January 20, 2021

We have learned the simple truth, as Emerson said, that “The only way to have a friend is to be one.” We can gain no lasting peace if we approach it with suspicion and mistrust or with fear.

– FDR, January 20, 1945

January 18, 2021


Blind conformity makes us so suspicious of an individual who insists on saying what he really believes that we recklessly threaten his civil liberties. If a man, who believes vigorously in peace, is foolish enough to carry a sign in a public demonstration, or if a Southern white person, believing in the American dream of the dignity and worth of every human personality, dares to invite a Negro into his home and join with him in his struggle for freedom, he is liable to be summoned before some legislative investigation body. He lost certainly is a Communist if he espouses the cause of human brotherhood!

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” To the conformist and the shapers of the conformist mentality this must surely sound like a most dangerous and radical doctrine. Have we permitted the lamp of independent thought and individualism to become so dim that were Jefferson to write and live by these words today we would find cause to harass and investigate him? If Americans permit thought-control, business-control, and freedom-control to continue we shall surely move within the shadows of fascism.

   Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., 1963

January 15, 2021

Concurrent Online & Live Instruction: The Swiss Army Knife Approach?

Swiss Army knives are fun and full of gadgets. They make a nice gift. But in general, like most multitools, they’re just OK at everything and not really great at anything. If you really need to do something well, sawing, cutting, even opening a bottle of wine, you find the best tool to do that.

I am thinking about Swiss Army knives as I watch school districts plan concurrent instruction as part of a return to school strategy.

A basic first principle at a time there is no plan to vaccinate Americans under 16, and a not fully operational plan to vaccinate everyone else either, is that schools can reopen live but you cannot compel students to attend in-person. Janice Jackson, the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, discussed that in a recent Bellwether webinar.

But there is a growing push to get students back in school and President-elect Biden is making return to live part of his first 100 days agenda. That will increase momentum.

In response to all this, the default emerging in some places is concurrent instruction. Some students live, some joining online. Sounds like a great third way, compromise, our universal approach. In fact, it’s really hard to do everything well at once – it’s sort of the multitool of education. Some districts have already abandoned it.

High quality live instruction is challenging – and something school districts struggled to do at scale pre-pandemic. High quality remote is challenging, too. Something that districts around the country are struggling with now. Doing both? At the same time?

An option that is at once logistically challenging and often politically complicated is to reassign students so there are live classes, remote classes, but not concurrent classes. District adherence to teacher of record norms or questions about special education are some of the issues that create an inertia against reassigning students midyear. (It’s really hard to overstate how much inertia has driven practice this past 10 months) In some cases policy flexibility will be required along with practice flexibility.

On the upside, it’s also a way to respect teacher choice and protect teachers with underlying health conditions. Of course, another option is to stay remote but that’s increasingly politically untenable and there is a growing consensus against it.

What seems like a bad idea for sure is trying to limp toward the end of the school year with fingers crossed. Now may be the time to reorganize for the short term.  And some districts and charter school networks are innovating with bifurcating by online and live now – and have been. Some have committed to virtual only to focus on that. Some have pulled back from concurrent. But there are still a lot of plans to shift to concurrent going forward. To torture the knife metaphor a bit – what we need right now is the sharpest edge we can find to get all kids learning again. That’s probably supporting teachers to focus on one thing and doing it well rather than a few things at once.

January 14, 2021

Is The Debate About Culturally Relevant Curriculum A Phony War?

Matt Yglesias had an important post over the holiday break I’ve been meaning to highlight – and not just because it name-checked Sara Mead making an important point. It’s about culturally relevant curriculum, why it matters, and how increasing stridency in the woke/anti-woke debate can obscure a fair amount of agreement about it. ($)

The article is behind a paywall but here’s the gist,

I think a phrase like “we need to give kids material that’s interesting to them, which means stuff they identify with” is probably more compelling than a highly politicized vow to combat white supremacy.

Yglesias notes the broad middle ground that exists around the idea that there is nothing wrong with making sure kids see themselves in what they’re learning, rather there is some benefit. And he cites and calls for more evidence. Obviously at some level choices have to be made around standards and curriculum, time being a constraint. But we don’t have to choose between works that have endured the centuries – and often still have contemporary resonance and lessons precisely because they have – and an inclusive curriculum. Only culture warriors want to force that choice or argue we can’t expose students to foundational ideas and diverse or contemporary material. In my experience a useful tell on someone’s intentions, right or left, is what they are focused on keeping out rather than what they’re trying to include.

The current bout of controversy seemed predictable. And sure, there have been some excesses in the curriculum wars. Ensuring a diverse curriculum is one thing, purging Shakespeare on the grounds it’s irrelevant is another and a peculiar take on “relevant.” (I’ve noted before that if you can’t make Shakespeare relevant and engaging for young people – it’s got murder, treachery, and sex galore just for starters – you might want to think about your choice of line of work. The rich panoply of adaptations speak to the timelessness of the themes*.) More generally, this sure seems like a time when heterodox writers like Zora Neale Hurston, Orwell, or Arthur Miller are especially on point.

It’s also a time when people are unusually spun up. The other day someone remarked that if you teach English then you’re teaching colonialism. No word yet on what that means for Spanish teachers. You get the idea – we’ve always had these debates and while they can sometimes be exasperating in their stridency, specifics, and everything old is new again flavor, they’re also healthy in general. It’s annoying when people fail to see the subversive nature of, say, Mark Twain or freak out about literature depicting sex or “non traditional” families and relationships. It’s also not where most people are – especially not most readers. Most people agree you can do both and a gradual distillation and evolution of curricula and anything that might be considered a canon is necessary and, again, healthy from an intellectual standpoint.

The opportunity to think about relevant curriculum seems like it was something of missed opportunity with regard to Common Core in a few ways. I remember early in the Common Core-era doing some work with some Native American education leaders who were excited by the idea that the ELA standards would allow them to develop curriculum that reflected their history and traditions. That’s just one way there was an opportunity for CCSS to be about local decison-making and preference more than people realized in the torrent of misinformation about it. Some very good curriculum and materials did come out of Common Core, but you have to wonder if more support there might have helped us get to a different place in terms of the popularity of the ELA standards, the materials in front of kids, and this question of relevance.

Instructional materials remains an important issue (and one Bellwether does some work on) so hopefully more chances coming and a less strident conversation about them.

*An aside, and a pure local business promoting one at that: When the pandemic eases, I’d recommend Blackfriars Playhouse at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton Virginia if you want to experience a lovely Virginia town with charming inns and B&B’s, great restaurants, and a taste of why Shakespeare and diversity need not be opposing forces. It’s a wonderful place to spend an evening.

Panic On Civics

The other day I asked if perhaps math, stats, and logic might be a stronger intervention against rampant misinformation than civics?

Today, Robert “Panic at the” Pondiscio takes a look at civics and history. Makes some important points though I’d quibble that what’s happening here is totally precedented. We’ve had insurrections before, large and small, and we’ve had plenty of low-grade violence. We’ve had elected officials fanning crazy theories. But what we’ve not had is a U.S. President fully in the middle of it like this – one reason yesterday’s impeachment was unusually bipartisan as those things go.

At the core, though, seems like two related but also distinct problems. Equipping citizens to navigate today’s information flow, which is unprecedented. And then also, as Robert suggests, building,

Appreciation for those institutions, as well as a clear-eyed view of their failures, is a necessary foundation to build if we want our students to commit themselves to improving them, not attacking them. But this is the work of many years. It starts with establishing the cultivation of pro-social dispositions and civic engagement as no less central to the work of schools than college and career readiness, a goal which we are fond of invoking in moments of political turmoil, and equally fond of forgetting when it wanes.

January 13, 2021

Is Rural Over? Plus Measurement During Covid, Loan Debate, More!

Also some education implications in this Edsall analysis of the forces causing events like last week’s insurrection.

Turning to other things, how refreshing – actual policy debates. Preview of the legal wrangling about loan forgiveness. Outside of modest forgiveness for low balance borrowers who did not complete, which seems like a good idea, isn’t the political risk a threat worth paying more attention to? There are many ways to mitigate that (other initiatives, the amount of forgiveness, income limits), of course, but it’s hard to miss the gap between denizens of the policy, advocacy, and political worlds and average Americans on perceptions and participation in higher education.

Outside of immediate decisions – for instance a dramatically failing public charter school or a district school in turmoil – I’d argue we should go for a full stop on accountability until we’re on the other side of Covid and instead focus on:

a) Delivering instruction to all students – in particular the millions who are missing and the millions more getting far less than they need.

b) Some kind of assessment in the spring to get a handle on where students are to inform teachers and parents as well as broader interventions. The pressure to just skip a second year is growing.

That said, there are varying takes from informed folks on ways we can still think about measurement – here’s one from Fordham on growth measures during disrupted assessment.

NASBE focuses on rural education in the new issue of Standard. Actual conversations I’ve had about rural with influential people in our sector include:

  • Why does Bellwether work on rural education, that’s a white issue?
  • Why does Bellwether work on rural education, everyone knows rural is over?

On the first point, assuming rural is a white issue reflects a lack of understanding of the demographics of the country and of many states – particularly in the American South. “Black belt” is not about martial arts or management in this context. And most Native American students attend rural schools run by rural school districts (rather than BIE schools or suburban and urban schools) There are also substantial ELL components as well as special education and other equity issues.

On the second point, the idea that rural is “over” will come as news to millions of Americans and thousands of American school districts. It also ignores substantial American economic activity. But even granting for argument’s sake the idea that cities will “win” and rural populations will substantially decline, it’s not going to happen any time soon. Millions of American students will still continue to need and deserve a high quality education in a rural setting for the foreseeable future.

Seems weird to me for anyone who purports to want to build a more inclusive America to not be including rural issues along with the broader basket of ways our economy (and education system) are not inclusive for all Americans.

January 12, 2021

Teachers, Trump, & The First Amendment

Sadly, in this case, there is always an eduangle. On Twitter The Mind Trust’s Brandon Brown asks a question some people have been wondering about,

A recent New York Times story on the insurrection included this,

“I’m not going in there, but, yeah, I’m kind of OK with it,” said Lisa Todd, 56, a high school teacher from Raleigh, N.C. She was standing with three friends, all fellow teachers.

And a Pennsylvania teacher was suspended for attending the event – it’s unclear if he was inside the Capitol or just at the protest on the Mall. This maskless lady below is a school occupational therapist – or was, she apparently resigned and has been arrested. Her sign seems to reference kids…

That seems like a key distinction. No, not the kids part. The showing up for the rally versus storming the Capitol part. Entering the Capitol by force is a crime, as is planning to do so. So all that is a violation of common language in teachers’ employment agreements. Hate speech or belonging to hate groups is another unprotected activity for public school and public charter school teachers.

But just showing up a political rally, no matter how noxious you or I may find it (and I do), is less straightforward and gets squarely into First Amendment political speech terrain. Teachers have diminished First Amendment rights in relation to some aspects of their job but they don’t lose their rights as citizens altogether. And that, as Ms. Todd put it, we have to be kind of OK with…

(Photo via DC Police)

January 11, 2021

What If It’s Math?

It seems weird to just turn back to education given that less than a week ago the U.S. Capitol was ransacked for the first time in two centuries by a lawless mob braying about fictitious election fraud and God knows what else.

So today instead here’s a half-formed thought I have – or perhaps you might call it a “wondering” if you’ve been to a non-profit meeting in the past few years. In times like this we tend to default to civic education as a remedy our sector can deliver. And I’m all for doing a better job teaching about America’s civic traditions, institutions, processes, and American history in all is majesty, malice, and complexity. I taught civics for an experiential program early in my career and have written about the issue in a few different venues over the years. At Bellwether we do some work on the issue. I take little convincing.

Yet I am not sure our failure to teach civics or history is an immediate cause of what happened last week. The mob that stormed the Capitol was not there to offer a different take on the direction of American politics in the way that progressives, socialists, Democrats, liberals, conservatives, or libertarians might disagree about politics or political issues. And I’m not sure a better understanding of our civic traditions might have dissuaded them. They were there because they believed the election was stolen or were opportunists hoping to create chaos, launch a race war, or set up a white or Christian ethnostate – among other toxic and batshit crazy theories. At best vulgarians, at worst straight-up racists or theocrats.

Seems like that is more about a toxic blend of misinformation and ideology more than it is about civics? I’m not arguing the rioters were paragons of civic knowledge. Some of them seemed not to know the difference between the House and Senate, for instance. And bringing a Confederate flag to a rally to accuse your elected officials of being traitors to the Constitution is moronic. But to say last Wednesday owes to a failure of civic education seems like blaming a shooting on a lack of understanding of firearms laws.

This episode, it seems to me, owes to something larger. My sense is that three things are really killing us in modern American politics, polarization, lack of proximity, and a distorted sense of prevalence.

Two of these – polarization and prevalence do seem to have an education root (and in different ways our K-12 schools and colleges and universities are a reflection and driver of the third). But what if it’s math, logic, probability, and statistics more than civics that offer the most promise to address polarization and a misunderstanding of prevalence? Or put differently, what if our challenge today is largely about helping people resist misinformation as they navigate the fastest rushing and deepest river of information humans have ever experienced? And what if math and logic are a more powerful intervention than civics? Continue reading

Posted on Jan 11, 2021 @ 1:02pm