Decimation Without Cannibalization Within

The Attacks on American Education

The American Education system is under attack. Betsy Devos. ALEC. The Walton Family Foundation. The American Federation for Children. I do not think saying this is extremely provocative or mind-blowing. We are greatly aware of this fact and ever vigilant to defend what is good and great about the vision and implementation of public education for all. It is why we stay alert, mindful, and ready to defend our profession. I want to contend, however, there is another threat to our passion for education. This particular threat is the attacks from others within our ranks. The cannibalization of education from within stood out to me when witnessing the response of educators to the recent XQ Super School Live program. If you are not familiar with this show it was a live broadcast this previous Friday (September 08, 2017) which simultaneously aired on all four major networks. I have read much response to this program. Some good, some mixed and some seething. It is this last category of response which I am seeking to address in this essay. I want to counter the major issues this intensely negative line of reaction has centered upon and use those counter arguments to address the twin root causes of pride and inability to withstand criticism.

The first major reaction was to the opening of the program. I will admit I initially had some uneasy feelings during this portion of the broadcast as well. The opening shared the narrative that the public education system has largely remained the same while the world around it has changed significantly in the last century. I reacted strongly here because my classroom for sure does not look like a 1900 classroom. Then when I took an emotional step back from myself I realized that a number of classrooms in my building and on my very hall look much like that classroom of the past. I would go as far as saying the only two differences in some of them is white boards replacing chalkboards and the lack of a coal burning stove for heat. The negative reaction here can only come from a sense of hurt pride. Not every teacher tries innovative ways to arrange and decorate their classroom. Not every teacher is willing to go from rows to a horseshoe arrangement, much less group stations or standing desk or differentiated seating. Not every teacher tries to utilize available tech as much as possible. Now on this point I will say budgetary restrictions come into play. But then why attack an organization trying to help bring more technology into the classroom? The program was by no means saying this is every classroom. I am not even sure they were saying it is most classrooms. They were saying this model still exists. I am here to say it does still exist. I have witnessed this with my own eyes even today.

The second point of concern for the Negative Nancy’s is the following comment from Bill Hader. When students cross this threshold, they bring their hopes and dreams only to encounter a system that no longer helps them achieve these goals. Again I will admit at first hearing this attacks my pride (hmm there is that word repeating itself). Again, though, this necessitates a deeper examination. I know I love my students. It is why I drive for hours on a Friday evening to go watch them play a sport. It is why I hold them in an embrace after a classmate has lost his life. It is why I give so much of my time in teaching, lesson planning, grading, class sponsorship, building a parade float, working the scoreboard at home games, going to workshops to hone my craft, and a million other things. The easy way to do this job would be to give some notes, pass out some worksheets and go home and binge evening television. That is not the way I do my job and not the way many others do their job. Yet many do their jobs just this way. Many complain about students every chance they get and say things such as “never believe a single thing a student says”. Now when a career teacher can say and believe the preceding statement then yes they have forgotten that education is about students not them.

The third negative response centers around Chance the Rapper. This response is much similar to the first. Pushback against the narrative which claims the world is changing while schools are not. It is at this point of reading the Negative Nancy’s that I become absolutely flabbergasted. Attacking Little Chano from 79th street, (his twitter name) really??? Here is what I know about Chance the Rapper. He not only loves Public Education; he is willing to put up his own money to support that love. The current Governor of Illinois is trying to follow the path of Kansas, Indiana, Oklahoma et. al. and cut public ed funding past the bare bones. This is creating a massive effect on the Chicago Public Schools system.  Here is where Chance comes in with his support of public ed. Over the last year, Chance has met with Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner to discuss funding for Chicago public schools (CPS), donated $1 million to help CPS, raised $2.2 million in grant money for CPS, and, most recently, he announced Chicago will host an awards show in 2018, the Twilight Awards, for “teachers, parents, principals, and students that convey leadership.”[1] Chance is not criticizing public school teachers at large. Rather he is pointing to a new way and a plan to move forward.

The fourth and fifth points of contention are very similar. XQ says the days of hoping someone will come along to save the day are over, and American public high schools are broken. Just as above I would point to nothing more than pure pride being the source of this issue. The celebrities on the program nor XQ live are making sweeping claims that every teacher in this country is horrible and broken. They are not saying you or I are necessarily broken, they are saying by and large the system is. It takes a measure of humility to admit this but they are right. Are we as good as we could be? No. There is more, so much more we could be doing. I dream of the day VR technology gets to the level of full implementation in my history classes. Instead of just lecturing about the ruins in Greece tomorrow the class could put on our glasses and visit the ruins as the lecture and discussion occur. Changes such as this will produce more global and alert citizens prepared for the future. Making this claim is not denigrating you, it is saying there is so much more we could do, oh and it is reaffirming that it is about the student and not the teacher in the classroom.

Point 6 attempts to connect the people behind XQ with the broader voucher and school choice movement. Here is a point I believe the Negative Nancy’s are reading far too much into the program. The people behind school choice are by and large conservative if not ultra-conservative. Their push is slightly racist at times and seems to be nothing more than a re-segregation of schools combined with a brain washing of almost alt-right rhetoric. The people behind XQ are strong progressives. Even Randi Weingarten was in the audience. Ms. Weingarten is the current head of American Federation of Teachers and sits on the Executive Council of AFL-CIO. That is right a board member of Samuel Gompers organization was there in support. I think that in and of itself is enough of a statement to show XQ is not tied to those shadowy groups pushing school choice and privatization.

The final issue brought by the Negative Nancy’s is centered around the segment were various celebrities list what they wish they had learned in high school. Why is this so bad? Does it damage our pride as well? Amazing how much that word pride has repeated itself, but more in that in a moment. Last year when I was taking my U.S. History students through the counter culture era of the late 1960’s I challenged them to take what we had studied and apply it to today. I put them in groups and had them create a poster, song, or essay along with an accompanying social media campaign to address something they wanted to protest in today’s world. I received many that addressed the proposed wall on the Mexican border, a few on the legalization of drugs, and one very amazing project. That amazing project focused on the things they wish they had learned in school. Now was I offended with this project. No I was motivated by these students being willing to speak out on an issue about which they felt strongly. Most of the things they mentioned were social studies or civics related. As a history/social studies teacher this saddened me. However, I did not claim they were denigrating me personally. No I understood that not all classrooms are what they could be. I also know that decades of teaching to the test has robbed some of our students of the ability to learn more than just math and reading at an early age. Yes. there are things I myself wish I had learned in school that I did not. Does that mean I do not value my high school teachers? No I loved them. I still reflect on most of them weekly and attempt to model their strengths on a daily basis. Again our schools could be better. This is not a statement attacking every teacher and school. It is just reality. We could do more, so much more.

We can do more in the realm of public education. Some of the biggest hurdles come in funding. So when a company or individual comes along to help in that funding crisis, such as Chance or XQ, we should thank them and work with them; not attack them. An ancillary criticism of XQ is their use of magnet and charter schools to form their XQ Super Schools. I believe they go this way because we have made the path of change for public schools so difficult. It is easier for them to try new and innovative things on a large scale in the magnet or public charter world. That being said I do want to point out the fact that these XQ Super Schools are majority minority. In contrast to the bleached white world of vouchers and privatization XQ Super Schools serve minorities.

There was a repeated refrain throughout this essay. That refrain is pride. I believe it is this pride that is causing the backlash. Instead of taking the time to investigate and examine what is going on and to realize the amazing support XQ is giving public education we are allowing our pride to be bruised and to lash out instead of saying thank you. For an entire hour this past Friday NBC, CBS, ABC, & Fox showed a program talking about how great students are and treating teachers as celebrities on a red carpet.  The only way we react negatively to that is if we are too full of pride we can distinguish what happens in our room from what may not be happening elsewhere. The only way we react negatively to that is if we are so incapable of receiving criticism that we see any statement about education as applying to everyone in those schools. We have to be able to rise above this. We have to rise above the feeling that any criticism of public schools is also a criticism of us as well. We have to learn to join the conversation for the betterment of education in a productive way and not just a reactionary way. We can only get there when we learn to separate broad criticism from personal hurt and we become humble enough to realize we could do things better, even in our already innovative and engaging rooms.

[1] Chris Weller, “Chance the Rapper is on a mission to prove that public schools still matter,” Business Insider, September 07, 2017, , accessed September 11, 2017, http://www.businessinsider.com/chance-the-rapper-teacher-awards-proving-why-public-schools-matter-2017-9.

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Personal Financial Literacy Standards

A few months ago I tried to take some pictures of the super moon.  You know the full moon that was incredibly big.  Big like that scene from Bruce Almighty where Jim Carey lasso’s the moon and pulls it close to set the mood just right for Jennifer Anniston’s character. I even woke up at 5:00 AM to try and take pictures at the supposed best time to do so. (In full disclosure I have a 5-year-old, 4-year-old, and 1-year-old old so that was not much earlier than a normal morning.)  I took almost twenty pictures total.  The thing is none of them turned out the way I wanted. Now they look really cool, but they all appear as a black background with a bright white ball in the middle.  No man in the moon, no shadowing on the moon’s surface, no craters, nothing, no features of any kind. Apparently the moon is one of the hardest things to photograph, well rambunctious 5 year olds notwithstanding. I was using a nice digital SLR with a 200mm telephoto lens.  However, to really capture the full detail of the moon you need a tripod, timer shutter, and specialized shutter speeds.  The moon is just too bright of an object otherwise and the brightness of it will overpower most attempts at capturing it photographically.

Late in the evening after I had gotten up early for my not quite successful photo session with the moon I was walking through my backyard to close my shed and looked up at the moon.  Just with my naked eye I could clearly see each of the fascinating details I had hoped to capture on film some 15 hours earlier.  Right there it hit me just how remarkable our eyes are.  What it takes thousands of dollars in camera equipment and accessories to capture, our eyes can do for free.

I think it is time for Oklahoma to use this advantage of our simple eyesight when it comes to Personal Financial Literacy education in our state.  In 2007 Oklahoma was one of the first states in the entire country to adopt and require Personal Financial Literacy standards.  However, today we are routinely given a grade of C when compared to PFL standards across the nation.  As Oklahomans, especially those committed to Financial Literacy education, we should not accept this state of being.  We need to start the task of advocacy to bring about a change.

What are some of the changes for which we need to push?  I would say that our standards are great.  They are both unique to Oklahoma and in line with national standards such as the Jump$tart National Standards in K-12 Personal Finance Education.  The areas where we lack as a state are certification for who can teach and the implementation of the standards, whether they have to be in a stand-alone course or can be embedded somewhere along the journey from 7-12 grade.

Currently anyone with a valid Oklahoma Teaching Certificate can teach Personal Financial Literacy regardless of subjects certified.  I believe this is the first area that needs to be addressed in improving Financial Literacy education in our state.  The main push back I have heard along these lines is there would not be enough teachers certified to handle the need across the state.  I do not believe this to be true.  Anyone recently certified in U.S. History, Oklahoma History, or Government is also certified in Economics.  Secondly you would not have to confine certification to just Economics.  It could easily be expanded to say that to teach Personal Financial Literacy you need to have a certification in either Economics, Math, or Business.  I believe doing so would raise the level of the instructors in the PFL classes themselves and in turn raise the knowledge level of the students in those classes.

Now about those classes.  Currently the fourteen Personal Financial Literacy standards required for graduation in Oklahoma can be delivered in a stand-alone course or embedded in another or multiple other courses.  This needs to be changed to require a stand-alone course for all students.  I believe to aid in this process we need to promote Oklahoma Jump$tart Coalition and the various groups with which we are affiliated as a clearinghouse of resources for highly trained educators to use in their room to fill an entire semester.

Will pushing for these changes be easy?  Probably not.  But the work of changing society for the better is never simple or serene.  Currently there are some work arounds districts can pursue to see a change in their own classes.  One of which is to simply change the name of the course from Personal Financial Literacy to Personal Economics.  This would then mandate the instructor be certified in Economics to teach the class.  Naturally this change would also take the course beyond the scope of the fourteen PFL standards to an even broader view of Economics.  So until we get to the point of seeing changes with certification and implementation we need to encourage districts to be creative and explore options to improve PFL education in their district.

Gettysburg Extended

Twelve score years ago our Founding Fathers sought to establish a more perfect union, a union where all are equal. Seven score and thirteen years ago President Lincoln declared that union was still flawed and work was left to be done. Two score and thirteen years past Dr. King painted a poignant picture of a beautifully diverse future where all are equal. A short eight years ago then candidate Obama powerfully admonished us to again take up the cause of ending and fighting against racism and to no longer ignore its ills and poison. Today I am declaring to you the work is not yet completed. If it is a mountain we are crossing then we are still within spitting distance of the base instead of being able to even glimpse the summit on the far horizon. All men and women, regardless of race, gender or any other status or creed, are endowed with inalienable rights, of which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Unfortunately we find ourselves today standing on a precipice upon whence we can view just how tragically these rights are deprived of for many citizens in our country.

I pen these words from a state where this is overtly true. The statistics of those imprisoned in my state are especially evidentiary of this fact. Oklahoma is 70% white but the penal system here is only 49% white. Hispanics make up only 9% of the state populace, but 15% of the prison population. African Americans account for a mere 7% of my state but they fill 26% of the prisons. This is found similarly across the nation. How can a people be free when they are grossly disproportionately imprisoned? I would say to you they cannot! We must reach high to our better angels to find a better way. For we cannot truly be free until all in our land are equally free.