad juxtaposition between the young man whose mother ordered books for him and the young man whose mother was texting him with drama-filled invective.  One was helping her son learn. The other was, as some of our students would say, “bringing the drama” — the same sort of familial turmoil that has kept learning a stated priority but in reality a low one in this boy’s life.  

The irony of the student whose mother is frantically texting him, “You should be paying attention in class right now!” is all-too clear.

Meanwhile, the students in my advanced class are downright savvy tech users.  They receive automatic updates from the online gradebook, check and respond promptly to their teachers’ emails, and frequently show me new ways of using media for our studies.  Last week, as we discussed Cambridge Analytica in class, one young man removed a cell phone I’d never seen before and demonstrated how I myself could find the covert marketing profile Facebook had compiled on me.  

(Apparently I am — like this young man — “Very Liberal.”)


What We’re Up Against

What’s troubling for me is that technology is sold to schools as a way to provide educational equality.  By using online learning, blended learning, and now, “personalized” learning, tech companies promise us that we’ll be able to tailor our teaching directly to individual students in order to close the achievement gap.  But as I’ve described, too often technology only seems to increase the divide between those who’ve been taught to use it wisely and those who haven’t.

Don’t get me wrong.  We’re trying. Like France, which has banned cell phones in schools for students under 15, the school where I work has banned phones for middle schoolers.  And in the high school classrooms, we try to teach not only research skills, but subtler ones too: the dangers of online data sharing, and the dangers of distraction, both in class and in the car.  To some extent, we’re all media literacy teachers. We try.

But we’re up against a lot.  The same tech companies that claim they’re on our side when they’re peddling products to school superintendents are every second fighting for our kids’ attention — and they have a lot sexier products to sell than we educators do.

We’re also up against the first generation of parents who’re on phones.  A few years ago during my annual Open House presentation, I started seeing parents on cell phones.  Here I was, telling a roomful of adults how I’d be educating their children, and they were on their cell phones!  I wanted to quit right there.

Sometimes teachers are no better.  Look around at the next faculty meeting sometime and watch the thumbs working.  We’re just as bad as anyone else at practicing what we preach.

It’s hard because as forward-thinking educators, we want to encourage responsible use of technology.  We know it’s going to be part of our students’ future. And yet, it often feels as if we’re introducing another impediment to learning, especially for our neediest students.  It’s so hard to keep them on task. Too often during a research project, I’ll catch students visiting websites they shouldn’t be on. College professors face this dilemma everyday — to keep kids from taking notes on computers during lectures feels ridiculous in 2018, but then the professor stops talking and everyone’s still typing because they’re actually doing email or posting on social media.  Technology isn’t an educational panacea — it’s a pickle that we’ve gotten ourselves into.

Believe me, I’m not trying to pin all the blame on technology.  Lord knows that kids never needed technology to distract them in class.  We passed notes, we stared at the beautiful girl in front of us, we sketched the rapids on the New Haven Ledges in our notebook (that was me . . . ), or we just zoned out.  The writer and teacher Garret Keizer said that whereas the problem used to be smoking in the boys room, now it’s texting in the boys room.  I suppose that’s a good trade.  But they weren’t smoking in class.  Technology makes it harder to pay attention — especially for the kids who most need to pay attention.


The Panacea?

This message is urgent right now, because of the belief that technology can fix our educational problems by differentiating instruction, or — here is the new buzzword in education — by personalizing it.  The allure of hooking our weakest students up to a computer program and letting them work their way through it at their own pace is something that’s becoming more and more seductive.

But it’s naive to think that digital learning can ever replace the true personalization of an experienced teacher.  What if all of our students were savvy about the dangers of the internet?  

What if all of our students knew how to leverage the remarkable research and learning tools we didn’t even have just five years ago?  

What if all of our students understood the dangers of digital addiction?

What if I didn’t know if any of my students owned cell phones?  That’s the dream.

I don’t know how that happens, but I do know this:  It won’t be computers teaching them that.

A Year Off From Teaching

A few months ago, I did something crazy.  Even though it’s what I want, and even though I’ve had time to get used to it, I still find myself wondering, “What the hell am I doing?”

Or, “Who am I to try this?  I’m just a teacher.”

Let me explain.

In my world, I’m realizing, things don’t change much.  Public schools are remarkably consistent.  Sure, kids don’t pass notes anymore — they text.  Homework isn’t on the board — it’s online.  And nowadays we practice active shooter drills and even talk about arming teachers.  Imagine!

But look closely and you’ll find the core of American high school has stayed strikingly similar for 75 years.  Every morning since who-knows-when, a bell has rung and sleepy-eyed teenagers have wandered off to the same basic classes, on the same basic schedule, for the same 180 days, to earn the same As, Bs, or Cs.  It’s ritual: the droning teachers, the hand-raising, the homework, the lockers, even the detention.  High school is comfortably familiar, its traditions etched into our collective conscious.  It’s a rite of passage.

That doesn’t mean it makes sense.  It doesn’t.  For instance, if I were checking kids’ incisors or tonsils, I’d get to examine one kid at a time.  Instead I’m teaching them to read and to show empathy and to participate in a democracy.  I get them twenty-two at a time.

For American schools, this too is tradition:  We know what works. We just can’t afford it.

Or can we?

Two years ago, a creative principal decided to do something about his students’ writing.  So he lightened an English teacher’s class load from five to four — and made each class a bit bigger (but not too much) to compensate.  Understand, teaching five classes is just as much a fixed reality for American teachers as the 180-day calendar.  It’s tradition.

But not this time.  Now the principal told the teacher to use that extra time — that fifth teaching period — to conference individually with kids outside of class.  This, he thought, would improve their writing.

Improve they did.

The results were immediate.  One month in, the teacher was pinching himself.  Suddenly he could really dig into kids’ writing and show them what his red pen comments never could.  But it was more than that.  Suddenly he could know his students as individual learners, as individual human beings, more than he ever had before.  This, he told himself, is what I’ve been trying for my whole career.

That teacher was me.  

That experience of being freed up to work one-on-one with kids on their writing — to diagnose the individual patient rather than the group — changed my outlook on what was possible in education.

We know what works.  This works.  Maybe this time we can afford it?


A year later — this winter — I received a Rowland Fellowship — a year-long, paid sabbatical awarded to Vermont teachers — with the purpose of investigating whether this new conferencing approach to teaching is a) as good as I think it is, and b) feasible for anyone else.  What does this mean?  For a whole year, I won’t teach.  I’ll visit other high schools and maybe even colleges to see if anyone else is doing this crazy conferencing idea.  I’ll read journal articles to try to figure out if any schools way, way back in time have tried this (hint: they have).  I’ll attend conferences.  I’ll interview kids and teachers to see what they think of the writing conference model.  I’ll research.  I’ll support my coworkers, who are brave enough to try out this new plan.  It’s the sort of chance you don’t often get in your professional life — the chance to step back from the day-to-day to really try to get it right.

And it’s not only generous of the Rowland family, but far-sighted.  In a time when we’re used to educational policy being driven by those farthest from the classroom — professors, politicians, even billionaires — the Rowland Foundation is built on the refreshing and frankly savvy idea that, given time and thought-space, it’s teachers themselves who have some of the worthiest ideas about improving education.

After all, schools are busy.  Teachers are busy.  We jam twelve months of work into a 10-month school year.  We rarely get to pause and reflect.  Too often, we flit from shiny new initiative to band aid reform, without giving anything a chance to work before we move on.  It doesn’t help that our policies are often subject to the whims of short-tenured administrators and to impatient legislators.

Paradoxically, it’s this constant blur of reforms that ensures none of it ever really sticks.  Add in a lack of money, the comfort of familiarity, and the sheer scope of the job of educating the masses, and all of it helps explain why today’s basic school structure looks remarkably similar that of 50 years ago.  There is an “immovable mountain” — as Rowland Executive Director Chuck Scranton calls it — in our way.  No change comes to schools without a lot of time, thought, and hard work.

And yet, change does happen.  The school where I work is remarkably forward-thinking and humane.  Even in my eight years as a teacher, I’ve seen a number of positive changes worked into the immovable system by diligent and committed educators.  I’ve seen it work — and I want to be a part of it.

As trite as it sounds, I took this fellowship because I wanted to make a difference.  And I’m incredibly excited to get to work.  But this does feel out of character for me.  I don’t usually think of myself as a leader.  The goal of the fellowship is not just classroom but school-wide reform.  The question is — can I “scale up” my idea to promote change beyond my own classroom or department.  That’s scary because that’s not how I usually think of myself.  I’m just a teacher.  When I look down the list of past Rowland recipients, I see leaders in the Vermont educational community: future principals, curriculum coordinators, even a future mayor.  I don’t see myself that way.  Motivating grumpy teenagers to pass in their Paper Towns essays is one thing.  Trying to nudge grizzled veterans with pedagogical war stories from the year I was born to fall in line with my wacky ideas is quite another.  Who am I to try to make change?

What if no one’s interested?

Then there’s the fact that what I’m selling may be impossible to spread beyond my classroom.  There are a hundred reasons why it’s too hard to teach only four classes and to conference individually with kids:  Teachers have always taught five classes. Teaching four will make classes too big.  One-on-one meetings take up too much time. It’s impossible to conference with all of your students every semester. Better to just do what we’ve always done: chat quickly with kids during a stolen minute or two in class here and there, or even 30 seconds when everyone else is working well.  Keep your classes small and try to make it work without the individual face-to-face time. Play the long game. Things are the way they are for a reason.

For months, I’ve been wrestling with these doubts.

The last time I remember feeling this way was back in 2003, when I first decided to write the book that would eventually become Let It Rain, the kayaking guidebook that was the passion project of my pre-teaching days.  The questions, the self-doubt, was all the same:

Who am I to do this?

What if no one likes it?

What happens if this doesn’t go well?

But there are always a million reasons why you shouldn’t do something.  Just like back in 2003, I have no idea how the next  year will turn out. I cannot know if my desire to change schools to establish more flexible teacher schedules and more individual instruction will be repelled by the immovable mountain.  I cannot know if the changes I’m hoping to make are at all realistic, or helpful to anyone besides me. But I do know that sixteen years ago I did not regret taking the risk that I did.

I have the sense that these feelings of doubt are again the ones that precede something important.  And something tells me that even if I fail, even if in five years there’s no trace of my reform left, I won’t actually have failed.

I am a big believer in the idea that every now and then — maybe once or twice in your career — you stumble onto something amid the myriad of temporary reforms that really works.  And if you don’t throw your hat into the ring, if you don’t fight for that cause to get its hearing, then you’re not playing the game for real.

Starting next fall, I’m in.